HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘La Reine Blanche, Mary Tudor- Henry VIII’s Sister’ by Sarah Bryson

Mary Tudor’s childhood was overshadowed by the men in her life: her father, Henry VII, and her brothers Arthur, heir to the Tudor throne, and Henry VIII. These men and the beliefs held about women at the time helped to shape Mary’s life. She was trained to be a dutiful wife and at the age of eighteen Mary married the French king, Louis XII, thirty-four years her senior.

When her husband died three months after the marriage, Mary took charge of her life and shaped her own destiny. As a young widow, Mary blossomed. This was the opportunity to show the world the strong, self-willed, determined woman she always had been. She remarried for love and at great personal risk to herself. She loved and respected Katherine of Aragon and despised Anne Boleyn – again, a dangerous position to take.

Author Sarah Bryson has returned to primary sources, state papers and letters, to unearth the truth about this intelligent and passionate woman. This is the story of Mary Tudor, told through her own words for the first time.

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I have always had a soft spot or Mary Tudor. She was the daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. One brother was destined to be king, and the other brother really took the throne. Her sister was Queen of Scotland. It could be easy to think Mary Tudor achieved little, but she might have been the happiest of them all.

Mary was only 18 when she had to marry the 52yo King of France. I can only think how foul that would be for Europe’s most beautiful princess (she was no fool, but as per the time period, her appearance was her talking point). Mary may have been sold off to the highest bidder by her brother Henry, but she had already planned her next move – to marry Henry’s bestie Charles Brandon. Brandon had already sidelined two wives and was ready to marry the lovely Mary.

Luckily for everyone, the French king died after three months of marriage and Mary married Brandon in secret. Bryson’s book tells this wonderful tale in full detail, of two people defying King Henry to hatch this plan and marry. Was Brandon a gold -digger? I shall reserve my opinion and you can make yours while reading the book.

The author used primary sources to write about the life of Mary, in order to create a full picture of who she was outside the shadows of the men around her. Mary’s letters have survived, giving us her own hand, her own thought process. Mary was the perfect princess; beautiful, virtuous, religious, skilled in all the areas a woman was meant to excel. But Mary was no uneducated woman – she may have been handed to France and into the bed of a creepy old guy, but she knew how to play men. Mary used a classic skill – make the man in her way think her ideas were all his, and then praised him for ‘his’ thoughts, while succeeding behind his back. Women with opinions were heretics; women who praised men after planting ideas were perfect wives/sisters/princesses/mothers. Mary used her charm not only for herself, but for people who came to her in need, a calming female voice in a harsh male world.

Mary became The White Queen (the nickname often now given to her grandmother Elizabeth) while wearing white, the French colour of mourning. Mary was meant to waiting to see if she was carrying the French heir, but instead she was writing, to plan the fortunes of the rest of her life. Mary wanted to come back to England, not stay in France and be married off again for English-French relations. Mary wanted to marry Brandon, and she was played the slow game in her words to her kingly brother.

Mary, of course, suffered for her marriage to Brandon, but being Henry’s favourite sister, returned to glory, bore many children with Brandon, and died in her fifties after spending her life beloved by her brother and husband. Her granddaughter Jane would become England’s queen for nine days. Mary was not just a king’s sister and pawn, she was a woman who was able to quietly plot the course of her life. Mary was not loud or dramatic in history, yet a woman born to an extraordinary couple, with extraordinary siblings, and lived her own free life in a time of great turmoil.

This is the only book I would turn to when referencing Mary Tudor. It is an essential volume on any discerning bookshelf.

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HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Women in Medieval England’ by Lynda Telford

This fascinating book explores the status of women in medieval England, both before and after the Norman Conquest.

The author starts by contrasting the differences in status between Anglo/Danish or Saxon women with those who fell under the burden of the feudal system imposed by the Normans. She covers such subjects as marriage and childbirth, the rights and responsibilities of wives, separation and divorce, safety and security and the challenges of widowhood. She also examines such issues as virginity and chastity and the pressures placed on women by religious groups.

At a time when women’s rights were minimal, the author charts their struggles against the sexual politics of the era, its inequalities and its hypocrisies. She also examines the problems of the woman alone, from forced marriage to prostitution. The lives of ordinary women are the centre of attention, painting a fascinating picture of their courage and resilience against the background of their times.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Resting on the theme of women in history is Women in Medieval England. My initial interest in this book was the pre-conquest women included. England and its rulers is so often detailed as post-1066, so someone like myself with limited knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon era found the overview and laws of the time useful. New leaders made for new husbands for noble women, who may not even be able to understand them, given language barriers. A nightmare of any woman, and to cap it off, not speaking your new husband/owner’s language is a scary thought.

What classified as marriage was quite different (as I’m sure everyone knows) which made for a messy history and difficult lives for the women traded to their husbands. The book even delves into what was birth control in the pots-1066 era, and lol-worthy concepts for cures for impotence. Life for women was exceptionally difficult, mostly due to the largely uncontrollable act of pregnancy, and the book shows just how damned awful it was for our predecessors to battle on creating a new generation.
Married life was all kinds of awful – as everyone knows the ‘rule of thumb,’ in that a man cannot beat his wife with anything thicker than his thumb. Though, in some ways, you read this and wonder how much life has altered for many women. This book digs through a realities of being a woman in the medieval period, where men are cast as sword-wielding heroes, women have been left standing in mud-floor huts. This shines a light on those women, who had the temperament of saints, strength tougher than any soldier, and bravery beyond that of a king. The world was a strange place for women; you could die of the plague, or you could survive an outbreak and clean up in the vacant jobs market.
This is no heavy book you will be reaching for when researching, it is a read on the lives of women in a world none of us would want to return to. There is plenty of information to be had in here, without feeling like you’re in a history lesson, a book for those who would like to read for pleasure, not study.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Queen of the North’ by Anne O’Brien

1399: England’s crown is under threat. King Richard II holds onto his power by an ever-weakening thread, with exiled Henry of Lancaster back to reclaim his place on the throne.

For Elizabeth Mortimer, there is only one rightful King – her eight-year-old nephew, Edmund. Only he can guarantee her fortunes, and protect her family’s rule over the precious Northern lands bordering Scotland.

But many, including Elizabeth’s husband, do not want another child-King. Elizabeth must hide her true ambitions in Court, and go against her husband’s wishes to help build a rebel army.

To question her loyalty to the King places Elizabeth in the shadow of the axe.

To concede would curdle her Plantagenet blood.

This is one woman’s quest to turn history on its head.

cover and blurb via amazon

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It’s 1399 and King Edward III’s descendant Elizabeth Mortimer is married to Henry Hotspur Percy, heir of the Earl of Northumberland. Richard II is king, and deposed by Henry Bolingbroke under dubious circumstances. Richard II had no heirs, but he did have someone ready to replace him until Henry IV takes his crown. That is where Elizabeth comes in.

Elizabeth expected her nephew Edmund Mortimer to take the throne, also a descendant of Edward III, a boy born of royal Plantagenet blood.  Elizabeth’s family has just as good a claim to the throne as the new Lancaster king. Whenever there are multiple claims to a throne, blood is certain to follow.

Elizabeth is not a man who can go into battle for the Mortimer claimant. She is not a beautiful young princess to be traded by families and launched into power. Elizabeth is a smart noble woman, who knows her family has a valid claim, who has given her husband the children he needs, and, to history, should be left on the sidelines. But Elizabeth is not a woman who should be cast aside in the battles of men and the throne, for she has the knowledge, skill and education to make a difference in the Mortimer claim to the crown.

 

All sides the early battles had legitimate claims to the throne, and we have a viewpoint in Elizabeth which is valid yet undemanding, unlike the men who surround her. Real life Elizabeth is not a well-known figure of history, so the author has had to use historical detail of others, and weave Elizabeth into the story, which gives new life to an old tale. Percy takes the Lancaster’s side of the war and Elizabeth is rich in the blood of the Mortimers, and nobler than her husband.  But what can a wife do in such challenges? Elizabeth is the wife of Percy, who holds the north. Whether it is from London or the Scots, the Percys have plenty of battles to face and Elizabeth is the northerners queen.
No sooner than choices are made, Elizabeth and Percy find they should be on the side of the Mortimer. Politics, treason and ambition are going to explode, and I am desperately trying not to write spoilers, but all I can say is you really need to read this book! Everyone knows what happened to Hotspur Percy at the Battle of Shrewsbury, part of a plot to overthrow Henry IV, but Elizabeth and her family’s claim carries on.  The Bolingbrokes and the Mortimers are going to need to be friends if civil wars for the throne are to end, and greed is as powerful as blood. This book has historical accuracy combined with beautiful storytelling. I adored this novel.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The King’s Witch’ by Tracy Borman

As she helps to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth, Frances Gorges longs for the fields and ancient woods of her parents’ Hampshire estate, where she has learned to use the flowers and herbs to become a much-loved healer.

Frances is happy to stay in her beloved countryside when the new King arrives from Scotland, bringing change, fear and suspicion. His court may be shockingly decadent, but James’s religion is Puritan, intolerant of all the old ways; he has already put to death many men for treason and women for witchcraft.

So when her ambitious uncle forcibly brings Frances to court, she is trapped in a claustrophobic world of intrigue and betrayal – and a ready target for the twisted scheming of Lord Cecil, the King’s first minister.
Surrounded by mortal dangers, Frances finds happiness only with the precocious young Princess Elizabeth, and Tom Wintour, the one courtier she can trust.

Or can she?

cover and blurb via amazon

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I am a very big Tracy Borman fan. I did not angle for a review copy, instead I went to a store and purchased her first novel myself. The new release stand was full on release day, here on the other side of the world, a rare occasion for the books I tend to review.

The King’s Witch opens with poor old Elizabeth I, in her dying moments. The book follows Frances Gorges, an expert in healing and herbs. King James is now on the throne, a dramatic change for England. Women healing and using herbs and their developed skills, rather than that of a male doctor, are seen as evil, as devil’s work. King James is terrified of witches and witchcraft, so to be a woman with knowledge makes young Frances right in the firing line against puritanical opinions and fears. Frances does have allies, Tom, a courtier, and the Princess Elizabeth. Whether she can trust her own friends is never truly clear to Frances.

This novel starts slowly, showing Frances’ life, indeed lives for ‘normal’ people in this awkward time period in England. What I did see early on was that there would be a twist coming, which keeps you turning the page. Frances grows as their reader gets to know her, from a scared girl into a woman who gets to see behind the lavish exteriors of a royal court for what really lies in individuals.

When reading Borman, you know you are getting historical accuracy with your fiction (I swear some people only read to point out inaccuracies in fiction; you lot will be disappointed with this). It is nice to hear from a new voice, rather than through the eyes of characters done so often before. Being cast as a witch was simple in the 17th century, all a woman had to do was piss off the closest man and she would be accused. So being a woman with knowledge naturally scares the pants off men. While the king is determined to cast out all remaining Catholics in England, religion remains ingrained in all decisions made.

Frances’ biggest issue is that her friend Tom is Tom Wintour, one of the men in the gunpowder plot with Guy Fawkes (shout-out to all of us born on November 5!). Tom is ready to blow up parliament and the attention to the how’s and why’s rather than simply the actions taken in 1603 is beautifully told. The gunpowder plot men are generally thought of as crazies, when they actually had quite an elaborate plan and motive. While we all know what happened to the gunpowder plot, seeing it through the eyes of someone close to these men makes it painful to read through, knowing the conclusion.

I really enjoyed reading this book; I went in with high expectations and was not disappointed. Love, torture, witchcraft, what a combination to write about and get to muse over, knowing that the early 1600’s really was one hell of a cauldron of superstition. Frances’ uncle, the Earl of Northampton, makes an appearance as a sometimes friend, sometimes overly creepy uncle everyone doesn’t want visiting, and don’t forget Lord Cecil, a grump at the best of times, aiding the king’s paranoia for gain but harming Frances’ safety even more.

Some are witches being killed, others are being tortured and executed for trying to change the monarchy. You know it’s all going to end in tears but you can’t stop reading anyway. Thank you to Tracy Borman for humanising those in an often misunderstood piece of history.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Heroines of the Medieval World’ by Sharon Bennett Connolly

These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. The lives and actions of medieval women were restricted by the men who ruled the homes, countries and world they lived in. It was men who fought wars, made laws and dictated religious doctrine. It was men who were taught to read, trained to rule and expected to fight. Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history.

Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel. Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.

Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies, while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.

cover and blurb viz amazon

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I have spent a long time with my head in academic history books, so to read something that reads more like a story was a welcome relief. Heroines of the Medieval World is a book hard to get here in NZ, so when a copy generously floated my way, I grabbed it with both hands. The first thing I thought was – do we still use the word ‘heroine?’ Should it not just be ‘heroes?’ But then people may purchase and then get their egos crushed by finding out all the heroes are women. That only made me like this book more.

The book is great, separated into chapters about women from all over Europe. The book writes about the women of England and France, but also from Spain (yay!) and even as far east as Kiev. There are Warrior Heroines, Literary Heroines, Religious Heroines and Scandalous Heroines. You can read them in order, or however you like depending on your mood. I enjoyed how The Pawns weren’t simply bartering gifts, but smart women in their own right, and the Medieval Mistresses were more fleshed out (excuse the pun) than the simply fallen women ideal.

You won’t be confused between your Eleanors, your Matildas or your Isabels, and while you will read about well-known heroines, they are also great forgotten women given fresh air. The women are not viewed as heroines through 21st century eyes, rather they are simply celebrated for their strength in the time period while on their own crusades. They are heroines for all centuries. Putting together such a thorough assembly of women must have taken considerable time and energy, so treat yourself to the author’s hard work and gain further insight to the women that came before us. Heroines have far more skills and techniques than any hero.