The Tudors didn’t destroy Richard’s reputation – he did that himself!

People have been asking me recently what I think about historical fiction.  I assume what they mean by that is ‘how much does it matter whether fiction based on history actually follows the facts.’

And my answer?  Not much.  Personally, I much prefer fiction that sticks as closely to the available facts as possible while adding some snap, crackle and pop where it’s needed. Philippa Gregory and last year’s ‘Victoria’ series just about got it right for me.  But ultimately if something is labelled fiction than that’s exactly how it should be treated.   Readers and watchers should not assume they are getting the factual truth and if they do, that is not the fault of novelists or TV producers.

But there is a genre of history that worries me much more.  The 1 hour documentary.  I understand – and accept – that things need to be simplified for TV.  I recognise that there has to be different entry points for varying levels of knowledge and interest and many of my curiosities were sparked through this very medium.  However, I am getting a little fed up with the huge oversimplifications that have been transmitted through our TV screens in the last year or so which make a big impact on popular understandings of the historic debate.

Lucy Worsley’s ‘History’s Biggest Fibs’ got me a bit riled on Thursday night.  While I did really enjoy much of it, the assertion that the ‘Wars of the Roses’ was a Tudor myth and that Richard III’s name was blackened by his successors, drove me crazy.

I’ve blogged previously about the Wars of the Roses, but can I please just but in a plea for sanity when it comes to the accusation that the Tudors led some kind of deliberate propaganda campaign to tarnish the previously saintly reputation of the last Plantagenet King.

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Of course Tudor writers would have been mindful of the need to please the new dynasty and this would have been reflected in their writing.  As Worsley notes, John Rouse’s work is a perfect example of this – he was complimentary about Richard in his life time but negative about him once Henry Tudor came to power.

However we now know that things once believed to be a Tudor invention have turned out to be true.  Richard’s curved spine, so often dismissed as Tudor spin has been established as fact.

The account of Dominic Mancini – dated 1483, two years before the Tudors took over – makes it clear that people strongly suspected Richard in his own lifetime of usurping the throne and doing away with the Princes.

Of course Richard’s reputation suffered under his successors.  Things rooted in truth were exaggerated and he was not treated with a sense of balance and objectivity.  But the beginnings of his huge unpopularity and the link to the crimes many hold him responsible for, can clearly be found in his own reign and lifetime.

Tudor history Queen turns her gaze on medieval matriarchs

One of the world’s most popular historians – Alison Weir – has just announced plans for a new series of four books examining the lives of England’s medieval Queens from 1066 to 1485.  Earlier today, the following announcement appeared on her website:

“I am delighted to announce a new series of four non-fiction books on England’s Medieval Queens. It will tell the story of England’s queens from the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. The five Norman queens feature in Queens of the Conquest, the first book in the series, which will be published on 26 September in the USA and on 28 September in the UK. More details to come!”

 How do we at Royal History Geeks feel about this?  Do you really need to ask…?

I am of course, beyond excited.  If you’ve read a few posts, you’ll be aware that Alison Weir is this site’s preferred historian, possessing a rare ability to combine robust research skills with buckets of intelligent empathy and understanding of human nature.

But it’s also more than that.

Like many history fans, my interest began with the Tudors.  As I progressed my understanding of the period I realised that I needed to better understand the era before that and then the era before that…and so it continued.  The War of the Roses is now clearer to me, I’ve just about got my head around the Plantagenets.  But the Normans – the subject of the debut book in the series – remain a bit of a mystery – a piece of time currently fogged in my mind.  Weir’s appealing style should do just the trick in shedding extra light.  Studying it all from the perspective of prominent women will also add a fresh perspective.

We have to wait until September until the first offering emerges; but rest assured geeks – when the time comes the first book shall be quickly read and reviewed.

Was the Queen overruling the Prime Minister as recently as 1992?

Image: By dbking from Washington, DC

Elizabeth II has become legendary across the globe as a dignified but silent figure who sees all but comments little.  However, according to comments in a recent minister’s memoirs she may be more involved in the running of Government than many people realise.

The Queen is a figure head.  She leads the nation through her example, her conviction and her remoteness from politics.  She is a towering ambassador for the UK – and her other realms and territories – and brings substantial revenue into businesses, households and the treasury coffers.  But when it comes to the political operating of the country, technically running in her name, she is entirely uninvolved.

Or is she?

Recently I have been pouring through the incredibly compelling memoirs of Ken Clarke, the veteran Conservative minister who served the Heath, Thatcher, Major and Cameron administrations.  It’s full of twists and turns and no pages are more exciting than those focused on the political upheaval that plagued the Major government over the European Union and the Maastricht treaty (USA and younger readers – don’t worry – you won’t need to know anything about these issues to follow the rest of the post).

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According to Clarke, when Prime Minister John Major was aware that his personally negotiated treaty might not obtain a parliamentary majority he pondered resigning (this is well attested to elsewhere). However,  according to a conversation that Ken had with John Patten (a fellow government minister), the Prime Minister had been spoken to Robert Fellowes, the then private secretary to the Queen who had ‘hinted’ that if Her Majesty were asked for a dissolution of Parliament – and therefore a general election – she would refuse.  Apparently she had not admired the way that former PM Ted Heath had ‘taken it to the Country’ when he failed to settle an industrial dispute.  She did not want a repeat performance.

For obvious reasons, this account can’t just be taken as read.  It relies on John Patten having heard if accurately from either Major or someone close to him, Major having correctly understanding what Fellowes was ‘hinting’ at and Fellowes himself having rightly understood the Queen’s actual sentiments.  But with those caveats in mind, the story does have a ring of credibility to it.  The casual way that Clarke mentions it – almost in passing and to illustrate a bigger point – suggests that people close to power found it credible and perhaps, that such interventions from the Palace were not wholly exceptional.

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Image By PFC TRACEY L. HALL-LEAHY, USA

Today, because of the ‘fixed-terms Parliament Act’, the Queen has a much reduced role in the dissolution of Parliament and the calling of General Elections.  But prior to 2010 a Prime Minister would effectively determine the timetable by asking the Queen to grant a dissolution, which would in turn lead to a General Election.  No Parliament was allowed to sit for more than 5 years, but if a Prime Minister thought things were going well, they generally liked to ‘go to the country’ after 4.

No doubt some will harp on about the Queen’s active involvement in so recent a political event, claiming it is undemocratic and an example of why the monarchy must go.  But I see it very differently.  In the situation in question, the country had only just had an election.  Was anyone really in the mood for another one?  More importantly, ensuring that the elected Government don’t try and use the polls as a political tactic to solve disputes that they themselves are supposed to handle is, in and of itself, a safeguarding of democracy.

Every head of state – elected or otherwise – is meant to enforce the constitution and hold the Government to account for it. Clearly in the UK’s uncodified system that can be tricky at times.  I wonder if those of us fortunate enough to dwell on these isles realise how lucky we are that these judgements fall into the hands of a canny, wise and experienced stateswoman who has no agenda save her devotion to duty.

5 books on my New Year reading list

I begin 2017 with a confession – I’m well behind on my reading.  Strikingly, shockingly and chronically behind.  For anyone this is bad.  For someone who has made it his business to keep on top of the latest offerings from popular historians, it’s an absolute disaster.

I’ve got some catching up to do.  So for the first part of 2017, whenever I’m not working, writing or trying to lose a little of the Christmas weight,  you’ll find me with my nose in a book (or at least my kindle).  Part of the fun is that I don’t know yet exactly what my reading list will look like. There are however 5 books – not necessarily new – that I simply must read sooner rather than later.  I thought I’d share those with you.

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Game of Queens by Sarah Gristwood – This ambitious books claims to capture the lives of the powerful women of the 16th century.  There’s been much debate in recent years as to whether modern, feminist writers are giving too much attention to women from this period, but I for one am enjoying seeing this long-term inbalance corrected.  Gristwood’s ‘Blood Sisters’ which charted the collective lives of the women at the heart of the Wars of the Roses was one of the most readable history books I have ever thumbed my way through so I have high hopes for her new offering.

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The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton– I was first introduced to Norton’s stimulating style through her biography of Margaret Beaufort and I’m intrigued as to how she has tackled the task of exploring ‘the seven ages of the Tudor woman, from childhood to old age.’  As I said above, the lives of powerful 16th century woman have finally started to capture the public’s imagination.  This book, as I understand it, will explore the stories of some lesser known characters and provide a rich tapestry of cultural context.  If so, then it’s a book I will enjoy.

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Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy – Strangely, my knowledge of Elizabeth I is shockingly limited and what I do know tends to centre around a few dramatic episodes – upbringing, love life and her dealings with that pesky Queen of Scots.  I’ve been keen for a while to get under the skin of the politics of her reign, particularly the latter half and when I saw a review of this book on the Guardian website I knew it would be added to the reading list.  I know little of the writer so it’s something of a shot in the dark – but come on, geeks; experimenting is all part of the fun.

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Magna Carta by Dan Jones – Okay, okay I know this book is nowhere near ‘new’ – but I never said that only newish books had a place on this list.  Dan Jones’s offering was originally published in 2014 and despite the ‘Magna Carter’ fever that dominated 2015, I just didn’t have time to read it.  However, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘the Hollow Crown’ (and found ‘the Plantagenets useful) so it was always inevitable that I would one day dust off the cover of the book in question and give it the once over.  2017 will be its lucky year.

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Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir – Hot on the heels of the first book in her ‘Six Wives’ novel series last year, the Queen of history, Alison Weir has been teasing her facebook friends with the twists and turns that she took when writing her fictional account of Anne Boleyn’s life.  Given Weir’s experience and expertise there is no real doubt as to the quality and historical reliability of this eagerly-awaited book, expected to hit shelves in May. But there is much anticipation as to what we might learn.  The author herself has admitted that writing fiction gives her greater freedom to explore theories and suggestions that have no place in a history book but are nonetheless a valid contribution to the debate.  With most of Anne’s letters lost to us, her inner thoughts can only largely be guessed at.  Weir’s informed portrayal of who Anne truly was as a person will be one that many are waiting for.

Anyway, all five books shall be duly reviewed on this site.  But until then…let me know what is on YOUR reading lists for 2017 geeks!