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!

Book review: The Tudor Brandons by Sarah-Beth Watkins

The Tudor Brandons: Mary and Charles - Henry VIII's Nearest & Dearest by [Watkins, Sarah-Beth]

Ever since becoming a super-cool Tudor fan (which as you can imagine was some time ago) I’ve had quite a few questions about the King’s friend Charles Brandon and his royal bride Mary Tudor.  Where does Charles suddenly spring from?  What was Mary’s early life like?  How well did they know each other before their elicit marriage?  Why on earth was Mary called ‘Margaret’ in the TV series, ‘The Tudors’?

‘The Tudor Brandons’ by Sarah-Beth Watkins answers many of the above.  A light and readable publication, this new book charts the recent history of the Brandons and details Mary’s upbringing and time in France before allowing the reader to share in their intertwined story as the ‘nearest and dearest’ of Henry VIII.

Sticking faithfully to the extensive source material available, the author creates an opportunity to explore the character of Henry VIII’s favourite sister, with the mutual affection between the royal siblings being both evident and charming.  The contrast between her search for happiness and her husband’s quest for wealth and power – typical of a late-medieval ‘man on the make’ – sheds insight into their relationship.

And of course, the story of Mary and Charles is one that cannot end with them; this book also recounts how their descendants were to have a significant impact on the politics of the future.

Stylistically, this book is likely to divide opinion.  Purists will love that the sources are laid bare without much interference from the author’s interpretation; romantics will miss the lack of speculation around thoughts and inner feelings that are ultimately forever lost to us.

While pleasing to a true geek like me,  the frequency with which the primary sources are extensively quoted significantly slows down the pace of the story telling (perhaps an appendix featuring all of Mary’s letters might have been better).  But this is a minor criticism compared to the overall readability and accessibility of the book.

‘The Tudor Brandons’ is the first book by Sarah-Beth Watkins that I have ever read; I very much doubt it will be the last.  For any Tudor fan fascinated by these two characters, who for too long have been footnotes in the stories of others, this book is an essential read.

The Tudor Brandons, by Sarah Beth Watkins is published by Chronos Books and is available on Amazon from £9.98  

Book Review: Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir

When I first turned the opening pages of Alison Weir’s 2009 biography of Mary Boleyn I have to confess to feeling a little nervous.  Mary, whatever her virtues, is essentially a footnote in history.  Promoting a footnote to a main character can be troublesome.

Like most Tudor fans, I’d been more than a little appalled by ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ (only seen the film, sure the book is much better) and incredulous as to how it had warped many of my friend’s understanding of the era.  Would this biography risk doing the same?

But of course, with Alison Weir at the helm, it was a question I never should have asked.

From her early years in England to her time at the French court, Weir sheds light on the upbringing of a woman who – while perhaps never a major player – was witness to some of the most extraordinary events of her time.  As a mistress to the Kings of both France and England, Mary’s reputation has suffered much over the centuries, but the author’s ability to set the events in context and divorce fact from rumour, gives the elder Boleyn sister something of a reprieve, at least in the eyes of a modern reader.

There is of course, much about her life that we can never know and many periods where no one saw fit to chronicle her activities.  Even her date of birth remains a mystery, but with Weir’s rare ability to combine robust research with intelligent inference based on surrounding and circumstantial information, we come as close as we are ever likely to, to discovering the true character and personality of a woman condemned to history as a ‘great and infamous whore.’

While the book’s chapters are on the long side, the fascinating sense of storytelling makes it a page turner.  I am slow reader but had polished it off in just a few sessions.  Complete with a summary of the rise of the Boleyns and Henry VIII’s early extra-marital antics the book provides a different perspective of the 1520s and 30s which further illuminates our understanding of those who were at the heart of them.

I am a big fan of historical fiction and delight in the fact that my obscure interests occasionally become mainstream, but as far as I’m concerned, it should be made compulsory that anyone who has ever watched ‘The Other Bolyen Girl’ should quickly follow up the experience with a read of Weir’s biography.  It’s just as entertaining and helps unearth, rather than distort, one of the most fascinating episodes of England’s history.

Mary Boleyn: ‘The Great and Infamous Whore’ by Alison Weir is published by Vintage and available on Amazon from £9.99

Book review – Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen – by Alison Weir

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When I first held my copy of ‘Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen’ in my hands, I knew it was going to be special.  Not only was it my first history book to be personally signed by author Alison Weir, but it was also the beginning of a series of historical novels about the six Queens of Henry VIII – a topic any Royal History Geek could lose themselves in for hours.

But despite my anticipation of enjoyment, I was not expecting this book to teach me an awful lot.  After all, the stories of Henry VIII’s wives are amongst history’s most recounted and the factual writings of Weir, Starkey and others had already taught me much.  Surely there was little more I could learn?

I was wrong.

History is of course about so much more than the digestion of facts.  It involves travelling back to an era unfamiliar to us and reimagining what actually happened.  In this, fiction provides a greater degree of freedom, especially when the writer possesses Weir’s rare ability to combine robust research with sensible empathy.  For me, the new insights into Katherine’s relationships with Henry, her household and the ‘powers that be’ back in Spain, has shed new light on my understanding of the tempestuous and often traumatic episodes of her life.

The story begins as the young Spanish Infanta makes her bold trek to England. As a born and bred Janner, I was ecstatic to see the opening pages give a thorough description of the city (then town) of Plymouth, the first piece of English soil that Katherine descended upon.  We then follow the Princess as she progresses from teenage wife to penniless widow before being redeemed by a young Henry VIII; at first her knight in shining armour before gradually growing into her tratious tormentor.

Through Weir’s vivid storytelling, Katherine’s varied circumstances and emotional reaction to them become tangible and accessible.  The reader is struck by the profound paradox of a series of strong and powerful women who, despite their many qualities, are entirely dependent on the actions and decisions of men.  Throughout her long life in England, Katherine’s virtuous character rarely waivers, but the actions of her father, father-in-law, husband and nephew are the real factors that shape her ever changing and often unhappy destiny.

As with all fiction from this author, the book is well researched and sticks closely to the historical facts available.  However, as Weir herself has stated, fiction allows the author a degree of experimentation with thought-through theories that would be quite out of place in a history book but nonetheless can make a valid contribution to historical debate.  This freedom is used credibly and effectively to explore what really happened on the night of Catherine’s controversial first marriage and at other parts in the narrative.

If book one is anything to go by, Tudor lovers have much to look forward to from the remaining five in the series.  Perhaps the only thing that will frustrate fans is that there are many months to wait until book two – Anne Boleyn, a King’s Obsession – is released next May.

‘Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen’ by Alison Weir is published by Headline Review and is available on Amazon from £6.99

Book review: Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty

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Margaret Beaufort is a character that features heavily in the story of others.  Henry VI, Richard III, Elizabeth of York and of course, her treasured son, Henry VII.  But tracking down a book devoted solely to her is no easy task.

The 1992 offering by Jones and Underwood is generally seen as the definitive guide.  I’ve read it and its excellent – but pretty academic and heavy going.  If you’ve got a full time job, and not so well versed in academic reading, it takes a while to wade through.

Therefore it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that when Elizabeth Norton published her account of ‘Margaret Beaufort, the mother of the Tudors’ it caused something of a revolution amongst fans of the medieval matriarch.

Readable, well researched and accessible, the book gives the most appealing reconstruction of the Countess of Richmond and Derby.  While it lacks the high story telling of an Alison Weir or David Starkey offering, it is easy to follow and accessibly referenced.  The inclusion of letters written by Margaret herself in the appendix is an unexpected treat that gives readers a first-hand glance into the mind of the woman herself.

Understandably, there is a heavy focus on Margaret’s later life, when she was in a position of prominence that generated a wealth of surviving historic records.  But the picture of her early years is painted as well as possible.

The front cove tells us that this is the ‘true story of the Red Queen’ – a nod to how popular fiction has slightly distorted Margaret’s reputation in recent years.  Perhaps because of this, the biography does not massively dwell on the empathetic and speculation.  But it does gives readers the intellectual framework to safely speculate.

If you are a fan of Margaret, the Wars of the Roses or the Tudor era, then this is worth getting your hands on.  Despite the book being quite long, and me being a slow reader with a full time job, I finished it in days.

Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudor Dynasty, by Elizabeth Norton, was published by Amberley Publishing Plc in 2010.  At time of writing it was available for purchase on Amazon for £52.17 (hardcover) and £9.98 paperback)

Book review: Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

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In the summer of 2013 I, like the rest of the UK, was absorbed by the BBC’s White Queen.  Like the rest of the UK, I fell in love with the brilliant acting, the dramatic story telling and the fact that for a precious few weeks, the things I loved were becoming main stream; people actually wanted to talk to me about the subjects I was usually told to shut up about!  I even recall a fair few people at work gathering round as I drew a Plantagenet family tree on the white board!

Of course, those that made it to the end of the series (which presumably wasn’t quite so many given the BBC’s decision to axe it) were talking about one thing: who was responsible for the death of the White Queen’s sons, the legendary Princes in the Tower?

It was never something I had looked into but, based on the odd David Starkey documentary here and there, I had always thought that Richard III was the most likely candidate.  But, after this documentary I realised there could be so many others; Margaret Beaufort, portrayed as such a fanatic throughout the series was most in the frame and even Anne Neville may have had blood on her hands.  This was something I needed to research.

A friend recommended that I read Alison Weir’s ‘Richard III and the Princes in the Tower.’  I was so grateful he did.  Because she set me straight immediately.

Not only is the book well researched, thoroughly readable and insightful, I would actually go as far to say that anyone reading it with an open mind, cannot walk away with the conclusion that anyone other than their infamous uncle, Richard III, was responsible for the death of the innocent Princes.  I appreciate that’s a bold claim but, I challenge anyone (who has read it) to defy me!

The brilliance of Weir’s work is not in the unveiling of any new or profound revelation, but in its sheer simplicity.  Many have said that too little is known of the late 1400s and that answers can never truly be reached.  She disagrees.  Instead of focusing on the absence of source material, she relentlessly peruses what is available to us today, orders it with logic and common sense and shows that the pattern of events and other contemporary comments point in one clear direction.

The book also provides a great window into the latter stages of the War of the Roses and brings to life a host of characters who each played their part in the dramatic events.  Although this was actually written before the book ‘York vs Lancaster,’ I recommend reading the aforementioned first, in order to ensure you have the context front of mind.

In the opening of the book (first written in 1992), Weir remarks that when it comes to Richard III we are never likely to have more evidence at hand then we have today.  Interestingly, we have of course since then made an epic discovery in the form of Richard’s remains.  Every further nugget of information that has come to light since then, only backs up the author’s analysis.

No book is perfect.  Every historian, however hard they try, brings some subconscious biases to the table.  But having now read this book three times, and aspects of it far more, I can’t quite believe that there is even a single Ricardian left standing.

Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir was first published in 1992 with a revised edition published by Vintage in 2014.  It is available for purchase from Amazon in ebook, paperpack and hardcover format

Book review: Elizabeth of York, the first Tudor Queen – by Alison Weir

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When Alison Weir’s biography of Elizabeth of York was published in late 2013, it was hailed as helping to rescue the memory of a ‘forgotten Queen.’

I never thought that was entirely fair.  I had certainly been taught about Henry VIII’s mother before I reached secondary education and I struggle to imagine that my school had a particularly outlandish curriculum.  But, it’s true to say that the image that comes down to us is deeply unsatisfying.

The almost dowdy mother.  The unthinkingly loyal consort.  The saintly persona.  The woman devoid of sexuality and of sensuality.  Could such a person have really produced the rumbustious Henry VIII, the chaotic Queen Margaret of Scotland and the daring Mary Tudor?

This is perhaps why some recent historians and fiction writers have gone too far in readdressing the balance.  Here the picture doesn’t fit either.  The White Princess.  The fearsome loyalist to the House of York.  The woman who dreams of lost brothers returning from across the sea.  The courageous Queen who fights against the power of her miserly husband and authoritarian mother-in-law.  Surely there’s a balance to be struck?

As ever, that is exactly what Weir achieves.  By revisiting the contemporary sources, she presents a reconstruction of the Queen which is well-researched, realistic and entirely human.  We start to get a glimpse – because perhaps it can only ever be a glimpse – as to what it might have actually been like to be in the presence of this fifteenth century matriarch.

To an extent, the book is counter-revisionist.  It reasserts Elizabeth’s genuine closeness to Henry VII (which many have questioned) and good relationship with his mother Margaret Beaufort.  It is clear that she was one of the key players that threw herself into making project Tudor a success.  She may not, as some have suggested, have explosively fallen out with her own mother – but she knew that her focus was the future.

No reader will be left with the impression that Elizabeth of York was a silent figure in the background.  The book is full of examples of where she used her influence, particularly for the good of others, and explores the impact she had on her own children to whom she was perhaps untypically close.

Weir also lets us have a bit of fun.  We explore intriguing theories that suggest the young Princess may have cosied up to  uncle Richard III more than we might think decent.  But she also reminds us exactly which theories we do and do not have evidence to support.  While I’m not entirely sure I believe in the genuineness of Elizabeth’s lost letter to the Duke of Norfolk – where she pleads for marriage to her uncle Richard – my huge respect for Weir, who does think it worthy of consideration, means I am going to have to think again.

Perhaps most striking is the author’s discovery that Elizabeth was present at the Tower of London at the time Sir James Tyrell – the man who had supposedly confessed to the murder of her brothers, the Princes in the Tower – was executed.  Could it be that she was brought there to hear his confession?

“Elizabeth of York: The first Tudor Queen” is not my favourite Alison Weir offering – I prefer the less one-person focused books such as ‘York Vs Lancaster’ – but it is toward the top of the list.  Quite simply, it is a must read for any fan or the era, or indeed anyone who enjoys getting up close and personal to a remarkable figure of history who might otherwise be forever misunderstood.

Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen, by Alison Weir was published  by Vintage in 2013.  At the time this post was published the book was available on Amazon for £4.99 (Kindle), £15.99 (hardback) and £9.48 (paperback).

Book review: David Starkey – Elizabeth: Apprenticeship

Elizabeth apprentecship

Everyone knows the epic stories of Elizabeth I.  The lioness who secured the greatest English military victory since Agincourt; the woman who struggled to put her plotting cousin to death; the iconic matriarch who would achieve cult status in her own lifetime but leave behind no child to secure her legacy.

But little did I know how it was probably the earliest years of her life that were for her personally, by far the most dramatic.  Thanks to this excellent biography by David Starkey, my eyes were opened.

The story – for indeed it reads with the ease of a story book without any compromising of detail – begins with Elizabeth’s birth and a sense of disappointment.  She was supposed to be a boy – no one had use for a princess.  And throughout the book there is a sense that for the first 25 years of her life she is a person who never quite fits in and is something of an inconvenience for everyone: the royal bastard with questionable status; the step-daughter who endangers her guardian’s marriage; the heir-presumptive who is stubbornly the wrong religion.

David Starkey cleverly illustrates how these early struggles shape the character that would one day emerge as the great Gloriana.  A calculated strategist who knew how to adapt and survive and a pragmatist that was never wedded to philosophy or ideology.

From the fall-out of the Seymour affair to plots made against her sister in Elizabeth’s name, Starkey paints the picture of danger that Elizabeth lived through and creates a raw sense of just how many bullets she had to dodge.  Despite actually knowing how the story ends, such is the power of storytelling that there are moments when you anxiously wonder whether the auburn-haired Princess is ever going to make it to the throne.

Elizabeth’s early relationships are also fascinating – her mixed intimacy with her sibling, her fierce loyalty to the servants that raised her, her early encounter with sexuality.  The author brings each of these to life with colour and zest.  Finally the book concludes with Elizabeth’s ascension – something that even then seems less like a great victory and more like the next phase of insecurity.

This is not the only book to devote itself to Elizabeth’s early life; but it is probably the most detailed.  It is therefore a must read not just to fans of the Virgin Queen, but to anyone who seeks insight into this phase of the Tudor period.  Above all else is a shrewd analysis of the psychology behind the early experiences that shape the character of a woman who is generally judged by history to have been one of that era’s greatest rulers.

Elizabeth: Apprenticeship, by Dr David Starkey was published by Vintage in 2001.  At time of writing, it was available for purchase from Amazon in hardcover (£20.00) and paperback (£13.10)