Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Tudors Fact Check: William Compton

William Compton features prominently in the first season of the series, The Tudors.  He is cast as a close friend to King Henry VIII, among several other young men, participating in festivities, tournaments, and generally enjoying what having a best buddy in the big chair has to offer. 

Notable details of his story, as portrayed in the series, include: Compton telling Henry that Charles Brandon had married Henry's sister, Margaret, Compton carrying a large tree as a joke during a tournament, Compton pursuing a homosexual relationship with composer and musician, Thomas Tallis, his "common-law" marriage to Lady Anne Hastings, and his death during an outbreak of the sweating sickness plague. 

So, is any of this true?

Did William Compton tell Henry VIII that Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, married his sister?
In the series, Brandon returns to England having married Margaret somewhere on the way home from Portugal after she smothered her husband, the elderly king.  He sets up a meeting in a tavern with Compton, explaining to him what happened and asking him to intervene on his behalf.  In the series, it is Compton who, at court, tells Henry what happened.

No, in reality, he did not. In fact, Charles Brandon married Mary Tudor (the character is called Margaret in the series) while she was in France.  Her husband, the elderly King of France, died months into their marriage, and Henry sent Charles to retrieve her.  Mary, who had been in seclusion in a traditional form of French mourning, demanded that Charles marry her then and there, and he did.  Immediately grasping the ramifications of his actions, he actually wrote to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to ask for his intervention on their behalf.  Henry heavily fined Brandon for marrying his sister without his consent, but he also allowed them to celebrate a large, public wedding in England.

Did Compton carry a tree as a joke during a jousting tournament?
During a jousting tournament, in which Compton and Henry both participate, Compton's squire hands him a large tree trunk to serve as a lance as a joke.

Notably, the man who carried the tree trunk was another courtier, Nicholas Carew.

Did Compton and Thomas Tallis engage in a homosexual relationship?
In the series, William Compton, impressed by his musical talents, pursues a homosexual relationship with Thomas Tallis. 

None of that is true.

Thomas Tallis did exist, however, although his career only seemingly took off during the end of Henry VIII's reign.  It did, in fact, continue throughout the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.  It is generally thought that Thomas was born around the beginning of the 16th century.  He did not appear in the royal court until 1543, much too late as the first season of the series is generally concerned with events that took place in the 1520s.  In the series, although it isn't stressed, William Compton is often portrayed as sitting out of the flirtations in the royal court.  This is only "explained" indirectly by his pursuit of Tallis and subsequent short relationship with him. 

In the series, Thomas married a young woman named Joan who lost her twin sister to the sweating sickness.  Although Thomas did marry a woman named Joan, the rest of that story is a fabrication.  Thomas died in 1585 after a very long, successful musical career.

Was Compton in a "common-law" marriage with Anne Hastings?
Anne Hastings is first introduced in The Tudors as the daughter of the Duke of Buckingham.  Henry makes a wager with Charles Brandon that he would never succeed in seducing Anne.  Charles, as he does many times in the first season, lands Anne in bed.  Unfortunately for both of them, the Duke of Buckingham finds them together--Brandon leaves with a cruel jibe.  Buckingham demands that Henry punish Charles, which he is unwilling to do.  Later, Buckingham, who is descended from the Plantagenets, devises a plot to kill Henry and set himself as king.  This plot is discovered and he is executed, his daughter watching the gruesome scene.

Anne Hastings appears again after William Compton succumbs to the sweating sickness later in the season.  The physician calls her in to tell her what happened, addressing her as Compton's common-law wife.  She breaks down, approaching Compton's body much closer than is advisable, and later, dies of the plague herself.  Henry VIII later receives Compton's affects, instructing that they be sent to Anne.

This story is a little more complicated.

Anne Hastings was actually the sister of the Duke of Buckingham, not his daughter.  Although there is no record of a tryst between Anne and Charles Brandon, there is, perhaps, some evidence that she was pursued by Henry VIII.  In 1510, while Katherine of Aragon was pregnant, either Henry or William Compton, or perhaps both men were pursuing Anne Hastings, who served Katherine as a lady in waiting.  When this affair was revealed, Anne's husband packed her off to a nunnery (apparently not permanently), and this led to a rather serious falling-out between the royal couple.  Katherine was extremely angry at Henry's infidelity, although Henry saw nothing wrong with the affair.  The Duke of Buckingham apparently thought that William Compton was the man in question, rather than Henry, which provides evidence that Compton may have been covering for the king. 

William Compton, however, did have a long-term affair with Anne.  In 1520, Compton was prosecuted by an ecclesiastical court for living openly in sin with a married woman (Anne Hastings).  Upon his death, William bequeathed his wealth to Anne.  Regardless, it has been asserted that Anne enjoyed a fairly good relationship with George Hastings, her husband.  Her eight children were at least recognized by Hastings as his own.  She did not die of the sweating sickness--she died long afterward in 1544.

Did William Compton die of the sweating sickness?
In the series, William Compton is found one morning in his bed clearly extremely ill.  Within hours, he dies, regardless of the efforts made by the physician to save him.  Tallis, who had been abroad in France, returns to find Compton's gravesite and smashes his lute on the marker.

Yes, William Compton did die of the sweating sickness, as did several of Henry's close friends at court, in 1528.  According to the state papers, he had been allowed to sleep at a pivotal time during the infection, and this was supposed to have killed him.  His will, dated 1523, left his wealth to Anne Hastings as he had no children and no wife, and some of his personal affects were sent to Henry VIII, probably as a token of friendship.

Although William Compton's story, as portrayed in The Tudors, is a good one, it incorporates some truth and a lot of fiction.  I am unaware of any biographies of Compton, Tallis, or Anne Hastings, but Compton is regularly mentioned in any, and all, biographies of Henry VIII and descriptions of court life during Henry's reign.  Tallis is known more generally for his music, but he was seemingly a shadowy figure in his own time, so it is unusual to see him mentioned anywhere.  Anne's presumed affair with Henry is often mentioned in the same sources in which Compton appears, and, in addition, in biographies of Katherine of Aragon.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Sisters of Henry VIII

Author: Maria Perry
Publication Date: 1998
Number of Pages: 224
Cost: This book doesn't seem to have been very popular, but I picked this up at a used bookstore in hardcover form for $5.00.  I suspect you can find used copies if you look online.  There isn't a Kindle edition available.
Where did I hear about it: I more or less just found this book.  I hadn't heard anything about it before I purchased it, and I haven't seen it referenced since.

The Backstory

Increasingly over the last decade, Henry VIII's two sisters (the two who lived to adulthood) have garnered an increasing amount of attention.  In the television series, The Tudors, Margaret Tudor was played by Gabrielle Anwar.  The details of her story are some of the most memorable in the series.  
Margaret was betrothed, against her will, to the aging king of Portugal.  Henry appointed Charles Brandon, who he creates Duke of Suffolk, to escort her to her new home.  On the way, Margaret becomes enamored of Charles and they begin an (extremely forbidden) affair.  Regardless, Margaret is married to the Portuguese king, but, when she realizes her English entourage is to return home, she smothers her husband.  On the way back, she insists that Charles marry her, which he does, incurring Henry's wrath.  Their marriage is portrayed as unfortunate--Charles engages in a number of affairs and leaves Margaret essentially alone in Suffolk where she develops consumption and unceremoniously dies on the floor in front of a set of servants.

Is any of this true?  Well, maybe some of it.

In reality, Henry VIII had two sisters: Margaret Tudor (1489-1541) and Mary Tudor (1496-1533).  The details portrayed in The Tudors are primarily from Mary's life, although Mary married the aging King of France, not the King of Portugal, and fully intended to remain in France as Queen for as long as he lived (from October 9, 1514 to January 1, 1515). 

Margaret Tudor, the elder sister, was married to James IV of Scotland in 1503 in an attempt at establishing peace between the two kingdoms.  Although he was infamous for his extramarital affairs, he seems to have truly cared for Margaret, and they had six children together in their ten years of marriage.  Unfortunately, only one of them survived to adulthood--the future James V.  His father, James IV, died in battle in 1513 leaving Margaret as regent, but infighting between the heads of various Scottish nobility made this task particularly difficult.  Scottish politics were dominated by competition between clans, and, to combat this (and probably because she was attracted to him), she married Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl Angus the following year.  This only exacerbated divisions between factions, and the earl further offended Margaret by living openly with his mistress on one of Margaret's properties.  Her enemies invited James Stuart, the Duke of Albany, back from France to claim the regency, which he did in 1515.  Margaret escaped into England and spent a year living in Henry VIII's court.  She later returned to Scotland, even working with Albany for a time, but Albany was completely removed from power by Margaret and her allies in 1524.  In the meantime, James V was almost fully controlled by his step-father, much to his dismay.  In 1527, Margaret was granted a divorce from Angus.  In 1528, she married her lover, Henry Stewart, but this marriage also proved disastrous.  However, James V came into his own throughout this process, and Margaret remained on the political stage until her death, probably from a stroke, in 1541.

Mary Tudor was destined for an equally brilliant future at the start.  Of his siblings, Henry VIII was closest to Mary, although his attempt to divorce Katherine of Aragon forced a wedge between them.  At first, her intended husband was the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but, when an alliance with France proved more desirable, Henry VIII arranged a marriage between Mary and aging King Louis XII.  It was at the prospect of this match that Mary supposedly exacted from her brother the fateful promise that she should be allowed to marry whom she pleased in the event of Louis's death.  She was well-received, and well-liked in France, although her tenure as Queen only lasted from her marriage on October 9, 1514 to Louis's death, possibly from over-exertion in the marriage bed, on January 1, 1515.  Then, she entered into a period of 40 days of mourning in seclusion in France.  Henry VIII sent Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk to France to bring his sister home.  Quite unexpectedly, perhaps to everyone other than Mary and Charles, Mary demanded that Charles marry her right away--which he did.  It dawned on Charles rather quickly that Henry would be livid, so he wrote to Cardinal Wolsey to ask him to intervene on their behalf.  As a result, Henry welcomed Charles and Mary, exacting a rather heavy fine on them for their marriage without his consent.  They had four children, but only two girls survived long into adulthood.  Frances Brandon, the elder, married Henry Grey and would become the mother of Jane Grey, the "nine days queen" who was executed at 17.  Mary disliked Anne Boleyn and often pled ill-health to absent herself from events at court.  Mary died in 1533, and her husband remarried within two months.

What about the book?

I'm not sure I read this book.  I think I "waded through it."

Honestly, there is a really good reason why this book isn't particularly widely known--it isn't very good.  The book is primarily comprised of well-known stories about these women interspersed between lengthy descriptions of events in Henry VIII's life.  The reader doesn't get a good sense of either Margaret or Mary, although it can be argued that Margaret is a bit better covered and described.  The author doesn't seem to know the difference between research worth including in a book like this and research that doesn't add anything to the theme of the book.

On the bright side, Margaret's life is fairly well described, even if many details are left unrecorded.  Her life in Scotland, her problems with her second and third marriages, Scottish politics, and Margaret's general movements while Queen of Scotland are described as is her correspondence with Henry VIII.  The only part of Mary's life that is covered as well is her marriage to Louis XII and her subsequent marriage to Charles Brandon.  Margaret's character does come out in the narrative, but Mary's character is not very well described, regardless of the abundance of information about her available.  Margaret's marriages and their results are also covered fairly well, but Mary's marriage to Brandon is almost completely absent from the work. 

There are a lot of negatives to this book.  First, the author has a very difficult time sticking to the topic at hand.  Probably as much as 40% of the book is really about Henry VIII and the political events of the day without any attempt to fix Margaret or Mary into these events.  I found myself skipping through parts that didn't seem to have any relevance to the topic.  I think that, for a careful researcher, there is plenty of information out there on both Margaret and Mary, and it wouldn't be a stretch to write a 200 page book just about them and nothing else.  In addition, Perry includes details that quickly grow tiresome to the reader--for example, she meticulously covers what anyone, at any time, was wearing at any state event.  If you digitized this text and entered "cloth of gold" into a text search, it would come up more times than any other phrase.  There may be a few people out there who are really interested in what everyone was wearing, but, most readers are more interested in who the subjects are rather than what was on them.  And, there are many biographies of Henry VIII--there was no need to include so much information about him unless the subjects of the book were directly related to the events in question. 

The epilogue is unforgivably short.  The author expected to sum up Margaret's and Mary's story in a mere two pages.  What happened to their families is particularly significant, but the mention is brief, if it isn't completely absent.  Margaret's descendants eventually assumed the English throne after Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth, died childless in 1603.  Mary's granddaughter, Jane Grey, was thrust into the national spotlight after Edward VI's death when someone--or someones--attempted to disinherit Mary, Henry VIII's Catholic eldest daughter.  Jane was a very temporary Queen of England, if she could actually be called that, and was executed.  If anything, the epilogue discussing the significance of these women and their families should have been somewhat extensive.

Rating: A 4 for the few parts of the book that actually covered the topic.
Buy it or Borrow it: Don't do either.  I'm not aware of a biography of Margaret Tudor, but there is a new biography about Mary Tudor entitled: The Tudor Rose: Princess Mary, Henry VIII's Sister by Jennifer Draskau due out on September 1 that may be worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Captive Queen

Author: Alison Weir
Publication Date: 2010
Number of Pages: 473
Cost: The list price is around $15.00, but I'm sure you can pick up a copy for less than that.
Where Did I Hear About It: I generally enjoy Alison Weir's work, although I acknowledge some historical issues here and there.  I try to keep an eye out for new books.

The Backstory

Eleanor of Aquitaine is second only to Anne Boleyn when it comes to history's most notorious English queens.  Unlike Anne, who was born into the more modest English gentry, Eleanor was destined for something significant early on.  Her father, William X, Duke of Aquitaine, died seven years after his only son, William, leaving Eleanor his heir.  Right away, men of rank and substance--and many fortune hunters who were not--were eager to capture her hand in marriage.  It was, however, Louis VII, King of France, who was the ultimate victor, becoming Eleanor's first husband in 1137.  The marriage was not a happy one.  It seems Eleanor and Louis were two very different people--Louis was primarily guided by the formidable Abbot Suger, who encouraged him to avoid his wife's company, particularly in bed.  It was agreed that Eleanor and Louis should seek an annulment, which they did in 1152.  The official reason was their all-too-close blood ties, but many suspected that the two of them would never see eye-to-eye, and their marriage had only produced two daughters, both barred from inheriting the French throne due to their gender.

Eleanor's second, and more successful marriage, to the future Henry II of England, was made about two months after her annulment.  Although the age difference was significant--Eleanor was 11 years his senior--the marriage produced 8 living children, and perhaps more who died in infancy.  Regardless, they seemed to have quarreled quite a bit.  Eleanor was frequently left on her own while Henry quelled various rebellions across what would be called his "Angevin Empire."  In 1167, Eleanor traveled south with Henry, staying in Poitiers and effectively ruling Aquitaine on her own (or on Henry's behalf).  Her eldest living son, Henry, who had been crowned king by Henry II to acknowledge him as his successor, revolted against his father in 1173, bringing his younger brothers, Geoffrey and Richard, into the fray.  Eleanor was assumed to have encouraged her sons, and perhaps the Aquitainian nobility, to revolt, and, as a result, she was captured and held in either Winchester or Sarum starting in 1174.  In 1183, however, she was granted a greater degree of freedom, occasionally accompanying her husband and participating in state affairs, but she was generally accompanied by a guardian of some kind.  She was officially freed by her son, Richard, upon his succession after his father's death in 1189.  Eleanor acted as Richard's regent while Richard was off on the Third Crusade, and, her son, John, Richard's successor, sent her to Castile to choose the future wife of the King of France's son, Louis.  Eleanor returned to Fontevraud Abbey in 1201, dying there in 1204.

There were, of course, many stories, legends, and rumors of note associated with Eleanor.  She was described as a great beauty in her own time.  There were rumors that she had several out-of-wedlock trysts, particularly when she was married to Louis.  Two notable examples were: Geoffrey Plantagenet, father of Henry II, and Raymond of Poitiers, her uncle and Prince of Antioch while accompanying Louis on Crusade.  There were also rumors that Eleanor had somehow killed Henry II's beloved mistress, Rosamond de Clifford.  Historians generally accept that Eleanor must have been remarkably beautiful, but they debate many other details associated with her life.

What about the book?

Although I started out as an avid reader of Alison Weir's historical works, I truly believe she is at her best as an author of historical fiction.  She knows the topics of her novels very well, having often researched them for published historical materials, and she has a gift for writing lively prose.  She is clearly interested in what the historical sources can tell her about the characters of the people she writes about, and those characters are well-developed in her work.

I have to admit that it took me much longer than it usually does to get down to reading this book in earnest.  I picked it up months ago, got about 20 pages into it, but I was generally turned off by her approach to Eleanor.  I thought I would try again, and I am very glad I did. 

This book is generally very enjoyable.  If you know the basic outline of the details of Eleanor's life, you'll find it particularly interesting to see how Weir treats them.  She has a very clear idea about the characters of her primary subjects--Eleanor and Henry.  She also does a good job with Henry's son, Henry, who died young and never succeeded his father.  She writes the novel in such a way as to keep the reader moving through it, and the pieces fit together well.

There are a few drawbacks--first, she covers a very long period of time, and not all of it is treated equally well.  I would argue that the earlier parts of Eleanor's life were covered better than the later ones, as if Weir either ran out of steam going into Eleanor's later life or she was, herself, more interested in Eleanor's earlier life.  I felt that the details got thinner as the novel wore on, which is possibly a response to how lengthy it ultimately became.  The cast of characters was also a bit too extensive, and many were left without a postscript save Eleanor's children.  The novel's primary action ends in 1189 upon Richard's accession as king, but this leaves out some of the more interesting events in her later life.  Although convenient to frame the novel around Eleanor's marriage to Henry II, the reader could have regained something of Eleanor as autonomous elder stateswoman if her post-Henry years were somehow included.  In fact, there is a short epilogue, taking place in 1204 upon her death, during which she reflects upon her life.  All of her reflections were about events through 1189, and one would think that the ensuing 15 years would have had some kind of impact on her to warrant a mention at that stage.  To think she would be pining for Henry at the end, a decade and a half after his death, seems a little ridiculous.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed this novel quite a bit.  There is a lot of action and some great dialogue and exchanges between characters.  I would make the argument that Weir's treatment of Henry's relationship with Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, is one of the novel's highlights.  Henry, Eleanor, and Thomas are all developed as complex characters, and Henry's relationship with Thomas is equally complex. 

If you're interesting in reading more about Eleanor, Alison Weir wrote a biography in 1999 entitled Eleanor of Aquitaine, and, more recently, Ralph V. Turner wrote a biography by the same name (published 2009).

Rating: 7.  It's well worth a read.
Buy it or Borrow it: Borrow it--after I read the book, I truly felt that I wouldn't read it again even thought I enjoyed it.  Overall, it is great, but I can't identify any passages in the book that I will think on and ultimately wish to revisit.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

My kingdom for a...King Richard III?

Has King Richard III of England finally been discovered?

Recently, the University of Leicester made the biggest discovery in British archaeology in decades.  Under a parking lot in Leicester where a Greyfriars friary once stood in the 15th century, a team of archaeologists discovered exactly what they were looking for (for once).  What had become of Richard III after his death during the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 had been a mystery up to that point.  There was a tradition that he had been buried in the friary, but, further tradition claimed that he had later been exhumed and his remains thrown in a nearby river. 
Acertaining that this is, indeed, Richard, was another matter.  Using mitochondrial DNA, carried through the mother's line, it was possible to match DNA extracted from the skeleton to descendants of Richard III's sister, Anne of York.  As neither relative has any children of their own, within another generation, it might have been impossible to reach a definitive conclusion about the identity of the skeleton. 
You can read about the discovery, and the science behind it,  here.
Whether you're a history scholar or you despise history with a passion, you probably have heard about Richard III.  Richard III: a deformed, evil, power-hungry monarch who mercilessly murdered his nephews, who killed his wife to marry his niece, and who was justly cut down in battle by victorious Henry VII.  So, where does this come from?
Probably the most influential person to explore Richard III's personality, or the personality attributed to him, was Shakespeare.  The opening monologue introduces the evil, calculating Richard III, and no one personified that better than Laurence Olivier.  Here is Olivier delivering an edited version of Richard III's soliloquy:
Was King Richard III really this guy?
There are certainly reasons to be somewhat suspicious of this interpretation of Richard.  In fact, King Richard III is the only king in English history to have a rehabilitation society dedicated to improving his reputation.  Many authors have examined the sources and come to very different conclusions about Richard.  For example, Richard III was uncompromisingly loyal to his older brother, King Edward IV, before and throughout his reign as king of England.  The Parliament that sat during his very short reign introduced a number of very progressive reforms, and he improved conditions markedly for often-neglected northern England. 
Where did Shakespeare get his Richard III?  The primary source that informed this play was a history composed by Thomas More.  His The History of Richard III was probably composed in the mid-1510s during the reign of King Henry VIII.  There is no question that this is a story composed by and for the victorious Tudors.  Richard III was evil and deserved to be deposed.  Henry VII, Henry VIII's father, was a liberator who won a god-sanctioned victory at the Battle of Bosworth.  Many important cultural norms appear in the narrative--Richard III's physical deformities were an outwardly visible manifestation of his evil nature.  He coveted the crown so much, he killed innocent children who loved and trusted him.  All of this was meant to legitimize the Tudor reign at a time when Henry VIII was still threatened by others who had stronger claims to the English throne.  Richard III is considered to be the "last Plantagenet king," but he wasn't the last living member of this long-reigning family.  There were many Plantagenets still living in England under the uneasy eye of the Tudor kings and queens to follow.  Henry VII spent most of his reign legitimizing his position, and Henry VIII inherited some of his insecurities.  The assurance that Richard III deserved to lose the English crown on behalf of the entire Plantagenet clan was perhaps one of the few comforting thoughts either monarch had to rest upon.  And, it comes as no surprise that faithful royal servant, Thomas More, who rose to prominence during the Tudor dynasty (and, later, fell) was the one who provided it.
Was Richard III really deformed?  The skeleton seems to confirm a case of scoliosis, demonstrated in the prominent curvature of the mid-spine.  But, a whithered arm is completely absent.  In fact, it seems that regardless of his back problems, he may have been a fairly competent fighter.
Did Richard III really kill his wife?  Probably not.  There are many indications that they had a fairly happy marriage.  She died in 1485 only months before Richard, but it is thought by scholars today that she suffered from tuberculosis.  There is no evidence that Richard poisoned her to be able to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, who later became Henry VII's wife.  The logic behind this had to do with the fact that she was the daughter of King Edward IV and elder sister to the two "murdered" princes.  A marriage to her could legitimize a claim to the throne.  Apparently, Henry VII certainly thought so, but there isn't much evidence Richard thought this way.
Did Richard III kill his nephews, Edward and Richard, sons of King Edward IV?  This is the big question, and one for which there are equally good arguments on either side.  I'd recommend reading more  yourself on this one if you would like to explore the possibilities.
Whatever the verdict on Richard III's life and personality, the discovery of a long-lost king of England is an absolutely remarkable find. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Kate's Portrait: A Short History of Royal Imagery

So, yesterday, we learned about this picture.

Far from a critic of or a student of art history, I will refrain from supplying yet another interpretation of this portrait.  I'm not quite sure that this result was what the artist, however talented, was aiming for, to say the least.

The British monarchy has had a long history of official (and unofficial) portraiture.  Nothing has changed the nature of portraiture more than the increasingly widespread use of photography.  Although portraits of monarchs and their families continue to be painted to this day, photographs have overtaken paintings in crafting images of the British monarchy.  Arguably, because of photography, portrait painters are forced to create far more candid, true-to-life images than their image-conscious predecessors.  Instead of portraying the monarch as he/she wished to be, portrait painters now attempt to create images that are as close as possible to how their subjects actually appear and behave.

The first sitting British monarch to be photographed was Queen Victoria.  Photographs can be difficult to track down, so we actually aren't sure whether we have the first photograph of Victoria.  This photograph, taken around 1844, is thought to be the first of Victoria.  She is shown here holding her eldest daughter, also a Victoria.  The photographer is unknown (as far as I am aware--please share if you know who took the picture). Although Victoria sat for both painted portraits and photographs throughout her long reign, she mastered crafting an image through both media.

Here is an image (more famous) of her family in 1857:

 After years of reports of scandalous indulgences perpetrated by the previous generation of her family, Victoria and Albert came to represent stability, devotion to family, a new morality, and what would later become a Victorian perspective of the roles of men and women in home and society (which, sadly, continues to influence how historians today interpret pre-Victorian ages).  Images like the one above contributed massively to that campaign.

Going back further, arguably the Tudor family deserves the most credit for creating an image of monarchy portrayed through portraiture.  The portrait to the right is of--yes, you guessed it--King Henry VIII.  Although many historians have attempted to interpret Henry's personality, it is clear that he was a rather vain man who was somewhat obsessed with his physical appearance and how others perceived his vigor and virility.  This portrait was painted by Hans Holbein the Younger around 1537.  Henry had been through two wives already, was married to his third, and there were three more to come before his death a decade later.  Because he hadn't produced many living children--not to mention his lack of a male heir--there had been a whisper or two about just how "manly" this king really was.  The portrait gains additional significance depending upon when in 1537 it was actually painted.  Jane Seymour was pregnant throughout most of 1537, and, unlike her predecessor Anne Boleyn, managed to carry the child to term successfully.  In October, she gave birth to the only male child who would outlive Henry, the future Edward VI.  Jane's pregnancy, and perhaps even the birth of his son if this were painted that late in the year, could have been the inspiration for such a confident, masculine, powerful portrayal of Henry VIII.

Who was the first English monarch to have his/her likeness captured?  That is a difficult question to answer.  Images of monarchs appear in a number of manuscripts throughout the Medieval period, but it is generally agreed that these were not taken from life.  It is believed by scholars that some Medieval sculpture, primarily in churches and cathedrals, does portray important royal figures.  However, the first royal portrait taken from life is believed to be of King Richard II.

There are several images of Richard II that were painted during his lifetime.  One of the most famous appears on the Wilton Diptych, which is in the National Gallery in London.  This devotional set of panels was painted in the tradition of altars, both stationary and portable, that were popular in the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe.  It portrays Richard II kneeling before Mary, holding an infant Jesus, who is offering Richard a blessing.  The portrait above, showing Richard II seated with crown, scepter, and orb, was painted between 5 and 10 years earlier around 1390.  The timing of this portrait is therefore significant in the context of the many problems that occurred in Richard's reign.  In the late 1380s, Richard had been forced by Parliament to condemn several of his most important court allies.  By 1390, Richard was eager to reassert his royal prerogative.  Richard took control of the British government formally in 1389, having come of age to do so.  Although the chroniclers seem to classify Richard as a less-than-ideal king, he remained in control through the 1390s, and he even attempted to redress the wrongs perpetrated against him in the 1380s.  Richard's story did not end happily.  Richard was overthrown by the future Henry IV and died in captivity, perhaps by starvation, by 1400.

How will Kate's famous portrait hold up in the succession of royal images?  It's difficult to say at this stage, but there's no doubt that it is a part of a long history that will continue for generations to come. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Starkey)

Author: David Starkey
Publication Date: 2004  
Number of Pages: 880
Cost: You can literally find this book for almost any cost these days--used copies go from about $2.00 up to around $10.00, and there is a Kindle edition available.  
Where Did I Hear About It: Well, it's almost impossible NOT to have heard about this book somewhere if you're a fan of Tudor history. I purchased this book years ago, and I used it as a reference for a long time before actually reading it cover to cover.  

The Backstory

I think we've all heard it: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. Henry VIII is England's much-married monarch, and the story of his relationship with each one of his wives is enough to make a book of its own (and, in some cases, it already has). However, there's something about treating Henry's wives all together that makes the story particularly interesting to the reader. This approach allows the author to draw conclusions about the similarities and differences from wife to wife and relationship to relationship that only a book a of this kind can do.

In case anyone is unclear, Henry's six wives were: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Katherine Parr. His marriage to Katherine of Aragon was the longest of all and perhaps the most dynastically significant given her impressive Spanish royal descent. Anne Boleyn, the woman who supposedly "stole Henry's heart" from Katherine, produced the famous Elizabeth I but quickly lost Henry's love and ended her days prematurely on the scaffold. Jane, dutiful, quiet, and brief, was the mother of Henry's only living son, Edward (and her significance in history pretty much ends there). Anne of Cleves was the product of a second foreign marriage (Katherine of Aragon being the first), but Henry's lack of attraction to her quickly ended the marriage on favorable terms for Anne, who remained in England. Katherine Howard was the much-younger woman who invigorated an ageing Henry, but whose indiscretions landed her the same fate as her unfortunate cousin, Anne Boleyn. Katherine Parr was perhaps more a companion than the others, save perhaps Katherine of Aragon, whose attachment to religious reform nearly ended her life. It's debatable how successful each of these relationships truly were. Eventually, something went wrong somewhere along the line, and, to Henry, if he had to end a marriage that fell into that category, he was always the victim. Some of this story makes for a more interesting read, naturally, than other parts. Katherine of Aragon had a pretty conventional dynastic marriage to Henry for some time, and, under most circumstances, the story would have began and ended there. Anne Boleyn's part is probably the most exciting and interesting. Although Katherine Howard offers a splash of color a bit later down the line, the rest of Henry's marital history is a bit duller than might be expected. However, as a whole story, it is a fascinating, and unusual, one.  

What About The Book?

 David Starkey is a great historian. There is no question that he consulted a long list of applicable sources to write this book. Whenever he offers analysis of a detail that has been long accepted or interpreted by other historians in a different light, I would definitely trust Starkey's assessment on that point. However, I am not sure this is the book that Starkey truly wanted to write.

How much Starkey actually focuses on the "six wives" varies from wife to wife depending upon his interests in the characters and how much new analysis he can offer on the topics. His section on Katherine of Aragon was a very enlightening read, for example, as is his treatment of Katherine Howard, using some of the original documents that are rarely included by other historians. However, I really think Starkey was more interested in some of the other figures of the day than Henry's wives--figures like Stephen Gardiner, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, and, above all, Thomas Wolsey, figure too prominently and often replace insight on the stated subject(s) of this book. The most prominent example of this phenomenon is how Starkey treats his section on Anne Boleyn. He offers a very lengthy analysis of the divorce proceedings in which Thomas Wolsey has a starring role but Anne is only an afterthought. It may be that Starkey felt other historians had covered Anne's relationship with Henry in enough detail and had not gone over the divorce with as much description. There is no question that I would use his discussion of the divorce as a reference for the chronology involved. However, this is advertised as a book about Henry's "six wives." As a reader, I want to know more about Anne and Henry's relationship pre-marriage and how it fell apart later. I am not as interested in Cardinal Wolsey's fall from power as a result of that process. In fact, in order to learn more about Henry's relationship with Anne, I had to pull out author Alison Weir's book of the same name and read the two side by side. Weir almost entirely focuses on Anne and Henry's relationship, whereas I'm not sure Starkey was very interested in it. Starkey seems to fall into the same trap I see a lot of (primarily male) Tudor historians fall into--he loves the men of the age, but he knows he can't write a book about Thomas Wolsey and hope to sell it, so he inserts him rather annoyingly often into a book that is about the more popular topic--unfortunately for his readers.

A big bright spot in this book is his treatment of Katherine Howard. His is the most detailed analysis of Katherine, where she came from, and what really happened to bring about her fall, that I have seen anywhere, even in Katherine's own (fairly poorly written) biography. For example, he uses an inventory of the many jewels Henry gave Katherine to ascertain that a well-known portrait claimed to be Katherine actually must be her. He also includes documents about Katherine's previous relationships with other men that were too vivid to be printed in Victorian histories on the topic.

This is a massive book--or, it feels massive to the reader (Weir's book is of similar length, but I feel it is a faster read). And, it suffers from it's ups and downs, focusing rather too little on the overall subject at times. Starkey has a little bit of a showman-oriented writing style that can both excite interest and annoyance in the reader. However, you can't beat his bibliography, and I don't think you'll find a better analysis of anything he does focus on anywhere else.  

Rating: With such a long book, it is very hard to give this a rating. Instead, I'll rate the different sections by wife: Katherine of Aragon: 8, Anne Boleyn: 4, Jane Seymour: 7, Anne of Cleves: 7, Katherine Howard: 9, Katherine Parr: 7.5 (probably the most balanced section)  
Buy It or Borrow It: You can't beat the price on the many used copies available out there. If you're a Tudor historian and you want a really good reference for primary sources or to double-check information in either other books or in TV specials/movies, it is definitely worth having a copy of this around.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Unicorn's Blood

Author: Patricia Finney
Publication Date: 1998
Cost: This is on offer on for just over $7.00, and there is no Kindle edition available.
Where Did I Hear About It: This is another find.

The Backstory

This novel takes place in 1587. Elizabeth has been queen for some time, and is now an older, somewhat cantankerous version of herself. Her Privy Council continues to try and convince her to order the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. She is attended by several familiar faces and many fictional ones created for the primary action of the story.

The main focus of the book is a diary kept by Elizabeth as a teenager, known as the Book of the Unicorn. From the beginning, it is clear that this diary contains information that could completely undo the Queen, compromising the loyalty of her subjects and delivering to her enemies exactly what they're looking for to destroy her. The mystery of the novel is exactly how the different individuals, who appear both separately and without reference to the diary at the start of the book, fit together.

The primary characters are: Mary, a former nun dissillusioned by the dissolution of the monasteries and nunneries under Elizabeth's father; David Becket, a man who has completely lost his memory who may know something about the Book of the Unicorn; Thomasina, Elizabeth's court fool and trusted friend; Simon Ames, a Jewish man who was a former informant for Frances Walsingham; and Secretary Davidson, who is working for the Queen. All of them are somehow related to the Book of the Unicorn, and their relationship to this book and to each other is gradually revealed throughout the novel.

The primary question is: Will Elizabeth find the Book of the Unicorn before her enemies do? And, if she doesn't, what will be her fate?

What about the book?

This book, unlike many novels focusing on Elizabeth or on the Tudors generally, was never a big hit with history buffs, and, after reading it, I can completely understand why.

The story isn't a good one for many reasons. First, it has an aura of complete impossibility about it, and often, what separates clever historical fiction from not-so-great historical fiction is believability in the context of historical events. Second, for about half of the book, none of the characters are particularly likeable. I will say that this issue improves during the course of the story, however, it may be difficult for even a determined reader to get to that point before giving up on it.

Finney does several rather odd, and often unnecessary things that compromise the novel. At least a portion--if not all of it, although that isn't clear--of the story is "told" by the Virgin Mary. I'm not sure if there is anything quite more ridiculous than choosing a Biblical figure for the narrator. It's hard to figure out a way this could actually work, but, the obvious routes were ignored in this case. You would expect that Mary may make a comment or two about the religious conflict of the day, for example, or about the obvious parallels between Virgin Mary and Virgin Queen.

The novel is also plagued by many characters that it could do without quite well. The Queen's Carey cousins appear, but, in the end, their role is too diminished to explain elongating the novel to include them. A set of circumstances surrounding one of Elizabeth's Ladies in Waiting could also have been sacrificed without any serious loss to the plot. In addition, the "secret" about Elizabeth is predictable, but, more than that, other authors have used the same plot device in much more effective, and interesting, ways.

On one positive note, I will say that Finney picked probably the perfect pace through which to reveal the secrets in the story. At first, I felt that the main mystery was divulged too early, but in retrospect, I was very wrong about that. Once the pieces start to fit together, the story became more interesting and the characters far more likeable. Finney had so many characters that she resolved a few of their stories with a bit too much brevity at the end, but, overall, the novel improved exponentially after about the mid-point. However, several times, I almost gave up the book before I got that far.

Rating: A 5. This isn't a great story overall, regardless of its improvements later on in the story.
Buy It or Borrow It: Probably neither in this case, unfortunately. Although the novel improves, I don't think that saves it. Skip this one and try some other offerings.