Friday, December 30, 2011

Morality Play

Author: Barry Unsworth
Publication Date: 1995
Cost: The original list price is $13.95, but, since the book has been out for a while, I am sure you can find used copies for much less than that. The Kindle version will be released this January, and it will cost $11.99.
Discovery: I found this book listed on, and I added it to my list.

The Backstory

The focus of this novel is a young priest, Nicholas, who deserted his diocese in the spring, and finds himself without a refuge as winter approaches. After fleeing a rather compromising situation, he crosses paths with a group of "players," or a traveling band of actors, standing over a dying one of their own. When they discover Nicholas, watching the troupe under the cover of darkness, he convinces them to allow him to join them to take their lost companion's place. They continue their journey, with Nicholas, to Durham where a sponsoring lord is waiting for their Christmas entertainment. On the way, they stop in a town to perform for extra money, and they learn about the very recent murder of a young man, Thomas Wells. A monk, serving the local lord, found the purse of coins Thomas Wells was carrying in a weaver's home, and the weaver's dumb daughter stands accused of the crime. One of the players convinces the others that it would be more interesting, and more profitable, to perform a play about the murder of Thomas Wells, however, their intentions and their attempts to gather information, get them more, and more deeply involved in the situation...

There is very little concrete information about time or place in this novel. The action seems to take place after the plague years (1340s), and it certainly takes place in England as the players are on their way to Durham. However, all of the people are fictional, and many of the locations are not named. The book is not particularly long (only about 200 pages), and its action is confined to a few days--maybe two weeks or so--in December. The novel is "told" from Nicholas' perspective.

What About the Book?

Although an interesting read, I found this book's general atmosphere of abstraction a detriment to what could have been a much better story.

The author clearly is familiar with medieval mystery plays. The longest and most detailed--and by far the best--chapters all describe the players' performances. If the author is equally well-versed in the history of the period, it is not revealed in the story. It may be the lack of time or place that creates the abstraction that detracts from the story. However, this abstraction also extends to the people the players meet along the way. None of them seem very real, and this is a product of the author's sacrifice of character development for the sake of the plot of the novel.

Using the medium of the play to work out the mystery of Thomas Wells' death is a very creative idea, and it is very well executed in the book. Each performance prompts the characters to learn more by various means to improve the play with more details that answer the questions they, and the audience, pose. There is a lack of urgency, though, when it comes to the discovery of the truth in the mystery. First, the author, in the voice of Nicholas, eludes to how terrible circumstances to come will be in the novel, but the story never quite lives up to the implications previously made. In fact, should those allusions be removed, the novel would very much improve.

It took me a very long time to finish this book, and I'm not sure I can blame distractions for that. I really think it was the abstract feel of the book that kept me from returning to it faithfully. I didn't at all feel connected to the characters--not even Nicholas. The second half of the book felt far more "real" than the first half, and I found myself really interested in finishing the story once I passed the halfway mark. After some Internet research, I get the sense that teachers are having students read this book in class--as a story, this isn't a bad choice, but if this is being used to teach the so-called "Middle Ages" to students, I would recommend against that. This story, honestly, could have been set at any time in any place. Turn this into a traveling acting troupe of the 19th century's story, and you wouldn't lose very much at all in the plot or the characters.

Rating: I have to admit to having trouble assigning a rating to this book. I have settled on a 6.5 for the moment.
Buy It or Borrow It: If you're a mystery fan and looking for something new and different, you can't go wrong either buying or borrowing this book. I would recommend against picking this up on Kindle after it comes out--paying close to $12 for this so long after its original publication when there are hundreds of used copies out there for less than half of that. And, it was popular enough that I am sure it is sitting in your local library right now. However, if you are looking for a good story set in Medieval England, I would recommend against it because there isn't very much truly medieval about this book that anchors it to the period.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Virgin: Prelude to the Throne

Author: Robin Maxwell
Publication Date: 2001
Cost: New paperbacks are listed on Amazon for under $5.00, but this isn't available for Kindle.
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this offered on my mail-away library subscription through Booksfree.

The Backstory

The focus of this short novel is Elizabeth Tudor in her mid-teens, beginning with the death of her father, Henry VIII. The story covers a rather short period of time, extending only through the imprisonment of Thomas Seymour, the imprisonment of Elizabeth's servants, Kat Ashley and Thomas Parry, and Elizabeth's placement under house arrest for suspicion of conspiring marriage with Seymour without consent of Edward VI's Regency Council. Roughly, this covers about 2 years, 1547-1549.

The main characters in this novel are: Elizabeth Tudor, Thomas Seymour, Edward Tudor, Catherine Parr, Kat Ashley, Thomas Parry, and Robert and John Dudley. Other key figures are marginalized, like Jane Grey, while still others are left almost entirely out of the story, like Mary Tudor who only makes a brief appearance in a court scene.

The novel opens at the death of Henry VIII and the accession of his son, the young Edward VI. Edward is generally advised, and almost completely controlled, by the Regency Council headed by Edward Seymour. Elizabeth is invited to join the household of Catherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII left a widow upon his death. Catherine is almost immediately swept up in a whirlwind romance with Thomas Seymour, brother to Edward Seymour and uncle of the boy king. Although Catherine is deliriously happy to finally be married for love after three marriages to older men for duty's sake, Thomas' ambition is only thinly veiled, and his intentions toward the young, impressionable Elizabeth are increasingly suspect. It is clear that Thomas wants more than to be marginalized by the Regency Council and his powerful brother.

The story focuses on the historical events of this slice of Tudor history, calling into question the effectiveness of the Regency Council, Edward's future as king, and what Elizabeth's fate may ultimately be.

What About the Book?

Although a short novel, it is probably one of the more historically accurate ones that I have read. Nearly all of the main events in the novel check out historically, and the timeline has not been compromised in an attempt to make the story more compelling.

Two things surprised me about this novel--first, that one of the main characters is Thomas Seymour and second, that the story only covers two years. Although Thomas Seymour is undoubtedly an important figure in this time frame, it feels odd to focus on him the way this author does, but this unexpected perspective is fresh and enjoyable in many ways. The title of the book, "Virgin: Prelude to the Throne," implies to me a storyline that incorporates Elizabeth's history from the death of Henry VIII to her own accession, so it surprised me that the story concludes in 1549, which is well before the death of her brother, Edward.

Character development is certainly light. With one exception, pretty much every character can be classified as either "good" or "bad." If good, all motives are all good, and vice versa. This is what makes the characters a little unbelievable, including Elizabeth. However, the progression of the plot is quick and compelling, so, in such a short novel, the reader is apt to forgive this deficiency. All in all, this is a good story, and it is rather disappointing that it wasn't followed-up by the author with a second volume that moved the story through to the end of Elizabeth's historical "prelude."

Rating: 8. This is a fun story to read, and you won't lose anything on the history by reading it because the author is so historically accurate.
Buy It or Borrow It: This is going to be a hard book to find. It is labeled as a "rare book" on the Booksfree library list. Have a look in the library for this book, but, at only around $5.00, you can't go wrong purchasing it.


Thomas Seymour by an unknown painter

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Tudors Cheat Sheet: Children of Henry VIII

One of the biggest issues that carries through all four seasons of The Tudors is Henry VIII's children--who they are, what they are, when they came along...the avid watcher hears about this from episode one straight through until the end of the series.

Historically speaking, was this as big an issue for the real Henry VIII as it was for the TV character? I'm honestly not as certain as other historians are about that. I believe that his problems centered more on the here and now rather than what was going to happen after he died. For example, many historians believe that the end of Henry VIII's spectacular love affair with Anne Boleyn had more to do with Anne's inability to give him his longed-for son than Henry himself, Anne herself, or the relationship they created together. I disagree. Perhaps David Starkey, an English historian, came closest to the truth when he surmised that Henry was unusual in that he seemed to be seeking happiness in marriage at a time when marriage was often noted to produce the opposite effect. I am not sure that hits the nail on the head, so to speak, but it is the first hypothesis I have ever read that took something OTHER than a preoccupation with children into account to explain Henry VIII's rather bizarre marital behavior.

Here is some background information about Henry's acknowledged children. Henry had four living children that he acknowledged as his own in one way or another. It should be noted that although he declared his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, bastards at one time or another, there is no indication that he did not consider them his own, natural children. To be "bastardized" was more of a function of the law to prevent inheritance of lands or titles rather than a mark of suspicious parentage in this case. There has also been speculation that one or more of the children of Mary Boleyn, older sister to Anne, may have been Henry's, but, as he never acknowledged them, they will not be considered here.


Birth Year: 1516
Death Year: 1558
Mother: Catherine of Aragon
Spouse: Philip of Spain (1554)

Mary was Henry's first living child, and she was a very welcome addition to the family. Henry married Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon, in 1509, and a series of failed pregnancies followed. Mary was a bright, if pensive, child. She was betrothed to several of Europe's most eligible bachelors during her childhood, but none of them came to fruition as England's status, and religious unity, was regularly in question. Abroad, no one questioned Mary's legitimacy. Catherine had an impeccable reputation of fidelity.

Problems in Mary's life began at the same time as Catherine's divorce. All signs point to the fact that Henry wanted to have his way, and his way meant putting aside his first wife, putting aside his daughter if necessary, and having Anne Boleyn by his side.
Catherine was defiant, as was Mary to a point, and this only raised Henry's ire and probably precipitated Henry's breach with Mary early in her life. Henry's subsequent queens were instrumental in bringing father and daughter back together later in his reign.

What Happened to Mary?

After Henry VIII died, many attempts were made to marginalize Mary by the primarily-Protestant members of her brother, Edward's, council. The ultimate result of this was an attempt to write both Mary and Elizabeth out of the line of succession and pass the crown on from Edward to Jane Grey, their cousin. This attempt was a huge failure--Edward's council did not count on the fact that the English people fervently supported the rights of other members of Henry's immediate family to sit on the throne. Mary became queen in 1553 and married Philip of Spain, who made only a few brief trips to England. Mary died in 1558 of what may have been ovarian or uterine cancer, but she may have succumbed to an influenza epidemic that was raging at the time she took particularly ill. Mary and Philip had no children.


Birth Year: 1533
Death Year: 1603
Mother: Anne Boleyn
Spouse: None

Elizabeth, known by all TV series, movies, and by a famous quote by Henry about "boys will follow," as the disappointment, was the first, and only, living child born to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. We'd like to think that had Henry VIII known how successful and famous Elizabeth would later be, he may have treated his daughter a bit differently. Elizabeth was known to be as bright as Mary, but seemingly more clever, quick-witted, and able to work with (and around) others. As soon as her mother was accused of adultery, Elizabeth's position, and future, were altered. She, like Mary, was declared a bastard, and her relationship with her father was strained. She was also reconciled to him by his subsequent wives.

Elizabeth was unofficially Protestant, and she was subsequently left alone during Edward's reign, but after Edward died, her life became more complicated. Elizabeth was implicated in a rebellion started by Thomas Wyatt, not against Catholicism, but instead against Mary's determination to marry Philip of Spain. This led to Elizabeth's brief imprisonment and interrogation in the Tower of London and her living most of the rest of Mary's reign under house arrest.

What Happened to Elizabeth?

I think we all know the answer to this question, so I will not belabor the point. Elizabeth succeeded her sister Mary in 1558, and she reigned for about 45 successful years. Many aspects of her reign have been examined and discussed by scholars, including her involvement in piracy, religious policy, her relationship with court favorites like Robert Dudley, her key advisers, and the issue of Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth, from most historians' perspectives, was the most successful of Henry's children given a "Golden Age" takes her name.


Birth Year: 1537
Death Year: 1553
Mother: Jane Seymour
Spouse: None

Edward, supposedly Henry's longed-for son, was the product of the very brief marriage of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour. Edward was only 9 when Henry died, and this necessitated the creation of a Regency Council to raise, rule, and advise Edward until he reached an age of majority. The main player on this council was Edward Seymour, Jane's brother, and there has been a lot of speculation about his machinations before and during this time. Some historians believe that he may have actually altered Henry VIII's will. Edward Seymour later fell from power and was replaced by John Dudley.

Edward was a bright child, if easily led by his two power-hungry uncles--Edward and his brother, Thomas Seymour. He was educated and influenced by a Protestant circle, and this led to a breach between he and his Catholic sister, Mary. Edward was thoughtful, and he was clearly raised to be a king. Under the guidance of his council, he furthered Protestant reform in England to probably the most extreme degree it would get to until the 17th century.

What happened to Edward?

Edward died very young in 1553. It isn't clear what the cause of death was--at the beginning of 1553, he started with a fever and a cough that gradually grew worse. An autopsy revealed that his lungs were to blame, and a diagnosis of tuberculous was proposed and is generally accepted. Some historians have postulated that he could have succumbed to some form of poisoning as well, but this has never been proven particularly convincingly. Jane Grey, written into Edward's plans for the succession as next in line to the throne, famously followed Edward's death with a reign of nine days. John Dudley, thought to be the author of this alteration, didn't count on Mary's popularity, and both he and Jane were later executed.

Henry Fitzroy

Birth Year: 1519
Death Year: 1536
Mother: Elizabeth Blount
Spouse: Lady Mary Howard

One of the biggest errors in The Tudors is in Henry Fitzroy's story. According to the series, Henry dies at the age of 5 or 6, which completely devastates Henry VIII. In reality, Henry Fitzroy was well into his teen years before he died, and he was married, too.

Henry was the illegitimate product of Henry VIII's relationship with Elizabeth Blount, lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon. Although The Tudors makes Henry VIII appear to be the worst of 16th century fratboys when it comes to women, the evidence is greatly to the contrary. Henry seems to have had more longer-term relationships with the few mistresses he took. Henry's relationship with Elizabeth Blount seems to have entirely ended after Henry Fitzroy's birth.She married Gilbert Talboys, but Henry Fitzroy did not enter the scene until he was around six years old and the shower of titles and appointments started. His first were some of the most important--Earl of Nottingham and Duke of Richmond and Somerset. He was also given the title Lord High Admiral of England and Lord President of the Council of the North. There is no question that Henry VIII was preparing his son for great things. Whether or not he considered him a potential solution to his lack of male children is another question, though, and it calls into consideration whether Henry VIII may have considered not having a legitimate son a problem at all. Since many historians think that Henry WAS bothered by this fact, they point to a brief period in Henry VIII's life when he seems to have marked out Henry Fitzroy as his heir, but this is only speculative.

What Happened to Henry Fitzroy?

In 1533, Henry Fitzroy was married to Lady Mary Howard, the daughter of Thomas Howard, the powerful Duke of Norfolk. Henry Fitzroy was noticed to be somewhat sickly perhaps a year or so before his death, and he died rather suddenly in 1536. Because Henry VIII took such an interest in his life and upbringing, it can be speculated that Henry was probably very moved by his son's death. Whether this increased an inclination for male children, though, is another matter.

Images (Historical):

Mary I by Hans Eworth c. 1555-1558

Elizabeth Tudor, Flemish School, c. 1546

Edward VI, circle of William Scrots

Henry Fitzroy, Lucas Hornebolte

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Did Cardinal Wolsey Commit Suicide?

Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York, a Roman Catholic Cardinal, Henry VIII's chancellor, trusted official, and friend, meets an untimely end in prison on his way to London after his arrest in York. Season one of The Tudors documents two major plot developments--Henry VIII's growing infatuation with Anne Boleyn and his desire to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and the fall of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is Henry VIII's closest advisor in episode one and in prison by the finale of the season--a remarkable victim of political circumstances and his own maneuvering, greed, and desire for power.

Cardinal Wolsey begins to lose his grip on power, and on Henry, when he is unable to use his influence over the Pope to secure Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. To counter the familial alliance between Catherine and Holy Roman Emperor,
Charles, Wolsey attempts to gain the support of the French clergy to pronounce judgment on the matter while the Pope remained under the control of Charles' military and politics. This fails, and a Papal representative, Cardinal Campeggio, is sent to arbitrate on the matter. The result? After months of deliberation, the case must be tried in Rome.

All along, Anne Boleyn and her family work carefully against Wolsey, and this culminates in Wolsey being stripped of his post as chancellor. He returns to York, but Anne Boleyn and her family still fear his potential return to power. A letter is intercepted written by Wolsey to Catherine of Aragon, and this prompts his arrest. Cardinal Wolsey is arrested in York by the Duke of Suffolk, and, on the way to London, he kills himself in prison.

So, how true is this story?

Who Was Cardinal Wolsey?

Thomas Wolsey, unlike many other high-ranking governmental officials traditionally in the English government to this point, was not nobility. Contemporaries branded him the son of a butcher, but it is equally probable that his family's origins were mercantile. He was born around 1473, and he had an excellent education at an early age. Wolsey was recommended to Henry VII by Sir Richard Nanfan, Deputy Lieutenant of Calais, and he became a royal chaplain in 1507. Wolsey joined the Privy Council of Henry VIII in 1509, but he proved himself energetically loyal to Henry during his campaign against the French between 1512 and 1514. This truly secured royal patronage, favoritism, and advancement.

Wolsey's Downfall

Depending upon, and being trusted by the king had its drawbacks. First and foremost, Cardinal Wolsey made many enemies during his career. He introduced methods of forced loans, a means of taxation without Parliamentary approval, to help fund Henry's campaigns abroad. Many people who had been handicapped in their advancement in office similarly hated Wolsey. When Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, he naturally turned to Wolsey, both trusted advisor and Catholic Cardinal, to help bring the situation to the desired closing. The stumbling block was the Pope, Clement VII, who was beset by Catherine's nephew, Charles, and unwilling to provoke the Holy Roman Emperor by appeasing Henry, even if Henry's conscience was truly troubled by having married his dead brother's bride. Clement did allow for Henry and Catherine's case to be heard by Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio in England at first in 1528, but Clement recalled the case to be heard in Rome and Rome alone. In the meantime, Wolsey's enemies, including Anne Boleyn's family, were set about convincing Henry that Wolsey was deliberately stalling the proceedings. Wolsey was not invited to join the council when it met in 1529. Instead, he was given the option to appear before Parliament to hear a to-be created list of grievances against him or to throw himself upon the king's mercy. He chose the latter option.

Cardinal Wolsey was deprived of a number of his offices and his estates, which were forfeit to the crown. He was allowed, however, to retain the office of Archbishop of York, and he began the journey north late in 1529. He had reason to believe that the king wasn't irrevocably against him--he received both rings and promises from him, and he was even attended by the king's personal physician when he fell ill in January 1530.

Cardinal Wolsey's biggest problem was his own ambition. It is clear, viewing his entire career, that ambition and love of power truly drove him. When bishoprics became vacant, he chose his own candidates or appointed himself to the post to collect the profits. He worked out his own agreements with the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor in the hope that he would be elected pope, which never came to pass. Once evicted from the seat of power, Wolsey sought power in any form he could find it, including communicating with the Holy Roman Empire's ambassador to England, Chapuys, claiming he could give him important information about Henry. Wolsey also communicated with Clement, and this was enough for Henry. Wolsey may, or may not, have truly been working against Henry. More likely, he was trying to hold on to the different spheres of influence he had gained when he was in power in the hopes he could emerge in the future from exile still a significant power-player in Europe. Henry, encouraged by Wolsey's enemies, decided instead this was treason.

Wolsey's Death

On November 4, 1530, the Earl of Northumberland arrested Wolsey at Cawood. From there, he was taken to Sheffield Park. On November 22, Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London arrived with the Tower guard. He continued south, under guard, to Leicester where the party stopped at the abbey of St. Mary. However, he had been ill with a bowel infection for some time, and it was clear upon arrival that he wasn't going to travel any farther alive. The Cardinal died on November 30, 1530, and he was buried in the Lady Chapel of the abbey.


The interpretation put forth by The Tudors series is highly improbable. In the series, it is implied that Wolsey killed himself, and Henry, once made aware, immediately ordered that the suicide be covered up. Wolsey was simply surrounded by too many people who could account for the circumstances to have killed himself and it have been "swept under the rug" for the ages. The Constable of the Tower, his guard, the abbot of St. Mary's, and the brothers would have made up a band of perhaps 75 people, all of whom would have had a fairly intimate knowledge of the events. Even if Henry had somehow successfully managed to cover up Wolsey's suicide, Henry became the enemy of all monastic orders when he dissolved their establishments in England later in his reign. His daughter, Mary, was a fully-pledged Catholic herself, and both of these circumstances would have afforded opportunities for disaffected people to talk, even if they had been somehow silenced or paid off previously. In addition, it may have been to Henry's advantage to have allowed Cardinal Wolsey's suicide to become public knowledge. Wolsey's enemies would have rejoiced, if rather quietly given the scandal of the circumstances. Wolsey could have been denounced as "ungodly" and used as an example of how pride produces a fall--and that would have single-handedly destroyed his remaining reputation and have handicapped anyone who sympathized with him.

The contemporary series of events was never challenged in later, more tolerant, ages. Therefore, there is no question that this was put into the narrative of the series for dramatic effect and there is absolutely no basis for it from a historical standpoint.


Cardinal Wolsey by Sampson Strong, painted at Christ Church, 1526.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Kingston by Starlight (Historical Fiction)

Author: Christopher John Farley
Publication Date: 2005
Cost: You can find new copies on Amazon for as low as $2.00 and a Kindle edition is available for $9.99.
Where Did I Hear About It: A "friend" on Facebook mentioned that she was looking forward to reading it this summer, so I borrowed a copy from BooksFree, the online library.

The Backstory

The subject of this novel, told from a first-person perspective, is Anne Bonny, a woman in the 18th century who turned, on and off, to a life of piracy, if the few accounts about her life are to be entirely believed. Bonny was an Irish woman supposedly born sometime between the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century. Anne was reputed to be a beautiful woman with a rather intemperate spirit, and she married a rather poor sailor while she was quite young. One of the few details of her life that is known is that she moved to Nassau in the Bahamas before 1720 with her husband. Later, she became intimately involved with pirate Calico Jack Rackham, and she had a child by him in Cuba whose fate is unknown. Apparently, her husband didn't take lightly to this relationship, and he brought Anne before the Royal Governor of the Bahamas demanding that she be punished for her infidelity. Although she was sentenced to be flogged, she managed to escape with Rackham and another female pirate of equally unknown origin, Mary Read.

Mary Read, if true, had a remarkable life as a professional sailor. Read started out on a merchant vessel, but she actually managed to join the British military, and she may actually have seen some action. She supposedly married and even lived off of a military commission, but her husband predeceased her and she returned to the sea. Read fell into a life of piracy when a ship she worked on in the West Indies was attacked by pirates and she was given the option to join them or to be killed. She joined Rackham and Bonny around 1720.

In October 1720, Rackham's crew was taken by surprise, arrested, and brought to trial in Jamaica. Read and Bonny both escaped execution by revealing they were pregnant while in prison. Read died in prison, and there is some indication that childbirth may have been the cause. At the same time, Anne Bonny disappears from the record--there is no indication she was released from prison, and there is no indication she was executed. There are many theories surrounding the fate of Anne Bonny--some think her well-connected father may have had something to do with her disappearance, and some indicate that she lived a long life in South Carolina. None of these theories can be entirely proven.

What About the Book?

Note: A few details of the story are revealed in the following critique. I promise that none of them have a particularly strong bearing on the main plot of the novel, but, if you want to read this for yourself and don't want to spoil a single thing, be forewarned.

This novel was an enjoyable, but completely unchallenging to the reader. The story was a little too tight and convenient, and none of the characters were particularly well developed. However, the story is interesting, and I think this is a pretty quick read overall.

Anne Bonny's story does wrap up a few details of her life into the novel, but there are others that are entirely left out. Other details are a little difficult to believe. For example, Anne's father leaves the family and moves to South Carolina, and eventually Anne and her mother follow him there. Unfortunately, it turns out that the are stuck on a ship contracted to transfer slaves, and the crew, in a drunken rampage, actually kills her mother. None of this makes sense. Under no circumstances would two women unaccompanied by any male chaperones have boarded a ship like this in the 18th century. This odd trend continues when Anne, disowned by her father after meeting him in South Carolina, manages to steal a bunch of silver and pay for her own passage to the West Indies with it. In this case, it would have served the author, and the plot, much better if the factual details of her life guided her to the Indies. The inclusion of her husband would have really added another dimension to the story that it is seriously lacking.

Mary Read's character is endlessly baffling. The crew meet her under completely unrealistic circumstances that are never fully explained. There comes a point when Mary Read reveals that she is a woman, and it doesn't seem to make a difference at all. One feels that it isn't probable that she is even female because this has no bearing on how she is treated, and there isn't even any surprise.

Consistency continues to be a problem in many different ways in the novel. The author goes into great detail about Anne and her love of the sea and adventure and living the life of a man, but, at one point, the reader finds her living on an island with Rackham on what must have been a plantation of some kind. This is completely inconsistent with the character that the author developed for the reader, and it creates a completely unnecessary pause in what would have been a much more interesting story without it. This is one instance, of many, where history--even embellished history--was far more interesting than what the author was able to imagine.

Overall, though, the story is interesting and the reader is encouraged to continue. Anne life is a fascinating one, even with details left out or modified. Probably the best part is the section focusing on her life at sea, which comprises the majority of the novel. The story benefits from the fact that at any time, anything can happen, and that is a great advantage. It is the details that set this scenario up and provide a conclusion that are less captivating.

Rating: A 5, but a strong 5. I enjoyed reading it and went through it quickly. Although I was a bit disappointed in a few aspects of it, it is a fun story, and if you're looking for something enjoyable but not too serious or shocking, this may be the book for you.
Buy It or Borrow It: I'd say borrow it, but with such a small price tag on Amazon, you couldn't really go wrong. A few days overdue, and you'd pay the $2.00 to the library anyway.


An illustration from the Dutch version of Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates published in 1725. This is not thought to be a genuine likeness of either of the women portrayed.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Catherine Howard

Author: Lacey Baldwin Smith
Publication Date: First published in 1961; newest edition is 2010
Cost: A handful of new books are left on Amazon at $14.96, but used ones are also available there for around $10.00. There is no Kindle edition
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this in a Waterstones in London. Since I have never seen this in a US bookstore, I purchased it (couldn't go wrong for 9.99 GBP).

The Backstory

Catherine Howard is best known as Henry VIII's fifth wife and, unfortunately, nothing more. Catherine wasn't a particularly notable character in the context of her family or her family's relationship to the King. She counted the very powerful Duke of Norfolk as her uncle, as Anne Boleyn had before her. In many ways, Catherine and Anne were alike far beyond their having blossomed on the same family tree (albeit on branches rather far apart). Both of them came from families that were connected, loosely, to the higher-level peers in the realm. Both of them truly needed to find more wealthy, more well-established partners if they were ever to live in a state of financial stability. If there is a difference, it is that Anne was a few steps above Catherine on the scale of Tudor era wealth and connections. Anne's family were peers with a connection to the royal family, although they could count tradespeople and merchants in their bloodline as well, and they had the means to send Anne to the Continent to be educated in two foreign courts before she made an appearance on the English scene. Catherine was the daughter of a minor peer with very little influence, even less money, and a large family to feed.

No one actually knows when Catherine was born, although the latest date of 1527 is extremely unlikely as she would have only been around 13 years old when Henry was serious about marrying her. The year 1525 seems to be the latest possible date, based on descriptions of her, that she could have possibly been born. Possibly because of her father's small means and large family, Catherine joined the household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk (step-mother of the then Duke of Norfolk) where she was raised with a number of other young peers from minor families like her own. Catherine had two notable "flirtations" while in the Duchess's household--Henry Mannox, her music teacher, and Francis Dereham, a young man who had a position there. Unfortunately, these seemingly innocent adolescent relationships would come back to haunt Catherine later.

In January 1540, an aging Henry VIII wed for the fourth time to Anne of Cleves, and clearly from the beginning, this was not a match that would last long. Although Anne was at least somewhat unaware, Henry, who was used to at least convincing himself he was attracted to and in love with his mates, was not at all pleased by Anne. However, for a man well-known to be ruthless and selfish, he didn't blame Anne. Six months later, he had the marriage annulled, but he granted Anne a generous settlement and continued to foster a positive, if platonic, relationship with her. During Anne's brief tenure as Queen Consort, the Duke of Norfolk gained Catherine Howard a position in Anne's household as one of her ladies in waiting. It is thought that during this time, Henry met and grew infatuated with Catherine, showering her with the same deluge of gifts that were placed before Jane Seymour and Anne Boleyn. There were rumors that Catherine was pregnant by the time Henry ended his marriage to Anne of Cleves, so Henry married Catherine, quietly and hastily, about three weeks later.

Henry's "rose without a thorn" was only queen for a fleeting year and a half. At first, Henry's ardor continued unabated. Catherine was fun and full of life, if not as educated as her predecessors. What possessed Catherine to indiscretion is a mystery to this day, but it is clear that she harbored some intention (at the very least) to begin a romantic relationship with Thomas Culpepper, a servant in the king's household. She also hired the same Francis Dereham she was previously involved with to work in her own household. Allegations of Catherine's indiscreet behavior, primarily in the Duchess's house, was brought to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who brought it to Henry. Henry didn't believe it at first, but confessions from Culpepper and Dereham and a letter written to Culpepper by Catherine sealed her fate. Culpepper and Dereham were executed in December 1541. Catherine would end her life on the scaffold in February 1542, and Henry would never quite be the same again.

What About the Book?

This is one of the only biographical accounts of Catherine Howard out there for readers who may be interested in examining the short-lived queen outside of the many novels that have been written about her, especially in the recent past. There is another biography by Joanna Denny available, but, since I did not have a very positive opinion about her biography of Anne Boleyn, I am very tentative to read it.

This book proves why there aren't more accounts of Catherine Howard's life. The available resources are so few and far between and no new leads have ever emerged to sharpen the fuzzy edges of Catherine's life and character. The majority of the details of Catherine's life only become clear when she and her suspected accomplices were examined by the authorities when Catherine was accused of adultery. Catherine's date of birth has never definitively been known, and neither have the reasons why she was moved in the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk's household. This is mainly because Catherine would have led a pretty unnotable life if she hadn't caught Henry's eye at just the right time. She was never particularly highly educated. In all probability, one of what would have inevitably become a string of available suitors would have succeeded in gaining her hand in marriage at some later point. Catherine is probably the greatest beneficiary and, subsequently victim, of circumstance of any of Henry VIII's wives.

The lack of information is what truly plagues this book. Smith is very enlightening when it comes to Catherine's family lineage, including her own immediate family. Unfortunately, at least one very lengthy chapter, focusing on London and the Court, could have been entirely done away with without a loss to the book's subject, but I assume this was added to at least get 200 pages into the text.

Smith's work also suffers from a lack of interesting commentary and assessment. It is very much a report, and a report that gives too much of what we already know and not enough of what we can only imagine. If she examined sources, she doesn't evaluate them. As a result, there is nothing new, and one can only wonder what may have been missed in the process. David Starkey does offer a fair amount of assessment and commentary about Catherine Howard in his (unfortunately short) section about her in his Six Wives, and I feel that is superior to this biography with Catherine as its only subject.

Rating: A 5. If this is the first book you have read that mentions Catherine, this is as good a start as any, but if you've read other accounts of her by other authors, you'll find this account seriously lacking.
Buy It or Borrow It: Sadly, I am not sure this is widely available to borrow in the US. I am sure it is available in most libraries in the UK, and it may be worth a read if borrowing is an option for you. If your only option is to buy it, skip this in favor of Starkey's Six Wives.


An unconfirmed, but often referenced, possible likeness of Catherine Howard, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540-1541

Henry VIII, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540

An unconfirmed possible likeness of Catherine Howard, probably the most popular, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1541

Monday, May 2, 2011

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen

Author: Anna Whitelock
Publication Date: 2009
Cost: Hardcover is listed at $28.00, but you can find a paperback for under $5.00 on Amazon if you look under Mary Tudor: England's First Queen. The Kindle edition is available for $13.99, but it is listed under the Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen title.
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this with the newest books at the local library.

The Backstory:

I'll save myself from repeating Mary Tudor's story--see my review of Linda Porter's book, The First Queen of England: The Myth of Bloody Mary. To clarify, the Mary Tudor in question is Henry VIII's daughter by Katherine of Aragon (his first wife), not to be confused with Henry VIII's sister, Mary, who married Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk.

What About the Book?

At the end of the biography, in the "Acknowledgements" section, the author writes, "This was the book I always wanted to write." Although an appreciated expression of sentimental attachment to the subject, the reader gets no such impression from the emotionless writing, the short chapters, and the complete lack of theory and historical observation. Ms. Whitelock tells Mary's story, but unfortunately, for those of us interested in learning more from a new historian's take on an old subject, this is not the right read.

One of the "Achilles Heels" of this book is how short it is. Granted, the meat of the text is about 350 pages long--not short by any stretch of the imagination. However, the chapters are often 3 to 5 pages long, and they give the impression that she was trying to capture a "snapshot" in time with each episode without actually weaving that technique into the text. I have never read a book--even a novel--with such short chapters, and I wonder what the reader can expect to get out of such brief treatment of big events and mysteries in Mary's life. One gets the feeling that the author was really after a mass-market appeal for her book, but it cost her dearly. She vastly underestimated her readership if she thought a 3 page chapter on Mary's legacy is all that the modern reader of history wants out of her work.

Because chapters are short, the insight of the historian is nearly impossible to find. Readers will learn very little about who Mary was. Readers will also miss out on many of the attention-grabbing, fascinating details surrounding the most significant moments in Mary's life and reign--such as why Lady Jane Grey was executed or what her relationship with her father was truly like or what kind of tension must have existed between Mary and those among her councillors who supported Jane over her right to rule. Ms. Whitelock offers very few interpretations of the history she clearly knows well--she uses excellent sources and seems to know where to look to cite the different events in Mary's life. With every move from one chapter to another, though, the reader will feel that something is missing, and that is Ms. Whitelock's insight.

The beginning of the book suffers in particular because very little of it is actually about Mary herself. One gets the impression that Ms. Whitelock was more interested in covering the breakdown of Henry VIII's and Katherine's marriage than she was interested in the subject of her biography. Several chapters are devoted to this, and the steps Henry took toward divorce were certainly significant for Mary, but Mary is no more than a shadow or a footnote in this part of the book. Here, again, Ms. Whitelock demonstrates that she does not know her readers very well at all--most who read her book will be fairly well-versed, or at least familiar, with the history of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn. It would have been much more to the point to have focused on Mary far more fully in this part of the biography.

This is a very quick read given how short the chapters are, and it is a fairly unfullfilling one. Yes, you'll get the story of Mary's life, but you'll only get the bare bones of it all. Most of us who pick up biographies like this one are looking for the meat. Unfortunately, you'll have a hard time finding it here.

Rating: I'm going to give it a 4 because I would have been just as well off not reading it at all.
Buy It or Borrow It: Neither. Read Linda Porter's book. It is a much more full, real telling of Mary's story. It is clear that Porter really likes Mary, and she doesn't hide her bias, but she is definitely connected to Mary Tudor's story and composed a much better read than this one. If this is what Anna Whitelock could come up with, she should have left Linda Porter to it and moved on to something else.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Catherine of Aragon: The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII

Author: Giles Tremlett
Publication Date: 2010
Cost: The list price is officially $28.00, but it's available on Amazon for $18.48. It is not currently available as either a paperback or a Kindle edition.
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this in the library when I was going through the newest biographies.

The Backstory:

Poor Catherine. The tragedy of Catherine's story is often played up in movies, television dramas, novels, and biographies. Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII's first wife, and after nearly 20 years of marriage Henry mercilessly cast her aside for the company of another woman. Catherine refused to submit to Henry's wishes under such scandalous circumstances. She was sent to successively more and more distant houses, her daughter Mary was separated from her, and she was kept nearly under lock and key at the time of her death in 1536. Despite bullying by many of Henry's chief advisers, she steadfastly held on to the identity Henry had previously bestowed upon her--queen of England and Henry's only legitimate wife.

Catherine was the youngest child of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile--joint monarchs of what is most of Spain today. She was born in 1485 famously while her parents were on campaign against the Moors. Her childhood in Spain was a nomadic one, her family wandering between various forts and castles. By the time Catherine was three years old, she was betrothed to Arthur, the eldest son of Henry VII of England. Both Catherine's parents and Henry VII had something to gain from this alliance--their common enemy was France, and the union of England and Spain would lock France between two potentially hostile nations, curbing France's ambitions in English and Spanish territories. There was no formal time set for Catherine's delivery to England, but preparations were underway when she was between 14 and 15 years old. After a safe delivery to England in 1501, she was married to Arthur on November 14. Henry VII was pleased with his new daughter-in-law, and Arthur and Catherine were sent to Ludlow Castle in Wales, the traditional governing seat of the Prince of Wales.

Tragedy struck on April 2, 1502; Arthur died. What would become of Catherine? In order to retain the portion of her dowry already delivered, Henry VII was determined to keep her in England as a prospective bride for his second son and new heir, Henry. However, Catherine's position and future prospects remained in limbo for the rest of Henry VII's life. For seven years, Catherine relied upon either her own plate and jewelry or what sporadically granted funds Henry VII gave her to pay for her household. On June 11, 1509, the new young king, Henry, rescued Catherine, the damsel in distress, and married her quietly. Catherine's future finally seemed secure.

Nearly 20 years later, enter Anne Boleyn. Whether she was interested in replacing Catherine by Henry's side from the beginning or gradually worked up to that goal is a mystery, but what is clear is that Henry wanted Anne and devised a way to make her his. Henry was a very bright man, and when he applied himself, he could reason out even the most challenging of his studies. Always interested in the Bible, Henry believed he could use his extensive knowledge of scripture to his advantage. Didn't the Bible expressly state that a man should not marry his brother's wife? Isn't that exactly what Henry had done when marrying Catherine? Henry envisioned a quick assessment and decision in his favor on this seemingly indisputable point.

He couldn't have imagined anything farther from the truth.

Catherine knew who she was. She never forgot it. And she made sure Henry didn't, either. Catherine was the daughter of the most powerful pair of Spanish monarchs in the entire history of the fragmented nation. She was also the aunt of (arguably) the most powerful ruler on the Continent, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Catherine had turned a blind eye to Henry's various dalliances with ladies of the court--her mother had filled a similar role. However, it was entirely another thing to be cast aside for the daughter of a minor English noble family simply because Henry was infatuated with her. From Catherine's point of view, it didn't matter what Henry wanted--she was his wife, whether he was happy about that or not. On the other hand, from Henry's perspective, what Henry wanted was all that mattered. Henry wanted Anne, and he may not have been aware of the lengths he had to go to get her, but he certainly went the distance.

Catherine refused to be intimidated. Her marriage was put on trial in England, and, save one initial appearance, she refused to submit to the court's authority. The central question was whether she had been Arthur's wife in the fullest sense of the term. Catherine asserted, over and over, that Arthur had left her a virgin. Henry did the best he could to provide evidence to the contrary. Tired of waiting for the Catholic Church to decide, Henry took successful steps to place himself as head of the English church and banished Catherine to several houses gradually more and more distant from London. Catherine refused to give in, and Henry was hesitant to exact vengeance on her through more than the reduction of her household and her being constantly watched.

On January 7, 1536, Catherine died. She knew mortality was creeping upon her and called for a confessor and extreme unction a day in advance. An autopsy after her death revealed a blackened heart with an additional mass attached to it--a secondary melanotic sarcoma was probably the cause, although poison was assumed at the time. She was buried at Peterborough Abbey the same month. Although Henry and Anne received the news of Catherine's death joyfully, by the late spring, Anne was accused of adultery and executed only 19 weeks later.

Henry VIII may be famous for his six wives, but Catherine of Aragon lasted the longest by leaps and bounds. The collective duration of Henry's subsequent five marriages barely make up half of his time married to Catherine. Even Thomas Cromwell, the shady confidante and later chancellor, respected her resolve. Perhaps this is what kept her from the executions suffered by two of Henry's later wives and countless others besides? One will never know, but what is true is that Catherine may have been Henry's most worthy, and most formidable, opponent.

What About the Book?

Giles Tremlett has composed a very modern, and very readable, biography of Catherine of Aragon. The story is compelling, which even the best biographies rarely are, and he truly attempts to capture the many significant events of Catherine's life from her perspective. Tremlett begins each chapter with an episode--a date and a place--and he uses this to engage the reader, which is a very effective technique. However, this biography is "history lite"--Tremlett goes into minimal detail about Catherine and her life, and this is reflected by the very sparse chapter notes at the end of the book. He also insinuates that his exploration of the Spanish archives on this topic revealed far more than it apparently did.

Tremlett does deliver a biography of Catherine that gives an overview of her life. He includes a fairly descriptive examination of Catherine's life in Spain before she left to marry Arthur. The characters of Catherine's parents become more defined under his lens. He also spends a good deal of time discussing Catherine's life in England after Arthur's death, and this period of her life is often glossed over as an intermission between Catherine's two marriages. The third main focus of the biography is Henry's decision to seek an annulment and marry Anne Boleyn, and this is the best example of his telling the story from Catherine's distinct point of view. Although it is tempting to place Catherine in the larger, imagination-exciting story of Anne Boleyn, Tremlett avoids this temptation completely, which is very admirable.

The main issue is that Tremlett is not a historian. Tremlett may know a good story when he sees one--and Catherine's IS a good story--but he is not the well-versed researcher, and this shows through. His dates and events at the heading of each chapter are meant to grab the reader, and they do, but the chapters are short and lack in-depth analysis. He also examined the Spanish archives for information about Catherine, and although he claims this was particularly enlightening, an examination of the biography reveals something different--this research naturally features prominently at the beginning of the biography, but, when it comes to exploring the extend of Catherine's relationship with Arthur, he has to admit that the depositions acquired from Catherine's Spanish retinue have been lost.

Tremlett's ideas also lack development. He avoids passing judgement on Catherine's relationship with Arthur, and only poses the often suggested theory that Catherine was willing to lie when she had to, so it is possible that she did consummate her first marriage. However, he touches upon, and then entirely misses, two important points. First, it was nearly completely irrelevant whether or not Catherine consummated her relationship with Arthur--there were papal dispensations legitimizing her marriage to Henry and Henry fabricated the whole argument because he was going to find a way to end his marriage to Catherine no matter what the case. Second, because Henry created this argument to release him from Catherine, it wasn't as nearly as important as historians assume that he didn't have a male heir by Catherine. What mattered was Anne--a male heir would be great, and perhaps became increasingly more significant over time, but it wasn't the main purpose. Tremlett touches upon these premises, and had they formed the basis of a thesis for his book, this would have been a much stronger biography.

Rating: A 7, but a solid 7.
Buy It or Borrow It: Borrow it if you can. At this point, the hardcover really isn't worth the cost. The paperback may be depending upon the price when it comes out. Although this is an interesting read, this book is not going to become a reference book--you'll have to rely upon Mattingly's biography of Catherine or Starkey's work for that.


Catherine of Aragon by Juan de Flandes c. 1497.

Arthur Tudor, a later copy of the only known contemporary portrait c. 1500-1501.

Catherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout

Monday, February 21, 2011

Kate Middleton: Oldest Royal English Bride Ever?

Recently, I came across this article promising to deliver five facts about soon-to-be royal bride, Kate Middleton. The video interview and the text on this site declares that Kate Middleton will be the oldest royal bride ever at age 29.

Hmmm...this sounded fishy to me.

What defines a "royal bride" is not specifically stated. Therefore, I created my own search parameters to try and ascertain whether or not this is true. I examined the following:

**The period from William the Conqueror (1066) to Elizabeth Tudor (1558)

**The age at marriage of each royal bride in the direct line of succession during this period

**In the case of a disputed year of birth, I chose the year that most scholars today agree upon.

Here is what I found:

Royal Brides (Possibly) Older than Kate Middleton

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor's exact year of birth is uncertain. Her parents married in 1121, and scholars dispute whether her birth year was 1122 or 1124. The year 1122 has been more widely accepted because she was noted to be over 80 at her death in 1204, because contemporary chroniclers actually undershot her age by two years listing her birth date as 1120, and because the Aquitainian lords swore fealty to her on her fourteenth birthday in 1136. What is known for certain is that she was married to Henry II of England in 1152. This would have made her (possibly) 30 years old.

Joan of Navarre

Joan was the second wife of Henry IV of England (reign 1399-1413). Henry was first married to Mary de Bohun, but she died five years before he became king. Henry IV is credited with the overthrow of Richard II in 1399. He married Joan of Navarre in 1403. Based on the respective birth years of her children by her first marriage, Joan was probably born in 1370. This would have made her 33 when she married Henry. Although 1370 is a disputed birth year, her previous marriage to John V, Duke of Brittany in 1386 would have made her 16. The year 1370 would have to be nearly 4 years off to line up Joan's age with Kate Middleton. This is a pretty big spread--not unheard-of, but it is unlikely. In addition, that doesn't even take into account that she could have been older than 16 by a few years when she first married.

Anne Boleyn

There are two birth years for Anne--1501 and 1507. The most recent scholarship has tended to agree upon the earlier date. The main evidence is a letter Anne wrote and sent to her father from court in Belgium. The letter is dated between 1513 and 1514, and scholars strongly feel that the handwriting suggests an older girl at least in her teen years as author rather than a 6-7 year old child. If we accept 1501 as her birth year, when she married Henry VIII in 1533, she would have been 32 years old.

Katherine Parr

Although unknown, most recent scholarship points to a birth year of 1512 for Henry VIII's last queen. Given their marriage in 1543, she would have been 31 years old.

The Royal Bride OLDER Than Kate Middleton Is:

Mary Tudor (Mary I of England)

Unless the author of this piece of journalism cut out all of the female monarchs in English history wholesale, the claim that Kate Middleton is the oldest royal bride ever comes crashing irrevocably down when we consider the case of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's oldest living daughter.

Mary I was the daughter of Henry VIII's first wife, Katherine of Aragon. She was born in 1516, and by all accounts, she had a very difficult life. She was bounced around on the royal marriage market throughout her early life. Candidates included Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor, King Francis I of France, and two of King Francis' sons. Not much came of any of this, in part because she was declared illegitimate and tossed out of the line of succession for most of her adult life. After her younger brother, Edward VI, died in 1553 and Lady Jane Grey's administration was overthrown, Mary I became Queen of England.

All that was left for Mary was to choose a husband. She picked Philip II of Spain, eleven years her junior. Mary married Philip in England at Winchester Cathedral in 1554.

Sorry, Kate, Mary I was 38 years, 6 months and 7 days old when she first married. This undoubtedly makes her the oldest royal English bride in this period with an absolutely certain birth date and year.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Tudors Fact Check: Who is Cardinal Reginald Pole

In season 3 of The Tudors, Henry VIII is beset by plots and conflict both within and outside England. One of the main protagonists is Cardinal Reginald Pole. Cardinal Pole is abroad working against Henry because he, a staunch Catholic, is opposed the religious reforms being carried out in England by Henry and Thomas Cromwell. Cardinal Pole publishes and circulates a treatise condemning Henry, and this piques Henry's already risen suspicions. Henry sends Sir Francis Bryan to find Pole and kill him, but Cardinal Pole is supported by the other, Catholic monarchs on the continent and manages to escape every time Bryan begins to close in on him. To strike at him, Henry commits his family to the Tower of London, and they are all later executed.

Why is Cardinal Pole so dangerous? At the beginning of the season, he claims that he is a member of the House of Plantagenet, a ruling dynasty in England ousted by Henry VIII's father.

So, who the heck is Cardinal Pole, and where does his claim to the throne come from?

Who are the "Plantagenets" and why are they important?

Answering this question is a good place to start. Lots of people have probably heard the word "Plantagenet" before, but not everyone knows exactly WHO is a Plantagenet.

"Plantagenet" refers to the official ruling dynasty in England between 1154 and 1485. The first Plantagenet king of England was Henry II. Henry's mother, Matilda, was involved in a long, armed conflict lasting many years with King Stephen of England. Matilda was the only living child of Henry I, and, although he made the barons and lords swear to recognize Matilda's claim to the English throne twice in his reign, Stephen seized the opportunity, and the crown, when Henry I died in 1135. Matilda was in Anjou, France with her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, at the time, but many rallied to her cause. In order to end the conflict King Stephen agreed that Matilda and Geoffrey's son Henry would succeed him as king of England.

The name "Plantagenet" wasn't imposed upon the dynasty until the 15th century. The first to assume this name was Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York in the mid-15th century. The word "Plantagenet" refers to the broom plant (Latin term = Planta genista) that Geoffrey of Anjou supposedly wore in his hat.

What made Cardinal Reginald Pole a Plantagenet?

Cardinal Pole was indeed a member of the House of Plantagenet. So was Henry VIII technically. However, they were related to the same ruling house through different branches of the family tree.

The trunk of this tree, if you will, is Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainault. They had a big, unusual problem. In direct contrast with Henry VIII, Edward III had TOO MANY children survive into adulthood.

Of course, as with any ruling family, the most important person is the oldest son. In Edward III's case, this was Edward, known as the Black Prince. Why don't we know this Edward as Edward IV? Because of another of Edward III's unusual problems--he lived a very long time. Edward the Black Prince predeceased his father by about a year. In keeping with the rules of primogeniture, the next candidate would be the oldest son of Edward the Black Prince. Luckily, he had one of those--Richard. Richard II succeeded Edward III upon his death in 1377.

It would be impossible to summarize the outcome, which will inevitably lead to what we call "The Wars of the Roses." Richard II was a very unsuccessful monarch. He was overthrown by Henry IV or Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt, Edward III's third son. There is an unbroken line of the crown passing from father to son between Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. However, the fact that Henry VI was really not cut out to be a medieval king reminded everyone that Edward III had a SECOND son in there somewhere. This is where Cardinal Pole's family descends from.

Edward III's second son, Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, only had a daughter, Philippa. She married Edmund Mortimer, and when she did so, he and the family he had with her inherited Lionel's claim to the throne. A son followed this union (Roger Mortimer), and his only child, Anne Mortimer, became the "carrier" of her great-grandfather Lionel's claim to the throne. Like her grandmother Philippa, this claim would transfer to the children she had by whomever she married.

AND THEN, to complicate matters further, Anne Mortimer married a descendant of the FOURTH SON of Edward III, Edmund Langley, Duke of York. Suddenly, you had a family that had not one, but TWO claims to the throne at the same time. It is this branch of the family that becomes the "House of York" in the Wars of the Roses. From this branch will descend the next two kings of England, and the last of the official Plantagenet line, Edward IV and Richard III. However, there were other members of this family, too. Edward IV and Richard III had a brother in between them in the birth order--George, Duke of Clarence. George predeceased Edward so he never became king, but he did have a family. His daughter, and longest living child, was Margaret Pole, the Duchess of Salisbury and Cardinal Pole's mother.

How much of a threat was Cardinal Pole?

The real answer to this question is: not much.

Cardinal Pole was abroad until the reign of Henry VIII's daughter Mary. He certainly worked against Henry while he was abroad, but there is some dispute about whether or not he could actually have claimed the English throne given he was a churchman. He was certainly an unordained churchman, but, when he was invested with the office of cardinal by Pope Paul III, it really was out of the question that Cardinal Pole could rule England as a Plantagenet claimant to the throne.

In The Tudors, Cardinal Pole's family is imprisoned and executed to punish him. They are innocent victims, cut down because Henry VIII failed to hunt down Cardinal Pole. However, in reality, it was Cardinal Pole's family at home in England that represented the greater threat. Cardinal Pole's publication condemning Henry's actions against the church only gave Thomas Cromwell, Henry's chancellor, a reason to watch the Pole family. Henry and his father before him had always been suspicious of the Poles anyway as representatives of the Plantagenets. Once suspicion was aroused, the Poles' days were automatically numbered. The Poles were one portion of a larger set of victims that were executed for treason between 1538 and 1539. All of these victims were somehow related to the previous Plantagenet dynasty. Margaret Pole would wait for her execution until 1541, although she was well-treated and attended by servants while she lived in the Tower.

What happened to Cardinal Pole?

Cardinal Reginald Pole remained abroad for the remainder of Henry VIII's reign and for the brief reign of his son, Edward VI. However, Mary I was a Catholic, and Cardinal Pole returned to England in 1554. He was finally ordained in 1556 and he became the Archbishop of Canterbury. He died in 1558, and it may have been for the best--had he lived any longer, he would have witnessed the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth I, and his job, if not his life, may have been in danger once again.


Mark Hildreth as Reginald Pole in The Tudors

Tomb Plaque of Geoffrey of Anjou. He was buried in St. Julien's Cathedral in Le Mans, France in 1151.

Stained-glass portrait of Edward III in Westminster Abbey

Portrait of an unknown sitter generally thought to be Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury c. 1535

Reginald Pole by Sebastiano del Piombo

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

Author: C. W. Gortner
Publication Date: 2010
Length: 397 pages
Cost: It's still newer, so Amazon has it for 33% off of the $25.00 price ($16.67). The softcover is listed at just under $10, and the Kindle edition is just over $13.
Where Did I Hear About It: I was made aware of Gortner when I picked up The Last Queen, which I reviewed here. This is actually the book I was looking for when I picked up the other one first.

The Backstory

It's hard to tease out exactly how people perceive Catherine de Medici, the subject of this novel. Many people can match her with the famous Florentine Renaissance family, but her personal story is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps her portrait "says" it all--a strong, unflinching woman, up to the challenge that the many events of her life presented to her. Above all, the word "ruthless" has come to be associated with her, and this is primarily because of her involvement in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572 during which hundreds of Protestant Huguenots were killed in Paris, France.

Catherine de Medici was born in Florence in 1519, and her parents died quite soon thereafter. Starting in 1520, she was raised by her aunt with her cousins, but when yet another Medici was elected Pope, this time, Giulio de Giuliano de Medici (Pope Clement VII), Catherine was moved to Florence to the Medici Palace there. As Catherine was the only child of the Duke of Urbino, she was acknowledged to be his successor. This worked against her when the Medici were violently overthrown in 1527. Pope Clement had his own problems with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, at the time, but Catherine joined him in Rome in 1530 after the rebels in Florence surrendered.

Catherine was betrothed to Henry, Duke of Orleans and second son of King Francis I and Queen Claude. They were both 14 at the time of their marriage, which took place in 1534. Pope Clement VII died the same year, and his successor, Pope Paul III refused to pay Francis I the large dowry his predecessor had promised. This put Catherine in a rather odd, vulnerable position that she had not anticipated. Added to this was Henry's neglect of his wife during the first ten years of their marriage. Instead of focusing on producing a family with Catherine, Henry preferred the company of several mistresses, the most notable being Diane de Poitiers, nearly 20 years his senior. Things changed for Catherine, for the better, when Francis' first son, Francis, died in 1536, probably of tuberculosis exacerbated by his previous living conditions in Spain. Francis had no children, and the responsibility to continue the Valois line fell to Henry and Catherine. Still, it wasn't until 1544 when Catherine gave birth to their first child, a son also named Francis.

It seems that Henry never warmed to Catherine, although they had nine children together. His primary mistress, Diane, actually encouraged the couple to have children, and this may the primary reason why they produced such a large family even though there was no affection between them. In 1559, Henry died after a jousting accident in which a lance broke in his eye. This changed everything again for Catherine. Her oldest son, Francis, then married to Mary, Queen of Scots, became king at the age of 15. He was immediately surrounded by a Catholic faction at court headed by the family of the Duke of Guise. This faction was interested in prosecuting the increasing Huguenot population in France, although Catherine encouraged her son to be tolerant. Francis died in 1560, and her second son, Charles, succeeded him. Catherine was far closer to Charles--he was only 9 years old--and wielded considerable power during his reign. Not wishing to push the country, on the brink of civil war, any farther, she adopted a policy of general inaction against the Protestants. This didn't stop the simmering unrest throughout the country mostly controlled by the nobility. One of the leaders, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, refused to disband a force of nearly 2,000 Protestant-sympathizers, and Catherine decided enough was enough. Catherine's Catholic forces, primarily under the control of the nobility of the affiliated court faction, struck back. However, at a siege of the city of Orleans, the head of the Guise family was killed in 1563. Unrest between Catholics and Protestants would remain a prominent political feature on the French landscape through the end of the century.

Catherine sought important marital alliances with the most prominent families in Europe. The most fateful alliance involved Catherine's daughter, Margaret, and Henry III of Navarre. Margaret wasn't much in favor of this match, and the couple never entirely got along. Margaret married Henry in 1572, days before the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. He returned in Navarre in 1576 without his wife, but she eventually joined him there. Eventually, after causing unnecessary unrest in Navarre, she was imprisoned by her brother, Henry (who succeeded Charles) in 1586 and spent nearly 20 years under house arrest.

Catherine's third son, Henry, succeeded Charles in 1574. Henry was an adult, and Catherine's role was not as prominent in his reign as it had been previously under Francis and Charles. Henry gradually lost patience with the Catholic court faction, and he murdered their leader, the Duke of Guise, in 1588. Because Henry had a childless marriage, he was forced to recognize Margot's husband, Henry, King of Navarre, as his successor. Navarre was a Protestant and living estranged from Margot, but regardless, he became king of France in 1589, eight months after Catherine de Medici died at the age of 69.

What About the Book?

Although this book is just as readable as The Last Queen, the story isn't quite as compelling in this novel as it was in its predecessor. There are plenty of interesting moments, personal challenges, and there is a huge cast of characters. Unfortunately, I think it is the fact that Gortner attempts to cover such a long period of time--nearly Catherine's whole life--that makes it difficult to keep the momentum in the narrative going from the beginning to the end.

Gortner again takes on the role of Catherine from a first-person perspective, and this is the same approach that he takes in The Last Queen. However, his perspective is more limited in this novel, and his lack of complete understanding of women peeks through far more. For example, when other women discuss Margot's narcissism, the solution proposed by Catherine and her other daughter, Claude, is that Margot should just have children and all will be right with the world. I see too many parallels between this perspective and this same mistaken assumption made by some men today to ignore it. There is more complexity in the character of Juana than there is in Catherine's character, and I think Gortner had a huge challenge in attempting to tell such a long story with so many events in only 400 pages. The story of Juana is much shorter, and it is clearly easier for Gortner to develop her character in that time frame.

I think one of the problems that can't be ignored by someone who has read both of Gortner's novels is how many similarities there are between them, and between the two women at the center of their stories. Both novels are "confessions" composed years after the events featured. Both novels attempt to "apologize" for and explain why the heroines did what they did to gain the reputations that history has afforded them. Juana is known as mad; Catherine is known as ruthless and cruel. Gortner tells their stories to try and explain the events that gained them these reputations. Both had troubled marriages, and they resolved these troubles somehow so their spouses, who preceded them in death, could die in peace. It's a little too neatly laid out for the reader--I think it wouldn't matter which novel a reader were to pick up first--he/she would come to the same conclusion.

Because the time frame in the novel moves so fast, it is hard to gain a true perspective of the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in France at this time, and it is this conflict that is at the center of the novel. Readers don't grow to understand either perspective, but rather, to dislike both. Since Gortner's Catherine attempts to be sympathetic to both, it would only be fitting that the reader come to the same conclusion.

Gortner offers titles of other books at the end of the novel, again, which is an excellent touch. He also explains a few of the inconsistencies in the book and why he made the changes. As with any piece of historical fiction, some of it is accurate and some of it isn't. The series of events surrounding the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre are pretty accurate, but the fact that Charles, Catherine's son and king at the time, is poisoned by Margot after being unable to live with himself after these events is not--Charles lived another two years after the fact, and it is completely improbable that his sister would have taken his life.

Rating: A 7--it's a fast-moving read with a lot of interesting events and people. However, Catherine's character isn't as well-developed, the book covers nearly her whole life in 400 pages, and it isn't as easy to buy Gortner's apology for Catherine's reputation for cruelty.
Buy It or Borrow It: Borrow it. It's actually well worth your time. However, I still think that The Last Queen is the better novel of the two.


Catherine de Medici by Francois Clouet after 1559

Catherine de Medici by Santi di Tito

Henry II of France, formerly the Duke of Orleans, by Francois Clouet

Gaspard de Coligny by Francois Clouet

Marguerite de Valois by Francois Clouet, c. 1560

The Tudors Fact Check: Good Queen Jane?

So, who was Jane Seymour? The Tudors paints a picture of a beautiful, young blonde woman who stole King Henry's heart and was a beacon of kindness, compassion, and selflessness. The king, his daughter, Mary, and the court mourned her sudden death after the safe, if difficult, delivery of King Henry's most longed-for son, Prince Edward.

But, is that really who she was?

In the series, Jane is discovered by Henry while he is visiting Wulfhall, the home of Sir John Seymour, a friend and former partner-at-arms of King Henry. During the visit, Jane sneaks a peek at the men eating dinner together. Henry notices her, and Sir John introduces her to him. He is immediately taken by her beauty, and he offers to have her installed as one of Queen Anne's ladies at court.

Henry begins to court Jane, who appears to be the paragon of maidenly female virtue. She is completely taken by the king's attentions, falling on her knees whenever he approaches her personally. Queen Anne is aware of Henry's interest in Jane, but she is unable to remove her from her service for fear of inciting Henry's increasingly unpredictable wrath. Anne is far less concerned when she becomes pregnant for the third time.

Henry, ever confident of his physical prowess, fights in a jousting tournament among his friends. Jane, newly arrived at court, is asked for her "favors" (generally a piece of ribbon or something like it) to give Henry luck when he faces his challenge. He tucks the piece of ribbon into the side of his chest plate, positioning it over his heart. Upon a charge, Henry is struck from his horse and thrown into unconsciousness. He awakens hours later, the whole court and his family frightened by the proposition of Henry's death. Henry later tells Jane that her image was before him in his subconscious state and that she represents all that is good and pure.

Anne and her family feel that Jane could be entirely ousted if Anne were to finally bear the son that Henry so dearly desires. Henry sends Jane a purse of coins and a letter, which Jane accepts. He also gives Jane a locket with his picture inside of it. Anne discovers this locket, demands to see it, and rips it from Jane's neck after she inspects the picture inside. Lady Margaret Sheldon (Madge) finds the locket later on the floor and gives it back to Jane.

The pivotal moment occurs when Henry summons Jane to see him. He sits on a chair at the head of a table, and he invites her to sit on his lap. He lures her into a kiss just as Queen Anne, several months pregnant, bursts into the room. She flies into a rage. Henry attempts to calm Anne down, hoping to save the life of their child, but, later that evening, Anne miscarries for the second time of what appears to be a deformed boy, about three or four months old.

Henry has had enough of his marriage to Anne, and he, working with Cromwell, mercilessly brings Anne down. Anne is charged with adultery, as are several others, including her brother. While Anne is in prison awaiting her fate, Henry is eager for the change that Jane presents him--her purity will mean his rebirth after years under the influence of the dishonest, power-hungry Anne and her family. Jane is pictured joyfully planning her wedding with Henry while Anne languishes in the Tower.

Henry marries Jane at the beginning of the third season of the program, and it is clear that this is quite soon after Anne's execution. Jane immediately demonstrates her mythical kindness by accepting Lady Rochford, the widow of Anne's brother, into her household given how bad circumstances have become for her since her husband's death. Jane also begins to campaign for the return of the Lady Mary Tudor to court and into the King's favor. Henry warns her that she is treading on dangerous ground by meddling in his affairs, and she immediately is quieted. Jane also learns that Lady Elizabeth Tudor is not given any money for new clothes, and she sends her one of her jewels to make up for the lack of funds.

Lady Mary Tudor is received at court again after signing a document declaring Henry the head of the Church of England and her parents' marriage to be unlawful. Jane encourages a more positive relationship between Henry and Mary by accompanying him to visit Mary and inviting Mary to court for Christmas as a surprise for Henry. She also invites Elizabeth, and she is received warmly by her father. In an intimate moment with Henry, she attempts to argue for the reinstatement of the monasteries in the north, but Henry again demands that she stay out of his affairs lest she end up like Anne.

Jane becomes pregnant, later than Henry would like, but it is still an occasion for joy. Jane demonstrates a craving for quails' eggs at dinner with Henry, and Henry realizes Jane's condition. He is convinced this is the son he has so longed for. Jane invites him into her rooms to let him feel the child move in her womb. Soon, Jane goes into labor, and it is hard and long. Physicians are sent in, believing that a Cesarean section may be necessary, but in the end, Jane, manages to deliver Edward safely. Henry is overjoyed. Within days, Jane falls ill--Henry recognizes her condition as "childbed fever," of which his mother previously died. He prays that Jane not be taken away from him; her kindness and goodness sustains him.

Jane dies, her body laid out in a chapel, Henry kneeling by it, whispering that he will lie with her soon, for all eternity.

What's the real story?

Very little is known about Jane Seymour, mostly because her origins are so obscure and because she was queen for such a short period of time.

Jane Seymour was probably born in 1508, and historians generally agree upon this year because, at her death, 29 ladies walked in mourning in her funeral procession, traditionally one for each year of her life. She was born at Wulfhall, which is in Wiltshire, and historians believe that she was in service to Queen Katherine of Aragon before working in Queen Anne's household. She may have been in Queen Katherine's service as early as 1527, but she may have been discharged when the Queen's household was reduced in 1533. However, she was probably already working for Queen Anne by the beginning of 1534--one year before Henry's "fatefull" visit to Wulfhall.

The story of Henry's visit to Wulfhall is certainly embellished after-the-fact. Henry AND Anne visited Wulfhall for a few days in 1535, and it is unclear whether Jane was present. Even if she was, this certainly couldn't have been when Henry first met Jane as Jane, even if she was first hired to work for Anne and never did for Katherine, would have been working in the queen's household for over a year by that time. This visit seems more significant for Edward, Jane's elder brother. Edward Seymour would be very significant later on. When Henry VIII died in 1547, he arranged for a council of regency to act for and guide the young King Edward VI. Edward Seymour, then Earl of Hertford, was elected by the council to act as Lord Protector of England and Governor of the King's Person. It's a position he would come to regret.

Henry was not knocked out by a blow in a joust, but, on January 24, 1536, his horse tumbled and he was unconscious for about two hours. Publicly, Anne claimed that news of this incident, brought to her by the Duke of Norfolk, was the main cause of her miscarriage five days later. However, Emperor Charles V's ambassador to the English court, Eustace Chapuys, makes mention in a letter sent at the beginning of February that Anne privately was worried about her potential inability to produce children and Henry's continued attentions to Jane Seymour. There is no evidence that the fetus was in any way deformed, and as Anne believed she was 15 weeks along, the sex of the child may have been unable to be determined with any certainty.

Henry did send Jane a letter and a bag of coins in March 1536, but in reality, she sent them back. This was probably a sign that Henry was summoning Jane to become his latest royal mistress, and Jane must have known what was in the letter if she sent it back, without opening it, and made the statement she did in response to its delivery. She kissed the letter, returned it to the sender with the coins, and claimed that nothing was more valuable to her than her virginity. If the king wished to send her money, she asked that it be done when she had contracted an advantageous marriage.

This was Anne Boleyn's trump card, played so many years earlier. Whether truly because she valued her virginity or because she valued the favors she and her family would enjoy if she held out from the king for a while, Anne did exactly the same thing. Anne won a king with this trick--so would Jane.

It is important to understand where Jane and her family stood regarding the reformation of the church, which was ongoing at the time. Anne and her family were reformists, and Henry had surrounded himself with people of like-minds while they enjoyed influence at court. However, there were many of considerable, long-standing noble origin who did not support the separation of England from the Catholic Church, and Jane's association with them cannot be ignored. In particular, this faction was interested in the restoration of the Lady Mary to the succession. Anne had also done quite a bit of damage on her own. She was well-known for her sharp tongue and hardened opinions, and this had resulted in the alienation of many who had been her supporters.

There is no written evidence of Jane's immediate association with Anne's enemies, but it is clear that she was Anne's foil in every possible way. She was quiet, humble, and submissive. She wasn't particularly well-educated, although she could read and write. Her motto was "Bound to obey and serve," and she embodied this to the letter. She was also not particularly attractive. Eustace Chapuys wrote to Charles V that "nobody thinks she has much beauty." Her portraits generally attest to that reality. What was she, then? Probably many things that made her attractive at the moment Anne was about to lose her life--she was a completely different personality, she was available, and the king had been paying her attentions and growing in ardor just at that time. Henry had given up his marriage to Katherine of Aragon once he had her successor secure. He seems to have sought companionship with women--not simply idle lust--and expected that he would be married, if not to one, throughout his entire life.

It is possible--even probable--that Jane was coached to be who she was with Henry. It won her a crown in the end.

Henry married Jane on May 30, 1536. She did argue for the Lady Mary's reinstatement, but she was quieted by Henry's demand that she stay out of his affairs. It seems that Henry was already softening to Mary's case once Anne was out of the picture. Cromwell obtained Henry's blessing for Mary to write to him on the same day. In June, the terms of their reconciliation were made clear to Mary--she would have to accept Henry as the head of the church and her mother's marriage as incestuous. On June 22, Mary yielded to most of these demands, finally later capitulating entirely. Henry and Jane visited her on July 6, and Mary was given funds. Mary returned to court after this, and Elizabeth would return as well. However, these were Henry's decisions and arrangements--not Jane's.

Jane's pregnancy was public by May 1537. Jane's main craving was for quails--not quails' eggs. The labor was extremely difficult for her, lasting several days. On Friday, October 12, she gave birth to Edward Tudor, Henry's only legitimate, living son. Jane made a good recovery initially, but she took a turn for the worse suddenly, and she died on October 24. How did Henry feel about this? Seemingly, not very touched. He had delayed a trip to Esher because of Jane's health, but it was reported that he was "determined" to be there on the 25th, regardless of her state by that time. However, it is also recorded that Henry assigned Norfolk the task of arranging for the funeral because he was "too broken" to do it himself. It is more likely that Henry's claims to be beside himself with grief were exaggerated niceties--kings didn't arrange for their wives' funerals customarily anyway. Everything was arranged as befit Jane's status. Her body lie in state until November 8, and she was buried four days later in a vault of St. George's Chapel. Court mourning lasted for three months following.

Henry did decide to be buried beside her upon his death nearly ten years later. Family portraits commissioned by Henry, regardless to whom he was married at the time, always featured Jane as his wife. This is generally considered a testament to the fact that Jane was the only wife who produced his longed-for male heir. Perhaps it is a commentary about how Henry perceived his wives' main roles to be. Whatever the reason, Jane, plain, quiet, and dull, was immortalized by Henry as his one true wife.


The Tudors gets an 7 for events, but a 3 for casting Jane's character. Most of the events surrounding Jane and Henry are true or only slightly adapted. However, there is no evidence that Jane was extremely kind. It is more likely that her "kindness," especially to Lady Mary, was motivated by the desires of her connections to an anti-Boleyn, Catholic court faction. Henry certainly did not have the same ardor for her that he previously had for Anne. The series casts Jane as the light in his life, whereas she was probably more of a dull, and therefore more attractive, alternative to Anne's spectacular wit and alluring appearance. It is also more likely that Jane was acutely aware of where Anne's actions landed her, and she was probably unwilling to directly affect the affairs of court and of Henry's family in order to keep herself in Henry's good graces. Henry generally distanced himself from things "unpleasant," including death in any form, so the bedside plea to God for Jane's preservation is almost completely out of the question. Had Jane lived longer, we may know more about her and her character today. However, the idea that she was all goodness and light--or that she was even pretty--is a little far-fetched, to say the least.


Annabell Wallis as Jane Seymour from The Tudors, Season Three

Anita Briem (Jane Seymour) and King Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) from The Tudors, Season 2

Presentation of Jane Seymour to court after her marriage to King Henry VIII from The Tudors, Season 3

Annabell Wallis as Jane Seymour from The Tudors, Season Three

Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein, 1536

Jane Seymour, miniature, by Lucas Horenbout

Jane Seymour by unknown painter from the Cast Shadow Workshop, 1536

Prince Edward by Hans Holbein, c. 1538

"The Tudor Dynasty," a copy smaller of a life-sized mural, now lost. The original was done by Hans Holbein. The copy was done by an unknown, less talented, artist.