Book Review – 'Widdershins' by Helen Steadman


‘Did all women have something of the witch about them?’ Jane Chandler is an apprentice healer. From childhood, she and her mother have used herbs to cure the sick. But Jane will soon learn that her sheltered life in a small village is not safe from the troubles of the wider world. From his father’s beatings to his uncle’s raging sermons, John Sharpe is beset by bad fortune. Fighting through personal tragedy, he finds his purpose: to become a witch-finder and save innocents from the scourge of witchcraft. Inspired by true events, Widdershins tells the story of the women who were persecuted and the men who condemned them. [Description from Amazon UK]

This was our book club pick for January 2020, and I really enjoyed reading it. It’s based in my hometown of Newcastle Upon Tyne and is based on a true story of 15 (or 16) witches executed on the Town Moor in 1650. Witchcraft is an interesting subject, and this novel didn’t disappoint as it examines the lead-up to an accusation in the lives of two very difference people. It’s cleverly done, and everything comes together in the end, if not in the way that you expect.

Steadman’s writing is engaging and swapping between the two different sides – one chapter from the view of a witch hunter and one from the view of an accused witch. Both have very different demons to deal with, and it takes them in very different directions, but their lives will ultimately intertwine. Jane is very much an innocent throughout the novel, taking things at face value and not asking too many questions, almost accepting. John had so many bad experiences that he translated it into blaming someone else and wanting those people punished. He moved from victim to abuser and watching that journey is enlightening, but I still don’t fully understand it.

The book is very atmospheric and really brings to mind what life must have been like at that time. There was also great period detail which reminds you of when the book is set even when you’re focused on the characters rather than the time period or events. The author depicts a time when misguided judgements and superstitions were commonplace and led to a fear-driven craze as people wanted to remove what they didn’t understand.

The afterword adds a lot of clarity to what you’ve read when you’ve finished the novel, listing the women who, in real life, were executed in the Newcastle witch trials. The author handles the whole event sympathetically and makes sure in her note at the end to separate fiction from fact and what changes she made to the factual account.

It is a fictional portrayal of an event I knew very little about, though I have studied the European witch-craze as part of my degree. My favourite thing about the book is the way it is written because it’s so atmospheric and really gets into the heads of the two main characters, from whose point of view the story is told.

Book Review – 'Kindred Spirits: Westminster Abbey' by Jennifer C. Wilson


On hallowed ground… With over three thousand burials and memorials, including seventeen monarchs, life for the ghostly community of Westminster Abbey was never going to be a quiet one. Add in some fiery Tudor tempers, and several centuries-old feuds, and things can only go one way: chaotic. Against the backdrop of England’s most important church, though, it isn’t all tempers and tantrums. Poets’ Corner hosts poetry battles and writing workshops, and close friendships form across the ages. With the arrival of Mary Queen of Scots, however, battle ensues. Will Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I ever find their common ground, and lasting peace? [Description from Amazon UK]

Kindred Spirits #3

Another great novel from Jennifer Wilson. I absolutely adore this series, and I’m really hoping for a book eventually set around Windsor with Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. I think that would be great. I did thoroughly enjoy this installment in the series though because there were so many different characters from different periods coming together and it was interesting to see how those relationships developed.

This one focuses on the kings and queens, and literary and scientific minds buried or commemorated at Westminster. I loved the developing relationship between Richard III and Henry VII and I understand that this is explored more in the fourth book in the series based in York. As for the relationship between Mary I and Elizabeth I, I can imagine that this is actually how the two would have been in real life had they been raised as siblings rather than rivals for the throne. All siblings argue and fight, but these two took it to the next level.

It’s history but not as we know and Wilson’s knowledge of and passion for medieval and early modern history is obvious as she brings historical figures into the present, without losing the sense of who they were in their own time. One of my favourite moments was when Anne of Cleves snuck onto the Abbey computer to alter her Wikipedia page and any references to ‘Flander’s Mare’, and the reappearance of Richard III, who I loved in ‘Kindred Spirits: Tower of London’.

This series is so unique, and very cleverly done. You can tell that a great amount of research has gone into the book, as there are little titbits of historical fact, as well as the ghosts trying to dispel, or arguing about, rumours swirling about their lives. It’s really interesting to read and imagine what these historical figures would think about how we view them today, and what they would make of today’s world, incredibly distant from what they knew in their lives. I want more, please, Jennifer!?

Another bonus is that is was written by an author who lives in the same area as me! Well-written and worth a read for anyone with an interest in historical fiction, or historical ghost stories, rumours and a bit of humour thrown in!

Book Review – 'The Peasants' Revolting Crimes' by Terry Deary


Popular history writer Terry Deary takes us on a light-hearted and often humorous romp through the centuries with Mr & Mrs Peasant, recounting foul and dastardly deeds committed by the underclasses, as well as the punishments meted out by those on the right side’ of the law. Discover tales of arsonists and axe-wielders, grave robbers and garroters, poisoners and prostitutes. Delve into the dark histories of beggars, swindlers, forgers, sheep rustlers and a whole host of other felons from the lower ranks of society who have veered off the straight and narrow. There are stories of highwaymen and hooligans, violent gangs, clashing clans and the witch trials that shocked a nation. Learn too about the impoverished workers who raised a riot opposing crippling taxes and draconian laws, as well as the strikers and machine-smashers who thumped out their grievances against new technologies that threatened their livelihoods. Britain has never been short of those who have been prepared to flout the law of the land for the common good, or for their own despicable purposes. The upper classes have lorded and hoarded their wealth for centuries of British history, often to the disadvantage of the impoverished. Frustration in the face of this has resulted in revolt. [Description from Waterstones]

Thanks to Pen & Sword for the chance to read and review this book.

I think this was one of the most enjoyable history books I’ve read in a while. I thoroughly enjoyed the Horrible Histories series by Terry Deary when I was younger, and I think it was those books that made me want to study history. This book on the crimes of peasants throughout history doesn’t disappoint when compared – the only thing I miss in comparison to the Horrible Histories are the cartoons, which I suppose have been removed to make this book better for adults.

Deary brings in primary sources throughout, and quotes from various famous people from history, both fictional and real. The book is split down into easily digestible chunks chronologically from the Normans, through the Medieval, Tudor and Stuart periods and on to the Georgians and Victorians, discussing all kinds of crimes from football hooliganism, rioting, grave robbing, poisoning and murder. The whole spectrum is covered, along with different punishments.

I’m not normally a big fan of footnotes – I actually prefer endnotes as it means that you can read without getting distracted by them, and just look at the endnotes that are interesting to you. Some books have really long footnotes, which also really annoys me, but this book doesn’t have that problem. The footnotes in this book are actually really enjoyable, as they seem to add some comic relief and jokes, which are very much like what I remember of Terry Deary.

The chapters are all broken down into sub-sections, making this easy to dip in and out of, or if you are interested in a particular type of crime or a particular period. He goes deeply into some cases where there is a lot of evidence or a moral tale. Deary has a great writing style which makes his work easy to read and engage with, and makes you want to keep reading, which is great in a non-fiction history book, as some of them can be a bit dry. This definitely isn’t a problem with Terry Deary’s books and writing!

This book is definitely worth a read and apparently there will be more in the series with the next one entitled ‘The Peasants’ Revolting Lives’. I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in to the next one, it’s already on my wish list!

Chapters:

  1. Norman Nastiness
  2. Mediaeval Misery
  3. Wild Women
  4. Tudor Twisters
  5. Sinful Stuarts
  6. Quaint Crimes
  7. Georgian Jokers and Victorian Villains

Book Review – 'Anne Boleyn in London' by Lissa Chapman


Romantic victim? Ruthless other woman? Innocent pawn? Religious reformer? Fool, flirt and adulteress? Politician? Witch? During her life, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s ill-fated second queen, was internationally famous – or notorious; today, she still attracts passionate adherents and furious detractors. It was in London that most of the drama of Anne Boleyn’s life and death was played out – most famously, in the Tower of London, the scene of her coronation celebrations, of her trial and execution, and where her body lies buried. Londoners, like everyone else, clearly had strong feelings about her, and in her few years as a public figure Anne Boleyn was influential as a patron of the arts and of French taste, as the centre of a religious and intellectual circle, and for her purchasing power, both directly and as a leader of fashion. It was primarily to London, beyond the immediate circle of the court, that her carefully ‘spun’ image as queen was directed during the public celebrations surrounding her coronation. [Description from Waterstones]

Thanks to Pen & Sword for the chance to read and review this book.

I did enjoy this book, and I thought that it was quite well-written and engaging. Chapman has a clear and concise tone and way of writing, which makes it easy to read and understand. Anne Boleyn was a divisive figure and this book looks at the positive and negative sides of her, without really choosing a side to fall on. It purports to examine Anne’s rise, queenship and fall through the eyes of the places she stayed in London. There are also sections on Anne’s coronation in 1533, London in general, and court in London.

I wouldn’t call this book so much a look at Anne Boleyn in London, but more a historical biography of Anne Boleyn, focused on her time in London from 1522 and her first court appearance to her death in 1536. I was expecting more about Anne’s involvement in different London locations like Whitehall, Durham House, Westminster, Hampton Court, Hatfield, Eltham, Greenwich and Richmond, but this part I felt was a little lacking. Perhaps the title of the book is a little misleading.

It has obviously been well-researched and there is plenty of reference to the primary sources, as well as to how reliable they may be, and cross-referencing different sources. There is discussion of bias and a look at different points of view about the same events, for example, ambassadors from Italy, the Papal courts, France and Spain. There is a short look at Anne’s earlier life, but it more focused on what we know about her later life.

There is a great selection of images in the centre of the book, varying from photos of places, to sketches, portraits of important people, and artefacts. The captions are all detailed and dated as far as they can be. It is a good selection from across Anne’s life and relates to what is talked about in the text itself. The cover image is also of great interest – it’s a photo of a recreation of a medal from 1534 by Lucy Churchill, one of the only definite images of Anne Boleyn.

This book is worth a read for the historical scholarship, but if you’re expecting a traipse through the London locations that Anne knew, then you might be a little disappointed. Nevertheless, an interesting and well-written biography of Anne Boleyn.

Chapters:

  1. A Walk Through London 1522
  2. ‘Your very humble obedient daughter’ 1501-22
  3. Queen in Waiting 1522-33
  4. The White Falcon Crowned 1533
  5. Earthly Powers: London
  6. Earthly Powers: Court
  7. Anne the Queen 1533-6
  8. Fall 1536
  9. Ever After

Book Review – 'Mary: Tudor Princess' by Tony Riches


Would you dare to defy King Henry VIII? Mary Tudor watches her elder brother become King of England and wonders what the future holds for her. Henry plans to use her marriage to build a powerful alliance against his enemies…. Will she risk his anger by marrying for love? Will Mary’s loyalty to Henry be tested by the ambitious Boleyn family? Based on actual events of courage, passion and adventure in the turbulent and dangerous world of the Tudor court. [Description from Amazon UK]

Brandon Trilogy #1

Thank you to Tony Riches for the chance to read this novel.

This has been on my to-read for quite a while now, so I was thrilled when Tony Riches got in touch and offered me a copy for review. It’s taken me a while to get around to actually writing the review because I’ve been so busy, but finally here it is. To summarise: I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to reading the next in the series.

Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, has always fascinated me, as she went from a political marriage to Louis XII of France to a love match with Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. It was interesting to see the two marriages explored and contrasted with each other. Riches portrays Mary’s marriage to Louis XII as one of respect and affection, whereas other depictions (notably in TV show, ‘The Tudors’) show Mary’s first marriage as an unhappy one. I like to think that she at least found some affection in her marriage, and I liked Riches portrayal of the marriage as such.

Riches’ style of writing is easy to read, but really seems to get to the heart of the period at the same time. He incorporates sights, sounds and smells with the characters that bring the Tudor court to life. The relationships between the different characters were different to how I had imagined them, but that heightened my enjoyment of the book because it wasn’t what I was expecting but I thoroughly liked a different point of view nevertheless.

Mary’s relationship with Brandon’s children from his earlier marriage I didn’t expect, and I want to know more, so if anyone can recommend a book about Charles Brandon and his children I would love to know about it.

Charles Brandon has also been a source of fascination to me as he seems to be the one constant in Henry VIII’s life, and he managed to survive the reign where so many others didn’t, so I am greatly looking forward to reading the second book in the series – ‘Brandon: Tudor Knight’. I will definitely be giving it a go, and the third in the series, ‘Katherine: Tudor Duchess’, about Brandon’s final wife, Katherine Willoughby. Reviews to follow in due course. This book was an eye-opener on a person who interests me, but I didn’t know all that much about, well worth a read for any Tudorstorians out there.

Book Review – ‘Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile’ by Jennifer C. Wilson


Kindred Spirits Royal Mile by Jennifer C Wilson

Along Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile, royalty and commoners – living and dead – mingle amongst the museums, cafés and former royal residences. From Castle Hill to Abbey Strand, there is far more going on than meets the eye, as ghosts of every era and background make their home along the Mile. Returning to the city for her annual visit, Mary, Queen of Scots, is troubled by the lacklustre attitude of her father, King James V of Scotland, and decides to do something about it, with the aid of her spiritual companions. More troubling, though, is the arrival of a constant thorn in her side: her second husband, Lord Darnley. Can Mary resolve both her own issues and those of her small, ghostly court? [Description from Amazon UK]

I am thoroughly enjoying this series. This is the second one I’ve read after ‘Kindred Spirits: Tower of London’. I preferred Tower of London, maybe just because it focused around Richard III and Anne Boleyn, two of my favourite historical figures.

However, this one about Mary Queen of Scots and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was equally fascinating, though Mary didn’t come across entirely as I expected her to. She has always been seen as a fanatical martyr for her faith, but in this story we see a more light-hearted side. It was unexpected and took me a while to get used to it, but I did love her relationship with the father she never knew in life, and I would like to think it would have been like that had James V lived longer and got to know his daughter. The melding of different myths, legends and hauntings was clever, and I particularly enjoyed the addition of Boy, who was sent into the tunnels under Edinburgh and trapped.

The Royal Mile comes alive with a mixture of the modern Mile and the historical figures, and comparisons between the historic city and the modern city of Edinburgh. The description is quite detailed and the characters really come alive. It feels perfectly normal that the ghosts are there, possibly because it’s something I have imagined before visiting historical places – do ghosts really exist and where would they be if they did?

It’s nice to think that ghosts wouldn’t necessarily haunt where they died but where they were happy or had unfinished business, and could move around fairly freely. It goes against the traditional views that ghosts are tied to a particular place, and the idea of the white light and choosing whether to leave and go on or not also goes against these traditional views. It was interesting to explore these different ideas and think about what Mary Queen of Scots would do if she saw the white light or if her friends and confidantes left her.

The story was well-written and the narrative moved along at a good pace, combining several different strands into a whole, which felt completed at the end, like things had come full circle but with one particular problem seemingly solved. I am really looking forward to reading the other two that I haven’t read – Westminster Abbey and York.

Book Review – ‘Tudor Folk Tales’ by Dave Tonge


Thank you to The History Press for a chance to read this book.

I really enjoyed this book. I felt that the way the book was written, split between the background of the period and the way that people lived and the folk tales that went alongside that history was a clever mix. I will definitely re-read and it will enhance other things I read about the period, being able to glimpse what the person on the street might have known or read.

The book is split into several sections examining different parts of Tudor society, including women, the youth, the poor and the religious. The folk tales within the pages of this book were all designed to teach a particular lesson or put across a specific view or opinion. The sections are then divided down into different stories, with names like ‘Of the Contrary Wife’ and ‘Of the Reward for Lying’. A lot of them seem to be morality tales, or tales of what can happen when people step out of their assigned boundaries in the hierarchy.

The drawings and copies of etchings were also really interesting to see as the people generally in the sixteenth century wouldn’t have been able to read so the drawings and etchings might have been all they saw and understood about the stories, to accompany word of mouth retellings. They’re really interesting to look at because in a lot of ways they tell us more about how people lived and thought than the kinds of paintings and cartoons we see today.

The way that the book was written is engaging and makes for a fairly easy read. The author makes it clear in the introduction that the stories he retells are not written in the original language, but have been changed for ease of reading for a modern audience. It has been very sympathetically done and, from what I can tell, the essence of the story is still the same as the original.

I would really recommend this book to any interested in the Tudor period as well as those who already have a solid grounding in the period, because it sparks an interest in things that you might not otherwise be aware still survive, and you can really sense what the general population of England thought about and felt about different people and what the relationships between them should be.

Chapters:

  1. The Struggle for the Breeches
  2. The Wit and Wisdom of Women
  3. Masterless Youth
  4. Poor Men Will Speak One Day
  5. A Caveat for Common Cursitors
  6. The Many-Headed Monster
  7. The Commotion Time
  8. Fact or Fiction, Truth or Lies?

Also published on my sister blog https://bookbloggerish.wordpress.com/

Book Review – ‘A Phoenix Rising’ by Vivienne Brereton


Thanks to Vivienne for sending me a copy of this book to read!

Thomas Howard. Head of a sprawling, hot-blooded, sensual brood. Soldier, courtier, politician, a man of great personal charisma. A phoenix rising from the ashes. Will Thomas’s ambitions be realised? Or will the phoenix come crashing down again? Every Howard, male and female, renowned for their good looks and charm, is born to dazzle at court. Luring admirers, even royal ones … like bees to sweet nectar. Equally, each member is expected to restore the family to the very pinnacle of achievement. April 1509. Seventeen-year-old Henry VIII inherits the throne of England. But who sits on the thrones of France and Scotland? Uneasy bedfellows at best. Intrigue and danger stalk the corridors of the royal courts of Europe. Secrets and lies are concealed behind the ancient walls of castles in three lands. [Description from Goodreads]

Series – House of the Red Duke #1

It took me a few chapters to get into this book, but once I did, I really enjoyed it. The descriptions of the characters were really engaging and gave me a very different perspective of people that I had quite set perceptions about, like the Howard family. I was also quite intrigued by Tristan and Nicholas, and their pasts as they were revealed throughout the story. The relationship between the two was interesting as well because they seemed so similar, but really didn’t get on, like people who are too different. It was an intriguing dynamic.

I sometimes struggle with books written from the point of view of several characters, as this one is, but this one worked quite well because it had to be told from the points of view of different characters because it is spread across several countries – England, France and Scotland. The juxtaposition of the three countries was very interesting as they all had people reacting to the same or similar events in different ways depending on where they were and what they believed. It makes for a very intriguing read, though the amount of characters does sometimes throw you.

The addition of Tudor recipes was a nice touch, and demonstrated that the writer had really done her research. From a brief discussion with Vivienne about the book, it seems she has tried the recipes herself at home so it’s not just a theoretical recipe either! There were also nods to primary sources with sections based around these.

For my own personal point of view I really enjoyed the tantalising glimpses of Anne and Mary Boleyn as young girls, and Thomas Boleyn really just starting out on his career, knowing how important the family will become. It was also an interesting perception of Edmund Howard, son of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, as he would become the father of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s ill-fated fifth wife. He doesn’t really get much page or screen time in fictional portrayals of the Tudors so it was nice just to get a small glimpse. I’m sure we’ll see more of him in later books as well.

I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series, so don’t wait too long, Vivienne!

Also published on my sister blog https://bookbloggerish.wordpress.com/

Book Review – ‘The Spanish Queen’ by Carolly Erickson


Carolly Erickson 'The Spanish Queen'

When young Catherine of Aragon, proud daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, is sent to England to marry the weak Prince Arthur, she is unprepared for all that awaits her: early widowhood, the challenge of warfare with the invading Scots, and the ultimately futile attempt to provide the realm with a prince to secure the succession. She marries Arthur’s energetic, athletic brother Henry, only to encounter fresh obstacles, chief among them Henry’s infatuation with the alluring but wayward Anne Boleyn. In The Spanish Queen, bestselling novelist Carolly Erickson allows the strong-willed, redoubtable Queen Catherine to tell her own story-a tale that carries her from the scented gardens of Grenada to the craggy mountains of Wales to the conflict-ridden Tudor court. Surrounded by strong partisans among the English, and with the might of Spanish and imperial arms to defend her, Catherine soldiers on, until her union with King Henry is severed and she finds herself discarded-and tempted to take the most daring step of her life. [Description from Waterstones]

I was looking forward to reading this novel as I hadn’t read any of Erickson’s novels before, but I did enjoy her biography of Anne Boleyn. ‘The Spanish Queen’ was well-written and engaging, and the story kept moving, unlike some historical fiction which can be a little dry at times. Perhaps this increased engagement was sheer surprise at how much of the historical record has been changed!

Writers and filmmakers often take historical licence to weave a good story, but I don’t think that the story of Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, needed any additional drama or shock, as it is quite enough of a tale on its own. Some of the changes I really took affront at – like Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon seeing each other again after he left her for good, and Katherine being outside the room when Anne Boleyn gives birth to Elizabeth I. These would never have happened in real life, so I really struggled to believe it in the story as well. Perhaps that’s my downfall with historical fiction – if it’s a period I know so well all I can think about are the historical inaccuracies.

However, I did feel that the story was well-written and the characters came across as incredibly real, even if parts of the story I didn’t find entirely believable. I loved Katherine as a character, and how she inspired so much loyalty. The way that Anne Boleyn was portrayed seemed to be a bit of a caricature of how the people saw her – a witch who bewitched the king into loving her when she wasn’t even particularly pretty. I understand why Erickson portrayed her this way when it was told from Katherine’s point of view.

It was quite an easy read for historical fiction, and I think anyone who has an interest in the Tudor period should give it a go, but just take the history with a pinch of salt. I’m looking forward to reading other novels by Carolly Erickson and seeing how she portrays different historical figures, as looking at the perceptions in this novel I can imagine that there are other people and events that are very different from how I think they would be or what the historical record tells us.

Also published on my sister blog https://bookbloggerish.wordpress.com/

Book Review – ‘Tudor Victims of the Reformation’ by Lynda Telford


Lynda Telford 'Tudor Victims of the Reformation'

This book describes a selection of people caught up in the turmoil that presaged the reformation – a period of change instigated by a king whose desire for a legitimate son was to brutally sweep aside an entire way of life. The most famous and influential of the victims were the two people closest to Henry VIII. His mentor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a great churchman and a diplomat of consummate skill. The other was to be the King’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. These two adversaries, equally determined to succeed, had risen above the usual expectations of their time. Wolsey, of humble birth, became a price of the church, enjoying his position to the full, before coming into conflict with a woman who had no intention of being another passing fancy for the king. She would become the mother of one of the greatest and most famous of England’s monarchs. They were brought down by the factions surrounding them and the selfish indifference of the man they thought they could trust. Though they succumbed to the forces aligned against them, their courage and achievements are remembered, and their places in history assured. [Description from Pen & Sword]

Thanks to Pen and Sword Books for the chance to read this in exchange for an honest review.

This book doesn’t really cover the victims of the Reformation, so much as it focuses on the lives of two of them: Thomas Wolsey and Anne Boleyn, so it only really covers up to 1536, which is really when the Reformation picked up pace. This means that there is nothing really about Katherine Parr, Anne Askew or the Pilgrimage of Grace, two key figure and one key event in the history of the Reformation, and it doesn’t go into the reign of Edward IV or Elizabeth I, or the counter-Reformation under Mary I, so the title is a little misleading.

There were also a few errors. For example, the Duke of Buckingham executed in 1521 was at a few points referred to as George Stafford, when he was actually called Edward. At one point it was also claimed that Henry VIII acceded to the throne in 1501 when he actually came to the throne in 1509. A good proof-reader would have caught and resolved these problems. They don’t, however, detract from the good tone and writing of the book in general.

I didn’t like that there were no chapter titles, as if you are looking for a particular year, especially when the book is written chronologically as this one is, it should be easy to find a particular period of time. The chapters also don’t always seem to finish where it feels natural that they should. The index is incomplete – for example the pages listed about Anne Boleyn don’t include when she was elevated to the peerage, or about her imprisonment and trial. Continue reading “Book Review – ‘Tudor Victims of the Reformation’ by Lynda Telford”