Book Review – ‘Rival Queens: The Betrayal of Mary Queen of Scots’ by Kate Williams


I really enjoyed reading this book. Reading it as part of my research for my own book puts a different perspective on it, I’m realising. I focus more on the sections that I myself am writing about rather than the overall work. But Williams writes really clearly and concisely and it’s easy to get pulled into the narrative she’s telling. There are plenty of primary sources discussed throughout, which gives an insider view on what people were thinking and feeling at the time.

The title perhaps is a bit misleading as it suggests that Mary Queen of Scots’s downfall was due entirely to Elizabeth, but that simply wasn’t the case. There were a lot of circumstances that combined to cause Mary’s downfall and execution, not least her own desperation and stupidity. The book does discuss Mary’s mistakes and how she created her own mess.

However, the book as a whole was very cohesive and explored the deep and complicated relationship between the two female monarchs, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, which lasted across decades although the two never met in person. It is an intriguing and at times convoluted relationship which does require a lot of explanation at points, especially regarding the rebellions which surrounded Mary and impacted Elizabeth greatly. This does get confusing at points, and I did have to go back reread to make sure I understood what was going on.

Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots come across as women in their own right, not just as queens, who had their own wants, hopes, dreams, thoughts, and feelings. Sometimes historical biographies can treat their subjects as objects rather than living people (or dead people now, but who were living and real, to be more precise). Kate Williams didn’t fall into that trap with her retelling of the relationship between the two.

The book is thoroughly well-researched and cited, and I must thank Kate for her excellent research which has pointed me to several other sources which I can use myself. One of the best and most interesting books about the tumultuous relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots you’ll ever read.

Book Review – ‘Essex: Tudor Rebel’ by Tony Riches


Thank you to Tony Riches for giving me a copy of this book to review.

I really enjoy Tony Riches’ writing. He has a way of bringing the world of the Tudor court to life that makes these historical figures who lived over 400 years ago seem very real in the present. Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, is an intriguing character with plenty of history. All I really knew about him was the end of his life – the rebellion that resulted in his execution, from my own research. This book opened my eyes to some of the events of his earlier life.

I’ve been researching Elizabethan rebellions, so it was interesting to find out more about this figure who was central to a rebellion in 1601 against Elizabeth I. The story follows him from his childhood, and the death of his father, to his death by execution. It explores scandal, romance, and treason. We really get to see the changeable attitude of the Queen and how fortunes could change on just one roll of the die.

It features a wide range of real historical characters along Essex, like Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, William Cecil Lord Burghley, Robert Cecil, Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Drake, and Sir Philip Sidney. These characters come together to create a richly detailed storyline with plenty going on which keeps the story moving. I was really intrigued by the supporting character of Lettice Knollys, Essex’s mother, who herself was the granddaughter of Mary Boleyn. Her relationships with her children and partners were particularly interesting.

What is particularly interesting for me in this story is to see the development of Essex from a boy who loses his father at a young age and has to step suddenly and unexpectedly into his shoes, to the Queen’s favourite at court, to an attainted rebel who ends on the scaffold. The story is full of ups and downs and makes you want to keep reading.

If you don’t know much about key characters in Tudor history, then I would really recommend reading books by Tony Riches because he introduces them without too much fuss, but with enough detail to bring them to life, and makes you want to find out more about them. I can’t wait to fill in the gaps and read the ones I haven’t read yet.

Book Review – ‘Execution’ by S.J. Parris


I really enjoyed this book. I am currently working on my first non-fiction book about Elizabethan Rebellions, so this was a really interesting fictional account of the Babington plot which led to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots the following year. This is the fifth in a series of books revolving around Giordano Bruno.

Giordano Bruno as a character was intriguing and keeps being so throughout each book in the series. He is complex, with different strands like his religious history, academic studies, and his spy and undercover work. Bruno was a real person who was in England spying for Francis Walsingham, although the exact nature of his assignments doesn’t seem to be known, and it look as though he left England in 1585 so couldn’t have been involved in the Babington plot in 1586.

A bit of historical license is OK, and Bruno is such an interesting character that I can imagine he would have been involved in the Babington conspiracy if given the opportunity. The conspiracy was the interesting bit for me and the relationships between those involved in the conspiracy – Babington, Titch, Ballard, and Savage. In historical sources we don’t see these relationships so that was what drew my attention.

Those who know the history will know how it ends and the basics of the progression of the plot, but Parris manages to hold you on the edge of your seat anyway, weaving the real history through with fictional sub-plots which blend in seamlessly to the rest of the story. The reason I didn’t give it five stars is because I found the beginning quite slow and hard going. It didn’t seem necessary to spin it out for so long.

I’ve always enjoyed reading this series because of the interactions between the characters and their involvement in various conspiracies. Whether there will be further books in the series, I don’t know, but there are several unresolved issues, so I really hope so!

Tudor Exhibitions at Royal Museums Greenwich


It has been a very difficult year for museums, many of which have remained closed, or have only been able to open for a month or two.  I was approached by Royal Museums Greenwich about their new upcoming exhibitions.  With my anxiety I don’t feel like I can travel at the moment to attend the exhibitions, but I am hoping to get the chance to visit before they close as they both look excellent!

If you want to attend one of the exhibitions, tickets are on sale now at the links below, open from 17 May 2021.

The first exhibition is called ‘Tudors to Windsors’ on royal portraiture from Henry VII to the present day. The second is called ‘Faces of a Queen’ which will bring together the three surviving Armada portraits for the first time.

‘Tudors to Windsors’ – Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits | Museum Exhibitions (rmg.co.uk)

“Come face-to-face with the kings and queens who have shaped British history for over 500 years.

Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits at the National Maritime Museum includes over 150 of the finest portraits from across five royal dynasties.

Discover how royal portraiture has developed over the last five centuries, from Henry VII to Elizabeth II.”

‘Faces of a Queen’ – Faces of a Queen | Royal Museums Greenwich (rmg.co.uk)

“Three portraits, one historic exhibition: see the Armada Portraits of Elizabeth I for free at the Queen’s House in Greenwich.

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I is one of the most iconic portraits in British history.

Three versions of the painting survive, each offering a subtly different depiction of Queen Elizabeth I at the height of her power.

Now, for the first time in their 430-year history, these three works are on public display together.”

For anyone who loves Tudor history and / or portraiture these exhibitions look really exciting and interesting and you can find more information at the links above, as well as book tickets.

Book Review – ‘The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I’ by John Cooper


This was a really interesting book. It’s the first book I’ve read with Francis Walsingham at the centre, though I do also have the biography of Francis Walsingham by Robert Hutchinson. If you’re interested in the secret life of Elizabethan England and how the fairly new idea of a spy network came into being and developed, then this is the book for you.

This book is also very good at discussing Walsingham’s involvement in the downfall and execution of Mary Queen of Scots. There is a huge variety of both primary and secondary sources used, given full credit in the notes and bibliography, which means that it is fairly easy to track the sources down if you want to investigate further. The one thing that I will say is that the primary sources themselves could be discussed more within the text, as I find it useful to see the wider context of the sources and the events they describe.

The index is also quite comprehensive so if you’re looking for something in particular within the book it’s simple to look and find it. There is a good selection of images in a book plate at the centre, with portraits, sketches, maps, paintings, places, and artefacts. These are all clearly captioned as to what they are, but the sources of the images could do with more information otherwise it’s difficult to research them further or verify their antecedents.

It’s the first real book I’ve read in researching my own book, and the section on the Babington plot in particular is fantastic, though I could have done with more detail about the Ridolfi and Throckmorton plots as they aren’t as well described, though perhaps that’s due to lack of sources and information. I’m not sure. The Spanish Armada from an intelligence point of view is also discussed in great detail, which was very interesting, not something that you usually read about the Armada.

This book was very detailed and incredibly interesting. I want to know more about Walsingham now. I didn’t know about his ongoing illness or about his origins. You only really tend to find out about his relationship with Elizabeth and Walsingham and how he saved England in most books about Elizabethan England, so this was really fascinating for me to read.

Chapters

  1. Exodus
  2. Massacre at Paris
  3. Armed with Innocence
  4. The English Mission
  5. Security Services
  6. Bonds and Ciphers
  7. Western Planting
  8. Eleventh Hour

Six Documentaries to Watch During Lockdown


I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries during lockdown so I thought I’d pull together some of my favourites here – not all Tudor so if you’re looking for something different, look no further!

If there are any that you’ve particularly enjoyed watching, please leave a comment, always looking for new things to watch and learn from!


David Starkey’s ‘Monarchy’

Episodes: 16

Period: Anglo-Saxons to Queen Victoria

David Starkey explores how the British monarchy has evolved over time, from the patchwork of counties that made up Anglo-Saxon England to how they united under a single king, working through the monarchs right up to Queen Victoria. It focuses less on the monarchs themselves but rather how their actions informed the idea of monarchy.

David Starkey has been involved in some controversy over the last few years with some of his comments hitting the news headlines, so I was a bit wary of including this one on my list, but I don’t think that some of his personal opinions affect the historical research that went into this documentary series. I have this on DVD and have watched it several times, making me interested in aspects of our history that I haven’t been before.

Simon Schama’s ‘A History of Britain’

Episodes: 15

Period: Stone Age to Modern Day

Simon Schama takes a different approach to our history than David Starkey, looking less at the monarchs and more at the general population and how life changed for them from the Stone Age to the modern day through times that have shaped our history.

I have this on DVD as I thought it looked different to other histories of Britain, and I wanted something definitive to widen my area of interest and my knowledge. This certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s not completely definitive, being unable to cover the entire history of Britain in 15 episodes, but it covers some of the most pivotal moments in our history in detail, drawing extensively on primary source research.

Continue reading “Six Documentaries to Watch During Lockdown”

Book Review – ‘Elizabeth I: The Making of a Queen’ by Laura Brennan


Thank you to Pen and Sword for sending me a review copy of this book.

I really enjoyed reading this book about the life of Elizabeth I. There is a lot of focus on various different events of her reign and how they influenced her character and the way she ruled England. The split is pretty much half based around her queenship and half before her queenship, which is really interesting.

Much of the section on Elizabeth’s queenship focuses on Mary Queen of Scots and the relationship between the pair, as well as looking at how Mary’s actions influenced Elizabeth. Although there are a lot of chapters, they are quite short. Perhaps this isn’t the book for you if you are looking for something incredibly detailed, but it introduces a lot of different events and concepts and how the people and events relate to each other.

One thing that did annoy me and has knocked a star off my rating is that there are a few historical errors in the book. It says that the Duke of Cleves had two daughters, but he actually had three – Anne, Amelia and Sybille. John Dudley is described as the Duke of Warwick but was actually the Earl of Warwick. Warwick and Northumberland are described as being two different people but are actually the same person as the Earl of Warwick became the Duke of Northumberland. Anne Boleyn’s last miscarriage is said to have happened in January 1535, but it actually happened in January 1536, no rumours of anything in January 1535 as far as I know.

Despite these few errors I still enjoyed reading it, and I thought that the writing was clear and concise, and the sources were all documented, with plenty of use of primary sources which are quoted throughout. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read about Elizabeth I, easy to understand and pulling all the chapters back to how the event discussed in that chapter shaped Elizabeth as a queen and woman was fascinating.

Chapter Outline:

  1. The Birth of a Princess
  2. The Execution of Anne Boleyn
  3. The Birth of Prince Edward
  4. The Second and Third Stepmothers of Lady Elizabeth
  5. The Marriage of Henry VIII and Katherine Parr
  6. The Death of Henry VIII
  7. The Scandal of Thomas Seymour
  8. The Common Book of Prayer & The Prayer Book Rebellion
  9. The Premature Death of Edward VI – The Tudor’s Last King
  10. The Nine Day Queen
  11. The Wyatt Rebellion
  12. The Death of Queen Mary Tudor
  13. The Coronation of Elizabeth I & The Religious Settlement
  14. The Mysterious Death of Amy Robsart
  15. The Return of Mary Queen of Scots from France
  16. The Smallpox
  17. The Death of Lord Darnley
  18. The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots & Her Escape to England
  19. The Northern Rebellion
  20. The Excommunication from Rome
  21. The Ridolfi Plot
  22. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
  23. The Assignation of ‘William the Silent’
  24. The Babington Plot
  25. The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots
  26. The Spanish Armada
  27. The Essex Rebellion
  28. The Death of Elizabeth I

Documentary Notes – ‘Elizabeth’ with David Starkey – Part 1, From the Prison to the Palace


Elizabeth I c.1546 by William Scrots
Elizabeth I c.1546 by William Scrots
  • January 1559 Elizabeth I was crowned Queen of England
  • She was the last of the Tudor dynasty and dazzled the nation and the world
  • Elizabeth reigned for 45 years and her ships sailed round the world and defeated the Armada, Shakespeare wrote plays and Spenser wrote poems
  • English noblemen and foreign princes wooed her
  • Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII
  • The right of women to succeed to the throne was still in doubt
  • Her father would kill her mother and she would be disinherited.
  • Her sister would imprison her in the Tower and threaten to execute her
  • She would be molested by her own stepfather
  • Most monarch have their crowns handed to them on a plate, but Elizabeth would get hers by cunning and courage
  • Elizabeth’s sex was a disappointment to Henry VIII when she was born in September 1533
  • Henry already had a daughter, Mary, aged 17
  • Elizabeth had a magnificent christening with every detail seen to
  • She was declared princess as heir to the throne
  • According to the French ambassador the occasion was perfect, and nothing was lacking
  • But things were far from perfect as Elizabeth was the child of a second marriage
  • The Imperial ambassador refused to attend the baptism and refused to recognise Anne Boleyn as Henry VIII’s wife – referring to Anne as whore and Elizabeth as bastard
  • “Hot but not hot enough” – one ambassador when asked if the baby Elizabeth had been baptised in hot or cold water
  • Henry VIII divorced his first wife Katherine of Aragon because she didn’t give him a son
  • Anne had a stillborn baby boy after 2 miscarriages
  • Anne had failed in her principle duty and Henry had fallen in love with another woman
  • Anne was accused of multiple adultery with 4 men and incest with her brother
  • Anne was executed on Tower Green on 19 May 1536 with a single stroke of a sword rather than an axe
  • Elizabeth was only aged 3 when her mother was executed
  • Elizabeth seems to have airbrushed her mother from her memory and her father filled her world instead
  • Henry and Anne’s marriage was declared null and void
  • Elizabeth was made illegitimate and unable to inherit the throne
  • She became Lady Elizabeth, second bastard daughter of the king
  • Elizabeth’s governess didn’t know what to do and wrote to Cromwell for guidance on Elizabeth’s treatment and clothes
  • No one could forget that Elizabeth was Anne’s daughter and it was to marry Anne that Henry had broken with Rome
  • The monasteries had fallen victim to Henry’s desire to marry Anne – assets were seized, and the buildings destroyed
  • Glastonbury Abbey was one of those that fell
  • There was also spiritual damage – out of the ruins would form a new faith which would divide his country and his family
  • Just over a year after his marriage to Jane Seymour she gave him a son and heir – Edward
  • Elizabeth and Mary were minor royals
  • Elizabeth also lost her governess, Lady Bryan, who was transferred to look after the new baby prince
  • Kat Ashley replaced Lady Bryan and she became close to Elizabeth
  • Her father rarely saw her as she was brought up away from the court
Continue reading “Documentary Notes – ‘Elizabeth’ with David Starkey – Part 1, From the Prison to the Palace”

Top 5 Tudor Non-Fiction Books


I sometimes get asked what the best books are on the Tudors, or what my favourites are. I’ve decided to list my top 5 here with a short review, trying to mix different topics and styles, though my focus is primarily on the political history and the figures involved in the period rather than the social or military history that I know some people prefer. My favourite books also seem to be largely related to women, as I am fascinated by the ideas of gender and power in the Tudor period.

'The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn' by Eric Ives, first published in 2004.

TITLE – The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn

AUTHOR – Eric Ives

FIRST PUBLISHED – 1986

REVIEW – Eric Ives’s offering about Anne Boleyn is one of the first books I read about Anne Boleyn when I was working on my undergraduate History dissertation. It gripped me from the very start as his arguments are clear and concise, and written in a way that is easy to just get sucked into. He talks about aspects of her life that were overlooked before this point like portraiture, her childhood, and her relationship with her daughter. Ives does Anne justice by not just focusing on the obvious angles.

'Tudor the Family Story' by Leanda de Lisle (2013)

TITLE – Tudor: The Family Story

AUTHOR – Leanda de Lisle

FIRST PUBLISHED – 2013

REVIEW – I was excited when this book first came out, as it was the most comprehensive history of the Tudor dynasty up to this point. I wasn’t disappointed as it provided detailed biographies of the key figures including those prior to Henry VII taking the throne like his father, grandparents, and assorted other relatives. The book was excellently researched with an extensive bibliography – I’m tempted to call it a Tudor Bible! A must-read for any Tudor historians to keep on their bookshelf.

Continue reading “Top 5 Tudor Non-Fiction Books”

The Month of May


In the Tudor world, the month of May tends to be seen as Anne Boleyn month where the internet (and me, I have to admit!) goes a bit bananas over Henry VIII’s second wife. Of course, she was executed on the 19th of the month in 1536 on what is now generally accepted as fabricated charges of adultery, incest and treason. Those hellish weeks were immortalised in verse by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger:

“These bloody days have broken my heart.

My lust, my youth did them depart,

And blind desire of estate.

Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.

Of truth, circa Regna tonat.”

Thomas Wyatt, ‘Circa Regna Tonat’

Those chilling last words translate from the Latin to “thunder rolls around the throne” – well it certainly did when Henry VIII was sitting on the throne.

But what else happened in May in England in the Tudor period?

  • 3rd May 1544 – Thomas Wriothesley was made Lord Chancellor of England
  • 4th May 1547 – Katherine Parr married her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour
  • 6th May 1541 – Henry VIII ordered a new Bible placed in every church
  • 8th May 1559 – Elizabeth I assented to new Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity
  • 9th May 1509 – Henry VII’s body was taken to St Paul’s Cathedral from his place of death at Richmond Palace
  • 10th May 1533 – The Dunstable enquiry opened under Archbishop Cranmer which resulted in the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon
  • 11th May 1500 – Birth of Reginald Pole, later Archbishop of Canterbury under Mary I
  • 13th May 1516 – Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk at Greenwich Palace
  • 15th May 1567 – Mary Queen of Scots married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell
  • 16th May 1532 – Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor of England
  • 17th May 1521 – Execution of Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, for treason
  • 19th May 1499 – Katherine of Aragon was married by proxy to Prince Arthur, elder brother of Henry VIII
  • 19th May 1554 – Mary I released Princess Elizabeth from imprisonment in the Tower of London
  • 25th May 1553 – Jane Grey married Guildford Dudley
  • 26th May 1520 – Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon met the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at Dover
  • 27th May 1541 – Execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, for treason
  • 29th May 1543 – Katherine Parr’s ‘Prayers’ or ‘Meditations’ was published
  • 30th May 1529 – The court at Blackfriars opened to try the marriage of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon
  • 30th May 1536 – Henry VIII married Jane Seymour

So why Anne Boleyn?

With all these other events happening in May, why the focus on Anne Boleyn? Possibly because her fall was so spectacular and her execution so unexpected. Never before had an English queen been executed, and there was so much controversy surrounding the charges and the men accused with her. I mean, incest? And not just adultery with one man, but five, one her own brother? Unparalleled and shocking and still so many unanswered questions which draw historians back to her time after time, year after year.

Fascination with the unanswered and inherently shocking will never go away, no matter how old the mystery, and this one is now 484 years old.

Anne Boleyn Hever Castle Portrait
Portrait of Anne Boleyn kept at Hever Castle, Kent

Other posts which discuss Anne Boleyn

Undergraduate Dissertation Chapter – Why Did Anne Boleyn Fall from Power?

https://tudorblogger.wordpress.com/2012/10/11/undergrad-dissertation-chapter-1/

In Memory of Anne Boleyn – Why Does She Still Fascinate Us?

https://tudorblogger.wordpress.com/2019/05/19/in-memory-of-anne-boleyn/

The Legacy of Anne Boleyn

https://tudorblogger.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/the-legacy-of-anne-boleyn-died-19th-may-1536/