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 – ‘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!

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

Book Review – ‘Henry VIII in 100 Objects: The Tyrant King Who Had Six Wives’ by Paul Kendall


Thanks to Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this to review.

I really enjoyed this book, and I thought that the conception of 100 objects that could explain Henry VIII and his reign was an interesting one. What didn’t quite work for me, however, was that they aren’t all objects – there are people like Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and whole places like Eltham Palace.

The book was generally well-researched and much of the information matched what I had read in other places. However, there were several errors which concerned me hence I would give it a 3-star rating rather than the 4-star rating I would otherwise have given. It was said at one point that Anne Boleyn was arrested in 1533 but it was actually 1536, and Margaret Beaufort was described as the Duchess of Richmond when she was actually Countess of Richmond. There were several other similar errors which made me question how much I could believe.

The way the text was written was clear and concise, easy to understand even for those not versed in Tudor history. There were a huge number of images, on almost every page, highlighting the objects described; many from the author’s own collection, which demonstrates that the research was done, and that Kendall has visited and seen many of the places and objects that he describes.

The objects are listed chronologically from Henry VIII’s birth at Greenwich Palace to his burial at Windsor Castle. Each object is accompanied by a description of the events that accompany each object through Henry VIII’s life. It’s a very interesting way to explore the king’s life.

I would recommend this to any Tudor enthusiast, but you need to be aware of the errors throughout. What is particularly interesting about this is the information about the objects rather than the general history.

Errors:

  • Page 14 – Anne Boleyn arrested in 1533 but it should be 1536.
  • Page 23 – Margaret Beaufort as Duchess of Richmond but should be Countess of Richmond.
  • Page 56 – James VI of Scotland killed at Flodden but should be James IV.
  • Page 144 – Henry VIII and Jane Seymour married on 20th May but actually betrothed on 20th and married on 30th May.
  • Page 184 – Mark Seaton, should be Mark Smeaton.
  • Page 208 – Smeaton was hanged but he was actually beheaded.
  • Page 265 – Anne of Cleves betrothed to the Marquis of Lorraine, but it was actually the Duke of Lorraine.
  • Page 285 – Katherine Howard having an affair with Culpeper aided by Lady Rochford in 1533 but should be 1541.
  • Page 296 – Katherine Howard taken to the Tower in 1532 but should be 1542.
  • Page 329 – Henry VIII died on 8 January 1547 but should be 28 January 1547.

Book Review – ‘The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives’ by Tim Darcy Ellis


Thank you to the publicist for sending me a copy of this book.

This is a very interesting book about a person who is only really known about by Tudor historians as the tutor of Princess Mary (later Mary I). But this book is more wide-ranging, looking at the plight of Jews across Europe through Vives’s eyes in the early 16th century.

It is written in a series of diary entries across several years. There are poems interspersed throughout, though I don’t know the origin of these, whether they are contemporary or not. There is an interesting historical note at the end which offers some background on Vives and the plight of the Jews at this time.

There are some minor errors in the dating of the diary entries – for example, one entry is 1523 and the following entry is 1522, possibly an editorial issue. But this doesn’t detract from the overall atmosphere of the book. It is well-written and engaging, and the characters come across as real. You can tell that there is quite a lot of research that has gone into the story to make it as real as possible.

Vives is a hugely conflicted character as he tries to balance his humanism and learning with his desire to make himself and his family and those whom he loves safe. He has an interesting relationship with Sir Thomas More and his family, and we can track how this changes through the novel as Vives’s priorities change. The relationships between different characters are obviously well thought-out and researched and the fictional characters are seamlessly integrated with the real characters. The character list at the beginning is really helpful to distinguish real from fictional and for those less acquainted with the history of the period to keep the characters in line.

This is a really fascinating read for those interested in the plight of the Jews, or how Vives managed to get himself involved in the lives of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon and the English royal court.

This is also published on my sister blog BookBloggerish | For Everything Bookish (wordpress.com).

Book Review – ‘Princess of Thorns’ by Saga Hillbom


Thank you to the author for giving me a copy of this to review.

I really enjoyed this quite unique take on the Wars of the Roses and the reign of Henry VII. Told from the point of view of Cecily of York, daughter of Edward IV and sister to Elizabeth of York (wife of Henry VII) it gives a different view almost from the outside in. It also offers a fictional account of a woman at the centre of the warring factions, essentially Yorkist but forced to marry a staunch Lancastrian.

This novel has certainly made me more interested in the other York sisters and following their lives a bit more closely. I know a bit about Elizabeth of York having studied the Tudors and been introduced to her through Henry VII, but the others seem to have led interesting lives as well, so I want to read more around them.

The writing is concise and the descriptions clear, making you believe that you can see the pieces of jewellery described or be in the places that the characters are in, picturing those same characters clearly in your head though, for me at least, influenced in part by historical TV dramas like ‘The White Queen’ (eye roll). The book is quite fast-paced, but sentimental in places, and the balance between the two is exceptional.

The sibling rivalry between Cecily and her eldest sister, Elizabeth, was brilliantly done, and echoes squabbling siblings across the ages, only this was a more high-stakes environment. The jealousy of what could be perceived as the less successful or powerful sibling (Cecily) juxtaposed against the more powerful and influential queen (Elizabeth) exacerbates what I’m sure siblings today will recognise. That gives a touch of the familiar into this otherwise unrecognisable world compared to today.

If there are any lovers of historical fiction based in the Wars of the Roses or early Tudor period I would thoroughly recommend this book as it offers something unique, being written from the point of view of a woman often overlooked in history, but who at the same time was at the centre of events and who suffered many personal tragedies in her life. Saga Hillbom tells her story with sensitivity and demonstrates just how perilous life and ambition could be.

This review is also published on my sister blog BookBloggerish | For Everything Bookish (wordpress.com).

Saga Hillbom has also written a guest post for this blog on the marriage of Richard III and Anne Neville, which can be found here.

Book Review – ‘Mary Tudor: A Story of Triumph, Sorrow and Fire’ by Anthony Ruggiero


Thank you to the author for sending me a proof of this book.

This is more of a thesis than a full-length book on the life and reign of Mary I. There are three main areas discussed – Mary’s early life and rise to the throne, her Spanish marriage to Philip II, and the French Wars during which England lost Calais.

The writing is strong, getting straight to the point the writer is trying to make. Many of the sentences I find quite long, and it could have benefitted perhaps from a more concise approach to sentence structure. Each chapter starts with a clear outline of what will be discussed, making it easy to follow. Some books it is sometimes difficult to figure out exactly what each chapter will be about, but not here.

The footnotes are well-done in the accepted academic style, but it feels like the same sources are used on repeat, lacking the variety of some other texts, in both primary and secondary sources. However, the sources used seem diverse, especially secondary sources, but could have benefitted from more exploration of primary sources. There are a few images used, but these could have benefitted from more involvement in the text, though the captions detail exactly what the image is and where it’s come from.

Nevertheless, an interesting read, especially around the French Wars, which I didn’t know as much about as the other sections. For anyone interested in Mary I, this is worth a read as it is concise and introduces some of the most important aspects of her reign.

Book Review – ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ by Heather Morris


This book is beautiful. Stunning. Haunting. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get round to reading it. I think in a way it’s the idea of reading about Auschwitz. The name itself has a kind of sickening fascination. The subject matter will be distressing for some and I think you probably have to be in the right frame of mind to really enjoy this book but find that frame of mind and you’ll be blown away.

Based on a true story, ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ follows the story of Lale and Gita and how their lives intertwine during those fateful years during the Second World War that Auschwitz became infamous for the extermination of the Jews. Lale tattooes the numbers onto the arms of those who live and work in the camp, and his own personal struggles with this job, and how he uses it to try and make the lives of those around him easier is inspiring. There are so many facets to the characters that come out and it’s beautiful.

Morris weaves a tale of hope and help in the midst of such horrifying events, and the juxtaposition of the two is incredibly powerful in the way that it’s told. Reading this with the hindsight of history in some ways makes it harder because we know how many people died as a result of camps like Auschwitz, but you can see the love and hope in these characters. A love story and hope for the future in the midst of so much death really does provide optimism and hope in the present.

“To save one is to save the world”.

This line sums up the promise in this book. It echoes throughout the story and is taken to heart. If you help or save just one person then your existence is worth it. I can’t even express how much this book moved me. If you haven’t read it, go out and read it now. If you haven’t already seen it, I have published my review of the sequel, ‘Cilka’s Journey’, already.

I don’t think it’s possible to explain this book – you just have to go and read it!

This has also been published on my sister blog bookbloggerish.wordpress.com.

Book Review – ‘Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen’ by Samantha Wilcoxson


I’ve really enjoyed this view on Elizabeth of York. There are a lot of historical fiction books about Henry VIII and his wives, but fewer about Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, so this was really interesting for me. I’ve read ‘The White Princess’ by Philippa Gregory, but I thought that this was much better, and more enjoyable.

It was really well-written, and it paid attention to the historical record, while filling in any gaps in the established knowledge with plausible explanations. For example, the fate of the Princes in the Tower is interweaved through the story, going through Richard III’s reign, and the rebellions of Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. Wilcoxson at the end does reveal through the story what she believes happened to them (without spoiling it!).

Elizabeth as a character is interesting, trying to juxtapose her Plantagenet beginnings with her Tudor marriage. The comparison of Prince Arthur as a Tudor prince and Prince Henry (later Henry VIII) as a Plantagenet prince is fascinating, and not something that I’ve really thought about before, but it does make a certain amount of sense. Elizabeth’s relationship with Henry is also quite interesting as she is portrayed as not wanting to marry him, but gradually falls in love with him, although they have ups and downs, as in any marriage.

Other books seem to portray Elizabeth as a kind of victim, and at the mercy of her husband and mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, but in this book she is seen as a true Queen who influenced events and made her own decisions. Henry VII was also a fascinating character, as he is often seen in history as a miser, but this didn’t really seem to happen until after Elizabeth’s death, so it’s interesting to see him with Elizabeth and the possibilities of their relationship.

I am looking forward to reading the other books in this series about Margaret Pole and Mary I, and how they might be portrayed, as they have also not been written about very much, so it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to, although I need to get through my unread books first!

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

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