Book Review – ‘The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I’ by Stephen Alford


This was a very intriguing read largely regarding the secret network of spies and informants built up around Elizabeth I, with William Cecil, Baron Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Sir Robert Cecil at its heart. It explores in detail the Throckmorton Plot of 1583 and the Babington Plot of 1586 where the use of spies and ciphers really came into their own.

It was well-written and clearly a lot of research had been done, much of which I hadn’t read about before. However, I felt that in places it also seemed overly complicated, and I couldn’t wrap my head around some of it until I’d read it at least three times. I also had to keep going back to check on the people involved in various plots. There was a lot of jumping about from person to person which I think is sometimes where I got a bit lost, and the writing then lost some of its cohesiveness.

There were detailed endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography, easy to track down the research used. The book plate section in the centre I also felt was well-chosen and linked to what was written about in the text. It was nice to also have some images spread throughout the text when they were particularly appropriate, it made a nice change actually.

There was an interesting introduction of ‘what if’ Elizabeth I had been assassinated after the spy network failed and how this could have influenced English and European history. It illustrated Alford’s point of just how important the Tudor spy network was in keeping monarch and country safe and prosperous.

This was a very helpful book to read for my own writing on Elizabethan Rebellions, but I did have to make a lot of notes and then go back through them to make sure I understood it. Not an easy read, but a very informative one, nonetheless.

Chapters:

Part One – Spying Out the Land

  1. Ten Days in November
  2. The Lion’s Mouth
  3. English Roman Lives
  4. ‘Judas his parts’
  5. Paris and London
  6. Hunting Edmund Campion
  7. Out of the Shadows

Part Two – Enemies of the State

  1. ‘Sundry wicked plots and means’
  2. The Secret Lives of William Parry
  3. ‘The enemy sleeps not’
  4. ‘A very unadvised enterprise’
  5. Dangerous Fruits
  6. Alias Cornelys
  7. Sleights of Hand
  8. Framing the Labyrinth

Part Three – Politics and Money

  1. An Axe and an Armada
  2. ‘Good and painful long services’
  3. Platforms and Passports
  4. The Fall and Rise of Thomas Phelippes
  5. Politics and Prognostications
  6. Ends and Beginnings

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 – ‘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 – ‘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 – ‘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

Book Review – ‘1545: Who Sank the Mary Rose?’ by Peter Marsden


Thanks to Pen & Sword for the chance to read and review this book, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get around to doing it.

I found this book really interesting. There were so many different parts to it. I’ve never been to the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, though my parents have, and it’s somewhere that I do really want to go. I’ve devoured the guidebook they bought me back, and this book only made me more interested in it and crave a visit even more.

What I found really interesting was the central idea of the book that Henry VIII was responsible for the sinking of the ship the Mary Rose in 1545 because he was determined to have a hand in the redesign of his existing ships around 1536. He filled the Mary Rose with too many guns and her gun ports were too close to the waterline, so when she turned and caught an unexpected gust of wind she heeled over and sank.

The book doesn’t just look at who sank the Mary Rose, but the history of the ship from its beginnings at the start of Henry VIII’s reign right through to when she sank outside Portsmouth Harbour at the end of Henry VIII’s reign. There are also chapters on the salvage efforts, which I didn’t realise began within weeks of the sinking, as well as the lead up to the sinking, reconstructing the ship, and the ship’s legacy.

This is a great read for anyone with an interest in Tudor history or naval history. It’s a really interesting subject and one which deserves more to be written about it.

Chapters:

  1. Disaster
  2. Building the Mary Rose
  3. Into Action 1512-1514
  4. The Second French War 1522
  5. Modernisation
  6. The French King’s Vengeance
  7. Trapped in Portsmouth Harbour
  8. The English Set Sail
  9. The French Admiral Attacks
  10. Admiral Lisle’s Revenge
  11. Salvage
  12. Discovery and Raising
  13. Reconstructing the Mary Rose
  14. Final Moments: The Castles and Masts
  15. Final Moments: Soldiers on the Upper Gun Deck
  16. Final Moments: Main Gun Deck
  17. Final Moments: The Orlop Deck
  18. Final Moments: Bodies in the Hold
  19. Who Sank the Mary Rose?
  20. Legacy of the Mary Rose

‘Katherine Howard: Henry VIII’s Slandered Queen’ by Conor Byrne


Big thanks to The History Press for sending me a review copy of this book, and sorry it’s taken so long to review it!

This book had an interesting premise that I think should have been explored long before now. The idea is that Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife wasn’t actually an empty-headed teenager who acted according to her basest instincts, but instead was a young woman who acted as best she could according to her experience and was sexually manipulated by the men in her life. This book challenges the more traditional view.

Byrne makes a good case, but I am unconvinced by his arguments. A lot of the book is repetitive about the nature of Katherine’s relationships with Manox and Dereham, and how the two men had manipulated Katherine into sexual relationships, and even abused her. However, I think it is an intriguing argument.

The book is well-researched with a complete bibliography and notes. There are primary sources cited throughout, and the historiography is discussed in full in the first chapter, including works by Retha Warnicke, Josephine Wilkinson and Gareth Russell. The notes are detailed and advise further reading as well as where the primary sources can be found.

The book could have been shorter had you taken out the repetitiveness, as I felt it was over-stated. However, it is well-worth reading as Conor Byrne discusses a new possibility on Katherine Howard’s sexual relationships and her suitability as queen consort to Henry VIII. It’s quite interesting and if you are fascinated by the six wives of Henry VIII it is accessible and erudite to read.

Chapter List:

  1. Introduction: Historiography of Queen Katherine Howard
  2. Henry VIII’s Accession and the Howards
  3. A Howard Queen
  4. ‘His Vicious Purpose’: Manox and Dereham 1536-9
  5. ‘Strange, Restless Years’: The Howards at Court 1537-40
  6. The Fourth Queen
  7. Queen Katherine
  8. Queenship 1540-1
  9. The Culpeper Affair
  10. Disgrace and Death

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”

Book Review – ‘A History of Britain in 21 Women’ by Jenni Murray


Broadcaster Jenni Murray’s history of Britain through 21 revolutionary women holds up a new mirror to the past, a catalogue of inspirational lives delivered with wit and verve. They were famous queens, unrecognised visionaries, great artists and trailblazing politicians. They all pushed back boundaries and revolutionised our world. Jenni Murray presents the history of Britain as you’ve never seen it before, through the lives of twenty-one women who refused to succumb to the established laws of society, whose lives embodied hope and change, and who still have the power to inspire us today. [Description from Waterstones]

I really enjoyed this book. I listened to it as an audiobook read by the author, Jenni Murray. She really brings the lives of these women to life and into the modern day, particularly the 17th and 18th century women like Mary Seacole, Ada Lovelace and Mary Somerville. I hadn’t even heard of some of the women, but they all seem like very sensible and imminent suggestions and I want to know more!

The history of these women is explored in great detail, looking briefly at their upbringing and relationships with their family and others around them, before moving on to their achievements and why they deserve inclusion in the list. Murray acknowledges that some of the women included on the list may be controversial, but she manages to explain why each is important and deserves inclusion, even if you might personally disagree or prefer someone else.

There is a lot of focus on the movement for gender equality and women’s rights, which I suppose is understandable, and most of the women come from the 18th century or later, again understandable I suppose, but disappointing. There just isn’t enough surviving evidence about these earlier women to justify a chapter, and women had a lot less freedom to make an impact anyway. As we can see from the list of women covered in the book, women in the earlier period are leaders and queens rather than women in other fields.

The writing style is clear and concise and easy to follow. I was listening to this at work and I don’t feel like I missed a single detail, even though I was focusing on something else. Even when I had to take a break from listening I wanted to get back to it and find out more about these women, some of whom I hadn’t really heard of before or didn’t really know anything about.

What I did like about this book is that every woman is discussed in her own right in her own times, largely without 21st century bias, and giving credit to others where it was due. It’s a really interesting take on the history of women, choosing just 21 from across history.

This is a really interesting read, even if you are looking for something quite light – it isn’t too heavy in detail or complicated concepts. If you have an interest in history, particularly in the role of women in history I would thoroughly recommend this book!

The 21 women discussed in this book are:

  • Boadicea
  • Elizabeth I
  • Aphra Behn
  • Caroline Herschel
  • Fanny Burney
  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Jane Austen
  • Mary Somerville
  • Mary Seacole
  • Ada Lovelace
  • Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
  • Millicent Garrett Fawcett
  • Emmeline Parkhurst
  • Ethel Smythe
  • Constance Markievicz
  • Gwen John
  • Nancy Astor
  • Barbara Castle
  • Margaret Thatcher
  • Mary Quant
  • Nicola Sturgeon

Book Review – ‘The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper’ by Hallie Rubenhold


Five devastating human stories and a dark and moving portrait of Victorian London – the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper. Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888. The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women. For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that ‘the Ripper’ preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told. Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman. [Description from Waterstones]

I really found this book totally engaging and interesting. It’s not about the murders so much as the lives of the victims before their deaths, which is an avenue not much discussed, even among Ripperologists as far as I can tell – the focus is on the murders and the identity of the Ripper himself. Here Rubenhold looks at what some term “the forgotten victims”.

The main supposition of the book is that the women killed by Jack the Ripper weren’t all prostitutes, as is generally accepted, but instead were killed while sleeping – the idea of them being prostitutes is “arbitrary supposition informed by Victorian prejudice”. The only exception to this is Mary Jane Kelly, the final victim, who was the only one who associated herself with the sex trade at the time of her death. This is a suggestion I’ve never heard before, but the way that Rubenhold puts it forward really makes it seem logical and possible.

I knew the basic background of the women – Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stryde, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – but some of the detail in this book really shocked me and made me question some assumptions about the victims and made me think more about their lives before they met the Ripper. From their births to their deaths, and even what was revealed about the women in the inquests, Rubenhold covers it all, and makes a good case for her argument that the women weren’t all prostitutes. However, whether it will change long-established presumptions remains to be seen.

It’s engagingly written and Rubenhold lets it be known where she found her information, and where facts are sure, or it’s merely supposition (the latter largely in the case of Mary Jane Kelly). I listened to it as an audiobook rather than reading it, but it was very easy to listen to and well done. I think perhaps I might have found it a bit too difficult to read in places, given how the lives of these women panned out, but it was great to be able to listen to it instead.

Anyone interested in Jack the Ripper, or in social history during the Victorian period needs to read this book. It is really engaging and might change your mind about something you thought you knew.