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 – ‘Following in the Footsteps of the Princes in the Tower’ by Andrew Beattie


Andrew Beattie 'Following in the Footsteps of the Princes in the Tower'

Thanks to Pen and Sword Books for the chance to read this.

The story of the Princes in the Tower is well known: the grim but dramatic events of 1483, when the twelve-year-old Edward Plantagenet was taken into custody by his uncle, Richard of Gloucester, and imprisoned in the Tower of London along with his younger brother, have been told and re-told hundreds of times. The ways in which the events of that year unfolded remain shrouded in mystery, and the fate of the young princes forms an infamous backdrop to Richard III’s reign and the end of the Wars of the Roses. Although little about the princes’ lives is commonly known, Following in the Footsteps of the Princes in the Tower tells the story in a way that is wholly new: through the places they lived in and visited. From Westminster Abbey to the Tower of London, and from the remote castle of Ludlow in the Welsh borders to the quiet Midlands town of Stony Stratford – via major medieval centres such as Northampton and Shrewsbury – the trail through some of England’s most historic places throws a whole new light on this most compelling of historical dramas. [Description from Pen & Sword Books]

I really enjoyed this trip through the lives of the Princes in the Tower. I’d been eyeing this book up for a while so was thrilled when Pen and Sword offered me the chance to read it. The book doesn’t look so much at the disappearance of the Princes, although that is covered in the section on the Tower of London, but at where they spent their lives. The Princes in the Tower is one of my absolute favourite historical mysteries, along with Jack the Ripper, and I don’t think I will ever tire of reading about it because it is so fascinating and there are so many different tendrils to research and discover. The places where they lived and where the great events of their lives took place is just one part of it.

There are excellent sections on the aforementioned Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and Palace, Stony Stratford, and Ludlow. It’s a really interesting way of looking at something that has been examined over and over for the past 500 years. There is also a section at the end looking at the possibility that one or both of the princes could have survived the Tower, and what could have happened to them afterwards, including the Simnel and Warbeck rebellions, and some lesser known myths and legends.

There were plenty of images of the different places discussed which helped to place the events in the locations, and portraits from the time. It helps to link everything together when you have visual aids as well as descriptions and analysis.

However, I didn’t think that the constant references to fictional works like those by Philippa Gregory, Emma Darwin, Terence Morgan and Vanora Bennett really added anything. I skipped past a lot of them. In my opinion, it would have been better to discuss some of the historiography of the places – what other people have thought about these places and how views have changed over time. That is what I felt was missing from this book.

Nevertheless, an enjoyable and interesting read, and I am looking forward to reading another in the series which I have on my shelf – ‘Following in the Footsteps of Henry Tudor’, about Henry VII and places he visited before the Battle of Bosworth.

Chapters:

  1. Westminster: Sanctuary, Palace and Abbey
  2. Ludlow, Shrewsbury and the Marches
  3. A Coup on Watling Street – Northampton and Stony Stratford
  4. Palace and Prison: The Tower of London
  5. The Aftermath – Ghosts and Tombs, Imposters and Battlefields

Book Review – ‘Richard III: Fact and Fiction’ by Matthew Lewis


Matthew Lewis 'Richard III Fact and Fiction'

Matthew Lewis, Richard III: Fact and Fiction (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 2019) ISBN 9781526727978

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

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I really enjoyed this book. I liked the way that it was set out in sections so you could easily dip in and out of it, perfect for those who want to know more but don’t have the background. If you’ve watched ‘The White Queen’ and want to know more about Richard, I’d recommend this book as it clearly separates fact from fiction without assuming the reader is a complete ninny. Some books, in trying to set things out clearly, simplify the facts too much, but Lewis doesn’t make this error.

Each chapter is split into sections and each section asks a different question that is contentious over Richard III – did he kill the Princes in the Tower? Did he and the Woodvilles have a running feud? Was he betrayed at Bosworth? These and many others are explored in this book. It is written chronologically, starting with Richard’s birth and child, his time as Duke of Gloucester, his reign as King of England, and then his tragic end at the Battle of Bosworth. It also looks at how accurate or otherwise Shakespeare’s portrayal was, and what we’ve learned from the discovery of Richard III’s bones in Leicester.

Some of the things that Lewis brings up are really interesting and I hadn’t really thought about them before, but most of the conclusions he draws make sense. Lewis examines the evidence that exists, and puts forward his own opinions. I like that he doesn’t force his conclusions on you either, but gives you the evidence and allows you to make up your own mind. Continue reading “Book Review – ‘Richard III: Fact and Fiction’ by Matthew Lewis”

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”

Book Review – ‘An Alternative History of Britain: Tudors’ by Timothy Venning


An Alternative History of Britain Tudors - Timothy Venning

Timothy Venning, An Alternative History of Britain: the Tudors (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 2014) ISBN 9781783462728

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

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I had been wanting to read this book for a while, so when I was given the chance to get a review copy, I was thrilled! I also wasn’t disappointed, as I thought that this book was thoroughly engaging and I just wanted to keep reading. The chapters each deal with a separate issue running chronologically through the Tudor period, though I could have done with more around Henry VII and the rebellions against his reign – what could have happened had one of them succeeded?

The sections I found particularly interesting were the ones on Henry VIII’s tiltyard accident of January 1536 and Jane Grey. They are two instances which have always really interested me, as it has been suggested that Henry’s tiltyard accident resulted in a change of personality and, had Jane Grey managed to hold onto the throne, would we still have had Queen Elizabeth I? There are questions stemming from questions in this book, and it covers a lot of the major possibilities, while also intertwining some of the more minor decisions that were made.

Continue reading “Book Review – ‘An Alternative History of Britain: Tudors’ by Timothy Venning”

Book Review – ‘Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville: a True Romance’ by Amy Licence


Amy Licence 'Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville'Amy Licence, Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville: a True Romance (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2016) ISBN 978-1-4456-3678-8

First off, apologies, Amy, for being so tardy on my review when you so kindly sent me a review copy! I wanted to get it just right.

I first fell in love with Amy Licence’s writing after reading her book ‘In Bed with the Tudors’. She has a knack of writing in a different way about things that have been written before, but she can make it seem completely new and exciting.

It’s only relatively recently that I’ve developed an interest in the Wars of the Roses. I’ve generally thought it too complicated, but it is books like this one that have helped to change my mind – it’s engaging and gives you the basics without feeling like you’re back in school!

But this book isn’t just about the battles and conflicts of the Wars of the Roses, it’s about something simpler – the love of a man for a woman. Continue reading “Book Review – ‘Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville: a True Romance’ by Amy Licence”

Book Review – ‘Thomas Cromwell’ by Tracy Borman


Tracy Borman 'Thomas Cromwell'
Tracy Borman ‘Thomas Cromwell’

Tracy Borman, Thomas Cromwell: the Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) Hardback, ISBN 978-1-444-78285-1

Title: The title is pretty much what it says – a historical biography of Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s servant, and the one that always managed to do what Henry wanted. Even when he was imprisoned at the end of his life, it was his evidence that enabled Henry to annul the Cleves marriage. He succeeded where Wolsey failed. Untold? You’ll have to read it to see what you think.

Preface: The preface includes a discussion of the influence of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on the perception of Thomas Cromwell. This drives the need for a rehabilitation of Cromwell, not just seeing him as a villain. There is also a discussion of the popular Holbein portrait as a prelude to introducing the key sources. Key aspects of Cromwell’s character are also brought into play – pragmatism, loving husband and father, measured and ruthless.

Citations: There are clear citations throughout the text with links to the endnotes at the back of the book. There is plenty of information given within the endnotes – sometimes similar sources where you might find contrasting or supporting information, with all details so it is easy to track down. Endnotes are also divided down by chapter to make it even easier to find the section you want. Continue reading “Book Review – ‘Thomas Cromwell’ by Tracy Borman”

Book Review – ‘Thomas Cromwell’ by David Loades


David Loades 'Thomas Cromwell'
David Loades ‘Thomas Cromwell’

David Loades, Thomas Cromwell: Servant to Henry VIII (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2014) Paperback, ISBN 978-1-4456-4001-3

Title: The title is pretty much what it says – a historical biography on Thomas Cromwell who, on the orders of Henry VIII, initiated the Break with Rome, arranged the execution of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, and the dissolution of the monasteries. He was definitely Henry VIII’s servant.

Preface: The preface is very short, only two pages long. It gives the basic background of how Cromwell grew out of Wolsey’s disgrace to become Henry’s chief minister, and showed him how to get his divorce away from the Roman Catholic Church. Nothing is mentioned about sources at all.

Citations: There are no footnotes at all. There are reference points in the text, and a list of endnotes at the back of the book. Plenty of information is given about the sources used, and the endnotes also include some information not necessary to the text, but that might prove interesting to readers looking for further information. Continue reading “Book Review – ‘Thomas Cromwell’ by David Loades”

Book Review – ‘Lancaster and York’ by Alison Weir


Alison Weir, ‘Lancaster and York: the Wars of the Roses’ (London: Vintage Books, 2009) Paperback, ISBN 978-0-099-54017-5

Alison Weir 'Lancaster and York'
Alison Weir ‘Lancaster and York’

Title: The title is very apt, as the book covers mainly the first part of the Wars of the Roses – when Lancaster and York were at war, and not the latter part where the war was between York itself (Richard III and the Princes in the Tower or Edward IV vs. the Duke of Clarence). It focuses on the role of Margaret of Anjou, and the conflicts between her and the Duke of York, which led to York triumphing over Lancaster.

Preface: The preface / introduction is quite short, but gives a quick overview of the main focal points of the Wars of the Roses, and explains where the idea came from to write about the Wars of the Roses when most of her books are written about the Tudors. Weir discusses the meagre amount of surviving sources, but then fails to build on that in the book itself.

Citations: There aren’t really any citations to speak of, which makes it difficult to track where certain information comes from. All there is is a general bibliography at the end, with a couple of family trees, which are useful as the period is a complicated one. What would probably have been more useful even than citations, particularly for a reader relatively new to the period, would have been a list of who was on the side of York and who was on the side of Lancaster. Continue reading “Book Review – ‘Lancaster and York’ by Alison Weir”