Book Review – ‘The Familiars’ by Stacey Halls


I really enjoyed this book. I started listening to it on audiobook, but I wasn’t very into it. When I started reading the physical book, however, I really got into it and there were places where I really didn’t want to put it down.

I loved Fleetwood Shuttleworth as a character, and Alice Grey, but I couldn’t really seem to connect with the others. Richard Shuttleworth, Fleetwood’s husband, I thought was a wet blanket at first, but we started to see his backbone and it was interesting following his development as a character, and the change in his relationship with Fleetwood as well. Roger Nowell I think was the villain that you really didn’t like – he was completely manipulative and determined to get his own way and rise in the world, no matter the consequences. In a way he was quite a sad character.

The story of Fleetwood’s pregnancy is haunting, having lost so many babies before they were born, and believing that she wouldn’t live to see this one grow up either. That’s the overarching theme of the book – the struggle of women in childbed and in doing things of their own free will without the guiding hand of their husband. It was a dark time for women – accusations of witchcraft, the fear of dying in childbed, men taking mistresses and the women having to accept it, being totally at the beck and call of a man. We see Fleetwood battle against all of these things to find her place in the world and help a friend in dire need.

I wanted to see more of the Pendle witches and the trials. I felt that, for a book set in this fascinating area and based around accusations of witchcraft, that felt a little lacking in places. There were bits and pieces about the accusations and the women who were being accused but it was largely second-hand rumour and gossip. I wanted to see more from the first-hand accounts of the women involved. That’s what let it down for me, story-wise.

I really enjoy Stacey Halls’s writing, having read ‘The Foundling’ before, and I’m really glad I finally gave in and read this one! I’ll look forward to reading Halls’s new book ‘Mrs England’ in the future.

Book Review – ‘The Queen’s Spy’ by Clare Marchant


Thank you to Avon Books for sending me a copy of this for review.

I really enjoyed this book, and it was interesting to see the spying in the Elizabethan court from a fictional point of view, having read a lot of nonfiction about it recently for my own book. It’s quite a complex subject and period of time but Clare Marchant deals with it in a sympathetic and concise manner, keeping the story moving along.

The Babington Plot was a pivotal moment in the history of Elizabethan and Tudor England, because it led directly to the execution of an anointed monarch, Mary Queen of Scots, although the book doesn’t cover the execution itself. We see the background to the plot through the eyes of a deaf and mute apothecary’s assistant, Tom Lutton, who is pulled into the dark world of Francis Walsingham and back-street spying and conspiracy.

In the end he pays a high price for his involvement, but this is contrasted with the parallel story of one of Lutton’s descendants in 2021, Mathilde and Rachel. I’m never entirely sure about a book written both in the present and in the past, having had bad experiences with parallel narratives before. However, this was startlingly clear, and the two parts worked really well together.

Mathilde, Rachel, Fleur, and Oliver, all added something to the narrative of the past, even though they are characters based in the present. The way they explored the triptych and the history behind it added more depth to Tom’s story in his chapters, and the ending tied everything together really nicely, making it feel like a completed whole.

An excellent fictional exploration of a complex period in English history, with characters that make you want to read on and find out how their stories end. I was completely gripped.

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 – ‘Katharine Parr: The Sixth Wife’ by Alison Weir


I have thoroughly enjoyed this whole series from Alison Weir and what a way to end! Although the previous two for me were the weakest (‘Anna of Kleve’ and ‘Katheryn Howard’). This one brought the series back up to the levels of the first three books in the series. Katherine Parr is often just remembered as the sixth wife and the one who survived, but this offers a new insight into her life and the people who she affected and who affected her most.

Katherine Parr has always fascinated me – she was the only one of Henry’s wives to have married twice before her marriage to the King (Katherine of Aragon was married once before) and then once after as well! She is a really intriguing woman who suffered so much through her life and died tragically as well, though at least it was a natural death rather than a beheading!

The book was full of detail and well-paced. I had thought that maybe Weir would rush through Katherine’s first two marriages, but she didn’t, and I think that was actually my favourite part of the book – the bit that I know least about, and certainly is least written about Katherine. The focus tends to be on her royal marriage and her fourth marriage to Thomas Seymour and the controversy with Elizabeth, but it was these early marriages which really shaped her, so it was super interesting to read about those in a fictionalised way.

The ideas of betrayal and religion run throughout as Katherine struggles not to betray her own religious beliefs, or her feelings about Thomas Seymour, to those around her. This was a tumultuous period in English history where religion was very much an open question and Weir handles it sensitively with the views of the time not marred too much by the sensibilities of the present.

This was an excellent book to finish the series off on and this is certainly a series I will come back to again and re-read.

Book Review – ‘Royal Seals: Images of Power and Majesty’ by Paul Dryburgh


I absolutely loved this book. I have always been very interested in the history of the monarchy and believe it is an essential part of England’s history and an important part of the future as well. This was an intriguing look into the past through the National Archives.

The images in the book are incredibly good quality, large and easy to see the details. The photos of the seals are detailed and close-up, so even if you never get the chance to see them for real at the archives the pictures themselves are well-worth paying the price of the book. The accompanying text for each image is a history of the seal and the use of image, portrayals of power, and the basic history of the reign which affected the images on the seal.

It offers a glimpse into the different seals of the monarchs, nobility, and clergy. Comparing the differences between them is interesting and it’s easy to compare through the images. The key to a good seal seems to be demonstrations of power and quite a lot of heraldry to represent different elements of the person who the seal is supposed to represent.

The section I actually found particularly interesting, which I didn’t expect, was on the ways that the seals were created, and how this changed over time. The materials and the discussions of how they were created, and also how the significance of the document often depended on the seal. I would really like an index so that it’s easy to find a particular section you’re looking for.

The bibliography is quite comprehensive and demonstrates that really there is a gap in the market to write about this, especially from an author who spends his working life with these seals and other historical artefacts. This is a book I will keep on my shelf for years to come and dip in and out of.

Chapters

  1. Royal Seals
  2. Personal Seals
  3. Ecclesiastical Seals
  4. Materials

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!

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.