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 Peasants’ Revolting Crimes’ by Terry Deary


Popular history writer Terry Deary takes us on a light-hearted and often humorous romp through the centuries with Mr & Mrs Peasant, recounting foul and dastardly deeds committed by the underclasses, as well as the punishments meted out by those on the right side’ of the law. Discover tales of arsonists and axe-wielders, grave robbers and garroters, poisoners and prostitutes. Delve into the dark histories of beggars, swindlers, forgers, sheep rustlers and a whole host of other felons from the lower ranks of society who have veered off the straight and narrow. There are stories of highwaymen and hooligans, violent gangs, clashing clans and the witch trials that shocked a nation. Learn too about the impoverished workers who raised a riot opposing crippling taxes and draconian laws, as well as the strikers and machine-smashers who thumped out their grievances against new technologies that threatened their livelihoods. Britain has never been short of those who have been prepared to flout the law of the land for the common good, or for their own despicable purposes. The upper classes have lorded and hoarded their wealth for centuries of British history, often to the disadvantage of the impoverished. Frustration in the face of this has resulted in revolt. [Description from Waterstones]

Thanks to Pen & Sword for the chance to read and review this book.

I think this was one of the most enjoyable history books I’ve read in a while. I thoroughly enjoyed the Horrible Histories series by Terry Deary when I was younger, and I think it was those books that made me want to study history. This book on the crimes of peasants throughout history doesn’t disappoint when compared – the only thing I miss in comparison to the Horrible Histories are the cartoons, which I suppose have been removed to make this book better for adults.

Deary brings in primary sources throughout, and quotes from various famous people from history, both fictional and real. The book is split down into easily digestible chunks chronologically from the Normans, through the Medieval, Tudor and Stuart periods and on to the Georgians and Victorians, discussing all kinds of crimes from football hooliganism, rioting, grave robbing, poisoning and murder. The whole spectrum is covered, along with different punishments.

I’m not normally a big fan of footnotes – I actually prefer endnotes as it means that you can read without getting distracted by them, and just look at the endnotes that are interesting to you. Some books have really long footnotes, which also really annoys me, but this book doesn’t have that problem. The footnotes in this book are actually really enjoyable, as they seem to add some comic relief and jokes, which are very much like what I remember of Terry Deary.

The chapters are all broken down into sub-sections, making this easy to dip in and out of, or if you are interested in a particular type of crime or a particular period. He goes deeply into some cases where there is a lot of evidence or a moral tale. Deary has a great writing style which makes his work easy to read and engage with, and makes you want to keep reading, which is great in a non-fiction history book, as some of them can be a bit dry. This definitely isn’t a problem with Terry Deary’s books and writing!

This book is definitely worth a read and apparently there will be more in the series with the next one entitled ‘The Peasants’ Revolting Lives’. I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in to the next one, it’s already on my wish list!

Chapters:

  1. Norman Nastiness
  2. Mediaeval Misery
  3. Wild Women
  4. Tudor Twisters
  5. Sinful Stuarts
  6. Quaint Crimes
  7. Georgian Jokers and Victorian Villains

International Women’s Day – Favourite Tudor Women


On International Women’s Day I thought I would give the lowdown on some of my favourite Tudor ladies – Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, Jane Grey and Elizabeth I. All were queen in one way or another, and were strong successful women in their own ways. Here I look at some of the highlights of their lives, and why I enjoy studying them so much. 

Tudor Women

Anne Boleyn 

Anne Boleyn seems to be a popular choice for people’s favourite wife of Henry VIII or favourite Tudor queen in general. But why? She is controversial, inspired great devotion alive and dead, and was (it is widely accepted) innocent of the crimes for which she was executed. However, Katherine Howard was also executed, and it isn’t sure that she was entirely guilty of that which she was accused of, but she doesn’t get the same kind of following or academic interest.  

For me, what makes Anne Boleyn so interesting is that she was a woman, not quite out of her time, but looking to the future. She realised that women were capable of so much more than had been believed, and she had seen women take power and rule – namely Margaret of Austria – and women who enjoyed learning and bettered themselves – Marguerite of Navarre. 

Anne has taught me to be myself and not to be afraid to show my intelligence as she did. 

Continue reading “International Women’s Day – Favourite Tudor Women”

Areas of Study in History


History in Words.
History in Words.

PERIODICAL
This involves examining history within a certain period, i.e. Tudor period 1485-1603 or Victorian period 1837-1901. This could also be by century, for example, looking at the 20th century, or even decade i.e. 1940s. The ways historians divide history down into periods reflect judgments made on the past.
* Sample questions:-
1) How successful were Tudor rebellions between 1485 and 1603?
2) What were the most pivotal events in the Cold War 1945 – 1991 and why?
3) How did England grow into an industrial nation throughout the 19th century?
* Sample literature:-
1) A.N. Wilson, ‘The Victorians’
2) David Loades, ‘The Tudors: History of a Dynasty’
3) Henry Freeman, ‘Roman Britain: a History from Beginning to End’

GEOGRAPHICAL
Geographical history can involve examining history in a particular country, region or city. For example, local history is becoming more popular, like the history of north-east England or the history of Glasgow. Landscapes, weather and the availability of supplies all affect the people who live and work in a particular place. Continue reading “Areas of Study in History”

Book Review – ‘The Women of the Cousins’ War: the Duchess, the Queen and the King’s Mother’ by Philippa Gregory


Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones, The Women of the Cousins’ War: the Duchess, the Queen and the King’s Mother (London: Simon and Schuster Ltd, 2011), Hardback, ISBN 978-0-85720-177-5

Title: Although the book is called The Women of the Cousins’ War, the book only examines a few of them – Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and Jacquetta of Luxembourg. It doesn’t look at Margaret of Anjou or Anne Neville in a lot of detail. Nevertheless, a good study of those it does examine in detail.

Preface: The preface discusses several important questions, like why write about these women? What’s so important about them? It also goes a lot wider, looking at what history is, and what fiction is, and how they can go together. There is also a sub-section on women’s place in history. The introduction is a little long, almost as long as a chapter. Continue reading “Book Review – ‘The Women of the Cousins’ War: the Duchess, the Queen and the King’s Mother’ by Philippa Gregory”

She Wolves – Episode 3 – Jane Grey, Mary I and Elizabeth I 21.03.2012


Edward VI by William Scrots 1550.
Edward VI by William Scrots 1550.

1553 only heirs to the Tudor throne were women – next three monarchs would be women
6 July 1553 Greenwich Palace Edward VI was the only son of Henry VIII and he died – political crisis as no one left to claim the title King of England
Women were not equipped to rule – weaker, more sinful, less rational, unable to fight or make law
Women who tried to take power were seen as unnatural or monstrous
English crown had always been worn by a man
Henry VIII had gone to extreme lengths to have a son to succeed him – declared his daughters bastards after getting rid of their mothers
Henry’s hopes rested on his son’s shoulders
His heir wasn’t clear – uncertain future, two half-sisters and seven cousins, but all of them were women
Which woman would it be?
Mary and Elizabeth knew that under Henry VIII’s will the crown should pass first to Mary then to Elizabeth if Edward died without heirs.
Edward VI was a protestant and Mary I a Catholic Continue reading “She Wolves – Episode 3 – Jane Grey, Mary I and Elizabeth I 21.03.2012”

Assess the Effects of the Reformation on the Lives of Women in Sixteenth-Century Europe?


I was very proud of this essay which I wrote as part of my Masters degree. It got me a first. Please don’t use sections from it in your own work without proper referencing.

The issue of women in history has been neglected until relatively recently. Hence the historiography on the effects of the Reformation on the lives of women is quite up-to-date. Cissie Fairchilds and Peter Wallace have two contrasting opinions which will both be explored in this essay. Fairchilds argues that the Reformation brought ‘some losses but more gains’ for women and ultimately improved women’s status in society.[1] Conversely, Wallace argues that the reformation ‘bound women more tightly to men’s authority’ which diminished their status.[2] These two opinions are irreconcilable, so one must triumph over the other. In this author’s opinion, the Reformation allowed women a measure of freedom, more than had been achieved in the Medieval period, but they were still ultimately subject to patriarchal authority. It was not until much later, into the twentieth century, that women managed to completely break away from man’s authority. The Reformation acted as a catalyst for these later changes. In examining the Reformation in relation to women it is politic to look at several fields of interest: education, marriage, witchcraft, religion, scholarship and monarchy. These key areas will demonstrate the effect of the reformation on the lives of European women in the sixteenth century. Continue reading “Assess the Effects of the Reformation on the Lives of Women in Sixteenth-Century Europe?”

Witchcraft and the Reformation


 

Title page of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520 (from the University of Sydney Library)
Title page of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520 (from the University of Sydney Library)

Witch-hunts were irrevocably tied in to the Reformation. Both Catholic and Protestant countries had cases, but they increased in number during the pivotal period of the Reformation. This was the second half of the sixteenth century. James Sharpe claimed that witchcraft operated ‘within the context of the reformation and counter-reformation’.[i] Witchcraft did not become a major factor in people’s lives until the Reformation, and it died out as the religious situation across Europe settled down and stabilised. In England, for example, the last person executed for witchcraft was Jane Wenham in 1712.[ii] This was a time when England was settled and unified with Scotland. It was probably the most peaceful time to be English.

In some Catholic countries, like Italy, Spain and Portugal, there were actually relatively few witch trials. However, Pope Sixtus IV still felt that the danger was enough to warrant him approving an Inquisition to deal with them.[iii] However, Pope Alexander IV explicitly stopped an Inquisition from dealing with witches as early as 1258. This was possibly because the Church still had its power, whereas in the later period that power was slowly slipping away. The Inquisition, although originally allowed to deal with Jews and Moors in Spain, widened out to include heresy like Protestants, and then witches. Continue reading “Witchcraft and the Reformation”

The Changing Position of Women


What Evidence is there for a Change in Ideas about Women between the Late Medieval and Early Modern Periods?

            Ideas about women in the Medieval period were very different to ideas about women in the Early Modern period with this change largely being due to the religious upheavals that were taking place all over Europe, known as the Reformation. This essay will look at the era of 1100 – 1800 and how ideas about women changed and evolved in this period. The key themes that will be explored are women’s education and writing, looking at writers like Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) and Christine de Pizan (1363 – 1430) to try and understand why ideas about them changed and how much. Other themes are marriage, looking at the influence of the Church in them, and an early developing form of feminism which many of these writers could be considered as being a part of. This essay will argue that ideas about women did change, but it can be debated as to whether or not things actually improved or declined, as marriage laws got harsher rather than better. There is one main problem with this broad debate – the changes definitely were not universal and affected different parts of Europe in different ways with a divide between north and south.

Punishments for witchcraft in 16th-century Germany. Woodcut from Tengler's Laienspiegel, Mainz, 1508.
Punishments for witchcraft in 16th-century Germany. Woodcut from Tengler’s Laienspiegel, Mainz, 1508.

The differences between Medieval and Early Modern marriage look to be minimal at first sight, but they are actually very different. It was not until the eleventh and twelfth centuries that the Church began to take responsibility for marriage which may have been because the Church was gaining more power and becoming more important in European affairs.[1] So, at least in the very early Medieval period, marriage was not sanctioned by the Church, but by the middle of the twelfth century, Church courts settled marriages, the consequences and the validity of such whereas in earlier centuries the Church attempted to influence courts who had the final say on marriages.[2] By the Early Modern period, the Church had control over most areas of everyday life, at least in Catholic countries. Continue reading “The Changing Position of Women”