Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Anne Boleyn

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession, by Alison Weir, is the second in a series of specially commissioned books each of which tells the story of one of Henry VIII’s wives from their point of view (I reviewed Katherine of Aragon, here). Like the first, this instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised story based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. As the author explains at the end, “The scenes in this novel are imagined, but they are not improbable.”

The story of Anne Boleyn has been told many times and from many directions both in books and on film. Each offers a slightly different take on a woman for whom relatively little personal historical detail remains. There are portraits, poetry, letters from the king, and occasional mentions in writing by her contemporaries. These have been woven into the various accounts with which those who have an interest will be familiar. All of this is to say that I was already aware of much of the story being told over these five hundred pages. I needed some fresh angle to hold my attention.

The story opens at Anne’s childhood home of Hever Castle in Kent when she is twelve years old and learns that she is to be sent away to serve at the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands. Anne is delighted by this news, especially as she is gaining preferment over her older sister, Mary. Her only regret is that she will be separated from her beloved brother, George.

Anne spends the next nine years serving in royal courts around northern Europe where she perfects her French language, manners and dress, and learns to play the game of courtly love. She is influenced by the scholars who visit with her mistresses, many of whom espoused enlightened views for the time on the role of women and the church. These views did not preclude the court gentlemen from attempting to have their way where the ladies were concerned. This is presented in what felt a very modern voice.

When war between France and England is threatened Anne returns home where she is found a place at the court of Queen Katherine. Here she falls in love but is thwarted. She is also noticed by Henry who starts his pursuit of her affections.

It took around seven years for Henry to find a way to marry Anne. This period is covered in around two hundred pages during which I struggled to maintain engagement. Naturally Anne changes over this difficult period in her life. She has chosen to eschew the love of others for the potential power of a match with a king.

There are other events to consider, especially those affecting her family. Anne’s regard for George is tested and her increasingly arrogant behaviour gains her enemies. She appears to do little of note while waiting other than call down vengeance on those who will not actively support her cause.

Once Anne is pregnant the story picks up pace although her inability to bear a living son is well known. As Henry seeks his entertainments elsewhere Anne becomes a solitary figure, widely disliked and with her hard fought for power on the wane. Anne’s enemies may now treat her as she did others.

Facing death, Anne takes on a piety that had not previously been obvious. I suspect this is not unusual. I balked at the portrayal of Anne’s decapitation. The Author’s Note at the end, especially on this, was interesting to read.

The author, a respected historian, offers new angles to consider in a number of areas which I will not spoil by detailing. She is an accomplished writer and the story flows. What it lacked, as far as I was concerned, was enough new material to maintain my interest. Given the book’s length, in places I needed more.

For fans of historical fiction this is a carefully researched and nicely written addition to the story of Anne Boleyn. I put my sometimes less than positive response above down to the number of other accounts of this queen that I have both watched and read. I do still look forward to the remaining instalments in this series. I know less about their protagonists.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

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Book Review: 1066 What Fates Impose

From the author:

“The events of mid eleventh century may seem a long way away but the Battle of Hastings set England on a new course. In the early part of that distant century, England had been just one of the kingdoms in Knut’s Empire, which included Denmark and Norway. England was as much a part of the north as the other two. The language and culture were similar. England did not look south for ideas and remained aloof from Southern European affairs. After Hastings all this changed.”

“In 1066, England had a population of about two million people. Adults stood as tall as the English do today. By 1166 the population had halved and the average adult was three inches shorter. There had been neither famine nor plague. What happened was that half the Saxon population died at the hands of the Normans, and those who survived worked longer, paid more taxes and ate less. The English, under an apartheid-like regime, were denied access to positions of power and ownership of substantial amounts of land.

William had conquered; Norman civilisation had arrived.”

1066 What Fates Impose, by GK Holloway, is a work of historical fiction woven around well known facts. The main story opens in 1045 with the marriage of King Edward, son of the late King Ethlelred, to Edith, daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. It was to be the culmination of the Earl’s plans to establish his family at the heart of the English ruling elite. As well as his daughter he had six sons, all of whom would benefit from familial ties to the King. The marriage should have resolved the troublesome issue of succession. This was not to be.

In Saxon times the King ruled but required ratification from the Witan. This was a type of law court where the aristocracy, senior churchmen and landowners came together several times a year, in different parts of the country, to determine policy and to try criminals. Life was harsh and punishments severe but the rules were understood. The Witan also agreed who should be King.

The church, although influenced by decisions made by the pope in Rome, was still concerned with local affairs. Priests could marry and services were carried out in English. This too was soon to change. Key cardinals abroad were pushing for more power and autonomy, offering eternal life to their supporters in a world where death came easily.

“He shifted his gaze to the English clerics, looking at them with utter disdain. What a rabble they were, like shepherds, overly concerned with their flocks; too busy looking the wrong way, paying attention to the bleating of their woolly-minded parishioners to concentrate on what truly mattered: papal reform and the rule of Rome.”

King Edward was politically astute but felt closer to his French speaking Norman friends – he had lived in exile in Normandy for twenty-five years – than to the English with whom he now had to forge allegiances. Godwin and his sons were well liked in the south but further north and west trouble brewed. Although recognising their English King, the Saxon regions of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex had not long before ruled themselves. Their Earls remained powerful men, and fought for the rights of their families and allies to retain their positions.

The story follows the trajectory of the Godwins whilst taking certain liberties in order to create a compelling tale. As most fiction I have read from this era concentrates on the Normans, I found the details of Saxon history fascinating.

There are nuggets of information: how to forge a strong sword; the trade in slaves between Wales and Ireland via Bristol; the differing battle techniques of Saxons and Normans; manners and customs of the time; the continuing acceptance of certain pagan customs in a supposedly Christian land.

It is unfortunate that I found certain dialogue scenes at times almost facile. Story telling requires personalisation of historical figures but the conversation style felt simplified and often grated. Other than as objects for sex, especially to rape, the women barely get a mention.

The final quarter of the book deals with the summer of 1066. As may be expected, the tension mounts and, despite knowing what the outcome must be, this section remained engaging. The gruesome scenes brought home the realities and aftermath of a life where battles were a regular occurrence.

The author presents the Saxon way of life as violent but ordered. The Welsh, Scots, Norsemen and Normans bring devastation to the populace and this is reciprocated to protect the assets of their rulers. As with much of history, it is easy to draw parallels with other eras. Invaders have long regarded themselves as worthy, somehow better, and felt little remorse at slaughtering those who threaten what they believe is rightfully theirs. The graphic scenes in this book of the burning and pillage bring home what suffering war creates. That it may today be done remotely makes it no less terrible.

This was an interesting book to read. Whilst lacking the complexity and nuance of historical fictions such as Wolf Hall, it offers a snapshot of another time commonly written of, and from a fresh perspective.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Harrowing

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The Harrowing, by James Aitcheson, is a story of the wanton destruction and futility of war as it effects ordinary people. Set a few years after the Battle of Hastings, when King William rode north through England to quash the remaining rebel uprisings by burning and killing everything and everyone he found, it is told from the point of view of five disparate individuals. Merewyn is the lady of a small but prosperous manor. Tova is a slave recently granted her freedom. Beorn is a warrior who saves their lives and reluctantly offers his protection if they travel with him to a gathering of rebels. Guthred is a priest trying to make his way to the abbey at Lindisfarne to return stolen church treasure. Oslac is a travelling minstrel originally from the south. Each carries with them shameful secrets.

The stories of how these five came to meet offer a fresh perspective on a well documented period in history. These are not the titled and wealthy victors, rewarded for brave deeds that they wish to be remembered and celebrated in story and song. Rather they are the tales of the regular folk caught up in tumultuous times. They have watched as loved ones were butchered and homes razed. They are being hunted and killed by bands of men seeking vengeance for deeds in which they played no part. There is little food or shelter to be found as so much has been systematically destroyed.

The tale unfolds over a period of eight difficult days during which each of the five confess to the others their misdeeds. The device used to weave their stories together evokes the real and present danger they are in but relies on an acceptance that strangers in extremis will open up in this way. There is talk of owing each other truth and of selfishness when one or other suggests they may leave the group, yet these people have only just met. Nevertheless, the stories they tell offer a fascinating account of life at this juncture in time.

It is not just the Norman army that threatens but also reavers. Hunger and the encroaching winter weather must be faced. The church is powerful but pagan beliefs remain. Many struggle to make sense of the savagery around them and question God’s existence.

The five stories are well told. The author conjures day to day life as it would have been before the harrowing, and also the social levelling that war can bring. When one’s very survival is tenuous food and dry clothes matter more than coin or gems. Both the best and worst of people are brought to the fore when their lives are at risk, when they have little else to lose.

This was an enjoyable read that offered insights into experiences I had not considered, despite having read much around this period. By looking at the war from a variety of sides the rationale behind actions is brought into focus. If only we could learn the lessons of our history.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Heron Books. 

Book Review: The Shogun’s Queen

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The Shogun’s Queen, by Lesley Downer, tells the story of Okatsu, the daughter of a minor Japanese lord, who is taken from everything and everyone she knows to become wife of the most powerful ruler in the land, the Shogun. It is set in the mid nineteenth century when Japan was invaded by those they referred to as barbarians – well armed traders sent from countries in Europe and America. The cherished culture and rituals of the Japanese way of life was thereby changed forever.

Okatsu has never known poverty but, as the political machinations of the lords and princes of her region propel her ever higher up the strictly preserved social and political hierarchy, she discovers wealth beyond comprehension. Those who have acquired these riches and the power it brings are loath to risk relinquishing it. They will stop at nothing to strengthen and secure their position.

As a woman Okatsu has little choice in the course her life must take. Whilst she accepts this she also rails against the loneliness she must endure. There are few she can trust. She is watched constantly and is required to obey. When she grows close to her husband this is seen as a threat as well as a distraction by those who demand her compliance, whatever the cost to herself.

The world depicted is close to unimaginable for modern sensibilities and offers an insight into a way of life that those living it fought to preserve despite the gross inequalities. The powerful men kept palaces of women locked up for their own personal use. When a ruler died this household was required to take holy orders and spend their remaining days praying for their master’s spirit. Some of the women were chosen for their youth and beauty yet never spent time with the man who owned them and could never belong to another. They endured a life filled with sniping and backstabbing, locked up forever in a luxurious prison.

The descriptions of the barbarians are particularly interesting – how what is unknown is feared, as is change. There were plenty who were intrigued by the gifts presented by the invaders – telescopes, cameras, steam engines, weaponry – but they regarded the smelly, hairy, meat eating giants as uncivilised if dangerous buffoons.

I found the pace of the story slow at times, as was court life for the women at the time. There was much repetition as Okatsu grappled with her assigned quest, her loneliness and her feelings of betrayal. The treatment of children in the Shogun’s household was particularly difficult to comprehend.

The story is a fictionalised account of true events. Each of the characters existed and their roles are as accurately portrayed as remaining accounts allow. The author has a personal fondness for the area and was meticulous in her research.

For those interested in Japanese history and in the effects of the spread of western influences around the world this is a worthwhile read. As a story I would have preferred a tighter telling, but it is a fascinating window into a way of life where change was opposed, yet where it is hard not to regard such change as a progression.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bantam Press.

Book Review: The Plague Charmer

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The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, is a substantial but eminently readable work of historical fiction. Set in a remote fishing village in the heart of Exmoor during the 1361 outbreak of the Great Pestilence, it introduces the reader to characters from all social classes. The high born confidantes of the King guard their secrets whilst seeking to protect and increase their wealth. Those subsisting on the sparse offerings of a challenging lifestyle and landscape seek to survive.

Into this world comes a foreigner, Janiveer, washed up from the sea when a boat capsizes on rocks. She warns of the plague to come and offers to save the village, at a price none are willing to pay.

What follows is an exploration of the beliefs and superstitions of the time. There is Matilda, the wife of a ship’s carpenter who has been raised by nuns and idolises the trappings of the established church. There is Will, a false dwarf accused of theft and banished from the manor life into which he was sold. There are dependents of the overlord, holed up together to escape the contagion; villagers jostling for position as they fight for their lives; a renegade priest who has established a cult following he holds captive by fear.

The story opens with an eclipse of the sun, regarded as a bad omen. The village is struggling due to an unseasonal drought. With most of the residents living their entire lives within the village bounds, educated only in how to survive, old beliefs have merged with the teachings of the church to produce a population fearful of what will befall them if they do not abide by the many habits and customs passed down through the generations. Famine, disease and death are blamed on reprobates, those who will not comply.

When the plague arrives any common goodness or humanity is lost as attempts are made to isolate the disease. Families are torn apart, neighbours blamed. It was not the grief at death that depressed me but the reaction of those who couldn’t see beyond themselves.

I enjoyed the role Janiveer played as she stood her ground while men struggled to dominate her. She used their arrogance and weakness against them. I enjoyed the role of Will, whose life could so easily have left him bitter yet who was amongst the most humane. Lady Pavia showed political expediency, Sara a strength that belied the attitudes of the time to women.

The story captured my attention yet, as it played out, I felt depression at the believable behaviour of so many. This was blinkered small-mindedness taken to extreme. Within the confines of the only world these poeple can have known it may well have been how it was. I wonder how far we have come.

I cannot fault the writing, this is a compelling story. It enlightened but did not entertain.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline. 

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Katherine of Aragon

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Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon – The True Queen, by Alison Weir, is the first in a series of specially commissioned books each of which will tell the story of one of Henry VIII’s wives from their point of view. This first installment is a mighty six hundred pages long. Whilst being written using easily readable and accessible language it still took some time to work through. It is a highly detailed, fictionalised story based on known and researched facts, but literary licence has been taken to add emotion. This queen may have been badly used but this was the lot for noble women at the time. I struggled to warm to her, especially later in her life.

The book opens with the arrival in Plymouth of the fifteen year old Infanta Catalina, a princess of Spain. Instructed by her future father-in-law, King Henry VII, to forget Spain, she receives a rapturous welcome from the people of England, eager to catch a glimpse of their future queen. She is introduced to a sickly Arthur, Prince of Wales and her betrothed. They marry and move to Ludlow Castle where he dies.

Events in Europe at this time conspire to put Katherine’s future in jeapordy. Marriages between the children of the nobility were political and financial in nature. Daughters were required to heed the wishes of their fathers and then husbands. Katherine had been raised to comply and, despite occasional glimpses of temper, did so willingly. A devout Catholic (her parents founded the notorious Spanish Inquisition) she regarded this compliance as ordained by God.

The facts of this period of Tudor history are well known. The author focuses on evoking the life of a lady in the English Court. Through the years of waiting Katherine writes many letters begging her relatives abroad for assistance. This was all that was in her power to do and she does it continually throughout her life. When action was taken that favoured her it was because it also favoured those who acted. I wondered at the risks she sometimes took to write the letters when it seemed obvious she was rarely more than a pawn.

Henry VII dies and Katherine marries his remaining son, becoming Queen beside Henry VIII. Their marriage was happy except for the continual deaths of their newly born children. During these years the story describes the royal couple’s clothing, accommodation, food, entertainments, and their movement between grand houses. They had a vast army of servents and followers, spending lavishly and favouring their own.

Katherine was a useful and beloved queen until she reached menopause without producing a male heir. Henry had taken mistresses over the years and had at least one son whom he recognised and promoted, much to his wife’s chagrin. When it became clear that she could no longer give him a son he conspired to set her aside. He was most put out when she would not do as he asked and enter a nunnery, his strong sense of entitlement coming to the fore.

The ascendancy of Anne Boleyn, as seen through Katherine’s eyes, is of interest but I found the description of these later years overlong. Katherine was effectively a prisoner, retreating into piety and much weeping. It was hard to retain interest when little happened to her other than suffering for her intransegence. She did not seem able to understand her situation despite having lived half a century in the midst of the corruption and favouritism of the royal court.

What the author has succeeded in doing is to make me want to read the next instalment, to see how this same history will look through Anne Boleyn’s eyes. There is also mention of Jane Seymour, the Parr and Howard families. There is much to come.

Life in the sixteenth century was obviously very different to today, particularly for women, although the machinations of the wealthy demonstrates that there are also many parallels. There is only occasional mention of those outside of the nobility or church. Perhaps, as now, they were of little interest to the powerful except as war fodder or tax generators.

In some ways this telling of a well known story felt simplified despite the detail. It lacked the nuances of, say, Wolf Hall. However, the idea of looking at the same period of history through six pairs of similarly ranked female eyes is intriguing. I hope to have the opportunity to read the remaining books from the series in due course.

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My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Duke

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Duke, by David Churchill, is the second book in The Leopards of Normandy trilogy. This series tells a fictionalised version of the story of William, Duke of Normandy, who is remembered as The Conqueror. The first book in the series was Devil, which I reviewed here.

The story opens with the reading of Archbishop Robert of Rouen’s will in which he tried to ensure that nine year old William, the boy Duke, would have loyal advisors and guardians to care for him until he came of age. Despite the many familial links of blood and marriage between the powerful and wealthy families of the region, loyalties could not be relied upon. This period in history was a real life Game of Thrones.

During the fourteen years covered by this installment in the tale there are numerous assassinations and changes of allegiance as each of the key characters schemes to further their own cause. Alongside the rivalries being played out in Normandy, the reader is kept up to date with the goings on in England where three kings are crowned in succession without producing an heir.

Historical fact is intertwined with myth and literary licence to provide a colourful and compelling account of life in these troubled times. The harrying of Worcester and the battle scenes portray how tenuous this could be. A lack of medical knowledge and skill meant injury and illness were treated with little more than prayer.

The reader is taken into the heart of a familiar tale told anew. The protagonist must survive yet tension is maintained as he encounters assassins, a wild boar and erstwhile friends determined to supplant him. The author is a skilled story teller who has done his research and chosen well how to present the accepted accounts of the times alongside more fanciful elements. His notes at the end suggest that many of the apparently imaginative characters and events are lifted from chronicles written at the time.

For fans of historical fiction who relish the intricacies and intrigue of a ruthless, feudal system of governance, this is a fascinating and enjoyable read: history brought vividly to life.  

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.