Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Jane Seymour

Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour – The Haunted Queen, by Alison Weir, is the third in a series of specially commissioned books which together tell the story of Henry VIII’s wives, from their point of view. Each instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised account based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. The author is a well regarded historian and explains at the end of each book why she presented key moments in her subjects’ lives the way she did. Jane Seymour served both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn as a maid-of-honour during the turbulent years when the latter replaced the former as queen so there is a degree of overlap in the first three books in the series. Jane left little written evidence of her life and thoughts so the author has constructed a tale based on interpretation and informed invention.

The story opens when Jane is ten years old and attending a lavish dinner at her family home, Wulf Hall in Wiltshire, to celebrate the marriage of her elder brother, Edward, to Catherine Fillol. The match is regarded as a good one by both families and within a year they have had a child. By then their initial happiness has soured for disturbing reasons. Jane’s mother gave birth to ten children but not all survived into adulthood. The precariousness of life, at a time when doctors could offer little more than herbal infusions as remedies, plays a key role in the ongoing narrative. The coming years bring outbreaks of devastating plague to England as well as the tragedies of royal babies not carried to term. The fecundity of the Seymours may well have been part of Jane’s appeal to the king when he grew disillusioned with Anne Boleyn.

The timeline jumps forward to when Jane is eighteen years old. She wishes to be a nun but does not cope well with the hardships required by this life so returns home. Her siblings are making their way in the world and she starts to look beyond Wulf Hall which is no longer the happy, family home of her childhood. She is pleased to be granted the opportunity to serve at the royal court in London.

Jane soon discovers that court life is a hotbed of intrigue and gossip, the factional rivalry an unwelcome contrast to the peaceful existence she associates with Wulf Hall. Anne is approaching her zenith and Jane accompanies Katherine when she is required to leave Henry and his palaces as the royal marriage is annulled. Jane is a staunch supporter of the church so is appalled by the ecclesiastical reforms being proposed and managed by an increasingly influential Cromwell. When Katherine is stripped of her household in an attempt to force her to comply with the king’s wishes, the Seymours insist that Jane not waste the costly court place they provided. She is required to return to London and serve Anne.

Jane is witness to the distress caused by the new queen’s miscarriages. Despite Anne’s suffering, Jane despises her for what she has done to Katherine. When Henry starts to take notice of Jane she chooses not to reject his advances as she does not consider him lawfully married. In this she is encouraged by her ambitious brothers and a growing band of supporters eager to do away with Anne and reinstate Katherine’s daughter, Mary, in the succession.

The bare bones of the story are, of course, well known. In many ways the plot is slow moving as Jane’s participation and influence on key events are minor until close to the end of her life. What this enables is a detailed portrayal of life in Tudor England from the point of view of a noble but peripheral family rising through the echelons of the royal court. Clothes, food, and the day to day preoccupations of sixteenth century, privileged women are vividly presented.

Jane is depicted as somewhat gauche but aware of the risks she is taking in becoming involved with Henry. Her loyalty to her family is key in the decisions she makes. Having witnessed how ruthless Henry could be to his wives she is aware of the precariousness of her position. Although wishing to promote the causes her supporters espouse she is mostly circumspect in her dealings with the king who has little patience with any who will not bend as he wills.

The author has chosen not to ascribe Jane’s death to the traditionally accepted puerperal fever. Her reasoning for this is compelling. By this time Henry was approaching fifty, suffering from leg ulcers and putting on weight. The couple’s supposed love for each other is shown to have serious caveats. It seems unlikely that the life Jane dreamed of would have been possible even had she lived.

Although the truly historic events are the same in all three of the books so far released in this series, the changing points of view provide new perspective and depth. This is an accessible and well structured account of a queen who, despite providing Henry’s longed for prince, is rarely granted as much attention as her predecessor. It provides an intimate window into the rarefied yet ruthless Tudor world.

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


Book Review: The Last Hours

The Last Hours, by Minette Walters, heralds the welcome return of a highly regarded author who has not published a new novel in more than a decade. In discussing why, she said:

 “To be honest, I got to the point where I was beginning to be so stressed out and needed a break. I’m a very slow writer, and then I get stressed out with publicity and the whole business of getting a book out. And then it’s people’s expectations. I suddenly felt that I needed a life.”

Unlike her previous work this new book is historical fiction. In talking about her change of direction the author admitted she had grown tired of the genre where she made her name:

“I love to innovate and, while it pleases me greatly that I’ve helped create the genre of psychological crime fiction, I’d be going against my nature if I didn’t look towards different horizons,”

The Last Hours is the first in a proposed two part series set in and around Dorset where the author now lives.

 “Each time I leave my house, I know that somewhere beneath my feet is a plague pit,”

It offers a captivating and chilling account of life as it would have been for lords and serfs in England, 1348, living in fear of a wrathful god and facing a virulent plague that kills victims within days.

The story opens on a hot summers day in the demesne of Develish, Dorsetshire. The lord of the manor, Sir Richard, is setting out on a journey to seal the betrothal of his fourteen year old daughter, Eleanor, to Peter of Bradmayne, the son of a neighbouring lord. Eleanor is unhappy with this choice of husband and blames her mother, Lady Anne, for not securing a more congenial match. She takes out her anger on their indentured serfs, particularly the handsome bastard son of a bondsman, Thaddeus Thurkell.

Sir Richard and his entourage travel to Bradmayne where their host plies Sir Richard with copious quantities of food and drink as he tries to relieve him of the promised dowry. Sir Richard’s Norman fighting men stand guard while his Saxon bailiff, Gyles Startout, observes what is happening beyond the manor’s boundary wall. The villagers are restless and prevented from entering. After several days their unrest turns to fear. There is news of a deadly sickness spreading from the port of Melcombe. While only the peasants are dying few seem to care but when Peter of Bradmayne takes ill the Develish men flee.

Lady Anne had long worked behind her cruel and selfish husband’s back to improve the lives of their serfs. When she hears of the sickness she recognises the danger and acts in all their interests. The entire village moves into the manor which is protected by a moat. Food is stockpiled and the bridge is burned. None know if any inside already carry the plague.

As time passes fear of sickness is only one of the challenges Lady Anne must overcome to maintain order. Food distribution must be carefully controlled and the boredom of people used to days filled with hard labour assuaged. Eleanor meanwhile is appalled that her mother has taken to dressing plainly and working with their serfs. Lady Anne has promoted Thaddeus to the role of steward and Eleanor does not feel he pays her the respect she considers her due. Believing herself above common law she seeks out vile entertainments.

Beyond Develish, villages are being wiped out by death or abandonment. Travellers pose a danger as food is scarce and symptoms of the plague take days to show. There are also lords travelling with their fighting men eager to acquire, by whatever means, anything of value left in the chaos. Lady Anne must use artifice and the loyalty of her people to keep them safe. With each success and acclaim for the brave, Eleanor grows more bitter and unhinged. Lady Anne recognises that they cannot live in this way for long, that some must venture out for news and supplies or her people will starve.

This is a broad, sweeping tale that transports the reader back to a time when few serfs would ever venture beyond the demesne in which they were born. They were property whose purpose was to be worked for the benefit of their lord. Even the gentry were tied to those ranked above them. The church was feared and sickness regarded as punishment. Lady Anne is way ahead of her time in understanding the need for cleanliness and in questioning the edicts of the clergy. She recognises that serfs who survive the plague will be few yet required to till the land. Ownership will, for a time, be in flux.

The various characters’ lives are presented in a manner that is relatable. Differences to today may be great but there are many parallels. The writing is masterful and consistently engaging. The author has lost none of her abilities to enthral her readers.

I have read many fictional accounts of plague ridden England but the breadth and depth of this one truly impressed. It offers more than fictionalised social history, it is high quality entertainment. I am already looking forward to its sequel.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Allen & Unwin.

Author quotes taken from this article: Minette Walters announces first book in decade – and retirement from crime fiction | Books | The Guardian


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.

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


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


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


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.