Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Weir – Mother, Survivor, Queen -The First Elizabeth Tudor

Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Weir

A new series of novels featuring three generations of the Tudors is an enormous treat for fans of historical fiction, and this portrait of a woman, a “Mother, Survivor, Queen” is as carefully and vividly written as any of Weir’s other novels. Elizabeth of York, daughter of a King, sister of a tragically short lived one, and wife to a third, has often been dismissed as merely a wife for political reasons who was caught up by circumstances and stronger characters. She was nonetheless the mother of the famous or infamous Henry VIII, and her marriage to Henry VII brought to an end most of the separation between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Not that in this political marriage Henry was rendered totally secure on the throne; there were those who rose against him, sometimes claiming to represent the lost Princes in the Tower, the younger brothers of Elizabeth that were much missed. This is a story which focuses on Elizabeth from her childhood and many of the challenges she faced, her mixed fortunes and her losses, her loves and actions. She emerges as more than just a figurehead, a marriageable pawn, but a woman who had to take action from a young age. I found it a powerful and well written story, and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

Alison Weir is a historian with a deep knowledge and understanding of the Tudor period. She writes fictional portraits of the people of the time, especially the women, from a rich wealth of resources and research. Yet this book, as with her others, creates a real sense of the people and their emotions and motives for what they did. She uses descriptions of the palaces and buildings Elizabeth would have known and their various atmospheres; grand and wealthy, or forbidding and almost military. While these buildings are often well documented, some no longer exist, or have been changed out of all recognition, Weir uses them to empathise what Elizabeth probably felt and experienced. Similarly with the clothes that Elizabeth and those around her wore, often symbolic of her fortunes – the sumptuous court dress as a Princess and later Queen, and the contrasting shabby clothes when she was out of favour, no longer considered a royal princess. Such details give real depth to Elizabeth and her life so that the years when she shifts out of view come into sharp focus. Weir can only imagine how she felt about her own claim to the throne being dismissed in favour of Henry’s given that her dynastic claims were actually stronger; the author succeeds in giving her a voice into the way she dealt with a situation only arising because of her gender and the low expectations of female rulers, in sharp contrast to her granddaughter, another Elizabeth. It shows how religion, the Catholic faith, was important to her, a real dimension in her life which to an extent affected her attitudes. 

This is a book which is a fictionalised biography of a woman whose role in history was crucial. Weir has used her considerable skills to give a credible portrait of Elizabeth in her context, using sparse evidence and writings that may not have been totally sympathetic to her and her family, because of her gender and the actions of those around her. I recommend this book to those who have some knowledge of Elizabeth of York as they will discover possible aspects of her life, as well as those for whom she is an unknown quantity. It is a powerful book of female led historical fiction, and beautifully written.   

Katharine Parr – The Sixth Wife by Alison Weir – the final novel in the Six Tudor Queens series

Katherine Parr – The Sixth Wife by Alison Weir

Katharine Parr married Henry VIII in 1543, and was the wife that survived him. In many ways that has been the only thing known about a woman who had arguably the best outcome in the marriage stakes, but that would be to ignore so much about the woman she was before, how she coped during their marriage, and what happened when the increasingly difficult king died. This book recounts, with the usual research which the author has always been committed to, the facts, but also so much more. Katharine’s early life, her unusually advanced education for a woman of her time, and basically her calm exterior throughout is brought to life in this novel. Told from her viewpoint, there are the revelations of the royal and court life that she would have found out, and probably been surprised about, the four husbands she had married in her relatively short life, and her relationships with other people. It is full of the colour of the dresses she wore, the palaces and places where she lived and visited, and the complex political and religious conditions in which she lived. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this classic historical novel. 

Katharine is shown as a capable person from childhood. Her father died in a plague that had sent the King and his entourage fleeing from London – the fact that Henry was already on the throne from her before her birth and earliest memories is somehow remarkable. It seems she had a capable, educated and devout mother, whose decision to send her to family together with her siblings was a wise one, as her own family were to be vital supports throughout her life, even as many of her actions were to benefit them. She received the sort of classical education that boys would normally benefit from, and throughout her life she was able to maintain a genuine interest in theological matters as well as manage households when necessary. An arranged marriage when she was sixteen to Edward, the son and heir of Sir Thomas Burgh of Gainsborough looked to be an advantageous one, but meant that she had to leave her much loved childhood home. It was a difficult and brief marriage according to Weir, her father in law being brutal and her young husband having a difficult secret. Disappointed in her marriage and at her husband’s early death, she took time to recover before marrying a widower with older children. His role in the royal court and unrest in the north of England place Katherine in fear of losing everything one more than one occasion. Throughout her second marriage she managed well with her household, her step children and the challenges of life with an affectionate man. It was only as he became ill that she met a man she could truly love, the charismatic Thomas Seymour. She genuinely tried to disguise the passion she felt which seemed to be more than returned, as she nursed her dying husband John, Lord Latimer. In the meantime she happened to meet the king, now an older man, broken down as he saw it by his sad marital experiences, most recently by the teenage Katheryn Howard. While she would love to marry Thomas, it is deemed more expedient to marry a king who had chosen to condemn at least two of his previous wives to death. Her own religious beliefs suddenly become a dangerous part of her life, and may well endanger her very life. 

This is a book where the life of a woman in dangerous times is looked at in intense detail. Katharine is shown as an intelligent woman who chose to do her duty by her family rather than her own inclinations, and was capable enough to survive many challenges in all four of her marriages. Weir has written a fictionalised biography that offers so much depth to a life which is often just labelled “Survived”. Katharine had a difficult life with the men who found affection for her, and it is perhaps a tragedy that her own love was denied to her for so long, then proved to be difficult. This is probably a definitive fictional biography of a woman of great significance in many ways in the lives of Henry’s heirs, who managed a difficult balance of faith and self preservation during her third and most famous marriage, and took delight in some of the aspects of wealthy family lives.       

Katheryn Howard – The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir, the fifth book in the Six Tudor Queens series.

Katheryn Howard – The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir

Katheryn was probably only a teenager when she became Queen of England and Wales. For those who are unaware of her fate, there will be revelations in this review, but I have worked on the assumption that her story is well known in outline.

Katheryn was the chosen fifth wife of the by now older Henry VIII, and a lot of people know little more about her than she was the second of Henry’s wives to be executed. Alison Weir has used her skills as a historian and a novelist to give us a much clearer picture of a young woman who was beheaded at the age of twenty one. She goes on in an historical note at the end to point out that she may have survived in strict seclusion had it been left to the besotted Henry, but that she was probably the victim of those who wanted to push religious reform at the expense of the old faith which her supporters favoured. Weir works hard to present a picture of a girl more sinned against than sinning in terms of responsible adult supervision when growing up, but who probably chose to make the most of the opportunity to see another man provided by a jealous Lady Rochford. Either way she was a victim, and one who genuinely had little ambition to be Queen, only enjoying the jewels, fine clothes and the ability to promote certain friends. This book presents a vivid picture of a young woman who was probably very attractive, but that fact does not excuse those who sought to use her for their own ends. Weir has explained that she chose to write this novel as a third person narrative which focuses totally on Katheryn, and consequently only deals with what she would have actually known at the time, while others dealt in her secrets off stage, and with fatal consequences.

The novel begins with the death of Katheryn’s mother when she was seven years old. As it was her mother’s second marriage, Katheryn was left with many siblings in two generations, including the ever-loving Isabel who is forced to take charge as Katheryn’s father retreats from view. After a relatively brief stay with a loving Aunt, Katheryn is dispatched to the household of her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. As the daughter of a feckless second son, Katheryn has impressive family links but no marriage portion or money to speak of, and the supervision of the young women and girls at the big house is lax, even negligent. When Katheryn develops a crush on her music master the situation can evolve into intimate behaviour very quickly, which is quashed, but a far less scrupulous man, Francis Dereham, manages not only to fully seduce the young Katheryn, but also claim that they were married in an informal ceremony. When Katheryn later catches the King’s eye she is surprised and shows little ambition to make use of her opportunity, even if it is because she does not wish to usurp Henry’s current wife, Anne. Too young to know and understand what happened to her cousin, Anne Boleyn, there is a certain inevitability about her fate as she suffers for the ambitions for others.

This is a book written with great insight into the naivety of a noticeably young woman who suffers from the attentions of men and their own ambitions. It suggests that she comes to feel real affection for her much older husband, but that she never really understands what is happening around her. Weir presents her as a young woman who lived in the moment, desperately seeking affection without much thought for consequences until she is hopelessly enmeshed. Weir has, as with the other novels in this series, fleshed out the small amount evidence that exists of what Katheryn actually wanted, and it amounts to a tragic story of a lack of understanding, ambition, and simply being a victim. Those around her, with the exception of her sister Isabel, used her for their own ends, and her sad story is well recorded in this vivid and moving book.

Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen – Six Tudor Queens by Alison Weir

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While this is another fictional biography of a Tudor royal, this novel is very special because it gives real insight into the shadowy life of Jane Seymour. Her life story, particularly her relatively brief reign as queen, is often glossed over as in the shadow of the more memorable Anne Boleyn. She did the one thing that the other five wives were not able to do, give birth to a son who would survive his father, the difficult and notorious Henry VIII. She has been dismissed as plain, quiet and simple, but it is the achievement of this novel that she is given a real personality as being decisive, brave and willing to risk all for what she believed and who she was loyal to despite real danger. Her family are shown as more than dysfunctional, as her brothers and father persuade her to act to further her ambitions. She was quietly strong, but this book also shows her fears of not only human forces but also the supernatural elements that carried over from the tragedy of her predecessors. Alison Weir’s status as a historian means that this is a novel with a really solid basis in research, and her third novel in this series shows her undoubted ability to paint a story within the framework of fact.

Jane is one of the daughters of John and Margaret Seymour of Wulfhall. She is first seen as a young girl, who has already decided to enter a convent, such is her commitment to the traditional religion of the country. She is not happy with the religious house she first stays in, however, and she is soon drawn back into her family as it deals with a scandal which means the sorrowful exile of her sister in law. She is the one who strives to maintain the children’s contact with their mother, as she comes to understand the complexities of relationships. As she goes to court to serve Katherine, Henry’s first wife, she witnesses at first hand the pressures on women to ‘produce’ sons, and the misery of the discarded queen. She tries to remain loyal to Katherine, but the machinations of her family means that she is forced to join the household of Anne whose star is in the ascendant. Weir draws a touching picture of a young woman whose disbelief that the King has become interested in her is dismissed by her family, as they realise that royal favour can propel their own ambitions. While she genuinely wants a simple life with a husband of her choosing and children, she is increasingly pursed by a king. Her story is well known, but her fear of implicating Anne further and her genuine horror at the execution of so many comes through in this book. While she comes to love Henry, she is frightened of his unpredictable temper. She tries to understand his fear of rebellion, yet feels deeply the plight of Princess Mary. She feels constrained to plead for the religious houses that are being dissolved throughout the country, but her public support of them is humiliatingly dismissed.

The author’s note in this book sets out much about the writing of the novel and the research that forms its basis. Although not much is known about how Jane feels about her rapid progress to wife and mother, Weir succeeds in fleshing out the bare bones of the story from what little is known in a convincing way. I found the account of her last illness especially fascinating, given the little that is known. Weir backs up her assertions well, concerning pregnancies before Edward’s birth and the hasty execution of Anne and the men accused with her. I was not always sure how close Weir got to depicting Jane’s feelings, given the slight distance throughout the novel, but this is a solid depiction of the known facts. It is easy to read, and despite knowing the outcome, I was still drawn to this book for its fascinating narrative.

Northernvicar and I went to the Derby Book Festival yesterday evening to hear Alison Weir talk about this book. As with the evening last year when she spoke about Anne Boleyn, she showed many images of Jane Seymour while speaking about her work on this novel. It was fascinating, especially when she spoke of her research on the death of this queen. Most of her speech is reproduced as the Author’s note in this volume, and it is very interesting. If you have ever wondered about Anne’s successor, this is a very substantial book and an excellent read.

Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession – Six Tudor Queens by Alison Weir

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This is a fictional account, written by historian Alison Weir, of the life of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. I found it a curiously distant book, which was no doubt well researched but did not show as much understanding as is usual in an historical novel. This may have been the result of the narrative being in the third person, or simply because much of this story has been written about in so many novels. It is a solid novel, with many well researched points of interest and telling detail.

The novel opens with an account of Anne’s early life in the courts of Europe. Here she encounters some very singular women for the time who are educated and determined to make their mark in political affairs. It may be that the dialogue here sounds somewhat stilted as they discuss their ideas. Either way, the message is clear; Anne was determined to make a difference in the politics of the day. Her early encounter with the young Henry is not propitious, and it becomes evident in this world that men still hold sway as Mary, her elder sister is attacked by powerful men.

On her return to England the story of the ambitious Boleyn family is repeated as Anne’s attractions begin to be noticed in aristocratic and royal circles. Cardinal Wolsey becomes an enemy, Cromwell succeeds him in managing the king’s affairs in every respect. Henry becomes interested but Anne has learnt that being a royal mistress is not well rewarded, so she persuades Henry that he will have her only as a mistress in the chivalric sense. The forces of reform and the desire for a new marriage mean that Cromwell and Henry with others combine forces to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. He does not only desire Anne as a woman but as a mother of a male heir which he desperately needs to avoid civil war. So begins a period of years in which Anne is given honour and gifts, but cannot become queen in the face of international opposition.

Those who know something of the story may find nothing new here, as Anne emerges as ambitious, ill – advised and not particularly in love with the King. It is necessary to remember that while she appreciated the enormous leap from commoner to queen she was undertaking, she did not associate it with the extreme danger she was running. Weir does not really give the reader a strong guide as to her motivation and her comments on religious reform sound a little formulaic. I think that other writers have tackled the question of the understanding of Henry’s queens with more empathy in their novels of the period. Ironically I felt it was only in the ending of the story that Anne emerges as a real, frightened person, concerned for some of her family as well as her own fate.

Overall this is a solid account of Anne’s life which is well constructed and deals with the characters around her well. It is an interesting read which sustained my interest, but I felt that it was more of a historian’s account than that of a novelist. The section on Anne’s early life makes it very informative, but the style lacks some warmth. I felt that Weir’s sympathies lay with Katherine in the first book of this series, and while her research is impeccable there is a certain lack of feeling for Anne, for a short time a Tudor Queen.

I actually heard Alison Weir talk about this book and the whole subject of Anne Boleyn at Derby Book Festival. She definitely knows her stuff! She had a huge collection of images relating to Anne’s popularity as almost a cult figure, and she dispatched lots of audience questions with speed and accuracy. It was an amazing evening.

Essay Crisis over – at least for now…and A Dangerous Inheritance

Hello world!

I have been horribly silent on the post front for so long now that I thought I had better check that I remember how to put a post on.

It’s been fascinating to see that there are still people finding this book blog even if  I have not been updating it regularly. As I have a month or three before the next essay is due in I hope to get some more free reading  and therefore have material for posts.

I have recently noticed that our local library have removed all charges for reserving books. This does mean that I have come up with lots of ideas for all those books I have been looking out for, but could not justify buying, especially in hardback. I am therefore trying to  get through, so as not to deprive anyone on the waiting list, the new Alison Weir book, A Dangerous Inheritance.

I really enjoyed her Captive Queen, another of her novels based on a well known historical character.

This novel is about two Katherines, or for ease of identification, Katherine and Kate. I have not finished this book, but am enjoying it very much. Kate is the daughter of Richard III, and records in the third person her experiences when her father comes to power. Katherine is the sister of the ill fated Lady Jane Grey, and her story is better known, but no less tragic and challenging.

Both girls become women as their fate is decided by their close proximity to the throne, and the ambitions of others in  their families. Links between them appear and disappear as they fall in love and discover their royal links always prove problematic, to say the least. This book becomes dominated by their romantic lives, at least in the middle section, and I wonder if they had time or energy to see the bigger picture as Elizabeth among others is forced to by circumstance.  This probably represents the fact that many women of aristocratic rank were defined by who they married, rather than who they were in themselves, but when the decline and death of Queen Mary is dealt with in a page, despite Katherine’s position in her court, I do wonder if the first person narration in this section really balances out events.

It is a bit unfair to write about this book when I have not finished it, and the overall balance of the book is possibly more even when seen as a whole. It is a novel, not a history book, and as half of it is in the first person maybe Weir is trying to point out that Katherine is a little selfish and far more worried about her own happiness rather than her family’s survival. It is an absorbing book, well written and of course, historically accurate. Not as ‘earthy’ as Elizabeth Chadwick’s books, and the characters perhaps consequently not quite as real, but a good read, and one that I can heartily recommend.

Tudor Times…a historical choice

One of my favourite types of novels when I was (much) younger was historical novels. Jean Plaidy and the crew were the best, not noted for their precise accuracy on facts but enjoyable atmospheric reads. I used to particularly like the dynasties which went through lots of generations; indeed it was the Norman series that got me through A level history. At least I was able to sort out the early Williams and Henrys.

I have commented on other historical novels in this blog. I was a bit disappointed in Phillippa Gregory’s The White Queen, but have hopes of The Red Queen which is coming to the top of my reading pile. I really enjoyed The Captive Queen by  Alison Weir and have written about it on this blog.

My latest find is more along the lines of Plaidy than Weir, in that it is a really good read but perhaps a little more imaginative with the facts. In my campaign to report on easily available books I found this new paperback, The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper.

It is not great literature, but an interesting version of the life of a real person which goes some way to explaining what happened at various stages of the lives of famous Tudors and those around them.

The Queen’s Governess is Kat Ashley, faithful carer of Elizabeth I. She is depicted in this novel as a spy for Cromwell, known and trusted by Anne Boleyn and totally dedicated to the interests of the young Elizabeth, even when arrested in the Thomas Seymour scandal and later during the reign of Mary. These facts are reasonably well known, at least to anyone who has frittered away many hours on Tudor novels. This book’s great interest is in the why of her life, her need to get away from humble roots, her infatuations and the great love of her life. This is not a long novel, and is surprisingly easy to read. There are no wordy historical digressions, no complicated family set ups or vast events, just understandable love, loyalty and human interest. There are some details in the Author’s notes which give more suggestions for reading related books. This is not a great book of academic weight, but an enjoyable, atmospheric life story. It is a relatively quick read, which keeps moving. I have not tracked down other books by this American author as yet, but would be interested to do so.

A book that Husband bought me in the National Portrait Gallery where we particularly liked the Tudor section ( I think he admired the portrait of Anne Boleyn) has just coincidentally come to the top of the pile. Elizabeth’s Woman by Tracy Borman is a factual book about the women of Elizabeth’s Court.

This book is easily available and appears to have a chapter called “The Governess”. So if you read Harper’s book and want to know the facts, this may be the book to read. Of course, you could always try the other way round…

The Captive Queen…and dvds!

I have been known to excite cries of despair in book groups. Not because I have some some daft ideas – that much is self evident- but if all else fails I contribute the immortal phrase “We could always watch it on dvd”.

In the course of life I have to go to coffee mornings. Mainly charity events, they sometimes seem to require military style planning in order to achieve the right balance of stalls, helpers and my favourite  job…what to do with the left over books. On Saturday I floated round one such event, waiting to supplement any stalls where the holder ‘had to go and powder her/his nose’. But I did espy a dvd that I had almost bought recently from a certain interweb site… “The Lion in Winter”, the film of the meeting of Henry II and his warring family. I snapped this prize item up, as I have been reading the book of the film, which also contains much more, The Captive Queen – A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir.

I would not usually review a hardback book here, but it is possible to borrow a copy from a library, or find it on offer somewhere. Either way, I think if you are only going to read one straight historical novel this year or month, it ought to be this one.

Telling the story of Eleanor’s life from her first fateful meeting with Henry, it is a story that deals with empire building, the differences in the various land holding that Henry and Eleanor achieved, but also the love story of a remarkable woman for her powerful husband and her much loved children. It is a sad book in some respects; the loss of children struck a particular cord with me but did not mean that the book was unreadable. Rather its recounting of the survival of a woman’s spirit in the face of so many challenges is what transforms this book from history to a fascinating read. It is not essential to know a great deal of history to appreciate this book; it stands alone as a novel of place as well as personality.  Eleanor was no saint in that her track record with men showed that it was not only the male rulers who could play a political game with their relationships, but Henry’s immense drive for power meant that literally no attractive woman was ignored, to say the least. Eleanor’s actions against Henry are justified in this novel by the standards of both the times and the unique nature of their position, as well as her devotion to her many children. She becomes such a real person by the end of the novel that her long life seems to encompass many of our own issues; priorities, difficult decisions, life changing love.

I have got a copy of Weir’s biography of Eleanor, the research for which apparently inspired her desire to write historical novels generally as a way of filling in the gaps left by the hard facts which remain. I would like to read it sometime soon in order to compare and contrast it with the fictional work. Weir does claim to have been inspired by the film “The Lion in Winter” so I’m not too far off the mark in wanting to watch the dvd…

Oh, and for those Phillippa Gregory fans out there, I have just started her “The White Queen” so watch this space…