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In the Shadow of Lady Jane by Edward Charles

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “It is 1551 and a single act of heroism plunges ambitious young Richard Stocker into a tide of religious and social upheaval which will change not only his own life but the course of British history. In gratitude for saving his daughters from a flooded river, the powerful Lord Henry Grey agrees to employ Richard in his household. Passionate young Lady Katherine has already fallen for the dashing man who saved her life, while Richard himself develops a profound friendship with her troubled but brilliant sister, Lady Jane Grey. Theirs is a bond which will only be severed three years later, when Lady Jane is put to the axe at the age of just sixteen.”

REVIEW: Having read many novels on Lady Jane Grey all written by women, I was eager to see if there might be any difference in how a male author might portray this troubled martyr of a girl, whose unwanted Queenship and untimely death make up one of the greatest tragedies in British Royal history. I was impressed by the way Charles portrayed Jane; in fact, his portrayals of all of the members of the Grey family were exactly as I had imagined them and as I myself would have written them, and each of them had me gripped from the start. I also quickly grew fond of the protagonist, Richard Stocker, whose admiration for Lady Jane and tender love for the Lady Katherine, as well as his friendship with the young Mary, make him seem amiable and lead to him becoming a likeable character. The story of Jane Grey’s downfall in all its tragedy is well known, and Richard’s character was woven seamlessly into the narrative of this sorry tale, so that in places it felt almost like a fiction rather than a non-fiction book – which is rare in most historical fiction. There were, however, some minor problems that I had with the novel – firstly, that in the editing process it does not seem to have been picked up that Charles often lacks the use of commas in longer sentences. This does not detract in any way from his general writing style, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but simply would have made it easier for the reader; sometimes I felt like I was racing through the sentences, and commas would have helped to give them a better pace and not make me feel overloaded with information. I was also upset that at the end of the book, we know of Lady Jane’s end, and are given clues and hopes for the futures of both Katherine and Richard; but Mary, who starts off the book as a fairly central character, remains a mystery, and we learn nothing of her future life. Overall, however, these are only minor problems and I would definitely recommend Charles’ book, particularly due to his excellent portrayal of the Grey family.

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Roses Have Thorns by Sandra Byrd

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “In 1565, seventeen-year-old Elin von Snakenborg leaves Sweden on a treacherous journey to England. Her fiance has fallen in love with her sister and her dowry money has been gambled away, but ahead of her lies an adventure that will take her to the dizzying heights of Tudor power. Transformed through marriage into Helena, the Marchioness of Northampton, she becomes the highest-ranking woman in Elizabeth’s circle. But in a court that is surrounded by Catholic enemies who plot the Queen’s downfall, Helena is forced to choose between her unyielding monarch and the husband she’s not sure she can trust – a choice that will provoke catastrophic consequences.”

REVIEW: I was greatly looking forward to reading another novel about Elizabeth I, keen to see how Byrd’s portrayal of Elizabeth would link in with my own views and perceptions. The character of Elin von Snakenborg only added to my intrigue – Byrd states in the afterword that she chose Elin as a subject not only because her story was so unusual, but also because she had never really been written about before. This surprised me, as Elin’s story is a writer’s dream even without the artistic licence that Byrd has clearly taken; it is full of passion and intrigue, and made even more fascinating by the close relationship that develops between Elin and the Queen. Through Elin’s eyes we suffer her personal struggles – the love affair between her fiance and sister, her struggle to marry the Marquess of Northampton, her descent into widowhood, her love affair with Thomas Gorges, and her suffering as their once perfect relationship begins to slowly deteriorate. Yet we also experience the struggles faced by Elizabeth, through Elin’s closeness to the monarch. The story spans the majority of Elizabeth’s reign and focuses particularly on the Catholic threats and the problem of recusancy that plagued Elizabeth throughout her rule; this makes a refreshing change, as many historical fiction authors struggle to face religious and political problems of the period head-on due to the difficulty of making them accessible to the reader. Byrd makes these problems accessible for the reader but also gives the reader with prior knowledge of the period a new interpretation of the key events and figures of the time, making the book enjoyable for all. Although in places the book could sometimes feel rushed, I read it quickly and enjoyed finding out more about a woman I had previously known nothing about, as well as uncovering a new and intelligent portrayal of Elizabeth herself.

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The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Their affair is the scandal of Europe. Elizabeth Tudor proclaims herself the Virgin Queen but cannot resist her dashing but married Master of Horse, Lord Robert Dudley. Many believe them to be lovers, and there are scurrilous rumours that Elizabeth is no virgin at all. The formidable young Queen is regarded by most of Christendom as a bastard, a heretic and a usurper, yet many princes covet Tudor England and seek her hand in marriage. Under mounting pressure to take a husband, Elizabeth encourages their advances while trying to avoid commitment in a delicate, politically-fraught balancing act which becomes known as ‘the marriage game’. But treading this dangerous line with Robert Dudley, the son and grandson of traitors, could cost her her throne…”

REVIEW: A few weeks ago I went to see Alison Weir give a talk at the National Archives on this book, and hearing her views on the Elizabethan marriage game and the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley made me enjoy this book even more. Weir’s book explores the complexities of Elizabeth’s reign and the dilemmas she faced in regards to the problem of whether or not to marry and secure the succession, and her fears of ending up instead in thrall to a husband who would likely wish to control both her and her throne. She also places particular focus on the exact nature of the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, which is still hotly debated by historians. The love, friendship and passion that exists between the couple is brilliantly written and remains believable throughout the novel, as do the many arguments they go through over Elizabeth’s refusal to appease her councillors and marry Robert himself. Elizabeth’s character is so vividly written that the reader can picture her clearly; she seems so alive that she almost jumps off of the page. Yet, despite the power that Elizabeth projects, the reader is introduced to a vulnerable side of her that many works of historical fiction often choose to ignore in fear that it will make Elizabeth seem weak – instead, Weir has used Elizabeth’s vulnerabilities to make her seem stronger, as the reader respects all that Elizabeth has gone through and how she has overcome such events. Weir explores both Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother and her controversial flirtation with Thomas Seymour, and uses both of these events to give Elizabeth a level of complexity that many other works of historical fiction are clearly lacking in. Although as this is a work of historical fiction there is some level of artistic licence involved, Weir has managed to cleverly weave these imagined scenes with famous pieces of Elizabethan history that many of us know and admire – for example, Elizabeth’s visit to Robert Dudley’s home at Kenilworth is well-documented, and Weir uses it as a setting for Robert’s last desperate attempt to get Elizabeth to be his bride. The book covers the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign, a vast amount of time to deal with in a book of less than five hundred pages, yet the reader does not feel as though they are left uninformed of any important or famous events, nor do we feel as though the story is rushed. The various suitors that offer Elizabeth their hand in marriage are presented in many different ways – some are clearly designed to amuse the reader, but others we develop a genuine affection for, like the Duke of Anjou. The deaths of her closest friends and advisors increase as the book goes on, and each of these are written so sensitively that we mourn alongside Elizabeth. Overall, this book gives the reader a true sense of who the real Elizabeth was and allows them to feel as though they have forged a connection with her – Weir’s writing allows us to not only follow Elizabeth on the journey of her reign but also to suffer her losses, celebrate her triumphs, and dither over her dilemmas. I would highly recommend this books as one of the rare gems of historical fiction that focus on the woman, rather than the Queen.

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No Will But His by Sarah A. Hoyt

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Her name was Kathryn Howard. Orphaned at a young age, a poor relation in a wealthy and powerful family, she was raised in obscurity. Then she came to court and caught the eye of the aging King Henry VIII. As cousin to Henry’s second wife, the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, Kathryn knows better than most the danger of being favoured by the King. Yet she is a Howard, and ambition is as natural to her as breathing. So she assumes the role that Henry assigns her – his rose without a thorn; his young, untouched child bride; his adored, and adoring, fifth wife. But it is all untrue. Passion runs as deep as ambition in the Howards, and Kathryn is no stranger to a lover’s embrace. It is only the first of many lies she will have to tell to gain the throne  – and keep it. Yet the path that she will tread to do so is one fraught with the same dangers that cost Queen Anne her head….”

REVIEW: There are few authors out there who choose to focus on Kathryn Howard, probably due to the reputation she has of being a pretty but stupid young girl who took foolish risks despite her place on the throne. I have always viewed Kathryn Howard far more sympathetically than this, and Hoyt seems to share this sympathy. Her portrayal of Kathryn is both sensitive and new, giving the young Queen a mind of her own and a spirit that links in with what we as historians already know about the personalities of the great Howard family. Although they make Kathryn look extremely naive, Hoyt’s portrayal of her relationships with Henry Manox and Francis Dereham in her youth give the reader a strong sense of Kathryn’s vulnerability and of the little choice she faced in being a pawn of her far more wise and powerful guardians. They are also much more believeable than other versions I have read of Kathryn’s relationships with Manox and Dereham, and this part of the novel was one I thoroughly enjoyed. Hoyt’s portrayal of Kathryn’s accidental wooing of Henry, and her growing friendship with the demented Jane Rochford, were also very well-written and completely believable. However, there were some things about the book that I did not enjoy quite so much. One of these was the author’s attempt to use early modern English in the speaking patterns of all the characters. Despite this being a refreshing change for a historical fiction work, as it is usually avoided, Hoyt did not manage to do this successfully enough to make it work. The use of this form of language made the speech seem stilted, and as it was often infused with modern colloquialisms it was not successfully carried off, though as I say I do admire Hoyt for attempting it. I also felt that the final part of the book, the most famous part of Kathryn’s story, was rushed and poorly explained, which made it a far less emotional scene for the reader. Kathryn’s affair with Thomas Culpepper is not well-thought out, as the prologue suggests, but instead is hurried into in a way that even the most clueless of historical readers can see would have been simply foolish. Kathryn’s arrest and execution take up a mere few pages and are not, in my opinion, given the depth and justice that they deserve. Therefore, while I admire Hoyt’s characterisation of Kathryn, which was possibly the closest portrayal to my imaginings that I have read, I felt that in some places the tale was clumsily told and perhaps might have benefitted from further editing.

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Anne of Cleves by Elizabeth Norton

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RATING:3.5/5

BLURB: “‘I like her not!’ was the verdict of Henry VIII on meeting his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, for the first time. Anne could have said something similar upon meeting Henry and, having been promised the most handsome prince in Europe she was destined to be disappointed in the elderly and corpulent King. Forced to proceed with their wedding for diplomatic reasons, Henry and Anne tried to make the best of the situation, but attempts to consummate the marriage were farcical. After only seven months of marriage Henry was so desperate to rid himself of Anne that he declared himself impotent in order to secure a divorce. Anne was also eager to end her marriage and, with her clever handling of Henry obtained one of the biggest divorce settlements in English history. Anne of Cleves is often portrayed as a stupid and comical figure. The real Anne was both intelligent and practical, ensuring that, whilst she was queen for the shortest period, she was the last of all Henry VIII’s wives to survive. Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, lost his head for his role in the marriage, but Anne’s shrewdness ensured she kept hers.”

REVIEW: Prior to reading this biography, I had only ever read about Anne of Cleves in historical fiction or in books that were about all six of Henry VIII’s wives – never before had I read a factual book dedicated entirely to her. Although Norton’s biography of Anne is short, this makes it both concise and easy to read – packing such a large amount of information in so few pages makes the book engaging and interesting the whole way through as each page tells the reader something new. This biography reveals Anne of Cleves to be a fascinating historical figure, highly undeserving of the reputation she generally holds as being dull and unintelligent. Her marriage to Henry was Anne’s first marriage, and in order for it to take place she was separated from her family and sent to a country where she knew no-one and had barely any grasp of the native language – just as Catherine of Aragon had done so many years before. As Anne’s relationship with Henry so famously began to crumble, the reader cannot help but feel sorry for this woman who is unable to seek advice from those around her and is left adrift and unsure of herself in a strange new land. The way Anne handles her separation from Henry, however, is highly admirable, showing a great level of independence and authority for a woman in this time period when her rights would have been so constrained. Anne cleverly and willingly took up her new position as the King’s Sister and showed every honour to Henry, his children and his next two wives until her own demise during the reign of Mary I, many years after the death of Henry himself. Anne was clearly much more strong and intelligent than she has been perceived to be and that was thoroughly well-illustrated in Norton’s book. I did feel, however, that the book could have been longer to avoid parts of it seeming rushed. I also felt that, at time, Norton placed far more of a focus on Henry’s character and feelings rather than those of Anne. Overall, though, I still enjoyed the book greatly and am pleased to have learnt more about this fascinating woman.

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1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII by Suzannah Lipscomb

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “One of the best-known figures of British History, the stereotypical image of Henry VIII is of a corpulent, covetous and cunning King whose appetite for worldly goods met few parallels, whose wives met infamously premature ends, and whose religion was ever political in intent. Moving beyond this caricature, 1536 – focusing on a pivotal year in the life of the King – reveals a fuller portrait of this complex monarch, detailing the finer shades of humanity that have so long been overlooked. We discover that in 1536 Henry met many failures – physical, personal and political – and emerged from them a different man: a revolutionary new King who proceeded to transform a nation and reform a religion. A compelling story, the effects of which are still with us today, 1536 demonstrates what a profound difference can be made to a nation simply by changing the heart of a King.”

REVIEW: I have read a great many biographies of Henry VIII since my fascination with the Tudors developed, but none captured and held my attention quite as well as this one did. Focusing on one short but extremely dramatic year in the reign of Henry VIII, Lipscomb looks at the crises of religion, masculinity and politics that engulfed Henry in a period that many describe as his annus horribilis, and analyses the effect that these events had on his personality. Prior to 1536, Lipscomb argues, Henry seems to have been beloved by the people, a benevolent King who, despite outbreaks of temper, was on the whole well-liked and respected, ruling with at least an attempt at justice and fairness. After 1536, however, the tyrannical, obese and intimidating monarch that we are all familiar with from school history classes began to emerge. It is this transition – from golden prince to tyrant – that Lipscomb explores. She focuses particularly on ideas about masculinity at the time, and how Henry’s reputation as a man was heavily damaged by the adultery charges brought against Anne Boleyn and the rumours about his impotence which circulated during her trial. This meant that Henry had an even greater need to prove himself as a man and assert his masculinity, which he did through strengthening his religious policy, taking a firmer line against his political opponents and in Parliament, and through the use of royal iconography – in particular, the infamous portrait of him which was painted as part of a mural designed by Holbein. Lipscomb’s explorations of this paints a very believable image of Henry’s descent into tyranny, and clearly explains to the reader why Henry’s need to prove his masculinity was inextricably linked to proving his status as the rightful King and Supreme Head of the Church. This biography was easy to read and understand which made it easier to absorb the information – something that often passes the reader by with more heavily written non-fiction books. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to reading any further works that Lipscomb may publish on the Tudors.

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Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies: THE PLAYS

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Wolf Hall begins in England in 1527. Henry has been King for almost twenty years and is desperate for a male heir, but Cardinal Wolsey cannot deliver the divorce he craves. Yet for a man with the right talents this crisis could be an opportunity. Thomas Cromwell is a commoner who has risen in Wolsey’s household – and he will stop at nothing to secure the King’s desires and advance his own ambitions.

In Bring up the Bodies, the volatile Anne Boleyn is now Queen, her career seemingly entwined with that of Cromwell. But when the King begins to fall in love with Jane Seymour, the ever-pragmatic Cromwell must negotiate within an increasingly perilous court to satisfy Henry, defend the nation and, above all, to secure his own rise in the world.”

REVIEW: Having devoured both ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’, I was delighted to discover that they were being made into plays that would hopefully ease the boredom of waiting for the third novel in the trilogy, ‘The Mirror and the Light’, to be released. I went to see both plays over the summer – both were phenomenal – and purchased this book, which contains the scripts of both plays, on my second visit (when I saw ‘Bring up the Bodies’). These plays are brilliant adaptations of Mantel’s groundbreaking works – full of wit, humour, treachery and lust, they capture the truly perilous and tempestuous atmosphere of King Henry VIII’s court. Every moment of the plays, even those filled with humour, run with an undercurrent of danger, just like the English court. I am writing a book set in the Tudor court myself and I can only hope in vain that I will be able to capture the very essence of Tudor high society even as little as a third as well as Mantel and Poulton have done. The characters are complex, vivid and extremely accurate in their attitudes and behaviours – although I have always been a little upset with Mantel’s portrayal of George Boleyn, who becomes in this (as in, unfortunately, many works of historical fiction) a foppish idiot rather than the skilled poet and diplomat we know him to be. Overall, however, I loved the plays almost as much as the books they are based on, and loved having the chance to relive seeing them again through this book.