HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The House of Grey’ by Melita Thomas

The Grey family was one of medieval England’s most important dynasties. They were were on intimate terms with the monarchs and interwoven with royalty by marriage. They served the kings of England as sheriffs, barons and military leaders. In Henry IV’s reign the rivalry between Owain Glyndwr and Lord Grey of Rhuthun was behind the Welsh bid to throw off English dominance. His successor Edmund Grey played a decisive role at the Battle of Northampton when he changed allegiance from Lancaster to York. He was rewarded with the disputed lands and the earldom of Kent. By contrast his cousin, Sir John Grey, died at the second battle of St Albans, leaving a widow, Elizabeth née Woodville, and two young sons, Thomas and Richard. Astonishingly, the widowed Elizabeth caught the eye of Edward IV and was catapulted to the throne as his wife. This gave her sons an important role after Edward s death. The Greys were considered rapacious, even by the standards of the time and the competing power grabs of the Greys with Richard, Duke of Gloucester led to Richard Greys summary execution when Gloucester became king. His brother, Thomas, vowed revenge and joined Henry Tudor in exile.

When Thomas Grey’s niece, Elizabeth of York, became queen, the family returned to court, but Henry VII was wary enough of Thomas to imprison him for short time. Thomas married the greatest heiress in England, Cicely Bonville, their numerous children gained positions in the court of their cousin, Henry VIII, and his daughter, Mary. The 2nd Marquis was probably taught by Cardinal Wolsey but was a vigorous supporter of Henry VIII s divorce from Katharine of Aragon. But his son’s reckless involvement in Wyatt s rebellion ended in his own execution and that of his daughter, Lady Jane Grey, the ‘Nine Days Queen’. Weaving the lives of these men and women from a single family, often different allegiances, into a single narrative, provides a vivid picture of the English mediaeval and Tudor court, reflecting how the personal was always political as individual relationships and rivalries for land, power and money drove national events.

cover and text via Amberley Publishing

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I jumped with joy when Amberley kindly sent me a copy of this book. Thomas Cromwell was beloved by the Greys, and they are a big theme in my next Cromwell novel out next year. The Grey family has not been given enough of the spotlight, and yet they are always there, close beside the better-known members of the royal court, ready for their time to shine.

While the Grey family began in the late 1100s, it was Lord Reginald Grey of Rhuthun who rose to prominence under Henry IV, and is famous for his battles with the Welsh, and being held hostage due to failed plans. His son, Edmund Grey fought during the Wars of the Roses, splitting from his family, who supported the Lancasterians, and supported the Yorkist cause instead. His son John Grey continued to fight for the Lancastrian cause, but was killed at the Battle of St Albans in 1461, leaving his wife Elizabeth Woodville a young widow with two sons, Thomas and Richard. When she secretly remarried to King Edward IV, the Grey family became full Yorkist supporters. It is these sons Thomas and Richard the world already knows. As with many noble houses of the time period, divided loyalties were a major problem when making the wrong choice could mean death.

Richard, younger of the brothers, did well from his mother’s remarrriage, elevated at the royal court, and half-brother to the heir to the throne. But when Edward IV died in 1483, Richard Grey was executed beside his uncle Anthony Woodville, on Richard of Gloucester’s (Richard III’s) orders, aged only about 26. These killings sparked an already deeply divided power battle between the newly widowed queen and Richard III, her brother-in-law.

Elder brother Thomas Grey was a loyal Yorkist, and the Marquess of Dorset, and watched Richard III be crowned in London as his brother died, and soon after heard of the disappearance of the Princes of the Tower, his two young half-brothers. Thomas joined the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III, but when that rapidly failed, Thomas changed loyalties fled to Brittany to join Henry Tudor, who pledged to marry Thomas’ half sister Elizabeth of York, and rule England. Thomas was ready to invade England alongside Henry Tudor in 1485, only to hear that his mother had come to terms with Richard III, and he tried to desert the Lancastrian cause. Instead, he was captured by the French and held in Paris while the Battle of Bosworth saw Henry Tudor crowned Henry VII and step-uncle Richard III slain. Thomas was only released when Henry was on the throne and the new king could pay his French supporters.

Thomas Grey never recovered his influence in England after flipping between York and Lancaster, and was imprisoned during the Lambert Simnel uprising and the Battle of Stoke Field. Despite being the new queen’s brother, the cloud of treason hung over Thomas, and he enjoyed little favour until his death in 1501, aged only about 48. But Thomas had 14 children, including his heir and namesake, the 2nd Marquess of Dorset.

While his father suffered for his divided loyalties, the young Thomas Grey did well as the ward of Henry VII, only encountering trouble towards the end of the king’s life, when suspicion of treason was rife. But with the accession of Henry VIII, Thomas Grey sat comfortably for another twenty years as one of the few Marquess’ in England, until the King’s Great Matter started to divide the royal court. Grey, along with his brothers and their wives, were loyal to the king, and their Queen Katherine. The Grey family were again forced to take sides and divide their loyalties between Henry and Katherine, to their great disadvantage. But the Grey family, from Dowager Cecily Grey downwards, had the love and friendship of Thomas Cromwell, who gave them money, patronage and preference in the royal court. Thomas Grey died in 1530, leaving behind his  siblings, and also four sons and four daughters, among them Henry and Elizabeth.

While Elizabeth would go on to marry a friend of Cromwell’s, Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley, and live a happy life, Henry Grey was not the smartest man. (His grandmother Cecily asked Thomas Cromwell to watch out for him at court, guide him, possibly godfather his children, etc.) Henry married Frances Brandon, daughter to Charles Brandon and Henry VIII’s sister Mary, Queen of France; quite the coup. (Cromwell continued to favour the Grey family,and the Dudleys due to their connection in marriage to the Greys). Henry and Frances had the famous Grey three daughters – Jane, Katherine and Mary. Henry rose to the title of Duke of Suffolk after the death of his brother-in-law in 1551 (rather than earning a title), but it was Frances Brandon who was the brains of the pair, and their daughters, Jane especially, became the heirs of King Edward VI. Henry Grey saw his daughter Jane become queen for nine days in 1553, only for he and poor Jane to be overthrown, and beheaded a year after their imprisonment. After 150+ years serving high in the royal court, constant divided loyalties saw the Grey family finally slip from favour.

The story of the Grey family at court is one of huge ups and downs from family upheavals all the way up to executions from kings and queens. The Greys were an integral part of the royal court alongside Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III (and the cause of Edward V), Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Grey family members still had claims to the throne during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and succession of King James VI/I.  The story of this family takes place in a tumultuous time, and I greatly enjoyed reading this book.  As someone who prefers the players in the shadows to the stars of the royal court, the tale of the Grey family shows a new side to old tales in history. I truly love having this book in my library.

See also ‘The King’s Pearl’ by Melita Thomas

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: “Anna, Duchess of Cleves” by Heather R. Darsie

Anna was the ‘last woman standing’ of Henry VIII’s wives ‒ and the only one buried in Westminster Abbey. How did she manage it?

Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’ looks at Anna from a new perspective, as a woman from the Holy Roman Empire and not as a woman living almost by accident in England. Starting with what Anna’s life as a child and young woman was like, the author describes the climate of the Cleves court, and the achievements of Anna’s siblings. It looks at the political issues on the Continent that transformed Anna’s native land of Cleves ‒ notably the court of Anna’s brother-in-law, and its influence on Lutheranism ‒ and Anna’s blighted marriage. Finally, Heather Darsie explores ways in which Anna influenced her step-daughters Elizabeth and Mary, and the evidence of their good relationships with her.

Was the Duchess Anna in fact a political refugee, supported by Henry VIII? Was she a role model for Elizabeth I? Why was the marriage doomed from the outset? By returning to the primary sources and visiting archives and museums all over Europe (the author is fluent in German, and proficient in French and Spanish) a very different figure emerges to the ‘Flanders Mare’.

Cover and blurb via Amberley

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There is a piece of fiction out right now, which suggests that Henry VIII was right, Anna of Cleves was no virgin. I will not be reviewing that work, as I only publish five-star reviews, and leave the rest in privacy. Instead, I am here to show you THE book on Anna of Cleves, a piece of written beauty.

Anna of Cleves starts out with a look at Anna’s childhood, her family, its history, and life in Germany at the time. The book has researched German life and child-rearing for those in Anna’s rich position. No music, dancing and sewing days for Anna – girls were taught by women to learn finance, in order to run a home worth of a duchy. Yes, Anna could sew, with her fine embroidery and needlework on clothing, but could also read, write, understand money and German customs, values and politics. While all that is great, Anna learnt a German way of life, and the German language, one of her original problems in England.

The book tells us of Anna’s early life, rather than only focusing on her once she was purchased as a queen. The Cleves Court was an intriguing place, with a wholly different look at politics and customs of the time period. Without giving away spoilers, the stark difference between Germany and England shows just how much Anna had to go through upon her marriage and carefully negotiated life.

Germany, of course, was in the process of the Reformation, leaning Protestant, just how my personal beloved Thomas Cromwell wanted for England. Between the changes of Germany and the power still held by the Holy Roman Empire at the time, Anna marrying into England would have massive repercussions, and as someone who had to write the death of Thomas Cromwell, the book was an immense eye-opener on how Anna of Cleves’ marriage brought down England’s greatest minister of all time.  The situation was never as simple as Henry thinking Anna was ugly. No spoilers, but damn!!!

Anna of Cleves is an extraordinary woman. She managed to survive an annulment from Henry after only a few months (and didn’t have to sleep with him), and became the king’s ‘sister.’ Anna made friends with the grandest of women in England, Henry’s daughters Lady Mary and Lady Elizabeth, and also the exciting Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. Anna managed all this in England, living a longer life than any other Henry wife, but never had to let go of who she was.  It has been a long time since I found a book with so much new information; we just needed to wait for Darsie to deliver such brilliance. History has relegated Anna to a role of being the ugly foreign wife Cromwell brought to England. A woman so repulsive Henry became impotent (though, come on, none of us ever believed that was her fault). A woman married for an alliance not wanted or needed, and disposed of for a pretty teenager. Anna was beautiful, educated, kind, clever and resourceful. Thank you for this wonderful book!

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Mary: Tudor Princess’ by Tony Riches

From the author of the international best-selling Tudor Trilogy, the true story of the Tudor dynasty continues with the daughter of King Henry VII, sister to King Henry VIII. Mary Tudor watches her elder brother become King of England and wonders what the future holds for her. 

Born into great privilege, Mary has beauty and intelligence beyond her years and is the most marriageable princess in Europe. Henry plans to use her marriage to build a powerful alliance against his enemies. Will she dare risk his anger by marrying for love?

Meticulously researched and based on actual events, this ‘sequel’ follows Mary’s story from book three of the Tudor Trilogy and is set during the reign of King Henry VIII.

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I have read Owen, Jasper and Henry, and also Warwick, by this author, so having a woman as a title character is an exciting addition! But it is not about Mary I, but Princess Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister. That’s when I really jumped for the book, as I love both Mary and Margaret, forever eclipsed by their king brother.

The book starts in 1509, and Princess Mary is but 13 years old. Her brother Henry is only five years older but has just been crowned King of England. Henry knows who he shall marry – Katherine of Aragon, widow of Arthur, and now Mary is going to be an equally powerful princess – powerful in that selling her to the highest bidder will help increase Henry’s power.

Mary has, in the past, been written as a fool, a simple girl interested in princes and gowns, no head for politics. What a silly notion, because Mary is the daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, her sister is Queen of Scots, Arthur was to be king, before Henry took poor Arthur’s place. How could Mary possibly be dim? Here, Mary is educated, confident and a brave young woman at the heart of a very serious political match for her country. Yes, she may break down in private, but her public face is one of total poise, the way only a royal upbringing could provide.

Mary considers Katherine of Aragon a sister when she marries Henry (Mary was very young when Katherine married Arthur). Henry and Mary are close, even though Henry is never an easy man to love, and is often heartless to Katherine. Mary has lost both her parents, and Henry breaks her betrothal to the  Holy Roman Emperor Charles, also just a child, and instead gives Mary in marriage to King Louis of France.

Mary may be a queen, but is also Europe’s most beautiful princess of 18 years when she marries the frail 52-year-old Louis. Mary does as she is bid (and has a child Anne Boleyn in her household, just a little side bonus) and marries the old Frenchman. But first Mary told her brother – I shall marry Louis if  can choose my second husband.

That is where Mary is so grand. Louis kicks the bucket three months in, and kings and dukes are clamouring for Mary less than a week into widowhood. But Mary has her suitor all ready, Charles Brandon, Henry’s best friend and (while the Duke of Suffolk) not at all good enough for her. Secretly married, Mary defies her brother and King, and is banished from court and from his kindness.

Never mind all these details; Mary is written as a woman, a wife, a mother, a sister. She becomes a queen of France (who killed her old husband with too much sex, so they gossiped, eww), then a woman who married for love, then a wife who had to endure infidelity, the births and deaths of children, the heartache she felt for Queen Katherine and the fortunes of all around her. Mary also suffered with her health for her whole life.

Mary was an important princess in the royal history of the time, and is not prone to being frivolous, and so is written as an educated woman. While the Tudor world is filled with politics, law, religion, it is also filled with love, friendship, parties and jousts, colour and excitement, and the book weaves all together.

Did Brandon love Mary back? The book gives hints about such as Mary’s life is followed. Mary’s death is beautiful and tragic, and the process starts over, as Brandon marries a child as a firm alliance just a few months later (he was a lucky man to capture both Princess Mary and Catherine Willoughby!). Mary’s granddaughter Jane would become queen for nine days many years later, and must have had the blood of THIS type of Princess Mary in Jane’s veins.

Thank you, Tony, for a wonderful novel!

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About the Author Tony Riches is a full-time author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Goodreads as well as Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Raven’s Widow: A Novel of Jane Boleyn’ by Adrienne Dillard

The river was as calm as I had ever seen it. Ordinarily, the tide would have been wild by this time of year, and woe unto any man unfortunate enough to fall into the fierce currents of the Thames. Tonight the tides were still, and the surface of the water appeared glassy. When I peered down into the dark depths, I saw my tired, drawn face wavering in the reflection. I quickly turned away as I fought back a wave of nausea, frightened by the anguish I saw etched there.

“Only a few moments more my lady, the Tower is just ahead.”


Jane Parker never dreamed that her marriage into the Boleyn family would raise her star to such dizzying heights. Before long, she finds herself as trusted servant and confidante to her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn; King Henry VIII’s second queen. On a gorgeous spring day, that golden era is cut short by the swing of a sword. Jane is unmoored by the tragic death of her husband, George, and her loss sets her on a reckless path that leads to her own imprisonment in the Tower of London. Surrounded by the remnants of her former life, Jane must come to terms with her actions. In the Tower, she will face up to who she really is and how everything went so wrong.

cover and blurb via amazon

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No one with the name Boleyn has fared well through history or fiction, and Jane Boleyn is definitely no exception. In recent times, Jane has been pained as a snitch, a mean, meddling and jealous woman, one who helped get her husband beheaded. Here, Dillard sets out to paint a very different woman.

Jane Parker was born in around 1505 to Henry Parker, Baron Morley and Alice St John (so through her mother’s family, a distant relative of King Henry). By 1520 Jane was in service to Queen Katherine, and considered an attractive woman for her time. By 1525, marriage had been arranged to George Boleyn, brother of two women, Anne and Mary Boleyn, whom also served Queen Katherine. As the Boleyn family were of little consequence at the time, little is recorded about the marriage, or Jane herself. It seems they had a loving marriage, though no children were ever born to the pair. Here, possible miscarriages and losses are added to the book to gain a different insight with artistic licence.

After Mary Boleyn’s time as the king mistress ended, it was Anne’s turn to fall prey to Henry, whom loved her deeply right through the 1520’s, and it was then that the Boleyns rose in the court and public eye. By 1533, Anne was queen of England, and Jane was in her service, now Viscountess Rochford. No part of Jane’s life could have prepared her for such circumstances. Jane is written as caring, emotional, irrational but interesting through the trials of being the queen’s sister-in-law, through the eyes of a courtier not often chosen as a main protagonist.

History remembers Jane as the one who told Cromwell that Anne and George were committing incest to gain a child to claim as King Henry’s. But Jane n reality was a woman married to a man who was a womaniser (though is portrayed as kinder and more chaste in this book), and, when George lost his head, she had to plead and bow to regain favour.

In this book, as in life, Jane is a character who manages to survive, to serve Anne of Cleves and then Katherine Howard as queens, before Jane too loses her head for helping Queen Katherine set up dates with her secret lover in 1542. The twist in this book is how Jane is not written as the scheming bitch who happily served her husband and sister-in-law to the axe so she could continue to survive. Also, Jane’s breakdown right before death is also given a fresh look. A book for those who are on the look out for something new.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Anne Boleyn: Adultery, Heresy, Desire’ by Amy Licence

Anne Boleyn’s unconventional beauty inspired poets ‒ and she so entranced Henry VIII with her wit, allure and style that he was prepared to set aside his wife of over twenty years and risk his immortal soul. Her sister had already been the king’s mistress, but the other Boleyn girl followed a different path. For years the lovers waited; did they really remain chaste? Did Anne love Henry, or was she a calculating femme fatale?

Eventually replacing the long-suffering Catherine of Aragon, Anne enjoyed a magnificent coronation and gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth, but her triumph was short-lived. Why did she go from beloved consort to adulteress and traitor within a matter of weeks? What role did Thomas Cromwell and Jane Seymour of Wolf Hall play in Anne’s demise? Was her fall one of the biggest sex scandals of her era, or the result of a political coup?

With her usual eye for the telling detail, Amy Licence explores the nuances of this explosive and ultimately deadly relationship to answer an often neglected question: what choice did Anne really have? When she writes to Henry during their protracted courtship, is she addressing a suitor, or her divinely ordained king? This book follows Anne from cradle to grave and beyond. Anne is vividly brought to life amid the colour, drama and unforgiving politics of the Tudor court.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Are you thinking, oh God, another biography of Anne Boleyn? Is there anything else to know? I can tell you that, yes, there is more to know and you should be thrilled to get this one. Amy Licence has practically handed a perfect account of Anne’s life to readers on a silver plate. Come bask in its glory.

Regardless whether you think Anne stole the throne, was a home-wrecking schemer, or she was the king’s love, this book covers all angles, all details and all possibilities. Licence starts with Anne’s family and background, to see how a woman could be so loathed for her background compared to more noble beginnings, despite the fact Anne had a wonderful education abroad, enough for any noble man. The time period of Anne’s life was one where, as a young girl, the royal family of England was relatively stable; Henry married to Katherine, the odd mistress thrown in for good times (his at least). But when Katherine hit menopause and religious opinion was suddenly flexible, Anne’s life could never be the same.

The realities of the time are not romanticised by the author – being a woman was not all gowns and chilling with your lady friends. These people, with their lives dictated by custom, ceremony and family loyalties, were still real people. They loved, they loathed, they hurt like anyone else. The Boleyn family, while not as noble as others (only Anne’s mother was noble born), had their own plans in this world.

Anne served the archduchess of Austria, and Henry’s sister Mary when she was Queen of France. She also then served mighty Katherine, Queen of England. Anne was no fool, no commoner, yet not quite ever noble enough. Her family wanted better, and could you blame them? But the portrayal as the Boleyns as scheming, as pushing daughters forward as whores under the king’s nose has done Anne no favours, and this book can make Anne lovers feel safe she is not portrayed as some witch.

Women routinely became mistresses, as the social order gave this is an avenue, yet was frowned upon (um, who was sleeping with these girls, gentlemen?), and a route Anne’s sister Mary took with Henry, and we shall never know for sure if Mary really wanted the job. But Anne knew, regardless, that she would not do the same thing. She loved Henry Percy, and wanted to have a real marriage, real love, only to have it dashed away thanks to that same social order.

The book delves into Anne’s rise to power as Henry’s paramour, and discusses whether she played him as part of a strategy or whether she was forced into a ridiculous game with no option but to play along. No woman can say so no to a King; Anne had to be his love, his mistress-without-benefits (or did they share a bed? The book discusses), and Henry’s selfish nature sent him down a path Anne couldn’t have imagined. She wanted to be a man’s wife, not whore. Henry, in turn, got Thomas Cromwell to destroy the social order and religious boundaries. Even the most scheming woman couldn’t have predicted that.

Licence uses excellent sources for her biography, and as a person hungry for minor details on certain periods of Anne’s life, I fell upon these pages with great excitement. Anne was smart, she had morals, she had a temper and a strong will, so much so that king chased her long enough to create divorce from the Catholic Church and make her a queen. No one does that for any mistress.

Anne married Henry, and received a coronation with the crown only meant for ordained kings, and gave Henry the Princess Elizabeth. Anne should have had full control of her life by then, only to find she was more helpless than ever. Having given up her virginity but given Henry no son, she fell from favour, and when Henry asked Cromwell to remove Anne to make way for another virgin with a womb, poor Anne was destroyed in a way everyone knows, never learning what a glorious queen her daughter would become. What people didn’t know was the truth over the whole debacle that brought Anne to the executioner’s sword.

As a woman, a spurned one at that, Anne’s history became sullied with lies and cruelty – that she was a femme-fatale who turned into a whore and witch, that she gave birth to a monster child, that she had disfigurements. History was not ready to tell the truth about a smart, powerful woman. Thank God we live in a time where historians like Amy Licence are able to guide readers through Anne’s real history without forcing conclusions on readers.