HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: “House of Tudor: A Grisly History” by Mickey Mayhew

Gruesome but not gratuitous, this decidedly darker take on the Tudors, from 1485 to 1603, covers some forty-five ‘events’ from the Tudor reign, taking in everything from the death of Richard III to the botched execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and a whole host of horrors in between. Particular attention is paid to the various gruesome ways in which the Tudors dispatched their various villains and lawbreakers, from simple beheadings, to burnings and of course the dreaded hanging, drawing and quartering. Other chapters cover the various diseases prevalent during Tudor times, including the dreaded ‘Sweating Sickness’ – rather topical at the moment, unfortunately – as well as the cures for these sicknesses, some of which were considered worse than the actual disease itself. The day-to-day living conditions of the general populace are also examined, as well as various social taboos and the punishments that accompanied them, i.e. the stocks, as well as punishment by exile. Tudor England was not a nice place to live by 21st century standards, but the book will also serve to explain how it was still nevertheless a familiar home to our ancestors.

via amazon

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When I first saw this book, I thought, uh-oh, is poor Queen Mary about to be slandered as Bloody Mary again? If you were also worried about that, don’t panic, Mickey Mayhew knows what he’s talking about. This book can tempt those interested in the tortuous past of punishment, without being too difficult for the more squirmish.

This book has a lot to get through, covering 45 tales of bloody wars, torture, and disease of the 118-year Tudor reign. There is no time to waste; the book jumps straight into the grotesque way King Richard III was killed and defiled long before he was found under a car park in Leicester. Sadly, we get no more time during the reign of Henry VII. We leap forward to one particular tale that has always fascinated me; the case of Katharine of Aragon overseeing an army that went north and killed King James IV of Scotland. Katharine had no hesitation in wanting to collect and share blood-soaked keepsakes of her victory.

When it comes to a blood-soaked reign, King Henry VIII knew his stuff. From beheading close advisors in the early days of his reign until the very last minute before his death, Henry oversaw the murders of peasants, ministers, friends, and even queens. The first half of Henry’s reign was keener on beheadings or simple hangings, but as the reformation took hold, burnings for heresy became much more popular.

Young King Edward VI’s reign is largely skipped in this book, despite the boy beheading two of his three Seymour uncles, and we are into Queen Mary’s reign, the woman slandered though time for burning almost 300 reformists and intellectuals. Yes, this was a vast loss to England and infinitely cruel, but with Mary on the throne for just five years, she never really had the chance to inflict pain in the manner of her father.

This short book soon jumps forward again to the reign of Queen Elizabeth and the many enemies of her reign, and the various plots undertaken by men too weak to cope with living under a queen. Queen Elizabeth had no hesitation in defeating every plan. Mary, Queen of Scots, and her court also get time in the book, not as often considered a Tudor monarch while ruling Scotland. But her subsequent execution in England bears all the hallmarks of Tudor cruelty. Catherine de’Medici also gets a chapter in her honour through her trials at the French court, as her life was constantly intertwined with Queen Elizabeth’s.

Not just executions and torture, the book also covers the various nasty rebellions, assassinations, and also illnesses that caused suffering through the Tudor period, notably the sweating sickness. One may wonder if a quick beheading would be simpler than suffering sweating sickness or plague. Despite this rather weighty catalogue of subjects, the book is surprisingly short and even has lighthearted moments and witty chapter titles to offset what could be gloomy reading. Not a book filled with heavy academic writing, Mayhew has created a book for a range of readers, regardless of Tudor knowledge.

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This review was not given in return for a free book – buy books (or visit libraries) and make sure authors are fairly paid

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: “Do Let’s Have Another Drink: The Singular Wit and Double Measures of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother” by Gareth Russell

During her lifetime, the Queen Mother was as famous for her clever quips, pointed observations, and dry-as-a-martini delivery style as she was for being a beloved royal. Now, Do Let’s Have Another Drink recounts 101 (one for each year of her remarkable life) amusing and astonishing vignettes from across her long life, including her coming of age during World War I, the abdication of her brother-in-law and her unexpected ascendance to the throne, and her half-century of widowhood as her daughter reigned over the United Kingdom. Featuring new revelations and colorful anecdotes about the woman Cecil Beaton, the high society photographer, once summarised as “a marshmallow made on a welding machine,” Do Let’s Have Another Drink is a delightful celebration of one of the most consistently popular members of the royal family.

via amazon

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Amidst the glut of royal biographies recently released or republished, “Do Let’s Have Another Drink: The Singular Wit and Double Measures of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother” by Gareth Russell has managed to create a book that could spawn a thousand copycats about other famous characters. You don’t need to be a royalist or a monarchist to enjoy this book, it is the perfect story for anyone interested in the history, culture, and traditions of the House of Windsor. I found it to be incredibly insightful, with relevant information on all that has happened within the family throughout The Queen Mother’s life. Anyone who reads it will not only feel like they know her better but will also have a renewed interest in this iconic family.

The format, a life told through 101 anecdotes in chronological order, it’s possible to learn so much about Queen Elizabeth. From a historical perspective, the book is full of great facts about her life and offers insight into her personality. This book shows all the wit, wisdom, and charm I would expect from a royal like the Queen Mother. Rather than being a standard biography heavy on detail, this book offers flashes of the queen’s remarkable life, those she cared for, those she loathed (notably Wallis Simpson, and in later years, Princess Diana), and how she treated those around her. The Queen Mother was not afraid of a drink, and that is immediately obvious throughout the book, and she would think nothing of overruling her guests when they didn’t want a refill.

Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’s life is well-known; her devotion to her husband, her angst at being thrust into the queenship she never expected, her love for her daughters, and her despair at the loss of her husband. This book is fast-paced, and many of the things we know of Elizabeth are quickly left behind, instead given a book showing her life in a more lighthearted way, flashes of her life around people who were treated to time in her company. While Elizabeth endured much in her impressive 101 years, Russell has (mostly) given us Elizabeth’s brighter moments.

Russell is an extraordinary author, and I would read anything he created, and this book is another to add to an essential collection. This book is a little walk through the past, showing a woman born during the rule of Queen Victoria, and living until after the turn of the millennium. An old-world woman living in a new world was always bound to create an interesting lifetime.

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NB: This book is released as “Do Let’s Have Another Drink!: The Dry Wit and Fizzy Life of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother” in the United States.

This review was not given in return for a free book – buy books (or visit libraries) and make sure authors are fairly paid

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: ‘Defenders of the Norman Crown – Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey’ by Sharon Bennett Connolly

In the reign of Edward I, when asked Quo Warranto – by what warrant he held his lands – John de Warenne, the 6th earl of Surrey, is said to have drawn a rusty sword, claiming “My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them”

John’s ancestor, William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, fought for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He was rewarded with enough land to make him one of the richest men of all time. In his search for a royal bride, the 2nd earl kidnapped the wife of a fellow baron. The 3rd earl died on crusade, fighting for his royal cousin, Louis VII of France…

For three centuries, the Warennes were at the heart of English politics at the highest level, until one unhappy marriage brought an end to the dynasty. The family moved in the highest circles, married into royalty and were not immune to scandal.

Defenders of the Norman Crown tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Purchase on Amazon here

It isn’t often I purchase books outside my main areas of interest (I just don’t have the time), but Sharon Bennett Connolly is an author worthy of an exception. After writing several other books focussing on women in the medieval era, all books I found really interesting, here was another opportunity to delve into a new period without feeling confused.

I knew absolutely nothing about the de Warenne family, had never bothered to glance past their names until this book was released, so I chose it solely based on the author’s previous books. The story of the de Warennes covers 300 years, spreads over England, Scotland and Normandy. It starts with William I de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, the fourth-wealthiest man under William the Conquerer, a title won by fighting in the 1066 Battle of Hastings to conquer England. William survived the battle and took a huge swathe of southern England for himself, founding Lewes Priory, only to die in battle soon after. While the story of William and his noble Flemish wife Gundrada could be a story on its own, the book spreads out its tentacles to show the lives and reach of the de Warenne family across several centuries.

The de Warenne family accomplished much and held power from one generation to the next. Apart from Lewes, the family built Castle Acre in Norfolk and Conisbrough in Yorkshire (a place the author is an expert on, as the book shows) and within a generation of the first Earl of Surrey, the family had power in England and Normandy. Isabel Warenne, 4th Countess Surrey and sole heir to the title married a son of King Stephen, and then Hamelin de Anjou (a Plantagenet and half-brother of King Henry II), who took the title of Earl of Warenne, and together they continued this powerful family line. This made Isabel aunt to two further English kings, among many aristocratic connections. The family also stretched their reach into Scotland, with Isabella’s aunt Ada de Warrenne giving birth to two Scottish kings, Malcolm IV and William the Lion, while her other children married powerfully into Scotland (as in such as the notorious Bruce family), Wales and Holland. The stories of these family members stretch out across countries, time and tales of legendary people and battles.

The de Warennes power in the period is so intertwined with power and royalty, it is interesting there are not many more works on these people. William de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey was a supporter of Edward II, only to switch to Simon Montfort’s camp, and then back again, (a story all on its own) that saw him given control of Scotland where he saw off William Wallace’s rebellion. By this time, the de Warennes were totally linked with so many of the highest noble houses across England and Scotland, right up in the royal lines of both countries.

I won’t add spoilers, but the details of William de Warenne, the would-be 7th Earl of Surrey are discussed, both the long-held assumptions and new theories of his death. The more dubious John de Warenne, the eventual 7th Earl of Surrey, married King Edward I’s granddaughter, his own cousin who was only ten at the time of the wedding. But John, after a colourful personal and professional life (like divorce, mistresses and battles against the Mortimers and Piers Gaveston), left only illegitimate children, giving the Surrey title his sister’s Arundel son (who himself married a le Despenser and then Eleanor of Lancaster!). The de Warenne name may have died after 300 years, but had spread into all the high nobility, represented in every single noble house (such as de Vere, FitzAlan, Holland, Percy, Howard, Mowbray, Beauchamp, Beaumont, Lancaster, later also spreading into the Nevilles, Parrs, Hungerfords, St Johns – have I missed any? probably), and while the Earl of Surrey title eventually settled into a role within the Duke of Norfolk’s rank, the de Warennes had already embedded themselves into every level of the noble rank right up into the royal line. The name of de Warenne spread so far and wide over 300 years, I drew a little tree for myself to keep up. While not called de Warenne today, their ancestors are still going strong.

Honestly, how the author managed to fit so much into one book is a true feat. None of those discussed is worthy of dismissal; every single person brought something to this extraordinary family. To hold power for 300 years over such a time shows how remarkable the de Warennes were, male and female. We need fewer shows about the same few characters over and over, especially when we have authors like Sharon Bennett Connolly preparing such dramatic and exciting stories like the de Warenne dynasty, who are just waiting for their moment in the sun once more.

Being an author who tends to work on the period of 1450 onwards, I knew precious little details about many of the non-royals mentioned in this book, and I feel truly better for reading Defenders of the Norman Crown. This book is one of insight, enthusiasm and careful diligence to the subject, and a true credit to its author.

no free book or money changed hands in return for this review

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty’ by Sarah Gristwood

Why did Henry VIII marry six times? Why did Anne Boleyn have to die? Why did Elizabeth I’s courtiers hail her as a goddess come to earth?

The dramas of courtly love have captivated centuries of readers and dreamers. Yet too often they’re dismissed as something existing only in books and song – those old legends of King Arthur and chivalric fantasy.

Not so. In this ground-breaking history, Sarah Gristwood reveals the way courtly love made and marred the Tudor dynasty. From Henry VIII declaring himself as the ‘loyal and most assured servant’ of Anne Boleyn to the poems lavished on Elizabeth I by her suitors, the Tudors re-enacted the roles of the devoted lovers and capricious mistresses first laid out in the romances of medieval literature. The Tudors in Love dissects the codes of love, desire and power, unveiling romantic obsessions that have shaped the history of this nation.

Purchase on Amazon here

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When I saw this book advertised, I thought three things – 1. ooh, a new book from Sarah! 2. It’s so pretty! 3. Can any book really live up to the hyped early reviews they receive? I had to roll up my grumpy covid-outbreak words and bake them into a humble pie, because, yes, The Tudors in Love really is a wonderful book.

Love is not a subject of which I am especially fond or enjoy reading, and while I understand the concept of courtly love in the time of the Tudors, I have always found it to be, well, a bit dumb. I mean, look what happened to Anne Boleyn as an example. But here is a book that can make even a cynical asexual like myself appreciate its place at court.

I have always found the concept of courtly love misogynistic; a man wants to woo his object of desire, and if she gave in to his affections, she was a whore. If she did not, she was frigid and cruel. Gristwood writes about this particular issue in medieval literature and points out even they could see the flaws in the imagined game of romance. The games of love and romance then leaked into a concept that one should love the person they marry. Edward IV’s foolish marriage to Elizabeth Woodville is a classic example of how quickly romantic love can cause disaster, while their daughter Elizabeth married Henry Tudor and had an honest, loving relationship born out of more than foolish love/lust at first sight. Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth may have had something of a perfect marriage with dynastic ties and genuine affection but would prove a hard, nigh impossible, act to follow.

Perhaps Henry and Elizabeth wished the same for their children, Margaret was given in marriage to gain an alliance, only to then be free to make love matches later, Margaret a classic example of seeing love burned to ashes by the realities of marriage. Mary fared better; she was sold in a disgusting political marriage, only to have her old husband drop dead and the man of her dreams come to her rescue immediately after. Mary’s stolen chance to marry for romance and having things work out was a rare case indeed.

Their brother Henry VIII cannot for a moment take a back seat in the tales of courtly love in the 16th century. He loved his wife, Katherine, nicknaming himself Sir loyal Heart and waxing lyrical of his admiration for his wife. It should have been perfect; Henry and Katherine were an excellent political match and could have been as in love and happy on the throne as his parents before them, had the constant loss of their children not hardened Henry’s heart and broken Katherine’s.

While Katherine was openly loved, Anne Boleyn suffered from the pain of courtly love from Henry. Free of the burden of politics and marriage, Henry could chase Anne, declare love, write love letters, he Anne’s servant and she Henry’s sovereign. Henry could not tell the difference between courtly and marital love and married Anne, sucking the fun and thrill of the chase from the game. Anne, now a married birthing machine, still had to play the foolish games of courtly love with other admirers, only to have her words twisted against her when Henry confused his game of courtly love with Jane Seymour for a desire for marriage yet again.

While Henry’s three final marriages were a mixture of manchild tantrums, impulsive mistakes and wavering affections, and his son Edward too young to ever play the game  before his demise, Queen Mary came next. The game of courtly love was not one really played by Mary, with her marriage a political choice with no winners. Perhaps if Mary and Philip had indulged in some courtly love, at least some mild affection could have blossomed.

But it was Queen Elizabeth who had watched the games of court long enough by the time she took the throne. No one could play the game like Elizabeth. Fluttering lashes, poetry, majestic parties, smouldering glances, all the detailed images of courtly love were prepared for the beautiful queen, who had her hands full with constant favourites and men trapped in a web of their own making. Elizabeth’s ability to play men off one another and string them along without making the mistake of marriage made for many interesting scenarios, only for the misogyny of the whole concept to again rear its ugly head when Elizabeth became too old to beguile anyone. But even as Elizabeth’s games of courtly love started to lose their appeal, even to her favourites, she had already solidified her real power enough that the games no longer mattered, and she could defeat any man who dared threaten her crown. Only Elizabeth, the one to understand courtly love and the strings which made men her puppets, and who never confused the game with marriage and duty, could ever call herself the winner.

The Tudors in Love is an excellent book because it does what many fail to do; find a new angle on the subject of the Tudors, and carve out a new story without wandering off-topic. The concept of courtly love, its origins, its meanings and the implications, are all clearly laid out and explained in context. It is so easy to get lost in the webs of Tudor history and sources, and yet Gristwood has kept the theme throughout the book, leaving anything unnecessary on the editing room floor. If only all authors could be as singular minded when delivering a unique narrative.

no free book or money changed hands in return for this review

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: ‘Woodsmoke and Sage: The Five Senses 1485-1603: How the Tudors Experienced the World’ by Amy Licence

Traditionally history is cerebral: what did they believe, what did they think, what did they know?

Woodsmoke and Sage is not a traditional book.

Using the five senses, historian Amy Licence presents a new perspective on the material culture of the past, exploring the Tudors’ relationship with the fabric of their existence, from the clothes on their backs, the roofs over their heads and the food on their tables, to the wider questions of how they interpreted and presented themselves, and what they believed about life, death and beyond. Take a journey back 500 years and experience the sixteenth century the way it was lived, through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

Purchase on Amazon here

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It can be easy to feel a bit jaded when it comes to books on the Tudor period. They are abundant, and those of us who write for the newer generation are constantly having to come up with new ways to present the subject and find new information and sources to change old narratives. While some authors succeed and some do not, Amy Licence has yet again produced a masterstroke of Tudor writing.

Woodsmoke and Sage is an entirely new concept in the world of Tudor books, a book broken down into five parts, covering the five senses and how they were experienced in Tudor England.  This new book shows what we have in common with the (predominately) 16th century, and what has changed remarkably.

Naturally, sight is first, covering the enormous variations of daily life, from the way cloth and clothing were enjoyed and used to convey status, to the way people wrote and painted portraits of one another. Buildings and possessions are well covered, along with the way people presented themselves in public. The second section, the section I was most interested in, covers smell, something often lost when reading or watching something about Tudor England, covering from the smells of perfumes to the opposite end of pleasantries.

Sound was a sense I confess I didn’t think too much of, but apart from music and the sound of daily life, there are new things to consider such as the way news was shared. Taste is a natural feast, covering food and drink, and a handy section of which foods were considered dangerous at the time. Finally, touch covers a great deal, covering healthcare, disease, and childbirth. Another incredibly important issue was agricultural life and the weather, and the section also covers sports in the period and the realities of poverty and violence. I don’t want to share any tidbits of Licence’s research, that’s for you to enjoy for yourselves.

Woodsmoke and Sage is a bible of helpful instructions for a reader or writer. It can be read as a story, or used as a reference guide for particular subjects when needed. You can hop between sections without losing any of the book’s momentum, whether you are looking for the feel of the king’s coat, the noises wives would hear while they worked, or what salad may poison you. I personally found lots of little details new to me, despite years of research. Thomas Cromwell had plenty of perfume bottles and had plenty of handwashing facilities available, but what he was using in the bottles and basins can only be speculated, and this book offers me likely suggestions for future use (thanks!).

Woodsmoke and Sage (or Living Like a Tudor: Woodsmoke and Sage: A Sensory Journey Through Tudor England in the USA) is both interesting and engaging regardless of a reader’s knowledge of the period. I can say without a doubt that this book is going to be extremely precious to me in years to come. 

no free book or money changed hands in return for this review