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: ‘Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy’ by Matthew Lewis

The Anarchy was the first civil war in post-Conquest England, enduring throughout the reign of King Stephen between 1135 and 1154. It ultimately brought about the end of the Norman dynasty and the birth of the mighty Plantagenet kings. When Henry I died having lost his only legitimate son in a shipwreck, he had caused all of his barons to swear to recognize his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir and remarried her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. When she was slow to move to England on her father’s death, Henry’s favourite nephew Stephen of Blois rushed to have himself crowned, much as Henry himself had done on the death of his brother William Rufus.

Supported by his brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, Stephen made a promising start, but Matilda would not give up her birthright and tried to hold the English barons to their oaths. The result was more than a decade of civil war that saw England split apart. Empress Matilda is often remembered as aloof and high-handed, Stephen as ineffective and indecisive. By following both sides of the dispute and seeking to understand their actions and motivations, Matthew Lewis aims to reach a more rounded understanding of this crucial period of English history and asks to what extent there really was anarchy.

cover and text via Pen & Sword

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I must admit that the civil war of the 12th century is definitely not in my time period of expertise, but this book jumped out for two reasons – 1) that a kick-ass woman was trying to be a king, and 2) Matthew Lewis wrote it. I thought there was no way this book could fail.

In 1120, King Henry I lost his only legitimate male heir, William, in the disaster of the White Ship. The sole heir to the throne was being a moron, and drunkenly sank his ship off the coast of Normandy, killing hundreds. While the king had two dozen bastard children (though one bastard son also died aboard the White Ship), all Henry had to inherit his throne was William, and his older sister, Matilda. With the loss of William, Henry I had what all kings fear – the possibility to handing power to a woman.

Matilda was married to the Holy Roman Emperor, only to have him die in 1125, when Matilda was still young. Henry moved his daughter back to Normandy, and set about making her the heir to the English throne. Matilda married Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou, and the nobles of England and English-controlled France swore fealty to Matilda and Geoffrey. Matilda didn’t seem to like her husband, but in 1135, when King Henry died in Normandy, she was pregnant with her third child, and ready to march on cities and put down rebellions.

Enter Stephen of Blois, Matilda’s cousin, the Count of Boulogne and new Duke of Normandy. Stephen hastily made his way to England, and claimed the English throne for himself while Matilda battled Anglo-Norman nobles. This problem of multiple claimants to the throne started The Anarchy, which would last for almost 20 years. Both Matilda and Stephen were descendants of William the Conqueror, and Stephen had the backing of the church, developed ways to raise money, and was prepared to fight the Scottish, the Welsh and Geoffrey of Anjou for Normandy. While several years of fighting had moderate success, by 1138, the tide was turning on all fronts, and supporters were withdrawing support for Stephen in favour of Matilda.

Lewis’ book tells the story from both points of view. Stephen seems to have been a well-liked man, with his wife, Queen Matilda, a powerful ally at his side. On the other side, Matilda is also a strong woman, her half-brother Robert a loyal supporter, and her husband Geoffrey a tough man. Matilda landed in England in 1139, but Stephen was hesitant to lay siege on a castle harbouring a female enemy. But he had underestimated his cousin, for Matilda, alongside Robert, was ready to fight for the throne. By 1141, Matilda had captured Stephen.

Matilda was an incredible woman. She lived in a time where men simply couldn’t comprehend a woman in power. She couldn’t be a woman who ruled, she needed to be a king. The fine line Matilda needed to walk was one almost impossible; she was expected to be a woman, but act like a king. She needed to rule and control as a king, but all her nobles and commoners saw was a woman. Empress Matilda, Lady of England and Normandy, set forth to London to be coronated, only to have the population revolt against her just days before she wore the crown as king of England.

Matilda soon had to face another battle, from Stephen’s wife Queen Matilda, who overthrew Matilda and forced her into hiding. Matilda was forced to let Stephen go from prison, in return for her brother Robert, who was caught by Queen Matilda in battle (phew!).

Battles continued for several years with Stephen still the king, and Matilda on her own with husband Geoffrey taking Normandy across the channel. In 1147, Matilda’s brother Robert died, and her son Henry, aged only 14, took up the battle in his mother’s name. But the fresh fighting produced no winners, and young Henry wanted to bail out, but was broke. King Stephen paid for his enemy to leave the fighting, a strange gesture indeed, paying his cousin and enemy to safely leave. This left the people of England to make truces and find some peace at last, but Matilda wasn’t done yet.

By 1153, Henry was at it again, fighting Stephen for the crown. But instead of battles to the death, Stephen and Henry made peace, and decided Henry would be Stephen’s heir, in place of Stephen’s own son who was ruling in France. Stephen died only one year later, and Henry became King Henry II, leaving his mother Matilda to never rule England.

This book goes into fine detail about the battles that raged over this bloody period in English history, which gives The Anarchy context and fleshes out the realities of what happened to the country, and how the people suffered over the period of 1135 – 1154. With the book covering both Stephen and Matilda, it makes it hard to decide who you want to win. Matilda was an extraordinary woman in English history, so to hate Stephen for taking her throne should be an easy task. Instead, Stephen is a liked and capable man  who makes the right decision at crucial moments. Despite the 19 years in which the civil war spanned, there were times of peace in all areas of the country.  Neither Stephen nor Matilda made the battle for the crown personal, neither wished to kill the other, or at least it seemed. When it fell to Henry II to rebuild after the fighting, rebuilding the country and her finances took only around a decade, and went on to rule much of France, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. To suggest England was in anarchy under Stephen isn’t the full picture, which Lewis details meticulously. However, with the coinage debased and law and order a mess, the battle had done much harm to the general population in the south, while northern areas were largely untouched. The fortunes of England raised and fell with every move Matilda and Stephen made.

I expected to read this book, cheering for Matilda’s success, despite knowing the ultimate outcome already, and yet that didn’t happen. Lewis has written the book in a way that the reader can see the battle from both points of view and I liked Stephen more than I wanted to. There is much to cover in The Anarchy, and yet the author fits it all in without wasting any time. While I was already a very big Matthew Lewis fan, this book has left me better for reading it, learning about a period I probably wouldn’t have bothered with if not for him.

 

 

 

 

 

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: ‘Richard III: Loyalty Binds Me” by Matthew Lewis

King Richard III remains one of the most controversial figures in British history. Matthew Lewis’s new biography aims to become a definitive account by exploring what is known of his childhood and the impacts it had on his personality and view of the world. He would be cast into insecurity and exile only to become a royal prince before his tenth birthday.

As Richard spends his teenage years under the watchful gaze of his older brother, Edward IV, he is eventually placed in the household of their cousin, the Earl of Warwick, remembered as the Kingmaker; but as the relationship between a king and his most influential magnate breaks down, Richard is compelled to make a choice when the House of York fractures. After another period in exile, Richard returns to become the most powerful nobleman in England. The work he involves himself in during the years that follow demonstrates a drive and commitment but also a dangerous naïveté. 

When crisis hits in 1483, it is to Richard that his older brother turns on his death-bed. The events of 1483 remain contentious and hotly debated, but by understanding the Richard who began that year, it will become clearer what drove some of his actions and decisions. Returning to primary sources and considering the evidence available, this new life undoes the myths and presents a real man living in tumultuous times.

cover and blurb via Amberley Publishing

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I have to be honest, I am very much Ricardian. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Richard III get vilified by Shakespeare (well, by 21st century actors, anyway) and barely contain my rage.  I don’t think Richard is perfect, a completely impeachable hero (no one is), but I also don’t think him a child-killing villain. There are few like Richard, a man who had suffered a great deal in a short time before his fateful battle at Bosworth. And it takes an author as fine as Lewis to dig into the details of Richard’s life. Most books either love or hate Richard, whereas this writer doesn’t go down either road, and instead gives us an insight into the mind of a man who became king, lost his own family, and then was overthrown by a man with a flimsy claim. Richard was a king, now a legend, but he was also just a man, and here is a book where we finally get to meet Richard. I moved books around on my Richard shelves to make room for this biography before it even came out.

While many books write about 1483 onwards, so much happened in Richard’s life leading up to the crown. The first half of the book digs deep into Richard, those in his life, the battles he fought, his ideals in life and religion, all as he grew into the king people focus on now. Much happened to Richard in his short life – overcoming a spinal deformity would have shaped his thoughts. He grew up around powerful people, like the Nevilles, who would do anything for power. Richard was prepared to lay down his life for his brother Edward, and yet his brother George betrayed them both, harm which would cause a wound that could never truly heal. Edward was king on the back of Richard’s hard work, and Richard ran the north in England and kept an eye on Scotland for his sovereign, all before the age of thirty.

But when King Edward died in April 1483, all the moments in Richard’s life which shaped him would come in play. The next three months have been debated since the moment they happened, but this book gives a reader a more detailed insight into why Richard acted as he did, thought as he did. It seems Richard was neither a murderous villain desperate for power, or an innocent caught up in a disaster. The illegitimacy of the Princes in the Tower is well discussed too, whether Richard was fooled, or did he simply miss important details, or was he the master? I can’t tell you, because spoilers, but the murky situation and Richard’s handling is a reflection of many events long before the mess with the Princes. Another important detail in the events of 1483 is the death of Hastings, a particular favourite subject of mine. Again, in the interest of spoilers (as in the excellent research on Lewis’ part) I won’t share all that is written, but the whole situation felt fresh to me, a tough feat after 500 years and a whole lot of writing on the subject.

Richard’s life went from a powerful ruler in the north after years of fighting, to having brother George executed, to his brother Edward dead before his time, to being thrust onto the throne, to his nephews disappeared, to his precious wife and son dead from illness, to betrayal by men he trusted… how much can one man take in only a few years? By the time Richard faced Henry Tudor at Bosworth, Richard’s life was circling the drain, yet he remained confident of victory. This book talks of Richard in a positive way, without soundly like it is gushing with adoration; rather, it shows the whole life of an extraordinary man. England could have had a fine king, had Richard been given the chance.

This book is worthy of five stars. Matthew Lewis wrote The Survival of the Princes in the Tower not to long ago, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Loyalty Binds Me is an excellent addition to any library. Imagine saying you like Richard III but don’t have Lewis in your collection?

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Women in Medieval England’ by Lynda Telford

This fascinating book explores the status of women in medieval England, both before and after the Norman Conquest.

The author starts by contrasting the differences in status between Anglo/Danish or Saxon women with those who fell under the burden of the feudal system imposed by the Normans. She covers such subjects as marriage and childbirth, the rights and responsibilities of wives, separation and divorce, safety and security and the challenges of widowhood. She also examines such issues as virginity and chastity and the pressures placed on women by religious groups.

At a time when women’s rights were minimal, the author charts their struggles against the sexual politics of the era, its inequalities and its hypocrisies. She also examines the problems of the woman alone, from forced marriage to prostitution. The lives of ordinary women are the centre of attention, painting a fascinating picture of their courage and resilience against the background of their times.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Resting on the theme of women in history is Women in Medieval England. My initial interest in this book was the pre-conquest women included. England and its rulers is so often detailed as post-1066, so someone like myself with limited knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon era found the overview and laws of the time useful. New leaders made for new husbands for noble women, who may not even be able to understand them, given language barriers. A nightmare of any woman, and to cap it off, not speaking your new husband/owner’s language is a scary thought.

What classified as marriage was quite different (as I’m sure everyone knows) which made for a messy history and difficult lives for the women traded to their husbands. The book even delves into what was birth control in the pots-1066 era, and lol-worthy concepts for cures for impotence. Life for women was exceptionally difficult, mostly due to the largely uncontrollable act of pregnancy, and the book shows just how damned awful it was for our predecessors to battle on creating a new generation.
Married life was all kinds of awful – as everyone knows the ‘rule of thumb,’ in that a man cannot beat his wife with anything thicker than his thumb. Though, in some ways, you read this and wonder how much life has altered for many women. This book digs through a realities of being a woman in the medieval period, where men are cast as sword-wielding heroes, women have been left standing in mud-floor huts. This shines a light on those women, who had the temperament of saints, strength tougher than any soldier, and bravery beyond that of a king. The world was a strange place for women; you could die of the plague, or you could survive an outbreak and clean up in the vacant jobs market.
This is no heavy book you will be reaching for when researching, it is a read on the lives of women in a world none of us would want to return to. There is plenty of information to be had in here, without feeling like you’re in a history lesson, a book for those who would like to read for pleasure, not study.