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: ‘Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester’ by Nicola Tallis

The first biography of Lettice Knollys, one of the most prominent women of the Elizabethan era.

Cousin to Elizabeth I – and very likely also Henry VIII’s illegitimate granddaughter – Lettice Knollys had a life of dizzying highs and pitiful lows. Darling of the court, entangled in a love triangle with Robert Dudley and Elizabeth I, banished from court, plagued by scandals of affairs and murder, embroiled in treason, Lettice would go on to lose a husband and beloved son to the executioner’s axe. Living to the astonishing age of ninety-one, Lettice’s tale gives us a remarkable, personal lens on to the grand sweep of the Tudor Age, with those closest to her often at the heart of the events that defined it.

In the first ever biography of this extraordinary woman, Nicola Tallis’s dramatic narrative takes us through those events, including the religious turmoil, plots and intrigues of Mary, Queen of Scots, attempted coups, and bloody Irish conflicts, among others. Surviving well into the reign of Charles I, Lettice truly was the last of the great Elizabethans.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Lettice Knollys is such an interesting person, a life filled with enough drama and excitement that anyone would envy her. One of the few women of the English court not to be named Katherine, Anne, Elizabeth or Mary, Lettice Knollys was the daughter of Catherine Carey, the so-called love child of Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn.

While Catherine Carey wasn’t formally recognised as Henry’s love-child, the odds are high, making Carey the half-sister of Queen Elizabeth, and thus Lettice was Elizabeth’s niece, rather than cousin. The two women looked much alike, and as Lettice was only 10 years younger than her aunt, she was the younger gorgeous redhead. Dressed in clothes of the period, Queen Elizabeth and Lettice look much alike, same hair, face, smile. The author of this book leans closely to the fact that Henry VIII was Lettice’s grandfather, and had she been male, would have been an illegitimate heir to the throne. Lettice was a Tudor, something fast disappearing from the world.

Lettice married well at 17 to Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford and bore him four surviving children (out of five, pretty good). Lettice was young, happy and known as the most beautiful woman at the English court. Elizabeth, ever-vain, needed to be centre stage and could have been annoyed, but yet she and Lettice were close. Elizabeth had her own love – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, whom she could not marry. This is how two Tudor women became bitter rivals.

Lettice’s husband, now Earl of Essex, shipped out to Ireland at the queen’s behest in 1573, and Lettice started an affair with the queens’ favourite, Dudley. While nothing could be confirmed and most accounts are long-lost, the book tells of how rumours swirled of the affair and Lettice carrying and bearing children while her husband was away. Devereux came home after two and half years away, having heard all about his wife’s behavior. But Devereux left for Ireland again six months later, only to die soon after of dysentery while complaining about women being frail.

Lettice fought hard for an inheritance for herself and her children, and her affair with Dudley continued despite him being Elizabeth’s favourite. Dudley had wanted to marry Elizabeth, but was unable to for many reasons, and so had instead gone to the bed of the younger Tudor model. He married Lettice in secret in 1578, two years after she was widowed, he himself a widower for some 18 years at this point. Just two days later, Lettice sat with the queen at dinner, the secret safe, as it would be for  years, with Lettice and Dudley moving about regularly, usually separated. Lettice lost a  baby in 1580, gave birth to a son in 1581, and lost another in 1582. Their precious only son died in 1584, causing great grief to the pair.

But in 1583, all hell had broken loose. Elizabeth found out her favourite had married Lettice, and was living openly with her in his own home. A bond which had almost certainly begun in childhood was broken; Lettice was banished from Elizabeth’s presence, furious the man she wouldn’t marry had married someone else. Dudley was sent on several trips abroad, before he fell ill, possibly with malaria in September 1588 and he died with Lettice at his side.

Lettice remained out of favour with the queen, living a country life with a new husband, a young soldier named Sir Christopher Blount, former attendant to her late second husband. She struggled with the loss of her eldest son and suffered many financial troubles, and did not see her queen again until 1598, where the meeting remained icy a decade after Dudley’s death. The love triangle between Dudley and the two red-headed Tudor women never healed.

Thanks to the Essex revolt of 1601, Queen Elizabeth beheaded Lettice’s precious remaining son and her new husband , both for treason. She spent much time fighting over inheritances with a bastard son of Robert Dudley, and then lived with her daughters and their children, outliving them. She lived quietly under King James and King Charles, dying at her grandson Robert’s home in December 1634, aged 91, a symbol of  bygone age.

Lettice’s life, born under Henry VIII, a bastard grandchild to the great king, grew up under him, King Edward, Queen Mary, lived through Queen Elizabeth’s reign, then King James and King Charles, is a story of wonder, drama, intrigue, heartache and love. Why there aren’t many books on such an incredible woman is a mystery. Thank you so much to Nicola Tallis for the book I have been waiting for, a perfect read on a riveting subject.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘ The Reluctant Ambassador’ by Dan O’Sullivan

Sir Thomas Chaloner achieved much during his short life. As someone at the heart of four Tudor courts, his experience is fascinating.

Serving in the household of Thomas Cromwell after university, he later was entrusted with delicate diplomatic missions in France, Scotland, Flanders and finally Spain, where he was resident ambassador at the court of Philip II. His career was helped by his close friendship with William Cecil, whom he got to know at Oxford. He managed to stay employed during the religious and political upheavals of four reigns, while many close to him lost their positions and even their lives.

Chaloner was an intellectual and a humanist. He had a close circle of literary friends with whom he collaborated in the staging of court masques and other productions. He produced reams of verse and also translated several works from Latin, among them The Praise of Folly by Erasmus.

In Spain, Chaloner devoted much energy toward trying to save dozens of English sailors who had found themselves imprisoned as a result of bitter trade disputes between England and Spain. The stresses of his job weakened him physically, and he died soon after his recall, leaving a wife and young son.

Dan O’Sullivan explores the life of Chaloner and delves into the intricacies of European court life during the time of the Tudors. Chaloner, a reluctant ambassador who longed for his home in England, is a fascinating but little-known character who is here brought to life in vivid detail.

cover and blurb via amazon

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In 1541, Holy Roman Emperor Charles, who ruled much of Europe, went to war against the Turks and the Barbary pirates. He planned to besiege Algiers to free Christians from pirates, but could not attack Constantinople, as he did not have the numbers. One of these men onboard was Thomas Chaloner, on his first trip abroad from England. The fleet was caught in a storm, resulting in the loss of 8,000 lives as ships sank.

Chaloner was lucky; he could swim, unlike most. In fact, he had much luck in his early life. With a wealthy merchant father, Chaloner went to Cambridge and was given a job in Thomas Cromwell’s house. Still in his teen years, Chaloner could ready himself for life at court, learn politics and Latin, Italian and French. At St Johns College, he made a friend named William Cecil, which would help Chaloner again later in life.

Chaloner had sailed abroad as a diplomat, there to represent England while Charles V took on the Turks, and was one of the few who survived the Mediterranean storms. He went home to a new England – wife number five of Henry, Katherine Howard, was about to die. But change helped, as Chaloner gained a place on the privy council as a clerk, and as Henry failed to rule his country properly, or had Thomas Cromwell to fall back on, Chaloner was there with the men who ran England, while still in his early twenties.

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Chaloner had languages, and this made him key as a diplomat, both with overseas missions as England forged wars, and at home. By 1547, Chaloner was negotiating with the Scots to stop fighting and help gain a royal marriage for his young new king. Chaloner felt high in esteem at court, already wealthy with his inheritance and marriage to a wealthy widow. He was a humanist, enjoying the Protestant reformation.

Edward IV died in 1553 and while Chaloner’s school friend, William Cecil, and countless more fled to Europe, Chaloner decided to try to stay working for the government through the Catholic changes brought by Queen Mary. Chaloner wrote poems for Jane Grey, beheaded after her nine days as queen, but quietly managed to stay alive and work for Mary.

By by 1558, Mary was dead, and many flocked home to their Protestant princess as she was crowned Elizabeth I. Constant Chaloner was sent to meet the Holy Roman Emperor  to discuss marriage for Elizabeth, her most difficult issue throughout her reign. Chaloner then travelled to the Netherlands on Her Majesty’s behalf, only to learn his school friend, William Cecil, now Elizabeth’s right-hand man, had selected him to be ambassador to Spain.
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Chaloner hated Spain, with its Catholic soul and its intense heat. He hated Madrid with a passion; it cost too much, he never got much time with the king, and the Spanish didn’t let him be part of their secret conversations. Chaloner seemed to worry about everything, especially about being robbed of his wage as ambassador. Trouble came when Chaloner told the Spanish court that England would not support the Huguenots in France during civil war, only to find out the English had headed to battle.
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One thing fell into place for Chaloner; he couldn’t sleep in Spain and the food made him ill. Because of this, he had many nights awake, when he got write Latin poems. The poems told much of Chaloner’s time in Spain; after four years, he was convinced he would die and worried about everything.
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It was a bad time to be at the Spanish court. England was not popular with Spain, ships constantly were embattled, bureaucracy was, well, Spanish, the inquisitions were in full swing. Chaloner ended up with kidney stones from Spanish wine mixed with lime and chalk. His only bright spot was a woman named Audrey Frodsham, who travelled to Spain from England with a view to marry Chaloner once his first wife died. The trip must have gone well, because Audrey went home pregnant.
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After arguing with the Spanish government over English sailors in Spanish prisons for several years, Chaloner was finally allowed to return home to England. In 1565, he landed in England to find Audrey in his house, with a young baby in tow, named Thomas jnr. Chaloner married Audrey and then died a month later of illness.
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 Chaloner was a man able to serve in four royal households in a time when many lost their head. As much as he liked to complain, Chaloner must have been doing something right, even if it did make him into a hypochondriac. I had never even heard of Chaloner until I read this book, and a big thanks to the author for a vivid book about a lesser-known Tudor figure.