HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The King’s Witch’ by Tracy Borman

As she helps to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth, Frances Gorges longs for the fields and ancient woods of her parents’ Hampshire estate, where she has learned to use the flowers and herbs to become a much-loved healer.

Frances is happy to stay in her beloved countryside when the new King arrives from Scotland, bringing change, fear and suspicion. His court may be shockingly decadent, but James’s religion is Puritan, intolerant of all the old ways; he has already put to death many men for treason and women for witchcraft.

So when her ambitious uncle forcibly brings Frances to court, she is trapped in a claustrophobic world of intrigue and betrayal – and a ready target for the twisted scheming of Lord Cecil, the King’s first minister.
Surrounded by mortal dangers, Frances finds happiness only with the precocious young Princess Elizabeth, and Tom Wintour, the one courtier she can trust.

Or can she?

cover and blurb via amazon

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I am a very big Tracy Borman fan. I did not angle for a review copy, instead I went to a store and purchased her first novel myself. The new release stand was full on release day, here on the other side of the world, a rare occasion for the books I tend to review.

The King’s Witch opens with poor old Elizabeth I, in her dying moments. The book follows Frances Gorges, an expert in healing and herbs. King James is now on the throne, a dramatic change for England. Women healing and using herbs and their developed skills, rather than that of a male doctor, are seen as evil, as devil’s work. King James is terrified of witches and witchcraft, so to be a woman with knowledge makes young Frances right in the firing line against puritanical opinions and fears. Frances does have allies, Tom, a courtier, and the Princess Elizabeth. Whether she can trust her own friends is never truly clear to Frances.

This novel starts slowly, showing Frances’ life, indeed lives for ‘normal’ people in this awkward time period in England. What I did see early on was that there would be a twist coming, which keeps you turning the page. Frances grows as their reader gets to know her, from a scared girl into a woman who gets to see behind the lavish exteriors of a royal court for what really lies in individuals.

When reading Borman, you know you are getting historical accuracy with your fiction (I swear some people only read to point out inaccuracies in fiction; you lot will be disappointed with this). It is nice to hear from a new voice, rather than through the eyes of characters done so often before. Being cast as a witch was simple in the 17th century, all a woman had to do was piss off the closest man and she would be accused. So being a woman with knowledge naturally scares the pants off men. While the king is determined to cast out all remaining Catholics in England, religion remains ingrained in all decisions made.

Frances’ biggest issue is that her friend Tom is Tom Wintour, one of the men in the gunpowder plot with Guy Fawkes (shout-out to all of us born on November 5!). Tom is ready to blow up parliament and the attention to the how’s and why’s rather than simply the actions taken in 1603 is beautifully told. The gunpowder plot men are generally thought of as crazies, when they actually had quite an elaborate plan and motive. While we all know what happened to the gunpowder plot, seeing it through the eyes of someone close to these men makes it painful to read through, knowing the conclusion.

I really enjoyed reading this book; I went in with high expectations and was not disappointed. Love, torture, witchcraft, what a combination to write about and get to muse over, knowing that the early 1600’s really was one hell of a cauldron of superstition. Frances’ uncle, the Earl of Northampton, makes an appearance as a sometimes friend, sometimes overly creepy uncle everyone doesn’t want visiting, and don’t forget Lord Cecil, a grump at the best of times, aiding the king’s paranoia for gain but harming Frances’ safety even more.

Some are witches being killed, others are being tortured and executed for trying to change the monarchy. You know it’s all going to end in tears but you can’t stop reading anyway. Thank you to Tracy Borman for humanising those in an often misunderstood piece of history.

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.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor: Elizabeth I, Thomas Seymour, and the Making of a Virgin Queen’ by Elizabeth Norton

A power-hungry and charming courtier. An impressionable and trusting princess. The Tudor court in the wake of Henry VIII’s death had never been more perilous for the young Elizabeth, where rumors had the power to determine her fate

England, late 1547. King Henry VIII Is dead. His fourteen-year-old daughter Elizabeth is living with the king’s widow, Catherine Parr, and her new husband, Thomas Seymour. Seymour is the brother of Henry VIII’s third wife, the late Jane Seymour, who was the mother to the now-ailing boy King.

Ambitious and dangerous, Seymour begins and overt flirtation with Elizabeth that ends with Catherine sending her away. When Catherine dies a year later and Seymour is arrested for treason soon after, a scandal explodes. Alone and in dreadful danger, Elizabeth is threatened by supporters of her half-sister, Mary, who wishes to see England return to Catholicism. She is also closely questioned by the king’s regency council due to her place in the line of succession. Was she still a virgin? Was there a child? Had she promised to marry Seymour?

Under pressure, Elizabeth shows the shrewdness and spirit she would later be famous for. She survives the scandal, but Thomas Seymour is not so lucky. The “Seymour Scandal” led Elizabeth and her advisers to create of the persona of the Virgin Queen.

On hearing of Seymour’s beheading, Elizabeth observed, “This day died a man of much wit, and very little judgment.” His fate remained with her. She would never allow her heart to rule her head again.

cover and blurb via amazon

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While Edward Seymour, the eldest brother of Jane, Queen of England, was well-connected, respected, and Lord Protector of King Edward VI, there was the just as well-known brother, Thomas. Thomas Seymour had his own interesting, but definitely not as prestigious, history. Seymour was the brother of one of the Henry’s queens, and uncle to the young King Edward. Because of this happy accident, Seymour had a high sense of importance, and felt he was owed a place close to the young king and parliament.

Seymour wandered his way through the latter part of Henry’s reign (after the death of Jane) and was madly in love with Catherine Parr. When her second husband died, Seymour and Parr were keen to marry; but King Henry decided he needed a sixth wife and took Catherine for himself.

Seymour had previously tried to get himself a bride in the form of Henry’s daughter, Princess Mary, without success. When Henry dropped dead, Thomas’ paramour was no longer a queen, and Seymour married Parr just four months after Henry was buried. With Edward Seymour the child king’s Protector, Seymour was now married to the king’s stepmother, and got himself the title of Lord High Admiral.

That was when the self-entitled younger brother started to show off his creepy in a more obvious way. Before the hurried marriage to Catherine, Seymour had asked to marry 13-year-old Elizabeth, without success. Now, married to the dowager queen, Seymour had access to little Elizabeth every single day.

June 1547 was only months after her father’s death, and Elizabeth started receiving early morning visits from Seymour, coming into her room half-dressed while she was in her nightgown, even once climbed into her bed, and was known to smack her butt when given the chance. She was only 13, he was married and beneath her, and for a man to do such things in a girl’s rooms was considered shameful. Poor Elizabeth had no say, and Catherine soon started to be suspicious. With Catherine pregnant, Seymour would have had a wandering eye – and it seems all he ever wanted was little Elizabeth, and more importantly, the power she held.

By mid 1548, things were out of hand and Catherine found her husband with Elizabeth in his arms, and Elizabeth was banished. Sent away, Elizabeth spent months sick after the acts – some whispered pregnancy, though more likely shock of the abuse and then banishment.

Poor Catherine Parr died a week after giving birth to a daughter, in September 1548. Seymour sent a nephew to Elizabeth’s new household to spy on her, and asked whether or not her butt had grown any since he had last grabbed it. Talk about a pervert.

Luckily for Elizabeth, she did not have to suffer Seymour’s abuse again, and in January 1549, Seymour got arrested for conspiring to marry Elizabeth, kidnap Elizabeth’s brother, the King Edward, and rule England himself. Elizabeth testified against Seymour, as did two servants to Elizabeth, and Seymour was beheaded in March 1549.

Given the lack of evidence, the abuse suffered by Elizabeth is questioned, sometimes written off as play or harmless games. This book is a great read for anyone who wants to know more about these years of Elizabeth’s early life. To me, Seymour comes across as a classic abuser; makes a girl feel shamed and claims all is in jest, which mocks the victim further. Catherine Parr knew something was happening, and didn’t scorn her stepdaughter, but never lived long enough to speak out.

I enjoyed reading this book, and the author did not try to lean the reader in either direction in terms of outcome, but I certainly got my own conclusion on the ugly subject. It could be easy to call this gossip or scandal, when it seems more like an ugly situation many girls and women find themselves in, with few who believe them.