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: ‘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

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW: ‘Henry VII and the Tudor Pretenders’ by Nathen Amin

On 22 August 1485, Henry Tudor emerged from the Battle of Bosworth victorious, his disparate army vanquishing the forces of Richard III. Yet, all was not well early in the Tudor reign. Despite later attempts to portray Henry VII as single-handedly uniting a war-torn England after three decades of conflict, the kingdom was anything but settled. Nor could it be after a tumultuous two-year period that had witnessed the untimely death of one king, the mysterious disappearance of another, and the brutal slaughter of a third on the battlefield. For the first time in one compelling and comprehensive account, Nathen Amin looks at the myriad of shadowy conspiracies and murky plots which sought to depose the Tudor usurper early in his reign, with particular emphasis on the three pretenders whose causes were fervently advanced by Yorkist dissidents—Lambert Simnel, Perkin Warbeck, and Edward, Earl of Warwick.

Purchase on Amazon here

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Henry VII gets grossly overlooked in favour of his son Henry VIII, which is surprising given how dramatic his role and life truly was. Henry’s life and rise to power are largely known through the well-worn stories of the War of the Roses and the tragic reign of poor Richard III, culminating in the Battle of Bosworth. Henry Tudor became king and the wars ended, or so many tales go.

There are a few good biographies of Henry VII out there, but Amin gives a new look and refreshing enthusiasm for a king who desperately deserves the attention. The 1480s and 1490s did not give Henry a moment’s peace, punctuated by the belief he was not a true king, and several other men deserved the crown. Henry should have been able to concentrate on putting England back together – he won the crown legitimately, married the daughter of Edward IV, followed quickly birth of a son born of a dual royal line. England should have been grateful for the level of peace Henry could provide.

Instead, the Battle of Stoke and the rise of Lambert Simnel, posing as either the ‘dead’ Edward V or Edward, Earl of Warwick came in 1487, a murky battle and claim to the throne, which Amin gives in full detail. No sooner than Simnel was subdued came the murmurings of Perkin Warbeck, claiming to be Richard, the ‘dead’ Duke of York. Children and young men posing as Henry’s beloved wife’s dead brothers would have placed significant strain on Henry and Elizabeth, who were doing their best to rule England. Throughout the constant rumours of planned coups, betrayals, even relatives and close confidants changing sides, Henry had to hold his country together, and the author shows him not to be the old miser commonly portrayed, but a man of kindness, loyalty, generosity and wisdom, all while seeing off years of undermining and instability.

The final main pretender is Edward, Earl of Warwick, who had been kept alive, like all pretenders, the sad son of the Duke of Clarence, who through no fault of his own needed to be kept under guard. Henry tried for years to be merciful, but if his Tudor dynasty was ever going to thrive, Henry needed to end the claims to his throne. Even after Henry’s grand coup of bringing Katherine of Aragon to England, the wannabes did not stop, and Henry worked harder than ever to secure England for his second son. The cobwebs of the old tales of Henry being a penny-pincher, a tax-collecting tyrant and generally miserable old man can be blown away by this book, showing the true Henry VII. Without spilling details that will create spoilers, Amin has gone to great lengths to find Henry’s true nature among the endless barrage of difficulties he faced. How Henry’s wife-collecting son gets more attention, I’ve never really understood.

This book is truly wonderful, well-planned and constructed, a real labour of love and determination that is a gift to readers.

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

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: ‘Pustules, Pestilence and Pain: Tudor Treatments and Ailments of Henry VIII’ by Seamus O’Caellaigh

Henry VIII lived for 55 years and had many health issues, particularly towards the end of his reign.

In Pustules, Pestilence, and Pain, historian Seamus O’Caellaigh has delved deep into the documents of Henry’s reign to select some authentic treatments that Henry’s physicians compounded and prescribed to one suffering from those ailments.

Packed with glorious full-colour photos of the illnesses and treatments Henry VIII used, alongside primary source documents, this book is a treat for the eyes and is full of information for those with a love of all things Tudor. Each illness and accident has been given its own section in chronological order, including first-hand accounts, descriptions of the treatments and photographic recreations of the treatment and ingredients.

cover and blurb via amazon

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The title doesn’t exactly make someone dash to the store for this book, but to miss out would be a real shame. O’Caellaigh has dived into a complex subject and combined it with a visually stunning piece of work to create a detailed life story of Henry and his illnesses, a book which came in very handy for me personally, as well as a great read.

Much is known of Henry’s health, combined with letters written by his doctors and those who were close to the king. Henry’s health changed dramatically throughout his life and had a stark impact on the relationship he had with his wives. Because of this behaviour with these queens, the Tudors have become infamous.

Anyone who has looked for info on Henry’s health will know there is much out there, and not all of it accurate. The author has tried to use primary sources, a great challenge for the time period, as doctors did not keep records as they now do. But through sheer determination it seems, O’Caellaigh has tracked down Henry’s prescription book as well as handwritten records from the Royal British Library. This is combined with letters in the court at the time, and the author has had to push through the accounts to separate truth from rumour.

One original and lucky bonus in this book is the photographs. As Henry was a handsome man, then a huge man, physical appearance would have been important in Tudor times. So this book has been dressed accordingly, with lavish photos of Tudor medicine and history. The photos are a welcome addition to the book.

While there are numerous books that look at Henry’s wives and the destruction of the church, this book looks at Henry from a unique angle, and also catalogues the changes and advancements made during Henry’s life. As Henry’s health and recovery from injuries made such a  difference to his reign, to makes sense to write a book on the details of how people survived during this period. I got a copy of this book not expecting a long read, and yet, to my delight, found it to be fascinating and well-researched. I am extremely pleased to have this book in my digital library and will definitely go back to it time and again.