Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Where I Have Been...

...not in the 15th century, that is sadly for sure. It took me two months to read "The Uncrowned Kings of England" by Derek Wilson, a bargain from Amazon, which followed the history of the Dudley family, one so intwined with Tudor history. I was amazed at how one Dudley would go to the block and then his offspring became so close to Elizabeth's power. I found Robert Dudley's life to be quite remarkable as he walked a difficult path between his public and private personas (pictured here as a young man).

I spent two months taken up by American politics, often going to sleep in dread that we would regress into an even less responsive government than we have. I viewed far too much political television and was able to read little. Now that that situation is resolved for the bestest reasons, I am looking into Richard II, and the event that started the Lancastrian dynasty. Time to start at the beginning, with the regicide. The progeny of John of Gaunt by his wife and then his mistress who was then his wife figured greatly in the 15th century, and I think it is to these people that I will turn next.

Someone told me that Henry VI was probably autistic, but I have yet to find a reference that supports that. I feel that he never fully recovered from his longest spell of madness, and this may be something of an explanation. If anyone knows about the autistic angle, please let me know what you know.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

But I Diverge

I seem to be hitting the 14th or 16th century in England lately in my reading and the latest book in front of me is "Jane Boleyn" (by Julia Fox), an account of a lady-in-waiting who was in waiting all the way to the block.  This biography posits that Jane, Viscountess Rochford, sister-in-law to Anne Boleyn, has been given a tough deal by the writers of history.  Perhaps she was a scapegoat, but I see her as being in the wrong place, etc., especially the final place, where she followed Queen Catherine (pictured) after she was unable to save her.

The most human thing she did was lose her wits after being imprisoned, and as the former time had let to the deaths of her husband George and his sister Anne Boleyn, she must have been in intolerable suspense.  Her wits were restored under the care of those who needed a sane and calm Jane for the next steps in the process of bloodletting for the treason of the moment.  And Jane met her death nobly, in so doing with the best of them.

I didn't necessarily plan to read into the parenthetical centuries around the 15th that interests me the most, but that may be the path of reading.  I must get back to Henry VI, but my next book in line regards the Tudors as well.  Which epoch is the most violent? 

Friday, September 5, 2008

Darkness Yet Green

My total absorption with Anya Seton's "Katherine" led me to read "Green Darkness". I would like to put some disordered thoughts about this absorbing novel here. Though a century after the Battle of St. Albans, and Henry VI's capture, this novel is largely set in a time period equally as turbulent - 16th Century England.

It was a violent time - when practice of one's religion was by royal fiat which changed from ruler to ruler in England - one either practiced the faith in favor, or secretly practiced the faith out of favor. Abruptly, with the accession of a new ruler, the faith in favor would change and some could profess openly what they had hidden and others suddenly had to hide what they had previously professed openly - a situation that affected viscerally every person in the realm.

In this narrative, the royals (Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth with a cameo by Lady Jane Grey) are offstage for the most part, although there are appearances. Their impact, however, on the kingdom they rule is all too present and center stage.

Two characters in this novel that opens in 1968 and telescopes back to the troubled 1550's come to the point of rejecting the strictures of religion altogether. A logical outcome for them, and I won't say how it played out here in case anyone reading this wants to read this work. The presentation of reincarnation comes through as a vehicle for redemption. In reaching from 1968 back to 1559 and back again, the story elicits hope that tragic situations can be resolved in better times. In darkness is the green seed for the future.

I almost liked this one as much as "Katherine", bold praise.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


And then I read "Katherine".  Since then, I am on a kick to see how the whole Lancaster thing started, reading John Gardner's 1977 work on Chaucer, and taking shots at what before now was an inaccessible Shakespeare play - "Richard II".   It is a sort of a rush - before the last few weeks, I have never read Chaucer, previously knew little about the Peasant's Revolt, or even thought about that complex king, Richard II (pictured here addressing the rebels in Froissart).

Anya Seton, through what must have been a sustained period of thoroughly hard, painstaking work, created a masterpiece in "Katherine".  Never have I seen a great man's mistress so nobly and sympathetically described.  One roots for her from page one.  And so much happens in her 53 years, events in a life made to fit into a span replete with thematic and dramatic content, a love affair of four decades with its own epic conclusions.  Historical fiction at its classic best.

Old John of Gaunt, what a lady killer.  Katherine, lithe and pleasing.  I think it was good to read Weir's biography of Katherine before the novel because it gave me background in a period I knew naught of, and underscored that this novel, though of a real historical remarkable lady, had its wellspring in recorded fact.  The encounters described, one thinks, may very well have happened that way, and did so as all literature exists to me from some kernel of truth embossed in beautiful soul moving language.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Remarkable Lady

I would like to gather a few thoughts on Katherine Swynford after reading Alison Weir's biography of her relationship with John of Gaunt (pictured).  I plan to read the Anya Seton novel at some point, but now I am so into Plaidy's historical fictive style it may be awhile.

Hers is a very impressive story - upwardly mobile - to come from such humble ancestry to the attention of a maternally sympathetic Queen Philippa (to Edward III) to a hardscrabble first marriage to a knight to a lush affair with several children to that most prominent Duke.   Next came calumny and furtive living as a byproduct of the Peasant's Revolt.  The cap on her life was marriage to that prominent Duke and legitimization of her children.  It is a story that spans decades of faithfulness to a scandalous relationship, turning mores upside down.  

She is the ancestress of Margaret Beaufort, and thus the Tudor kings.  She is also ancestress of the House of Stuart through her granddaughter Joan.  So the Tudors are descended from two misalliances involving initially illegitimate children (better check my facts here).

Monday, July 21, 2008

Margaret Tudor, Divorce, and Dismay

I zipped through Jean Plaidy's "The Thistle and the Rose" yesterday. Though she only had half the number of husbands as her brother Henry VIII had wives, there are some similarities between these lusty siblings. According to Plaidy, Margaret had a real weakness for a pretty face, and her judgement was corrupted thereby. All of her husbands had mistresses (surprise!), and children they wanted to bring up as if legitimate. Sadly, she could not accept infidelity, past, present or future.

James IV (pictured), a connoisseur of women, was her first king, infatuation and then disappointment. Plaidy's characterization of him was, I thought, very sympathetic. It would be interesting to meet such a man- a charmer without modern morals, sort of a male Madonna (the singer).  James and Margaret appear to have worked things out pretty well.  Unfortunately the Warfare Sickness claimed a royal soldier and left his son a crown on a child.  The others were earls I think, pretty and not too bright.

Hester Chapman stressed Margaret's plainness, here Plaidy pronounces her beautiful. (Or maybe it was the clothes that were beautiful.) (Or maybe in royal circles it is close to the same thing.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Elizabeth Woodville (My Heroine)

The breadth and depth of suffering in the daily lives of those of the nobility who lived in times of high infant mortality, civil war, and delicate political situations is palpable.  Elizabeth Woodville lost all five of her brothers, six of her seven sisters, four of her five sons, two daughters,  and both husbands.  When her time came she had little to spend on her soul.  Her poverty at the end of her life may mirror that of Margaret of Anjou, although she left key progeny and Margaret was to be at the end the Lancastrian line.

Elizabeth was grandmother to two queens, Margaret of Scotland and Mary of France, as well as that monster Henry VIII.  Edward IV couldn't have been the easiest husband, but they must have seen eye to eye as her many pregnancies suggest.  Was she a witch - no - she inspired jealousy perhaps, and perhaps the charge of witchcraft explained a marriage so "imprudent".

My heroine?  She is very person-al, genuine, gifted and beautiful.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Battle of Northampton

7/10/1460 - Henry VI captured at Northampton.  What was he wearing?  Or, as they say around here with people robbed in the sad side of town - what was he doing there?  Will forthwith study the battle and its aftermath.  Factors of good mental skies and plenty of rest may make this possible.  I will be happy to reacquaint myself with my royal historical friends.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Henry VII reenjoyed

Unfortunately the past month or so has seen me turn away from books and have to oh my (!) concentrate  relatively exclusively on my work life.  I did, however, read another book on the best businessman ever to occupy the English throne - namely Henry Tudor.  Titled simply Henry VII, it was  authored by Charles Williams, an intellectual of the thirties.  The style reminded me of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians.  The most interesting relationship explored is that of the Spanish Ambassador, De Puebla.   This book is a gentle biography and thoughtful character assessment.

It is hard to remember the bright colors that were popular in the early Tudor years.  Henry, Williams says, brought the concept of "Majesty" to the kingship.  This book helped me picture the stage a little better.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Few Stray Tudors

I just devoured "The Thistle and the Rose" by Hester Chapman.  This work detailed the lives of two more Tudors I knew nothing of - sisters to Henry VIII (daughters of Henry VII) - Mary and Margaret Tudor.  A long tortuous road for Margaret as Queen of Scotland from a young age was dealt with at three times the length of the relatively simple and straightforward life of Mary as, briefly, Queen of France and then Duchess of Suffolk.

Of course, the plain one, Margaret, received the tougher shakes of life.  And Mary, universally considered beautiful,  was able to enjoy Tudor court life for much longer, have a brief (82 day) reign as Queen to Louis XII, thence to marry her long true love.  One a nightmare, the other a fairy tale.  One in the wild inhospitable poorly managed land of Scotland, the other in the rich realm of France.

I side with Margaret.  She needed all the help she could get.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Late Introduction

Sometimes I am amazed that, learning English history so arbitrarily it seems, there are sizeable areas of which I know very little. Chance brings me to who looks to be an underappreciated king, Henry VII. I read a fairly dense piece of historical fiction by Roberta Gellis (written in the 70's, I believe) - "The Dragon and the Rose". The cast of characters, including Elizabeth Woodville as a manipulative catty shrew, Elizabeth of York as an innocent princess torn between mother and husband, Margaret Beaufort as a well meaning presence who gently dominates her son was believably drawn. Since I don't know much about any of these people, and thus can't fully appreciate the novel, I am spurred to learn more.

Finally, a good Lancastrian. Of course he had to be suspicious of his Yorkist in-laws, as well as his queen. He is portrayed here as being a good family man, a scrupulous king with a sense of humor, and a lover of show. The world view and inner workings of people of the middle ages were so different from how we stack up internally now, so historical fiction that portrays people through our lens may be misleading. If the King died of a broken heart, losing Prince Arthur and Elizabeth in short order, he seems an example of the fact that grief is timeless and basic to human relations.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

116 years

of making fortunes, plunder, misery, abject poverty, and so on.  Starting with Edward III, carried on through the Black Prince, England, a poor, sparsely inhabited country, systematically plundered and made miserable one of untold riches.  In this context Henry V had a bit of Bush in him, an unshakable belief in his own calling to arms, a pronounced piety, and the continuance of the bankrupting of the English state in order to pay for the war.  Something I didn't know, from Mr. Seward, is that the 7 years after Henry's death from that most military of causes (dysentery) were the most successful years for the English in France.  This mostly due to his brother, the Duke of Bedford (shown left here)

Without the Hundred Years War, perhaps the Wars of the Roses would have been avoided. Did the fall of Lancastrian France presage the eventual fall of the House of Lancaster?  Also, an internecine strife extant between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs was in the mix.  Of course a series of events such as the Wars of the Roses doesn't happen in isolation.  Of course, in a general sense, nothing happens in isolation.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Lady Jane

Just finished In the Shadow of Lady Jane by Edward Charles. Despite some internal problems, I think it a good addition to the historical fiction genre. Lady Jane Grey and Lady Catherine Grey can be compared to the young ladies in Sense and Sensibility - Lady Jane representing reason and Lady Catherine emotion. The hero of the novel is one Richard Stocker, a precocious rising star in Tudor England.

It is good to get a male point of view. It is going to be hard for me to use H6 as a narrator, so this book was instructive. However, Richard Stocker is very capable, and comfortable in a variety of social situations. He has no military experience, nor does he obtain any. Other than that, he is at 16, the consummate servant.

Now, of late, I have read works of historical fiction taking place in three different centuries. It is time to tuck into some historical fact - I believe I will attempt the popular historian Desmond Seward.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Sins of the Father

This fellow is one scary dude (or "dread lord").  Kenneth Branagh's portrayal of Henry V resonated with me - a mixture of a romantic view of war through the soliloquies ("a touch of Harry in the night"), and the bloody gory hopelessly tragic detail of the film sequences at Harfleur and Agincourt.  He bankrupted the treasury for his son, and only postponed the reckoning of the central Lancastrian moral problem- that they stood on the shoulders of a murdered Richard II.

I often think of the parallels to today - how the Bush administration has all but bankrupted our national treasury for a war whose premise is even more flimsy as Henry V's reason for war.  I don't see a way out - and hope it doesn't turn out like the Hundred Years War, with an empire dwindling back to the original size, and seemingly irreparable loss of credibility in the world.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Margaret of York - Part 2

Having finished Daughter of York, a reading undertaken last week, I found the work entertaining, but there is another book that someone should pen, and that is what happened next.  The disintegration of all that Charles the Bold (pictured) worked for, as empires do rise and fall, and how Margaret had to employ her considerable political skills to try and prevent the denouement - well, the following historical period could ask for someone to flesh out a good work of fiction for its explication.

I will not attempt a book review here, and Smith had to stop somewhere, as Margaret's hero would in historical reality be married in a couple of years to someone else it was best to stop where she did.

Charles the Bold is portrayed very severely, and looking at his portrait, straight, simple and unadorned, I find it hard to picture him as the villain as he was in this book.  He was probably very much a man of his times, and the sumptuousness of the Burgundian court required more conquest to perpetuate itself.  (I suppose).   He was, to me, a soldier no less strident than Henry V.

Margaret of Anjou was an enemy of Burgundy as a princess of France, and she never took her hatreds lightly.  She has a small role in this novel, as she should.   During the bulk of this time, having lost her husband and son,  she was a ward, so to speak,  of Louis XI, who allowed her space in his kingdom to fade out in poverty.  Another 180 degree turn in the Wheel of Fortune.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Under a fine tree (fiction)

(just setting this down - haven't researched fully)

Was it an oak tree?  It was really rather green, and the noise from the battle nearby buzzed in his brain.  The Queen, who knew how to fight a battle, had told Henry to get him hither and please, try not to be captured.  He knew that he, in marked contrast to his father, was unable to lead troops into battle.

The air was soft and warm under the tree, and ants crawled over Henry's round toed shoes.  The sky shifted as he fixed his gaze on the clouds in the opposite direction from the battle.  It is a pleasant market town, St. Albans, with a monastery.  The nearness and finality of bloodshed stabbed at his heart, and he didn't know whether to laugh or weep.  Then he lapsed into a helpless self pity .. if only he weren't king...

In times like these, he was really only happy to be swayed by Margaret.  She had evolved from that 15 year old beauty from France to someone who emphatically took charge.  She stepped in to fill the power vacuum in the marriage with an intensity that surprised him.  He loved his queen, and took heart from her vibrancy.  And now they had a fine son.  Edward's birth energized Margaret in another way, she had someone to protect, to shape into a ruler.  As Edward IV, someday he would repair the reeling Lancastrian inheritance.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Margaret of York

So far I am meeting with this lady through a novel of historical fiction that seems to this point to be historical romance.  Daughter of York by Anne Easter Smith.   It is a new book in the mix, and so far I am enjoying it - the first novel I have started concerning an era I know a deal about.  The use of the 1460's as a backdrop is something I aspire to, so it is good to see another work with it.

Margaret seems realistic enough, a jeune fille with too much time on her hands.  So far, a dwarf has been bestowed upon her and she is showing some sophistication for her age in her dealings with that gift.  This in contrast to her amorous proclivities.  I fear she may become like Elizabeth I, in one pulled close to astray when young.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Wall (Fiction)

And of course, there was the Wall, the outward manifestation of what was going on within Henry's mind. A mind that had shut itself off, unnoticing of when the body performed any function.

He sat, or rather was arranged on a pile of rags in a vague room in Windsor Castle. The mood of the others dwelling in the castle was somber, fearful, yet daring to hope that their anointed king would soon free himself from the blankness of the Wall.

This was sometimes made unlikely, as when his mind climbed a step and he saw the ghost of a father he never had known - with a disapproving grimace on his hard haughty famous face. This apparition knocked Henry back, his head against one wall and his mind against another. Like many sons of famous fathers, he had often been able to do nothing but shrug that he was a grave disappointment to his father's example.

When the news came to him that all was lost in France, that he was the son of the one who had won all, and that as that son he had lost all, well, it was the logical outcome of the way things were going. That was when he was first blocked by the Wall. Queen Margaret could have been heard in the room crying angry tears, burning with fear of what would happen if he never stepped through that Wall. The Queen was in the middle of her first pregnancy, and she knew that the court all assumed another to be the father. She knew, however, that it was Henry, and that the same fate might come upon a child of theirs as came upon the King.

And the recurrence of a reign of a boy king at this time would be a great burden upon the country, even greater than the reign of this king who had had so many fingers in the pie that was the Regency of the boy king.

The Queen was fearful of so many things, and as she often sat in the room hoping to see some sort of life in Henry, she occasionally saw a line of spittle draw itself down from the corner of his mouth. This was so sad to see his wheel come to its nadir (sum sine regno), I am unable to reign, I am without a crown. He had seemed to be so innocent, why was he (and the realm) being punished?

Not Really a Revelation

Just finished surfing blogs that handle medieval history, and someone, don't remember who, said that H6 was "the worst disaster ever to sit upon the English throne".  That is probably patently true - sort of like saying George Bush is the worst president ever to inhabit the Presidency.  There is no way I would want to delve into the intricacies (or lack thereof) of our President, so why a medieval English failure?   I think I outlined reasons in the first post.   It is hard to say which leader was worse.  There are a lot of similarities - the father issue, the reckless spending, the loss of credibility in the world.

To my moderately tutored knowledge, one has to address the question:  why did each country put up with such disastrous "leadership" for so long?   I have a couple of books on my shelf that I haven't gone through yet that address this of Henry.  (I buy books when I fall into mania at my workspace - is scary).  So, maybe as the year progresses I will have a handle on the why of some of the aspects of Henry's kingship that were so disastrous.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cruelty in the 14th Century

Another period I know little about was made fascinating by what I deem an excellent work of historical fiction - The Traitor's Wife by Susan Higginbotham.  In focusing on a figure who was well connected (well for much of her life) but not well known, she tells the story of a woman buffeted by the currents around her.  She is Eleanor de Clare, niece to Edward II, wife of Hugh le Despenser the Younger (his execution pictured here).  Like the novel previously mentioned presenting Constance of York, artistic license is manifest, but the whole work holds together very well focusing on this beautiful heiress.

What does this have to do with H6?  Stephen King wrote that to write you must read a lot and write a lot, baldly put.  I absorb, I hope, this example of well written historical fiction, and start to connect up what I can attempt.  I know the period is not the same, but this novel depicts ancestors of the people I intend to write about.  One should know as much background and ancestry of their historical protagonist as one can.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Some Brief Thoughts on Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy, part of a tetralogy if you add the logical next installment Richard III, never fails to provide something new upon each reading. The Henry plays span his lifetime, from cradle to Tower. Even though the plays bear his name, Henry is not a central character in any of them. The Henry plays were Shakespeare's first performed plays, so I read. The scope of the end of the Hundred Years War to the end of the Wars of the Roses was daunting, to be sure.

Henry himself always makes me want to either cry or shake him. I don't know if I really see Henry the way Shakespeare does, but Shakespeare probably defined the way Henry was viewed in Elizabethan times. Ah, the myth of the royal saint! Miracles were attributed to him for a century or so following his murder. But, somehow, Henry just doesn't make it as a saint. His ineffectuality is rampant throughout the play, becoming more of a contrast to those around him as the trilogy marches on.

I have read through the plays six or seven times now, with an emphasis on Part 3. That play has a plethora of action, and the best soliloquies. I am sure I will read through them all again soon.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Richard III Society

A few months ago I joined the Richard III Society, and recently received publications covering the last three years. The Winter 2006 issue of The Ricardian Register has an interesting article "Sheep, Cattle and Sword: Some Thoughts about Richard, Duke of York 1411-1460". I haven't had the time to go through the entire piece, but Richard is a very important person in the life of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. It criticises Margaret's adherence to one party as a destructive alliance enhancing civil war.

I will write more about this article soon.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Constance of York

My knowledge of Henry IV's reign (Henry VI's grandfather) is spotty at best - I've never read the plays, or indeed anything in depth. Having just finished Within the Fetterlock by Brian Wainwright, I can't say that anymore. Even though it is historical fiction, and not historical fact, it gives a sense of the far-reaching problem of H4's reign - that it rules upon the deposition and murder of the anointed King Richard II. The novel also stresses the financial problems of the reign, a factor that dogged the Lancastrian house to the end.

The story is built around that of Constance of York, a newcomer to my consciousness. She was pulled in a few directions, both personally and politically. That she was cousin to both Richard and Henry made it hard for her initially, though, as the story goes, she aligned herself against Henry. And paid for it.

The novel was exceptionally well written. In fact, after a slowish start, I was totally pulled in. Unlike many readers, I was not hampered in my enjoyment by knowing what happens next. I look forward to reading more of this author.

Friday, February 15, 2008

What I Intend

Here he is, my inspiration, my example of mediocrity, madness, and suffering in the wrong job.

I have long wished to delve into his story, as a medieval misfit, a constrained civil servant, and a henpecked husband.

The desire to tell his story is central to this my little life. I am in recovery, and look to historical figures in turmoil, and find him to be important, with a history most poignant. There are so many elements, a forceful queen, a horribly timed bout of madness, the signal oddity of being deposed twice...

Shakespeare's Henry is wistful and self-pitying, totally ineffectual. With a power vacuum, upon his marriage to Margaret of Anjou he seemed only too content to hand over the fact of power.

My interest in Henry began 20 years ago. As events in my life often became hard to handle, I thought of him and his predicament. What king sits under a tree during a key battle? One with a painful ambivalence and willingness to let others rule his destiny. There was a time in my life that I let things go, handed my being over to others, sat under that tree.