Saturday, December 5, 2009

Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth of York appears to be chiefly known for being the daughter, sister, niece, wife, and mother of kings. How could a queen be more family connected and oriented? These happenstances are definining in how she is seen in a medium depth historical novel I recently finished called "The Tudor Rose" by Margaret Campbell Barnes, whose work has been reissued of late, which body was originally written in the late 40s to early 50s.

Elizabeth spends an awful amount of time preoccupied with other's needs to the exclusion of her own. She acquiesces in a joyless marriage because she has no choice, and, because she has always sublimated her desires, this is done without lasting regret. Her sheerest happiness comes at the sight of her son Harry (to be the 8th).

In another novel of this first Tudor Queen, "The King's Daughter" by Sandra Worth, her connection to Richard III is more deeply imagined, and Henry VII is much more menacing. The royal pair's firstborn, Arthur, is Elizabeth's core raison d'etre, and the gushing over him is the more poignant because his eventual death, most probably known to the reader, lurks in the consciousness throughout. Henry to be VIII is much more darkly drawn, as a boy reveling in the suffering of others, a source of deep worry to his mother.

The two treatments of Elizabeth may be indicative of the times when the novels were written. Elizabeth's suffering seems to be the defining factor of her life, with love lost being the central cause in the current rendition, whereas her strength and attention to duty is paramount in the Barnes novel. The Barnes novel, written during early postwar Britain, stresses the duty angle, and the American author stresses Elizabeth's response to her sufferings.

The three Elizabeths, the Yorkist Elizabeth Woodville, the York/Tudor Elizabeth, and the glorious Tudor Elizabeth her granddaughter span the emergence of England from the internecine strife of the Wars of the Roses to the early modern age styled the Elizabethan, the greatest point in English history to that time.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


A recent trip to Borders (armed with some skimpy coupon - enough to stimulate an outlay of cash) brought two books about Elizabeth, the last Tudor. "Elizabeth and Leicester" by Sarah Gristwood, and "Elizabeth - The Struggle for the Throne" by David Starkey. Together they formed a good introduction to her youth, heart, and reign.

No surprise that she eluded marriage - though for a time it was a very near thing - with her father's disastrous unions, the popular condemnation of her sister Mary's being knotted with Philip of Spain and Mary's hysterical behavior thereby, and the observation of Mary Queen of Scots letting her heart rule her head. Better to be the unattainable as a focus of courtly love affairs. Better to be in control of her status, especially since her youth held dangers, in and out of legitimacy and later the figure around which plots to overthrow the throne throve.

Elizabeth, named after her grandmother Elizabeth of York, "vain and clever", was a fascinating sovereign with a taste for the theatrical that stands alongside the great theatrical works and performances of her era. Ferociously educated, deeply thoughtful in her caution, maybe England's greatest ruler. I am glad to have met you through well written popular history.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Henry IV, Well Met

Well, I have met another Henry, and he is quite fine, at least as presented by Ian Mortimer in "The Fears of Henry IV". Was he a sort of bridge between the glories of Edward III and the breakdown of chivalry in the Wars of the Roses? Mortimer makes the case that the Usurpation and the regicide were inevitable, given the history between Richard II and Henry of Bolingbroke. They seem to be complete opposites - Henry a great jouster, Richard unathletic - Richard horrifically insecure, Henry comfortable enough to journey to the Holy Land - Richard totally unable to compromise, Henry able to bend with the wind.

Henry was literally beset on all sides as he survived assassination attempts, put down rebellions in Scotland and Wales (I think I will next look into the heroic Owen Glendower) more than once, rebellions within England with the rallying cry "King Richard is alive!", and later the opposition of his cold hearted son, Henry of Monmouth, who was itching to be Henry V. And there was always the problem of money - the parliament never seemed to make quelling rebellions any easier - causing the royal entourage to be seriously reduced.

Henry IV, as presented by Mortimer, was one of those men for all seasons to me, by power of his very survival through stiff odds, and his pragmatism in doing what needed to be done to hold the kingdom together. Though his time as king was brief, he is an object lesson for capable government in very tough times.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How Much Change?

I took a flight of fancy during my recovery from my operation last month - read two very pleasant court romances by Susan Holloway Scott - "The French Mistress" about Charles II's last main squeeze, Louise de Keroualle, and "Duchess", regarding Queen Anne's right arm, Sarah Churchill (pictured). They were very easy to read and quite entertaining - and led me to wonder about the evolution of court life in England over the early modern period. Both stories were told in the first person, with just enough color and not too much sartorial detail.

I know little about the period - the weakening of the monarchy due to its unresponsiveness to social movements (could that be?), the rise of Parliament, the prominent placement on the world stage. The nobility did weird stuff with the styling of their hair. The presence of lap dogs...\

Perhaps similar to the courtesans of Ancient Greece, the mistresses of Restoration England, at least as Louise is portrayed here, have unexpected political influence. Indeed, Louise is employed as a spy for the court of France. Sarah Churchill, of course, exacted great pull with Queen Anne, though she never acted as a courtesan, marrying as a young lady in waiting.

We have here come a long way from Margaret of Anjou's court, dingy as they say, with Elizabeth Woodville appearing far too fetchingly beautiful a lady for comfort, and also the ladies-in-waiting stitching altar cloths in the Tudor court. Seems like Restoration ladies played a ridiculous amount of cards rather than employing their hands at needlework. Their gaming debts remind me of modern credit card debt holes. Somehow the money wasn't real.

What was real was the commerce of the nation and its military might. The display of the court remains the same - the concept of show equalling majesty that it did in Tudor England.

I realized this post is but ramblings, but historical fiction at its best for me elicits same. I am sure I will read more of Ms. Scott's work.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

"The Queen's Sorrow"

"The Queen's Sorrow" by Suzannah Dunn, gives a portrait of England under Mary Tudor that has thick background brush strokes fronted by delicious detail. With a very deceptive cover, it is marginally about Queen Mary herself, but rather a Spaniard in her Philip's entourage named Rafael. Rafael starts with almost no English and goes through his experience in Tudor London with thoughtfulness. He lodges with an English family that soon goes to the country, leaving a skeleton crew behind, including a housekeeper that is drawn poetically and lovingly by the author and Rafael as well.

Rafael is in England to execute plans for a sundial at court, a paradoxical commission as there seems to be little sun. His preoccupation throughout is going home, an elusive event, even after the sundial project is in jeopardy. Cecily, the housekeeper, has a son, Nicholas, who recalls Rafael's own son in Spain. The story of these three plays out with a backdrop of burnings, which shock Rafael ("They don't burn people in England!").

This book drew me in completely, and I felt like I was looking into Rafael's experience fully. Also I acquired a poetical picture of Marian England, a period of which I know little.

Two Annes, Different Results

I must confess to a fascination with the wives of Henry VIII, though their stories be a century along from my area of greater interest (Lancaster and York). Our century is a huge distance from the 19th, but I have yet to learn how different the 15th and 16th centuries were in practice. In any case, it was easy to read two novels about two Annes, "The Concubine" by Norah Lofts, and "My Lady of Cleves" by Margaret Campbell Barnes.

Anne Boleyn, briefly "The Most Happy" and Anne of Cleves, for awhile the least happy. Of all the wives, Anne of Cleves, initially called the Flanders Mare by her boorish self centered royal husband, and deeply insulted, turned out to be the only one who left Henry with her head and a comfortable home intact. The comparison between their respective visages is deceptive, the old story of the lack of the surety of surfaces. In Anne Boleyn's case, Henry is enchanted with a vivacious sprightly young thing, and in Anne of Cleves' case, he falls for what he sees in a portrait. He falls out of love in both cases, cruelly so, and all in a moment, as both authors describe the Annes' individual catastrophes.

Both of these women are presented very sympathetically, and it is interesting to speculate how their lives would have played out if they hadn't fallen under the royal eye. Would Anne Boleyn have been hardened by grief to dip into ambition due to the loss of young love in any case? Would Anne of Cleves have glided in the Flemish countryside unremarked? Anne of Cleves, in the royal bedchamber - "if he only gives me children" she could bear it. Anne Boleyn totally devastated by the birth of Elizabeth, and crazed under the pressure that was life and death.

I have ordered a biography of Jane Seymour, so my preoccupation with the wives will continue. What a collection of gutsy women! What a king trapped by circumstance and his view of his place in history.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Living In Utopia

A King and his Chancellor, Henry VIII and Thomas More - their collision is a story that I have been taken by for decades now - I saw "A Man for All Seasons" as a teenager, and just now finished "The King's Confidante" (previously issued as "St. Thomas' Eve") bye the Mistress, Jean Plaidy.

She has taken the far famed homestead at Chelsea and made it into a sort of utopia, with all living in harmony with animals and plant life, from the bustling Dame Alice, More's second wife (who acts as a foil with her worldliness set against his erudition), to itinerants who find a place at their table. It is a wondrous microcosm centered on More and his children, both natural and adopted, and their spouses, humble and ambitious.

More serves his sovereign reluctantly, ghosting Henry's tract against Martin Luther, pointing out constellations to the King and Queen Catherine, all the while regretting his time away from his family as the children grow up happy in his regard. He for a time fills a need of Henry's to have intellectuals around him, and ultimately can't fulfill Henry's need for his approval of what he did to ensure the succession, that is turning the English Church to his rule as it's head. No, Thomas could not come out in favor of the divorce. His silence had to be shown to be assent.

Anne Boleyn has a background part and Thomas More is empathetic, realizing that her hold on life is as tenuous as his. It is enjoyable to read enough Plaidy to have characters walk out of one book into another.

Thomas More was a huge hero of mine in my teenage years. Now I know his story had not that simple purity of explanation. He was a heretic hating zealot, and did wrestle with Will Roper, his son-in-law in a way over Will's beliefs that seems unreasonable to me, with his dear daughter Meg torn between them. Dame Alice spoke of his pride in refusing to approve the divorce, and the more I think of it, the more I see her point. It is justice vs expediency, martyrdom vs the middle road. Perhaps his family would not have loved him as deeply as they did had he taken that middle road. In the end, he had no choice, really, as so many victims of Henry VIII found.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

King John - A King Beset

There are fewer books more pleasant than those that draw you in to dispel your set of preconceptions and received hardened assumptions about a historical figures. At least I think this to be true after reading "The Maligned Monarch" by Alan Lloyd (1972) a biography of King John with a difference - the presentation of this dark king as not so bad after all.

John was hampered by a prejudiced press of clerical dudes - he couldn't do anything right by them due to the complicated relationship between he, his archbishops, and his pope. Following a king that hardly acknowledged England as somewhere important (Richard), John was to travel the country coast to coast, in peace time as an adjudicator and as a the Royal Commander in the war against the 25 barons. Many of the myths regarding John were fanciful fabrications by such as Matthew Paris, a chronicler always looking for a good story.

John made some serious mistakes, including starving a noblewoman and her son to death, but Lloyd asserts that he was quite the man of his rough times. Jean Plaidy's "Prince of Darkness" set out all the horrific stories chapter by chapter - and I am glad I read her take before this biography, as Lloyd refuted each horrific story in turn.

Oh and then there was the baronial war and that Magna Carta thing - a charter celebrated far beyond its due - only affecting freemen (one-quarter of the population) for one thing - and that warm day at Runnymede didn't solve the differences between baron and king. John kept his side of the bargain and seemed to bend backwards to try to bring peace to his land under his control.

Why is Richard the Lionheart celebrated as chivalrous although he shafted his Queen Berengaria, and John, by account a loving husband with a brood of children to carry on in the 13th century, is vilified as a faithless womanizer? It is all in the propaganda of the times.

Another note - John inherited a financial mess after Richard bankrupted the nation when it collected untold riches to ransom him after his capture in Germany. Henry VI inherited a financial mess after Henry V all but bankrupted England in search of chivalric empiric glory. Glory takes money, but such a cost.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Secret Alchemy

Let me say first that "A Secret Alchemy"(by Emma Darwin) is a moving trance-like work of historical and contemporary fiction. Presenting parallel unfoldings of the tragic story of Anthony Woodville at the mercy of Richard of Gloucester (Richard III) and of the heart-twisting homecoming of a professor of history studying the books of Anthony and his sister Queen Elizabeth (Woodville), this work left me breathless.

There is a leap from the study of the books in their possession to a narrative revealing how Anthony and Elizabeth felt about the cruel blows of irreversible history as they walk toward their fates. Their story is laid out alongside Professor Una's leap from living in childhood memory connected to a professional press to her discoveries of the intricacies of her own past, including both that of the press that is in a position to be saved from ruin, and also her connection with one Mark who, though an outsider to the press, is a man central in its story. Books are life. The alchemy is the leap.

Anthony Woodville is noble, sympathetic, a martyr among many to being on the wrong side when that side changes with time. Elizabeth, who impresses me more in each novel she appears in, is faced with the worst torture of all, that of not knowing the fate of her prince children. The 15th century characters are breathing, as well as those in the 20th century. The descriptive language is well done, to be savored. The story is strong, especially in its conclusions. This book must be the best of the fictive attempts to solve the riddle of the Princes in the Tower.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Initial Thoughts on Richard II

I was made better acquainted with Richard II by reading Jean Plaidy's "Passage to Pontefract", her handling of the story of John of Gaunt and Richard of Bordeaux, who became the second of that name on the death of his grandfather, Edward III.

This book was a retelling of the history serially, with little extraneous material. Actually, it was like reading a history book with the characters strengthened into fiction. What characters they were! - senile Edward III and his rapacious paramour Alice Perrers, Good Plump Queen Philippa, the wanton turned troubled Fair Maid of Kent, the ambitious (how many times were we reminded) John of Gaunt, a wonderful and treasured Catherine Swynford, down to the quite complex figure of Richard II. History of course is written by the winners, and the Lancastrians may have exaggerated the depth of this monarch's ineptitude.

Another Martyr to the Cause

The Tudor Dynasty, one haunted by a need to perpetuate itself if ever there was, had a number of martyrs to the Cause. Anne Boleyn and the anti-Anne, Jane Seymour, are among the number. In a sense, Henry VIII himself had a life and value system driven by the need to provide an heir, thus he was a martyr of sorts too.

"Plain Jane", by Laurien Gardner (who I gather is also Jennifer Ashley), is a cut above a romance novel, and a level or two below masterful historical fiction. Jane's "plainness" is an attribute beaten to death, and is one that defines her. In truth, (I think) this attribute is her greatest strength, as a foil to the erstwhile fascinating Anne, and its concomitant virtuousness perceived is as strong a draw to Henry as Anne's bewitching smile was. Whatever. Sometimes I see the Six Wives as types enslaved by the Tudor dilemma and victims of the tragedy of not delivering the required societal result for which they were chosen. Jane is the one that delivers, but she has to pay with her life anyway.

The Jane in "Plain Jane" was in the bind of all of the wives, not to be able to question the boss with any long range success, as seen by her defense of a ransacked nunnery which elicited the statement from Henry that he could kill her off too if she opposed him.

Plain Jane was virtuous but not insipid. Of the wives, she may be the least documented, and the treatment in this novel is thus welcome.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Anne Boleyn in her own words

I just read "The Lady in the Tower" by the mistress, Jean Plaidy. Anne tells her story, and one is drawn in by her wisdom in hindsight. She writes/tells from the time when she lives and now her life is done, to paraphrase Chidiock Tichborne. Such a vantage point has made her quite perceptive, especially regarding her imperious behavior around Henry VIII, a man she admits she never loved. Well, he really wasn't that lovable, I should think.

Unlucky in love and embittered thereby - Henry Percy of the North being an early beau, she feels that Henry prevented their union so he could have this tasty morsel to himself. She traded any hope for further love for ambition, a quality that stood her in good standing in her relationship with Henry Tudor. The result is resounding success at getting her way with the King, but at such a cost to the nation, and a knife edge of danger, though she believes the necessary son will result from their relationship.

One may regard Anne as something of a silly woman, but Plaidy's take on her introspection, however late, is very engaging and believable. Basically, she was in over her head, and only in looking back she sees the power of the despot she was dealing with, power over her very life.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Please Accept... apologies for lack of posts lately. I have accepted a new position in municipal government and this sea change has taken up the very most of my energies. I have read "The King's Grace" by Anne Easter Smith, and found it to be enjoyable. While there are some thoughts about what it means to be a bastard in late Medieval England, and the employment of a scarcely known character to be the main character of a historical novel, I haven't the energy to put them together at this point.

Thank you for reading...hope to be back soon!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

More on William Marshal

I just finished reading "The Greatest Knight", Elizabeth Chadwick's take on the story of William Marshal. There was a lot of horse coaching and tricking out which reminded me of some male friends who are addicted to their cars. I started reading "car" for "horse" and could channel the emotion of man and beast. As one who never has sat astride a horse (only a pony at the Bronx Zoo), the fact that I could sense the feeling of what it must have been like for a knight such as William Marshal is a testament to Chadwick's writing.

As I was first introduced to this knight in "Devil's Brood" by Sharon Kay Penman, I knew what to expect in Chadwick's character delineation. And I was not disappointed, there were no lapses in strength of character, though there were lapses in Marshal's fortunes. He served first Henry the Young King until a specious slur engendered by jealous fellow knights caused Henry to send him packing. But Marshal was there at his deathbed, and took up the Cross to honor him with a journey to Jerusalem. Similar events unfold in his life in service to the Angevins. His loyalty to his king, whoever it may be at the moment, is his defining attribute.

At the beginning of Marshal's life he was an endangered hostage under King Stephen. When his father, an unfortunate cuss, broke with the conditions and left William to die, Stephen did not kill him. And so the figure that held England together upon the death of King John could easily have been someone else without the innate stamping of the code of chivalry.

This was a good book, well drawn characters, believable intimate scenes, lots of handsome horses. I understand it will be available in the US in the early fall. Maybe then it will get the attention here that it has earned.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Evil King - King John of England

Just how bad was King John? According to Jean Plaidy, THIS BAD. In her novel, "The Prince of Darkness", he is so absolutely evil that there is not a single redeeming feature to act as a kind of internal foil to flesh out the unscrupulous, unconscionable acts described, among them murder, rapine, egregious theft, inordinate lust, lack of valor and military success, disrespect for the Church, etc.

I had thought John had some connection with Robin Hood (the whole Robin Hood legend is one of my cultural gaps), but upon reading superficially I find that the proto Robin Hood was first mentioned with regard to the 1230's, and thus a little later than King John. Plaidy makes no reference to Robin Hood in her novel. Anyway, to her John is the physical embodiment of evil, and no one else in the novel is permitted to be bad, with the possible exception of King Philip of France. All of the barons are exemplary, contained, assuredly not rapacious as a 13th century baron might have been.

William Marshal puts in appearances throughout, an example of a throwback to when times were better and he, as the embodiment of chivalry, was respected, consulted, and listened to.

This novel definitely had its uses because I knew nothing of King John, so this was new territory for me. Of course he was driven to affix his seal to Magna Carta. Plaidy's treatment of John was so slamming that it got to be a touch tiresome.

As a digression - almost 15 years ago I was lucky enough to take a trip to London. There I saw a contemporary Magna Carta in the British Library and it was one of those OMIGOD moments - THERE IT IS. I had a similar moment when I saw the Wilton Diptych in one of the museums - (across a spacious room, in the middle of the room - OMIGOD it IS the Wilton Diptych!!!) But I am just a poor lass, and can no longer afford London, or Europe, so I am building something of an affinity with Arthur Waley, that great translator of "The Tale of Genji" who never went to Japan. Luckily the internet is something of a substitute, but not as good as the real thing.

Back to John - a little surfing convinces me he had some good points, chiefly administrative talents. Apparently he functioned as an impartial adjudicator in the Royal Courts. But he has been compared unfavorably to Nixon, and Wikipedia tells me he was elected Worst Briton of the 13th century. In any case not a cardboard figure of seething evil.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Early 14th Century

I have just finished "The Greatest Traitor", Ian Mortimer's study of Roger Mortimer, grandson to William Marshal. Particularly interesting therein is the depiction of the Great Famine of 1315-1317, but some say lasting as far as 1322. Hail the power of weather to change demographics. The Famine contributed to events of the entire 14th century, laying the groundwork for, among other things, the horrifically extensive ravages of the Black Death 30 years later. And, of course, I ordered a book from Amazon that treats the subject in book form depth.

I needn't go into a study of Edward II now, as there is a website that I believe covers the subject quite well, but I am beginning to see the fascination his story can engender. His dispensation of personal favoritism to the max as we would say today - the corruption of those close to him, his utter incapability as a soldier. Of course, there is the fascination regarding his death, a debated puzzle that recalls the murder of the Princes 160 or so years later.

This book is a teaser taste for finding out more about the early 14th century. And, as Roger Mortimer was the first Earl of March, his life was to presage dynastic problems in the coming decades.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Internecine Strife

Just finished "Devil's Brood" by Sharon Kay Penman. I am still in the glow of finishing this book and wanted to try to say what a fulfilling reading experience it was before the magic recedes. Son against father, husband against wife, brother against brother - 700 pages of internecine strife. Penman made each historical figure breathe, even the minor characters such as servants and lesser knights.

History may be one darned thing after another, and in the scope of the 20-something years covered in this novel, lots of darned things and motives abound - the depiction of sons being very different from their fathers (Louis Capet and his son Philippe, for example), of women suspended waiting for news (Eleanor and Constance of Brittany), of mistrust (Henry II and his devil's brood). It is the stuff of history, but above all, a family saga - a family that played its tensions and successes over a huge area of mainland Europe and the kingdom by the sea.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

William Marshal - Flower of Knighthood

Using my academic training to spot themes and patterns in literature, I see William Marshal in the novel "Devil's Brood" to be personal embodiment of chivalry. In a prior post, I used a passage about him to introduce to myself the concept of chivalry. I would like to pick up on Marshal's importance, though relative scarcity, in the story. He is a knight attached to the "young king", Hal (pictured), the firstborn of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane. Hal is a spendthrift, superficial, self-important lord. However, the presence of William Marshal ennobles him, makes him chivalric by association.

When Marshal leaves his service, under a cloud, Hal becomes even more dissolute and reckless, raiding monasteries for funds to pay his routiers. His knights and followers are totally out of control. Hal becomes sick and, during his slide into ill health Marshal reappears. Under his care and in his presence, his liege Hal dies honorably, a repentant sinner. Hal's outer garment, adorned with the cross, is taken up by Marshal for a journey to the Holy Land.

We are not done with our exemplary knight yet, though. He comes with the tidings of the death of the fourth son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany to deliver the message to Henry II. He then is attached to Henry II's service.

When Marshal is absent from the story, all sorts of hell break out, brother against brother, son against father. The rivalries are played out all over what is modern day France, with the countryside pillaged and destroyed by the scorched-earth style of the time, and with the castles of the towns besieged and brought down.
Of course Marshal moves on to greater power, responsibilities and wealth, but his subsequent career is beyond the scope of this vivid and comprehensive novel. I look forward to reading Elizabeth Chadwick's novels about him ("The Greatest Knight" and "The Scarlet Lion") to learn more about this knight through the pleasant medium of historical fiction.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Introduction to Chivalry 101

I quote Sharon Kay Penman, in "Devil's Brood", pp 144-5: (William Marshal)

"Will firmly believed that the world would descend into chaos and hellish turmoil if men did not obey those laws meant to govern their behavior and tame their more shameful impulses, laws set forth by the
Holy Church, by the Crown, and now by the chivalric canons. Chivalry was the foundation stone of his life, offering more than a code of conduct, offering a map which would enable men of good faith to avoid those sinful temptations that might jeopardize their chances of salvation".

This book, along with being engaging, is turning out to be my fictive return to the age of chivalry. Definitively not a concept thought that very much about in the Wars of the Roses. The application was going, going, gone, goodbye. The Knights Templar, Crusades, Teutonic dudes, tournaments - like any code, perhaps, clarified in the breach. Thank you, Ms. Penman, for re-opening my eyes to the world of chivalric intent. Also to see what glory was lost.

(pictured 14th century tournament melee)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Henry V

Like many, I returned to our neighborhood art cinema theatre to see "Henry V", the Branagh version, about six times. (Speech from the film) It was released about twenty years ago, displaying the timeless dance of war - "the suffering and the sorrow and the glory and the pain" as the song goes. The book I am reading now, "Henry V" by Harold Hutchison, a work from the sixties, tells of his ruthlessness, his pig-headed one-mindedness that was presaged by his youthful fighting of Glendower in Wales, his relative neglect of domestic issues and the bankrupting of English resources - (the crown and the crown jewels were in pawn, for example), to raise the cash necessary for a small island nation to attempt annexation of the crown of France.

Agincourt, though a overwhelming tactical victory, did not give Henry France. It took a extremely well planned later invasion, and a totally wrecked situation among the French duchies to do that. In a generation, and it would have taken less time than that save some inspired soldiering by the English, it was nearly gone, as Henry VI "lost all". Back to the book now, it is very absorbing.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Mismatch of the Century

The story of Owen Tudor and Katherine of Valois is, to me, the most romantic and tragic of all medieval love stories. This tale was addressed by Rosemary Hawley Jarman's book, "Crown in Candlelight". She teases out of the known facts of the story a thematically charged work of poetry and density.

The two most lushly and lovingly described parts of the book are apposite - the playing out of the battle of Agincourt, and the resounding loving of Owen Tydier (as the author. calls him) and Cathryn (as Owen calls her). The other parts of the narrative appeared to swirl around these two poles, with many foreshadowings and stepbacks.

Henry V is totally and painfully anal, the symbolic also real, visceral pain that comes with glory. Katherine of Valois seems to have walked through life almost numb in response to the abuse done her by her parents, a mad king about to shatter and a queen of great appetite and indulged will.

Henry VI, 'Little Harry', the focus of an intensely dysfunctional extended family, seemed to reach for his mother as she receded continually into her wished-to-be corner of the world where she could pursue conjugal bliss with one Owen Tudor, of gloried Welsh descent, though a clerk of the wardrobe. She wished to see her son continually but was impeded by Henry's uncle Gloucester, seen here as licentiously evil, and conjugally joined with the supposed witch Eleanor Cobham.

Owen's Welshness is encompassed by the earth and sky and the harp of a bard and the protection of a woman. She is Hywelis, who to me represents Wales, as Owen's connection with her is his unknown talisman. The story has an epic completeness, pulled from the mess of historical fact, and drawn from mystic mountains and rain soaked battlefields.

Their union bore sons, and thus was the seed of the Tudor dynasty. And then the rest, they say, is history.

The end of Owen and Katherine's story found me weeping, a sure sign of its power.

(pictured: the wedding of Henry V and Katherine of Valois at Troyes)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

And Those of Us Who Do Love Jane...

The title of this post was a phrase used by someone in the Jane Austen Society to preface a great truth about literary folk.  I have forgotten the pronouncement, but I remember her.  The Jane may have been Jane Austen, but I am thinking of another Jane, a Jane who wasn't really a Jane but an Elizabeth.  Jane Shore.  And, having read a short study concerning her, I can say that I really do love her.

Jane, or Elizabeth, didn't cash in on her dalliance with Edward IV.  Initially trapped in a marriage with William Shore, a goldsmith, she was then able to divorce him armed with the fact that the he was impotent.  Then she was free to be scooped up by Edward.  "Of his loves, she was the merriest."  Their pleasant relationship lasted until his death at the age of forty.

It fell to Richard III to make an example of her by making her walk through London in a shift carrying a lighted taper.  I suppose it was part of the package of discrediting his elder brother, but the shaming backfired, as was reported, when the people of London cheered her instead of reviling her.

Her fortunes improved.  While she was in Ludgate Prison, Thomas Lynam, a solicitor and right arm of Richard, was captivated by her and took her to wife, as they say.  Richard needed Lynam's service so much that he had to put up with the marriage.  Jane must have again become penurious upon his death.  She lived far into the 16th Century, impoverished and defeated.

However, Jane lived on in ballad and anecdote.  She was an example of wantonness coming to a bad end.  Her story was often told, with embellishments in literature and later on, in film.

I suppose the only way for a woman to enjoy some sort of power and influence in the Middle Ages was to become a concubine of a royal.  A mistress sometimes had more influence than a queen.  The only physical description in the literature painted her as being blond, short and pleasantly plump.  I find her to have been a figure of courage and forthrightness.  May her story live on.

(the work was "The Mysterious Mistress" by Margaret Crosland)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

United in a Disunited World

Just read a wonderfully tasty story about a pair of lovers in war torn England. The time was the 15th century and the pair: John Neville (brother of the Kingmaker) and Isobel Ingoldsthorpe, a ward of Margaret of Anjou. The novel is "Lady of the Roses" by Sandra Worth. Her work is delightfully comprehensive. Henry VI has a fairly sizeable part - called "Holy Harry" by the populace, he is gentle and somewhat simple. There is one scene wherein he stands up to his queen, in a needful request of Isobel's. I enjoyed his character depiction.

This novel tells of the excruciatingly divided loyalties, twists and turns of military alliances, and the courage of women who are mostly powerless to act but must deal with the results. The colors, tastes and weather events of the time are well described, and the period comes alive in an accessible and moving melange. (Have the hankies ready at the close)

I'll have to step back and hit some nonfiction before I read another novel. It will be hard to find another that directly deals with the Wars of the Roses so well. Any suggestions?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Woodville Woman

I am an ardent fan of Elizabeth Woodville. The last book of historical fiction that I have read - "The King's Grey Mare" by Rosemary Hawley Jarman presented a complex portrait of this lucky then unlucky woman. The Wheel of Fortune may have been her principal tarot concept card. The witchcraft angle is deeply scored, the interfering mother, Jacquetta of Bedford a force to be dealt with.

Married for love to her own Sir John Grey and ensconced in beautiful Bradgate Park, her fortunes change abruptly for the worse when he is killed in battle, and then change again in the famous scene under a spreading woody tree where she captivates Edward IV. Many children later, the Wars of the Roses shift against her husband, and she folds into Sanctuary. After Edward's death, she is at the mercy of Richard III and Henry VII. Though she has a beautiful woman's power, and the weapon of her fecundity, she comes to be powerless and boxed out towards the end of her life.

Jarman's book held the first portrait of Henry VI as a little more than a bit player in my fictive reading experience. He is a caricature of the henpecked husband, and his monkishness powers one of the early scenes with Elizabeth at his court (or rather Margaret of Anjou's court). It was very good to see him with a speaking part in a novel.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Henry and Elizabeth and Elizabeth

I have just finished reading "To Hold the Crown", a reissued work of Jean Plaidy. It chronicles the reign of Henry VII in rather direct and unsophisticated style. Plaidy is of the opinion that Henry killed the Princes in the Tower, and was plagued by the fear of this "secret" coming out to threaten his hold on the monarchy. Elizabeth of York is portrayed as almost too good to be true, the purely submissive and comforting wife. Elizabeth Woodville is caught up in a power struggle with her son-in-law's mother, Margaret Beaufort.

A good part of the novel concerns Henry, initially Duke of York, then Prince of Wales, then King. His character is well developed, though I don't think Plaidy does justice to Henry VII as his depiction is rather flat, almost that of a villain. My personal view of him is much brighter. The novel covers a lot of ground, and reads pleasantly smoothly. I don't agree with a few of the characterizations, but this is a good start in reading fiction of the period.