Monday, August 23, 2010

Edward I - British Caesar

This king that was, Edward I, was a shivery king with a heart of steel and a grasp for empire. As such he forged Britain through hearty attempted conquest over native celtic peoples (Welsh, Scottish Gaels and to some extent the Irish) - through invasion, then settlement and consequently the attempted eradication of the indigenous cultures. Not pretty, the stuff of empire building. Like its component, war, it is ugly and everywhere.

I am reading Marc Morris' recent popular history "A Great and Terrible King - Edward I and the Forging of Britain". It is very sobering reading, and now I have the background for the Welsh novels of Sharon Kay Penman. This work has so far turned out to be an eye opener - as this is another period where I am a little lost and thirsty for a bit of "knowledge". Sometimes I despair at my late arrival to several eras of English history, but, with an American education and a collegiate stint at classical languages, it is only in the last few years I have been lucky enough to have the time to peer into the story of these deeply fascinating British Isles.

Back to Edward (please) - I was interested to learn of his interest in Arthur as a unifying king (or so the myth that was taken as fact at the time bore out). Geoffrey of Monmouth's flight of fantasy as it is seen now was taken as history to the thinking sorts then, and may be considered a work of propaganda. I have pulled his "History of the Kings of Britain" off my shelf, so maybe next will come a walk into a subroutine of the whole Arthur shtick. Of course, Henry VII bought into all of the Arthur magic when he so named his son.

And to think England was almost ruled by a king named Alfonso.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Civil Servant Extraordinaire

Warning: This post may state the obvious. So many have waxed euphoric (or something) about this book that I really have nothing new to contribute. However, this state of reviews won't stop me from a couple of thoughts:

Two Thomases of Tudor England are set in opposition in the wondrously absorbing award winning novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More. More has gotten much better press over the centuries, and it is gratifying to see a less favorable view that is very well presented. More's Chelsea comes off effete and barren compared to the Cromwell lair, Austin Friars. Though a ruthless servant of the King, Cromwell's home life is nurturing to the ones under his roof.

Getting home to that roof every day is a challenge for Cromwell, who, after the death of Cardinal Wolsey, his totally larger than life mentor, rises to become Henry VIII's top adviser, administrator, and general ear. Wolsey's fate stands in the background, however. These are the Anne Boleyn years, and Mantel's characterization of Anne is also original and different from the standard treatment of her in historical novels (at least the few I have read). Jane Seymour pokes her head in at times and is also portrayed in an interesting light.

The prose is also a bit unconventional, and though initially I thought the third person about one person clumsy, once I oriented myself to it the technique worked well. This is a work of original depth-charging insight, and well worth completing though it may seem a bit daunting at times.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mary Well Drawn

Mary, Queen of Scots - part damsel in distress, part slighted monarch, completely the prisoner who thinks deeply of escape. A sad business, the list of castle-prisons doleful and dreary, a journey from one place to another place, jailor to jailor, slowly and unfailingly towards the violent end that, by any road, couldn't be put off any longer. Alongside this slide sits an endangered and fretful Queen Elizabeth.

A Tudor/Stuart tragedy. And, as portrayed in Jean Plaidy's "The Captive Queen of Scots", so so sad. Elizabeth and Mary - bifurcated womanhood? Head and heart? A queen with a realm placed on her at a very young age vs. a queen who started as a princess with no definite future. A meeting between these two would have thematically logistically been impossible. The story would have run quite differently, methinks.

Mary is no solitary prisoner, she enjoys the continual devotion of servants and young idealistic would be rescuers. Plaidy draws them artfully, as well as she does the jailors. The sub plot of the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury (Bess of Hardwick) is of interest as I am completely new to this pair.

At length regicide happened. But, though not Queen of England, our Mary, she may be considered the mother of the Stuart dynasty to rule for a few generations.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

I have been fortunate over the years in my license to read what appeals to me rather than something assigned. This allows one book to lead to another. The story of the doomed House of Howard depicted in "House of Treason" by Robert Hutchinson led me almost without a hiccup to "Her Majesty's Spymaster" by Stephen Budiansky. The thread is the foolhardy 4th Duke of Norfolk, only duke in the land, who tangled himself up with Mary, Queen of Scots. He was no match for Francis Walsingham, and, perhaps because I have a modest position in the civil service, I wanted to know more about "Mr. Secretary", what made him tick and how he was able to expose Mary.

Mary was reckless in her imprisonment, and Norfolk aimed too high in his hopes for the marrying of her. He was, due to his naivete, rather easily dispensed with, beheaded in 1572. Mary was the center of other plots that were laid bare by Walsingham. She was saved, perhaps, for as long as she was, by a wavering Elizabeth, who didn't want to set an example of regicide.

From here, I will step into some historical fiction, namely "The Captive Queen of Scots", by the mistress, Jean Plaidy.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Knocking on Devil's Door

This beautiful aged church has a feature I had never seen, and have since found out is indigenous to the UK. It is called the "Devil's Door", built into the north face of some medieval and earlier churches. Here it can be seen under the third window, and is perhaps too small for a human to enter. Its purpose is to provide an escape hatch for the Devil as he carries the soul of an unbaptized child to an unpleasant place. I wonder if this practice is a crossover from pagan beliefs.

Unfortunately, I have no idea of the name of this church as I took this picture from the second storey of a tour bus, the use of which fitted our need for low impact sightseeing whilst I was suffering a coughy illness.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Streets of York City

Throughout the two weeks or so we dallied in York, we returned repeatedly to the medieval streets of the City Centre. Tight and confusing to the visitor, they were exceedingly delicious. Continually becoming lost was truly a privilege. Within aged lanes were such phenomena as Poundworld, more enjoyable to experience than American Dollar Stores, and an Oxfam charity shop that I perceived to be a better deal than our Salvation Army Stores.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Micklegate Bar

It was one of those omigod moments when I saw Micklegate Bar, the southern entrance to the City Walls of York. On a few occasions, famous heads greeted the visitor. Chief in my mind is Richard, Duke of York. I was drawn to the period of the Wars of the Roses many years ago because of enjoyment of the Shakespeare history plays spanning from Richard II to Richard III. I realize that Henry VI is conspicuous in his relative absence in his plays, but I love the speech at 3 Henry VI, II. 5 - "This battle fairs like to the morning's war", because it is the clearest picture of him in the plays, miserable and mournfully alone.

Anyway, I digressed. It was a magical moment seeing this gate to York.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Air Conditioned Comfort

My dreams of becoming a writer of something worthwhile have, since the UK2010 trip, crashed and burned, with scorched wings trembling on a gritty ground. I have all the physical tools - now and iPad among them - but they all lie dormant save this one currently being used. This dream death has left me a little breathless, with the wind whooshed out of me.

But, you see, it may be a good thing - it may be like growing up. It may seem a yawning hopelessness now, but this loss may lead to some grounding in the present that has been lacking in my psyche. Approaching the workplace with some seriousness now, I am thinking about my job as more important than I have done. There was within a feeling of "just passing through", and now I see that my innate mother-given respect for any task in front of me has stood by me well. This attitude was drilled in me and I am glad of it.

On a domestic note, my spouse has laudably ripped the rug out from under all the living and dining room furniture (well, he did move it all first), exposing quite a nice dark hardwood floor. The rug had been there, we estimate, about 40 years. It appeared so anyway. This deed will completely change how we interact with our living room space in a good way. Also, the air conditioner in my office is up and humming. Let summer come in!

Enough about me. I am reading Robert Hutchinson's "House of Treason" and find it very informative regarding the ill-fated Tudor House of Howard, which brought two queens to be beheaded along with a cast of several men who sojourned in the Tower. Hopefully I will bring together some thoughts about these folks soon.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

In a Good Place

There's our Henry Sext, contemplative in York Minster, next to his father, who ruled with the sword. He has the look of melancholy, and is the last in the line of sculpted kings here.
The UK trip, my first overseas trip in nearly twenty years, was a mixture of glorious sightseeing and personal discomfort, as I contracted pneumonia, probably on the plane ride over, and never fully recovered. That said, my mother and I did not hesitate to tramp around York, a city with a vivid center core. She picked up my ailment in the second week, making travel home challenging. The grounding of everything due to the effects of the ash of the Icelandic volcano ended the day before we were set to fly - and we were able to get home with hopes that we did not cause much trouble.

My book buying sickness was rampant, as I had to buy a piece of carryon luggage to deal with its results. Hopefully, they will fuel this blog. Now to get beyond the travel letdown and go back to my career as a tax collector in this New York city. Much to digest and learn - and grateful for the time away.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Silken Bonds

A few years ago I first bumped into Jane Shore, the celebrated mistress of King Edward IV. She was being examined by a biographer, who was fleshing out a likely picture of her life as a late 15th century courtesan. Recently, however, I met her in a pleasantly lively novel by Vanora Bennett - "Figures in Silk". However, it is her sister Isabel who turns into an achiever of another type - that of a prosperous silk merchant.

Her capability and verve in establishing the prominence of the House of Claver is set against a hopeless and intense affair with an unattainable personage. This is almost a bifurcation, aptitude and cleverness on the one side of her life, and the heartfelt ambivalence in her illicit relationship comprising another side of her life.

Jane and Isabel are quite different, in appearance, attitude and modes of survival. However, they near each other by story's end. This is a good story although some of the character depictions may be a little of a stretch. It is a fine look at the merchant class in 15th century England, however, and worth reading for that reason included.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Stolen Crown

I always like meeting new people, especially new English dead people. Susan Higginbotham's latest work delves into the emotions, thoughts, and precarious lives of Katherine Woodville and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. My knowledge of the period (Wars of the Roses) is incomplete, though I am trying to ingest all of the facts, feelings and fictions of the era for a good feel of what I will be looking for in England in the near future.

Edward IV wedded Elizabeth Woodville in secret and tried to keep it so as long as possible. After the union was discovered/proclaimed, a passel of Woodvilles made advantageous marriage alliances with nobles and/or their heirs, including our headlining pair. Katherine (Kate), the youngest of the tribe links up with Henry (Harry) and the rest of their lives are spent in the furious uncertainty of the time of the Wars. Especially interesting is Higginbotham's portrayal of Richard of Gloucester, who, in the early days, was best friend to Harry - some time before he took the crown and assumed the name of Richard III. I found it to be the most plausible of the solutions to the Princes in the Tower mystery, totally fitting in with the character of those involved.

As far as the title of the book is concerned, the crown was stolen more than once - these thefts could embody the dynamic shifts in power between the red and the white and are their core. I'd say - read this book for a number of reasons, all good.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Academic Would I Be

I am pushing through the last twenty pages of an insightful book - "The Hollow Crown" by Miri Rubin - that is, despite the author's position stated in the introduction to the contrary, an "academic" work. It reminds me of a book I slogged through in college - "A History of Greece" by A. R. Bury (or maybe it is Burns? - anyway a dense work that left me uninspired). This present book is an ambitious review of the Late Middle Ages in Britain that assumes a good amount of prior knowledge of the history of said time period.

The book is full of insights and interesting facts. I noted that the words "buoyancy" and "buoyant" occur at several junctures, usually applied to trade. The style is such that concerted concentration is needed, and at times I have driven through pages without remembering what I read (a defect in me, not the book) and having to backtrack.

This is not a traditional history - the kings are covered but the wool trade has just as much attention. I was fortunate to know the bones of the period (1307 - 1485), and this work was a deep enhancement of said knowledge. I learned that I have not the tenacity of an academic - perhaps my job takes that aspect out of me - but wish I could retain the information imparted by a work such as "The Hollow Crown" is.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Should one write about a book that made one cry right away? Or should one wait a bit. I am going to try for right away....

"The Illuminator" by Brenda Rickman Vantrease is, I gather, a first novel - which surprises me. The plotting is so perfect with rarely a wasted scene that one would suspect it to be the work of a seasoned author. Many figures of late 14th century England are either participants or in the shadows. John of Gaunt's palace sacked, Boy King Richard meeting with the rebels - these events are background colors in this intricate painting of a book that has at its core a painted altarpiece done by an artist in captivity.

The anchoress Julian of Norwich is a prominent person, with her vision of the Mother Love of Christ shining through the events of the story. This permeation makes me want to explore the stories of female mystics of the time. And Wycliffe's influence is shot through the text both in the efforts at the translation of the Bible into English and a result of mob rule without respect for the established Church. It is altogether a rippling time of convulsive change, a fine era to explore by reading an architecturally fine novel.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Stoke Field

Soon I will be traveling to England for a stay of two weeks, basing in York. At this point my main concern will be in the visiting of battlefields at least relatively close to York. With this in mind, I am turning to accounts of pertinent battles and have just finished "Stoke Field - the Last Battle of the Wars of the Roses" by David Baldwin. Particularly enjoyable is his device of using quotes from early sources in the original diction and spelling.

Stoke is a fine "what-if" battle, between the newly conquering Henry VII who is fighting an uprising led by the Earl of Lincoln, a Plantagenet heir in support of the pretender Lambert Simnel. Lincoln's army is a compound of Swiss/German mercenaries, Irish recruits, English lords who had much to gain from overthrowing the current ruler, and professional archers and other soldiers. Henry's Royal Army appears to have been more homogeneous. The Earl of Oxford was his principal leader, and Henry's wing of the army was in support of the main forces led by him. Apparently the battle surged for three hours or more, with the rebel lines finally breaking down and its soldiers put to flight and in the main, death.

What if the Pretender had won, and the Earl of Lincoln had become king? The Tudor dynasty never to have happened, and Henry Tudor relegated to a blip in the Wars of the Roses, which probably would have continued? Of course what-ifs of history are as useful as they are in one's personal life - that is to say a mere exercise with little real import - but fun to run through.

I would like to see this battlefield, but we will not have access to a car - perhaps we can hire someone to take us there.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Owen Glendower

I wish to write a little about a book I have only read 17 pages of. Since the number of pages of said book is pushing 750, it would seem quite premature to write anything at all. So ist may be. Anyway, the book is "Owen Glendower" by John Cowper Powys, an author I stumbled into while looking for fictive works concerning Henry V.

Is it the thorough and well rounded diction of the work? I don't know, but Powys has been declared by some to be the English Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. The first chapter, about the homecoming to a place he had never been before of Rhisiart, a young Oxford scholar. He so far is plunging into his Welshness as he approaches an ancestral castle. The scentences rumble and bump along, descriptions are to savor.

I will attempt to post my experience reading this book - and learning about Wales in the early fifteenth century.,