Book Corner: Catherine of Aragon by Amy Licence

indexCatherine of Aragon continues to fascinate readers 500 years after she became Henry VIII’s first queen. Her life was one of passion and determination, of suffering and hope, but ultimately it is a tragic love story, as circumstances conspired against her. Having lost her first husband, Henry’s elder brother Prince Arthur, she endured years of ill health and penury, to make a dazzling second match in Henry VIII. There is no doubt that she was Henry’s true love, compatible with him in every respect and, for years, she presided over a majestic court as the personification of his ideal woman.

However, Catherine’s body failed her in an age when fertility was a prerequisite of political stability. When it became clear that she could no longer bear children, the king’s attention turned elsewhere, and his once chivalric devotion became resentment. Catherine’s final years were spent in lonely isolation but she never gave up her vision: she was devoted to her faith, her husband and to England, to the extent that she was prepared to be martyred for them. Banished and close to death, she wrote a final letter to her ‘most dear lord and husband’. ‘I pardon you everything… mine eyes desire you above all things.’ The fidelity of this remarkable woman never wavered.

Catherine of Aragon, an Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife by Amy Licence is one of those incredible books that you can’t get away from. Days after you’ve finished it, your mind is still pondering the twists and turns in the incredible story that has unfolded before you. And yet, this is not a gripping novel, it’s a biography … a real-life story of one of England’s most famous queens, told in an expert, accessible fashion by one of today’s most prominent historians of women’s history.

330px-juan_de_flandes_002The level of detail in this book is incredible, Amy Licence has looked into every corner of Catherine’s life-story. It paints a wonderful, vivid picture of the life of a Renaissance princess. From even before her earliest years, the author charts Catherine’s life in its entirety, giving us a complete picture of the world that surrounded the young princess from the moment she was born to the moment of her death.

Plans for Catherine’s marriage started early. As far back as the spring of 1489, Ferdinand and Isabella had received a delegation sent by Henry VII of England, seeking her as a bride for his son. That March the royal family were at the castle of Medina del Campo, a blockish red medieval fortress situated on a mound dominating the town, to hear the culmination of a year’s worth of offers and promises, conditions and stipulations, about the futures of two small children. Catherine was then three years old, a small sturdy princess with auburn hair … Her prospective husband was barely out of the cradle. Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur, was the first-born child of a new dynasty, and nine months Catherine’s junior …

Not only does the author retell the events of the life of Catherine of Aragon, chronologically, but she also highlights the influences that affected her decisions and actions throughout that life. From her parents and the reconquest of Spain, through her marriage to Arthur and the lonely years following Arthur’s death, we see the events that influenced and shaped Catherine’s life as Queen of England and wife of Henry VIII.

Catherine of Aragon, an Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife discusses the personalities and character of those who had a major effect on Catherine’s life, giving us an unprecedented, detailed view of those who surrounded her at various stages in her career as princess and queen. Catherine’s marriage to Prince Arthur is thoroughly examined, giving an insight into the relationship of this young couple, a relationship that would eventually change the course of English history. We see the good and bad of the men who were to decide Catherine’s fate, in her father, Ferdinand, and father-in-law, Henry VII, and learn of Catherine’s struggles to stay positive in the face of the two kings trying to get the best deal for themselves in Catherine’s marriage. And we see an intriguing biography of Henry VIII as he grows from being Catherine’s saviour and a magnificent Renaissance prince, to being her jailer and tormentor.

330px-catherine_aragonAmy Licence places Catherine’s life firmly within the Europe of the time, displaying a brilliant understanding of the Reformation, and its progress from central Europe to Henry’s court. Moreover, despite the eventual failure of the marriage, Amy Licence paints a glittering picture of the court of Henry and Catherine at its height, when this young, formidable couple were the superstars of Europe.

The most revealing part of the book is in the character of Catherine herself. The author has researched every aspect of Catherine’s life and personality, providing a portrait of a formidable woman navigating her way through a male-dominated world while trying to hold true to her deeply ingrained Catholic principles. And with this comes the realisation that it must have taken an inordinate amount of personal courage to face down Henry and his demands, and the overriding fear for her own personal safety.

Of course, the latter part of the book focuses on the divorce. I am no great fan of Catherine of Aragon and have often wondered at her stubbornness and why she was so unmovable in the face of Henry’s desperate need for an heir. Amy Licence explains Catherine’s viewpoint with absolute clarity; the reasons she stuck to her guns at the risk of her own safety and that of her daughter. The author’s theories and arguments are well though-out and incisive, giving an unprecedented insight into  the mind of this amazing queen and evoking empathy in the least sympathetic of readers, I’m sure.

I have no doubt that Catherine of Aragon, an Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife will be seen as the definitive biography of Catherine of Aragon. It is an impressive, essential complement to any Tudor library.


10384680_10153841333263942_6977345604197683474_nAmy Licence has been a teacher for over a decade. She has an MA in Medieval and Tudor Studies and has published several scholarly articles on the Tudors. She is an author and historian of women’s lives in the medieval and Tudor period.

Catherine of Aragon, an Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife is available on Amazon in the UK from 15th October and in the US from 14th March 2017.


©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

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Meet the blogger: “History the Interesting Bits”

Kate Braithwaite

screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-11-17-53-amToday I’m beginning a series of interviews with history bloggers – a great source for writers and history lovers in general. I’m delighted to start with Sharon Connolly who writes one of my absolutely favourite history blogs, History The Interesting Bits! Sharon has a great eye for an interesting story and I particularly like her mini biographies.

I’ll let Sharon introduce herself…

sharonI have been fascinated by history for over 30 years now. I have studied history academically and just for fun – I’ve even worked as a tour guide at historical sites. I’m now having great fun, passing on my love of the past to my 11-year-old son, who is a Horrible Histories fanatic. He is a fantastic research assistant and loves exploring historic sites with me. I started writing my blog in January 2015 and in March this year signed a contract with Amberley to write my first…

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William de Warenne, the Conqueror’s Man

William de Warenne, 1st earl of Surrey

William de Warenne, 1st earl of Surrey, was a younger son of Rodulf de Warenne and his wife Beatrix. It is possible that Beatrix was a niece of Duchess Gunnor of Normandy, making young William a cousin of William the Bastard, duke of Normandy. The family name is probably derived from the hamlet of Varenne, part of the Warenne lands in the department of Seine-Inférieure, Normandy. William’s older brother, Rodulf or Ralph, would inherit the greater part of the Warenne family estates in Normandy.

His birth, as you might expect, is shrouded in the fog of time; a younger son of the minor nobility does not tend to get a mention until he does something remarkable or becomes someone notable. Although still young William was considered a capable and experienced enough soldier to be given joint command of a Norman army, by the mid-1050s. His 1st recorded military action is in the campaign against his own kinsman, Roger (I) de Mortemer of 1054, as one of the commanders of an army which defeated the French.

De Warenne was rewarded with some of the Mortemer lands; some of which he managed to retain even after Mortemer’s restoration to favour, including the castles of Mortemer and Bellencombre. Bellencrombe would become the capital of the de Warenne estates in Normandy. De Warenne received more rewards from the confiscated lands of William, count of Arques in 1053. Duke William’s confidence in de Warenne is demonstrated in the fact he was one of the barons consulted during the planning of the invasion of England in 1066.

In fact, William de Warenne is one of only a handful of Norman barons known to have fought at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October, 1066. De Warenne was rewarded with vast swathes of land throughout the country. According to the Domesday survey his lands extended over 13 counties; stretching from Conisbrough in Yorkshire to Lewes in Sussex. His territories were acquired over the course of the reign of William I and elevated him the highest rank of magnates. By 1086 his riches were only surpassed by the king’s half-brothers and his own kinsman, Roger de Montgomery.

Battle of Hastings, 1066

Throughout his career, William de Warenne acquired lands in numerous counties, sometimes by nefarious means. Much of the property, such as Conisbrough, had formerly belonged to the late king, Harold. In Norfolk he is said to have asserted lordship over freemen not necessarily assigned to him. He had disputes with neighbouring landowners in Conisbrough, over which properties were sokelands and he is said to have stolen lands from the bishop of Durham and the abbot of Ely. Some acquisitions were obtained peacefully, such as the manor of Whitchurch in Shropshire, which was left to him by his kinsman Roger de Montgomery. William was an energetic and attentive landowner, and improved the economy of most of his estates; more than tripling his sheep flock at Castle Acre and doubling the value of his Yorkshire estates in just 20 years (at a time when the county was devastated by the Harrying of the North.

In 1067 William de Warenne was one of 4 prominent Normans appointed to govern England during William the Conqueror’s absence in Normandy. Following the Conquest, he continued to support the king and – subsequently – his son, William II Rufus – as a military commander for over 20 years. In 1074 he was with is father at  the abbey of Holy Trinity in Rouen and in 1083-85 he fought with the king on campaign in Maine, being wounded at the siege of the castle of Sainte-Suzanne.

In 1075, along with Richard de Clare, his fellow justiciar, he was sent to deal with the rebellion of Earl Ralph de Gael of East Anglia. De Gael had failed to respond to their summons to answer for an act of defiance and so the 2 lords faced and defeated the rebels at Fawdon in Cambridgeshire, mutilating their prisoners afterwards. Ralph withdrew to Norwich Castle; besieged for 3 months he managed to escape his attackers by boat, while the castle surrendered and was occupied by de Warenne.

Gundrada de Warenne

William de Warenne was married to a Flemish noblewoman, Gundrada; her brother Gerbod was sometime earl of Chester and another brother, Frederic, held lands in Norfolk which eventually passed to Gundrada. There was some debate among historians that Gundrada may have been the daughter of William the Conqueror, but the confusion appears to have come from her being part of the household of William’s wife, Matilda. Gundrada and William were married sometime around the time of the Conquest, possibly shortly before the expedition to conquer England.

They had 3 children together. Their eldest son, William, would succeed his father as Earl of Surrey and de Warenne. He married Isabel de Vermandois, widow of Robert de Beaumont, earl of Leicester; with whom he had, apparently, been having an affair even before the earl’s death. Young William had a chequered career, he supported the claims of Robert Curthose, duke of Normandy, to the English throne against the duke’s younger brother, Henry I. However, duke Robert lost and was captured and imprisoned by Henry. Henry eventually forgave William, who fought for the king at the Battle of Bremule and was with Henry he died in 1135.

A 2nd son, Reynold de Warenne, led the assault on Rouen in 1090, for William II Rufus, in the conflict between the English king and his older brother, Duke Robert. However, by 1105 Reynold was now fighting for the duke against the youngest of the Conqueror’s sons, Henry I, defending the castle of Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives for the duke. He was captured by Henry the following year, but had been freed by September 1106. It is possible he died shortly after, but was certainly dead by 1118 when his brother issued a charter, in which he gave 6 churches to Lewes Priory, for the soul of deceased family members, including Reynold.

Gundrada and William also had a daughter, Edith, who married Gerard de Gournay, son of the lord of Gournay-en-Bray. Gerard also supported William II Rufus against Duke Robert and took part in the Crusade of 1096. Edith later accompanied him on pilgrimage back to Jerusalem, sometime after 1104, where he died. Gerard was succeeded by their son, Hugh de Gournay, whose daughter Gundreda would be the mother of Roger de Mowbray. Edith then married Drew de Monchy, with whom she had a son, Drew the Younger.

Castle Acre Castle, Norfolk

Gundrada died in childbirth at Castle Acre in Norfolk on 27th May 1085. She was buried in the chapter-house of the couple’s own of foundation Lewes Priory.

William’s 2nd wife was a sister of Richard Guet, who was described as ‘frater comitissae Warennae’ when he gave the manor of Cowyck to Bermondsey Abbey in 1098.¹ Guet was a landowner in Perche, Normandy, but his sister’s name has not survived the passage of time. All we know of her is that, a few days after her husband’s death, she attempted to gift 100 shillings to Ely Abbey in restitution for damage caused by William de Warenne. The monks refused the donation, hoping that Warenne’s departing soul had been claimed by demons.²

Despite this reputation at Ely, William de Warenne and his wife, Gundrada, had a reputation for piety. At some point in their marriage, probably 1081-3, they went on pilgrimage to Rome. Due of war in Italy they only got as far as the great abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, where they were received into the fellowship of monks. On their return to England they founded a priory at Lewes, following the Cluniac rule and a prior and 3 monks were sent from Cluny to establish the foundation. It was the 1st Cluniac foundation in England.

Pevensey Castle

Following the Conqueror’s death, William fought in support of the late king’s 2nd son, William II Rufus against his older brother, Robert Curthose, who had inherited the dukedom of Normandy. He was rewarded in early 1088 with the earldom of Surrey. The new earl fought for William II Rufus during an invasion by Robert’s supporters and was badly wounded at the siege of Pevensey Castle, East Sussex, in the spring of 1088. He was taken to Lewes, where he died of his wounds on 24th June of the same year. Earl Warenne was buried beside his 1st wife, Gundrada, in the chapter-house of Lewes Priory.

Following the dissolution of Lewes Priory in the 16th century, the tombs were moved. The remains of Gundrada and William were discovered in 2 leaden chests in the parish church of St John at Southover in Lewes in 1845 and laid to rest, for a final time, at the Southover church in 1847.

Footnote: ¹ Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; ² ibid

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.


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Pictures: Gundrada and William de Warenne church windows ©; Bayeux Tapestry, Castle Acre and Pevensey Castle courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sources: Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, Edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay; William the Conqueror, the Bastard of Normandy by Peter Rex; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir;;; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei;

Book Corner:1066 What Fates Impose by G.K. Holloway

51dwzulugglMy latest book review, of Glynn Holloway’s epic novel 1066: What Fates Impose has gone live over at The Review today!

Glynn Holloway’s 1066: What Fates Impose is an experience in itself. It takes you on the epic journey of Harold Godwinson, earl of Wessex, and William, duke of Normandy – Harold’s rival for the throne of England – that ends at Senlac Hill, Hastings on 14th October 1066. It is a riveting tale, weaving together the lives, loves and conflicts of those who held the fate of England in their hands. Impossible to put down, 1066: What Fates Impose, gives the reader a panoramic view the events that would change the course of English history forever….

To read the full review of this fantastic novel – and to enter the prize draw and be in with a chance of winning a paperback copy in the giveaway, simply visit The Review and leave a comment. Good luck!


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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016

Book Corner: Interview with Steven McKay

14527501_1508064435887266_874228221_nToday it is an absolute pleasure to welcome author Steven McKay to the blog. Steven has written the wonderful Forest Lord series, chronicling the adventures of everyone’s favourite legend, Robin Hood. With the final book, Blood of the Wolf, out this month, Steven talked to me about his writing, inspiration and what’s coming next.

Hi Steven, thanks so much for agreeing to be a guest interviewee on my blog, History…the Interesting Bits. So, here’s the questions …

What made you become a writer?

I always wanted to write stories, ever since I was a child. I would write little daft things in my school books and things like that. I think some people are creative and have a need to let their imagination run a bit wild be it through writing or art or music or whatever. I love to create songs on my guitars, and obviously write novels now but, sadly, I’m a terrible painter.

Who are your major writing influences?

Boringly, Bernard Cornwell is number one, just as he probably is for 90% of the people you talk to! The great thing about Cornwell is, he covers so much ground and so many periods. I don’t have any interest in his Sharpe stuff, for example, but his Arthurian and Saxon books are right up my street. And he does it so well that it always gives any writer inspiration and hopes of someday being that damn good!

Apart from that, I love Tolkien’s world-building, Philip K. Dick’s ability to get right inside a reader’s head, and David Gemmell’s great heroes.

How long do you spend researching a novel before you start writing?

Well, I had to do a lot of research for my debut novel, Wolf’s Head, since I wasn’t really very clued-up on the middle-ages OR the Robin Hood legend. So I spent a good year or so, on and off, getting a feel for the period and the characters but, once I had that solid foundation I didn’t really need to do any more research before writing the other books in the series.

Now, though, I’m going to start a brand new series, set in post-Roman Britain, and again, I’m going to have to find out how the people lived and what the whole culture and landscape was like.

Hopefully I can learn quickly…

What comes first, your storyline or your research?

As above, it rather depends on what the book will be about. I just wrote a new short story with my characters from the Robin Hood books and I didn’t have to do any research prior to coming up with the plot. I obviously had to check certain facts once it was done but that happens at the end of every book, when you’re proofreading and editing.1st

For my new series I will need to do some research to figure out what directions the story might go, but I have a vague idea of what’s going to happen in the first book at least.

Do you know how a book is going to end when you start writing, or do your characters ‘surprise’ you?

Generally, yes, I know what will happen. And, of course, with Robin Hood the story is well known and has to be stuck to fairly closely or it’s not Robin Hood any more. So in that respect I’ve always had an idea how each book will pan out, although along the way certain things happen when I’m writing that I didn’t expect. The characters really do come to life and take things in their own direction sometimes, without the writer’s prior knowledge! Friar Tuck always seemed to do that when I was writing his scenes – it was his idea for Robin to travel to London in Rise of the Wolf, the thought had never even crossed my mind originally!

Have you always been interested in Robin Hood?

No, not at all. I’m not really sure why, as I did always love that other great British hero, King Arthur, but Robin Hood never interested me until I decided to write a book about him. I think I never really engaged with the legend because there hadn’t been a great, modern interpretation of it the way there had been with Arthur. Bernard Cornwell had written great books about that as had Stephen Lawhead, and there was the movie Excalibur which I enjoyed, not to mention the whole mythology of Merlin…Robin, on the other hand, wasn’t really so well-known, to me at least. Had I been just a couple of years older I probably would have got into the TV series Robin of Sherwood when it came out in the 80’s and developed an interest from there but nope, I only started watching that as research for my own novel.

Needless to say, the Robin Hood legend is much deeper and more interesting than I first thought!

There are 3 Forest Lord books so far, Wolf’s Head, Rise of the Wolf and The Wolf and The Raven how many more adventures are there to come? Did you know how many books would be in the series when you started writing the story?

The fourth book, Blood of the Wolf, will be published on October 14th 2016 and this will be the last in the series. I planned it to be a trilogy but the second book took itself off in unforeseen directions and I needed to add an extra volume to do everything I wanted with the story. Incidentally, that second book, The Wolf and the Raven, was probably the most fun to write of all of them, perhaps because I let the characters go where they wanted without forcing them to stick to my plan!

What is in store for Robin next?

Nothing, I’m afraid. You’ll need to read Blood of the Wolf to see how things end for him. I do have a brand new short story, “The Stapleford Prisoner” featuring him and Little John but I don’t know when, or how, that will be published. I also plan on doing anothe2r novella, this time starring Will Scaflock but I haven’t started it yet. It will hopefully serve as a stopgap for my readers until I can get the next series underway.

I love the fact the stories are set in the reign of Edward II, rather than the more traditional Richard the Lionheart/King John era. What made you do this?

When I researched the legend the main thing I wanted to do was write about a realistic hero, so I tried to find out if there had been a real Robin Hood. I don’t believe there was one, single outlaw with that name, but there was a decent case for a Robert Hood living in the time of King Edward II having contributed to much of the early stories that became the legend we now all know. It seemed as good a starting point as any and certainly gave things a fresh slant since everyone always sets their Hood tales in a much earlier period.

Your Robin Hood has also moved from Sherwood Forest to Barnsdale Forest, is there are particular reason, or did Robin just fancy a change of scenery?

As above, the earliest ballads about Robin were actually set in Barnsdale and the real Robert Hood I mentioned came from Wakefield in Yorkshire. So again, that gave me a new direction to take the tired old tales and make them a little bit different. That said, much of the action in the books does take place in Nottingham as I believe any outlaw gang would have had to move around from place to place to avoid the law. The sheriff in my books, Sir Henry de Faucumberg was actually the Sheriff of Nottingham and Yorkshire in real life although I did use some artistic license with the dates he served….

A lot of actors have played Robin Hood through the years, do you have a particular image of Robin when you’re writing him?

No, not at all. I mean he’s tall and extremely well-built. Any good medieval longbowman would have been really muscular so that’s obvious but, other than that, I don’t really have a picture of him in my head and I don’t like to describe characters too exactly as I like to let the reader come up with their own image. Making the reader’s imagination fill in some blanks is the best way to draw them into the story I think.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

Just the way that I can pour out my imagination and make the stories in my head come to life. I’m constantly making up little stories in my head, imagining dialogue and actions and whatever, even about everyday events. My mind never seems to stop planning things, or imagining how some scene – even a completely mundane one – might pan out.1

Planning and writing books is basically a way of harnessing that energy and making it useful.

What is the worst thing about writing?

Probably waiting to see what readers think of a new book. I can’t tell if a new one is any good or not, it’s impossible, so I have to rely on readers’ opinions. It’s a horrible, nail-biting time waiting on feedback from beta readers and reviewers and hard not to badger them constantly about whether they like it or not.

Apart from that, editing can be a pain – structurally editing a novel I mean. It can be a really daunting thing trying to rearrange certain scenes and events into a cohesive whole and I usually wish it would just happen by magic so I can get on with simply writing again!

How long does it take to do a project from start to finish? Do you write one book at a time, or have several on the go at once?

Well, I’ve been writing for about four years now and in that time I’ve managed to write four novels and a couple of novellas. Basically, I like to do a novel and a novella every year or so. I only concentrate on one thing at a time so I don’t get confused, especially now with this next series being set in a different era altogether. That will require a whole new mindset which is why I haven’t started on it yet, until Blood of the Wolf is done and dusted and out there for people to buy.

Who are your favourite personalities from history? Is there anyone you would particularly like to write about, but haven’t yet?

Jesus! Sorry, that’s not a blasphemous oath, that’s my answer to the question. I’m not a religious person but I think both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible have great stories in them and it would be interesting to write a realistic version of, in particular, Jesus’s life. I did start to research the project years ago but it never came to anything. I’m not sure if it would be a good or a bad thing because there’s so much potential to offend a huge amount of people, but it’s something I would like to do eventually.


Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you get around it?

No, not really. I don’t sit down to write unless I have something planned. I like to think about what scene I’ll be working on next and have it ready in my head so when I start writing it just flows out.

Do you find social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – a benefit or a hindrance?

I don’t see how anyone can say they’re a hindrance – they’re basically free adv14527440_1508064235887286_1454685879_nertising and an amazing way to engage with your readers. I try to do my “social media admin” smartly – so if someone retweets me, I’ll reciprocate, but I do it on my phone as it’s much faster and I can do it when I have a spare minute during the day.

Don’t make the mistake of sitting down for an hour every day and interacting with people on a kind of schedule, because it will soon become boring. Fit it around your day, use every tool you have, from phone to tablet and laptop. Free apps like Hootsuite are also a massive help.

What is your next project, once Robin Hood is complete?

The working title for the next book is The Druid. Rather than a large cast of well-known, iconic characters that I was working with in the Hood books, this time I want to create one single warrior druid living in Britain just as the Romans have left. I love this land and it will be great to explore the geography of it through the eyes of a druid. It also has the added bonus that not much is known about the druids so I can have a little more freedom than I did with my Forest Lord series.

I’m really looking forward to writing it!

Thank you so much for agreeing to an interview, Steven, and for taking the time to answer my questions – I hope they weren’t too onerous.

Not at all, thank you for having me! It’s always great to chat about my work to people.

14528431_1508064125887297_483274802_nMore about Steven:

Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

You can check out his website here. Steven also has an Amazon Author page and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.


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©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.



Book Corner: Interview with Karen Clark, author of The Nevills Of Middleham

51i0f-eet8l-_sy346_Hi Karen, congratulations on the release of your book, The Nevills of Middleham: England’s Most Powerful Family in the Wars of the Roses and thank you so much for agreeing to an interview. Welcome to History…the Interesting Bits.

Tell me about your book – how did it come about?

My name was very kindly passed to History Press by my friend, Amy Licence, when they first came up with the idea of a book about the Nevills. Of course, despite doubts and nerves, I jumped at the chance.

Chronicling an entire family is a huge undertaking, what made you write about the Nevills? What is it about them that fascinates you?

“Warwick rose toweringly. His rose-dappled mantle swirled; black hair curled on his brow. Everything of him was puissant and challenging and might have said: Behold us! We of the blood royal, of Edward the Third.”*

I read that paragraph when I was about fifteen and was intrigued. I wanted to know more. Who was this guy? I’ve spent years – decades – since then trying to find out! It hasn’t always been easy. Before the internet, books weren’t always easy to come by and primary sources next to impossible. The whole family fascinates me, as you say. I think any 15th century family has the potential to fascinate and intrigue but it was the Nevills who claimed me.

*Hawley Jarman, Rosemary, 1973, The King’s Grey Mare, Collins, London, p53

Who is your favourite Nevill? And why?

Middleham’s keep

Well, that changes depending on my mood! They all have something to recommend them. The one I’ve got to know best over the last few years is Thomas so he might be my current favourite. I’ve also got a huge soft spot for Alice and her husband, Henry Fitzhugh. I have no idea why! The Fitzhughs didn’t live that far from Middleham and Alice and Henry would have grown up together, though I’d hesitate to even suggest the ‘childhood sweethearts’ thing. They knew each other all their lives and while her sisters all married men who lived far away, Alice remained close to her old family home until Henry’s death.

And which Nevill do you like least?

There isn’t one!

The Nevills were involved in some of the greatest events to shape English history, but eventually lost everything, do you see them as heroes or villains?

Neither. Both. Sometimes one and sometimes the other but mostly, I think, they inhabited the shadowy in-between of moral ambiguity. Enlightened self-interest is one of the more interesting driving forces of change, and Warwick certainly operated from that principle when pushing for reform and regime change, but he could also be unconscionably self-interested in a most unenlightened way. To use a rather tired phrase often trotted out to cover a multitude of sins, they were of their time. But, at times, Warwick could be far more ruthless than that. The executions in Calais in 1460, the extra-legal killings of earl Rivers and the Herberts, the bloodbath after the battle of Hexham (which wasn’t Warwick’s responsibility alone, his brother John and Edward IV were also behind this orgy of executions that lasted days and stretched from Hexham to York) all point to a man with scant ability to forgive. Handing out second chances was not something Warwick tended to do. I think those people who wandered into Warwick’s unreality field certainly saw him as a hero. To the people of Burgundy, he has gone down in history as one of the vilest villains of all time. Like a lot of things, it depends where you stand.

Middleham’s great hall

You have written both history and historical fiction – which is the easiest and which the most fun?

Non-fiction is easier to write. While you can speculate some – indeed, you kind of have to from time to time – you don’t have to dream up motivations and relationships. If you don’t know where someone was for six months, you just make a note of that and move on. There’s no gap filling to be done. But it’s that very difficulty that makes writing historical fiction so stimulating. You can’t (always) just leave a six month gap, you have to find somewhere for them to be and something for them to do, you have to establish how they felt about the various other people in the story, you have to give them a voice. I think the exercise of researching more rigorously and writing non-fiction will make me a better writer of fiction but the proof of that will be in the pudding.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

It’s a bit like breathing. I’ve never stopped to ask why I do it. I just have to. Thinking about it now… when everything’s flowing and the words are just pouring out (good or bad), when every sentence sparks the next, when fictional characters pick up their story and take off with it, when a sudden realisation hits you that this is why someone did something, or that is what drives them… those are the best bits.

What is the worst thing about writing?

The loneliness.

How do you organise your writing day?

I don’t! I get up, sit down at my desk and maybe I start work. Or I get up again and do something else. Or I put on some music, crank it up and dance until my dog tells me to stop. Organising isn’t my strongest suit. It’s probably why it’s taken as long as it has before I’ve got serious about writing. I’ve been writing all my life. I couldn’t wait to start school coz they were going to teach me how to write and that would mean all the little stories that were locked in my head could be set free. But I had to work for a living for years and that became my focus and my priority, along with growing my children up. Since making the decision that, if I didn’t get something happening soon, it was never going to, I have the freedom just to let it all flow. I can write for hours one day and faff around for hours the next. No self-discipline, that’s my problem! Writing The Nevills changed that to a large degree, as I had a deadline imposed from without. That meant more days writing and fewer faffing.

How long have you spent researching the Nevills?

Inside the bailey at Middleham

Years! Decades! For a long time, it was pretty desultory. I bought books when I could, though they weren’t always easy to come by. For the longest time, I didn’t even know what was available. Then along came the internet! The decline of bricks and mortar bookshops is lamented by many but I can’t quite feel the same hostility towards Amazon (and the like) I know others do. Living where I do, a long way from bookshops of any kind, online book stores have been an unalloyed blessing. And there’s so much primary source material on the internet! I’ve spent hours and hours tracking down a reference to some obscure text and, nine times out of then, I’ve found it. So, in the last few years, particularly since I started writing The Nevills, the research has got more intense and deeper.

Do you find social media – such as Facebook – a benefit or a hindrance?

Oh, definitely a benefit! The support I’ve had from friends is incalculable. Discussions and debates, someone pointing out a source I hadn’t come across before, the flourishing of ideas… it’s been great! If I hadn’t stumbled across Susan Higginbotham’s blog several years ago now I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, a book about the Nevills would probably have been written but not by me. I cannot stress enough how much facebook friends like Susan, Amy and you, Sharon, have helped me on this journey.

What is your next project?

The village of Middleham

I really want to get the first Nevill novel finished. It’s nearly done but I think my imminent trip to the UK will feed into that beautifully. Apart from that, I have a zillion ideas waiting to be explored – a fantasy series I’m about halfway through writing, a science fiction idea that refuses to go away, a crime novel with a BDSM theme, a book I’ve been working on for decades that needs either to be dusted off and looked at again or shelved permanently, the rest of the Nevill fiction… then, the other night, a news story about North Korea sparked yet another idea. I either need a guaranteed next life or a dedicated team of offsiders!

A huge ‘THANK YOU‘ to Karen for taking the time to chat and answer my questions. I wish her every success with the book.

About Karen’s Book

51i0f-eet8l-_sy346_The Nevills of Middleham: England’s Most Powerful Family in the Wars of the Roses: In 1465, the Nevills must have thought they’d reached the pinnacle of power and influence in England. Richard Nevill was the king’s right-hand man and married to the richest woman in the kingdom; John Nevill was an accomplished soldier who’d done much to stabilise the new dynasty; and George Nevill was not only chancellor but newly enthroned as Archbishop of York.

The Nevill women were as active as their male counterparts. As sisters and wives, daughters and daughters-in-laws, they had the ears of the elite in England and were not afraid of wielding their influence. And they were not always on the same side.

Cracks in the stability of the most powerful family in England began to show. Rivalries led to serious conflict that worsened when King Edward IV impulsively married Elizabeth Wydeville, a choice of bride that did not please everyone. The Nevills had already lost a great deal for the Yorkist cause. Within six years, as the Wars of the Roses turned into one of the bloodiest periods of English history, they’d lose even more for the Lancastrians.

The Nevills of Middleham is available now from the History Press.

About Karen

K.L. CLARK’s research of the Nevill family and the Wars of the Roses spans over a decade and she is currently working on a series of novels about the Nevills. She has presented two papers on the Wars of the Roses to the Richard III Society, writes the popular blog A Nevill Feast and is an active member of the Facebook history community. She lives in Australia with her family.


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©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.



King Eadwig ‘All-Fair’ and the Coronation Scandal

King Eadwig

While researching Edward the Martyr and his stepmother, Ælfthryth, I came across a very interesting character. Eadwig (or Edwy) was young Edward’s uncle; the elder brother of Edward’s father, Edgar the Peaceable. Eadwig has one of the worst reputations of the Anglo-Saxon kings, even though he only reigned for 4 years; he was, supposedly, found in a compromising situation when he was meant to be presiding over his coronation feast.

I just had to know more about this king!

Eadwig was born around 940. He had an impressive royal pedigree, being the eldest surviving son of Edmund I (the Elder) and his 1st wife, Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, who was later known as St Elgiva. Edmund was the son of Edward the Elder and, therefore, the grandson of King Alfred the Great, thus making Eadwig King Alfred’s great-grandson.

Eadwig’s mother Ælfgifu died in 944, and was buried at Shaftesbury Abbey; she left little Eadwig and his baby brother, Edgar, to be raised by their father. Although Edmund married again, he only survived his 1st wife by 2 years; he was stabbed by Leofa, an exiled thief, on 29 May 946, possibly as part of an assassination plot, although later sources suggest Edmund had recognised Leofa in the crowd and was killed while trying to arrest him.

With his eldest son no more than 6 years old, Edmund was succeeded as king by his brother, Eadred (known as Eadred Debilis Pedibus (“Weak-in-the-Feet”). Eadred’s chief supporters included his mother, Queen Eadgifu the 3rd wife of Edward the Elder, Archbishop Oda (or Odo) of Canterbury, Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury and Æthelstan Half-King ealdorman of East Anglia.

Edmund I, Eadwig’s father

As Eadred’s health failed, more responsibilities were entrusted to his chief supporters. Dunstan, for instance,  as well as being entrusted with the production of charter in the king’s name he was also given the guardianship of the royal treasures. Æthelstan is said to have been foster-father to Edgar, Eadwig’s younger brother, so it is possible that both boys were raised in his household.

Although we know nothing of Eadwig’s childhood it is assumed he was raised away from court, as his name does not appear on any charters during the reigns of his father or uncle. Eadwig and his brother only start appearing in authentic texts in 955, Eadred’s final year.

Eadred died on 23rd November 955 and was succeeded by 15-year-old Eadwig. A typical teenager, Eadwig immediately set about trying to assert his independence. He made appointments that were calculated to reduce the power and influence of Æthelstan Half-King, and then turned his attention to his grandmother, Queen Eadgifu, depriving her of all her possessions.

The most powerful and influential people in the country were probably pulling their hair out in frustration in no time. However, life carried on and Eadwig’s coronation took place at Kingston-Upon-Thames, probably at the end of January 956. And it was at the feast, to celebrate the coronation, that Eadwig’s reputation took a spectacular nosedive.

Eadwig defending Aelfgifu to Archbishop Oda

Eadwig seems to have grown bored – or tired – of the celebrations and retired to his own apartments, even though the coronation feast was in full swing. When Archbishop Oda noticed Eadwig’s absence, he sent Abbot Dunstan (the future saint and archbishop of Canterbury) in search of the errant king. Dunstan supposedly found Eadwig in a compromising situation with a young woman, ‘a girl of ripe age’¹ … and her mother. It is said that Dunstan was so furious he physically attacked the 2 women before dragging Eadwig back to the banquet.

The younger lady involved was most likely Ælfgifu, soon to be Eadwig’s wife. The story, however, is related in the life of St Dunstan and could well be an invention or, at the least, an exaggeration designed to highlight the conflict between Eadwig and the church, over his choice of bride. And during the battle of wits between king and church Ælfgifu’s mother, Æthelgifu, pressed Eadwig to have Dunstan deprived of all his possessions and sent into exile.

However, it seems the church held the upper hand; Eadwig and Ælfgifu were separated in 957 or 958 on the orders of Archbishop Oda ‘because they were too closely related’². Research suggests that Ælfgifu was from a junior or dispossessed branch of the royal family, possibly descended from Æthelred I (r. 865-71), brother of Alfred the Great, thus making the young lovers 3rd cousins. Ælfgifu lived on into the reign of king Edgar the Peaceable, but disappears from the historical record after 96.

Eadwig did not remarry.

Other aspects of Eadwig’s life appear to have been just as chaotic; his reign taken up with political disputes and trying to pacify his rebellious nobles. Eadwig’s surviving charters show a favouritism towards laymen, rather than the church, although he is remembered as a benefactor of Abingdon Abbey. Eadwig appointed 3 new ealdordoms during 956 alone, including Æthelwold, son of Æthelstan Half-King and 1st husband of Ælfthryth, the wicked stepmother of Edward the Martyr.

Coin of King Eadwig

By the summer of 957 the kingdom was divided in 2; the king ‘was wholly deserted by the norther people, being despised because he acted foolishly in the government committed to him, ruining with vain hatred the shrewd and the wise, and admitting with loving zeal the ignorant and those like himself’³. A political settlement was reached, probably aimed at preventing civil war, based on a geographical division of the country, rather than personal loyalties. Eadwig was to rule all the lands south of the River Thames, while his younger brother, Edgar, would rule in the north. Although the fact that it was Eadwig’s coins that were the country’s only currency until 959 suggests that Eadwig maintained overall authority.

This became the status quo until Eadwig’s death on 1st October 959 at Gloucester, when the kingdom was once again united under one ruler, King Edgar. Aged only around 19 when he died, the manner of Eadwig’s death is a mystery; it’s possible he died from some inherited family ailment, or a convenient accident, I suppose we’ll never know…. Eadwig was buried in the New Minster at Winchester, founded by his grandfather, King Edward the Elder.

Diploma of King Eadwig for Aelfwine

Poor Eadwig’s reputation has suffered at the hands of the biographers of the early church leaders, particularly in the Life of St Dunstan, which depicts Eadwig as a debaucher, a despoiler of the church and an incompetent king. While William of Malmesbury called him a ‘wanton youth’ who ‘misused his personal beauty in lascivious behaviour’ [4], his nickname of ‘All-Fair’ suggests he wasn’t all bad. The chronicler, Æthelweard saying that Eadwig ‘for his great beauty he got the nickname Pancali [‘All-Fair’] from the common people’. [5] According to the chronicler, Eadwig ‘held the kingdom for four years and deserved to be loved.’ [6]


Footnotes: ¹ quoted by Simon Keynes in; ² Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 958, text 1; ³ Vita S. Dunstan, ch. 24; [4] quoted by Simon Keynes in; [5] Chronicle of Æthelweard, 4.8; [6] ibid.


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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon;

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Guest Post: The Two Women in the life of Harold II by Sharon Bennett Connolly

Today I have a guest article over at Paula Lofting’s blog. Paula’ s novels, Sons of the Wolf and The Wolf Banner, chart the story of Harold II, so I take a look at the 2 women in his life.

The Road to Hastings and other Stories


Harold Godwinson was born around 1022 and did more in the 44 years he was on this earth, than most people could achieve in 3 lifetimes. He received the earldom of East Anglia in 1044 and, as the son of Godwin, earl of Wessex, he succeeded to his father’s earldom in 1053. His sister was the wife of King Edward the Confessor, his brother was the earl of Northumberland (for a time). Harold was not only one of the king’s foremost earls but also one of his most respected advisors. In short, the Godwinsons were the most powerful family in the kingdom, after the king himself. At one point Harold, along with his father and brothers, had been exiled from England after quarrelling with the king. He is even said to have sworn an oath to back William of Normandy’s claim to the English throne in the likely event that…

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England’s First Queen, the Original Wicked Stepmother

Queen Ælfthryth and King Edward at Corfe

After writing an article about Edward the Martyr the other week, I thought it only fair to take a look at the other side of the story and write about Ælfthryth, England’s first ever crowned queen and Edward’s stepmother – and possible murderer.

Author Annie Whitehead researched Ælfthryth for her book Alvar the Kingmaker and rather likes her. So she can’t be all bad – can she?

Ælfthryth was probably born around 945; the daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar of Devon and an unknown woman who is said to be descended from the royal family. As you can imagine, after the passage of 1,000 years, nothing is known of her childhood; although she had a least one sibling, a brother, Ordulf, who was founder of Tavistock Abbey. She was married around the age of 11 to Æthelwold, the son of Æthelstan Half-King (I have to do a post about him! What a name!) and ealdorman of East Anglia.

Æthelwold died in 962, probably in a hunting accident, amid rumours of murder on the orders of his wife’s supposed lover, King Edgar. Edgar and Æthelwold would have known each other very well. After being orphaned as a baby, Edgar was raised in Æthelstan’s household alongside his own sons; of whom Æthelwold was one of the youngest.  Some stories have Edgar wielding the dagger himself, while others don’t even mention murder. Whether the suspicion arose at the time of the event, or following Ælfthryth’s marriage to Edgar 2 years later, is also unclear.

Edgar’s marital history was already chequered. Ælfthryth could be Edgar’s 2nd or 3rd wife; she was certainly the 3rd relationship by which children were born. Edgar’s 1st wife, Æthelfled “the Fair”, was the mother of his eldest son, Edward. Following Æthelfled’s death, Edgar had a relationship with Wulfryth from which a daughter, Edith, was born around 963/964. The sources are uncertain as to whether or not Edgar and Wulfryth married, and some even suggest that she was a nun Edgar had seduced; although this may be confusion due to the fact that Wulfryth entered a nunnery shortly after Edith was born. Edith joined her mother in the abbey at Wilton, where Wulfryth eventually became the abbess; in time both women would be venerated locally as saints.

King Edgar the Peaceable

Ælfthryth and Edgar were married in 964 and were soon the parents of 2 sons; Edmund and Æthelred. Despite having an older half-brother, Edward, it is Edmund who appears as Edgar’s acknowledged heir; his name being above that of Edward’s in a charter of 966, witnessed by both boys, founding the New Minster at Winchester. Poor Ælfthryth must have been distraught when, in 971 and still only a child of about 7, young Edmund died.

The grandson of Edward the Elder, and great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar had been king since 959; however on 11 May 973 he had a coronation, at Bath Abbey. Whether this was his 1st coronation, or a 2nd ceremony seems to be still debated by historians. Edgar was about 30 and the venerated Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury officiated. It is the 1st known coronation of a queen of England, Ælfthryth.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography there is a near contemporary account of the coronation, which depicts her feasting with many abbots and abbesses, wearing a silken gown sewn with pearls and precious stones. The coronation was an important display for Edgar and Ælfthryth, as a way to emphasise the legitimacy of their union, especially given Edgar’s marital history, and the claims of their children as Edgar’s heirs.

Ælfthryth’s security was destroyed just 3 years later, when Edgar died at the young age of 32. With their eldest son dead and the youngest, only 7 years old, the crown went to Edgar’s eldest son, the 12/13-year-old Edward. Edward faced opposition when Ælfthryth pressed Æthelred’s claim, supported by several leading figures, including Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester and her 1st husband’s brother, Æthelwine, ealdorman of East Anglia.

Corfe Castle, Dorset

However, with the backing of the revered, future saint, Dunstan it was Edward who was crowned. Following his coronation Edward honoured his father’s promises, confirming the gift of jurisdiction over the whole of Dorset as Ælfthryth’s dower. As a consequence, Ælfthryth and her son, Æthelred, settled at Corfe, in the Purbeck Hills; it was a large estate surrounding a defensive mound, which would later become the Norman stronghold of Corfe Castle.

And it was at Corfe on 18th March 978 that Ælfthryth’s reputation was irrevocably damaged, following a visit from 16-year-old King Edward. Whether Edward had been out hunting, or was in the area to specifically visit his stepmother and half-brother seems to be uncertain. However, he did send a message that he would be calling on them and Ælfthryth’s retainers were awaiting the young king at the gate, when he arrived with a small retinue. Still sitting in the saddle he was handed a drink; and stabbed. It must have been a horrific sight, as the king’s horse panicked and bolted, racing off with Edward’s foot stuck in the stirrup and the dying king being dragged along behind.

Æthelred II the Unready

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded:

No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God hath magnified him. He was in life an earthly king. He is now after death a heavenly saint.¹

Although Edward’s brother, Æthelred, only around 10 years old but now king of England, was above suspicion due to his age, Ælfthryth had no such protection. Some traditions go so far as to accuse Ælfthryth of wielding the dagger herself. However, while most believe she was complicit in the murder, it is by no means certain and it is entirely possible that court malcontents, who had migrated to Æthelred’s corner, were responsible for the murder.

Ælfthryth rode out the ensuing furore and with her son as the new king, Ælfthryth was exonerated of any complicity; amid the necessity of stabilising the country, establishing the new reign and rescuing England’s reputation. Æthelred was crowned at Kingston, Surrey, on 4th May 979, a year after his brother’s death and just a few months after the reburial of Edward’s remains, with great ceremony, at Shaftesbury. A council was established to assist the young king in ruling the country, probably involving Queen Ælfthryth, who may have acted as regent during Æthelred’s minority; it also included the aging Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, and Ælfhere, ealdorman of Mercia.

As Dowager Queen Ælfthryth’s dower lands in Rutland and east Suffolk help to extend West Saxon rule over East Anglia as a whole.

Even when Æthelred was old enough to rule alone, Ælfthryth didn’t retire entirely. Following her son’s marriage to Ælfgifu of Northumbria, it was Ælfthryth who had the responsibility of raising their first-born son and ætheling, Æthelstan. Æthelstan died aged about 20 in 1014, 2 years before his father. Æthelred and Ælfgifu had over 10 children together, including Æthelred’s eventual successor in 1016, Edmund Ironside, before Ælfgifu died; Æthelred then married Emma of Normandy, mother of England’s future kings, Harthacnut by her 2nd husband, King Cnut, and Edward the Confessor by Æthelred.

As queen Ælfthryth had substantial influence over the nunneries of England; she ousted the abbess of Barking, a cousin of Edgar’s 2nd wife, Wulfthryth.  she endowed convents at Amesbury and Wherwell,; her granddaughter would eventually become abbess of the latter.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Peterborough

And it was to Wherwell that the queen did eventually retire from the limelight, sometime before the year 1000, dying there on 17 November in either 999, 1000 or 1001.

Over a thousand years later Ælfthryth actions and reputation are still being debated by historians. While it is not inconceivable that she played a part in Edward the Martyr’s death, we also have to be aware that women of power and influence were much vilified in Medieval times; a strong, independent woman would be blamed for many crimes, simply because she dared to know her own mind….

While I am not entirely convinced of her innocence, neither am I certain of her guilt.


Footnotes: ¹ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quoted by Martin Wall in The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts.


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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon;

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Book Corner: Margaret Pole, the Countess in the Tower by Susan Higginbotham

indexOf the many executions ordered by Henry VIII, surely the most horrifying was that of sixty-seven-year-old Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, hacked to pieces on the scaffold by a blundering headsman.

From the start, Margaret’s life had been marred by tragedy and violence: her father, George, Duke of Clarence, had been executed at the order of his own brother, Edward IV, and her naive young brother, Edward, Earl of Warwick, had spent most of his life in the Tower before being executed on the orders of Henry VII.

Yet Margaret, friend to Katherine of Aragon and the beloved governess of her daughter Mary, had seemed destined for a happier fate until religious upheaval and rebellion caused Margaret and her family to fall from grace. From Margaret’s birth as the daughter of a royal duke to her beatification centuries after her death, Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower tells the story of one of the fortress’s most unlikely prisoners.

Margaret Pole: the Countess in the Tower tells the story of an amazing woman who navigated two eras of history. Born into the Medieval world, during the reign of her uncle, Edward IV, she survived the change of dynasty and prospered during the reign of Henry VII; marrying and starting a dynasty of her own. During the reign of Henry VIII, she was accorded the title of Countess of Salisbury in her own right, and given the charge of her cousin’s most prized possession; his only daughter and heir, Mary Tudor.

George, Duke of Clarence – Margaret’s father

Susan Higginbotham tells Margaret’s story in great detail. Starting with a childhood marred by  her father’s attainder and execution by his own brother – Edward IV – the reader is drawn into Margaret’s life and family. From the highs of being governess to the princess, through the lows of her years of imprisonment in the Tower, and eventual execution at an age – 67 – when she should have been allowed to spend her days in quiet retirement, surrounded by her grandchildren; Susan Higginbotham tells a fascinating story of family tragedy, national politics and religious upheaval.

What Margaret thought of the death of her uncle Richard III we cannot know, but as she rode south on the orders of the new King Henry, she must have done so with some trepidation. Orphaned, with her closest relative a boy younger than herself, she had no powerful male relations to speak up for her, nor could her female ones be of much help. Her paternal grandmother, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, was the mother of a defeated king; her maternal grandmother, Anne Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick, had been stripped of her lands during Edward IV’s reign….Thus, young Margaret’s future rested largely in the hands of a man neither she nor most other people in England had even met.

Engaging and sympathetically told, Susan Higginbotham’s narrative is a joy to read. It draws you in to Margaret’s life, relating her fears and hopes – and a deep and enduring love for her family.

Cardinal Reginald Pole – Margaret’s most famous son

Susan Higginbotham has undertaken an incredible amount of research for this book, an endeavour which shines through on every page. The author has reconstructed Margaret Pole’s life and death, using every primary source available. Highlighting contradictions and explaining omissions, she takes the countess’s story from her earliest days to her final, dreadful moments… and beyond. Included at the end of the book is an appendix of over 30 pages of written evidence taken in the Exeter Conspiracy; a conspiracy involving at least 2 of her sons, which would see her imprisoned in the Tower for years before she was sent to the executioner’s block. It made for some absorbing reading late into the night.

All the key players in Margaret’s story are discussed, their actions and influence on Margaret’s life analysed and assessed. From Henry VIII to Princess Mary and Margaret’s own children. Susan Higginbotham’s analysis is unrivalled, her words painting vivid portraits of all the main characters who had a part to play Margaret’s life and explaining her relationships in detail.

Moreover, Margaret’s story is firmly placed in the wider context of English and European politics of the time; and in the great upheaval of the Reformation. Where there is contention, the author presents all possible arguments, before giving her own opinion and explaining her reasoning. She makes clear where information is lacking and highlights where she is providing her own theory and opinions.

In my recent interview with her, I asked Susan Higginbotham if she saw Margaret as a victim or a heroine, and she replied:

I would say a heroine, because she had strong beliefs which she maintained in the face of pressure, and she conducted herself with courage and dignity throughout adversity. I don’t think she would like to be remembered as a victim.

Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

This biography of Margaret reinforces Susan Higginbotham’s statement. Margaret is portrayed as a strong, independent woman, who had raised a large family single-handed, following the death of her husband. Margaret had a strong faith and demonstrated great loyalty to the Tudor dynasty. Her courage and strength of purpose shines through on every page – as does her intelligence. Margaret Pole was no meek and feeble woman, she stood up for her beliefs, herself and her family, while always maintaining her loyalty to the crown.

Susan Higginbotham treats Margaret Pole with great compassion and dignity, telling her story – and that of her family – in such an engaging manner that the book is impossible to put down. Knowing how events will eventually play out makes it no less compelling.

It is a fascinating story and – ultimately – a sad one; however, it’s also a story of faith, courage and perseverance. Margaret Pole: the Countess in the Tower is a wonderful read – shining a light on the life of a woman whose story deserves to be told.


Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia


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©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016