Book Corner: Reading Round up 2

As I said the other day, I am well behind on the list of book reviews I still have to write up, so the second article to include mini-reviews of several books that I have read and enjoyed over the last few months, to clear the backlog and give you some fabulous ideas if you’re looking for that next read (or a last minute Christmas pressie).

Four Queens and a Countess by Jill Armitage

When Mary Stuart was forced off the Scottish throne she fled to England, a move that made her cousin Queen Elizabeth very uneasy. Elizabeth had continued the religious changes made by her father and England was a Protestant country, yet ardent Catholics plotted to depose Elizabeth and put Mary Stuart on the English throne. So what was Queen Elizabeth going to do with a kingdomless queen likely to take hers? She had her placed under house arrest with her old friend Bess of Hardwick, then married to her fourth husband, the wealthy and influential Earl of Shrewsbury. The charismatic Scotswoman was treated more like a dowager queen than a prisoner and enjoyed the Shrewsbury’s affluent lifestyle until Bess suspected Mary of seducing her husband. But for sixteen years, with the never-ending threat of a Catholic uprising, Bess was forced to accommodate Mary and her entourage at enormous cost to both her finances and her marriage. Bess had also known the doomed Jane Grey and Mary Tudor, Queen of France. She had been in service in the Grey household and companion to the infant Jane. Mary Tudor had been godmother to Bess’s fifth child. Four Queens and a Countess delves deep into the relationships of these women with their insurmountable differences, the way they tried to accommodate them and the lasting legacy this has left. The clash of personalities and its deadly political background have never been examined in detail before.

Jill Armitage looks at the second half of the Tudor period through the lives of the four queens that shaped it and one remarkable countess. The flowing narrative tells the stories of Lady Jane Grey – the queen for 9 days – Mary I, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots alongside that of Bess of Hardwick, jailer of the Scottish queen. Four Queens and a Countess is a wonderful study of these remarkable women; women who, between them, influenced the direction of England for generations to come.

Jill Armitage investigates their various characters, relationships and disagreements, and explains how their relationships with each other affected the nations as a whole, and each other on an individual basis. Four Queens and a Countess is a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing read, providing new insight and a refreshing change of focus on the Tudor era.

I highly recommend it!

Katherine Parr: Oppportunist, Queen, Reformer by Don Matzat

Don Matzat here provides a new perspective on the life of Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of the infamous Henry VIII. While most biographers suggest that Katherine chose to marry the obese, irascible monarch in order to further some reformation or obey a divine imperative, the author goes against the tide and concludes that Katherine was an opportunist who married the king in order to enjoy the comforts of being the Queen of England, proven by her sumptuous lifestyle. But everything changed for Katherine when she had a dramatic conversion experience, embracing the primary tenets of the Protestant Reformation as described in her seminal work, The Lamentation of a Sinner. Her newly found belief placed her in a precarious position, not only with her husband but with the heresy hunters who, with the king’s blessing, beheaded those who held such beliefs. Yet Katherine had the courage to discuss her faith with her dangerous husband during the final months of his life. The life of Katherine Parr was one of drama, intrigue, danger, deceit, clandestine romance, scandal, tragedy and mystery. She came to a tragic end, and for three hundred years her burial site remained unknown. Katherine ruled England while Henry went to war against France. She was the first woman published in England under her own name. Her Lamentation of a Sinner is a little-known gem of the Protestant Reformation. Her influence upon the children of Henry, the future monarchs Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, would affect English history for many years to come.

I think, out of all Henry VIII’s queens, Katherine Parr’s story fascinates me the most. And its not just because she lived at Gainsborough Old Hall – one of my favourite haunts – for a time. Henry VIII was Katherine’s third husband – and she was his sixth wife. But Katherine Parr was so much more than Henry VIII’s wife. She was an intelligent woman and a proponent of the new Protestant faith – indeed, she almost met the fate of her predecessors, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, when Henry suspected her of heresy.

Author Don Matzat looks at Katherine’s life and her religious outlook using The Lamentations of a Sinner, written by Katherine herself, to give him an insight into Katherine the woman and Katherine the queen.

In Katherine Parr: Opportunist, Queen, Reformer Don Matzat uses Katherine Parr’s own writings and letters to paint a vivid picture of this remarkable queen. Beautifully written, engaging and thoroughly researched, this book is a wonderful addition to any Tudor library.

The Bastard’s Sons by Jeffrey James

“William the Conqueror’s intellect is said to have remained clear right up to his death. He would have questioned whether any of his three sons individually had the ability to rule the troublesome amalgam of England, Normandy and Maine once he was gone. The Bastard’s Sons is the story of those three men: Robert, William and Henry of Normandy.

Of Robert, the dying king is said to have claimed he was ‘a proud and silly prodigal’, adding that ‘the country which is subject to his dominion will be truly wretched’. Yet Robert became a great crusader. William got on better with his namesake, known to us as William Rufus for his florid looks. He was, like his father, of kingship material, and might have gained the throne of England on his father’s nod, but, equally plausibly, orchestrated a coup. The youngest of the Bastard’s sons, Henry, inherited money from his father, but not land. To placate Henry, the Conqueror is alleged to have told him that one day he would gain both England and Normandy.

The stage was set for an epic power struggle between the three men and their barons, who held lands on both sides of the Channel and were thus caught in a difficult position. A mysterious death in the forest, a crusading hero’s return and the tenacity of an overlooked third son would all combine to see this issue settled once and for all.”

The Bastard’s Sons: Robert, William and Henry of Normandy by Jeffrey James is a wonderful book telling the story of the post-Conquest years through the power struggles of William the Conqueror’s three surviving sons. In a wonderful, engaging narrative, Jeffrey James provides a unique insight into these three, very different brothers.

By looking at their relationships with each other, at the nobles who surrounded and supported them, and at the events of the latter part of the eleventh century and beginning of the twelfth, Jeffrey James shows us how these three brothers influenced each other’s lives, and the lives of those around them; as well as the politics of England and Normandy and of Europe in general.

The Bastard’s Sons: Robert, William and Henry of Normandy is an absorbing read, offering a new perspective on the post Conquest years and demonstrating the far reaching influences of all three of William the Conqueror’s surviving sons. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the post Conquest years of England and Normandy, and in the establishment of the Norman dynasty.

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Sara Cockerill

“In the competition for remarkable queens, Eleanor of Aquitaine tends to win. In fact her story sometimes seems so extreme it ought to be made up.

The headlines: orphaned as a child, Duchess in her own right, Queen of France, crusader, survivor of a terrible battle, kidnapped by her own husband, captured by pirates, divorced for barrenness, Countess of Anjou, Queen of England, mother of at least five sons and three daughters, supporter of her sons’ rebellion against her own husband, his prisoner for fifteen years, ruler of England in her own right, traveller across the Pyrenees and Alps in winter in her late sixties and seventies, and mentor to the most remarkable queen medieval France was to know (her own granddaughter, obviously).

It might be thought that this material would need no embroidery. But the reality is that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life has been subjected to successive reinventions over the years, with the facts usually losing the battle with speculation and wishful thinking.

In this biography Sara Cockerill has gone back to the primary sources, and the wealth of recent first-rate scholarship, and assessed which of the claims about Eleanor can be sustained on the evidence. The result is a complete re-evaluation of this remarkable woman’s even more remarkable life. A number of oft-repeated myths are debunked and a fresh vision of Eleanor emerges. In addition the book includes the fruits of her own research, breaking new ground on Eleanor’s relationship with the Church, her artistic patronage and her relationships with all of her children, including her family by her first marriage.”

Sara Cockerill’s Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France and England, Mother of Empires was one of the most anticipated history books of 2019 and it did not disappoint. Dispelling many of the rumours and stories that float around whenever Eleanor of Aquitaine is mentioned, Sara Cockerill looks for the real woman behind the legend.

Mainly using primary sources, Sara Cockerill re-examines every aspect of Eleanor’s life. The research is impeccable and Sara Cockerill’s arguments and analysis are well reasoned and compelling. Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France and England, Mother of Empires is essential reading for anyone interested in the era in general and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s story in particular.

This is one of those books that should sit in all medieval history lovers’ libraries, to be read and devoured.

The Anarchy by Teresa Cole

When the mighty Henry I died in December 1135, leaving no legitimate son, who was to replace him on the throne of England? Would it be Stephen, nephew to the king and showered with favours that maybe gave him ideas above his station? Or could it be a woman, Henry’s own choice, his daughter Matilda, who had been sent away when eight years old to marry the Holy Roman Emperor, widowed, then forced into a hated second marriage for political reasons? Stephen was the first to act, seizing the throne that had been promised to Matilda, but he would find taking a crown far easier than keeping it. The resulting struggle became known as ‘the Anarchy,’ a time when fortune changed sides as frequently and dramatically as in any page-turning thriller, and with a cast of characters to match – some passionately supporting Stephen or Matilda, others simply out to grab what they could from the chaos. These supporting players are not overlooked here: Henry of Blois, brother of Stephen, Bishop of Winchester, and largely orchestrator of the church’s response to the conflict; Robert of Gloucester, illegitimate son of Henry I and chief supporter of his half-sister; and Geoffrey of Anjou, husband of Matilda, determined to secure Normandy (traditional enemy of Anjou) for himself. Covering all the twists and turns of this war between cousins, as first one side then the other seemed within touching distance of total victory, The Anarchy blends contemporary, sometimes eyewitness accounts with modern analysis to describe a period of England’s history so dark and lawless that those who lived through it declared that ‘Christ and his saints slept.’

When I told Amberley I wanted to do a book about the Anarchy, they were reluctant, saying that Teresa Cole had a book coming out about the Anarchy, and they were worried the books would be too similar. So I promised to concentrate on the Women of the Anarchy (my book’s working title), but was – from that moment – curious to read Teresa Cole’s take on the events. Luckily I got the chance.

The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England is an intelligent, engaging study of the 19 years of English history during which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle bemoaned that ‘Christ and his Saints slept’. Told in a chronological narrative, Teresa Cole examines every aspect of the period; the personalities involved and the extent of devastation and destruction caused by the conflict – both in England and Normandy.

Using eyewitness accounts and contemporary chronicles, Teresa Cole examines the motives behind the two protagonists, King Stephen and Empress Matilda, looking at their reasons for wanting the throne – and for wanting to keep it. The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England also provides insight into the leading supporters on both sides of the conflict and demonstrates that though war was waged over a 19 year period, the main battles were fought in the early years and by 1147 the nobles were getting so tired of war they were looking to make mutual protection treaties between themselves, or go on crusade, rather than continue a war that had been fought to a stalemate.

The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England is an interesting, enjoyable read offering new insight and perspective on an often overlooked period of English history, the only time that a woman led a faction to war on English soil.

All these books are available from Amberley Publishing.


My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.


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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly