Books I’ve Read This Week: Kings and Queens

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 20: Kings and Queens: These past few weeks, I have been reading a combination of biographies of King and Queens (reviewed in this post), Russian History and Literature (to be reviewed in the next post) and some fun novels (to be reviewed later next week). I am continuing to read the biographies in the Penguin Monarchs series (Henry II, Richard I and Elizabeth I) in addition to recent books about English/British queens consort Catherine Howard and Caroline of Ansbach, the French King Francis I, and the Spanish queen, Juana I. There is a strong focus on the sixteenth century in these reading choices but also two medieval kings and a Georgian queen! Here are this week’s reviews:

#135 of 365 The First Iron Lady: A Life of Caroline of Ansbach by Matthew Dennison

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 400 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: June 5-7, 2018

Review:  I enjoyed reading more about Caroline of Ansbach, a British queen who deserves to be better known. Caroline was central to the House of Hanover’s public image in Britain as her husband George II and father-in-law, George I had little charisma or rapport with the British public. Caroline trained carefully for her future role while still a princess in Hanover, reading British history during her husband’s naps (the future George II was bored by reading or the sight of other people reading), requesting tea and taking English conversation lessons. Dennison incorporates attitudes toward the queen in the popular culture of the period, which was fascinated by Caroline’s strong Protestant faith, large family and her perceived political influence. An interesting and engaging read.

#136 of 365 Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII by Gareth Russell

Genre: Royal History

Dates Listened: June 1-3, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 57 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review:  An insightful and well written biography of Catherine Howard, the 5th wife of King Henry VIII. Most biographies of Catherine present her as a fool or a passive victim but Russell provides a nuanced portrait, explaining both her strengths as queen, including her mastery of court etiquette and courtesy toward others, and the reasons for her perceived weaknesses including her continued engagement with figures from her past who had the power to undermine her reputation. Russell is an expert on Catherine Howard’s household provides a vivid depiction of the Tudor court and a critical analysis of Henry VIII.

The only section that I did not find entirely convincing was Russell’s account of Catherine’s childhood, which Russell describes as happy. He presents Catherine as a social leader within her step-grandmother’s household. Instead, Catherine seems to have been in a vulnerable position in spite of her rank because her mother was dead and her father was fleeing his creditors in Calais. Her situation, in the household of an inattentive guardian, attracted the attention of the arrogant, aggressive men whom she encountered in her adolescence.

The concluding chapters are tragic as Catherine’s past and present conduct comes under scrutiny and she meets the fate of her cousin, Henry VIII’s 2nd wife Anne Boleyn. Russell describes these events in thoughtful detail and reveals how her execution was perceived at the time. The book is well worth reading as a study of the role of the queen consort, religion and politics during the later years of Henry VIII’s reign.

#137 of 365 Richard I: The Crusader King by Thomas Asbridge

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Date Read: June 4, 2018

Review: A balanced short biography of a famous medieval king. Asbridge does not ignore Richard the Lionheart’s flaws as a king including his quest for personal glory at the expense of other objectives but he convincingly challenges the idea that Richard was uninterested in his role as King of England. Richard ruled a vast Anglo-French empire but England was the jewel in his crown and he introduced new aspects of English kingship including “the royal we” and the custom of dating reigns by regnal year. Asbridge argues that Richard would have a very different reputation if he had been able to return to England immediately after the Third Crusade instead of being taken captive and held for ransom.

I would have liked the book to have included a little more about the king’s personal life. His queen, Berengeria of Navarre is only mentioned in passing even though she accompanied him on the 3rd Crusade and there is little sense of his social circle or his interests beyond literature and waging war. In all other respects, Richard I: The Crusader King, is an excellent contribution to the Penguin Monarchs series.

#138 of 365 Henry II: Prince Among Princes by Richard Barber

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Date Read: June 5, 2018

Review: A short biography of Henry II that emphasizes his achievements in holding together the Angevin Empire and initiating legal reforms that would shape the development of English common law. Barber makes clear that Henry was more than Eleanor of Aquitaine’s husband and Thomas Becket’s adversary though there is extensive analysis of church and family conflict throughout the book. Barber divides the book into three sections – Henry’s appearance and character, his life story and his achievements – and the final section should have been expanded to highlight the specific legal developments discussed in the text. Barber achieves a good balance between the personal and the political and readers will come from the book with a good sense of Henry’s character and kingship.

#139 of 365 Francis I: The Maker of Modern France by Leonie Frieda

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 9 minutes

Dates Listened: June 9-11, 2018

Review: An old fashioned royal biography that recounts various aspects of Francis’s life and reign, especially his foreign policy, without much additional analysis from the author. Frieda describes wars, peace treaties, dynastic marriages and contacts between rulers but rarely brings these details together to assess Francis’s overall strategy toward kingship. The book is filled with historical figures who are more interesting than Francis himself including his mother, Louise of Savoy, sister, Marguerite of Navarre and artist in residence, Leonardo de Vinci. Frieda argues that Francis is more worthy of the description “Renaissance Prince” than his contemporary King Henry VIII of England and the book provides a sense of Henry VIII’s dealings with the France from the French perspective. A worthwhile read that would have benefited from more analysis of Francis and his policies.

#140 of 365 Juana I: Legitimacy and Conflict in Sixteenth-Century Castile by Gillian B. Fleming

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 365 pages

Date Read: June 12, 2018

Review: An excellent scholarly biography of Queen Juana I, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Juana has gone down in history as Juana la Loca and most biographies and cultural representations of the Queen focus on her mental health instead of her sovereignty. In contrast, Fleming examines Juana’s political significance as Queen of Castile and places her within the context of sixteenth century attitudes toward female rule in the Iberian peninsula and beyond. I found the background concerning Ferdinand’s family particularly interesting as one of his half sisters had been imprisoned by his father because her determination to exercise her rights over her mother’s inheritance threatened his rule. A similar pattern unfolded in Ferdinand’s treatment of Juana. Well written, well researched and interesting to read. Highly recommended.

#141 of 365 Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity by Helen Castor

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: June 15, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Review: A wonderful short biography of Queen Elizabeth I. Dr. Helen Castor looks behind the Queen’s confident public image as Gloriana and examines her precarious position over the the course of her reign. The fates of Henry VIII’s six wives are so well known today that the probable impact of these events on Elizabeth I’s sense of her own position and her attitudes toward marriage are sometimes overlooked. Elizabeth experienced a treacherous path to the throne and a series of threats to her authority over the course of her reign. I thought the author’s comparison of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots was especially illuminating. The book is filled with interesting facts, such as how Queen Elizabeth I’s accession is the only time in English history when heralds cried, “The queen is dead, long live the queen.” Highly recommended.

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3 thoughts on “Books I’ve Read This Week: Kings and Queens

  1. Pingback: Books I’ve Read This Week: Russian History and Literature | Carolyn Harris

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