Books I’ve Read This Week: The Tudors

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 10: The Tudors This week, (or should I say 10 days as I am a few books behind schedule in efforts to read a book a day in 2018) there was a clear theme to my reading: England’s Tudor Dynasty. I read short biographies of King Henry VIII and two of his children, King Edward VI and Queen Mary I as well as a scholarly study of early Tudor queenship, historical novels about Henry VIII’s first two wives, and a book about how Tudor England established diplomatic and trade relations with the court of Czar Ivan the Terrible in Russia.  Here are this week’s reviews:

#64 of 365 Henry VIII: The Quest for Fame by John Guy

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 160 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 6, 2018

Review: A balanced introduction to King Henry VIII’s reign that includes both Henry’s strengths and his “deadly impatience.” Guy incorporates the latest research concerning Henry and his reign including medical analysis of his ulcerated leg and difficulty fathering surviving children. The book provides an especially detailed discussion of Henry’s public image and the contrast between Henry’s “delusions of grandeur” and his comparatively marginal significance in continental European politics. I disagree, however, with Guy’s conclusion that Henry was “the most remarkable ruler ever to sit on the English throne.” I would give that distinction to his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.

 #65 of 365 Elizabeth of York and Her Six Daughters-in-Law: Fashioning Tudor Queenship (1485-1547) by Retha Warnicke

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 291 pages

Date Read: March 7, 2018

Review: An excellent study of change and continuity in Tudor queenship during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Renowned Tudor scholar Retha Warnicke emphasizes the importance of Elizabeth of York’s role as queen during the reign of Henry VII, challenging the idea that the queen was completely overshadowed by her mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort. Since Elizabeth of York died before her son Henry VIII became King and married six successive wives, she is rarely compared to her daughters-in-law even though her experiences as queen set precedents for subsequent Tudor queens. The book is arranged thematically, examining coronations, incomes, households, family life, religious activities, patronage, court entertainments and burials.

There are a few points where I disagree with Warnicke’s interpretations of source material. For example, she describes Mary Boleyn as Anne Boleyn’s younger sister while I agree with evidence cited by other historians indicating that Mary was the elder of the two Boleyn sisters. Overall, I found the book extremely informative and fascinating to read, combining the experiences of Tudor queens consort with the life cycle of elite women of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

#66 of 365 Edward VI: The Last Boy King by Stephen Alford

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 90 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: March 7, 2018

Review: This short biography of King Edward VI provides a good overview of the child king’s portraits, writings, interests, social circle and education but there are key themes from his reign that receive comparatively little attention. Aside from a final chapter about Edward VI’s changes to the line of succession to favour his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, there is little analysis of the lasting impact of Edward’s strong Protestant beliefs and policies. His interactions with his sisters, the future Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I, also received comparatively little attention. The Further Reading sections provides some useful suggestions that address these themes in the King’s reign.

#67 of 365 Mary I: The Daughter of Time by John Edwards

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 112 pages

Acquired: Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: March 8-9, 2018

Review: An excellent introduction to the reign of Queen Mary I. For centuries, Mary has been dismissed as a “Bloody Mary” and compared unfavourably to her half sister and successor Elizabeth I. Recent scholarship has emphasized her achievement as England’s first uncontested female ruler. In common with his longer biography of Mary “England’s Catholic Queen” for Yale University Press, Edwards, an expert in Spanish history, carefully analyzes Mary’s Catholicism, Spanish influences (including her mother Catherine of Aragon and husband Philip II) and her place in continental European politics. The focus of this short biography is Mary’s education and reign and there is little attention paid to her personality beyond the traumatic impact of the breakdown of the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. 

#68 of 365 Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen by Alison Weir

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 22 hours and 32 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: March 6-March 10, 2018

Review: A richly detailed historical novel about King Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, filled with sumptuous gowns, banquets and jewels. The novel begins with Katherine’s arrival in England to marry Henry’s elder brother Arthur and Weir shows the cultural differences between the English and Spanish royal courts. Weir also captures the atmosphere of Tudor England, especially the court entertainments and tournaments presided over by Henry VIII. While most novels about Katherine of Aragon focus almost exclusively on the breakdown of her marriage, Weir shows Catherine’s full range of interests such as her patronage of scholars and her wide social circle including Maud Parr (mother of Catherine’s goddaughter and Henry VIII’s future 6th wife, Catherine Parr), Margaret, Countess of Salisbury and Maria de Salinas, Lady Willoughby. The prose is sometimes repetitive as the reader learns again and again that Catherine dislikes Cardinal Wolsey and favours an alliance with her nephew, Emperor Charles V, and key characters sometimes come and go with little explanation but overall, the novel is engaging. The audiobook is well read by Rosalyn Landor although the narrator sometimes overemphasizes the Spanish accents of Catherine and her ladies.

#69 of 365 Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 19 hours and 45 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: March 10-12, 2018

Review: A detailed historical novel about the life of Anne Boleyn from childhood to execution. I especially enjoyed the early chapters where Anne serves a series of European royal women and is mentored by these powerful figures including Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands and Marguerite of Navarre. Henry VIII does not begin to pursue Anne until around a quarter of the way through the novel, allowing Anne’s personality as an independent, educated, confident and stylish young woman to be established before she becomes the central figure in “The King’s Great Matter.” The novel also shows the power imbalances between European monarchs such as Henry VIII or Francois I and the young maids-of-honour whom they pursued at their courts.

Once Henry begins to seek a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, however, the narrative slows down and the courtship and quarrels between Henry and Anne become repetitive. First, they argue numerous times about Cardinal Wolsey, then they argue about Catherine of Aragon and her daughter, Mary. In Weir’s previous novel about Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII has a variety of interests and political objectives but the king is almost entirely focused on Anne in this novel and therefore seems more one dimensional. The wit, charm and personal magnetism that Anne must have possessed to receive a promise of marriage from the King is also curiously absent from much of the novel. Once Henry and Anne’s marriage begins to break down, the narrative becomes more dramatic and builds to a tragic conclusion.

#70 of 365 Tudor Adventurers by James Evans

Genre: History

Date Read: March 14, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 383 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Review:  An interesting account of how Tudor England established diplomatic and trade relations with Ivan the Terrible’s Russia. The impressions of the English explorers, traveling by sledge to Moscow and being invited to lavish banquets at the Kremlin were fascinating. I was also interested to read about the founding of the Muscovy Company under the reign of Queen Mary I. I would have preferred that the book follow these developments more closely as there are often digressions about English politics during the expedition to Russia and the history of navigation and seafaring that could be streamlined to focus more closely on the voyage itself. I agree with the author that the search for the northeast passage should be better known as it had a lasting impact on England’s economy.

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