Friday Royal Read: Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of Henry VIII by Sarah-Beth Watkins

Lady Katherine Knollys lived her life at the centre of the Tudor court, her fortunes rising, falling and rising once more as different kings and queens succeeded to the throne. She was the daughter of Mary Boleyn, who had a quiet affair with Henry VIII that became known throughout Europe when Henry sought to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry Mary’s younger sister, Anne Boleyn. When Henry VIII’s Roman Catholic daughter Mary I succeeded to the throne, Katherine and her husband, Sir Francis Knollys fled abroad to escape the persecution of Protestants. Once Elizabeth I became queen, Katherine was back in favour, serving as a Lady of the Bedchamber while Francis was appointed a Privy Councillor, captain of the guard, treasurer of the royal household, and guardian of Mary, Queen of Scots. The couple had 14 children and are ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill and Charles Darwin.

Katherine’s eventful life, shaped by the key political, religious and social changes of the 16th century has plenty of material for a biographer. For Sarah-Beth Watkins, however, Katherine is most interesting  because of the circumstances of her conception and birth. The book is boldly titled Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII without a question mark even though there is no definitive evidence regarding Katherine’s paternity.

Katherine was treated as a cousin rather than a sister by Elizabeth I and the resemblance to Henry VIII in the cover portrait may reflect the artist’s views on her parentage rather than her actual appearance. Even Watkins’s argument that Henry VIII ended his affairs once a child was born may be countered by speculation by Elizabeth Norton that Bessie Blount was the mother of two of the king’s children, a recognized son and an unacknowledged daughter. In contrast to how Henry VIII is portrayed in popular culture, such as The Tudors, the king conducted his early affairs with discretion. Under these circumstances, it’s unlikely that definitive evidence will emerge regarding whether Katherine’s father was Henry VIII or Mary Boleyn’s first husband, William Carey.

The emphasis on the circumstances of Katherine’s birth and childhood is at the expense of her later life. A single chapter is devoted to her service at Elizabeth I’s court. In recent years there has been an outpouring of books about Queen Elizabeth’s friendships including Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman, Elizabeth’s Bedfellows: An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court by Anna Whitelock and the newly published Elizabeth I and Her Circle by Susan Doran. Elizabeth expected to control the personal lives of ladies in waiting and those who married or left court without permission risked the queen’s wrath. Katherine managed to remain in the queen’s good graces and her service to the queen merits more attention in the book. Watkins also has little to say about Francis Knollys’ family background, which was as intertwined with Tudor court politics as Katherine’s own circumstances.

Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII is a clearly written, short introduction to the life of one of the most prominent women at the Tudor court. The book contains lengthy excerpts from correspondence and other documents related to Katherine’s life that serve as an introduction to the Tudors and their times. There are many other books, however, that provide a better sense of what it was like to serve in the household of Elizabeth I. The definitive biography of Lady Katherine Knollys is yet to be written.

 Next week: The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom by Nancy Goldstone

Friday Royal Read: Katharine of Aragon by Patrick Williams

King Henry VIII – a larger than life historical figure in every sense of the word – usually dominates biographies of his six wives. When Henry VIII is at the centre of events, the focus is usually on England with Europe and the wider world including successive Popes, Kings of France and rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor serving as a backdrop to the people and politics of the English court. This approach makes sense for Henry VIII’s 3rd, 5th and 6th wives, Jane Seymour, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr as they never left England and owed their rise entirely to the King’s interest.

The lives of Henry VIII’s other 3 wives, however, were shaped directly by events in the rest of Europe as well as England. Anne Boleyn spent part of her childhood in France and the acknowledgement of King Francois I was crucial to her legitimacy as Henry VIII’s queen. Anne of Cleves was a German princess, raised amidst the conflict between the German states sparked by the Protestant Reformation.

Of all of Henry VIII’s wives, his first queen, Katharine of Aragon, made the greatest impact beyond England’s borders. As the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, her two successive English marriages were part of a broader Anglo-Spanish alliance. Henry VIII’s attempts to secure an annulment would become an multi-year international incident, encompassing France, the Holy Roman Empire (including Spain) and the Papacy. In Katharine of Aragon, Patrick Williams, Emeritus Professor of Spanish History at the University of Portsmouth and author of Philip II and The Great Favourite: The Duke of Lerma and the Court and Government of Philip III of Spain, 1598-1621 makes full use of Spanish archival material to present Henry VIII’s first wife in her full European context.

Williams’s biography of Katharine of Aragon is very much a life and times, discussing the political and religious events across Europe that affected Katharine in addition to Katharine herself. He covers corruption within the Papacy, the Protestant Reformation and the shortage of male heirs in many of Europe’s royal houses in the early sixteenth century. Of all of Henry VIII’s six wives, Katharine is the one who has been the subject of the greatest number of popular histories that place her in a European context. Julia Fox compared her life to that of her sister Queen Juana “la Loca” of Castile in Sister Queens , Catherine Fletcher examined the negotiations with the papacy regarding the annulment of Katharine’s marriage in The Divorce of Henry VIII and Giles Tremlett wrote of Katharine as The Spanish Queen of Henry VIII.

Williams’s book stands out from these other works because it focuses on three main events in Katharine’s life: the negotiation of her marriages, Henry VIII’s short lived alliance with Katharine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry VIII’s quest for an annulment, which led to the break with Rome and establishment of the Church of England. Henry VIII is not always at the centre of events and does not marry Katharine until page 173 of 400 in the book. Instead, Katharine’s parents, Ferdinand and Isabella and her nephew Charles V emerge as the key figures who helped to shape her destiny.

While Williams provides a fresh perspective on the key events of Katharine’s life, he rarely engages with recent historical debates concerning the other figures of the period. As far as Williams is concerned, Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower, Henry VII was one of England’s greatest kings and Katharine’s sister Juana la Loca was showing signs of mental illness from childhood. A more nuanced portrayal of these people would have enhanced the book. The idea that Juana was too insane to rule suited the political ambitions of her father Ferdinand of Aragon, husband Philip the Handsome and son Charles V. Their attitudes toward her mental health cannot be accepted at face value. The focus on international events also means that little time is devoted to Katharine’s network of support in England. Only two of her female friendships, with Henry VIII’s sister Mary and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, are discussed in any detail.

Katharine of Aragon was married to Henry VIII longer than his subsequent five wives put together and arguably knew him better than any other person in his life. This magisterial biography illuminates her full historical significance in both England and the rest of sixteenth century Europe. Katharine lived in a time of tremendous social, political and religious change and was always at centre of events as a princess and queen.

Next Week:  Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII by Sarah-Beth Watkins

Ben Franklin’s World Podcast Interview: Magna Carta and Its Gifts to North America

038-Harris (1) I am interviewed on this week’s episode of Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History. The interview, with fellow historian Liz Covart, is about Magna Carta and Its Gifts to North America, comparing the impact of Magna Carta on the United States and Canada. I also discuss how Magna Carta was imposed on King John by his rebel barons in 1215 and the legal rights – including rights for women – that were codified in the Great Charter.

Click here to listen to Magna Carta and Its Gifts to North America at Ben Franklin’s World

For more on Magna Carta, see my book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights

Friday Royal Read: Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada

King George III is remembered very differently in Canada, the United States and Britain. In the regions of British North America that became Canada, George III was a nation builder. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 served as the foundation for an enduring relationship between the Crown and Canada’s First Nations and the Quebec Act of 1774 guaranteed free practice of Roman Catholicism and use of French Civil Law for private disputes.

These acts were were not well received in the Thirteen Colonies that became the United States as the Royal Proclamation designated land west of the Appalachian Mountains as “Indian Territory,” restricting the colonists from the settling there. The American Revolution transformed George III’s image into that of a tyrant, whose government imposed taxation without representation. In Britain, George III was neither nation builder nor oppressor. Instead, he began his reign as “Farmer George,” the first Hanoverian King to be born and raised in England and ended his reign as “Mad King George,” suffering from what was most likely porphyria under the regency of his son, the future George IV.

The reign of King George III, and the monarchy itself, is far from the only issue to be viewed differently in Canada and the United States, two countries with a shared history of British settlement and governance. In Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada,  which will be published in September 2015, Robert Bothwell, the Gluskin Professor of Canadian History at the University of Toronto and author of The Penguin History of Canada and Canada and Quebec: One Country, Two Histories provides an accessible and engaging account of how Canada and the United States have related to one another since European settlement began in North America.

The American Revolution brought thousands of British, European African-American and First Nations loyalists to what is now Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.The promise of free land in British North America brought a second wave of “late loyalists” to Upper Canada who made clear during the War of 1812 that they were content with British rule. Bothwell details how generation after generation of American politicians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries assumed that British North America would become part of the United States and were mystified when Canada continued to assert its independence and loyalty to the Crown and parliamentary system of government.

Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada is primarily a political and diplomatic history of Canada and the United States. There are references to common cultural influences from Charles Dickens novels in the 19th century to American television in the 1950s but it would have been interesting to read more about how literary and artistic ideas circulated around North America and beyond. American author Mark Twain admired the work of Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery and drew parallels between his most famous book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and her Anne Of Green Gables series.  Both authors achieved an international following that transcended their national origins.

Canada and the United States also developed very different attitudes toward the role of the government in national culture and discussion of this aspect of each country’s policy would fit in well amidst the comparison of Canadian and American attitudes toward health care and foreign policy. While the role of the Crown in Canada is discussed throughout the early chapters of the book, the monarchy is last mentioned in the context of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Analysis of this key difference between Canada and the United States could have been extended to the present day.

At the beginning of his book, Bothwell states “If there were ever a prize for the most futile academic study, Canadian-American relations would be an earnest contender” observing how little known Canadian history and politics is in the United States. Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada demonstrates that the histories of Canada and the United States illuminate each other, revealing the different paths that were taken on the same continent.

Next Week: Katharine of Aragon by Patrick Williams

Friday Royal Read: Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer

The trial and execution of King Charles I in 1649 for treason against his people, following his defeat in the English Civil Wars, was unprecedented in English history. King John had limits on his power imposed by his rebel barons through the Magna Carta of 1215. There were subsequent kings, such as Edward II, Richard II an Henry VI, who were deposed and quietly murdered behind closed doors. Henry VIII placed two of his queens on trial – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – and sanctioned their executions. England’s “9 days Queen,” Lady Jane Grey was tried and executed for treason by her successor, Mary I.

The case of Charles I was different from all of these previous kings and queens. The responsibility for Charles I’s fate was not the will of a subsequent monarch or a small group of rebels but was shared by eighty people. Fifty-nine men, including future Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, signed the King’s death warrant and another twenty-one were involved in the courtroom proceedings and the execution itself. In Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared To Execute Charles I, Charles Spencer (brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales), author of Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier and Blenheim : Battle for Europe provides a dramatic account of what happened to the “regicides,” the men who had condemned and executed Charles I.

Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared To Execute Charles I is a series of courtroom dramas interspersed with bloody battles, assassinations, beheadings and hangings, drawings and quarterings. (Readers unsure about what hanging, drawing and quartering entailed will find a detailed description at the beginning of Chapter 7). Charles I’s eldest son, Charles II has gone down in history as “the merry monarch” for his mistresses and love of the theatre but through the fate of the regicides, Spencer reveals another side to his character. Following his Restoration to the English throne in 1660, Charles II was determined to avenge his father’s death and brutally punish those involved. His subjects were initially content to see a small group of regicides act as scapegoats for the much larger proportion of the population who opposed Charles I’s rule during the English Civil Wars.

Spencer devotes much of the book to how the regicides met their end. Sixty of the eighty people involved in Charles I’s trial and execution were still alive in 1660 and ten were promptly found guilty of treason and hung, drawn and quartered. Others fled abroad though whether they traveled to the Netherlands, Switzerland or New England, they rarely found safety and security. Some repented their involvement in Charles I’s death while others defended the act of regicide until their dying breath. Spencer begins the book with Charles I’s last years, trials and execution. It would have been interesting to read more about the lives of the regicides before their fates were bound together by the beheading of Charles I. The trial and execution of an English King was unprecedented and controversial and the book would have been strengthened by more material that showed how the regicides stood out from their contemporaries.

Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared To Execute Charles I is an engaging and suspenseful history of the fate of Charles I’s judges and executioners. When it came to his treatment of the men responsible for his father’s death, Charles II was far from a “merry monarch.” Instead, he began his reign in 1660 with a bloody reckoning for the events of the English Civil Wars that culminated in the death of Charles I. The reprisals lasted for twenty-five years, finally ending in 1685, when Dame Alice Lisle, widow of one of the regicides, became the last woman in England to be beheaded for treason.

Next week: Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada by Robert Bothwell

My 2nd book “Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette” will be available November 5, 2015

I am pleased to announce that my 2nd book Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette will be released on November 5, 2015. The book is part of the Queenship and Power series published by Palgrave Macmillian

Though separated by over a century, Queens Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette bear striking similarities as historical figures: both women lived through periods of violent revolution in which insurgent regimes specifically targeted and undermined them in order to discredit the monarchy and strengthen claims to legitimate rule. This novel comparative study explores how these queens perceived their roles as wives, mothers, and heads of royal households, thus providing new insights into the political significance of royal women in Early Modern Europe, the evolution of court culture and the public sphere, and changing ideas of marriage and family.

Click here to pre-order Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette

Book Excerpt in the Ottawa Citizen: Magna Carta and Women’s Rights

An excerpt from my book Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights about Magna Carta and women’s rights was published in the Ottawa Citizen today as part of a feature issue on the Great Charter. Magna Carta guaranteed noblewomen freedom from forced remarriage during their widowhood and set precedents future legal reforms that improved the position of women in society.

Click here to read “Magna Carta and Women’s Rights” in the Ottawa Citizen

My writing on Magna Carta is also quoted in this Ottawa Citizen article: “Magna Carta: The “essence” of the West or irrelevant scrap of parchment?”

Ottawa Book Signings on June 12

I will be signing copies of my book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights, in Ottawa on Friday, June 12, the day that the Magna Carta: Law Liberty and Legacy exhibition begins at the Canadian Museum of History. Here’s the book signing schedule:

9:30am-11am The boutique at the Canadian Museum of History

12-2pm Chapters Rideau  

2:30pm-5pm The boutique at the Canadian Museum of History


Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Now Available in the USA and UK

My book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights, is now available for purchase from bookstores in the United States and United Kingdom!

Click here to order Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights from

Click here to order Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights from

My article “Magna Carta: From Medieval England to Canada Today” at 49th Shelf

My new book Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights is featured on the 49th shelf, a website devoted to Canadian books and authors. In my article at 49th Shelf, I discuss the Magna Carta of 1215, which was the first example of a King of England accepting limits on his powers imposed by his subjects. I also explain how the significance of this document has evolved over the past eight hundred years. Magna Carta has had a profound impact on Canadian history, politics and law. For the Fathers of Confederation, the constitutional and legal traditions informed by Magna Carta were essential to the creation of the new Dominion of Canada. The limits imposed on King John’s rule were essential to the development of parliament in the mid-thirteenth century and then the constitutional monarchy enshrined by the English Bill of Rights in 1689, which became Canada’s system of government.

Click here to read Magna Carta: From Medieval England to Canada Today at 49th Shelf