The Weekend Bookshelf: The Tudor Brandons, Ivan’s War and Water for Elephants

 Royal History: The Tudor Brandons: Mary And Charles – Henry VIII’s Nearest & Dearest by Sarah-Beth Watkins by Sarah-Beth Watkins.

When Michael Hirst wrote the screenplay for the Showtimes series, The Tudors, he was fascinated by King Henry VIII’s lifelong friend and brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Hirst wrote in The Tudors: Its’ Good to Be King, “Charles Brandon, was, perhaps, the only man in all of England to successfully retain Henry’s affection over a span of forty years.” Over the course of his reign, Henry remained close to Charles even though his friend committed the transgression of marrying the King’s widowed sister Mary without permission. Charles remained in favour even as Henry ordered the executions of formerly trusted advisers, Thomas More then Thomas Cromwell and queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Hirst made Charles a prominent character in The Tudors, giving the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk their most notable appearance in popular culture since the 1950s Walt Disney film, The Sword and the Rose.

Watkins, author of Lady Katherine Knollys, The Unacknowledged Daughter of Henry VIII, provides a short, readable biography of Charles and Mary in The Tudor Brandons. At the centre of the couple’s story is their elopement in 1515. Mary was the widow of King Louis XII of France and she married Charles Brandon to avoid being compelled to make another dynastic marriage. There would not be another instance of an English princess marrying a subject until Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise married John Campbell, Lord Lorne in 1871. Watkins provides a thoughtful analysis of the circumstances surrounding the controversial royal wedding including reasons why Henry VIII was inclined to forgive the match and the implicit challenge to his authority.

The Tudor Brandons also includes Brandon’s family history (he descended from a long line of opportunists who were often on the wrong side of the law) and Mary’s continued role in Anglo-French relations including her presence at the Field of the Cloth of Gold summit between Henry VIII and Francis I. Mary also exerted a cultural influence at court, shaping trends in fashion and country house gardens in addition to popularizing picnic suppers for the elite. Charles and Mary’s granddaughter Lady Jane Grey, the nine days queen, became a significant figure in later Tudor history and the family remains a part of popular culture today (For another biography of Henry VIII’s younger sister, see Mary Rose by David Loades). ***

History: Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

There have been numerous books written about the experiences of the British “Tommy” or German “Fritz” fighting on the front lines of the Second World War. In Ivan’s War, Catherine Merridale, author of Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin, examines the daily life of “Ivan,” the Soviet soldier in what became known in Russia as The Great Patriotic War. Merridale provides the details of daily life at the front. In the early days of the war, adequate training (not to mention regular rations) were in short supply. Unless soldiers brought their own socks, they spent the war marching in one size fits all foot wrappers. There was no standardized system of leave and military service therefore meant long separations from families who also suffered hardships during the war.

In addition to reconstructing the daily lives of soviet soldiers during the Second World War, Merridale examines broader questions about the motives and worldviews prevalent within the Red Army. What motivated individual soldiers to keep fighting under such harsh conditions? What were the differences in perspective between older people, who might have had military experience from the First World War and the reign of Nicholas II and younger people, who had never known any other political system than the Soviet regime? How were women and religious majorities perceived? What were the factors that contributed to the atrocities committed by the Red Army in Romania, Hungary and East Prussia? Merridale concludes with a thoughtful analysis of the lasting impact of the wartime experience and includes the perceptions of the surviving veterans. ****

 Historical Fiction: Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen.

When veterinary student Jacob Jankowski loses his parents in a car accident, he leaves Cornell university and runs away with a 2nd tier traveling circus during the depression. The book was adapted into an Academy Award Winning film, Water for Elephants, starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.  In the novel, Jacob is ninety – or perhaps ninety-three, he can’t quite remember – looking back on his youth at the circus from his retirement residence. There’s a realism to his old age but his past unfolds like a fairy tale where the heroine is a elephant named Rosie.

Gruen based the novel on a series of true events that took place in Depression era American circuses and the setting is compelling, filled with intrigues on trains between small towns and tensions between performers and roustabouts. The characters have rather one dimensional personalities, however, and the ending is unconvincing. For circus themed historical fiction with more compelling characters, I recommend The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin or Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss. ***

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The Weekend Bookshelf: Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, The Luminaries and How to Be a Victorian

Royal History: Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville: A True Romance by Amy Licence When King Edward IV of England announced to his council in 1464 that he had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, his advisers responded “she was not, all things considered, a suitable wife for him, nor a woman of the kind who ought to belong to such a prince.” Elizabeth was not the wealthy foreign princess expected to become queen but the widow of a knight as well as the mother of two young sons. The unlikely royal romance has become part of popular culture, inspiring Philippa Gregory’s novel, The White Queen and a TV series of the same name.

Licence, author of Anne Neville: Richard III’s Tragic Queen and Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen examines the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth and the culture of their court. The book stands out for its careful examination of the reputations of the King and Queen. Edward IV’s younger brother, Richard III, claimed the throne on the grounds that Edward and Elizabeth’s children were illegitimate. Edward’s reputation as a womanizer and Elizabeth’s image as a schemer suited Richard’s purposes and continue to appear in popular biographies and historical fiction to the present day. Licence examines Edward and Elizabeth within the context of their times, attempting to separate the surviving evidence from Edward IV’s reign from later speculation about the characters of the controversial King and Queen. ***

History: How To Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman Histories of the Victorian era often focus on the lives of the wealthy and powerful. Goodman is interested in the daily routines of ordinary people in nineteenth century England from the city clerks (whose offices were only heated to 10 degrees in the winter, if at all, necessitating heavier business suits than those worn today) to the farm labourers (who ate better meals in the north where potatoes and oatmeal were widely available than in the south where bread was the staple food). The book is structured as a day in the life for the average Victorian, from stepping out of bed onto a tiny homemade rug made from woven rags to washing dishes by gaslight after the evening meal.

Goodman is uniquely placed to explain daily life in the nineteenth century as she starred in the the BBC historical documentary series, Victorian Farm. Goodman combines diaries, letters and advertisements from the Victorian era with her own experiences doing laundry with a hand cranked washing machine, keeping clean with a pitcher and basin, going to the seaside in a voluminous nineteenth century bathing suit and wearing a corset for months at a time. How To Be a Victorian is a treasure trove of fascinating details about an era that still influences the structure of daily life today. ****

 Historical Fiction: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton In Catton’s novel (winner of the Man Booker prize and Governor General’s Literary Award), a series of unexplained events occur near the New Zealand goldfields in 1866. An enormous fortune appears in the cabin of an intoxicated hermit, one of the wealthiest prospectors disappears and a “camp follower” appears to have attempted suicide. Newcomer Walter Moody stumbles upon a meeting of twelve men at a local hotel determined to get the bottom of these mysteries and he becomes involved in the investigation. The Luminaries includes the classic structure and plot elements of nineteenth century novels. Chapters have headings like “In which Harald Nilssen reneges on a contract; the holy book; Cowell Devlin is confounded; and George Shepard forms a plan.” Characters hold seances, struggle with opium addiction, attempt to hide family secrets and seek their fortunes. Over the course of eight hundred pages, details emerge connecting the characters one another – and the wider mystery – in unexpected ways within a broader astrological framework. The perfect book for a long train journey. ****

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CTV News coverage of my Magna Carta book tour

While I was in Saskatoon last week, CTV news visited my book signing at the University of Saskatchewan. I was interviewed about the my book Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights and the cultural impact of Magna Carta.

Click here to watch my interview with CTV News Saskatchewan

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Friday Royal Read: The Crown and Parliament, edited by Michel Bédard and Philippe Lagassé

Crown and Parliament cover In 2011, the Queen and the Commonwealth Heads of Government met in Perth, Australia for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference. All sixteen Commonwealth realms agreed in principle to succession reform that would introduce absolute primogeniture. The monarch’s eldest child, male or female, would succeed to the throne. The succession reforms also addressed the 1701 Act of Settlement, which did not allow those married to Roman Catholics to retain their succession rights and the 1772 Royal Marriage Act. which required the descendants of King George II to receive the monarch’s permission to contract a valid marriage. The introduction of gender of equality in the British and Commonwealth monarchies followed the trend established by the other European monarchies but succession reform proved to be far more complicated for the House of Windsor.

While the sixteen commonwealth realms agreed on the importance of gender equality, reopening the question of the royal succession demonstrated the difficulties of sixteen commonwealth realms with different relationships with the monarchy passing similar legislation. In the United Kingdom, succession reform was criticized for not taking into account the land holdings that have traditionally passed to the heir to the throne through male preference primogeniture. In Australia, succession reform demonstrated the independence of the states in a federal system as Western Australia became the last region of the commonwealth to pass a royal succession bill before the changes came into force. In Canada, the government’s decision to assent to the British succession legislation rather than formulate its own reform legislation was controversial and is currently facing a court challenge.

La Couronne et le Parlement/The Crown and Parliament, which emerged from the May 2014 conference by the Canadian Study of Parliament Group is an essential resource for the debate concerning succession reform in Canada. The four chapters in the book concerning succession reform address all sides of the debate. Anne Twomey’s chapter, “The Succession to the Crown of Canada” is particularly fascinating as it compares Canada’s approach to succession reform to the changes enacted in other Commonwealth realms and compares modern succession reform to the Dominion response to the Abdication crisis of 1936. In the chapter on “The Crown and Constitutional Amendment” in Canada, Philippe Lagassé and Patrick Baud examine Section 41a of the Constitution Act of 1982, which concerns changes to the office of the queen, looking at the implications of the various interpretations of this passage for succession reform and the broader role of the Crown in Canada. In contrast, Mark D. Walters and The Honorable Serge Joyal discuss the Canadian assent to British succession reform legislation in successive chapters, discussing crown identification and the development of the constitutional monarchy in Canada.

In addition to explaining all sides of the Canadian debate on succession reform, the essays in La Couronne et le Parlement/The Crown and Parliament provide important historical and political context for the modern relationship between the Crown and Parliament, beginning with an overview of the history two institutions by André Émond. Political innovations that reflected the circumstances of individual reigns set established precedents in the relationship between Crown and Parliament. For example, prior to the reign of Henry VIII, royal assent was granted by the monarch in person at a ceremony where the entire text of a bill was read aloud. That changed in 1541 when Henry VIII expressed reluctance to give personal royal assent to the Bill of Attainder that condemned his 5th wife, Catherine Howard to death. The result was a new process of granting royal assent to legislation, royal assent by commission.

As David Smith, author of The Invisible Crown: The First Principle of Canadian Government observes in his chapter about Parliament and the Crown, there is a divide between public perceptions of the Governor General’s position and the constitutional role of the Crown. La Couronne et le Parlement/The Crown and Parliament bridges this divide by bringing together a broad range on scholarship on Canada’s political institutions. The book is essential reading for any Canadian who wants to learn more about the crucial relationship between the Crown and Parliament.

Next Week:  The Tudor Kitchen: What the Tudors Ate & Drank by Terry Breverton

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Friday Royal Read: Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival 1900-1950

The first half of the twentieth century was a turbulent time for Europe’s royal families. The First World War precipitated the collapse of the German, Austrian and Russian ruling houses. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary fled into exile with their families while Nicholas II of Russia was murdered with his wife, children and servants in 1918. The Turkish War of Independence led to the overthrow and exile of the last Ottoman Sultan in the 1920s. The Greek royal family (including the infant Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) also experienced exile in the 1920s. King Alfonso XIII of Spain went abroad in 1931 and his dynasty would not be restored until his grandson Juan Carlos became constitutional monarch in 1975. Italy’s reigning House of Savoy lost power in 1946. Not only did Umberto II have to leave the country but his male descendants were forbidden from visiting Italy until 2002.

Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival, 1900-1950 is the story of what happened to German, Russian, Turkish and Spanish families after the fall of each country’s monarchy and Italian families during the last years of the House of Savoy. While countless historians have analysed the politics and wars of 20th century Europe, the impact of these cataclysmic changes on ordinary families has received little attention. Ginsborg combines short biographies of key figures with careful analysis of changes to family law in the early 20th century including the resistance to these developments. The new regimes that came to power often distrusted the traditional family that emerged from the 19th century, fearing that loyalties to other individuals would supersede loyalty to the state. Successive conflicts including the Spanish Civil War to the Turkish Wars of Independence divided families and tested the bonds between spouses, siblings, and parents and children.

Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival, 1900-1950 is often a heartbreaking book, particularly the last couple of chapters that discuss the destruction of millions of families in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust and Soviet Russia during the Holodomar and Stalinist Terror. Amidst the devastation, individual tales of heroism and family solidarity emerge from a Soviet lamp factory worker who refused to disown her husband after he was sent to a gulag to a lawyer’s wife who disguised herself as a street vendor to safeguard her children during the Spanish Civil War.  Family Politics is never an easy read but it is a very important one that illuminates how the family endured through  war and revolution across Europe.

Next week: Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared To Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer

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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?”

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CBC Interview: Royal Baby 2: The risks and rewards of being ‘the spare’ to the throne

Queen Mary with her granddaughters Princess Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. George V's consort believed that younger royals should be prepared for their future life of public service.

Queen Mary with her granddaughters Princess Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret.

My latest interview for CBC.ca discusses “The risks and rewards of being ‘the spare’ to the throne.” For recent “spares” such as Princess Margaret, Prince Andrew and Prince Harry, there has been the challenge of carving out a meaningful role in public life. Both Andrew and Harry experienced success in their military careers but Andrew has faced criticism since leaving the military and there is speculation that Harry may face challenges finding a new role once he finishes his secondment with the Australian forces.

For the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, life as “the spare” initially seemed glamorous but she was discouraged from marrying the man she loved and, like Prince Andrew, was criticized for her travel and spending. Before the current reign, however, “the spare” had a good chance of succeeding to the throne. George VI, George V, Charles I and Henry VIII were all second sons while Elizabeth I and Queen Anne were second daughters. There have been other monarchs were born even further down the line of succession. Henry I, King John and Richard III were all fourth surviving sons and Queen Victoria was the daughter of King George III’s fourth son.

Click here to read “Royal Baby 2: The risks and rewards of being ‘the spare’ to the throne”

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New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Fathers of Confederation: Charles Fisher

Charles Fisher

Charles Fisher

I have revised and expanded the Canadian Encyclopedia’s article on Charles Fisher, one of the Fathers of Canadian Confederation from the province of New Brunswick. Fisher led the first responsible government in New Brunswick (1854–61) and was the leading constitutional lawyer of his day. He attended the Québec and London Confederation conferences and contributed to the drafting of the British North America Act (1867) as New Brunswick’s attorney general.

Click here to read the article on Charles Fisher in the Canadian Encyclopedia

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New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Fathers of Confederation: Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché

Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché

Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché

I am currently expanding and revising a series of Canadian Encyclopedia articles on the Fathers of Confederation in preparation for Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. Here’s the new article about Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché. He was a member of every government of the United Province of Canada between 1848 and 1857, including two coalitions with John A. Macdonald. He presided over the 1864 Québec Conference and defended the 72 Resolutions that determined the shape of Confederation in 1867.

Click here to read the article on Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché in the Canadian Encyclopedia

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CBC Interview: Royal visit: Princess Anne’s Ottawa tour will honour ‘everyday heroes’

Princess Anne

Princess Anne

Princess Anne will pay an official visit to Ottawa on November 10 and 11 to mark Remembrance Day. I discussed the history and significance of Princess Anne’s visits to Canada with Janet Davision of CBC.ca.

Click here to read “Royal visit: Princess Anne’s Ottawa tour will honour ‘everyday heroes'” at CBC.ca 

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