Friday, 30 September 2011

Convento De Cristo, Tomar

Back in July I went on a family holiday to Portugal, or more particularly to the area near to Tomar. The area is famous for its links to the Knights Templar and the Crusades in particular the city of Tomar itself, which plays host to the beautiful stronghold of the Convento De Cristo (Convent of Christ). Whilst we were staying there, we took a trip up to the Convento and I was blown away by it's beauty and it's history.

The Convento was originally a Templar building, built by Gualdim Pais the master of the Order of the Temple in around 1160 and it later became the headquarters for the Portuguese order. The huge castle complex was built as part of a network of defence structures to protect Portugal from the Moors. The most famous part of the castle, the round church (seen in the photo above) was built in the second half of the twelfth century and modelled on other holy places such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem which the crusaders believed to be a remnant of the Temple of Soloman. When Gualdim began building the castle, he built it not only as a defensive structure but also to show the importance of the Order.

After the Order of the Temple, more commonly known as the Knights Templar, lost favour and became suppressed many of its members in Portugal transferred over to the Order of Christ along with much of its assets. The Convento became the seat of the Order of Christ in 1357 - somewhat ironic considering as how once the magnificent castle had been the seat of the Order of the Temple originally. It was, for all intents and purposes, back to where it all began. In fact, there were stark similarities between the two orders - the monks still wore the same insignia, the same habits and were still a military order - they still carried out the same work, maintained Templar properties, lived by the same crusading spirit and all lived by Cistercian rules. In 1417, the famous Henry the Navigator took over as Governor and Administrator, keeping the crusading spirit alive and sending the order on missions of discovery and setting out to conquer Asia. However during the sixteenth century the organisation of the Order was completely reformed. Things that had been the same since the days of King Dinis and the original order were suddenly changed. The Knights and Friars were separated and it became a completely closed monastic order living by the rules of St Benedict and the only thing left as evidence of the Templars military purpose was the castle itself.

As we walked around the site, now owned by UNESCO and an official World Heritage Site, I was amazed at the amount of history there. Everywhere you turned there were buildings from different time periods. Right next to the entrance around by the rotunda were the oldest parts of the castle dating to the 1100's, and the remains of the original chapels, remains of the living quarters. Yet right next to it were the most beautiful preserved cloisters and walkways. Every inch of the building was beautiful and as I wandered around I could imagine Templar Knights clanking around the corridors with their chain mail and heavy boots. There was something incredibly peaceful about the whole place, despite the many tourists wandering around.

The photo above is the most amazing carving. The whole wall of the chapel is full of these beautiful carvings, all of which have some sort of meaning to the building and its history. This one symbol itself is so full of meaning its unreal with one side of the facade showing spiritual meaning and the other more earthly. The side with the buckle is the earthly side, and shows how the Order was related to those who kept it going, and the monarchy, its links to those who kept them grounded to the world of men. For instance on this side there is also links to the Tudor family, with the heraldic device of the Order of the Garter being shown, a testament to the investiture of King Manuel to the Order Of The Garter by Henry VII. This can also be seen on a buttress in the chapel.

As you walk along one of the walkways of the Great Cloister you come across the little gem above. I loved this so much, and it looks to be a more modern addition and proves to be a stark reminder of the original purpose of this beautiful building.

There is just no way that I can write down all of the wonderful history about this fantastic building. But it woke in me a fascination with the Templar order (so much so I have began adding books on the Templars and Crusades to my collection) which I intend to keep on researching, and one day I hope to visit this beautiful building again and spending more time studying the beautiful western facade to try and work out exactly what is going on and all of the symbolism in the carvings, and immersing myself in the history of the Order of the Temple and the Order of Christ. Below are just a few more photographs from my visit to the Convento.

This is probably the most photographed view in the entire Castle - it's a very very tiny spiral staircase leading down from the roof of the Convento back down to the inside.

This is a view of the oldest part of the Convento, the original area build in the 1100's for the Templars.

The Kitchens

The monks eating area. Just around the corner from here is a corridor of tiny rooms that were used by the monks. A lot of these rooms were locked as Monks still live here.

Pereira, P, 2009, The Convent of Christ, Tomar, Scala: London
(website) accessed 30th September 2011
(website) accessed 30th September 2011

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Review: Mary Boleyn - The True Story of Henry VIII's Favourite Mistress by Josephine Wilkinson

Mary Boleyn, ‘the infamous other Boleyn girl’, began her court career as the mistress of the King of France. Francois I of France would later call her ‘the Great Prostitute’ and the slur stuck. The bĂȘte-noir of her family, Mary was married off to a minor courtier, but it was not long until she caught the eye of Henry VIII and a new affair began. Although a bright star at Henry’s court, she was soon eclipsed by her highly spirited and more accomplished sister Anne, who rapidly took her place in the King’s heart. However the ups and downs of the Boleyn sisters were far from over. Mary would emerge the sole survivor of a family torn apart by lust and ambition, and it is in Mary and her progeny that the Boleyn legacy rests.

I brought this book on a whim, sort of interested in learning a little bit more about the sister of Anne Boleyn, and after it arrived I was excited to start reading it. I knew little bits about Mary through my readings on Anne Boleyn, but I wanted to try and expand my knowledge of this woman of whom very little is known. Unfortunately I was incredibly disappointed in this book, so much so that I honestly dare not go too much into detail during this review as all I will end up doing is tearing this book to pieces.

For starters, this book is incredibly short and it took me a matter of hours to read. A plus point is that Wilkinson’s writing style flows very easily and is quite frankly a pleasure to read. Or at least it would be if her work was not so full of maybe’s and probably’s. Now I can understand the reason for so much guess work, as there is so little information out there on Mary and there are moments that we as historians have to guess about. However, as historians we cannot base work purely on speculation as it makes for poor reading. I lost count of the amount of times that Wilkinson based her arguments on pure speculation – for instance later in the book when Mary is waiting to go to France with her sister and King Henry, Wilkinson spends a whole paragraph writing about what Mary would have felt. This is something that we cannot know and thus cannot have a place is a supposed serious piece of historical research. Such speculation is for historical novels and fiction only.

The problem with there being so little information out there on Mary is that the majority of this book is made up of what the other Boleyn’s were up to. This does provide an important backdrop to what Mary may or may not have been doing however I feel as if too much time was spent on Henry’s relationship with Anne and whether or not Mary would have been jealous of the fact. Who knows, Mary may well have been jealous of the fact that Anne had replaced her in Henry’s affections, but yet again this is pure conjecture.

What I did find interesting (although yet again this was based on conjecture) was how Wilkinson told us of Henry’s other mistresses – again little is known of these women as Henry was very discreet with his affairs – and the children he had with them. We know that Henry had a child by Bessie Blount by the name of Henry Fitzroy, and that Henry was the only one of his bastards that the King ever acknowledged. More conjecture comes into play with Mary’s two children, both of whom were born during and just after Mary’s relationship with Henry. This is a very interesting point and something which has been argued about by historians now for a long time – both children were named Carey and acknowledged by Mary’s first husband however we cannot ignore the fact that both children were born during Mary’s affair with Henry. It is likely that Henry VIII was their father but why then did he not acknowledge them as he had done with Henry Fitzroy? Could it be that by the time they were born Henry had his eye on Anne and did not want to cause scandal by acknowledging children by her sister? Who knows?

Whilst Mary Boleyn is certainly a fascinating woman, I feel that this book has done a very poor job of showing exactly how fascinating. It reads more like a high school essay and would be more suited as an introductory text to Mary Boleyn for a younger reader, as there is just not enough information given in this book. Whilst there are some interesting parts, I feel there is far too much conjecture given in this book and it compares hugely to Fox’s “Jane Boleyn”, another book that relies far too much on conjecture. This could have been so much more, but proved to be a huge disappointment and is certainly a book that I would not recommend. Instead I look forward to Alison Weir’s work on Mary Boleyn, and hope that Weir proves that a historical character can be written about without resorting to conjecture.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Review: Richard III by Michael Hicks

Richard III has been written off in history as one of England’s evil kings. His usurpation of the throne from his nephew Edward V and then subsequent generations of pro-Tudor historians ensured his fame as the disfigured murderer portrayed by Shakespeare. In the twentieth century Richard found his apologists, those who saw him as more sinned against than sinning. This biography – by the leading expert on Richard – strips away the propaganda of the centuries to rescue Richard from his critics and supporters alike, providing a balanced and compelling portrait of this most infamous of Kings.

I will first of all start by saying that this book is the first I have ever read about Richard III, so I have nothing to compare it to. I have however read articles that were provided by my university lecturer during our class on Richard, all of which were much drier than this book by Michael Hicks. I would also like to mention that the lecturer in question who taught the module on Richard was none other than Michael Hicks himself, a great man with a brilliant sense of humour who seriously knows his stuff on Richard. I have fond memories of Michael’s lecturers and my time spent studying history although I wish I had read this book sooner as it would have certainly sparked more of an interest about Richard III.

I found this book exceptionally readable. The words seemed to just flow off the page and quite frankly made it a pleasure to read. The language used was not overly complicated, and Hicks often split large chunks of text up with interesting images although even without these images the book would have been just as interesting. I really enjoyed how Hicks set the book out, first of all with the story of the England that Richard lived in and the political backdrop of later medieval England, Richard’s time as Duke of Gloucester, Richard’s usurpation of the throne, Richard and Buckingham’s rebellion, Richard’s defeat and defamation and a great conclusion entitled “The Man Behind The Myth”.

All throughout the reader can just tell that Hicks feels a lot differently about Richard than many do, even today. Throughout the text Hicks presents a balanced argument so as to point out that Richard is not the evil man that history has made him out to be. Indeed far from it. He may have made the decision to usurp the throne from his young nephew, but Hicks shows us the arguments that this was for protection of his nephew. But at the same time we are shown the other side of the argument, why did Richard oh so suddenly turn from loyal subject of Edward V to usurper of the crown?

We are also shown that all of the bad press about Richard comes mainly from Tudor propagandists, namely More and Shakespeare. All of what they write was written after Richard’s lifetime, and some of the things we are told of Richard here are just daft. He was in his mother’s womb for two years, he was born with a full set of teeth, and he was a hunchback. Indeed, during the Tudor reign Richard’s portraits were changed to show him with a hunchback, their way of showing Richard was an evil man. In fact Richard was none of these things and he certainly was not in the womb for two years. The most famous incident of Richard’s short reign is the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, and rumours were abound that Richard killed them when in fact this was not the case. After 1484 the boys just disappeared, having been left in the care of the Duke of Buckingham, and Richard was blamed for the deaths. I certainly intend to do more reading in and around these two princes as Hicks does not really concentrate much on them in this book, but Hicks is certainly of the opinion that Richard III was not a child killer and I am inclined to side with him. It seems more to me that the boys were a victim of circumstance, left in the care of a man who had his own aspirations to the throne who may have thought little of getting rid of them to advance his own power.

Richard reigned for two years, just two years. This was after a successful military career (though some of it through what seems to be like bullying tactics). His kingship brought with it problems of rebellion from Buckingham and Richard also had issues with the Woodville family who were closely related to Edward V. In his short reign, Richard spent a lot of time dealing with dissenters. He was sure his own succession was in place, until the death of his son the Prince of Wales, and then he heard the news that Henry Tudor was on his way in 1485, and Henry Tudor had support.

The Battle of Bosworth is one of the most famous battles in English history, whereupon Henry Tudor became Henry VII and defeated Richard III. It was after this defeat that the Tudor propagandists really came into their own and began to seriously defame Richard. Henry VII refused to allow Richard a proper burial, showing disrespect to the corpse and showing it off. It was at this moment that Richard himself was forgotten and fiction soon weaved its way into fact.

Hicks does a wonderful job of showing the man behind the myth, indeed his conclusion is entitled the very same. He shows us both sides of the story and shows his readers that whilst Richard was not the evil king that Shakespeare and More made him out to be he still made mistakes and did things he should not have. In the end, Richard III was human and it was only the propaganda of the later Tudor historians that made him out to be quintessentially evil. But Richard was far from this, he was loyal and he was certainly a very religious man who created colleges and gave money to the church. This book does a wonderful job of breaking down fact from fiction and showing what Richard would have been like. I certainly recommend this to anyone who is interested in the Wars of the Roses and discovering the man behind the myth of Richard III.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Anne Stanhope: Duchess of Somerset

There is one woman in Tudor history that inspires me beyond anything. She is not a Queen, far from it, although in some ways she often acted as if she was. But no, this woman was a duchess, the wife of a duke who eventually became Lord Protector of England and a woman who was so strong and so brave. The woman I am talking about is Anne Stanhope, wife of Edward Seymour and Duchess of Somerset.

I first became interested in Anne after watching Emma Hamilton’s portrayal of her in The Tudors. I began to try and find out some more information on the woman who held off the Earl of Surrey. Unfortunately my reading did not get me very far as there seems to be very little even written about her with the only the odd name drop here and there in books that seem to concentrate on either the male history or the history of Henry VIII’s queens. I was sorely disappointed with this, and tried my hardest to find some more information. During my travels across the Internet looking up information I came across an article on Susan Higginbotham’s blog on the last will of Anne Stanhope and so I sent an email across to this wonderful lady who promptly emailed me back with some great sources.

The first and most important of which was Anne Stanhope’s actual will, printed in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1845 which made for hugely fascinating reading. The image we have of Anne today (thanked somewhat by Emma’s portrayal of her in The Tudors) is that she was one hard lady, who took no rubbish from anyone. And there were some lines in her will that really showed these colours come through. Although if I am honest, Anne’s will deserves a whole blog post all of its own.

Anne Stanhope herself was the second wife of Edward Seymour, his first marriage to Katherine Filliol having being dissolved on the grounds of adultery. I could find very little about Anne’s early life during my search and I certainly would not want to cite Wikipedia as a source so I really must do some more research on this, but the general consensus is that she was born at some stage in 1510. She was married to Edward Seymour by 1535 and throughout their marriage Anne bore him ten children. She was most certainly not an adulteress as the Tudors makes her out to be, indeed it seems as if Michael Hirst mashed parts of Katherine Filliol and Anne and made Anne’s character into a horrible adulterous monster! After the death of Henry VIII in 1547 and Edward VI became King, Anne ended up being one of the most important women in the land, second only to the Dowager Queen Katherine Parr.

There is a wonderful story of the intense rivalry between Katherine and Anne, a story that always gets mentioned from the time of Edward Seymour’s protectorship. Indeed it seems as though when Katherine Parr ended up marrying Edward’s younger brother Thomas that Anne believed that she had precedence over Katherine. The story goes that Anne tried to keep the Queen’s jewels away from Katherine, and that Anne refused to bear Katherine’s train. According to Fraser (1993, 403) Katherine had named Anne “That Hell!” and ended up invoking the Third Succession Act to prove that she was the first lady in the land and Anne came after her, the Lady Mary and the Lady Elizabeth. There are many reports of contemporary peoples calling Anne names, for instance William Paget made the remark that Edward Seymour had “a bad wife” and Chapuys apparently believed her to be a “stirrer of heresy”. She certainly stirred up a lot of feelings! Yet she was loyal too, staying true to her husband and even helping out her friends. As a protestant and reformer Anne even sent aid to Anne Askew while she was imprisoned in the Tower, prior to being burnt at the stake for heresy.

When Edward Seymour was arrested in 1549 and taken to the Tower of London, Anne went with him. She was released in 1550 and her husband shortly after and thanks to Anne interceding with the new Protector Warwick, Edward was soon allowed back on the council. It was not to be however, and Edward was arrested again on a charge of felony in December 1551. Anne found herself once more in the Tower and stayed there whilst her husband was executed upon Tower Hill in 1552. Anne was released in 1553, the Dowager Duchess of Somerset, by Mary I and allowed to chose from the claimed lands of Northumberland who had previously been attained.

Ironically, Anne’s own son Edward, earl of Hertford, ended up in the Tower like his father and mother before him for marrying the sister of Lady Jane Grey – Katherine Grey. The couple both ended up in the Tower having conceived once before they were placed in the tower and even once during!

Anne Stanhope died on 16th April 1587 at a very old age (having been born in about 1510) and was buried at Westminster Abbey where her tomb can still be seen. Following the execution of Edward and her own release from the Tower she had remarried, taking Francis Newdigate as her husband whom she spent the remainder of her life with.

This is just a brief overview of the life of one of my all time favourite woman in Tudor England. There is so much left unwritten about Anne Stanhope, so much left to learn that is not really known. We know that she once was one of the most powerful women in England, we know also that Gardiner tried to have Anne Askew implicate Anne as a heretic and we know that Anne turned down the Earl of Surrey which culminated in a well known poem titled “A Lady Who Refused To Dance With Him”. I find it a huge shame that there is so little written about this remarkable woman who lived through so much, lived through two imprisonments in the Tower and saw her husband go to his death, and yet lived to such an old age. She may be one of those women that are vilified, after all she was apparently a very violent woman who held the hatred of Katherine Parr, yet she lead a remarkable life that deserves to be documented a little more than it is. She may have been strong willed, but her strong will mixed in with the strong will and remarkable mind of her husband Edward made them a force to be reckoned with. I have a huge amount of respect for this woman who seemed to be well before her time, a woman who knew what she wanted and who would not let anyone get in the way of it.

It is one of my biggest dreams to get to Westminster Abbey and see where this wonderful woman is buried. I’ll be making the trip to Westminster at some point in October which I am thoroughly looking forward to, and whilst I am looking forward to seeing the resting places of many other wonderful monarchs (Elizabeth I and Charles II included) I honestly do not think any of them will outshine that of Anne, a woman who I have a huge amount of respect for.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

More books!

I have a little bit of a thing about books, historical books in particular. I ended up picking these three up after work today (and spending enough on them too! Normally I tend to trawl through Amazon marketplace to pick up my books but I popped into Waterstones this evening and spent a small fortune on well...not very many books!). The three books above all relate to areas that are off particular interest to me for instance the two on the English Civil War - I did my BA dissertation on battlefield archaeology of the Civil War and have always been drawn to the period. I just love it, I love the battles, I love the politics, I love the way the soldiers dressed, the weapons they used, their religious beliefs and more so I love Charles I. That man was, to me at least, so very brave to risk everything by fighting against Parliament, believing in the Divine Right of Kings and in the end, losing his head for it. The Borgia period is only a recent interest, but I have been reading extensively on the period and have to say, I'm hooked! Below is a quick summary of all three:

A King Condemned: The Trial and Execution of Charles I - C.V Wedgewood
The reign of Charles I, defined by religious conflict and a titanic power struggle with Parliament - culminating in the English Civil Wars, the execution of the King and the brief abolition of the monarchy - was one of the most turbulent in English History. Six years after the First Civil War began, and following Charles's support for the failed Royalist uprising of the Second Civil War, an Act of Parliament was passed which produced something unprecedented in the history of England: the trial of an English king on a capital charge. There followed ten extraordinary weeks which finally drew to a dark end on 30th January 1649, when Charles was beheaded in Whitehall.

Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy - Sarah Bradford
The name Lucrezia Borgia conjures up all that was sinister and corrupt about the Renaissance - incest, political assassination, papal sexual abuse, poisonous intrigue. Yet, as Sarah Bradford reveals in this new portrait, the truth is more fascinating than the myth. Neither a vicious monster nor a seductive pawn, Lucrezia Borgia was a shrewd, determined woman who used her beauty and intelligence to secure a key role in the struggles of her day. Drawing from historical documents and first hand accounts, Bradford brings to life the art, pageantry and dangerous politics of the Renaissance world Lucrezia Borgia helped to create.

The English Civil War At First Hand - Tristram Hunt
This is the story of the bloodiest conflict in British history, told through the accounts of those who witnessed it. The English Civil War killed almost a quarter of a million people, divided families and laid waste to the land. It saw a king executed, a military dictatorship established in England, a brutal clan warfare in Scotland and sectarianism in Ireland. Yet it also transformed English Society, gave birth to new ideas about political liberty and religious freedom, and created a rich culture of letters, satire, oratory and propaganda.

Definitely looking forward to getting stuck into these. It's been a long time since I've sat down and done any reading on the English Civil War for pleasure. I got rather burnt out after sitting down and doing my dissertation although my love for the period has always been there. But first alas, I have way too many other books to get through!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Review: King Charles II by Antonia Fraser

I have long had a fascination with Charles II, since the days where I was forced to study the Restoration at school. Whilst I got exceptionally bored in these lessons studying the politics that brought about the restoration, I often wondered what Charles was thinking and feeling. After having read Frasers “6 Wives of Henry VIII” and being very disappointed with it, I discovered this on Amazon for a matter of pennies and decided to give Fraser another chance to impress me. Unfortunately she did not, although it took me until about half way through this book to realise.

The book itself starts out wonderfully. Fraser tells us of the birth of Charles II and how he was brought up during a time of Civil War in England. We are told the bare bones of how Charles I then fought against Parliament and lost, ultimately losing his head because of it. This is an era of history that has always interested me greatly, thanks to my taking part in English Civil War re-enactments however the history of the time can come across as very dry and full of politics which is a shame. And I found the same thing happening here. Whilst the first chapters interested me greatly, I soon found this book to get dry and bogged down in the politics of the time. Whilst parts of it are interesting I found myself growing bored, bogged down in talk of foreign policy and parliamentary bills over religion.

Charles himself however is a very interesting man. I found the stories of his escape very interesting, especially how he hid up a tree after the Battle of Worcester only then to disguise himself and escape across the sea to France. The early chapters really showed me the human side of Charles II, especially the following quote, and how he found out about the death of his father:

"Once his advisers had to accept the worst had happened, there was a terrible debate amongst them as to how they should tell him (Charles). The method chosen provided a bitter contrast to that famous romantic night scene at Kensington Palace by which the young Victoria, two hundred years later, would learn, from the royal address of her courtiers that she had become Queen.

Charles' chaplain, Stephen Goffe, used the same expedient. He entered the room and, after a slight hesitation, began; "Your Majesty..."

To the agonized son, he needed to say no more. After the weeks of uncertainty, Charles burst into bitter weeping. To Goffe he could not speak. Eventually he made a sign for him to leave. For several hours, Charles II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, otherwise Charles Stuart, son of that man of blood Charles Stuart the elder, remained quite alone."

Very moving stuff. And indeed we see a lot of moments like this during the early part of Charles exile and reign. Fraser does a wonderful job of showing her readers how Charles was a man determined to do things his way, she tells us how he got involved in helping out during the Great Fire of London, how he helped hand out water to stop the fire, how he got involved in shovelling dirt and sand onto the fires, how he rode around handing out payment to those who were working hard to stop the spread of the fire. This to me is a heroic man, a man helping out his people without fear for his own life. And I particularly enjoyed the stories of Charles and his mistresses, Nell Gwynn being my particular favourite and a mistress who stayed with him to the end of his life, bearing him children also. Nell was an actress something very rare in England at the time; she was not particularly good looking by the standards of the time but Charles certainly held her in high regard. I always imagine Nell as a fun loving young girl, unable to read or write but a girl who still made her way into the theatre business. I also loved how Charles loved to party, his love of the theatre, his love of sport. He certainly came across as the merry monarch.

But alas, as soon as politics started to come into play I found the book to get very dry, very quickly. Yes there were moments within the dryness that were very interesting, like how the Dutch war allowed for Charles’ love of the sea to help him sort of tactics and how he wouldn’t allow his brother to go and fight, but most of it was just very very boring. And whilst these issues are very important to understand the time period, it is such a shame that the majority of writers just cannot make them any more interesting. I will certainly give Fraser her dues in that she tried her best to make the dry topics interesting but I have yet to find a historian who can make these parts more readable.

The sad thing about Charles II’s reign is that in the end, all of his hard work came to nothing. He died without an heir of his own body and so his brother became King – his brother the Catholic James II and a man who was deposed by parliament. There has been so much in fighting during Charles’ reign over the fact that James was his heir because they knew that he would be unsuitable. Indeed since James II there has never been a Catholic monarch in Britain, and Parliament seized almost absolute power. I find this fact incredibly sad – had the English Civil War not come to pass, I think things would have gone entirely differently and indeed, had Charles managed to have a son with his wife Catherine of Braganza then things certainly would have gone differently. James would not have succeeded to the throne, and Monmouth (Charles’ bastard son by Lucy Walters) would not have rebelled against King James and lost his head. There are so many what ifs during this period of history, and it makes one’s head hurt to think of them all.

Overall I think this a brilliant attempt to write a readable biography of Charles II and it has certainly given me a taste for more. Although I doubt I will ever find a book that makes the politics of the area more interesting, I am definitely going to start looking more into this period as it is an interesting time period. Fraser has done a great job in trying to make this work, however her writing style just doesn’t really allow for a thoroughly engaging read. I shall certainly go back to this book however, as it is a good introduction to the reign of Charles II.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Happy Birthday Cesare Borgia!

On this day in history, 14th September 1475 (there are other arguments it was the year after, but so far everything I've read has convinced me today is the day), Cesare Borgia was born to Vanozza De'Cattanei and Rodriguo Borgia in the city of Rome. He was the illegitimate son of Rodrigo Borgia, a man sworn to holy orders within the Roman Catholic faith but his father always showed the utmost love for all of his children by Vanozza, going so far as to legitimise them all when he became Pope Alexander VI. Cesare originally went into a career in the church, but after the death of his younger brother Juan he renounced his early orders and became a soldier specifically general of the Papal Armies and Gonfaloniere.

Today marks the 536th year of Cesare's birth! Happy birthday Cesare!

In celebration, have a picture of the Borgia children as shown in the tv show "The Borgias" - I know I know, not the most accurate of shows although it is a lot better than a lot of historical dramas out there!!!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Charles II and the Restoration of the Monarchy

I remember a long time ago sitting down and watching the BBC Drama "Charles II: The Power & The Passion" and falling in love with the exiled King, forced to flee from England during the English Civil War and live out his exile across the sea in France and the Netherlands. Watching as Rufus Sewell brought Charles II to life amazed me, and I began to look more into the Restoration period. Unfortunately for me, we ended up studying the period during A-Level history and it really put me off. I may have had one of the best history teachers in the world, a man who really knew his stuff and knew how to bring the subject to life, but in this case the subject material came across as very dry and so full of politics. I wish I had paid more attention, but part of me sat there in lessons wondering what the human Charles would have been thinking as he fought to have his crown restored. Did he miss his father? Did he ever want to become Catholic? What was he thinking as London burned to the ground in 1666? It is only recently that I started looking into the human side of Charles.

But before that, whilst I was studying at University I fell in love with the English Civil War. Again, this was a subject I despised at A-Level but after seeing a group of English Civil War reenactors do a show in our town I decided to join. My first major muster with the Sealed Knot was at a reenactment of the Battle of Cheriton (my chosen site), I fought as a musketeer in an army fighting for King Charles I against Parliament and Oliver Cromwell. I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Knot, and it gave me a thirst for this period. I knew how to work the same guns that men would have fought with, I knew what it felt like to be in a pike push (and let me tell you, being the only girl in the middle of what was strikingly similar to a rugby scrum was a very frightening thing!) and I began to learn more and more about it. I read eye-witness accounts of the battles. I read up on the Civil War in my area. I read about the politics defining the civil war, learnt about its causes and I kept falling deeper in love with this time period. From the moment go I was a staunch royalist, believing firmly that Parliament should never have gone against its King, deposed him and executed. I could write an entire book on the causes of the English Civil War and why I think King Charles I was the one who should have one but well...we'll save that for another time. But as I was researching this time period, and coming up with the subject for my BA Dissertation I began to come across little snippets of Charles II. It began to whet my appetite and I began to read little snippets here and there. I had always had plenty of books kicking around on the subject of the Civil Wars and the restoration, many of which hadn't been touched in a very long time but I began to look at them again. And I began to remember why I was so interested in Charles II - not because I was forced to study the restoration at school, but because I was fascinated with the man who had endured so much, the man who lost his father to the tyranny of Cromwell.

It wasn't so long ago that I was getting ready for work one morning, and a show comes on called "Horrible Histories". I may be 23, but as a girl I had grown up with the books of the same title, so I left it on. Only to be greeted by the following video:

A bit of silliness I know, but it gets the point across and very well. I thought it a wonderful way of introducing the Restoration to children, and more so it gets Charles' story rather accurate (accurat! as HH says!) - he brought back Christmas, makeup and general partying and yes he really did break the wedding rules!! Plus, you have to admit that the song is rather catchy!

I have recently begun delving into my collection of books on Charles and the Restoration, learning the stuff I should have been paying attention to at school (when I was much more interested in The Tudors and learning about Henry VIII!). And I am really rather enjoying what I'm reading. I've recently started reading Antonia Fraser's biography "King Charles II" and have already learnt a lot that I didn't ever know before. Right now I have read of his early life and his exile up to the point of his fathers execution, and Charles being proclaimed King on the tiny island of Jersey where out of desperation he agreed to the Scot's demands of Presbyterianism (something I don't think he ever had any inkling of staying true too!) but already I am getting a sense of the more human side of King Charles.

The following quote made me tear up as I read it, regarding how Charles found out that his father had been executed:

"Once his advisers had to accept the worst had happened, there was a terrible debate amongst them as to how they should tell him (Charles). The method chosen provided a bitter contrast to that famous romantic night scene at Kensington Palace by which the young Victoria, two hundred years later, would learn, from the royal address of her courtiers, that she had become Queen.

Charles' chaplain, Stephen Goffe, used the same expedient. He entered the room and, after a slight hesitation, began; "Your Majesty..."

To the agonized son, he needed to say no more. After the weeks of uncertainty, Charles burst into bitter weeping. To Goffe he could not speak. Eventually he made a sign for him to leave. For several hours, Charles II, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, otherwise Charles Stuart, son of that man of blood Charles Stuart the eldar, remained quite alone." (Fraser 1979, 78)

A very powerful passage and one that I believe would have rang very true. I cannot even begin to imagine the grief that Charles felt upon learning that his father had been murdered by the Parliamentarians and that, for now at least, royalty had been ousted from England. I can imagine Charles sitting on his own in floods of anguished tears as he thought on what had been said. Just two simple words had brought the news home to him - his father was dead, and the future of England rested in his hands, his own paupered hands. Because Charles was not rich, for want of a better word he was a beggar. And he would be until Cromwell passed away and he returned in triumph to London in 1660, at the age of 30.

Much as I did for Cesare Borgia, below are some key points for Charles II and his reign. I hope soon to complete more work on Charles II.
  • Born 29th May 1630
  • Father: Charles I of England
  • Mother: Henrietta Maria of France
  • Through his mother, the young Charles was related to the Medici family of Italy. His maternal grandmother was Marie De'Medici. Because of this, Charles had Mediterranean complexion, a look which was not favoured among the English at the time. 
  • When Charles I became embroiled in the English Civil War, Charles joined his father at the Battle of Edgehill and when he turned 14 took part in the campaigns of the west country.
  • Charles left England in 1646 as his father began losing the war and fears for the Prince's safety became paramount.
  • In 1648 Charles moved to the Hague to stay with his sister Mary and brother in law William of Orange. It was here that Charles had an affair with Lucy Walter who gave birth to James Duke of Monmouth. Rumours later spread that Charles and Lucy had been secretly married.
  • On 6th Feb 1650 the Scottish proclaimed Charles as King of Great Britain, but he was not allowed to enter Scotland until he had sworn that he would take England into Presbyterianism. Charles formerly agreed to this in June 1650.
  • Charles narrowly escaped capture by Parliament in 1651 after the Battle of Worcester when he hid up an Oak Tree, now known as the Boscobel Oak. A reward of £1000 was placed upon his neck, but still Charles managed to flee to Normandy.
  • In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died leaving his son Richard to run the country. But Richard abdicated and in May 1660 Charles was invited by Parliament to return to England.
  • Charles arrived in England on 25th May 1660. Despite the fact he had agreed to stay his hand with the revenge against those that had murdered his father, he had many people executed especially those that signed his fathers death warrant.
  • Charles was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 23rd April 1661. He was the last monarch in England to make the procession from the Tower of London to the abbey the day before his coronation.
  • Theatres reopened, inviting the new restoration comedy to come into fashion, and the licences granted by Charles were the first to permit female actresses to play female roles!
  • 1665, Charles faced the Great Plague
  • And in 1666 the Great Fire spread through London
  • After a reign fighting against Parliament (much like his father), and fathering many a bastard upon his mistresses - a whole new post in the fights and the mistresses I think - Charles suffered from a fit on 2nd February 1685 and died 4 days later at Whitehall palace. 
Charles really had a remarkable life, filled with gaiety yet also with grief. But he also comes across as a lovable rogue, a man who loved his women and a man who loved to party. He is the man who helped bring the monarchy back to the United Kingdom, and he had to fight for it. Something that I think he did very well in doing. By the time Cromwell had died, I honestly think that England was fed up of his rule and wanted their King back. After all, whilst the country had been divided by the previous wars, no one expected the life of the previous king to end in such a way. And the return of Charles II would have been a welcome site.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Review: 1536 The Year That Changed Henry VIII by Suzannah Lipscomb

One of the best knownfigures of British History, the stereotypical image of Henry VIII is of acorpulent, covetous and cunning king whose appetite for worldly goods met fewparallels, whose wives met infamously premature ends, and whose religion wasever political in intent. Moving beyond this caricature, 1536 – focusing on apivotal year in the life of the King – reveals a fuller portrait of thiscomplex monarch, detailing the finer shades of humanity that have so long beenoverlooked. We discover that in 1536 Henry met many failures – physical,personal and political – and emerged from them a different man: a revolutionarynew king who proceeded to transform a nation and reform a religion.

From the moment I picked this book up I could barely put itdown. I was hooked from the word go, and thoroughly enjoyed every moment that Isat down and read this book. So much so that I finished it in a little undertwo days. In fact I would say that this book is one of the best books on HenryVIII that I have ever read, for the sheer fact that is completely unlike anybook on Henry that I have ever read. In fact it concentrates on one single yearin Henry VIII’s reign, and a year in which a lot of bad things seemed to happento Henry VIII, things that went some way to making Henry into the tyrant thatwe all think of today. In fact the amazing thing about this book is that itgoes some way to explaining the psychology behind the change in Henry VIII, andlooks in some details at particular events during this year that changed HenryVIII. And in fact Suzannah Lipscomb presents compelling arguments here to saythat it wasn’t just one event that changed Henry; in fact it was a mixture ofevery single event that happened throughout this year that changed him. Somehistorians blame Anne Boleyn; some blame his jousting accident, some blame thePilgrimage of grace but Lipscomb puts across that it can’t be just one thing.It has to be a number of contributing factors that changed him from theVirtuous Prince that Starkey talks about into the obese tyrant that we all loveto hate today.

Lipscomb presents her book in a very readable style, keepingthings short and to the point and tying them all in wonderfully. It makes thewhole book incredibly readable and a sheer joy to curl up on the sofa with. Herwriting style makes the book move along at a fast pace, and it is far from drylike many Tudor books out there. The chapters are presented in short, bitesized chunks – some of them clock in at just a couple of pages – which give theinformation needed but don’t run on for pages and pages with information thatreally doesn’t help the reader understand anything. I honestly wish that someof the books and articles I had to have read at University had read like this.

The first few chapters concentrate on “setting the scene”;giving the reader the sense of what Tudor England was like up to 1536. We learnthat every person from the lowest common person up to the highest person in theland had their place in society; we learn how important religion was to thepeople of England and most of all we see exactly where women came into play.They were seen during this time as the weaker sex, the sex that brought sininto the world and who had to be kept in place by men. Following this, Lipscomblooks at the theories surrounding the changes in Henry VIII’s personality,those that blame the change on certain events and different dates.  Her own theory then comes into play that 1536was the year that accelerated the change in Henry, pushing him towards beingthe tyrant that everyone thinks of today. Of course, more background isprovided and we are shown that even in his younger days Henry was stubborn andcould be cruel, and then we are shown his divorce. Henry’s divorce came aboutthrough his wish for a male heir and his worry that after 20 years of marriageto Katherine of Aragon that his dynasty was in peril. After all, the Tudorswere still relatively new on the dynastic scene and nothing would be certainunless Henry could provide a strong male heir to continue the dynastic line.Lipscomb suggests here that he was convinced the reason he was being declined amale heir was because he was being punished by God, and that the Pope shouldnever have granted his dispensation to marry Katherine.

From here on in, we start getting to the nitty gritty of1536 and the events that made this year Henry’s annus horribilis. This whole section is dedicated not only to theseevents, but of the masculine crisis that Henry would go through in this year.At this point, Henry VIII was getting towards old age and things beganculminating which he himself commented, made him feel like an old man. Thefirst event of the year was the death of Katherine of Aragon, and whilst thismay have been an important moment for him, it was just the beginning of thingsto come. And then we are shown how important honour was to Henry, and the ideathat jousting was the best way that any man could show his honour. We are givena taster of how the jousting accident that happened in this year and stoppedHenry from jousting was a severe blow to his honour.

The Fall of Anne Boleyn was a major event in this year, andan event that really would have affected Henry. Lipscomb runs through Anne’sdownfall in a prompt manner, explaining her miscarriage of 1536 would have beenthe beginning of the end, bringing in Jane Seymour and showing how quicklyHenry became enamoured of her, the investigation and the arrests of Smeaton,Rochford, Wyatt, and Norris etc. We then look at the reasons as to why Annefell from grace so suddenly and so dramatically – was it all Cromwell? Was itJane Seymour and her family? Did Henry prompt Cromwell to do it because hewanted her out of the way or was she really guilty? But, despite the evidenceLipscomb puts forward to Anne’s innocence, she was still found guilty andLipscomb takes us through the reasons why Anne was still put to death despitethe evidence that Anne was actually innocent of all the charges. And Lipscombpoints out that even though Anne was innocent, the fact that her apparent guiltconvinced Henry she should die.

The next major event in this year was the death of Henry’s illegitimateson Henry Fitzroy. This along with the fact that both of his daughters were nowillegitimate meant that he was now without heirs at all, and this would havebeen a huge blow for the aging monarch.

We are then given an overview of religion at the time, andhow this affected Henry. His break from Rome caused the reformation that is soembedded in our minds and this was a major thing for Henry – he saw himself asHead of the Church and he believed that everyone else should see it that way.We are shown how despite the fact he still held true to a few Catholicpractices, he completely changed others and woe betide anyone who went againsthim! He put his foot down with anyone who disagreed with him, executing thosewho he believed were heretics and executing others for not conforming to hisnew religion. It seems he went for the middle way, but took a hard line withit. Of course, we are also shown how he held to his Act of Succession, and howhe dealt with those who refused to swear the oath also. His daughter Mary hadbeen forced to sign, and men whom he had once held close (i.e. Thomas More) hadalready been put to death.

The next huge event in 1536 was the famous Pilgrimage ofGrace, a massive uprising in the north of England against the religiouschanges, suppression of the monasteries and most of all against Henry’s councillors.By this point, it seemed as though Henry had become a dangerous man to know –as Robert Aske would find out when despite doing what the King said and helpingto put down the rebels he once lead, he still ended up in chains, left hangingto rot. Mixed in with this, following the rebellion, prophecies became muchmore ardent and something that Henry was determined to put down. Henry wasconstantly being labelled as the mouldwarp from the prophecy of the same name.We are told how seriously this was taken, how prophecies were banned and mostof all how people were put to death for calling Henry the tyrant spoken aboutin these prophecies.

The book is finalised with a wonderful chapter named “Howdid Henry VIII become a tyrant?” and this is basically a conclusion to thewhole book which summarises each point in turn. Here Lipscomb runs back overeach point she has made, the fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s jousting accident andthe effect it had on his honour, the death of his son Henry Fitzroy and the Pilgrimageof Grace and she pulls them all together. She shows us how each of these eventsgave rise to the tyrant we know and that by this year, more so than any other,Henry had become a seriously dangerous man with a violent temper. Because afterall in this year the Act of Attainder was used on more and more people,something which had previously never been done before, and it meant that hecould have people executed without a trial. All the warrant needed was hissignature. Indeed, Lipscomb comes to the conclusion, through looking at all ofthis and then the definitions of a tyrant in both the modern day and in the 16thcentury, that by 1536 Henry had indeed become the tyrant that we, as readersand historians, all want so desperately to know.

All in all a fantastic read and one I would definitelyrecommend to anyone that is new to Henry VIII. This really was a wonderful bookand a great attempt at unravelling the mystery of how Henry became such atyrant. I’m glad it wasn’t any longer because I think had it been then it couldhave quickly become dry. Instead the length was just right, and made it apleasure to read. It’s certainly one I will be going back to again.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Review: Cesare Borgia His Life And Times by Sarah Bradford

“Either Caesar or nothing” was the motto of Cesare Borgia, whose name has long been synonymous with evil. Almost five centuries have passed since his death, yet his reputation still casts a sinister shadow. He stands accused of treachery, cruelty, rape, incest and especially murder – assassination by poison, the deadly white powder concealed in the jewelled ring, or by the midnight band of bravos of Renaissance Rome. Yet the real Cesare Borgia was a fascinating figure in the mould of the great Shakespearean hero. During the brief space of time in which he occupied the stage he shocked and stunned his contemporaries by the loftiness of his ambitions, the boldness and daring of their execution. His rise to fame was meteoric. Born the illegitimate son of a Spanish cardinal who became Pope Alexander VI, he was, by his twenty-seventh year the most hated, feared and envied man of his day, flattered and courted by the rulers of France, Spain and the Empire, admired by Machiavelli who immortalized him in The Prince. He was within an ace of achieving his goal of a great Italian state when a dramatic blow of fate robbed him of everything he had won. At thirty-one he was dead, dying in an ambush in northern Spain as violently and spectacularly as he had lived. The story of Cesare Borgia is the drama if a man of exceptional gifts and a driving lust for power. He dared fortune for the highest goals and when fate turned against him he fell like Lucifer. Set against the brilliant backcloth of High Renaissance Italy, his life had the perfect proportions of a Greek tragedy.

When I discovered this book, I was a little disheartened at the price of it. New copies were not available and used copies were being sold for anything between £50 and £100. This is why when I discovered a copy of it on Amazon for £15 I got rather excited. Cesare Borgia is a man who interests me greatly, and having a book dedicated to his life in its entirety was a very exciting prospect.

From the moment I opened this book I could barely put it down. Despite the fact that this is now one of the older biographies of Cesare Borgia and some of the information may be slightly out of date, I found Bradford’s writing style to flow almost flawlessly and as she described the events taking place in Renaissance Rome I could almost see them coming to life in front of my eyes. If anything, it read very much like a fast paced novel, telling the tales of political intrigue in a wonderful manner. We start out with the story of the stage, the world in which Cesare Borgia would come to live in and the tales of the ruling families of Italy that would one day come to hate Cesare. This was a very interesting chapter, and I learned a lot about the ruling families of the Italian states during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and how Italy was not united under one ruler and rather that it was split up into independent states that all jostled for power with each other. The major players in Renaissance Italy were Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples and the Papacy – all of which would play a huge part in Cesare’s life.

Once Bradford had painted the backdrop of the world in which Cesare Borgia was born, we are told the tale of his early life. It seems no one knows of his exact birthdate – some say he was born in September 1475 (particularly the 14th) whilst others say he was born in 1476. Either way, Cesare Borgia was born in Rome as the illegitimate son of Rodrigo Borgia and Vanozza de’ Cattanei. Vanozza had been the mistress of Rodrigo for at least two years at this point, and Cesare was certainly not the son of Vanozza’s husband. We then learn something of Rodrigo and the story of his own family, how they came to Italy from Spain and how even before he met Cesare’s mother he had fathered at least three other illegitimate children. Following the birth of Cesare, Vanozza gave birth to three more of Rodrigo’s children – Juan, Lucrezia and Jofre. She must have been a remarkable woman to have held Rodrigo’s attentions for so long although later on Rodrigo expressed doubts as to whether he was actually the father of Juan, although he later legitimized his younger son after he became pope. We are certain however that Rodrigo held his four children in much higher regard than his children by his previous mistresses, that he loved them and cherished them beyond anything else. All four of his children inherited his physical resilience and both Cesare and Lucrezia in particular came out with his strength, his buyout good spirits and his charm. Although none of them inherited his heaviness, although Cesare has always been described as being tall like his father. Bradford notes that whilst no contemporary images of Cesare survive, the painting thought to be Cesare shows a young, handsome man with long dark hair, strong dark eyes and a long nose.

Cesare’s early life was spent in the church, the career chosen for him by his father. His brother Juan was the one who would be the soldier and this was something that Cesare held great jealousy of. And whilst Cesare became Bishop of Pamplona at the age of 15 and a cardinal at the age of 18, he was much more interested in the military life. He certainly resented his life in the church, and was hugely jealous of his brother. When Juan was found murdered in 1497, rumours soon began to circulate that it was Cesare who had Juan murdered. Whilst I don’t believe these rumours, as there seems to be no evidence to support this, Bradford seems to believe that Cesare may have had some part to play as he had something to gain. I can certainly see her point, as following Juan’s death; Cesare was made Captain General of the Papal Armies and gonfaloniere however we must remember that the Borgia family were surrounded by enemies who despised their Spanish roots. Indeed these may just be dark rumours circulated during the time when Cesare was hated the most, to make him seem even worse than he really was. I can understand why people think he may have had a hand in it, and whilst Cesare certainly was a jealous man, I really don’t think he had a hand in his brother’s death. Unfortunately we have no way of proving this unless some other documentation comes to light as Cesare kept everything a closely guarded secret and he may have taken this one to his grave. It was shortly after this that Cesare resigned as a cardinal, the first man to ever resign from the College of Cardinals, so he could take up the sword and take a wife. He ended up travelling to France to grant Louis XII his papal dispensation for his own marriage, and was rewarded with a marriage to Charlotte D’Albret.

The story of Charlotte and Cesare is very sad, and although I’m not sure if Cesare had genuine feelings for her (he never really seemed to hold much score in love and feelings, preferring to concentrate on his future, and his military career), he certainly seemed to care for her and spent a lot of money on her during the few months they spent together following their wedding. Charlotte gave Cesare a daughter, Luisa, who Cesare never saw. And when Cesare left France he left Charlotte behind. He never saw her again. Although when Charlotte found out about Cesare’s death she went into mourning for the rest of her life, and never remarried. I feel immensely sorry for her, she knew him for a matter of months before he disappeared from her life for good. She must have heard the terrible rumours circulating about his cruelty and the sickness that affected him. Nevertheless, the fact that she never remarried, I feel, certainly shows that she did love him.

Bradford tells us then about the campaign that Cesare went on through the Romagna, sieging towns and taking them over to rid them of their rulers. It was during this time that Bradford tells us of a particularly horrific moment in Cesare’s career, when he had the young Astorre Manfredi drowned. Cesare was not one to leave his enemies where they could affect his efforts, and Astorre would have been a threat to him and his work to unite Italy. But like everything, the murder of Astorre was done in secrecy, and again it was only rumour that crept through to implicate Cesare. However it cannot be denied that for a time at least, Cesare united these parts of Italy and kept them peaceful which is something that had not been seen in a very long time despite the cruel way in which Cesare had taken the towns. It was around this time also that Cesare took Catarina Sforza captive, a woman who had frequently been a thorn in his side.

Something that I found very interesting was that Cesare suffered immensely with bouts of Syphilis, or the “French disease” which disfigured his face. Cesare was fond of masking himself when he went anywhere – was this to hide his disfigured face or just as a method of secrecy? However, these bouts often cleared themselves up but Cesare was often known to suffer from bouts of severe depression to go along with it. However he was a strong man, surviving a life threatening fever in 1503 that claimed the life of his father.

It was the death of Alexander VI (Rodrigo) that sent Cesare’s military career spiralling out of control. Cesare, although allowed to keep his office of Commander of the Papal Armies by his father’s successor, ended up being captured whilst visiting Navarre in 1504 and held as a prisoner until he could be brought to trial for his alleged crimes of murdering his brother and his sister’s second husband. Cesare, after having been transferred to his prison at the Medina Del Campo managed to escape and joined the armies of his brother in law John D’Albret. Cesare was killed in 1507 whilst in a skirmish with the forces of the Constable of Navarre. He was set upon and stabbed, and then stripped naked of his armour – his killers not knowing who he was. Cesare’s squire was the one who knew his master had been killed upon seeing Cesare’s armour being shown off by the opposition whereupon he broke down in tears. Cesare, once his body had been located, was buried in the small church of Santa Maria in Vianna although after a few short years his remains were exhumed and buried outside on account of his grievous sins.

I found reading about Cesare’s death to be hugely sad. He had been a brilliant soldier and exceptionally intelligent, his so called sins being based solely upon rumour of upon his own secrecy. The fact that he was moved to a grave outside the church where he was walked over for many hundreds of years is something that I think he would have hated to know. Although there was a somewhat happy ending for Cesare, as just before the 500th anniversary of his death he was moved back into the church and buried properly with the consent of the Catholic church, there forgiven for his sins against mankind.

Overall I found this a wonderful book that told Cesare’s story brilliantly. This clever young man certainly had a great mind and knew how to use it to get what he wanted. He had always wanted to be a soldier, and got that and once he had what he wanted he rose quickly through the ranks proving that Italy could be ruled as one large state rather than lots of warring states. On his way he gained the respect of Kings and Princes as well as the respect of Machiavelli and Leonardo Da Vinci, Machiavelli who based a chapter of his famous work The Prince on Cesare and Leonardo who ended up working for him as a warfare engineer. And whilst Cesare may not have been able to show his feelings to many people, indeed the only woman who he was ever able to love truly was his sister Lucrezia, I think that over time he has been severely misunderstood. Rather than going down in history as a nasty piece of work who would resort to cruelty over anything else, I think that we as historians should realise that even though Cesare could be cruel, he only did what he did out of necessity. He killed those who stood in his way or who proved a threat, even those who he believed were hurting his beloved Lucrezia (and it was these that sparked the rumours of an incestuous relationship between the two of them), but what he did he did out of necessity and as a stepping stone on to greater things. Whilst I do not condone his ways of doing things, I think at that time he went about things in the way he thought was right, using the mind-set that he needed to get where he needed to go. And do to do that he looked up to his namesake Caesar, as inspiration to get where he wanted to be. Bradford really did a wonderful job of telling Cesare’s story and showing the reader that he certainly is not the evil man that history has made him out to be. Instead he is a fascinating character made up on many layers, rather than an individual who should immediately be cast as evil when his name is mentioned.

I certainly recommend this to anyone who is interested in learning anything on this colourful individual, as it is a wonderful resource and a great stepping stone into learning about not only the man behind the myth but also his place in the politics of renaissance Italy.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Elizabeth I is born!

On this day in history, 7th September 1533, Queen Anne Boleyn gave birth to the Princess Elizabeth at Greenwich palace. Both Henry and Anne were dissapointed that their child was not the Prince that they were hoping for, and the birth announcement letters were hastily changed to add an S onto the end of "Prince". However neither Anne or Henry realised that their little girl would grow up to be one of the greatest monarchs that England has ever known, despite the many hardships that she would face as a child - losing her mother, being made illigitimate, having scandal forced upon her by Thomas Seymour and being locked up in the Tower by her own sister!

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Nonsuch Palace - Scale Model Unveiled

I stumbled across a little bit of Tudor related news just now on BBC news which is really very exciting. Professor Martin Biddle, a rather brilliant archaeologist, has managed to design a scale model of Nonsuch Palace, the palace designed and built by Henry VIII. His designs and archaeological drawings of the site have allowed a gentleman by the name of Ben Taggart to build the model. Biddle took part in the excavation of Nonsuch palace in 1959 and has been researching the site of Nonsuch for over 50 years.

Martin Biddle and the new scale model of Nonsuch palace. Image from BBC news.

Work on Nonsuch Palace began in 1538, just after the birth of Henry's son Prince Edward, and took many years to complete although by 1541 substantial building works had taken place. According to Biddle the palace was built by Henry as a celebration of the birth of little Edward, his long awaited heir. Sadly however, when Henry passed away in 1547, his magnificent palace was incomplete. In 1556 Mary I sold the palace to the 19th Earl of Arundel who held the house until the 1590's when it returned into royal hands. However in 1670 Charles II gave the house to his mistress who had it pulled down, its materials being used to pay off gambling debts. Parts of the house were incorporated into other buildings, for example some of Nonsuch's wood panelling can still be seen today in the Great Hall of Loseley Park. Whilst no traces of the building exist above ground, the British Museum holds examples of the building materials.

For the longest time, Nonsuch Palace was only a myth. That was until Martin Biddle, an undergraduate of Cambridge University, and John Dent a local historian set about finding the location of the site. At the time, work was under way on the History of the Kings Works, and the Ministry of Works agreed to fund an excavation so that a ground plan of Henry VIII's famous palace could be included in the works. After all, this famous palace had been the Palace that introduced the Renaissance style of building works into England! In total, over 500 individuals were brought in to work on the site with a huge voluntary workforce of diggers from local schools, colleges and technical institutes lending a hand. The main excavation of the house went ahead as planned and attracted over 60,000 visitors over 12 weeks and a temporary museum was erected in an aluminium hut which attracted over 26,000 people who paid 6d each. This left a considerable amount of funds to allow the excavations to continue and for Biddle & Dent to continue their work.

These excavations were done to complete the ground plan of the Palace, which has led to the scale model of the Palace being completed, and to collect samples of the building materials that had been used in the Palace (which until then had only been seen in the few contemporary paintings of Nonsuch). Both of these objectives were completed and since then there has been an exhaustive study into the documentary evidence surrounding the palace including descriptions of the palace by its visitors, pictorial evidence as well as study of the finds from the palace. All of this work has allowed Biddle to continue his research into Nonsuch and most of all has allowed the first ever scale model of the Palace to be built.

This is a very exciting development in the study of Tudor history and archaeology, and the culmination of many years work. I remember reading the site reports on Nonsuch by Professor Biddle when I was at University and thinking of how magnificent it must have been in its hey-day and wishing more than anything that I could have been involved in the excavations. Alas, it was all done many years before I was born. But thanks to the wonderful work of Biddle we now have a fantastic model of the palace, the first of its kind, which can only open a plethora of new doors for study on this wonderful palace.

The model of Nonsuch will be on public display at the Friends of Nonsuch Museum between 17th September and 5th November. I know I'll be trying really hard to get myself up there to have a look at this wonderful work!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Review: The Last Days of Henry VIII by Robert Hutchinson

When I picked this book up I was filled with a sense of excitement I have rarely felt upon opening a new book. The reason behind this is that I have already read two of Hutchinson’s books on Tudor England, both of which were utterly fantastic. This one was no different and yet again Hutchinson proves himself to be a fantastic historian who is able to write his historical biographies so they are easy to read, easy to understand and give the reader a sense of what it would have been like to be a member of Henry’s court at the time.

This book takes a slightly different route from the previous works I have read. The previous book I read, entitled Young Henry was a biography of Henry’s rise to power and in it we saw glimpses of the tyrant who would make his appearance during the later years of Henry’s reign. This one concentrated on Henry’s final years of his reign following the death of Jane Seymour. We start with the marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves whom he divorced quickly and easily, letting a few heads roll on the way. We then see Henry’s decline from his marriage to Katherine Howard, his “rose without a thorn”. Since the death of Jane Seymour, Henry had taken to gluttony which had quickly caused his once fit and robust figure to balloon, and there were stories that his melancholy and black humour had quickly taken over from this point. But his marriage to Katherine Howard had made him feel young again; she was his young spritely wife, beautiful and less than eighteen years of age. For all intents and purposes, Henry VIII was in love again. That was until he was brutally betrayed by her, and stories of her licentious past leaked into court, stories of her affairs with Henry Mannox and Francis Dereham and finally, the last and bitter blow was the affair that she kept with Thomas Culpeper, one of Henry’s closest grooms. At this stage of his life, Henry’s moods were difficult to live with and he was grossly obese, prone to changing his moods from one moment to the other. Following this betrayal, in his mind a betrayal by yet another Howard woman (though we all know that Anne Boleyn certainly did not betray him!!), his health seemed to have taken a turn for the worse again, his melancholy gotten worse. One can only imagine how difficult it would have been to have lived in the court at the time of Henry VIII during these years.

Hutchinson describes in depth the health problems that plagued Henry during his final years, and eventually lead to his death. We of course, as historians, as readers, know that Henry was grossly overweight and suffered from ulcerated legs likely brought on by either too tight hose that he wore fashionably below the knee or from jousting accidents during his youth. But what was behind his horrific weight gain? Hutchinson presents a very interesting argument that it may well have been a rare endocrine disease known as Cushing’s syndrome which would not have only caused the weight gain, but also his psychotic episodes, his depression and his leg problems. I find this to be very interesting, having read this and looked up the syndrome myself as well as portraits done of Henry later in his reign. We see Henry as an overweight man in his later portraits with a bit of a “moon face” – the moon face being a particular symptom of Cushing’s. And having looked at some pictures online, I have to say that a lot of the pictures really did remind me of Henry. As well as this, there is a contemporary picture of Henry from the King’s Psalter in 1540 of him with a fatty lump on his back, somewhat like a hunchback style image, and this lump is another symptom of Cushing’s. Hutchinson also mentions that because of Cushing’s Henry may have suffered from “mild diabetes” – now as a sufferer of diabetes (type 1) myself I took mild offence at that statement, as no diabetes is mild be it type 1 or type 2. It does seem likely that Henry would have suffered from Type 2 diabetes brought on by his severe weight and his poor diet – the weight that Henry carried would have caused severe insulin resistance in his body which meant that he would have been unable to break down the glucose in his blood from his high carbohydrate meals. At any rate, this certainly would not have been mild as Hutchinson puts it as Henry would have suffered from uncontrolled blood sugar levels, which may have helped with the ulcers on his legs getting worse. As I myself am testament too, uncontrolled diabetes can lead to diabetic neuropathy which then, if left untreated, can lead to ulcers, gangrene and in this day and age, amputation. Coming back to Cushing’s syndrome now, having read the evidence placed down by Hutchinson not only of Henry’s weight gain but his psychotic episodes and his frequent bouts of depression I am of the belief that yes, it is likely that Henry would have suffered from this disease. Although of course we are unable to prove this without exhuming Henry’s remains and conducting research, until this day all we can do is present different arguments and try to outwit any other historian that has presented other arguments. Up to this point however, I have no read any other arguments as convincing as that by Hutchinson.

What interested me greatly whilst reading this book was Henry’s religious beliefs. What we are shown by Hutchinson is a court caught amidst the intrigue of two rival factions at court – the papists lead by the rather nasty sounding Stephen Gardiner, and the reformers headed by Thomas Cranmer. It seems that despite his reforms and becoming Supreme Head of the English Church, Henry still retained a lot of his Catholic belief. What really alarmed me however was that during his final years Henry did not bat an eyelid for executing a man for heresy and believing in reform and at the same time, on the same scaffold executing a man for believing too heavily in papist regimes! Was this Henry trying to keep both factions happy? There was a certain part of the book however that almost moved to me to tears, and one that I found had been used wonderfully in the TV show The Tudors – it is a scene whereupon Henry brings both factions together and seemingly begs them to get along.

What love and charity is amongst you when the one calls the other heretic and Anabaptist and he calls him again papist, hypocrite and Pharisee? Are these tokens of charity amongst you? Are these signs of fraternal love between you?

It sounds to me like Henry was kind of fed up of the constant bickering between each faction. Perhaps he was trying to straighten things out before his health finally deteriorated. But of course, despite this they still tried to get one off against the other – and there is a particular chapter within the book whereupon Hutchinson describes an attempted coup against Queen Katherine Parr, a woman who was heavily involved in reformist and so called heretical views. Despite the fact that she had become a close companion and nurse to the King, it seems that he still took it upon himself to believe Gardiner that she was a heretic and even went so far as to sign the warrant for her arrest. But was this again Henry’s changing mood and mind-set? Did he engineer it so that Katherine got wind of this and threw herself at the mercy of the King? Whatever happened, she did get wind of it and threw herself at the King’s mercy, convincing him that the only reason she argued with him in terms of religion was to keep his mind off his poor health. It certainly worked, and they became perfect friends again.

We then get a glimpse of Henry’s final few months, the issuing of a dry stamp so that Henry did not have to sign things personally. It seems that this dry stamp was used to sign henry’s own will, which of course is a little controversial as who is to say that the beneficiaries of the will did not use this to get more out of it for themselves?

In the end, despite Henry’s absolute power and a magnificent funeral whereupon his body was laid to rest next to his third wife Jane Seymour there was a lot that still happened after Henry’s death. One possibly apocryphal story is that of Henry’s coffin breaking apart whilst it was laid in Syon Abbey, with dogs wandering in and licking at his blood, as a previous prophecy had mentioned many years before. Even once he had been laid to rest with Jane Seymour, he was not truly laid to rest. His tomb was never completed and his vault broken open many times – it was broken open so that the remains of Charles I could rest there, and another time so that the body of a small child by Queen Anne could be laid to rest there. In the end Henry VIII was left with just a simple black slab above his body, far from the magnificent tomb he had once envisaged. This is such a sad end for the once magnificent king of England, whether he was a tyrant or not and I hate to think what he would have thought knowing that nowadays his final resting place is walked over by thousands of tourists who spare little thought for those whose earthly remains they walk over.

To conclude I firmly believe that this is one of the best books written about Henry VIII and his final days, and is one of the best that I have ever read. Hutchinson really is a fantastic writer who researches his chosen periods fully. The fact that I could barely put this book down and finished it in a matter of two and a half days only goes to prove how much it captivated me and I would recommend this to anyone interested in the reign of Henry VIII.