Tutankhamun – ITV 1

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Word PressThe (real) story of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb really is amazing. It’s like … I was going to say G A Henty crossed with Indiana Jones, but that makes it sound as if everyone was having a load of James Bond-esque brushes with death and it wasn’t quite that dramatic! But all the tombs that had been found had been looted and desecrated, and the chances of ever finding one that hadn’t been looked remote, to say the least. In the middle of all this – how gloriously Edwardian and 1920s is this? – you’ve got a Jolly Determined British Chap (Howard Carter) who’s convinced that there is definitely something to be found, and an eccentric aristocrat (Lord Carnarvon) who’s prepared to fund him. Just as the said eccentric aristocrat is about to pull the financial plug, Carter’s team find Tutankhamun’s tomb, virtually intact and full of ancient treasures.

It’s an amazing story as it is, but, needless to say, ITV have sexed it up for the Sunday 9pm Downton Abbey slot. Of course, Highclere Castle, the home of the Carnarvons, is Downton Abbey J. The eccentric Lord Carnarvon of the Tutankhamun excavations, who spent a lot of time racing fast cars (until he crashed one) and breeding racehorses, was married to a woman who was supposed to be the daughter of an army officer but was actually the product of her mother’s affair with one of the Rothschilds. They’ve got a lot of money.  He’s played by Sam Neill, and Carter is played by Max-son-of-Jeremy Irons. Carter is young, good-looking and dashing in this, which he wasn’t in real life.   So far, he’s spent a lot of time having an affair with a female American archivist, whom ITV made up, and he’s now about to have an affair with Carnarvon’s daughter, which may or may not actually have happened.

He spends so much time on his love life that I don’t know how he finds time to do any work, TBH. Most of the actual work seems to be being done by his Egyptian staff. There’s a lot of political stuff going on over the position of the British in Egypt, and their relationship with the Egyptians. First of all, Carter’s work was interrupted by the First World War. He was very chuffed when the war ended, because it meant he could resume digging – he didn’t seem very bothered about the war or its end otherwise. Then came all the issues over the British protectorate established in Egypt. I assume we’re now up to 1922, as they’re about to find the tomb, but we’ve only just had all the unrest, and that took place in 1919 … er, so something seems to have got very muddled and inaccurate somewhere. Hmm. And no-one’s mentioned tea, which is a shame. Whatever else went on during the British protectorate, someone did an excellent job of inculcating the art of British tea-making into Egyptian culture. The tea there is superb; and I’ve never got over being presented with a china teapot, a china cup and saucer and a china milk jug at a little beach café near El Alamein, when I was expecting a polystyrene cup. Very impressive.

The first episode also featured Lord Ashfordly from Heartbeat wandering around an archaeological site with no clothes on, playing another Eccentric Briton, this one by the name of Flinders Petrie, the grandson of the bloke after whom the tennis stadium in Melbourne is named. According to Wikipedia, Petrie, when he died in 1942, donated his head to the Royal College of Surgeons of London. The head was stored in the college basement, and the label fell off so no-one knew whose head it was. Although they found out later. Unfortunately, Petrie seems to have vanished off the scene since his initial, clothes-less, appearance. BTW, I assume that Lord Ashfordly must have known the Granthams, because Downton Abbey and Ashfordly Hall are both in North Yorkshire and aristocrats are supposed to’ve done a lot of socialising on a country basis.

So we have lots of real drama, and lots of fictional drama. But it would be quite nice if, next week, Carter could actually stop chatting up women (I was going to say “chasing women” but, to be fair, it’s them chasing him) and slagging off the British officials long enough to focus on the fact that he’s making one of the most famous archaeological discoveries in the entire history of the world.  Maybe some tea would help?

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A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

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Word PressThere are a lot of historical novels about the Wars of the Roses, the Princes in the Tower and the reign of Elizabeth I, which is presumably why Alison Weir’s tried to do something a bit different with one – weaving together the lives of Lady Katherine Grey and Richard III’s illegitimate daughter Katherine (referred to as “Kate” to avoid confusion) Plantagenet in a novel in which, 70-80 years apart, they both try to work out what happened to the Princes in the Tower.

Not much is known about “Kate” Plantagenet, but Alison Weir’s created a romance between her and her cousin John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln … conveniently ignoring the fact that Lincoln actually married much earlier than he does in this book!   The sad story of Lady Katherine Grey is much better known, and that of Katherine’s tragic sister Jane, the unwilling “Nine Days’ Queen”, even more so.  The book sticks reasonably close to what’s known about Katherine, although it plays up her links to Catholicism and Spain.

It’s an entertaining book, but, ultimately, it’s a mystery which can’t really be solved, because we still don’t know what happened to the Princes.  I’m inclined to believe Thomas More’s version of events, that they were murdered on the orders of Richard III, and I’m pleased to say 🙂 that Alison Weir shows Lady Katherine Grey reaching the same conclusion … although it’s all slightly ambiguous.  The arguments about this rage on and on, and will continue to do so, unless there’s some major breakthrough.  How amazing would it be to be the person who was able to prove what really happened?!

And it’s all so sad.  So many innocent lives taken, or ruined, because neither Richard III nor any of the Tudors were ever really able to feel secure in their hold on the throne.  Well, even before Richard III, you’ve got Henry VI being murdered.  You’ve got Richard II being murdered, come to that.  Lady Jane Grey.  Her husband, Lord Guilford Dudley – OK, he was a bit of a git, nothing like the wonderful romantic hero portrayed in the 1985 film, but he was just a young lad caught up in his father’s ambition.  The poor young Earl of Warwick.  His sister, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, executed by Henry VIII when she was 67.  Lady Catherine Grey and her husband, Lord Edward Seymour.  Their grandson’s wife, Arbella Stuart.  Her mother, Margaret Lennox, imprisoned in the Tower several times.  And the young Princes in the Tower themselves.  Plus all the many people who contributed to their own downfalls but would probably never have lost their lives if it hadn’t been for the insecurity of the monarch of the day.

I’m a great admirer of Elizabeth I, but her treatment of her cousin Lady Katherine Grey left a lot to be desired.  And did Richard III really order the murders of his own nephews?  Yes, I think he probably did … but that’s something that can be argued about all day and all night.

This is a lot of same old, same old, but at least it tries to do something different, and to focus on two of the less well-known characters of the times.  Worth reading, but it’d be nice to see some of our better authors write about a different period in history.  Alison Weir’s latest book’s about Anne Boleyn – a fascinating woman, but can there really be anything left to say about her?!  Oh well, this is still a very good read!

 

Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson

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Word PressThe “Rose” is Cicely/Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III, wife of Richard of York (he who gained battles in vain), the “Rose of Raby”, and the title of the book is a reminder of the fact that the Nevilles were originally Lancastrians and that Cecily’s (the author uses the spelling “Cicely”, but I’ve always preferred “Cecily!) own mother was a Beaufort.  The book focuses on Cecily’s life from just before her marriage until just after her son Edward became king.

It’s told from two viewpoints, those of Cecily and her fictional half-brother, Cuthbert.  Cuthbert is a lovely character.  He’s also fictional, so there can be no objections to be made to his story.  However, there can be plenty of objections made to everything that the author’s made up about Cecily’s life.  In this book, Cecily is abducted by a Neville cousin, becomes his lover, and marries Richard anyway but always loves John Neville and resumes her affair with him years later.  WTF?!  All right, it’s made clear in the afterword that this is all fictional, but why make up something like that about a real person, the real facts of whose life are well-known and well-documented?

It’s particularly strange given that the author goes to a lot of trouble to make it clear that she thinks that the Blaybourne story (the claim that Edward IV was actually fathered by a Flemish archer) is a load of nonsense, stressing that Edward got his height and colouring from Cecily’s side of the family and that there are perfectly rational explanations for his christening having been a low-key event.  I know Channel 4 did a programme a few years ago which claimed to show that Richard was in France nine months before Edward was born, but Cecily could well have gone there with him, and, even if there had been any truth in the story – which I don’t believe for a minute there was – then Richard would have realised that the dates didn’t match and the baby would have been fostered out at birth.  It was all just made up to try to discredit Edward after his unpopular marriage.  Anyway, that’s beside the point – the point is that the author’s made up another story about Cecily having a lover, and I don’t understand why she did that but I wish she hadn’t!   Why write “historical fiction” but make things up?  If she wanted to make things up, why not just use fictional characters?

Cecily’s a fascinating character and the book’s quite good, but I just find it really annoying when authors make things up about real historical figures, for no good reason – it’s not as if there’s a huge gap in our knowledge of Cecily, or if there are conflicting reports over which the author has to take one side of the other.  Anne O’Brien’s book about Cecily was far better.

 

The Chosen Queen by Joanna Courtney

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Word Press“The Chosen Queen” of the title is Edyth of Mercia, Queen of Wales, Queen of England, granddaughter of the famous Lady Godiva and sister of the earls Edwin and Morcar.  After her father was exiled by Edward the Confessor, on charges of treason, Edyth’s family took shelter in Wales, where she married Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, the only man who can really claim to have been king of the whole of an independent Wales.  Gruffydd was killed in 1063 or 1064, in a dispute between his own men during an invasion of Wales by Harold Godwinson, and Edyth subsequently married Harold and became Queen of England.  Unfortunately, it’s not clear what happened to her after the Battle of Hastings, which is presumably why the book ends shortly after that point, or how many children she had.

Harold’s “handfasted” wife, Edith Swan Neck, is a much better-known figure, and she also features in the book.  However, she’s renamed “Lady Svana”.  I can see that having two major characters with the same first name might have got confusing, but surely one could have been referred to as “Edith” or “Edyth” and one as “Ealdgyth”?  Oh well.  Changing that name is understandable, but I found it ridiculously patronising that a lot of Anglo-Saxon names were changed to modern English names – for example, “Morcar” becoming “Marc” – because the author thought that readers wouldn’t be able to cope with Anglo-Saxon names such as Morcar and Gytha.  Talk about dumbing down!

It was all quite Mills and Boon-ish, as well.  A lot of heaving bosoms!  And a main element of the plot was the idea that Edyth and “Svana” were close friends, that Svana was absolutely fine about Edyth marrying Harold, and that both of them loved Harold and he loved both of them.  All a bit too Mills and Boon-ish”!  William the Conqueror is presented as a definite baddie, as is Tostig, Harold’s infamous brother who allied with Harald Hardrada and fought against Harold, Edwin and Morcar at Stamford Bridge.

So it’s not the most intellectually challenging of books, but it’s still an interesting read.  Everyone knows about Harold and William and the Battle of Hastings, but the other prominent personalities, and even the other events, of 1066 and the period leading up it aren’t nearly as well-known.  I’m surprised that, despite the efforts of English Heritage, more hasn’t been done to mark the recent 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, and it was nice to be able to read this book at this time.  It’s the first in a trilogy about the wives of the three men (Harold, Harald Hardrada, and William) vying to become King of England after the death of Edward the Confessor, and I’ll be getting the second once a cheap copy comes up on Amazon!

The Tudor Princess by Darcey Bonnette

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Word PressThe author of this book (Darcey Bonnette, also known as D L Bogdan) apparently thinks that the father of James IV of Scotland (born 1473) was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314).  We all slip up in our research sometimes, but how can someone who doesn’t even know in which century the Battle of Bannockburn took place presume to write a book about Scottish history?  Or English history, for that matter.  And don’t editors bother to check anything?  As bloopers go, that is one of the worst ones I’ve ever found in a historical novel!  I could have lived without her attempts at Scottish dialect as well: she just about stopped short of having characters saying “Och aye the noo”.

All of this is a great shame, because “The Tudor Princess”, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland, elder sister of Henry VIII and direct ancestress of the present British royal family and many other royal families, had a very interesting life.  She was married off to the King of Scotland as a young girl, and, like Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, they sadly lost several children (five, in their case) at birth or in infancy.  The one child who did survive was only six years old when his father was killed at Flodden Field and Margaret was appointed regent, at a court which was hostile both to the English in general and to women holding power.  She made two more marriages, both ill-judged and both ending in divorce, and got into all sorts of messes.  However, she came through it all, and played an important part in bringing about a temporary peace between England and Scotland.

However, this book doesn’t come even close to doing her justice.  On top from the appalling historical blunders, the style of writing is very poor – casual and slangy.  The life of Margaret Tudor would make for an excellent historical novel, but this isn’t it.  I’ve read far better writing than this for free on fanfic websites, and it puzzles me how books like this get published when there’s so much writing out there that’s so very much better.  Seriously – who on earth thinks that there was only one generation between Bannockburn and Flodden Field?!

 

 

The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien

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Word PressThis is an interesting book about one of the neglected figures of medieval English history – Joanna of Navarre, Duchess of Brittany, the second wife of Henry IV. It’s strange that both Henry and Joanna receive so relatively little attention from either historians or historical novelists, especially as Shakespeare wrote two plays about Henry and Shakespearean plays seem to have a lot (rather too much, if you ask me!) of influence on popular views of history. Maybe they get overshadowed by Henry V, who’s usually presented as a very glamorous figure – mainly because he gave the French a good old thrashing!

Anyway, to get back to Joanna, her marriage to Henry is presented in this book as having been a love match, and that is the generally accepted view of it. They met whilst Henry was in exile at the Breton court, at which time he was a widower and Joanna was married to the reigning duke, John IV. After John’s death, Joanna, at a time when it was rare for a woman to hold political power, was made regent for her eldest son. Henry, who’d overthrown Richard II and made himself King of England a few weeks earlier, then proposed, leaving Joanna with a big dilemma: if she accepted, she’d have to leave her sons behind in Brittany and leave the duchy to be governed by the Duke of Burgundy. She eventually did accept, and most of the book covers the period of her marriage to Henry.

It concentrates on the domestic side of things and on Henry’s ill-health, but we do see quite a bit of the politics of what was a very difficult period in English history. I’ve never been keen on Henry because of his treatment of the Lollards, but that didn’t really come into the book at all, but Owen Glendower’s rebellion and the clashes between Henry and the Percys are covered. Again, it’s strange that such an eventful period in English history is so neglected. Maybe it is that Henry IV just doesn’t have the glamour factor of Edward I, Edward III, Henry V, Edward IV, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and hasn’t been made into a pantomime baddie like Richard III either.

We then come on to another interesting and neglected story – after Henry’s death, Henry V accused his Joanna of witchcraft. Relations between them, which had once been good, broke down over Henry’s treatment of Joanna’s eldest son, Arthur of Brittany, although that isn’t made very clear in the book. The horrific use of claims of witchcraft against some prominent women, most famously Joan of Arc and Anne Boleyn, is well-known, but the use of it by the great hero of Agincourt as a pretext for seizing his stepmother’s money, leaving the poor woman in fear of her life, doesn’t receive much attention. It should do. Joanna was eventually released from imprisonment by order of Henry V when he was on his deathbed and presumably feeling very guilty. Joanna then lived peacefully on until her mid-60s, a good age for the times, although the book doesn’t go that far.

Joanna and Henry both merit a lot more coverage than they get, and it’s always nice to find a book about an interesting but little-known figure in our history. There isn’t that much information about Joanna available, so of necessity the detail in the book is fictitious; but it comes across very well indeed.