The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins

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This was a fascinating idea, to write a book with Frances Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell’s youngest daughter, as the protagonist, and show how she went from being the child of a country gentleman, leading a quiet life and expecting to marry a man of, within reason, her own choice, to living at what was a court in all but name, surrounded by political intrigue and facing a marriage arranged for reasons of state.

The title of “Puritan Princess” was a bit of a misnomer and presumably chosen largely because of the alliteration: Puritanism didn’t really come into it, strangely enough.  And I’m with the Victorians, OK.  I do not like Cromwell.  I see him as the man who killed the king.  And banned mince pies.  However, I do accept that that view may be a teensy bit biased, as the book showed.  And it was a very interesting book.  I initially thought it was going to be a disaster, when Fanny/Frances started going on about “empowering” women and “owning” her own story as someone who wasn’t of aristocratic origins – seriously, “empowering” and “owning”, in the 1650s?! – but it did get better!

It was a fascinating story.  As the book said, these were times when no-one knew what the rules were, because there were no precedents.  Cromwell might easily have become king – as, over a century later, George Washington might easily have become king of the new United States.  Was that the best option?   What exactly had the Roundheads been after?   And had that changed, and when, and how?  How would people react?  What was meant to happen?  The book did go into the debates quite deeply, but it was a lot easier to read them all as discussions in amongst the family life of the Cromwells than to wade through Hobbes or Locke.

I’m not sure that I quite got the idea of everyone addressing the Cromwells as “Your Highness”, but the Cromwells are the author’s specialist subject so I assume she must have got that from somewhere.  But they did become a demi royal family of sorts, and, as the book said, there was even talk of marrying Fanny to the future Charles II.  In the end, Fanny was able to marry Robert Rich, the man of her choice, but, sadly, he died only a few months after the wedding.  So, in amongst all the complex politics of the time, we saw Fanny’s happiness and then her grief, and also the ups and downs of her siblings and their spouses, including her brother Richard who took over as Lord Protector after their father’s death, but was soon deposed.

And, at the end, Miranda Malins included the story that, after the Restoration, Cromwell’s daughters took their father’s body away and substituted it for someone else’s, when they heard of the plans to hang, draw and quarter it.  Was that true?  We still don’t know.

We live now in an era in which the lives and loves of Royals are treated as a soap opera, but people, in the social media age, seem to forget that politicians are actually human, and vilify and dehumanise them.  I suppose history has done that with Cromwell – as much as he’d probably prefer to be seen as a soldier rather than as a politician.  Having said that, he always seems to end up near the top of those “100 Greatest English people”/”100 Greatest Britons” lists we get from time to time, which I don’t get at all … but the point is that we don’t really think about what it must have been like for him, and even more so for his family, to go from being fairly obscure country gentlefolk to being at the centre of power.  And then back again!   This book made me think about that for the first time.  After a disappointing start, it really was a good read.

 

Forged in the Fire by Ann Turnbull

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Large gatherings have been banned, places of amusement have been closed, travel restrictions have been imposed, health-related certificates are required in certain circumstances, and anyone in a household where there’s infection is required to isolate.  Some people advocate restrictions, whilst others are concerned about the loss of their liberties.  And there are grave concerns about the effect of it all on the economy.  Not to mention a lot of conspiracy theories.  No, this is not 2020 or 2021: it’s a book written in 2006 about life in London in 1665/1666.  But doesn’t it all sound strangely familiar?

This is the sequel to No Shame, No Fear.  It’s not as good as the first book, but it’s not bad.  Three themes – the persecution of Quakers, Will and Susanna’s romance, and the outbreak of plague – all intermingle.

Will’s gone off to London, to try to find a decent job which will enable him and Susanna to marry.  Going to London to seek your fortune’s a bit cliched, and I’m sure he could have found a job in Shropshire, but anyway!  The persecution of Quakers is continuing and, when he protests against some of his friends being deported, Will is thrown into prison.  Meanwhile, it’s difficult to get post out of London due to concerns about infection.  Panicking about his safety, Susanna goes to London to look for him – but gets the wrong idea when she founds out that he’s moved in with a wealthy man with a beautiful daughter.  (He’s actually working as the man’s librarian.)

I didn’t find this as good as the first book, as I said.  Will explains that Susanna’s got the wrong idea, but each of them refuses to speak to the other, and they both do a lot of sulking, and they come across as two 13-year-olds having strops rather than a couple who’d been on the verge of marriage. Then Susanna suddenly realises she’d got it all wrong when an old letter of Will’s, which has been backwards and forwards in the post for months, turns up, and, hey presto, all is forgiven, and it’s haste to the wedding.

Then the Great Fire breaks out, and there’s a detailed description of the characters’ escape from it.  Interestingly, it also makes a point about the number of books destroyed in the Fire, something which you never really think about.   And it all gets even cornier as Will’s estranged dad is so relieved to find his son alive that he decides he doesn’t mind about him becoming a Quaker and marrying a lower-class girl.  It really is a bit corny, but it’s a young adult book, not an adult book, so maybe I was expecting too much.  And I suppose it’s no cornier than Elizabeth Bennet completely changing her mind about Mr Darcy after reading his letter, or Scarlett O’Hara suddenly realising by Melanie’s deathbed that Rhett Butler’s her true love!   So maybe I’m being a bit too critical – I probably wouldn’t have worried about it being corny if I’d read it when I was 11 or 12.

So, like I said, not as good as the first book, but certainly not bad.

 

No Shame, No Fear by Ann Turnbull

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  This month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a “tender teen romance”.  So I read a book about the persecution of Quakers during the early years of the Restoration.  It’s a tender teen romance, OK!  Will is 17 and Susanna is 15.  And it’s very hard to find historical fiction with tender teen romances which *doesn’t* involve someone getting killed in the Great War.

This is a “young adult” book (what used to be called a “book for older children” in my day) so it doesn’t go as deep as a book for adults would, but it’s still very interesting.  We tend to think of the Restoration as being a very positive time, after the repression of Cromwell’s era, but, of course, it wasn’t.  This book’s set in 1662, so we only get part of the Clarendon Code, the big clampdown on Dissenters/Nonconformists, but we get enough of it to see life made very unpleasant for our characters – they’re subjected to assaults in the street from local hooligans, to the authorities invading their homes and businesses, and then to imprisonment even for children.

This *is* a tender teen romance, as I said, set in Shropshire, and we see Will, the son of a well-to-do Anglican family, being attracted both to Quakerism and to Susanna, the daughter of a lower-class Quaker family.  Their romance and Will’s religious conversion take place against the background of oppression and the opposition of his family.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, so it ends with Will going off to London to seek work, but we know that they’re going to get married and live happily ever in the end.

It’s not a pleasant time – and, of course, it’s so ironic that the official view of 17th century England was that it was Catholics who persecuted religious minorities.  Both Britain and America are still fighting the battles of the 17th century, in many ways, and this is how things could be for people before the Glorious Revolution.  It’s worth remembering that.  Having said which, look at some of what went on under Pitt the Younger.  But that’s getting off the point.  This is a very interesting young adult book, and offers a very different perspective on a time which is generally associated with – apart from the Great Plague, which we possibly don’t want to dwell on too much at the moment! – jollity and theatres and Charles II’s love life.  It certainly wasn’t like that for everyone.

 

Royal B***ards: The Rise of the Tudors – Sky History

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  OK, this was interesting.  Kind of the Wars of the Roses meets Shameless (I need a Yorkshire equivalent of Shameless, but can’t think of one).  Apparently, nearly everyone who was involved in the Wars of the Roses spoke in a broad northern accent, spent most of their time getting into brawls in pubs, and swore their heads off.  How stereotypical is that?  They’d never have shown people with Oxford accents getting into pub brawls.  Anyway.  Richard of York, whom I kept expecting to put on a Leeds United shirt over his armour, barged around looking thuggish all the time, even when he wasn’t in the pub, and failed in his attempts to become king because people thought he was … er, too thuggish.  The future Edward IV was also a thug, but apparently he did it in a medieval kingly way, so that was OK.  And they both had the wrong colour hair, which was really annoying.

Margaret Beaufort, who looked about 8, didn’t have a pronounced northern accent and didn’t swear, but still hung around in the pub (well, at some sort of drunken gatherings, anyway).  Marguerite of Anjou did not hang around in the pub, but did swear, a lot, in an ‘Allo ‘Allo-esque French accent, calling everyone “pieces of sheet”.  The only person who sounded like an English aristocrat (OK, accents in the 15th century would have been different to today’s anyway, but we can only go off today’s) was Jasper Tudor –  which was rather odd, given that he was Welsh.

Having said all this, Richard of York and the Earl of Warwick probably *did* have pronounced northern accents.  And probably did swear a lot.

Also, there were no historians.  Instead, we had Philip Glenister, Sophie Rundle and Sheila Atim.

The whole thing was fairly bonkers – but, to be fair, the actual facts in terms of politics and battles (as opposed to Margaret Beaufort being in the pub) were pretty much spot on, and it was good to see the vastly underrated Margaret getting so much attention.  And it was certainly different!!  If we’d been shown this when we were doing history A-level, it would *definitely* have got our attention.  Possibly not quite as much as the Lady Jane film with Cary Elwes as a ridiculously romanticised Guildford Dudley did, but that’s beside the point.  It was actually quite cleverly done – it managed to put a populist twist on events without turning them into a load of nonsense.  Not what I was expecting, but I rather enjoyed it.

 

A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick

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 Yet another superb book from Elizabeth Chadwick, this time about Joanna de Munchensy, granddaughter of William Marshal, and her husband William de Valence, half-brother of Henry III.   I was recently fortunate enough to visit lovely Pembroke Castle, which was closely associated with them in the time of Edward I, but this book’s set during the previous reign.  As I’ve said before, Henry III’s reign tends to be strangely overlooked, and so do the de Valences, although their son Aymer’s name will be well-known to anyone familiar with the reign of Edward II – and anyone who’s read Carol McGrath’s recent The Damask Rose may recognise Joanna’s name from there.

It really is brilliantly written.  The characters just jump off the page.  It’s packed with history, but never in a didactic way; and it’s a wonderful read.

It starts off with Joanna as a young girl in the household of Eleanor of Provence (not, as the family tree at the start of the book proclaims, Eleanor of Provenance.  Very careless proof-reading there!).  Not that much is known about Joanna’s early life, but Elizabeth Chadwick explains in the afterword where she’s made assumptions.   Following the deaths of all her Marshal uncles without heirs, and then the tragic early death of her brother, Joanna unexpectedly becomes a great heiress, and is married off to William, one of the sons of Isabella of Angouleme’s marriage to Hugh de Lusignan.  The book shows the marriage as being very happy, and, as far as we know, it was.

It was one of a series of marriages of Henry’s half-siblings to wealthy heirs and heiresses, and resentment about their influence was one of the reasons why relations between Henry and many of his leading barons, notably his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort, deteriorated, resulting in war.  I think de Montfort’s much better-known these days than he used to be, because of Leicester Poly being renamed after him, but it’s still a period of history which doesn’t attract as much attention as it might.  Everyone’s heard of the Magna Carta, but how many people have heard of the Provisions of Oxford?

De Montfort’s traditionally had quite a positive press as playing a big role along the road to democracy, but I don’t like him.  And Elizabeth Chadwick clearly can’t stand him (or his dad, although de Montfort snr doesn’t appear in this book).  So we do get a fairly one-sided view of events – Henry’s mess-ups in France and Sicily are played down, the Lusignans/de Valences are very much presented as the victims of a smear campaign and xenophobia, and de Montfort comes across as a money-mad, power-hungry tyrant.   That’s an observation, not a criticism 🙂 – no reason that novels shouldn’t be one-sided, as long as they’re not factually inaccurate!   And we see William temporarily forced into exile, and Joanna very resourcefully hiding large amounts of money inside bales of wool as she travelled to join him.

And then, of course, de Montfort gets his come-uppance, and the book ends with the de Valences riding high.

It all comes across so well – the history, the personalities, the personal relationships, the descriptions of court, all of it.   Very, very good book.  Elizabeth Chadwick’s books never disappoint, and this one certainly doesn’t!

 

 

The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien

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Well, I never knew that Margery Paston and Edward Poynings were first cousins.   Not that that’s really very relevant to anything, but even so.  Anne O’Brien’s back on form with this book, but has opted for a change from writing about royal women and turned instead to the Pastons, of Paston Letters fame.

However, the book’s not only called “The Royal Game” but has pictures of white roses, crowns and sceptres on the cover, and “She does not need a crown in order to rule” emblazoned across it, giving the very strong impression that it’s a sequel to her recent book about Cecily Neville.  Which it isn’t.  Very odd.  What it *is* is a very interesting picture of the fortunes of an ambitious family in 15th century Norfolk, and how lawless things were before Henry VII sorted them out, with powerful families or those with powerful connections able to make a claim to a property and just barge in … and how much time people like the Pastons spent arguing about it all in court!

It’s not really about either lawsuits or fighting, though.  It’s told largely from the viewpoints of three women.  The main character is the heiress Margaret Mautby, who married into the Paston family, then only two or three generations removed from serfdom, and brought them estates both as part of her own dowry and through her connections with Sir John Fastolf (on whom Shakespeare’s Falstaff was based, although for some reason Anne O’Brien doesn’t mention this).  The others are her sister-in-law Eliza Paston, who married into the Poynings family and became the mother of Edward Poynings, of Poynings’ Law fame, and Elizabeth Woodville’s cousin Anne Haute, who hoped to marry Margaret’s eldest son John.

I could have done without the chapter headings being “Margaret Mautby Paston” and “Elizabeth Paston Poynings”, rather than just “Margaret Paston” and “Elizabeth Poynings”, the book being set in 15th century England rather than 20th century America, and also the the number of times that people want to “talk with” someone rather than “talk to” someone (ditto); but those are fairly minor quibbles.

This book, the first in a series, takes us from 1444 to 1469.  We do see the path of political events, as allegiances shift around, and the Pastons throw their lot in with the Yorkists but struggle for power and position even once Edward IV’s on the throne.  I haven’t actually read the Paston Letters, but Anne O’Brien is usually very good on historical accuracy, so I assume that the book does reflect what they say.  Quite a lot of it’s about personal relationships, but we also see the legal wranglings, the way in which different families all tried to claim the same properties, and how a family like the Pastons could be disbarred from holding property because of their “unfree” ancestry.  We tend to think that the feudal system in England died out with the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt, but there were still a few serfs until 1574, and elements of the feudalism lingered until Restoration times.  And we also see the Pastons forging a family tree which showed a free and entirely fake pedigree going back to the Norman Conquest, and getting away with it!

Pandemics can change things.  In the aftermath of the Black Death, everything was in flux, and the Pastons were able to take advantage of that.  The Paston Letters are usually associated with the Valentines sent to Margaret’s son John (confusingly, she and her husband John had two sons who were both called John, so this was not the same John who was engaged to Anne Haute!) by his future wife Margery, and Margaret’s daughter Margery’s controversial marriage to the family’s bailiff Richard Calle.   Romance is more interesting than lawsuits, after all!   But they do tell us a lot about 15th century England, and this book is a great read.

I just wish I knew what the point of the misleading front cover was …

 

Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory

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  I always swear blind that I’ll never read another book by Philippa Gregory … and then I do.  This one, despite being the sequel to the dreadful “Tidelands”, is really quite interesting, until the end where it becomes utterly farcical.  All the main characters in it are fictional, so she can’t do too much distorting of the facts – although there are a few really amateurish blunders, surprising from someone who’s actually got a degree in history – and it covers quite a range of locations and themes.  We jump about a lot between London and New England, and also spend quite a bit of time in Venice.  The last few chapters are just silly beyond words, but most of it really isn’t bad.

Also, it raises the interesting question of what happened to old Roundheads.  The Yorkists hung around like a bad smell for years, plotting comebacks.  The Jacobites were still trying to make a comeback over 50 years after the Glorious Revolution.  Then they somehow got turned into a romantic Lost Cause, as did the Confederates, and as to some extent did the Spanish Republicans.  But what about the Roundheads, who won the war but lost the peace?   I suppose it’s a difficult question, because … well, who *were* the Roundheads?   Very few people set out in 1642 to execute the king, set up a republic, and try to force religious extremism on an unwilling country: most of them would have had aims similar to those which were actually achieved by the Whigs in 1688.  However, in this book, we see a former Roundhead soldier living in New England, only to become disillusioned there by the treatment of the Native Americans.

A lot of loose ends aren’t tied up, so I assume that a further sequel’s planned.  I’ll say I won’t read it, but then I will.

Amateurish blunders.  The wife of a knight or baronet is Lady Surname.  The daughter of, say, an earl is Lady First Name.  Mixing them up is a common mistake, but a poor one.  Illegitimate children cannot just be legitimised by their parents marrying years after their birth: it’s not that easy.  No-one has ruined their life if they discover immediately after the marriage ceremony that their new spouse is a bad ‘un: they just need to get the marriage annulled.  And Italians would not have been going on in 1670 about how the English were all obsessed with drinking tea!   Tea only started to become popular in England in the 1660s.

The story.  In the previous books, our “heroine” Alinor, a widow with two children, was tried as a witch after having an affair with a Catholic priest in disguise, by whom she’d become pregnant.  As you do.  This book, set 21 years later, finds Alinor and her daughter living and working in London, whilst her son has been working as a doctor in Venice.  But then a Venetian noblewoman turns up with a baby, and says that the son’s drowned and she’s his widow and this is their child.  And then the former priest turns up, having given up the priesthood, and says that he wants to marry Alinor so that their child can be his heir.  But where is the child?   There are two children, who’ve been brought up as the twin offspring of Alinor’s daughter Alys (who’s been abandoned by her husband).  Is one of them actually the child of Alinor and the priest?  Er, we don’t know.  Alys claims that her mother miscarried, but it all seems a bit dubious, and the mystery’s never really cleared up.  Presumably that’s been left for a future sequel?

Meanwhile … actually, the more I think about it all, the sillier it seems, not just the last few chapters but most of it!   But it didn’t actually seem that bad at first.  The Venetian noblewoman tries to seduce both the ex-priest and Alys.  Then she says that she’s got a load of valuable antiques left to her by her first husband, and needs help to bring them to England and to flog them to rich courtiers.  So the ex-priest helps her.  Then agrees to marry her.

Meanwhile, Alinor, unconvinced that her son is dead, dispatches her granddaughter Sarah to Venice, to look for him.  There are some genuinely interesting bits about life in Venice – the position of the Jews in the ghetto, and the denunciation process – but it all gets rather farcical as it turns out that he’s not dead after all, but is in prison, having been denounced by his wife and the bloke who was helping her with the antiques, with whom she was having an affair … but who then falls in love with Sarah.  Furthermore, most of the antiques are forgeries. Then it turns out that the son is now working on the leper island, from which no-one ever escapes.  But Sarah miraculously rescues him, and he, she and the antiques bloke all roll up at the church in London just as the bisexual widow is marrying the ex-priest.  All is exposed.  Oh, and the antiques bloke is the baby’s dad.

Hurrah!  The ex-priest is saved (not that he really deserves to be).  Er, no.  It is declared that the bisexual widow’s marriage to Alinor’s son was unlawful because she’s a Catholic and he’s a Protestant.  She and the ex-priest are both Catholics, but are both pretending to be Protestants.  So that’s OK.  So this marriage stands.  And the ex-priest declares that he’s ruined.  Er, even though the marriage hasn’t been consummated, so he could soon get it annulled. I did say that it got farcical, OK?!

In between all of this, we hear about Alinor’s brother, the aforementioned former Roundhead now living in America.  Those sections are much better, and considerably less farcical.

It’s actually not as bad as it sounds!  It does turn into a farce towards the end, but, for a while, it isn’t bad.

 

Mistress of the Maze by J P Reedman

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This is a different take on the time of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the “revolt of the Eaglets” and the murder of Thomas a Becket.  As the title suggests, it’s a fictionalised account of the life of Rosamund Clifford, “Fair Rosamund” of the Bower.   The story, whilst well-known, dates from well after the 12th century and is really pretty bonkers – the idea that Henry would hide his mistress in a tower in the middle of a labyrinth, for fear of Eleanor’s vengeance, and that Eleanor would then murder her, is very hard to believe.  Henry had loads of mistresses and I can’t imagine that Eleanor wasted her time and energy in worrying about any or all of them; and the labyrinth story sounds like someone’s borrowed it from a Greek myth.

However, this is a well-written and entertaining book.  I did wonder if the author would go for a more realistic take on it – Rosamund did certainly exist, and Henry may well have had a home built for her at Woodstock – but she’s gone for the idea of the labyrinth.  The legend goes that Eleanor, even though she wasn’t even in England at the time of Rosamund’s death, and even though Rosamund died in a convent, got into the tower in the labyrinth and murdered her.  The author’s got round that by saying that Eleanor sent a former lady in waiting to kill Rosamund, but that Rosamund survived the attempted poisoning and died in the convent a couple of years later!

The book does do a very good job of making an unlikely story seem plausible, and it covers a period of English history which really deserves more attention.  The domestic details are interesting too.  Not bad at all!

The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

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This is the second in Carol McGrath’s “She-Wolves” series, with the main character being Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I.  As in her previous book, we also see events through the eyes of another character, and this time that’s a herbalist, Olwen … who sounds as if she should be Welsh but is actually English.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had a negative opinion of Eleanor of Castile, probably because I’ve always found the story about her sucking poison out of Edward’s wound (yes, all right, I know that it probably isn’t true) very romantic, and I’ve always found the story of the Eleanor Crosses very romantic as well.  However, she’s seen by many as greedy/acquisitive and as a neglectful mother, and her reputation also seems to have suffered from the “Black Legend” view of Spain which developed 300 years after her time.

Carol McGrath’s tried very hard to present her positively and provide explanations for some of her less attractive traits, in what’s a very readable and enjoyable book.  She’s also shown worked in the late 13th century obsession with Arthurian legends, which is interesting (I visited Glastonbury Abbey last year, and heard all about Edward and Eleanor attending the reburial of Arthur and Guinevere’s supposed remains!).  And readers in North West England will be interested to “see” the construction of Vale Royal Abbey, which, had Edward not spent the money intended for it on invading Wales, might have been one of the biggest abbeys in the country.

The only problem is that the book’s too short to cover such an eventful life, and it does sometimes feel a bit superficial, as we skim over major events in a few pages and don’t really get into how the characters are feeling about them.  But there are far worse criticisms of a book than wishing it’d been twice the length.

This is Eleanor’s book, not Edward’s.  Having said which, we don’t see anything of Eleanor’s life before the Second Barons’ War, by which time she was in her 20s.  But the point is that we don’t see the war with William Wallace, the expulsion of the Jews, the calling of the Model Parliament or the proclaiming of the future Edward II as Prince of Wales, all of which happened after Eleanor’s death.  Nor do we get the story about the “prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English”, which (obviously) would have happened in Eleanor’s lifetime; but, OK, it probably never happened at all!

We start with the Second Barons’ War, and Carol McGrath’s suggestion is that Eleanor’s later concern for acquiring estates dates from her being imprisoned by Simon de Montfort’s forces and wanting to ensure that she never faced poverty as well … which makes it sound as if she was kneeling in the dirt at Twelve Oaks, crying “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”!  I’m not entirely convinced by that, but it’s a possibility.

Then on to the Ninth Crusade – where we get what’s probably the accurate version of the poison story, i.e. that it was a surgeon who saved Edward’s life and that Eleanor just stood around getting upset.  I like the poison-sucking version better, but never mind!

It’s certainly interesting to see Eleanor and Olwen’s time in the Middle East, and we also see them in Gascony.  And quite a lot of the book covers the wars in Wales.  We also get to see Eleanor and Edward’s close personal relationship, and court life.  And, of course, we see all the tragedies they suffered with their family.  Eleanor’s often criticised for leaving her children behind whilst she was travelling with Edward, and for leaving one of her daughters with her mother in Ponthieu, but Carol McGrath suggests that maybe she was frightened of becoming attached to her children because of all the losses she suffered.

Out of a probable sixteen pregnancies, only six children survived to adulthood.  The future Edward II was born when Eleanor, married at only 12, was 42.  They had a son called Alphonso who died when he was 10, and another son called Henry who died when he was 6, amid a tragically long list of stillbirths, miscarriages and early deaths.  Very sad.  Olwen, meanwhile, is unable to conceive at all with her first husband, but remarries, to an old sweetheart, after being widowed during the Welsh wars, and has a daughter with her second husband.

Damask roses don’t really feature, which is rather a shame because I love damask rose oil!  It smells so nice.  Oh well.

All in all, this is a very good and very well-researched book.  I just wish it’d been longer.

 

 

 

Anne Boleyn – Channel 5

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I’m not sure that we really needed yet another TV series about Anne Boleyn.  Her story’s been done to death (pun intended), and, consequently, most of the reaction to this has been either moaning that it’s old hat or else trying desperately to find a new angle on the story by talking about “othering”.  Obviously that’s not the fault of either the actors or the scriptwriters, but it’s hard to make a big impression when you’re covering a story than everyone’s heard a zillion times before.  There are so many neglected areas of history which Channel 5 could have chosen to cover instead.

On the plus side, this is a proper historical drama.  It’s no Versailles or The Tudors: it does actually stick to the real people and the real series of events.  Well, main events, anyway.  It’s also positive that it’s looking at things from Anne’s point of view, and that it’s showing her as a deeply intelligent woman who championed the Reformation, rather than just as a scheming tart who stole another woman’s fella.

However, the dialogue’s really rather naff.  It tries to be clever, but doesn’t always manage it.   Some of it’s overloaded with metaphors (there are a lot of metaphors, symbols and omens) – ” Ooh, Jane, if you don’t know the rules, you shouldn’t play the game” – and some of it sounds like someone trying to be Jane Austen but not succeeding.  Jodie Turner-Smith’s really doing her best with it – her delivery of some of Anne’s bitchier lines reminded me of Joan Collins in Dynasty – but it’s just not that well-written.  The Boleyns all get some good lines – George and Jane Boleyn both come across very well, George as his sister’s chief supporter and Jane as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and Cromwell does too, but Henry’s character didn’t come across at all.  And what on earth was that scene with Anne kissing Jane Seymour supposed to be about?  Jane, incidentally, is presented as a simpering little ninny.  Oh dear.  I thought we’d got past that idea.

The costumes are great.  It’s nice to see Bolton Castle being used for most of the indoor shots: I’ve been there a couple of times.  And the series is all right: I’ve seen far worse.  But this subject’s been covered so many times before that any new series would need to be absolutely outstanding to make a really big impression, and it isn’t.

There’s been a lot of talk about the casting of a black actress to play a white historical figure.  There’s actually been a lot of talk about casting lately, and it’s getting a bit silly.  A non-Latina actress was pressurised into giving up the role of Maria in West Side Story; Russell T Davies said that straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles; the casting of British actress Cynthia Eriwo, rather than an American actress, as Harriet Tubman was criticised; people have questioned the casting of a Catholic actress as the Jewish heroine of Ridley Road; and, to cap it all, people moaned that Will Smith shouldn’t have been cast as Richard Williams because their skin isn’t exactly the same shade of black.  What next?  No-one should play a member of the Crawley family in Downton Abbey unless they’ve got a title?

Having said all that, I didn’t think it was appropriate to cast Helen Mirren, in her 70s, as Catherine the Great in her 30s, and that thing BBC 2 did with women playing male Shakespearean roles was daft.  So I suppose there are limits.  But let’s not get too hung up about “representative” casting, or we’re going to end up with roles being cast based on box-ticking rather on acting ability.  Just as long as there’s a level playing field.   If it’s OK for a black actress to play a white character or a gay actor to play a straight character, it’s OK for a white actress to play a black character or a straight actor to play a gay character, unless it’s a role where ethnicity or something else is a big part of the storyline.

What I’m not really getting is this waffle in some areas of the media about how choosing Jodie Turner-Smith because she’s a black actress, rather than just because she’s a good actress, is “identity casting” which is showing how Anne Boleyn was “othered”.  Er, what?   How long has “other” being a verb?  And no-one was “othered”.  Favourites and factions came and went at court, and, in Henry VIII’s time, that was complicated by the religious turmoil and the desire for a male heir.   When Anne lost favour, she didn’t have a party of supporters strong enough and loyal enough to stand up for her.  Nor did numerous other people who fell foul of Henry.  Joan of Navarre was accused of witchcraft, and Mary Beatrice of Modena was accused of bringing Jesuit priests to court to subvert James II.  No-one talks about them being, er, “othered”.

The problem is that so much has been said about Anne Boleyn that people end up scratching around trying to think of any new angle on her story.  It’s like some of the bizarre suggestions made in recent years about who killed the Princes in the Tower – everything there is to be said about the likely candidates has been said, so people come up with outlandish ideas just for the sake of saying something different.

Anyway, to get back to the actual programme, which has been rather overshadowed by the debate over the casting, it was, as I said, OK …  but this period in history’s been covered so many times, both in dramas and in documentaries, that it needed to be absolutely amazing to be memorable.  And it’s not bad, but amazing it isn’t.