Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory


  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


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


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


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.

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson


It appears that the vocabulary of the Covid-19 pandemic has now permeated historical fiction.  The reader of this book is informed twice that Henry VII has put the royal palaces into “lockdown” because of outbreaks of disease.  No mention of courtiers having to practise social distancing or WFH, but, even so, a lot of the language in this just doesn’t quite sound right in a Tudor-era novel.  It’s not a brilliant book, but the author deserves credit for sticking to the known facts about events (unlike certain other authors, cough, Philippa Gregory), being nice about Lady Margaret Beaufort, being even-handed about Henry VII, and writing a book about the little-known figure of Joan Vaux, later Joan Guildford, governess to Henry VII’s daughters.  She was praised by Erasmus.  That’s impressive!

Erasmus doesn’t actually feature in this, though, because the book’s set before their meeting.  I assume that there’ll be a sequel, because Joan, although she was a protegee of Lady Margaret Beaufort and a friend and lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth of York, is best-known for accompanying Princess Mary to France for her ill-fated marriage to Louis XII and for testifying that the marriage of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon had been consummated.  This book, however, is set between 1485 and 1501.  We get a lot about court life and the various plots involving Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck (everyone in my history A-level group was bizarrely obsessed with Perkin Warbeck 🙂 ), and it’s made clear that Perkin Warbeck is definitely not Richard of York and that the real princes definitely disappeared in Richard III’s time.  We also see Joan’s personal life: she was married off to a widower with six children, but the book suggests – I don’t think anyone really knows, because not much has been written about them – that she was initially reluctant but that the marriage was very happy.

Her husband’s various roles meant that she spent a lot of time at the Tower of London, and there’s a sub-plot about her loving the ravens and protecting them from a baddie who wants to shoot them all … I’m not quite sure what the point of that storyline was, but, hey, it was different!

It’s not the world’s greatest book, and it finds it necessary to explain the historical background as if the reader knows nothing about it, but there’s always something comforting about Tudor-era novels – although that’s probably just me, because they take me back to A-level days!   Joanna Hickson’s written better books than this, but it’s an easy read and it’s really not bad.

Harlot Queen by Hilda Lewis


To mark LGBT history month, a novel about the much-debated issue of Edward II’s relationships with Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser the younger.  Now, why is there no equivalent word to “mistress” for a male lover?   “Master” just doesn’t work in this context: you wouldn’t talk about Catherine the Great having a lot of “masters”.   You can say “paramour”, or just “lover”; but Hilda Lewis, born in 1896, rather charmingly describes first Gaveston and then le Despenser as “the king’s sweetheart”.  I’ve always liked the word “sweetheart”.  So much nicer than “partner” or “boyfriend/girlfriend” 🙂 .

As a slight aside, it’s been suggested that a statue of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, two 18th century female pirates thought to have been lovers (or, if you prefer, sweethearts), be put up on Burgh Island in Devon.  But the parish council have rejected it, and a statue relating to the local pilchard industry has been suggested instead.  Seriously?   On whose planet are pilchards more interesting than female pirates?!

Anyway, to get back to the book, it says something rather nice about the late Hilda Lewis that she, born the year after Oscar Wilde’s trial, and writing in a style very much of her generation (like Jean Plaidy’s books, it seems very dated now, but I quite like it), in a book published in 1970, starts with a pillow talk conversation between Edward and Gaveston. And she makes it quite clear that, whilst Edward had rotten taste in men and very little common sense himself, this was a true romance … much more so than Isabella’s relationship with Mortimer, to whom she firmly refers as a “paramour” rather than a “sweetheart”.

So, were Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser Edward II’s “sweethearts”, or was he just good friends with them?  Well, like Hilda Lewis, and I think like most people, I’m convinced that both of them were his lovers, and also that people weren’t particularly bothered about that, just about the fact that both of them were seen as greedy, disrespectful, and in receipt of a lot of money, power and influence to which they weren’t entitled.  But that was Edward’s fault, not theirs, and, whilst neither of them were very attractive characters, it was rather unfair that they got the blame: they didn’t force him to give them anything.  The same thing happened with Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III. Having said which, the Despensers, both father and son, were pretty nasty pieces of work.

Hilda Lewis is rather mixed in her sympathies, but she’s generally pretty sympathetic towards the “Harlot Queen”, Isabella, known to English historians as “the She-Wolf of France”, and I assume that the title of the book’s meant to be ironic.

It’s fascinating how much these three extra-marital relationships, Edward’s with Gaveston and le Despenser, and Isabella’s with Mortimer, influenced the history of England at this time.  Edward annoyed all the barons, and indeed the rest of the royal family, by handing so much power and money over to Gaveston, and, later, to the Despensers – and the Despensers were also downright cruel, not to mention stealing other people’s land.  Both of his lovers ended up being killed by the barons.  Of course, there was a lot more going on than that – he was totally humiliated by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, he was unlucky in that the country was hit by poor harvests and outbreaks of disease, and, as the book reminds us, he inherited huge debts from his father.  But I doubt he’d have been anything like as unpopular had it not been for the way that the Despensers put everyone’s backs up – and he let them.

Then there was Isabella’s relationship with Mortimer.  This one’s particularly interesting, because most kings have had lovers, but few queens have done, and certainly not so openly.  And plenty of kings have been overthrown, but, with the odd exception – Tsar Peter III of Russia being the obvious one – not usually by their own wives!   But she made exactly the same mistake as Edward did, letting her lover become too powerful and wind up all the barons … and he ended up going the same way as Edward’s lovers did.

How much of it was about these relationships, and how much of it was just part of the general tide of history, the clashes between kings and barons?  I think that the signing of the Magna Carta’s become such an iconic moment in English history, and even in world history, that we tend to forget everything else that went on – the Provisions of Oxford and the wars between Henry III and the de Montforts, Edward I and the Model Parliament, and Edward II and the “Lords Ordainers”.  And even the overthrowing of Richard II by Henry IV.  People tend not to have strong opinions about Henry IV, but there is this very strong feeling against Isabella – because she was a woman, and because she overthrew her husband.

Hilda Lewis’s sympathies do seem to jump about a lot.  At first, she’s sympathetic towards Isabella, and very critical of Edward and Gaveston.  But she shows how much the relationship means to Edward, and then suggests that maybe Gaveston isn’t that bad after all.  No sympathy for either Mortimer or the Despensers, and she turns against Isabella, but then she shows sympathy for Isabella again.  But then that probably reflects public opinion at the time.  Fickle, as always   The only people who don’t get criticised at all are Edward III and Philippa: she’s very keen on them 🙂 .

The history in this book is generally pretty accurate, which is wonderful.  I really can’t be doing with people who write about real historical figures but twist it all to suit themselves!   But then, at the end, she has Isabella living in seclusion and never seeing her grandchildren, which isn’t what happened, and she also goes for the “Fieschi letter” storyline (the Fieschi letter having been sent to Edward III by an Italian monk, suggesting that Edward II survived and escaped).  The book includes the well-known story that Edward II was murdered by having a red hot poker stuck up his backside, which a lot of historians now no longer believe … but then it suggests that that wasn’t true, and that Edward escaped, and lived as a monk, and that he and Isabella met up in old age.

It’s unlikely.  But history is full of legends about people who were said to have died but allegedly haven’t.  And, hey, false news and conspiracy theories have been going on since the dawn of time.

In summary, this is a very readable portrayal of a complex series of complex relationships – the marriage of Edward II and Isabella, who did have their moments, the relationship between Edward and Gaveston, the relationship between Edward and the grasping Hugh le Despenser, the relationship between Isabella and the power-hungry Mortimer, the loving relationship between Edward III and Philippa of Hainault – and how they and the history of England all got tangled up together.  Good read!



Fire Queen by Joanna Courtney


This is the second in Joanna Courtney’s series “reclaiming” Shakespearean heroines.  However, whilst Lady Macbeth was a real historical figure, Ophelia, the main character in this book, wasn’t.  The story told here is based partly on the 13th century “Saxo Grammaticus”, an Icelandic telling of the story of the Danish prince “Amleth”, on which Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is *very* loosely based, but there’s no Ophelia in that, only a “temptress” who’s nothing like the rather pathetic Ophelia created by Shakespeare.  So Joanna Courtney’s made her up, as a warrior who fights alongside the men, is Hamlet’s constable, is made a prince by him, and carries on with him and a lot of other men but refuses to marry.

It’s a bit like rewriting “Rebecca” with the second Mrs de Winter giving Mrs Danvers her marching orders.  Or rewriting “Wuthering Heights” with Isabella Linton telling Heathcliff that she wouldn’t look twice at him if he were the last man on earth.  Only even more extreme.  Totally bonkers, but it’s actually very entertaining.  She’s intertwined the story with the real life events of the early 7th century clashes between the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia and the Celtic kingdom of Dalriada/Dal Riata (Hamlet and Ophelia both end up in Britain for part of the book), a part of history which rarely features in novels.  And there are some wonderful depictions of Norse religious ceremonies  … although they all seem to finish early when everyone pairs up with some random partner and heads off into the bushes, someone decides to murder someone else, or, usually, both.

If you’re a big fan of Shakespeare, which I’m not, this book will have you reaching for either a bottle of vodka or a vial of smelling salts.  Otherwise, you will probably find it rather good fun, and quite informative as well.

In the Shakespeare play, Hamlet’s uncle murders his dad and marries his mum.  That’s Hamlet’s mum, not his own mum.  Hamlet and Ophelia may or may not be heading for marriage.  Hamlet accidentally murders Ophelia’s dad.  Ophelia goes mad and dies, possibly accidentally, possibly by suicide.  Ophelia’s brother and Hamlet’s uncle kill Hamlet, but Hamlet manages to kill the uncle at the same time.  Pretty much everyone ends up dead.   And there are a lot of ghosts.  And a skull.

In the “Saxo Grammaticus”, Amleth’s uncle murders his dad and marries his mum.  Amleth pretends to go mad. And resists a temptress.  Then he marries an Anglian princess and a Scottish queen.  That’s two different people, not one person.  And kills his uncle.  But then another relative, who’s ganged up with the Scottish queen, kills Amleth.  Then marries the Scottish queen.  Do keep up.

This version uses a lot of the names from the Amleth legend, although it uses the more familiar “Hamlet” rather than “Amleth”.  The uncle still murders the dad, but no-one pretends to go mad.  And Hamlet has an Anglian wife and a Celtic wife, although, in this version of events, the Celtic wife is a devout Christian who really wanted to be a nun, and only gangs up with the wicked uncle because she genuinely believes that he’ll convert Denmark to Christianity.  Hamlet still meets a sticky end, but, in this version, it’s when he’s cheating on both his wives with Ophelia, and another of Ophelia’s gentlemen friends catches them at it.  In a tomb.  And kills him out of jealousy. The Celtic wife who wanted to be a nun is also there, and comes over even more religious than usual when she sees that a rock’s been rolled away from the entrance to a tomb.

OK, it’s all a bit bonkers, but it’s generally well-written, apart from some annoying slang which just doesn’t work very well in the characters’ mouths; and Ophelia (whose name is spelt here as Ofelia) is very well-depicted.  There’s a whole background story about how she was mentally scarred by her mother’s decision to throw herself on her funeral ship, which comes across well, and there certainly were female warriors – Lagertha in “Vikings”, anyone? – , although the idea of Ophelia as Hamlet’s constable is pushing it.  And the women do all get to be happy in the end – both of Hamlet’s wives remarry, more successfully, and Ophelia gets a happy ending of sorts, too.

I did actually really enjoy this.  Bonkers or no!

The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien


I did actually enjoy this book, about Cecily Neville, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.  Anne O’Brien’s other books about medieval royal women, all excellent, have all been ordinary fictional prose.  This one reminded me of being about 12, and being told to write a history essay in the format of a letter or diary because a teacher for some reason thought that kids would find that more interesting than just writing a normal essay.   It was a strange combination of letters, signed “Your affectionate but thwarted sister”, “Your concerned brother by law”, etc, diary entries, articles from a fictional 15th century equivalent of a tabloid newspaper gossip column, diary entries and even prayers, not to mention recipes for eels in garlic sauce.

It was completely unrealistic – would anyone have put down their plans for overthrowing the king in a gossipy letter, which could well have been intercepted en route? – but it was a very entertaining read.  Despite the rather bizarre format, all the history of England during the period from 1459, when Cecily and her younger children were left to face the Lancastrian forces at Ludlow Castle, and 1483, when her youngest son Richard III overthrew his own nephews (it finished before their disappearance) was in there.  And much of that was family gossip.  Nearly all the familiar stories, including the butt of malmsey wine, were in there: the only one missing was the Duke of Clarence putting Anne Neville to work as a kitchenmaid, which for some reason Anne O’Brien didn’t include.  But I hope she reverts to her usual style of writing in future.  This was a bit odd!

Some of the letters were between Cecily and other members of the Yorkist dynasty, but most were between her and her sisters and other members of the Neville family, which allowed the author freer reign than more political letters would have done  It didn’t go as far as the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, as I’ve said, so we didn’t get to see the author’s thoughts on what Cecily might have believed about that.  We saw Cecily being rather scathing about her nephew, the Earl of Warwick, Margaret of Anjou, George of Clarence and, as time goes on, Edward IV.  I don’t think anyone could argue with any of that!

In particular, she  was shown as being very critical of her daughter-in-law Elizabeth, and the entire Woodville family and their grab for money and power.  Again, whilst we can’t know what Cecily thought, that was probably pretty much it!   I did initially assume that the title “The Queen’s Rival” meant that Cecily was a rival to Margaret of Anjou, but, as I read on, I felt that it was cleverly ambiguous – was she a rival to Elizabeth Woodville as well?   And, as ever, people were very quick to blame the woman.  Edward didn’t have to let the Woodvilles gain money and power and advantageous marriages, did he?  He was the king.  They were a minor gentry family.   They hardly forced him.

So what of the tangled web of claims of illegitimacy?  We were shown that Cecily was devoted to her husband, even though she eventually acknowledged that he made mistakes.  We were also shown that she thought very well of her son Richard, who, unlike George, seemed loyal to the family.  It was even indicated that it was Cecily who suggested that Richard should marry Anne Neville, not Richard himself.  As far as the Eleanor Butler story went, the picture given was that Cecily – like everyone else over the past five and half centuries – couldn’t possibly have known what had happened, didn’t find it hard to believe that Edward would have promised anything to get a woman into bed, but wasn’t at all convinced that he’d said anything binding.

The portrayal of events here was that she agreed to go along with it, partly because, especially after all the dynastic warfare she’d seen during her lifetime, she felt that it would be better for the country to be ruled by a grown man than by a young boy … but also because, otherwise, he’d have opted for trying to declare his brother, rather than his nephews, illegitimate, by bringing up the Blaybourne story again.

The book was weirdly ambiguous about the Blaybourne story.  Anne O’Brien’s rubbished it in her previous books.  It is rubbish, surely.  Yes, there’s an issue with the dates – as a very poor TV programme a few years ago emphasised –  but only by a few weeks.  It’s hardly unknown for a baby to be born a few weeks prematurely.  Richard could even have come back during the few weeks he was away: he wasn’t that far from Cecily.  And, as this book did say, a premature birth could explain why only a small christening was held.  So could umpteen other factors.  The argument that Edward was tall and blond whereas his father was small and dark is irrelevant: most of the Plantagenets were, famously, tall and blond.  George of Clarence included.  Henry VIII looked nothing like Henry VII, and Edward VI looked nothing like Henry VIII!  But, most of all, even if anyone actually believed that Cecily had been carrying on with an archer, how could anyone believe that the Duke of York would have accepted an heir who wasn’t his biological child?  It’s just nonsense.

So why was the book so ambiguous about it?  We did see Cecily make the points about a premature birth etc, but we also saw her refuse to answer questions.  I don’t know why Anne O’Brien did that, especially as she has rubbished the story in other books.

Was there any truth in it?
Was Edward betrothed to Eleanor Butler?
Was Henry VI really the father of his son Edward?
Was Catherine de Valois really married to Owen Tudor?
Was there anything going on between Richard III and his niece Elizabeth of York?
What really happened between Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon?

Fascinating, isn’t it 🙂 ?  Never shall I understand why schools make kids learn about stuff like the three field system and the lives of medieval monks.  If you want to get kids’ attention, or indeed adults’ attention, this sort of thing is what does it – letter format, diary format, or anything else!







The Fall of Anne Boleyn – Channel 5


  I thought I’d heard all there was to hear about the fall of Anne Boleyn, but I must admit that I never knew that marmalade was involved.  It was apparently claimed that Anne used to meet her alleged lovers in the rooms of one of her ladies in waiting, which were also used for storing marmalade.  Why her ladies’ rooms were used for storing marmalade, I have no idea.  Her accusers claimed that, when a lover arrived, the lady in waiting would tell Anne that the marmalade was there.  I dread to think what Paddington Bear would make of this.

Marmalade aside, this was a very interesting trilogy of programmes, despite all the silly “let’s create an atmosphere of suspense” music – presumably everyone watching did actually know what was going to happen.  Yes, there have been a zillion programmes about Anne Boleyn, and I’d rather have seen one about a different queen; but Tracy Borman is an excellent and very enthusiastic presenter and made some very good points.

The idea of this was to retrace Anne’s steps in the days from her arrest to her execution.  A lot was made of the trial being a stitch-up.  I would have thought that everyone would take that for granted – was Anne ever going to be proclaimed innocent of all the trumped-up charges of adultery against her (and don’t tell me that any of them were true), any more than Cranmer’s court was ever going to find that Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was valid?  But, as Tracy Borman pointed out, maybe people at the time genuinely weren’t sure.  Was the reason it was all so rushed that Cromwell was worried that Henry would change his mind?  And why was there no coffin ready for Anne’s body?  Did the Tower officials genuinely not think that she was going to end up on the scaffold?   Interesting food for thought.

The other main theme was of Anne as a “feisty, outspoken … intellectual powerhouse … way ahead of her time and wasn’t prepared to accept women were second class citizens and weaker than men”.  I think a lot of people would say that about Catherine Parr, but it’s fascinating how Anne’s intelligence tends to be overlooked.  We know that she was a very intelligent woman.  We also know that she held strong views in favour of religious reform.  But she’s always cast as the tart who lured Henry into marriage.  Really, she tends to have a worse reputation amongst women than among men, because she’s seen as the ultimate enemy of the sisterhood, the nightmare of middle-aged women – the younger, more glamorous woman, who lures a man away from his faithful, loving wife.

That’s twaddle, of course.  It wasn’t her fault that Henry went after her.  She wanted to marry Harry Percy.  And, as Tracy pointed out, she wasn’t even particularly pretty.  Did she have alluring ways learnt at the French court?  Or could it actually be that Henry was attracted by her feistiness and intellect?   Looking at it that way would be quite a boost for feminist interpretations of events.

Come to that, the idea of Catherine of Aragon as a saintly figure who spent all her time sewing clothes for the poor doesn’t work either.  This is the woman, the daughter of Isabella of Castile, who was running the country (in Henry’s absence) at the time of Flodden Field, and sent Henry the bloodied surcoat of the dead James IV.  Interesting how English history, which is so Protestant, romanticises both Catherine of Aragon and Mary Queen of Scots.

Did Henry get fed up of Anne’s feistiness, and decide that he wanted a more docile wife?  Quite possibly.  But, ultimately, Anne, like Catherine, was disposed of because she didn’t produce a male heir.  The poor woman had just suffered a miscarriage, probably brought on by shock after Henry was involved in a jousting accident.  There was no sympathy for her.  Nor for Catherine, for all the babies she lost.  Out came charges of witchcraft – often used against women, rarely against men.  Out came charges of adultery: to impugn a woman, impugn her sexual morals.  Her alleged lovers were all executed as well.  Collateral damage.  Everyone turned against her, even her own uncle, to save their own skins.

Then again, by the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign, no-one was safe, man or woman, wife, cousin, old friend, counsellor.  And yet he still manages to be remembered as some kind of big hero: he’s arguably the most recognisable figure in English history.  And Anne is vilified.

Strange, isn’t it?  And even stranger to think that marmalade was involved in it all …

The Great Plague – Channel 5


Just in case we hadn’t heard enough about pandemics this year, Channel 5 decided to present us with a three-part series about bubonic plague – presented not by a historian but by a medic, an archaeologist and John Sergeant.  John, instead of dancing badly, submitted to having spots and buboes painted on his face: I think even Lucy Worsley might have drawn the line at that.

Seriously, it was very interesting – although it didn’t half go on about fleas and lice.  Their theory was that the plague was spread not by fleas from rats but from human parasites which hang around on clothes.  They did present some very convincing arguments in support of that, and it would certainly explain why the plague died down in the colder months, and how it was carried to Eyam in a parcel of patterns, but I was more after the social history than the bugs.  Most of what was said about the 17th century was familiar, but the outbreaks in early 20th century Britain are less well-known.  It spread round Glasgow after one person died of the plague, hundreds of people came to the wake, and then the deceased’s possessions were given away to friends and relatives.  Frightening.

It’s always inspiring to hear about the courage and tragedy of Eyam, which formed much of the third episode.  It’s certainly not inspiring to hear about how rich Londoners, even doctors, took off as fast as their carriages would carry them, carrying the plague across the country and leaving the poor to die – although many brave nurses stayed behind, doing what they could.   For those left behind, as the presenters kept pointing out, their main weapons against the plague, other than limewashing and fumigation, and putting coins in vinegar – which were actually pretty effective – were what would now be called social distancing and self-isolation.

No, nobody had to yell “Unclean, unclean”.  That was leprosy, not the plague.  And, apparently, those masks with long noses weren’t used in England.  It didn’t actually mention pomander balls.  It did mention closing theatres.  And sending your servants out to do the shopping – although obviously that wasn’t much use if you didn’t have servants.  And it wasn’t really great for the poor servants.   But it did show that people were aware of the need to try to avoid contact – not easy when things were so bad that there were bodies of plague victims lying in the street.  The Lord Mayor of London, who was left to try to cope with things after the court decamped, stood on some sort of balcony, so that no-one could get too close to him.  People came to see him to ask for health certificates, so that, if they were able to leave, they’d find it easier to get lodgings.

And the plague crosses on houses.  When the coronavirus pandemic started, there were a few gallows humour jokes about plague crosses flying around, but the thought of houses actually being nailed up, with healthy members of the household left in there to die along with the sick, really is horrible.

And, even with measures like that, the death rates were horrific.  There’s the old rhyme, isn’t there?  “In sixteen hundred and sixty five, there was hardly anyone left alive.  In sixteen hundred and sixty six, London burned like rotten sticks.”  Incidentally, the presenters reckoned that the Great Fire didn’t really have much to do with the end of the plague outbreak, and that it was ending naturally anyway.  “There was hardly anyone left alive” is obviously rather an exaggeration, but so many thousands of people died.  Tragic stories of two women, one in London and one in Eyam, who both lost their husbands and all their children.  Bodies being thrown into mass graves.  It was nothing that viewers won’t have heard a million times before, but it was still so, so sad.

The conclusion, other than all the stuff about lice and fleas, was that there have always been pandemics.  OK, that was stating the obvious, but it was probably something about which we did need to be reminded – because I think we’d all got complacent, and we thought that modern science would prevent anything like the situation in which we find ourselves in 2020 from ever happening again, outside the pages of dystopian novels.

And, one day, this will be over, but we’re always going to be The Covid Generations, and we’re always going to look at things through the prism of what happened in 2020 (and, let’s face it, at least part of 2021 as well).  How weird is that?  Just as my grandmas and great-aunts always hoarded food because they never quite got past rationing, and kept scraps of cardboard and bits of string, I’m probably always going to carry a bottle of hand sanitiser around with me, and maybe I’ll always step into the road if I see someone coming the other way along a narrow pavement.  I’ll certainly never read a book, or watch a programme, about the Great Plague, the Black Death or any other pandemic in the same light again.