It is a truth universally acknowledged (or ought to be), that there is no charm equal to tea, cake and daffodils.  This film isn’t going to win any Oscars, but it’s so pretty.  Practically every indoor scene involves either copious amounts of tea being drunk, from ever-so-elegant porcelain cups, and copious amounts of beautifully-presented cake being eaten, or else perfectly-executed country dancing.  Practically every outdoor scene involves stunning shots of beautiful, open English countryside, under clear blue skies; and the springtime scenes show glorious hosts of golden daffodils dancing along peaceful river banks.  Folk songs play in the background.  The houses are all exquisitely decorated.  The clothes are beautiful, and anyone who was upset over the lack of elaborate coiffures in Little Women will find that this more than makes up for it.   You get to see Mr Knightley’s bare bottom as well, but what are bottoms to tea, cake and daffodils?

Anyway, Mr Knightley would never have wandered around with a bare bottom, even in his own home; although Frank Churchill probably did it all the time.  Mr Knightley is a bit more passionate and unconventional, and a bit less stuffy, in this than he is in the book – although lying on the floor isn’t exactly in the same league as diving into the lake at Lyme Park with a white shirt on.  And any unpleasant hint of his having been interested in Emma when she was 13 has been removed.  However, other than that (and a rather bizarre scene involving a nosebleed), it sticks fairly closely to the book, apart from a few slight tweaks at the end.  Oh, and apart from Emma pulling her skirt up to hitch up her undergarments.  I have no idea why either that scene or the bare bottom scene are included, but never mind.

Frank Churchill could have been a bit more dashing, though.  And, whilst I’m not generally a fan of editing historical books to bring them in line with modern sensibilities, I do rather wish that they’d taken out the reference to Harriet being set upon by gypsies and just said that she’d been set upon.  But, other than that, it worked pretty well.  I don’t think it’s Jane Austen’s most interesting book.  There’s something vaguely unsatisfactory about the fact that beautiful, rich, Emma never even goes as far as Bath or London, and it’s also really annoying that sweet Jane Fairfax ends up with an idiot like Frank Churchill.  But that’s the story, and I’m glad that the scriptwriters didn’t play about with it too much, because I don’t see the point of deciding to make a book into a film or TV series and then changing the story.

There’s always a lot of talk about the fact that we’re supposed to dislike Emma but that most people actually don’t.  She’s a busybody, but she’s generally quite good-hearted – and she makes some good points about men preferring a pretty face to a well-informed mind.  She’s the queen bee of her community, and anyone so young in that position would be a bit spoilt.  The crucial “badly done” scene is quite well done (sorry!) – we see how genuinely hurt Miss Bates is, how embarrassed everyone else is, how Mr Knightley is the only one who points out that it was badly done … and how Emma is genuinely sorry for the offence she’s caused.  It’s not my favourite Jane Austen book, but I think that that’s one of the best Jane Austen scenes.

One of the tweaks towards the end is so that Emma’s the one who persuades Robert Martin to ask Harriet again, so she gets a bit of extra redemption there.  Other than that, it’s pretty much according to the book, with a few bits missed out so that it all fits in.  The comic/fool characters are rather OTT, but that’s how Jane Austen writes them.  Harriet comes across very well: we’re reminded that just because someone isn’t very bright doesn’t mean that they might not be a valued friend for their good nature.  And, of course, we’re reminded, in the “badly done” scene, to remember that everyone has feelings, and that it’s never OK to mock or humiliate another human soul.

Emma’s thoughtless, not malicious, though.  No-one in this book is really nasty.  Frank Churchill’s behaviour is reprehensible, but he doesn’t treat women in the appalling way that Mr Wickham or Mr Willoughby do.  Mrs Elton is annoying and vulgar, but she isn’t a schemer like Caroline Bingley or Isabella Thorpe.  Mr Woodhouse is an idiot, but he’s harmless.  There’s nothing really nasty.  It’s a nice story.  And it’s a nice film.

We’re not still going to be talking about this in 25 years’ time (how on earth has it been 25 years?!) like we are with the iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – although, to be fair, you can do a lot more in a mini-series than in a film – but it’s still well worth seeing.  All that tea, and all that cake, and all those daffodils …






The Danish Queen by Lynda Andrews


This is very basic historical fiction, which reads like something that’s been taken from a textbook and turned into dialogue or brief narrative; but that sort of thing can be absolutely fine for a bit of light reading, especially when it’s going very cheap on Kindle download.  A lot of Jean Plaidy’s books are like that, and I loved those when I was in my teens and early twenties!   Lynda Andrews (I’m not quite sure why she’s rebranded herself from “Lyn” to “Lynda”), who usually writes light reading set in Liverpool between the wars, isn’t in the same league as Jean Plaidy, but her books aren’t bad, and not even Jean Plaidy’s managed to write a book about Anne of Denmark, who was queen during a pivotal period in British history but tends to be completely overlooked.

The historical accuracy of the book can’t, generally, be faulted.  Seeing as Arbella Stuart’s name is very irritatingly misspelt as “Arabella” and Beatrix Ruthven is referred to as “Beatrice”, I rather suspect that the author had been reading Agnes Strickland – although Agnes Strickland would never have referred to Elizabeth I as James I’s aunt, as Lynda Andrews rather bizarrely does, the one really major historical error in the text.   There are some other annoying spelling mistakes too – “Gowry” instead of “Gowrie” and (unless this is a Kindle thing?) the most horrendous mangling of both “Wriothesley” and “Kronborg”.  There’s also quite a bit missing, from major things like the witch hunts and the writing of the King James Bible to minor things like Anne managing to shoot dead one of James’s dogs.  Also, major events like the plot to put Arbella on the throne, the Overbury case and even the Gunpowder Plot get far less coverage than several court masques.  And the issue of whether or not Anne converted to Catholicism isn’t mentioned at all.

But it’s only a short book.  And, as long as you’re not expecting something too deep and meaningful, and as long as you haven’t paid more than the 99p Kindle sale price for it, it’s worth a go, simply because there has been so little written about Anne of Denmark.  She was the first Queen of the whole of Great Britain and, although obviously she was a queen consort rather than queen regnant, the first Queen of England after Elizabeth I and the first Queen of Scotland after Mary, Queen of Scots.   She also played an important part in promoting art and culture, especially the Royal Collection which has been in the news quite a lot recently – and she’s got a raw deal in what little has been written about her in the past, usually being dismissed as silly and frivolous when she was actually quite politically savvy and certainly quite a patron of the arts.  Historians, especially male historians, tend to be very negative about all the Stuart queens, one way or another. However, Anne does come across well in this book, which is nice.

It’s all too short and too quick, though.  The issue of her religion’s barely mentioned, as I said.  The issue of how she coped with James being bisexual is referred to, but only in dialogue: we don’t really get much sense of how she really felt about it.  OK, obviously the author can’t know that, but that’s the point of historical fiction: she could have tried to give more of an impression of how she imagined Anne would have felt.  Nor do we really get much sense of Anne’s grief at losing five of her seven children, including Henry, the hugely popular Prince of Wales who would surely have made a far better king than his younger brother, the future Charles I, was to do.  The author never really does more than skim the surface of how anyone feels.

Then there’s James.  We get to see the only really romantic episode of James’s life, when Anne was shipwrecked in Norway en route from Denmark to Scotland, and James sailed out there to meet him, and we get some sense of the ups and downs in their marriage, but the way he’s presented is very irritating because everything he says is in Scottish dialect/a Scottish accent.  It just about stops short of “Och aye the noo”!  OK, James would have spoken in a Scottish accent, but everyone speaks in some sort of accent, and it doesn’t always work very well in print.  Some authors, especially Victorian authors, manage it quite well, but it was absolutely ridiculous to have James doing all that Och aye the noo/Ma wee lassie stuff whilst everything said by Anne, who wasn’t even a native English speaker, was written in standard English spelling.

Having said all that, Anne deserves to be much better known that she is, and so the book’s worth reading because of that.  But it’s very short, and never really does more than skim the surface of what’s going on.




England’s Forgotten Queen – BBC 4


I was pleasantly surprised by this: the title of the programme – come on, surely the name “Lady Jane Grey” is familiar to most people, even if “Queen Jane” (or maybe “Lady Jane Dudley”) isn’t – made it sound as if it was going to be one of those really patronising efforts which treat the viewer as if they know nothing about anything, but Helen Castor did a very good job and looked at a familiar story from some interesting angles.

The main theme of last night’s episode – the first of three – was order, and people’s desire to stick to what they saw as the natural/God-given order of things. I would actually love to see a programme contrasting the events of 1553 with the events of 1688, because it really is fascinating how attitudes completely switched round over the course of 135 years.  Anyway, to get back to Lady Jane Grey, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot because her life was just so tragic, Helen Castor began by talking about how Edward VI, like his father, felt very strongly that his successor had to be male.  The usual angle on it is that Edward’s main concern was that his successor be Protestant, but Helen made a lot of the fact that “and her”, making Jane rather than her heirs male the heir(ess), was only added into Edward’s “Devise” for the succession when it became clear that he wasn’t going to live long enough for Jane to have children.

As she said, there’s no way of knowing how much of this was Edward’s doing and how much was Northumberland’s, but I think we can be pretty sure that Edward wanted to exclude Mary. He was very, very Protestant, so much so that it could have become problematic if he’d lived.  England, mercifully, has never been keen on religious extremism.  Would he also have excluded Elizabeth, had Jane not been married to Northumberland’s son?  That’s more problematic, but we’ll never know.  “It’s complicated”, as the Facebook term goes.   And what about Frances Grey, nee Brandon?  Beyond accepting that Frances was elbowed out of the picture by Northumberland and maybe by her own husband as well, because they thought they’d be able to rule through Jane and Guildford, not much is usually said about Frances, but Helen Castor made the interesting point that people were quite shocked to see Frances carrying Jane’s train, because it went against the natural order of things for a parent to be waiting on their child, rather than the other way round.  That’s something that’s very rarely picked up on.

We also got the standard stuff about how people hated Northumberland because he was the one who’d put down the rebellions in the 1540s. Much as I feel sorry for poor Jane, I do get quite a sense of satisfaction when I think about Northumberland & co, the arrogant elite in what we now think of as a Westminster bubble, thinking that they could impose their will on the nation and to hell with what the people wanted, and then finding out that they couldn’t.  That’s the way I usually look at it but, as the programme pointed out, it was also – equally satisfactorily! – about arrogant men thinking that they could push women around (the idea of “order” again), and then finding that they couldn’t.

Jane, once she’d been pushed into position as queen, stood up to them. I’m not sure that historians always present her as being as docile and as much of a puppet as Helen Castor suggested, but that certainly seems to be what her father-in-law and his cronies expected.  Wrong!  The Tudor women are great!   Henry VIII’s sisters both, after having arranged marriages first time round, went ahead and married the men of their choice.  Lady Jane Grey’s sisters both went their own ways, insofar as they could, as well.  Elizabeth is, of course, one of my all-time heroines 🙂 .   And then there was Mary.  The pro-Jane gang presumably expected that Mary would just fade out of the picture, but, oh no, anything but!  It’s hard to like “Bloody Mary”, but you have to admire her for the way she stood up for her rights in 1553, in such a perilous situation.

Back to the theme of “order”. I think that the popular support for Mary wasn’t just because she was the rightful heir but also because most people wouldn’t even have known who Jane was, whereas everyone would have known who Mary was, and she could emphasise the fact that she was the daughter of Henry VIII.  The same thing happened in Russia in 1741, when the fact that Elizabeth was the daughter of Peter the Great did so much to win her support.  Interesting how Henry VIII and Peter the Great, two male monarchs who didn’t half do some pretty horrible things, were and still are both so popular.  Hmm. But, yes, it was basically about order, and keeping to the rightful line of succession.

What actually was the rightful line of succession, incidentally? Primogeniture?  The will of Henry VIII?  Everything’d got so confused from 1399 to 1485, followed by even more confusion over whether Mary was illegitimate, Elizabeth was illegitimate, neither of them were illegitimate or both of them were illegitimate that it’s quite impressive that there actually was so much sense of order and rightful lines of succession!

So what about 1688? Nothing to do with this programme, but something I started wondering about.  In 1553, the country backed the rightful heir, a woman and a Catholic.  In 1688, the country was quite happy to get rid of the rightful king, and replace him with the joint rule of his daughter and someone who was a complete outsider (yes, OK, William of Orange was James II’s nephew, but that didn’t really come into it), and a foreigner at that, because they were Protestant.  The Glorious Revolution – probably one of the best things that ever happened to England (I said England, not the British Isles!) – went about as far against “order” as it could have done.  Daughter and son-in-law replaced father/father-in-law.  Rightful king overthrown.  Lady Jane Grey’s English husband never became king, but Mary Stuart’s Dutch husband became joint monarch and then sole monarch.  Before long, a whole load of other people in the upper echelons of the line of succession were excluded too.   What a turnaround!   The execution of Charles I destroyed something of the idea of order, Catholicism regrettably made itself so unpopular in England in the period between 1553 and 1688, and the Protestant Reformation really gained force in the late 16th and 17th centuries, but, even taking all that into account, what a contrast.

Er, and none of that’s really got anything to do with poor Lady Jane Grey. Two more episodes about her story to come.  We all know how it ends, but, sigh, hearing it even for the zillionth time is going to upset me 😦 .   And I do really wish Guildford Dudley had been the way he’s portrayed (by Cary Elwes) in the 1980s film Lady Jane – as a result of which he became, succeeding Perkin Warbeck, the romantic hero of our history A-level groups, to the extent that one girl named the cuddly toy dog that she got for her 18th birthday “Guildford” (I think we were all a bit weird at our school) – but sadly he wasn’t … but he didn’t deserve his fate either.  A very sad story all round 😦 .

The White Princess – Drama Channel



Oh dear. I don’t know why I watched this: Philippa Gregory’s interpretation of the events of the 1480s puts my back right up, and this TV adaptation of it is even more annoying than the book!  Having said which, the great thing about 1485 and all that is that it does get everyone worked up, and hotly debating what went on.  In terms of conspiracy theories and news which may or may not be fake, the likes of Messrs Trump and Putin have got nothing on the Yorkists and the Tudors.  It should really be the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution which people get worked up about, but most people don’t get half as aereated over any of that as they do over Henry VII and Richard III.

I like Henry VII. I like Lady Margaret Beaufort.  Nothing short of hard scientific evidence will ever convince me that Richard III wasn’t responsible for the murders of the Princes in the Tower.  And, as far as “the White Princess”, Elizabeth of York, is concerned, I’m inclined to believe … well, The Song of Lady Bessy is possibly a bit OTT, but I would still go for the version of events in which Elizabeth of York and her mother were sure that Richard had murdered the princes, and were working with Henry Tudor well before Bosworth Field.

But, OK, we really don’t know what happened, and, with all the different versions of events, it is entirely possible that the version which Philippa Gregory’s gone for, in which Elizabeth of York wanted to marry her uncle Richard III (there was the infamous incident, before this book starts, with Elizabeth turning up at court in the same dress as Anne Neville, and there were certainly plenty of rumours that Richard was after Elizabeth), and hated the fact that she had to marry Henry, is true instead.

But The White Princess really does over-egg the pudding.  It’s got Elizabeth having actually had a physical affair with Richard.  And it’s also got the young Duke of York having been sneaked out of the Tower and sent off to Tournai, to the Warbecks … to return, several years later, as Perkin Warbeck, claiming to be the Duke of York.  In the book, that was only hinted at.  He was sent off to Tournai, but the names “Perkin” and “Warbeck” weren’t used.  Anyone familiar with the reign of Henry VII would have sussed out the idea, but it wasn’t spelt out.  It has been in the TV series – which is interesting, because Philippa Gregory seemed to lose interest in the idea and has never written a book covering the Warbeck years, so it’s going to have to be left as a very big loose end.  Mind you, the book didn’t go that far anyway, so it won’t really matter. Everyone in my history A-level group was obsessed with Perkin Warbeck. Whilst he clearly wasn’t Richard, Duke of York, he was very handsome and dashing … which Henry VII assuredly was not.  However, in this adaptation, he is.  That’s rather nice from an eye candy point of view, but rather annoying from a historical accuracy point of view.

Also, why is she referred to as “Princess Elizabeth” when surely she’d have been referred to as “Lady Elizabeth”, under the rather awkward circumstances? And no-one would have called her “Lizzie”: the usual “shorts” for Elizabeth at the time were “Bess” and “Bessie” And why does Henry address Jasper Tudor by his first name, rather than as uncle.  I really like Jasper, BTW.  And he’s about the only person who’s been represented reasonably accurately!

What else can I whinge about? Oh yes, the old chestnut that, because Arthur was born about eight months after the wedding, Henry must have decided to make sure that Elizabeth was fertile before marrying her.  How advanced do people think 15th century obstetrics were?!  No way could anyone have been sure that early on.  Boringly, the far more likely explanation is that Arthur was premature.  And this obsession Philippa Gregory has with the idea that the Woodvilles practised witchcraft.  I hate that. Throughout history, men have attacked women who gained power by throwing allegations of witchcraft at them – most famously at Anne Boleyn.  It’s a horrible, horrible, misogynistic idea, and I’m not very impressed with Philippa Gregory for using it.

Meanwhile, Henry VII, one of the best kings England has ever had in terms of administrative ability, has so far been shown as a bit of a playboy who was more interested in practising his archery and admiring ladies dancing than in running the country, whilst Lady Margaret Beaufort/Stanley and Archbishop Morton tell him what to do. What utter rubbish!  Incidentally, the first time we “did” Henry VII at school was around the time that A-ha were the number one boyband, so, every time Morton was mentioned, people started giggling and muttering about Morten Harket … so, even now, whenever Archbishop/Cardinal Morton’s name comes up, I want to start singing “Take on me” or “You are the one”.  But never mind.   But I do mind poor Henry being misrepresented so badly!

The actual political events are being shown more accurately, though – we’ve had the Lovell/Stafford rebellion, and the poor little Earl of Warwick has been locked up in the Tower – with the Lambert Simnel affair presumably coming up in the next episode. But why make out that Henry was so unpopular, and the Yorkists so popular?  By 1485, it seems that most people were so fed up of all the chopping and changing that they were past caring who was king, and just wanted peace and stability.  Obviously Henry was an unknown quantity, but, whilst Edward IV may have been popular, Richard III had managed to upset an awful lot of people, and Elizabeth Woodville wasn’t exactly top of the popularity charts either.

I do quite like the way Elizabeth Woodville comes across, though. There is a view that she decided of her own accord to go off and enter a convent.  Nah.  The alternative view, that she plotted and meddled until Henry packed her off out of the way, which is the one that Philippa Gregory’s gone for, works much better as far as I’m concerned!   But what about “The White Princess” herself?  She’s very feisty in this – and we’re given the impression that she, having been born and brought up a princess, knew how to do things properly and showed Henry what was expected of a king, in terms of sending assistance when there was plague etc.  It’s a nice idea, and not an illogical one, but it’s just not the impression you get from reading the actual history of the time.  Henry was a very able and talented man.  Philippa Gregory really does seem to have it in for him, and for his mother, and doesn’t give either of them the credit they deserve.

And the marriage? Well, it worked out very well in the end.  Henry was devoted to Elizabeth, as time went on, and she seems to have grown fond of him as well.  There were hints at the end of the second episode that some sort of affection was growing.  But … well, I know what the book says, and I know what all Philippa Gregory’s books are like when it comes to the events of the 1480s, so I don’t know why I’m moaning because it was only what I expected!   But isn’t it great how, over 500 years later, everyone does get so worked up over this particular period in history?   There’s just something about it!

Oh, and, from an entertainment point of view, this is actually quite good.  But how it does annoy me when people mess about with history!

Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents – BBC 2


I’m rather confused as to why the BBC seems to think that Elizabethan England was an isolated Protestant nation at a time when most of Europe was Catholic. Er, what??  Many parts of Germany and Switzerland were largely Protestant, as were large parts of the Netherlands (trying to free themselves from Spanish rule), as were the Scandinavian countries and Swedish-ruled Finland, and Latvia and Estonia.  Even areas which are now mainly Catholic again had large Protestant populations at the time, notably France and Hungary.  Oh, and not to mention Scotland!   Maybe the BBC’ve been spending too much time thinking about the year-end ATP world rankings and the situation in Catalunya, and got a bit too focused on Spain 🙂 .

I’m not sure whether or not this was deliberately timed to coincide with Gunpowder, but there’s been a fair bit of overlap … much of it involving Father John Gerrard, the guy whom our temp history teacher in the second year was obsessed with!   However, this three-part series is a “docu-drama”, not a drama series – and it’s one of the good ones, which doesn’t patronise viewers by assuming that they’re totally ignorant and need everything explaining, or doing too much dressing up and prancing around!

It’s all familiar stuff – the first episode was largely about Mary Queen of Scots – but it’s an unusual take on things, and it’s fascinating to sit back and think about just what an extensive spy network Elizabeth and Cecil had. It’s a unique period in terms of both intelligence and plotting because of the overlap between the fear of the monarch being overthrown by a rival candidate for the throne – the fear which all the Tudors had, and which the Yorkists and the Lancastrians to some extent had before them – and the new age of religious division, religious terrorism and the fear of attack by Catholic enemies.  When you think about it, that dual threat really faded away through much of the 17th century, with Spain in decline and everyone tied up with the Thirty Years War and then Louis XIV’s wars, but then came back with the Jacobites … although never to the same extent as it did in Elizabeth’s time

So there was a personal threat, to the person of the monarch, and also the threat to the nation. I’m a great admirer of Elizabeth I, but I also feel great sympathy for her when I think how much she had to cope with.  Henry VII lived in constant fear of being overthrown, but in his time it was hardly likely that the country was going to be invaded.  And Henry VIII had all his issues over the succession, but, with Spain and France and the Holy Roman Empire focused on Italy, it was hardly likely that he was going to face invasion either.  I don’t think either of them could ever have had the fear of assassination that Elizabeth did.  James I probably did, obviously especially with the Gunpowder Plot, but the fear of external intervention was fading by then, with Philip II dead and then the start of the Thirty Years War.  But it was all going on in Elizabeth’s time.  No wonder she felt the need to maintain such an extensive spy network.

And it was all so personal, as well! She was so close to Walsingham and even more so to the Cecils – and the BBC also went into the interesting sub-plot of the rivalry between Robert Cecil (the younger Cecil, son of William) and the Earl of Essex.  Essex always gets on my nerves.  He evidently got on Cecil’s as well

And all this was going on behind the scenes of the Elizabethan Golden Age. The likes of Vladimir Vladimorovich Putin and The Real Donald Trump have got absolutely nothing on Elizabeth I when it comes to spying, secret agents, propaganda and image!   It’s increasingly feeling as if we’re right back in Elizabethan or Jacobean times, with religious terrorism the scourge of the present times and now words like “treason” and “sedition” coming out of Madrid.  The programme’s meant to be about the development of one of the world’s secret services (although Venice and various other places had been well into spy networks long before Elizabethan times), but it’s just making me admire my heroine Elizabeth I even more 🙂 . Take that, Europe!!  Take that, division at home!!  She survived it all, and will always be remembered as Gloriana, the Queen of the Golden Age.  When you think about everything that was going on behind the scenes, that didn’t half take some doing 🙂 .

Gunpowder – BBC 1


There was certainly plenty of action in this, but it’s always rather annoying when something combines dramatised fact with fiction and doesn’t explain what’s what! I know Versailles got absolutely slated, but I rather liked the way that each episode was followed by a little discussion about the historical truth of what had just been shown, and it would have been nice to see the BBC do the same with this.  Oh well.

The idea seemed to be a) to show things from the plotters’ point of view and b) to remind people that it was actually Robert Catesby, not Guy Fawkes, who masterminded the Gunpowder Plot. By a pleasing coincidence, Catesby is being played by Kit Harington, who is one of his direct descendants … although I’m not sure that the real Robert Catesby was quite as good-looking 🙂 .   And the gist of it was that Catesby was radicalised, to use the modern expression, by the persecution of English Catholics, notably the torture and judicial murder of his aunt, Lady Dorothy Dibsdale.  However, unless I’m missing something – in which case I apologise profusely to the BBC! – Lady Dorothy never actually existed.  Her niece, Anne Vaux, played in this by Liv Tyler certainly did, and there’s long been speculation connecting her with the Gunpowder Plot, but not Lady Dorothy.  The horrific way in which Lady D was killed – being crushed to death – is well-known as having been the way in which Margaret Clitherow was killed, but it was very rare, and it was hard not to feel that the BBC were deliberately sensationalising things.

Far more realistic were the scenes depicting the hanging of a priest, and the programme featured several Catholic priests who genuinely did exist. There are still some fascinating “priest holes” in stately homes.  I think the best one I’ve ever seen is the one at Towneley Hall in Burnley, and there’s also a good one at Speke Hall in Liverpool, and another at Hoghton Tower near Preston.  Now, one of the priests featured was John Gerard, who (the programme failed to mention this bit!) came from Wigan.  He escaped execution, and wrote a book about his life – which a very boring supply teacher, whom our school saw fit to engage for a term whilst I was in the second year, was obsessed with.  Instead of sticking to the syllabus, he kept going on about this book.  12-year-old girls are really not very interested in the lives of priests, believe me.  He tried to liven it up by telling us to use dramatic-sounding titles in our notes, and one of them was “Clandestine Correspondence” – which I remember being quite excited about, because it involved invisible ink, which Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers were always using.  Invisible ink was mentioned in last night’s programme by both the priests and the government spies.  So there.  It was obviously a big thing at the time!

Getting back to the point, most of the characters at court were genuine, and not figments of the BBC’s imagination.  I was impressed with the way they portrayed Cecil, but I thought they did James I a bit of an injustice.  He isn’t known as “the wisest fool” for nothing: he was an extremely intelligent man.  Apart from his unfortunate obsession with witch-hunting, but that isn’t really relevant to the Gunpowder Plot.  But the BBC made him seem rather naïve, wanting to act as a peacemaker.  Well, yes, he did want to avoid trouble with either Catholics or Protestants, but he actually did rather a good job of it, marrying Charles off to Henrietta Maria, Elizabeth off to the Elector Palatine, staying out of the Thirty Years’ War and managing to avoid either too much trouble at home or, although there was some conflict with Spain, any really major trouble with other countries.

The discussions with James and his advisors were the only time that the programme gave any real indication of the context in which all this was going on. William Stanley (a very minor member of “the” Stanley family) was lurking around in the Low Countries, allegedly plotting trouble – although, if anything, the programme rather overplayed that.  Yes, he’d plotted against Elizabeth, but he was getting a bit past it all and fed up with it all by the time James became king. And, even though Philip II was dead by this time, there was still a genuine fear in some quarters that Spain might send another Armada.

But I don’t think the programme really got across the genuine fear that many people felt about the fear of religious conflict at home, and what Catholics within England might do. We still, to this day, talk about “the Spanish Inquisition”, and Spanish troops had carried out atrocities in Protestant areas of the Netherlands.  It was, when James became king, only 31 years since the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris.  And it was only 15 years before the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War.  Then there were the memories, much played up in propaganda, of what had gone on in Mary’s reign.  There was a lot of religious tension all over the show.  Of course, the vast majority of English Catholics just wanted to live in peace and practise their religion in peace.  And Elizabeth would have been happy to let them do that, had it not been for other people stirring up trouble – mainly the Vatican itself, with the infamous “Regnans in Excelsis” bull of 1570 declaring that English Catholics owed no allegiance to Elizabeth and even faced excommunication if they obeyed her.  No-one took much notice of it, and it was effectively suspended ten years later, but that, and the Armada, and all the plotting with Mary Queen of Scots, got the authorities very worried.  And English Catholics suffered for it.  More anti-Catholic laws were brought in later on in the 17th century, and it wasn’t until 1829 that they were repealed.

Vicious circle. You suspect people of sedition.  You repress them.  And a small number of them, usually young men, become susceptible to …  well, “radicalisation” really is the word for it, partly as a result.  And carry out … well, if we’re going with modern terms, terrorist attacks.  And that basically is what this programme was trying to say – and it’s the side of Bonfire Night that isn’t often told.  But to be fair, however much we may sympathise now with the way in which Catholics were treated in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that side of it isn’t often told because it was a bloody terrorist attack, and there can never be any excuse for that, even if there can be explanations.  But, at a distance of over 400 years, yes, it’s OK to show another side of it.  It’s interesting how Bonfire Night has lasted.  Over 400 years and still going strong, whereas other “thanksgiving” days, such as Oak Apple Day, have faded into history.  Maybe it’s partly because it linked in with existing autumnal traditions to do with fire.

This programme’s going to grab headlines, because it was sensational – all that blood and guts and torture – and because Kit Harington’s in it.  Good!  It’s always good when anything historical grabs headlines!   And maybe it’ll remind people to pay a bit more attention to Bonfire Night and a bit less to all those ridiculous fake spiders and so on that now fill the shops for weeks on end at this time of year!  Now that really would be good.   Bonfire Night’s important.  It is, after all, about a terrorist attack being foiled.  And that’s a hell of a lot more important than silly fake spiders and knocking on doors asking for sweets.  This is what this time of year’s about.  And the concluding part of this drama will be shown on November 5th.  Let’s have Bonfire Night all over the headlines 🙂 !!

Reformation: Europe’s Holy War – BBC 2



This really needed to be a series, rather than a single programme. David Starkey, who can sometimes be a bit dry but wasn’t this time, did a decent job with what he said, but an hour really didn’t give him time to say very much.  I’m amazed that none of the TV channels have commissioned a full series to mark the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses.  Come on, we’re talking pretty major stuff here!

The programme started by trying to put a modern spin on things. Why do so many documentaries do that these days?!  OK, it’s better than Lucy Worsley dressing up, but surely we can study the past without always having to try to draw parallels with the present day.  Comparing the Islamic fundamentalism in the 21st century with Christian fundamentalism of the 16th century – which would have worked a lot better if there’d been some proper coverage of Christian fundamentalism of the 16th century.  And flashing up “#Luthersreformation” on screen.  Oh dear.

However, once he actually got on to talking about the 95 Theses, it was very good. It really is incredible how Luther’s ideas spread.  “Went viral”, as the programme put it.  I mean, he wasn’t a prince, or a courtier, or an archbishop, or a renowned international scholar: he was just some monk in a university city a very long way from Rome or Vienna.  Starkey made a lot of familiar but still interesting points about the importance of the growth of printing and the use of the vernacular.  Whatever anyone’s views on doctrine and practice, the use of the vernacular in religion is so important.  No offence to anyone who prefers their services or religious books in Latin, Church Slavonic, Hebrew, Arabic or whatever, but it is rather helpful if you can actually understand what’s being said.  Even taking that into the account, the impact of the 95 Theses and the follow-up writings is incredible.  There’d been reformist movements before – the Waldensians, the Lollards, the Hussites, etc – but their impact had been short-lived and restricted to a particular area.  With Luther, it all just took off.

Then we had the Diet of Worms.  It still makes me laugh when I see that written down!  The appeal of Luther’s ideas to local princes.  Schmalkaldic League.  The Peasants’ War.  Annoyingly, no mention of the Twelve Articles of Memmingen – but I’m only saying that because I once stayed overnight in Memmingen.  But then we switched to England.  Now, the English Reformation is extremely interesting, and obviously extremely important, but did we really need yet another programme about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn?   Henry, Anne, Catherine, Wolsey, the Dissolution of the Monasteries … yes, it’s fascinating, but it’s been covered so many times, and the title of the programme suggested that it would have much wider geographical scope than that.

And off we went again with having to try to put a modern spin on things. Henry VIII’s break with Rome was “the Tudor Brexit”, David Starkey informed us.  Er, hardly.  The break with Rome was, whatever the spread of Protestant feeling in the country, the choice of Henry VIII and his ministers.  Brexit is the result of the democratic will of the people.  And, whilst the pre-Counter Reformation Catholic Church was, like the institutions of the European Union, very good at grabbing everyone’s money, it didn’t try to micro-manage and uber-control the whole of Western Christendom.

However, as Starkey pointed out, there are parallels in terms of the importance of the sovereignty of the national parliament. The Reformation was one of the best things that ever happened to England/Britain.  As one of my university lecturers used to say, Britain isn’t a very Christian country but it’s a very Protestant country.  In the best of ways, unlike some of what’s gone on in the US and South Africa.

It was all getting very interesting, with the talk about the influence that the Reformation had on national identity and self-confidence. But there it stopped. I know the BBC’s obsessed with Henry VIII, but surely it must acknowledge that the story of the English Reformation didn’t stop with Henry VIII! What about Mary’s attempts to restore Catholicism? The swing to more radical Protestantism in Edward’s reign? The Elizabethan Settlement? And, if you’re going to talk about religious books being written in the vernacular, then surely you need to mention James I and the Authorised Version of the Bible?

And it wasn’t even just supposed to be about England. If you’re going to call a programme “Reformation: Europe’s Holy War” then you need to go a long way beyond the 95 Theses and the Diet of Worms.  It didn’t even get on to the Peace of Augsburg!  And, as an example of iconoclasm, Henry VIII’s minions smashing up the monasteries was a pretty poor one.  That was mainly about money: there were far better examples on the Continent.

What about Zwingli, and Calvin? What about Thomas Muntzer (whom, as a result of spending too much time thinking about tennis whilst I was doing my A-levels, I always want to call “Thomas Muster”)?  It only really mentioned Germany and England.  What about the Nordic countries?  What about the French Wars of Religion, St Bartholomew’s Day and all that?  What about the growth and repression of Protestantism in the Habsburg crownlands?  And Protestantism in Poland – now there’s a story that very rarely gets told!   What about the Netherlands, where the Reformation arguably had more impact than it did anywhere else?  And, for crying out loud, surely a British Broadcasting Corporation programme about the Reformation should have mentioned Scotland!   It needed to go beyond the 16th century and well into the 17th century, to the Thirty Years’ War, and to Oliver Cromwell and co – and maybe right up until the Glorious Revolution.  And, given that they started by going on about radicalism, the Anabaptists, or at least the Puritans, really needed to be in there.

It was an interesting enough programme, but it was just short. “Reformation: Europe’s Holy War” is a very ambitious title.  It wasn’t possible to come even close to doing it justice in the space of an hour.  More, please, BBC!

The Scandalous Duchess by Anne O’Brien


It’s quite brave of anyone to write a historical novel about Katherine Swynford, given how well-known and well-loved the Anya Seton book is. This one’s pretty good, though – although it rather bizarrely starts with John of Gaunt approaching Katherine and then tells us that she (in her voice, in the first person)’s been keen on him for years. It just seems like an odd place to start!   We don’t actually get that much about the Peasants’ Revolt and all the machinations at court, because the focus is on Katherine and so the reader is with her, out of the way of it all, rather than middle of things – but that’s fair enough, because the book’s supposed to be about her.   And we do get some very interesting depictions of everyday life in a small-ish manor house, rather than at court.

The title is rather silly. “The Scandalous Duchess” sounds like one of those Regency-set Mills and Boon books which are always being offered for download on Kindle for 99p!   But presumably the idea is that that’s how she was seen, whereas the reader is, presumably, meant to see her as someone who actually very pious but considered the world well lost for love, etc etc etc. And who forgave John of Gaunt even after he publicly renounced their relationship for the good of the country, et al. It all sounds rather melodramatic, put like that, but it is actually what happened!   There are so many fascinating stories about royal mistresses, but obviously this one’s particularly interesting because this is the Beaufort line which gave Henry VII his claim to the throne.

Not all that much actually seems to happen. It’s more about feelings than events: the events seem to take place in the background. Or else we hear about them second-hand – especially John of Gaunt’s campaigns in Castile. It would be nice if someone wrote a book about Constanza of Castile, actually: she doesn’t come across very well in this book, but I think she was entitled to be narked that her husband was carrying on with one of her ladies in waiting, however “normal” that might have been at royal courts. And I was reading up earlier this year on both John of Gaunt’s campaigns in Galicia and Philippa of Lancaster’s marriage to Joao of Portugal, because I went to Galicia and Porto in June … er, which is totally irrelevant. But, yes, a book about Constanza would be nice. But this one’s about Katherine. It won’t be making “best ever historical novel” lists for decades to come, in the way that the Anya Seton book’s done, but it’s still well worth a read.

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory


The Grey sisters, granddaughters of Henry VIII’s sister Mary, have attracted quite a lot of attention since the publication of Leanda de Lisle’s Sisters who would be Queen in 2008, and they’re the subjects of Philippa Gregory’s latest book.  The title, “The Last Tudor”, refers to Mary Grey, the youngest of the three: I don’t really get why Philippa Gregory would describe her as “The Last Tudor”, but maybe she just thought the title sounded good!  The book focuses on each of the three sisters in turn – first Jane, then Katherine, then Mary.  It’s told in the first person and the present tense, which I always find a rather infantilising way of presenting a historical novel but is the method that Philippa Gregory seems to prefer.

Whilst Katherine isn’t that well-known and Mary is very little-known, the story of Lady Jane Grey is pretty familiar to most people. There are several plays about her, and there’s also the 1986 film in which she’s played by Helena Bonham Carter, and her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley, is played by Cary Elwes (who later appeared in Days of Thunder) and depicted as a romantic hero.  We were all so obsessed with that film at school that one girl in my class named a teddy bear “Guildford”!   Unfortunately, Guildford was not a romantic hero: he was a brat, and that’s how he comes across in this book.  And Jane was rather annoyingly priggish, and that’s how she comes across in this book.  But they were both just pawns.  Jane never wanted the throne.  Both of them were just caught up in their families’ ambitions, and they were both executed as a result of a situation over which neither of them had any control.

Talk about the vultures gathering. It happened when Henry VIII died – the codicils to his will, awarding titles all over the show, were almost certainly forged – and it happened again when Edward VI died.  With the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, in the following century, you do get the impression that most people were genuinely doing what they thought was right, but, when Edward VI died, the people at the top just seem to have been out for power.  OK, there probably were some genuine concerns over Mary’s Catholicism, but it was basically a case of the Greys and the Dudleys wanting control.  More the Dudleys than the Greys, you have to think, especially as the claims of Jane’s mother, Frances, were passed over.  And Jane and Guildford went to the scaffold as a result.


Philippa Gregory doesn’t actually go with the traditional image of Jane as a tragic, romantic martyr to the Protestant faith. Well, she does show that Jane herself saw it like that, but we see Jane’s death largely from the viewpoint of Katherine, showing annoyance that Jane couldn’t have, as she herself and Elizabeth did, paid lip service to Catholicism, which might have persuaded Mary to spare her life.  Interesting way of doing it.

So. Mary became queen.  By the will of the people, which proved stronger than the desires of what we’d now call “the Westminster bubble”.   Jane was executed.  Mary had no children.  Elizabeth succeeded her.  By the will of Henry VIII, the next heir was Katherine Grey.  Katherine secretly married Edward Seymour, and Elizabeth declared their marriage invalid and threw them both into the Tower of London.  They had two children, both born there.  Eventually they were released, but were put under what would now be called house arrest, and were separated.  Their eldest child was separated from both of them.  And Katherine died at the age of only 27.

It’s an incredibly sad story. Katherine didn’t claim the throne.  People demanded that she be named as Elizabeth’s successor, but she herself never made that demand.  She just wanted to marry the man she loved, and bring up their children. She does seem to have been rather silly and giddy, and that’s how she’s shown in the book, but she wasn’t hurting anyone.  She just had the misfortune to be born with royal blood, at a time when that was a very dangerous inheritance.

The focus switches away from Katherine well before her death, and over to Mary. She’s an interesting character: she was a dwarf, but led a full life at court, until she also married without Elizabeth’s permission, to Thomas Keyes, Elizabeth’s serjeant-porter.  Thomas was thrown into the Tower, and, by the time he was released, his health was broken and he died shortly afterwards.  Mary was put under house arrest.  The book ends on an upbeat note, with Mary vowing to stay strong … but she died only a few years later, aged just 33.

It’s a very sorry tale. And Philippa Gregory makes Elizabeth the villain of the piece.  She really does not like Elizabeth.  She always makes out that she was having a full-blown affair with Robert Dudley, which I very much doubt; and, far worse, she makes out that she let her obsession with Dudley override the best interests of the country, which is utter nonsense.  She makes out that she was weak and vacillating, which just isn’t true at all – look at everything she achieved!  And she not only hints strongly that she was involved in the death of Amy Robsart, but even blames her for the murder of David Rizzio.  What??  How on earth can anyone try to blame Elizabeth for the murder of Rizzio?!  And she really plays up the suffering of the Greys.  OK, obviously they did suffer, but it’s highly unlikely that Katherine starved herself to death because of her unhappiness: she probably died of TB.  And to say that Frances Grey married her groom, Adrian Stokes, because she thought that marrying a man of low birth would get her out of the orbit of the court is rubbish.  She married Adrian Stokes because she had to (the baby sadly died in infancy)!

The book is told from the viewpoint of the Grey sisters, and Katherine and Mary would inevitably have hated Elizabeth because of her treatment of them, but it has to be seen in context. Edward IV almost certainly had Henry VI murdered.  Richard III almost certainly had the Princes in the Tower, his own young nephews, murdered.  Henry VII had the young Earl of Warwick, who wasn’t guilty of anything other than other people trying to use him as a pawn, executed.  Henry VIII had quite an assortment of his relatives executed, including Margaret Pole, who was an elderly lady by Tudor standards and whom no-one seriously thought was plotting against him.  Mary had Jane executed.  It even went on into the reign of James I – he had Arbella Stuart, the granddaughter of his half-great-aunt Margaret Douglas (another one whose treatment by Elizabeth is criticised in this book), and William Seymour, the grandson of Katherine Grey, both thrown into the Tower of London for marrying without his permission.  So why criticise Elizabeth?  And look at her childhood, and her sister Mary’s.  They were as much victims of the whole ongoing succession nightmare as many of the others were.  So many innocent lives affected.  So sad.


Going back to Arbella, I did wonder if Philippa Gregory might be planning a book about her, because Bess of Hardwick – Arbella’s other grandmother – features quite prominently in this book, but she says that she’s moving away from this period for the time being.

Margaret Douglas is also mentioned quite a lot in the book, and so, of course is Mary Queen of Scots. But what about the one Tudor line which is always forgotten?  I’ve got a book by Alison Weir, Children of England, about the heirs of Henry VIII, and this branch of the family isn’t even shown on the family tree in that.  Why does everyone always seem to forget that Frances Grey, nee Brandon, had a sister?  She had.  Eleanor Brandon.  Eleanor married into the Cliffords of Skipton Castle and Brougham Castle.  She died very shortly after Henry VIII, but her claim passed to her daughter, Margaret.  And the Dudleys were well aware of Margaret: they tried to pair her off with Guildford, before realising that they could go higher up the pecking order and get Jane instead.  Margaret married the Earl of Derby.  Lots of northern connections here!  And Elizabeth was certainly very well aware of her: she had her briefly arrested in 1579, for speaking out of turn.

Margaret predeceased Elizabeth, and so did her eldest son, the interestingly-named Ferdinando, but the claim passed to Ferdinando’s eldest daughter, Lady Anne Stanley. Poor Anne.  She was widowed young, and then remarried, to Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven – whose son, also Mervyn, appears in highly fictionalised form in Pamela Belle’s wonderful Herald of Joy.  The elder Mervyn seems to have been some sort of horrendous debauched monster, and, on his orders, Anne was raped by a servant.  She was so traumatised that she tried to commit suicide.  Very bravely, she testified against her husband in court, and he was executed.  It’s a horrific story, but it’s one which deserves to be told.  And this is the woman who, if you were going to go by the will of Henry VIII rather than by primogeniture, and if you were to accept that the marriage of Katherine Grey and Edward Seymour was invalid (it was proven to be valid, but not until later), should have become Queen of England in 1603.  Not that that’s got much to do with the Greys, but it does annoy me how that line of the family’s always ignored!

This book is standard Philippa Gregory stuff. Her books can be quite annoying, but they are always readable.  So there we go!



When Football Banned Women – Channel 4


Last year, Sky One showed a two-part documentary about the history of football. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good, but it did raise the fascinating issue of the ban on women playing football imposed by the FA from 1921 to 1971, following huge success enjoyed by women’s football teams, especially in Lancashire, during and immediately after the First World War.  Now, Channel 4 have made a documentary, presented by Clare Balding, purely about this part of football history, which isn’t at all well-known.

Most of the women’s football teams were set up during the First World War, as works teams at munitions factories – partly as what would now be called “team building”, partly as a way of keeping fit, and partly just for a bit of light relief at a very difficult time. Then they began organising charity matches, to raise money for wounded soldiers and families who’d lost their breadwinners.  And the best teams were – naturally! – from Lancashire, notably Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, a team of “munitionettes” who worked at the Dick, Kerr & Co factory in Preston.

It even sounds as if, after the war, women who were known to be good footballers were given jobs there so that they could get them on the team. Their two star players, Lily Parr and Alice Woods, were both from St Helens, and had previously played for St Helens Ladies.  Most of the matches were local, and they attracted huge crowds.  27,000 at Gigg Lane.  33,000 at Burnden Park.  And, on Boxing Day 1920, 53,000 at Goodison Park, with another 14,000 locked out.  Seriously impressive attendances.  And considerable press coverage as well.

Then, in December 1921, the FA banned women from playing football. Well, it tried to.  It banned them from playing on grounds belonging to Football League clubs.  So they were reduced to using public parks or dog tracks instead.  Interest dwindled.  Press coverage pretty much stopped. Presumably the ban didn’t extend to, say, rugby or cricket grounds, and the teams did keep going, but the FA ban did pretty much kill women’s football as a force, and it didn’t really revive until the late 1960s – and still doesn’t attract the sort of interest and coverage in this country that it does in some other countries.

So why was it banned? That’s the question.  There were a lot of questions being asked at this time about women’s role in society generally.  During the war, women had taken on jobs previously only done by men: now, a lot of men wanted women shoved back into a domestic role.  All those arguments about whether girls should be taught domestic science at school, whilst boys were studying academic subjects.  I’m not sure that this would actually have been that much of an issue in industrial, working-class areas of Lancashire, where women traditionally did work, but then the FA wasn’t exactly representative of grass-roots football.  One of the official excuses given was that football was unsuitable for women and could damage fertility – the sort of theory that was very much tied in with wanting to get women out of a sphere that was seen as a male-only preserve.

The other official excuse given was that the money from charity matches wasn’t going to charity, but was being appropriated in “expenses” or used for “non-charitable objects”. This was 1921.  The date’s important.  In April 1921, coal mining, which had been nationalised during the war, was privatised, and the new owners immediately started talking about wage cuts.  Strikes were called.  The idea – this being before sympathetic strikes were banned – was that members of the transport and railway unions would walk out in support of the members of the mining union.  But they didn’t.  The miners were left to go it alone.  And then they were locked out by the mines’ new owners.

A team whose two star players were from St Helens really wouldn’t appreciate being described as “near Wigan” 🙂 – but this was very much a Lancashire thing, with the biggest teams being based in areas fairly close to the big Wigan-Salford coal mining belt.  Some of the money from the matches was going to help support the miners and their families.  So was that what really pissed off the men in suits at the FA, and was that the real reason for the ban?

I don’t know. It makes a cracking story.  Women are pushed out of the national sport for half a century because the Westminster elite were trying to do down the proud (I’m talking about Preston: I’ve got to get the word “proud” in there!) working classes of our great County Palatine.  But would the Establishment really have had that much influence over the FA?  We’re talking the 1920s, not the 1870s.  Then again, I suppose it didn’t have to be the Establishment: there wasn’t too much support for the starving miners and their families in many other quarters either.  It’s certainly a very interesting theory.

I think jealousy was probably the main cause, though. The men – and they were all men, and that’s an issue even now – at the FA just couldn’t bear the fact that female teams were attracting so much interest and such huge crowds.  Part of it was financial – they didn’t like the idea that ticket receipts etc which might otherwise have gone to men’s football were going to women’s football instead – and part of it was just pure male ego.  They couldn’t bear seeing women make such a success of something they thought should be a male-only preserve.

And, of course, the FA got what they wanted. Women’s football went into decline. It’s never, in this country, got back to the level that it was at in 1920.  It’s a lot bigger now than it was even a few years ago (oh, and don’t even get me started on the fact that United still haven’t got a ladies’ team – it’s a disgrace, and I find it extremely embarrassing especially given that the City and Liverpool ladies’ teams are two of the most prominent in the country) but even the women’s Euro 2017 event, currently taking place in the Netherlands, isn’t attracting the sort of interest that Dick, Kerr Ladies did back in the day.  You can’t force it.  There are plenty of other sports – tennis, for example – in which the women’s game does attract considerable interest.  But how different could it all have been if the FA hadn’t done what they did in 1921?   They killed something that was giving a lot of people a lot of harmless pleasure, and, whatever crap they came out with about it being unhealthy, they did it largely out of spite.  Red card.  Very definitely a red card.    And give the match ball to Clare Balding and Channel 4: Channel 4’s historical documentaries aren’t always very good, but this one was excellent.  Very, very interesting.