The Danish Queen by Lynda Andrews

Standard

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.

 

 

 

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory

Standard

Word Press

I said that there should be more books about Margaret Tudor 🙂 … and along came this one, Philippa Gregory’s latest. The “Three Sisters, Three Queens” of the title are Margaret herself, Queen of Scots, her younger sister Mary, briefly Queen of France, and their sister-in-law Catherine/Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England. However, the story is told from Margaret’s point of view.

It’s written in the first person and in the present tense, which I always find rather infantile, but that doesn’t really spoil it. It’s also fairly historically accurate by Philippa Gregory’s standards … although Mary’s second son doesn’t seem to be mentioned, and nor, strangely, does the birth of Elizabeth, although that could just be because the book ended in rather a hurry. The parts where it isn’t so accurate are mainly attempts at internal consistency with Philippa Gregory’s other books – the insistence that Henry VIII was the father of Mary Boleyn’s children, the hints that Perkin Warbeck really was Richard, Duke of York, and this silly notion about Jacquetta Woodville casting spells – and those could easily have been missed out completely. Shame they weren’t!

The three women all lived at court together for a while in their youth, and met again when Margaret briefly returned to London after losing control of affairs in Scotland. The closeness between Mary and Catherine is fairly well-known, but the relationships between them and Margaret aren’t really documented. And the attention given to Catherine generally focuses on the breakdown of her marriage to Henry, so that her conduct over the Battle of Flodden Field, having the body of her brother-in-law James IV seized and brought to London, and sending his bloodstained coat to Henry in France, is often overlooked. How did Margaret deal with that? Especially when, as a young, pregnant widow and mother of a toddler king, she needed Henry and Catherine’s support? We don’t really know, but Philippa Gregory does a reasonable job of imagining it. We also see Margaret’s conflicting emotions over Catherine’s rise and fall – again, we don’t really know how she felt, but it’s imagined and expressed pretty well.

Mary, however, is presented as a bit of a bimbo, which is a shame. There are so many fascinating questions about her, and about the contrast between her life and those of Catherine and Margaret. She never had any political power, but was she the happiest of the three? I love the fact that she defied Henry to marry Charles Brandon! OK, Brandon’s conduct before their marriage and after Mary’s tragically early death wasn’t exactly exemplary, but there’s no suggestion that he and Mary weren’t happy together.  Mary seems to have been happy with her choices in life.  So was she the one, of the three, whose life turned out best?

But Margaret also chose her own husbands. Her second and third husbands, that was. But she chose badly!   When the book ends, it’s Margaret who’s in the best position, with Mary dying and Catherine thrown over in favour of Anne Boleyn. But the fact that Margaret’s third marriage was as much of a disaster as her second is overlooked … and there’s another of Philippa Gregory’s historical inaccuracies!   Still, a contrast is drawn between Margaret and Mary, who to a considerable extent were able to choose their own paths, and Catherine, who, in the end, was no match for Henry’s power.

The ending’s actually very miserable, because it suggests that none of the women really have any power. I don’t know why Philippa Gregory chose to end the book like that, because it’s not the message that comes across elsewhere. Anne Boleyn’s even presented – by Margaret – as some sort of proto-feminist icon. She’s normally seen as the ultimate enemy of the sisterhood, That Woman, the younger, sexier women who steals a loyal, loving wife’s man … and it’s very unfair, because Henry went after her, not the other way round. But an interesting point’s made about how she, the descendant of London merchants, used her female power to become Queen of England. It’s an age in which the role of women was changing. Look at how well-educated Anne herself was, and, even more so, Catherine Parr, Elizabeth, and Lady Jane Grey. All of which makes it even more of a shame that the book ended on such a negative note.

I think it would have worked better if the book really had been “Three Sisters, Three Queens”, rather than being about one sister, one queen; but there are zillions of books about Catherine of Aragon and a few about Mary, whereas Margaret is generally neglected, so, hey, let Margaret take centre stage here! It’s also a shame that the book ends before the – admittedly brief – Anglo-Scottish peace of the mid-1530s, but I suppose it had to end somewhere. And, of course, Margaret’s great-grandson did eventually unite the thrones of England and Scotland, after all the Tudors’ well-known struggles to produce a male heir. This book suggests that she hoped all along that her descendants would inherit both thrones. Did she? Who knows? We know very little about her: that’s the problem. And that’s why – as yet another TV series about Henry VIII’s six wives is set to start! – it’s nice to see the neglected figure of Margaret take centre stage in this book. I think Philippa Gregory’s books are overrated, TBH, but they’re not bad. I keep reading them …

The Tudor Princess by Darcey Bonnette

Standard

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

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

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

 

 

Bloody Queens: Elizabeth and Mary – BBC 2

Standard

Word PressElizabeth I is and always has been a great heroine of mine, not a shadow of a doubt there, but I’ve been trying for thirty years to make up my mind about Mary Queen of Scots, and I still haven’t succeeded.  This programme took the view that Mary had a lot of style but not a lot of sense, and that sums it up quite well … but the problem is that we can’t be sure exactly what happened.  Were the Casket Letters (actually, I don’t think they mentioned the Casket Letters) genuine, and, the crux of the matter, did Mary go off with Bothwell by design or was she abducted and raped?  The historians interviewed in this programme all seemed to believe that she was in league with him, and probably in love with him as well.  I’d like to believe that that’s true, but there just isn’t enough evidence to say either way.  And that’s probably the question on which it all turns, because it was her alliance with Bothwell which lost her her throne – was she a stupid woman who got herself into a horrendous mess, or was she a tragic victim?

All right, it wasn’t all about Bothwell.  She should have had the sense to realise that Darnley was a bad choice.  And she could probably have tried to get on better with the Scottish nobles.  And, as was pointed out in this programme, both she and Elizabeth were caught up in much wider issues – France, Spain, and, above all, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants.  Mary became queen as a tiny baby, and then she was sent away to France, and then her first husband died, and then her second husband turned out to be a disaster, and the Scottish nobles were set against her anyway,  and people were looking to her as a Catholic alternative to Elizabeth in England… oh, what a mess!  And then there was Elizabeth, trying to sort everything out in England after the all the religious conflicts of the previous reign, and with Philip II stirring up trouble, and always having to be conscious that some people didn’t recognise her legitimacy.  I don’t think for a minute that she wanted to execute Mary, and I don’t think that she even wanted to imprison her.  She was just put in an impossible situation – and Mary made it all umpteen times worse by plotting against her.

Oh, Mary, could you not have tried to get to France?!  Not that Catherine de Medici would have wanted you there, but at least you were no threat to the French throne so she wouldn’t have felt obliged to put you in prison.  It would all have been so much less difficult that way.

I remember once reading a book in which the author – I forget who it was – said that it’s hard to believe that Elizabeth, had she been in Mary’s position in Scotland, would ever have got herself in such a mess.  It’s a good point.  Mary, like her grandson Charles I and her great-grandson James II and VII, seems to have been completely lacking in common sense.  But hers is a very sad story.  And I think it’s sad for Elizabeth, as well, because she was forced, by Mary’s actions, the actions of others and the threat from Spain, into making a decision that she didn’t want to make.  And, after all these years, I still can’t decide what I really think about Mary!

The Young Montrose by Nigel Tranter

Standard

Word Press

There are a lot of novels about the English Civil War, but very few about the other elements of the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”. Maybe the Bishops’ Wars and the civil war in Scotland have got an image problem. They don’t really fit into the Whig “1066 and all that” view of history, nor do they fit into the romantic Highland history image in the way that the Jacobite rebellions do. Also, it gets rather confusing when major figures change sides, which is what the Marquis of Montrose does – first he’s the leader of the Covenanters, then he’s the leader of the Scottish Royalists. And the whole thing’s messy enough in England. The king is prevented from becoming some sort of despot. This is good. Despots are what they had in places like France and Spain: we don’t do that here. Hurrah! Except that then Cromwell chops the king’s head off, and, following that, tries to turn the country into a theocracy, taking old men who won’t say their prayers by their left legs and throwing them down the stairs, banning mince pies and saying that you can’t play football on Sundays. And massacring people in Ireland. This is clearly not good. All rather head-scratching.

And it’s worse in Scotland. Jenny Geddes chucking her stool about in Edinburgh Cathedral makes an entertaining story, but the militant Covenanters are quite frightening. And then you get the Covenanters supporting Charles II against Cromwell and the Puritans, which always seems so totally arse-about-face. Very confusing.

All right, I’ll be serious now. To get back to the original point, there aren’t a lot of novels about this period in Scottish history. Most of the focus is on England. It was back then as well, and that was a big part of the problem. The Stewarts/Stuarts had been on the throne of Scotland for centuries, and then, come the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, they took themselves off to London as fast as their legs (or horses) could carry them. James I and VI managed the situation relatively well, but Charles I made a mess of it. Of all the reasons given for the English Civil War, and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms generally, surely the main one has to be that Charles was such a prize idiot! He badly mismanaged the situation in both England and Scotland, and Ireland as well, and contrived to offend just about everyone.   Ruling without Parliament. Monopolies. Ship money. And, the issue which kicked things off in Scotland, unwanted religious reforms.

I don’t know who edited this book, but “Arminians” were referred all the way through it as “Armenians”! It sounded as if Charles I and William Laud were trying to turn the Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland into a branch of Oriental Orthodoxy, which really would have been interesting. Oh well. Anyway, the so-called Bishops’ Wars broke out in Scotland, with Montrose as the leader of the Covenanters. Then, because the militant, extremist Covenanters were so frightening, Montrose ended up as leader of the Royalists.

What a horrible choice! A very silly monarch who’d put everyone’s backs up and offended nearly everyone’s ideas of what was important, or a bunch of religious extremists. Anyway, he took the Royalist side, and, as a soldier, he did an excellent job … but the war was bloody and brutal, and, as we all know, the Royalists were doomed to defeat.

Montrose eventually met a sticky end at the hands of Cromwell, but this book doesn’t go that far. What it does is present an important reminder of the fact that, for over a century, England and Scotland were part of a personal union but not an official political union, and an interesting picture of a man caught up in an impossible set of circumstances, who tried to do his best in what was really a no-win situation. It’s all very sad, really. The seventeenth century in British history was one great big mess. It’s supposed to be the defining time in British history, but it can’t have been very much fun for the people who lived through it.

 

The Stuarts in Exile – BBC 4

Standard

Word Press

I was expecting this programme to be about … well, the Stuarts in exile. Or about the Fifteen, seeing as we’re just coming up to its tercentenary. I was therefore rather bemused that Clare Jackson chose to spend quite so much of it having a go at the 1st Duke of Marlborough. She spent way more time talking about him that she spent talking about either the Glorious Revolution or the Fifteen, and the Stuarts’ life in exile barely got mentioned at all!

I should point out that Marlborough – plain John Churchill, as he was in 1688 – and I go back a long way :-), to when I “did” the War of the Spanish Succession as my “special subject” at university. Clare Jackson’s problem with him seemed to be that he changed sides in 1688 and kept a toe in both the Hanoverian and Jacobite camps in the later years of Queen Anne’s reign. Well, yes, but so did a lot of other people. Not that many people openly came out in support of William of Orange until he’d actually landed, but, once he had, most people backed him. And Robert Harley, who switched sides from the Whigs to the Tories and became the leader of the Tory faction and a very senior government minister, actually engaged in secret correspondence with the French – with whom Britain was at war – with a view to making James Edward Anne’s heir. None of that got mentioned, did it? Maybe Clare just liked the idea of being filmed wandering round Blenheim Palace. The clue’s in the name, love – Blenheim Palace: it’s all about the War of the Spanish Succession. This programme was supposed to be about the Jacobites.

Plenty of other things didn’t get mentioned either. If you’re going to talk about the Duke of Marlborough, then you really need to talk about the Duchess as well. William would probably have succeeded in 1688 without the support of John Churchill, but it could’ve got very awkward if he hadn’t had the support of Princess Anne, whose close friendship with Sarah Churchill was certainly a factor in deciding her actions at that time and continued to be important for many years afterwards. But where were the references to Sarah? Come to that, if you’re going to try to associate the Churchills with the Jacobites, you really need to point out that Arabella Churchill, Marlborough’s sister, had been James II’s mistress, and that, as a result, the Old Pretender’s half-brother, the Earl of Berwick, was Marlborough’s nephew. Not mentioned once.

Oh, and, speaking of nephews, there was no mention of the fact that William of Orange was James II’s nephew, as well as being his son-in-law, nor of the fact that Louis XIV was James II’s cousin. I hate to sound like some sort of gossip magazine, but these things were actually relevant! Louise Marie, James II’s daughter, who was born after the Glorious Revolution and sadly died at the age of 19, wasn’t mentioned at all. Nor, and this really was ridiculous, was the Duke of Gloucester, Anne’s son, who lived until the age of 11. It was never really likely that he was going to survive to adulthood, because of his many health problems, but it was his death in 1700 which prompted the Act of Settlement and brought the Hanoverians into the equation. Rather more significant than the gardens at Blenheim Palace, however nice they may be.

(And it’s a minor point, but it seemed very odd to talk about the Jacobites marching on Newcastle but finding the city’s gates barred against them without mentioning that this is why the good people of Newcastle are referred to as Geordies – the supporters of George!)

Oh dear, I’m being really negative, aren’t I? It wasn’t that the programme wasn’t interesting, just that it didn’t seem to focus on the most appropriate areas! Anyway, it did eventually get round to talking about the Fifteen. The semi-forgotten rebellion. Whilst coming back from a visit to Pitlochry this time last year, I saw a signpost for Sheriffmuir, and it took me a minute to think why I knew the name (it’s the site of the major battle of the 1715 Jacobite Uprising). That’s pretty strange, really. Everyone knows the name Culloden! And the defeat of the English Jacobites at Preston isn’t talked about much even in Preston itself, not the way that the Civil War Battle of Preston and the Jacobite advance through Lancashire in 1745 are. Wandering slightly off the point, Clare Jackson referred to it as the last battle fought on English soil, but there’s a debate about that: most people would say that it wasn’t really a battle and that the last actual battle fought on English soil was Sedgemoor.

So why is the Fifteen the forgotten rebellion? Really, it’s the one that should have succeeded. In 1688, the “political nation” was fed up of James II, and most other people still remembered the Civil War, or had heard about it from older generations, and just didn’t want any more trouble. By 1745, more than half a century had passed since the Glorious Revolution, the Hanoverians had been in situ for over thirty years, England and Lowland Scotland were doing very nicely in the Union and you’d’ve thought that the chances of a Jacobite restoration were long past. In 1715, there should have been a very real chance of James Edward taking the throne. There’d been those secret negotiations with Harley & co. If James Edward had had the nous to do what his great-grandfather, Henri “Paris is worth a mass” IV of France had done, and change his religion, he would probably have been named as Anne’s heir. As it was, George I had become king, but he hadn’t been there very long, he was very much an unknown quantity, and there was a lot of discontent with the powers that were because of the South Sea Bubble and so on.

But James Edward was a worse than useless leader, Louis XIV died in the middle of it all, the Earl of Mar made a mess of things, and the Government handled everything very well – better than the Government of 1745 was to do. And then … well, not very much happened. After the Forty-Five, the authorities came down on the Highlands like a ton of bricks, broke up the clan system, even banned the wearing of traditional Highland dress. And the Forty-Five became a romantic Lost Cause. And it had its romantic stories, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his hair-raising adventures, Flora MacDonald, wee bonnie boats over the sea to Skye. And, the Battle of the Boyne, part of the original Jacobite campaign of 1688-92, is seen as a symbol of Loyalism and Protestantism in Northern Ireland and marked with an annual Bank Holiday to this day. I don’t know what on earth William of Orange would make of the Orange Lodge marches, and I’m not sure what Charles Edward would make of being remembered as some sort of romantic tragi-hero, but they both have their places in popular culture, whereas James Edward and the Fifteen just … well, don’t, really.

One last thought. Seeing as so much of this programme was about the Duke of Marlborough rather than about the Stuarts or the Hanoverians, I shall finish up by pointing out that our next monarch but one, Prince William, is descended from the Hanoverians, from (albeit via the “bend sinister”) the senior line of the Stuarts through Charles II, and from the 1st Duke of Marlborough. I’d love to know if he ever thinks about that!