The Woman in the Shadows by Carol McGrath

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With everything that’s going on, the publication of the third “Wolf Hall” novel’s rather gone under the radar.  I didn’t particularly enjoy the first two anyway; but I did enjoy this, about Elizabeth Cromwell, nee Wykes, the wife of Thomas Cromwell.  It’s got a few sub-plots which aren’t properly developed, and it jumps about in time, both of which are annoying, but it’s generally a very interesting read.  Books about the Tudor period usually revolve around the upper-classes and their servants, so it’s good to read something about “the middling sort”, Elizabeth being the daughter and widow of cloth merchants, and Thomas the son of a cloth merchant and blacksmith.  And, whilst a lot of it’s invented because the facts aren’t known, it doesn’t take any liberties with facts that are known, unlike certain other books about the Tudor period.

Not much is actually known about Elizabeth.  She was a young widow when she married Thomas.  They had three children, but, sadly, two of them died young of the sweating sickness, and Elizabeth herself died of the sweating sickness long before Cromwell became Henry VIII’s chief minister.  He never remarried.

The book suggests – and this is all fictional – that Elizabeth took over the running of her first husband’s cloth business after he died, and did a reasonably good job of running it until it was merged with Cromwell’s business after they married.  That certainly could have happened: it wasn’t unknown for widows to run businesses at the time.  It also shows the jealousy that the Cromwells encounter as they move up the social ladder, which seems very likely to have happened, and gives some fascinating detail about the running of a “middling rank” London household during the 1510s and 1520s.  There’s also quite a bit about Cromwell’s interest in humanism and religious reform, an important reminder that there was plenty of interest in “new ideas” in England before the break with Rome, and that it was not all about Henry VIII wanting to marry Anne Boleyn.

On the negative side, there are some rather strange storylines about plots and spies, none of which are really gone into properly.  For a start, Carol McGrath’s created a storyline in which Elizabeth’s first husband is gay, and some Italian monks find out about this, and Elizabeth’s cloth warehouse is burnt down because the monks are after a servant whom they thought had been his lover.  The monks, or whoever they are, vanish into the background for a while, but then they and the servant reappear later on, and it isn’t very clear what’s happened with any of them.  Then there’s a sub-plot involving an ex-suitor who claims that he and Elizabeth had been formally betrothed and demands her dowry, but he just seems to fade out of the picture as well.  It makes for plenty of drama, but the plots should really have been resolved properly.

However, generally, it’s really not bad.  There’s some interesting information about the sumptuary laws, and there are some lovely descriptions of gardens and houses, and indeed cloth, as well as the minutiae of daily life.  And, in the time it’s taken me to write this, my brain has headed back to the 16th century and temporarily escaped the coronavirus nightmare!  Books are very important at this time, and I hope everyone’s got plenty of them!

Royal History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley – BBC 4

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When it stuck to telling the story, this was a fairly interesting run-through of the basics of the English Reformation, although it would have been nice if Lucy Worsley had remembered that she was supposed to be appealing to an adult audience and spent a bit less time putting on fake warts, dressing up and sniggering about constipation.  However, I’m not sure that any of the myths it claimed to be dispelling actually exist.  Anne Boleyn’s seen as nothing more than a tart?  No, she isn’t.  That’s Catherine Howard.  Everyone thinks that the Reformation was universally welcomed.  Seriously?  Was it just my school where we had to learn all about the Pilgrimage of Grace, even in the second year?   No-one realises that Catholics were persecuted during Elizabeth’s reign?  Yes, they do.  Loads of stately homes still have priest holes.

If anyone was creating myths, it was the BBC, yet again pushing its own political agenda into what was supposed to be a historical documentary.  Please tell me that we’re not going to get this all through “Back in Time for the Corner Shop”, which starts next week. Cromwell was trying to create a mythical national history?   No.  He was just a clever lawyer manipulating archaic texts in a way that worked for him and Henry.  Clever lawyers do things like that.  The Reformation was about England withdrawing from European affairs?  Well, that quite explains why Henry wasted a load of the money from the Dissolution of the Monasteries on invading France, and Elizabeth got involved in the Dutch war against the Spanish.  Perhaps the BBC thinks that the Mary Rose was on a booze cruise when it sank.  The Dissolution of the Monasteries is to blame for the concentration of power in London?  Tell that to the Percys and the Stanleys!

The parts of the programme which just stuck to the facts, instead of claiming to be trying to dispel non-existent myths and making out that British politics in 2020 revolve around the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, were very good, though.  It was a shame that they didn’t just stick to that, because, considering it was only an hour, it was an impressively comprehensive run-through of over half a century of very eventful history.

It started with Lucy dressing up as Martin Luther and saying that he didn’t really nail the 95 theses to a church door because he was too busy writing about being constipated. I’m not sure what that had to do with Royal history. We then moved on to Henry VIII wanting to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, which is probably the best-known episode in English history.  And, at this point, we did, to be fair, get some genuine myth-busting.  We had the term “Henrician Catholicism” hammered into us at A-level, but, yes, there is inevitably an idea that Henry was a Protestant.  Which he wasn’t.

And there are a lot of myths about Catherine and Anne – and it’s very interesting, because, given how negative the view of Catholicism in England was during the late 16th, 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries, you’d think Anne would be seen as the heroine and Catherine as the villain, but it’s the other way round. Catherine wasn’t as saintly as she’s made out to be, and Anne is unfairly vilified – it wasn’t her fault that Henry took a shine to her and scuppered her chances of marrying anyone else – but the programme didn’t go into that. Instead, it talked about how Anne was a very intelligent woman and a genuine Protestant. That was all true, and it’s not often mentioned, but the point Lucy seemed to be trying to make was that Anne’s just seen as a “sexpot”. Is she?

Then it moved on to Thomas Cromwell, and this really was nonsense. Yes, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century chronicles did go on about the idea of the realm of England being an empire, and, yes, Cromwell did use that to make up an argument about how the Pope had no authority over English affairs, but he wasn’t trying to create some sort of national myth, just get round the problem of Henry not being able to get out of his marriage to Catherine whilst the Pope was being held captive by Catherine’s nephew.  Geoffrey of Monmouth also said that King Arthur was descended from Aeneas, of Virgil’s Aeneid fame, and I’m fairly sure that no-one thinks that that’s part of any sort of national myth.  If anyone created myths of English history, it was Shakespeare, not Cromwell.  And apparently Henry was pulling out of Europe.  When he wasn’t invading France, presumably.  Or maybe the BBC thinks France is on Mars or something.

We then got a load of utter bullshit about how this was all connected with Brexit.  Right, and presumably Spain staying out of the Second World War was because St James is supposed to have appeared in the middle of the Battle of Clavijo, and the Napoleonic Wars were all about the Song of Roland.  Give it a rest, BBC.  It’s getting very tiresome.  This was supposed to be a history programme.

When Lucy actually shut up about all this rubbish and talked about Cromwell also being a Protestant and the other reasons for the Reformation, what she had to say was interesting, but there just wasn’t enough of it. And the “political earthquake” wasn’t about relations with Europe, it was about the role of Parliament. A lot of kings and their advisors wouldn’t even have bothered with legalities and legislation, but Henry and Cromwell did: that was the political earthquake. Parliament even abolished purgatory! It was a very important moment on the road to democracy. Not a mention of that. It’d have been too positive.

On to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This part of the programme was genuinely very good, explaining that the Dissolution was about destroying the power of the Church, not just about money-grabbing, and also talking about the problems caused by the loss of the monasteries, which had provided shelter and healthcare for people with nowhere else to go, and how Cromwell had introduced legislation aiming to protect vulnerable people now that the monasteries were gone.   I’m not sure that I get the argument that there’s a myth that the Dissolution was a good thing and was welcomed, though.  But I suppose you can argue that there was in Victorian times, when there were all sorts of strange ideas about what went on in … well, convents more than monasteries.

Anyway, this was all pretty good stuff, until out came a lot of waffle about the Dissolution concentrating power in the hands of the metropolitan elite.  Annoying as the BBC’s insistence on spoiling historical programmes by going on about current political issues is, it was quite refreshing to see them having a dig at the metropolitan elite, instead of having a dig at everyone else!   I’m not sure that the argument worked, though.  I suppose you can argue that the monasteries were important centres of learning, but their destruction didn’t affect the power of great Northern families such as the Percys and the Stanleys.  And saying that it concentrated power in the hands of elites made no sense at all – plenty of people who hadn’t previously been part of elites got a boost because they got the monastic land.  Anyone know how far the Earl of Grantham’s title dates back 😉 ?

I was getting rather exasperated by this point, but we then moved on all the to-ing and fro-ing during the reigns of Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, and thankfully the BBC managed to keep its political agenda pushing out of this.  Lady Jane Grey didn’t get mentioned at all, and Edward’s reign only got a few seconds.  On to “Bloody Mary”.  Now, we did the Reformation twice at school, first in the second year and then for A-level.  In the second year, we had some rather ancient text books in which the chapter on Mary’s reign was entitled “Turn or Burn” – which made it sound as if half the country met a nasty end in the bonfires of Smithfield.  Which was rather an exaggeration. But that’s how Mary’s remembered – and, as Lucy pointed out, a lot of that is to do with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Hooray!  This was more like it!  This was a proper history programme!  It also talked about how plenty of “heretics” were executed in Elizabeth’s reign too – although, to be fair, I think people are aware of that.  No-one thinks that life for Catholics was easy under Elizabeth.  Given how much the BBC hates to say anything positive about England/Britain, I wondered if Lucy might have a go at Gloriana, but she was very fair and explained that the Pope’s attitude towards Elizabeth pushed her into taking action against Catholics.

It them all got rather bizarre, jumping back to Anne Boleyn’s time, messing about with fake warts, and interviewing one of the producers of Six The Musical .  But parts of this programme really were very good, and it was just a shame that, as with American History’s Biggest Fibs, as with The Rise of the Nazis and as with Downfall of a King, and, in particular, as with Back in Time for School, the BBC had to spoil it by trying to push its own agenda about modern political issues.  I’m hoping that they’ll have given it a rest with Back in Time for the Corner Shop, but I’m not holding my breath.  It’s such a shame, because these programmes would be very good otherwise.