The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

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

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

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

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

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

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This would have been quite a good read, if hardly the book of the year, and albeit being written in the present tense (I do wish that this trend for books for adults to be written in the present tense would die a rapid death), if it had just been a story about a fictional character; but it’s rather annoying when authors pin their own stories on real historical figures, in this case Anne Hathaway.  Very little is known about Anne, either before, during or after her marriage to Shakespeare, and the author hasn’t contradicted any of what is known; but she’s written a tale about a fey/cunning/wise woman, and then given the woman the name of a real historical person and fitted the story into what’s known of that person’s life.  Is that annoying?  Or is someone about whom so little is known fair game for any story that a writer cares to come up with?

The title’s rather confusing, because it suggests that the book’s about Hamnet, the Shakespeares’ son who died aged around 11.  In fact, the book’s rather confusing generally.  The main character is called Agnes, not Anne.  Yes, I know that Anne Hathaway is named in her father’s will as “Agnes”, but she’s referred to as “Anne” everywhere else, and everyone knows her as “Anne”!   And it jumps backwards and forwards, between the present, which is Hamnet’s illness, his death, and the family trying to come to terms with it, and the past, which is Agnes/Anne’s life up to this point.

It does actually start with Hamnet, and it starts very, very slowly, as page after page is filled with Hamnet’s search to come to help his twin sister Judith, who’s been taken ill.  The story which Maggie O’Farrell’s come up with is that it’s originally Judith who falls ill, and that Hamnet tricks death into taking him instead – so there is a bit of a supernatural thing going on there, and that runs throughout the book, with Agnes, as I said, being a bit fey.  The grief of Agnes and of Hamnet’s sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the issues caused by Shakespeare working away, and the question of whether or not there was a connection between Hamnet’s death and the writing of the play “Hamlet” are all quite well-portrayed.

So, to be fair, is the story of Agnes’s childhood, her marriage to William Shakespeare and her early married life, once the book gets going and once you accept that this fey/cunning woman story has been hung on to the life of Anne Hathaway.  Not an awful lot actually happens, but it’s not meant to be a book about national political events.  It does, however, mention that the playhouses were closed during the plague season … oh, when will we be able to go back to the theatre?!

All in all, not a bad book, and certainly well worth the 99p which it cost me when it came up as a Kindle daily deal.  I just wasn’t entirely convinced by the idea of combining a story about a real family with a story about a different topic.  But, hey, maybe that’s just me!

 

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.

 

 

 

A Merry Tudor Christmas with Lucy Worsley – BBC 2

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I’ve always rather fancied the idea of Christmas at the court of Henry VIII, although I dread to imagine how many calories people must have got through.  Eat, drink and be merry … before the Puritans come along and put the kybosh on it all!  Decorate your work tools so that they can’t be used: come on, folks, get those office computers festooned with holly and icy.  Keep dancing into January, and then get stuck into a Twelfth Night cake that’s a full yard in diameter.  And make sure you get Henry a good prezzie, because he’ll be opening it in full view of the entire court.  This really was good fun, and, it being the festive season, Lucy’s dressing up didn’t seem that annoying for once.

Henry apparently spent £7,000 on Christmas festivities in 1509.  That’s a serious amount of money even now, never mind over 500 years ago.  And he didn’t even eat most of the food that was put in front of him.  Well, not then, when he was young and slim, anyway.  However, the leftovers were given away to the poor.  Marinated pigs’ ears wouldn’t really do it for me, but it was fascinating seeing the re-creation of the sort of things that would have been on the menu then.  The intricate creations in marchpane particularly caught my eye. You see them abroad sometimes, especially in Sicily, but it’s rare to see them here.

Roast beef … now, that’s more my thing than marinated pigs’ ears would be.  And it was interesting to hear about the Welsh influence on the mead they drank – it’s well-known that Henry VII was keen to play up his Welsh links, but you don’t think so much about Henry VIII doing the same.  A lot of drinking went on!   It’s easy to fall into the Victorian trap of imagining a Merrie Englande that never actually existed, but, in the case of Tudor Christmases, it really did.  Court masques.  Carol singing.   The Lords of Misrule on Twelfth Night.  And all that food!

Twelve days of feasting.  The biggest difference between Christmas then and Christmas now is probably that, in Tudor times, it was all about the Twelve Days of Christmas, with people fasting during Advent.  The pre-Christmas fast still seems to be a thing in some predominantly Orthodox countries, but it certainly isn’t here.  The partying starts well before Christmas Eve, and then no-one really knows what to do with themselves during “Twixmas”, and it’s usually back to work and diets on January 2nd.  I’ve always wanted a Twelfth Night cake, ever since I first read about them in Katherine L Oldmeadow’s Princess Prunella!  Maybe not one a yard across, though.

Of course, this was only at court, but, even for the less well-off people, Christmas was a time of celebration.  Homes were decorated with greenery – and that’s a tradition going way back before Christianity.  Lords of the manor would usually give out food.  “We want some figgy pudding … we won’t go until we get some!” There were mummers’ plays.   And sports were enjoyed – rather miserably, they were banned for much of the year, to stop rowdy behaviour and to make people concentrate on archery.  Except at court, obviously.  Play as much tennis as you liked there!  But, at Christmas, play as much as you liked anywhere!

Then along came the Puritans.  Mind you, I keep going on about the Puritans spoiling people’s fun, but, until the early 1830s, there were over 30 Bank Holidays in England – secular holidays like Oak Apple Day and Bonfire Night, as well as religious holidays.  Wakes weeks were still going until very recently.  William Harrison Ainsworth writes about Twelfth Night festivities in Manchester well into the 19th century, and Dickens mentions Twelfth Night as well.  So a lot of these festivities long outlasted the Puritans … but didn’t make it through till today.  Shame!  As Lucy said, early January can be a pretty miserable time, and a bit of singing and dancing would liven it up no end.

I really enjoyed this.  It was good fun.  We do still have quite a Puritanical culture in many ways, and it’s easy to frown at excessive eating, drinking and spending, but life is short, winter nights are long, and people deserve to enjoy themselves.  £7,000 in 1509’s money – Google informs me that a labourer’s annual wage would have been £5 to £10 – does seem a bit extravagant, though …