Saturday, 5 April 2014

Review of Isabella, Braveheart of France by Colin Falconer

'Isabella, Braveheart of France' is an intriguing title chosen by Colin Falconer, because it immediately made it associate it with the dreadful 'Braveheart' film.  It also made me think this was going to be yet another novel with poor, wronged Isabella, innocently marrying Edward and unaware of the great love of her husband's life, Piers Gaveston.  We do indeed get an Isabella, young and naive, and of course beautiful, who imagines her husband will fall madly in love with her and they will live happily ever after.  However, what we don't get is a weak and vain Edward who enjoys inflicting cruelty upon his child bride.  Instead, Isabella comes to understand no matter how beautiful she is, it will never be enough for her husband to give up his love for Piers - even when Piers is murdered.  Years later, Isabella hears Edward talking aloud to the long dead Piers, and their marriage continues to be haunted by his spirit.

Piers himself is more of a presence in this novel than a character.  Although there are scenes featuring him, we never get a physical description of him, which I found puzzling and frustrating.  We don't even know if he is blonde or dark-haired, the colour of his eyes etc.  We know he's graceful, elegant and actually quite likable - he doesn't behave spitefully towards Isabella at all.  Edward of course does everything he can to protect Piers - to the point where Piers says if he were a woman, Edward would be admired for protecting his ' honour'.  Edward's grief at losing Piers is very movingly written.

The characters/roles of Roger Mortimer and Hugh Despencer are very interesting and not what I was expecting.  I won't give away too much, but Despencer turns out to be Edward's revenge on England for the loss of Piers, and Mortimer's relationship with Isabella is not what I expected - it's far from a great romance and Mortimer at times is brutal towards her in the bedroom, and there are times she longs for Edward's gentle hands.

This novel is well worth a read, and is available in Kindle and paperback format.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

BBC 2 series on the Plantagenets begins next week!

Robert Bartlett begins a new series on BBC 2 next week about the Plantagenetss next week.  The blurb says he will cover the dynasty from Henry II to Richard III.  The opener is called - not surprisingly - the Devil's brood.  Looking forward to it.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Original bad boy?

On my recent visit to Worcester, my main focus was the beautiful chantry containing the tomb of Prince Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII.  But Arthur is not the only royal tomb inside Worcester Cathedral - the tomb of King John is also there.  John has perhaps the blackest reputation of any King of England, with perhaps the exception of Richard III - but unlike Richard III he has very few supporters who try to defend him.  As the fifth son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, John was not expected to play any significant role in history, and was always over-shadowed by his elder brothers, earning him the nicknames 'John Lackland' and 'John Softsword'.

 John's reign is also written off as a disaster - the loss of the Angevin Empire, his treatment of the clergy, falling foul of the Papacy, his lust for his young wife Isabella of Angeloume , the murder of his nephew Arthur, his greed/taxation and of course Magna Carta, his surrender to the barons in 1215.  Throw in tales of Robin Hood, and John is pretty much done for. 

In a prĂ©cis for his defence, the Angevin Empire was far too big to be ruled by one person, and it's break-up inspired John to create the English navy, primogeniture had not been fully established in England for inheritance, and,at 12, Isabella would have been of little interest to John, but her lands certainly would have been. Chroniclers of the time were usually churchmen, and therefore unlikely to be supporters of John after his fall-out with the Papacy and his refusal to go on crusade.  When the Pope placed an interdict on England, John set about fining the clergy and made money from the situation.  It's highly likely the loss of the 'crown jewels' in the Wash was exaggerated. John was also faced, as regent, for raising taxation in order to ransom his brother Richard, and inherited debts from him.  As for Magna Carta, John immediately went back on his word, and the document really came to prominence centuries later when it was raised to defeat a different monarch.  In it's time, it did not achieve that status.

There's no doubt there was something about John's character that lacked the charisma of his brothers and the loyalty they inspired.  Despite this, he was the only member of his family to spend considerable time in England and to be even buried there.  I had hoped to post some pictures of John's tomb, but despite taking about 20, only 2 came out clearly - just John's luck, eh?  here's one of them.

Below is a sketch of John's tomb from the 19th Century.

And here is a much better photo of the tomb.  The effigy and tomb were completed in 1232 -16 years after John's death.  You can see the similarities with Prince Arthur's tomb and that of Griffiths ap Ryce.

The reason for this was that in 1529 John's tomb was opened, and may have actually been moved slightly.  The tomb was opened again in 1797, and John's remains analysed.  John was found to be 5 ft 6½inches. He was dressed in a  robe of crimson damask, but by 1797 most of the embroidery had deteriorated. There were also the remains of a sword and parts of the scabbard.   It was John's wish to be buried in Worcester having visited it several times during his lifetime -  "I will that my body be buried in the church of St. Mary and St. Wulfstan of Worcester".  John was the only member of his family to be buried in England.   I've never seen it, but have been told by someone who has, that John's thumb bone was removed, placed in a casket and is kept in the archives of Worcester Cathedral.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Something about King John?

For the last 2 days, I've been trying to upload my pictures from Worcester Cathedral featuring the tomb of King John.  First I discover hardly any of them are any good or have simply emerged as a black blob, and then my blog refuses to upload the pictures I've chosen or indeed any pictures of John's tomb.  John just never seems to have much luck, dead or alive!  Will keep trying!

Thursday, 20 February 2014

On this day.......

In my last post, I dealt with the birth of Piers Gaveston’s daughter Joan, probably on January 12th.   Joan’s mother was of course Piers’ wife, Margaret de Clare.  February 20th is the anniversary of Margaret de Clare’s, ‘churching’. 

The ‘churching’ of a woman was an important occasion and a time of celebration.  It was a thanksgiving ceremony that took place 40 days after the birth of the child – a sort of thanksgiving ceremony for the survival of the mother.  Even if the child did not survive it was still expected the mother would be ‘churched’. 

In pre-Reformation days, it was the tradition in Catholic England for women to carry lighted tapers when being churched.  This was symbolic in that it alluded to the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. At her churching, a woman was expected to make some offering the church. 

Margaret would have followed the tradition, waiting 40 days until she re-appeared in public – and be allowed back to worship in Church.

Not surprisingly, Edward II was delighted with the birth – especially as it meant that it brought Piers back to England.  And of course, Joan was his great-niece.  For Margaret’s ‘churching’ he spent the equivalent of £40 on celebrations, which included minstrels.   Queen Isabella also attended.  It must have been a very happy time for Edward and Piers – little did they know what tragedy lay ahead in June of that year.

Friday, 10 January 2014

January 1312 - birth of Joan Gaveston

During the second week of January, Margaret de Clare, wife of Piers Gaveston, gave birth to their first and only child, a daughter named Joan.  She was named Joan after Edward II’s sister, Joan of Acre, who was the mother of Margaret de Clare.  At the time of her birth,  Piers was enduring his third banishment from England, imposed by the nobility on Edward II in the Ordinances of the previous year.   Joan was born in York, and doubtless Piers desperately wanted to see his wife and newborn daughter.  Ignoring the Ordinances, Piers returned to England (although there is speculation that he had actually never left, and that he merely laid low somewhere in England).   It seems Piers saw his wife and child on January 13th.  This visit set in motion the chain of events that would end in the murder of Piers.

It’s unknown how long Piers intended to stay.  The choice of Edward II bringing Margaret de Clare to York from Piers' residence in Wallingford, may have been to keep Piers and his wife and child as far away as possible from his enemies, and give them as much time together as possible.  Piers could have taken his wife and child with him back into exile.  However, Edward II thought differently.  Less than a week later, on January 18th, Edward  declared that Piers was a loyal friend and restored his title Earl of Cornwall. 
 It’s intriguing to think about what Edward and Piers discussed during that period.  Indeed, did they make plans for a more permanent return from exile before Piers even began his exile, and arrange his return when his wife gave birth?  Did he actually ever leave England? Or did Edward persuade Piers to stay only when he met him in January 1312?  Or maybe it was Piers who asked Edward to allow him to stay?  It’s something we’ll never know, and I have to wonder if both Edward and Piers knew how serious the situation was.  Giving Piers his title of earl of Cornwall back was highly inflammatory.  Whatever their plans and thoughts,  Piers was surely delighted to be re-united with his wife and see his baby daughter, as no doubt Margaret de Clare was pleased to see him.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The best reads of 2013

There were no new non-fiction books on Edward II in 2013.  And the discovery of Richard III’s remains meant that for once the huge influx of books on the Tudors was seriously challenged by the White Rose.  As usual, my best books list includes very little historical fiction.  Despite there being a few novels featuring Isabella, wife of Edward II, I wouldn’t recommend any of them.  The only fictional book to make my list is – 

1.     Towards Auramala: The mystery of King Edward II's fate by Ivan Fowler.  I won’t give too much to away, suffice to say it gives an interesting account of the possible survival of Edward II in Italy.

2.     ‘In the footsteps of Anne Boleyn’ by Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger is a must for anyone interested in Anne Boleyn but especially for those to whom she is a serious interest.  The book plots all the known places visited by Anne Boleyn throughout her life, from the obvious, such as Hever castle, and the less well-known Thornbury Castle.  It’s a fascinating read and has some superb pictures, some of them taken personally by the authors. 

3.     ‘Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors’ by Chris Skidmore.  I bought this book at the BBC Talk Tudor day, an event at which Chris Skidmore spoke.  It gives an insightful build-up to the battle of Bosworth and the early life of Henry VII.  Once again, the use of personal photos by the author is a welcome addition. 

4.     The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England's Most Infamous Family, by Susan Higginbotham.  I was really looking forward to reading Susan’s non-fiction book on the Woodvilles and she didn’t disappoint!  As well as examining some of the off-repeated stories about the Woodvilles – for example, plundering the royal treasure – I particularly enjoyed Susan’s research into Anthony Woodville – his character and patronage. 

5.     The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo.  Not the usual run of the mill biography of Anne Boleyn.  Instead, Bordo takes a look at the original primary sources and the motives of those who wrote them, and how these sources shaped the perception of the roles allotted to Anne Boleyn throughout history.  The book then looks at the portrayal of Anne in fiction and media such as the cinema and TV.  I particularly enjoyed the interview with Natalie Dormer, who played Anne in the recent TV series ‘The Tudors’. 

6.     Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda  De Lisle.  Very well-written and researched.  I particularly enjoyed reading about Margaret Beaufort.   

7.     OK, this is a book that should be split in half.  The King's Grave: The Search for Richard III by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones.  Undoubtedly the discovery of the burial place and remains of Richard III has to be the history story of the year.  The part of the book which focuses on the search for Richard’s grave is very interesting and readable – the research of John Ashdown Hill, raising the funds for the project, the explanation of the dig itself, the matching of the DNA.  Alas, the part which deals with the history of Richard III himself is woeful, and once again it is a defence of anything Richard was accused of and demonising that horrid Henry – Tudor, that is.  So we get the tale of poor Richard having to endure the killing of his father and elder brother Edmund, who just might have been killed after the battle of Wakefield, whilst the death of the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, Edward, son of Henry VI, is given during the battle of Tewkesbury – despite there being more than one source that says he was killed afterwards.  The brutal slaying of Hastings is smoothed over with continuous referrals to how Richard honoured him (yes, really), by allowing him to be buried in Windsor as he requested.   Richard is traumatised by the possible rape of his mother Cecily by Lancastrian supports, but Henry Tudor is a coward at 12 years old for fleeing the battle in which Lord Herbert, his guardian, is captured and killed.  At the battle of Bosworth, Henry Tudor is the luckiest man ever to enter the battlefield – the word is used repeatedly – and Henry is again accused as a coward for hiding behind his pike-men – who luckily are using the best in pikes!  Richard isn’t reckless in his charge towards Henry – he’s so chivalrous he believes in fighting Henry hand to hand.  I have to wonder where he learnt this chivalry – from his brothers, Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence?  I hardly think so.  Excellent role models in ruthless ambition. Even admitting that Richard more than likely killed ‘the princes in the Tower’, does not alter the extreme bias of this part of the book.  It’s such a shame.  Richard III was a man of his times – and those times were violent.  He was not the monster of Shakespeare – although I am amazed that anyone would think Shakespeare a historian rather than a play-write.  A far more balanced book should have been produced.  Richard doesn't need another saintly defence of his character.  Rather, he needs a more balanced approach and his life needs to be looked at in the context of his times.