Category Archives: Tudor

Six Tudor Queens IV: Anna of Kleve – Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir

Headline Review | 2019 (2 May) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book

Anna of Kleve: Queen of Secrets by Alison WeirIn 1540 Henry VIII married his fourth wife, here named Anna of Kleve, but it was a marriage that was to last mere months. Henry had fallen in love with Anna’s portrait, painted by the master Holbein, but the reality was, so legend tells us, not so pleasing to the ailing King’s eye. Alison Weir’s marvellous fictional retelling of the stories of Henry’s wives once more takes a fresh look at what is very familiar history. She questions what we know and puts forward an alternative interpretation. Henry famously compared Anna to a Flemish mare but perhaps there was more to it than that. That there were other reasons why the marriage remained unconsummated.

Queen of Secrets begins in 1530 in the court of Duke Johann III of Kleve, a fair city located on the Rhine. Johann’s daughter Anna is fifteen years old, betrothed to the son of the Duke of Lorraine, and very ready to fall in love. And so begins a sequence of events that will overshadow the rest of Anna’s life. I think that the degree to which you enjoy the novel may depend on how far you accept the author’s somewhat controversial interpretation of Anna’s early years. I didn’t necessarily believe it but I wasn’t ready to dismiss it entirely either. This is, after all, a work of fiction and as long as it rings true with the Anna that Alison Weir presents – which it does – then I’m ready to fall once more into the pleasures of Weir’s richly painted Tudor world.

This is the novel of the six that I was looking forward to the most, largely because so little is known, relatively, about this fourth wife. I’ve visited Anna’s home in Lewes, East Sussex, and I’ve always been fascinated by her. It’s hard to imagine how frightened she must have felt to arrive in England only to be rejected by a King with a history of killing his wives. The novel puts all of this in its context, showing us a court torn apart by power struggles as Thomas Cromwell fights for survival.

I found that the most interesting sections, though, are those in which we see Anna and Henry together, forging a friendship, surrounded by all of the little details of the Tudor period. The descriptions of rooms, houses, journeys and so on are painted so visually, benefitting from the knowledge of Alison Weir the historian. Once again in these novels Henry grabs the attention. He isn’t quite the Henry we’re used to from other novels. We’re made to feel some sympathy for him – although I must say this is against my will! It’s intriguing to see a different side to him. It’s also interesting to contrast Anna with Henry’s previous wives as well as spend time with Henry’s daughter, Mary.

Another of Henry’s wives makes her appearance in Queen of Secrets, Katherine Howard. It is as if the story of Anna of Kleves is a respite before the Tudor trauma picks up again with young Katherine.

This series is such a joy. I look forward to its novels each year. You’d have thought that there is little new to give readers with these familiar lives but Alison Weir proves that assumption wrong. She finds so much to fascinate us with and I am filled with expectation for the novel on Katherine Howard. Surely, this could be the most heart wrenching book of the sequence. I long to read it. And I must repeat once more, these are the most beautiful hardbacks!

Other reviews
Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen
Six Tudor Queens II: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession
Six Tudor Queens III: Jane Seymour – The Haunted Queen


Tombland by C.J. Sansom

Mantle | 2018 (18 October) | 850p | Review copies | Buy the book

Tombland by CJ SansomTombland is the seventh novel in this fine series to feature Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Although there are a few references to previous events, Tombland stands well on its own as our journey through the Tudor period continues. Many of you, though, will have been looking forward to this just as much as me. It’s time once more to immerse ourselves in Tudor England.

It is 1549, a few years have passed since the events of Lamentation. Henry VIII is dead, as is, sadly, his Dowager Queen, Matthew Shardlake’s patron Catherine Parr. Edward VI, the boy king, sits on the throne but power is held in the hands of his Protector, Lord Somerset. Times are difficult. Somerset pursues his costly war with Scotland while religious intolerance upsets the common people, although not as much as their lords illegally enclosing their fields and common land in order to make a profit from sheep at their expense. The country is not content.

Matthew Shardlake has recently had a chilling reminder of why the powerful Richard Rich, now Edward VI’s Lord Chancellor, is his enemy. He needs to escape the court. It’s good timing, then, when he is called to the household of the King’s sister Lady Elizabeth in Hatfield to investigate a murder. Edith Boleyn, the wife of John, a distant cousin of Elizabeth’s, has been found murdered in the most grotesque manner in a small town in Norfolk. John stands accused of her murder and is expected to hang. Elizabeth would be most displeased if that were to happen. And so Matthew Shardlake and his assistant young Nicholas Overton travel to Norwich in Norfolk for a summer that will change them all forever.

Tombland is one of my most anticipated novels of the year (in fact, I was so excited I had a nose bleed… the power of books) and so I began it the day it unexpectedly and wonderfully arrived. It’s not a small book. On the contrary, it’s a mighty tome of 850 pages, and, as expected, every page is a pleasure as it brings us as close to Tudor Norfolk as I think any work of fiction possibly could. It’s quite extraordinary, really. As I was reading it – for instance, during the chapter when Matthew first rides through the gates of Norwich and up to its castle and cathedral – I could imagine it all so clearly. This is some of the most visual descriptive prose I’ve read. It’s packed with historical detail but it’s used to build a picture of the streets, buildings and people of the time. I took my time to imagine it all around me and I could do so incredibly clearly. How fantastic!

One would have thought that the Tudor period has been wrung dry by novelists but C.J. Sansom always reveals its lesser known aspects and this time he takes us to 1649 and the great rebellions of the people. Edward VI’s reign is largely unmined territory and it’s fascinating to learn what went on, in Norfolk and also elsewhere in England. I did some research while reading this and was so interested to learn how close these rebellions came to my home town of Oxford. Here, though, the emphasis is on Norfolk and perhaps the most significant of the rebellions, that led by Robert Kett. I gobbled this up. It’s so compelling.

There is no black and white here. Matthew is a man caught up in a situation that is out of his control and it’s so interesting watching him adapt to it, try to cope with it, try and survive it. I was really glad to see the involvement of Matthew’s former assistant, Jack Barak, and Jack and Nicholas must also respond to their situation in their own ways. C.J. Sansom carefully reveals the causes of the rebellions. There’s nothing dry here. It’s thoroughly engaging and absorbing as we see the impact of enclosures on ordinary men and women. We meet many of them – men, women and children, the rich and the poor, the fortunate and the unlucky. There are triumphs and tragedies. I shed tears more than once while at other times I was exhilarated. The positions of the King’s two sisters Mary and Elizabeth, rivals and yet both in a similar situation, is also such an intriguing element of a book full of intriguing elements.

Lamentation was my favourite of the series but it’s now been replaced by Tombland. This is a book that hugely rewards the reader and shows just how much of Tudor England there is left to explore. And it’s very possible that nobody else can bring it as much to life as C.J. Sansom. There’s usually a wait between books but they’re always so worth it.

Other reviews

The Angel’s Mark by S.W. Perry

Corvus | 2018 (6 September) | 418p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Angel's Mark by SW PerryIt is 1590 and Elizabeth I’s rule is under threat. The Spanish Armada is only recently defeated but the threat continues, perhaps in an even more sinister way. The danger has gone underground in the form of hidden priests who preach sedition to the Catholic subjects of this excommunicated Queen. But, of course, not all Catholics are traitors and Elizabeth is content for many to pay their fines and live their lives in peace, as long as no priest is hidden within their walls. It’s the job of Robert Burleigh, son to Elizabeth’s most powerful minister, to seek them out and he’ll use any means in his power.

Physician Nicholas Shelby has fallen on the worst of times but he finds his salvation in the most unlikely of ways. A young boy has been pulled out of the river, murdered, a strange symbol carved into his leg. This little child couldn’t walk. He was especially vulnerable and Nicholas grieves for him. With the help of Southwark innkeeper Bianca, Nicholas will find justice for him. And then another body is found and it won’t be the last.

The Angel’s Mark is S.W. Perry’s debut novel and it’s a corker. It certainly helps that he’s picked such a fascinating period in English history in which to place a very strong mystery and he does it justice. Elizabethan London, especially that part of the city that lay to the south of the river, where the inns, theatres, bear-baiting pits and brothels could be found, is brought to life so vividly. And Nicholas, as a physician who chooses to treat the poor, is perfectly placed to show it to us in all of its colour and foulness. But it’s among the rich and powerful that the true danger lies.

The mystery is such a good one and this sad story is told beautifully. We get to know a fair few people very well indeed and there are some that really stand out, such as Bianca, John Lumley and his wife Lizzy. The Lumley home is nothing less than Henry VIII’s grand Nonsuch Palace and I loved the descriptions of it. What a place to live in! Our glimpses into the terrors of the Tower of London are equally memorable but for other reasons. But it’s the character of Nicholas Shelby who dominates this novel and he is such a likeable if troubled hero.

There are good themes here – the nature of Tudor medicine and surgery, the role of women in business, the place of Catholicism in Elizabethan society. It’s all done very well indeed.

Court of Wolves by Robyn Young

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (9 August) | 404p | Review copy | Buy the book

Court of Wolves by Robyn YoungCourt of Wolves follows directly on from Sons of the Blood, the first novel in Robyn Young’s New World Rising series, set during the 1480s. Do read Sons of the Blood first. This review assumes you’ve done that.

It is 1485 and Henry Tudor is king at last, having vanquished Richard III in battle and married Elizabeth of York, the niece of the defeated king. Now that he has power, Henry wants more of it and he is tantalised by a map that has newly come into his possession. It hints of undiscovered lands far to the west of Europe and possibly a new route to the riches of the East, now so difficult to reach due to the Turk. Henry believes that Isabella and Ferdinand, the warrior monarchs of Spain, may get there first, thanks to Isabella’s interest in a sailor named Christopher Columbus. This must not happen. Henry dispatches Harry Vaughan to Andalusia to serve as his representative in Isabella’s court. And there Harry finds himself caught up in Isabella and Ferdinand’s brutal and bloody crusade against the Moors. But even faced with all of this danger, Harry is still driven by his own quest – to find and kill his half-brother James Wynter who stole their executed father’s favour from him.

James Wynter is banished from England. The map his father had entrusted to him has caused nothing but misery and death and now it is in the hands of King Henry Tudor. James, known as Jack, has turned to Florence and the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, a lord he believes will help him discover the truth about his father. But Lorenzo faces troubles of his own – his power is threatened by the court of wolves, a secret society of important men. He charges Jack with finding out who these men are. Only then will Lorenzo help Jack.

Court of Wolves covers such a fascinating period in European history, with the rise of a new dynasty in England, the domination of Isabella and Ferdinand in Spain, and the glorious power that was Florence. Robyn Young pulls it all together with such skill to show how this age was both golden and also bitterly violent, vengeful and cruel. The previous novel charted the end of the Wars of the Roses in England – the end of the Middle Ages in so many ways. Now we’re at the beginnings of the modern world, one that will be changed forever when Christopher Columbus sets sail. In this novel we’re at the very edge of these times as monarchs and rulers shift in their thrones, ready to progress, while continuing to smash their enemies.

Jack and Harry are caught up in the middle of it and the chapters move between them. Harry is the baddie. We’ve known that from the very beginning but that doesn’t mean that we feel nothing for him. He’s a petty fool, undoubtedly, and he’s completely out of his death in Andalusia. Particularly because he has a secret, a deadly secret, and it’s in danger of being uncovered. These sections of the novel place us squarely in the war against the Moors in Spain as we move across Andalusia, from castle to castle, sword in hand. It’s so well portrayed.

Jack is our hero, yet he too is floundering and at the whim of the powerful. I really enjoyed the descriptions of Medici Florence. I know the city very well and so loved seeing the transformation of familiar churches, palaces, streets, bridges and squares into their 15th-century form. There are so many little details about daily life in Florence. You can almost smell the stench of the Ponte Vecchio and the river, while marvelling at the statues that can still be seen there today. The political vendettas of the Medici court (and the papacy) dominate these sections of the book, but there’s still a sensuality about many of the people we meet. It is an intoxicating place. The sooner Jack can leave it the better.

Robyn Young always writes so beautifully and with great empathy. Her prose is thoughtful and elegant. The novel moves at a slow and luxurious pace – there is so much to take in as we get to know these very different worlds of Spain and Florence. Arguably, Court of Wolves does have the feel of a middle book about it. The previous novel had the tumultuous Wars of the Roses, and the story of the princes in the Tower, to drive it on, while this novel sets up the powers of Europe for Columbus’s great voyage, which I’m hoping will follow in the third novel (Amazon currently describes Court of Wolves as book 2 of 2, but that, I think, is either a mistake or extremely unlikely). I’m looking forward to finding out what’s next for Jack and Harry. One suspects that only one of them will prevail. The lovely hardback also includes a useful list of characters at the back.

Other reviews
Sons of the Blood
Insurrection II: Renegade
Insurrection III: Kingdom

The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson

HarperCollins | 2018 (31 May) | 531p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Tudor Crown by Joanna HicksonIt is 1471. The Lancastrians have been defeated in battle. Edward IV of York is back on the throne once more and his great rival, Henry VI, is dead, presumed murdered in captivity while Henry’s queen has fled. The last hope and heir of the Lancastrian cause, Henry Tudor, must do likewise and so, in September 1471, Henry and his uncle Jaspar, the Earl of Pembroke, run for their lives, setting sail from south Wales for the continent. Their ship is hit by storms and they barely survive the crossing, arriving destitute on the shores of Brittany, an ignominious start to Henry’s exile. And there he must bide his time, coping with the absence from his mother and friends, dependent on the animosity between Brittany and France for his safety and upkeep.

Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother, must endure as best as she can in the court of her enemy, Edward IV. A widow, relatively young still, she is too valuable and noble a prize to be left to her own devices. Edward marries Margaret to his advisor Lord Stanley and keeps her close where he can keep an eye on her. Margaret swears to obey her king but she walks a tightrope – she never stops manoeuvring for the return of her son, Henry. Both Margaret and Henry must be prepared to sacrifice everything for their cause. They know their time will come.

In The Tudor Crown, Joanna Hickson picks up where the marvellous First of the Tudors left off. You certainly don’t need to have read the earlier novel first (although I think you’d want to anyway as it’s so brilliant) because The Tudor Crown begins afresh with Henry’s story, covering his years of exile, his journey from boy and squire to knight and diplomat, through to 1485 and that most famous of battles, the Battle of Bosworth. It’s hard to imagine a more fascinating period of British history – the close at last of the Wars of the Roses and the rise of that new dynasty, the Tudors. The end of the medieval world, perhaps, and the beginning of the modern age.

I love how Joanna Hickson tells the story of these remarkable fourteen years. The chapters alternate between Henry and his mother Margaret, each speaking in the first person (and, happily, in the past tense) and the result is a vivid and immediate tale of lives lived in such perilous circumstances. I couldn’t tell you which narrative I preferred because I think they’re both equally good. I enjoyed watching Henry grow into manhood, his ambition growing alongside his increasing realisation of his potential significance. This isolates him in many ways but it makes him strong, which is just as well as he has much to deal with in this war zone that is late 15th-century Brittany. We meet so many fascinating people in these exile sections and each has to decide whether to help or hinder Henry in his cause.

Margaret’s story is just as intriguing, with the added appeal of observing the court of Edward IV and his infamous queen. This is an unhappy place. Never has a royal family been so divided. It’s enthralling, it really is, and there’s Margaret in the middle, viewed with suspicion by all and paying the price for it. The relationship between Margaret and her husband Lord Stanley is so well portrayed. It’s hardly a domestic paradise but both Margaret and Stanley know the rules of how to make an arranged marriage palatable.

Scattered throughout are letters between Henry and his mother, their only form of contact for so many years. I love what these added to the story and to our feel for their relationship.

I really enjoyed the shifting focus of The Tudor Crown – we’re well aware of the significance of Henry and of his mother’s plotting for the future of England but we’re also shown them as fully rounded people, albeit people who know that they are far from ordinary. They must deal with their absence from one another, their enforced relationships with people they don’t trust, and their precarious positions. Henry is left almost friendless while still just a boy. His resilience is extraordinary. He is most certainly a king in making.

Henry’s destiny hangs over the novel from the beginning and when it finally arrives I couldn’t read these pages fast enough. This is a fantastic telling of the Battle of Bosworth. Respect is given to all sides, including Richard III whose courage on the day is not in doubt.

The Tudors are the most famous family in British history and their story is an extremely familiar one. But in The Tudor Crown the origin of the Tudor dynasty is explored with such colour and warmth. This is a complicated story but it’s brought together very well and Joanna Hickson demonstrates how the success of Henry VII was every bit as dependent on cunning as it was on victory in battle. And Henry was certainly in debt to his mother whose influence was crucial for his success.

I’ve always enjoyed Joanna Hickson’s novels but I suspect The Tudor Crown could be my favourite. It’s such a wonderful story and Joanna Hickson does it full justice with her engrossing, lively and engaging prose. I wonder if she will return to King Henry’s story – I do hope so.

Other reviews and features
The Agincourt Bride
The Tudor Bride
Red Rose, White Rose
First of the Tudors
An interview
Guest post – What’s In a Name?

A Baby’s Bones by Rebecca Alexander

Titan Books | 2018 (1 May) | 473p | Review copy | Buy the bookA Baby's Bones by Rebecca Alexander

When County Archaeologist Sage Westfield is called in to excavate a well discovered during a house expansion on the Isle of Wight, it’s a shock to her and to her small team when the bones of a woman and a tiny baby are discovered deep within the well. Marks on the bones tell of violent deaths while strange carvings on the stones inside the well hint at something else just as sinister. Soon the whole village of Banstock becomes caught up in the mystery of the bones in the well. It’s time for the past to be laid to rest.

But Banstock is a troubled village. The cottage, in the grounds of which lies the well, is believed haunted and the deep unhappiness felt by its current owners appears to reflect a much older sadness. The local vicar is fascinated by the mystery of the bones, a welcome distraction from the hate calls that he’s receiving almost daily. And the interest deepens when records are uncovered relating to the village’s manor house, which once owned the cottage. The household records date from 1580 and they tell a tale that enthralls Sage. But Sage has good reason to feel such care for this poor dead baby and the woman buried with it – she is heavily pregnant and, more than anything else in her life, she knows the obsessive and certain need to keep one’s child safe. But death walks through this historic village.

A Baby’s Bones is an engrossing and moving mystery but what surprised me – in a good way – is that its focus is very much on the people of Tudor and present-day Banstock rather than on a hunt for a murderer. In fact the murder takes a considerable time to take place. Instead we have been drawn into the story of Sage, her complicated feelings for her baby’s father, and her developing connection to the inhabitants of this village which has such a sad history.

Sage is the heart of the novel and I warmed to her very much. There is a growing tension through the book, intensified by our worry for her condition. The baby’s bones are a warning indeed. Scattered throughout the narrative are the extracts from the Tudor period and they tell another story of love, hatred, suspicion and motherhood. There’s such a menace to these sections which highlight the vulnerable position of some women in society and the power that men held over them.

My background is in archaeology and so I did have some thoughts about the novel’s archaeological scenario – human remains in wells aren’t uncommon and such extensive investigation of their historical context is a luxury few archaeologists would be able to enjoy. But this is fiction and very enjoyable fiction at that. Although I think this could have been 100 pages shorter, it was nevertheless compelling and I enjoyed its chill which contrasted well with the novel’s comforting feel – pretty villages, vicars and old houses. I love novels that bring a community to life, exploring its origins and finding a continuity in the stories of its people. A Baby’s Bones is a beautifully written novel, full of atmosphere, sadness and menace as well as love – between mother and daughter, between friends and between mother and child.

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

A Baby's Bones blog tour banner

Six Tudor Queens III: Jane Seymour – The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

Headline Review | 2018 (3 May) | 544p | Review copy | Buy the book

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison WeirAlison Weir’s fictional retelling of the lives and fortunes of Henry VIII’s six wives is one of the most enjoyable historical series that I’ve read in quite a while. Just when you think that you’re completely Tudored out and that there’s nothing more of interest to be wrung from Henry’s notorious marriage record, it’s wonderful to be proved so wrong. The third novel in the series tells the tale of one of the most overshadowed of Henry’s Queens, Jane Seymour. We’ve had tantalising hints of Jane in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books (a series named after the Seymour home) and these have made me keener than ever to read a novel dedicated to Jane, particularly one written by as fine a historian as Alison Weir. Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen is the book of the series that I have looked forward to the most and I wasn’t at all surprised to find it excellent.

The King’s Great Matter – Henry’s annulment of his long marriage to Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, with all that this entailed, such as the break from Rome – features heavily in all three of the books that comprise the first half of Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. And what makes this retelling so successful is that we are presented with it from the three very different perspectives of these three Queens. Jane was a maid of honour to both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and her sympathies most certainly lay with Katherine and the Old Religion. Jane’s perspective on Henry’s affair with Anne and his divorce from Katherine is that of an observer, as someone who is deeply disturbed by what she is seeing. She is only in a position to catch glimpses of what’s going on and the court is alive with whispers of gossip and worried secrets. Alison Weir brings this stricken court to life while also revelling in its luxurious splendour and ceremonies.

My favourite half of the novel, though, is the second in which Jane must deal with the repercussions of Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace and death as well as her own progress to become Henry’s wife and Queen in what was seen as indecent haste. Alison Weir’s focus is now almost solely on Jane and Henry as a couple and this is a very different Henry from the one that Katherine and then Anne knew. This means that Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen has a different atmosphere and mood – here’s a Henry who’s now getting on in years, has sores on his legs and is after the quiet life while seeing conspiracies around every corner. There’s a danger that you might end up even liking this Henry, which is novel! The title also suggests how Jane is dealing with replacing another wife who has been executed by her husband.

Jane isn’t particularly easy to like and I think this is largely because, as a mere knight’s daughter, she didn’t know how to behave as Queen. She does come across as grasping, materialistic and proud. She’s also very traditional in her beliefs and faith. But she does display moments of strength and courage which are fascinating to read about. I also really enjoyed the sections on Jane and her family – the opening to the novel in the Seymour home is especially compelling and descriptive.

There’s much in Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen that gave me food for thought – about Jane, Anne Boleyn and Henry. I enjoyed so much getting to know the Tudor Queen I perhaps know the least about. These middle years of the 1530s were extraordinary years in English history, with Cromwell’s power at its height, the Pilgrimage of Grace, bouts of plague and sweating sickness, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which must have affected almost everybody in the land. Jane is thrown into a position of influence almost out of the blue and has to deal with people looking to her to control the King’s capricious and paranoid nature. Perhaps most fascinating of all is that here we are shown a young bride who, in this interpretation at least, loved her husband. This mix of intimate affection and royal power is portrayed so well in this novel.

Henry’s wives are in safe hands with Alison Weir and Jane Seymour has at last been given a voice. I can’t wait for the three more novels to come, particularly the next. In that we will see the legacy of Jane Seymour on Henry VIII. Watching his character and nature alter and change through the years (and the wives) is one of the highlights of this series. It makes it unmissable.

Other reviews
Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen
Six Tudor Queens II: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession