Tag Archives: Tudor

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

Macmillan | 2017 (21 September) | 768p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Column of Fire by Ken FollettWhen Ned Willard returns home to Kingsbridge from the Continent in a snowstorm in 1558, it seems as if medieval feudalism is alive and well in this prosperous market city. His mother Alice might be one of the more successful and influential merchants in the city but his hopes of marrying Margery Fitzgerald, the daughter of gentry, are as doomed as ever. Margery is betrothed instead to Bart, a Viscount and son of Swithin, the Earl of Shiring, a man as cruel and despotic as his forefathers. To compound matters, the Willards are Protestant while the Shiring family is Catholic and Bloody Mary sits securely on the throne, thanks to her husband, King Phillip of Spain. But, even though the Shirings have the power to destroy the Willards and persecute and even burn all challengers, using church authorities to help them, Ned knows that Kingsbridge, England, and even Europe are about to change – Elizabeth Tudor waits in the wings. Ned will serve her, becoming her most trusted spy, and the future will be theirs.

France may be securely Catholic but to some not enough. The tolerant policies of Catherine de Medici, the French royal matriarch, challenge the ambitions of the mighty family of Guise, who exist just a hair’s breadth from the French throne, exerting their influence through the marriage of one of their own, little Mary Queen of Scots, to the French heir and future King. Pierre Aumande has little, living off his wits in the gambling dens and bars of Paris’s poorest streets but he has a dream. He believes that he is the illegitimate son of a Guise and he is determined to become recognised in that family. To achieve that he is prepared to do absolutely anything they ask – anything. And if that means infiltrating and informing on Paris’s growing Protestant population, pushing them onto flaming pyres, then so be it.

These are tumultuous times, not just for England and France, but also for Scotland, Spain, the Netherlands, the rest of Europe and even further afield to the New World. Men and women travel across borders and seas, often fleeing persecution, taking new technologies with them and carrying new ideas. There will be murder, judicial or otherwise, and there will be wars. Very little will be the same as the world moves into the 17th century.

Years ago, back in 1989 when it was first published, I read and fell in love with Pillars of the Earth, the first of the Kingsbridge series and followed years later in 2007 by World Without End. Nobody writes historical sagas quite like Ken Follett. He is a master of them, as shown once again and more recently in his epic Century trilogy. How fantastic it is to return once more to Kingsbridge, a city that we have seen grow and develop, suffer and endure, through centuries of history. Prior Phillip still rests in his tomb in Kingsbridge Cathedral, a reminder of those distant days when the ancestors of those who still live within the city walked its streets and built its walls and bridges. The battle between good and bad continues but now there is more to it than divides of influence, wealth and status – religion is now involved and, more than ever, individuals can break free of their bonds and rise to dominance, whether it’s through engineering, the civil service or captaining vessels.

A Column of Fire is an extraordinary achievement. As you’d expect and hope from a Ken Follett saga, it’s a mighty tome at 751 Pages (at least according to the proof). But every single one of these pages works its magic because we are taken through a whole world of stories, moving from place to place, picking up on people’s lives, following them through a period of over forty years. The novel’s heart lies in Kingsbridge but a great deal of time is spent elsewhere, predominantly in Paris, but also in the Netherlands, southern Spain, throughout England and Scotland and across the high seas to the Caribbean. The story involves people at all levels of society and the main characters aren’t just fictional, they’re also prominent historical figures, such as Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and the Dukes of Guise. Certain characters move among them, especially Ned and Pierre, bringing us into the centre of European political affairs during the Elizabethan Age, while also highlighting the intellectual, religious and literary achievements of these glorious European courts. But the suffering that religious persecution brought is made real by showing its effect on the men, women and children of this city in England that we have grown to love – Kingsbridge.

There is nothing about A Column of Fire that isn’t a joy to read. Huge ideas and swathes of history are covered, including the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day, the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada, but all in the most accessible yet immersive fashion. There are many characters but they all seem individual and each has a fascinating part to play in the bigger picture. As usual with Ken Follett’s novels, plenty of the character spend what time they can obsessing about sex, which you just have to put up with in these books, but it doesn’t interfere too much and it’s good to spend time with these people in those moments when they can escape the stress and danger of history. And there are always fabulous baddies to hate. There are some corkers here and I also particularly enjoyed the portraits of the Dukes of Guise with their scarred faces and scarred souls. These people were devious! They are perfect for historical fiction.

I read A Column of Fire in just two days and what a fantastic two days those were. I did not want it to end. I savoured it. Ultimately this is a novel about love and hate and trying to find the middle ground, the path of tolerance and peace. It isn’t easy to find and the characters here often fail but following Ned and Marjory through these years is a wonderful thing to do. These Kingsbridge novels don’t come along too often and when they do they’re very special indeed. Arguably, A Column of Fire is as fine an achievement as Pillars of the Earth, I certainly loved it as much.

Other reviews
Winter of the World
Edge of Eternity

Advertisements

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster | 2017 (8 August) | 519p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Tudor by Philippa GregoryPerhaps if Lady Jane Grey had denied her Protestant faith, her Catholic cousin, Queen Mary Tudor, might not have had Jane beheaded for stealing the Tudor crown for those nine infamous days in July 1553. But Jane steadfastly refused and so this 17-year-old girl went to the block, becoming one of the most well-known and pitied figures in English history. But Jane wasn’t the only member of the Grey family to fall foul of their more powerful cousins. Her younger sisters Katherine and Mary were Elizabeth I’s closest heirs, a constant reminder of how fragile her grip on the throne was, and, just like Jane, the target of men with ambition. But in the end their crime was very different from Jane’s. Both Katherine and Mary were prepared to risk everything for love.

Philippa Gregory’s latest novel about Tudor women is, she tells us, most likely her last and this, I think, explains much of its title. Beginning in the 1550s, it covers the reigns of Henry VIII’s three children but its early focus is on the events that forced Lady Jane Grey to the forefront of history. The novel is divided into three (unequal in length) parts, covering each of the three sisters’ stories in turn, with the larger middle part telling the tragic tale of Katherine Grey. Each section is told in the present tense by each sister in turn – Jane, Katherine and Mary – and the voice of Jane sets a striking opening note for The Last Tudor.

Jane’s story is well-known to history for a good reason – it’s as fascinating as it’s upsetting, but Philippa Gregory does a fine job of showing that there was more to her than the usual image of an innocent lamb led to the slaughter. This Jane is defiant and uncompromising, difficult to love and isolated. Her religion is more important than family. But we’re not allowed to forget that she is effectively a child and she has no control over her own destiny. The only thing she has power over is her faith and she will not give it up. But the Jane portrayed here might never have thought that Mary would actually kill her. Jane isn’t easy to like but she’s extremely easy to feel sorry for. The author demonstrates well that Jane’s death was such an enormous waste. This might be a familiar tale but it’s a powerful one and it doesn’t lose anything in the re-telling.

Jane’s two sisters Katherine and Mary are less well-known but their stories – Katherine’s in particular – are just as tragic. Mary is a fascinating character, not least because she would have stood out in court for being a ‘little person’ but this characteristic and useful ability to appear unseen didn’t always keep her safe from Elizabeth I. I really enjoyed Mary’s narrative during the novel’s final third. She presents an unusual perspective on the Tudor court and her resilience is extraordinary.

The larger part of the novel concerns the middle sister Katherine Grey and what a pitiful story it is. Perhaps it’s because this is the longest section but I soon tired of Katherine’s voice. Her naivety in embarking on a course of action that was bound to end in trouble made me less sympathetic than I should have been. I must admit that I just wanted it to end.

The figure that overshadows the whole novel is Elizabeth I and what a tyrant she is. Philippa Gregory always makes plain her feelings about historical figures and we can be in no doubt about her view of Elizabeth. This is all well and good (this is fiction after all) but I did have some trouble with the novel’s judgement of Elizabeth’s relationship with Thomas Seymour. The novel tells a gripping story but its characterisation is arguably quite flat or black and white with little freedom for development and few surprises.

Philippa Gregory is a prolific author and so it’s not surprising that I get on with some novels better than others. Some I absolutely adore, such as The Taming of the Queen, but others, including The Last Tudor, less so. Nevertheless, the history that fuels The Last Queen is absolutely fascinating and deserves a re-telling. What will stay in my mind most of all, though, is the opening voice of Lady Jane Grey as she heads resolutely towards her fate.

Other reviews
The Taming of the Queen
Three Sisters, Three Queens

Six Tudor Queens II: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

Headline | 2017 (18 May) | 544p | Review copy | Buy the book

Anne Boleyn A King's Obsession by Alison Weir UKFrom her early years on the continent as a maid of honour to Regent Margaret of Austria and then to Queen Mary of France, Anne Boleyn was determined to retain her independence and reputation. Anne grew up witnessing the behaviour of lords and even kings to women at court, including women of the highest rank. Rape and assault were far from unknown and, later on, when Anne is a maid of honour in England to Queen Katherine of Aragon, she sees the way that Henry VIII pursues and captures her sister Mary, almost right under the eyes of his wife. Anne Boleyn will not be used in the same way.

The story of Anne Boleyn is a familiar one but Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession is a novel I have been longing to read since reading and thoroughly enjoying Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen, the first novel in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. That marvellous novel breathed new life into the ultimately tragic tale of this woman who refused to be beaten even when her daughter was taken from her and all she had left was her faith. Anne Boleyn is a less sympathetic figure to many, including me, and I did wonder how Alison Weir could make me engage with her. I needn’t have worried. I was riveted from the very beginning when we meet a young girl who manages to be both modern and belonging to her own time. Anne is presented as a wonderful observer of life, a witness to grandeur and intimacy, and increasingly she becomes a player in the world she has dissected.

Anne is fiercely intelligent and not a little intimidating. She is a contrast to her sister Mary, to the other Mary (Henry VIII’s sister and Queen of France) and to Queen Katherine. Katherine is bound to retain our sympathies, especially if you’ve read the previous novel. And it’s pitiable watching Katherine try to be such a good friend and patron to this young girl so newly returned from the French court. We all know what’s going to happen. Anne is friend to few.

Henry VIII looms over the novel as you’d expect and his character transforms through the novel from a young man in love to one bored and prepared to kill. It’s a compelling portrait and, at times, as Anne dangles the king on the end of a leash, it’s almost possible to feel sorry for him. But we’ve seen what he can do. Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn is a constant reminder of that. But while Henry changes through the book so too does Anne and what makes it so interesting is that she knows it. She is transformed by power and later by fear. She is aware of it and she hates it. She hates what she becomes. And it’s both painful and irresistible to read.

I love the way in which Alison Weir writes. She presents a great deal of historical detail and background while preserving the drama of the story and finding new ways in which to tell it. The Tudor court was full of incredible personalities and they’re all richly painted here, including Anne’s brother George, his wife Jane and their grand uncle the Duke of Norfolk. But it’s Anne and Henry who dominate the book, sweeping away anyone in their path.

We all know how Anne Boleyn’s story ended and those pages here tore my heart out. At times, this is an emotional novel and it pays to remind yourself when reading it that, although this is a work of fiction, these were real people. Anne has to adapt constantly and you can certainly understand why even if it makes her difficult to warm to. I was hoping to find a different approach to Anne in this novel and that’s what I found. Likewise, it provides an original perspective on the role of women in the Tudor and French courts. I also loved the novel’s size. Its substantial length allows the reader to wallow in this incredible story.

As this series continues it will be fascinating watching Henry’s progression towards his monstrous destiny as he discards his wives, and others, by the wayside. I can’t wait for the novel on Jane Seymour – to watch her emerge from the shadow of her more famous predecessor, Anne Boleyn.

Other review
Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen

Incendium by A.D. Swanston

Bantam Press | 2017 (23 February) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Incendium by A.D. SwanstonIt is 1572 and Elizabethan England is threatened as never before. Mary Queen of Scots might be locked away in Sheffield Castle but she remains the focus for Catholic plotters, their fire fuelled by the Pope’s support and by bloody violence done to Protestant Huguenots in Paris and across France. Spanish and French ships are poised to invade, to steal the crown from the heretic queen. Assassins hide in London’s crowded streets. As the summer heat intensifies and the fear of plague stirs, London, England and Elizabeth herself look ready to ignite and explode. And there is competition to be the one to win the eternal glory of lighting that fuse.

Dr Christopher Radcliff is a lawyer in the service of Elizabeth’s longterm favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Leicester more than anyone wants to protect Elizabeth, and Radcliff, a man with agents hidden across the city, is just the person to help him. There are rumours of a new plot, codenamed ‘Incendium’, and its roots are believed to lie in Paris. But people in London are already starting to disappear and be killed, Radcliff’s own agents among them. It’s soon clear that this is no ordinary plot, its conspirators cunning and powerful, their ambition limitless. And they are one step ahead of Radcliff, at least.

Incendium is the first in a new historical series by A.D. Swanston, the author of the marvellous Thomas Hill trilogy set during the Civil War and Restoration (review of The King’s Return). Incendium is every bit as good if not better. The early 1570s were a fascinating time in English history – the persecutions and executions of Bloody Mary were still within recent memory while the overt threat of the Armada was still some time off. While Elizabeth wished to be tolerant of her subjects’ private religious beliefs, in contrast to her sister Mary, this moderation was now severely tested. She only had to look across the channel to the horrors committed in France in 1572 – events which are portrayed here – to know that she and her kingdom were in real personal danger. Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham is away in Paris so Leicester tries to do what he can but he is out of his depth and it shows.

Radcliff is a wonderful character, resourceful and intelligent and he needs to be. He’s also no fool and is well aware that Leicester could get him killed. He’s also been changed by what he’s seen overseas. It haunts him. But Radcliff is aided by some hugely likeable individuals, such as his mistress Katherine Allington, and Ell, a whore who spies for Radcliff but can also make him laugh. Then there’s Rose, Radcliff’s elderly housekeeper, who does what she can to keep her master fed and watered, even when her own roof is rained down in a storm. And there are many more who come and go through these pages.

This is a novel full of character and life and I loved its portrait of Elizabethan London, in the heat and later in the snow. We’re taken into all sorts of places, ranging from palaces to prisons, and all are vividly painted.

Incendium faces head on the ugliness of Elizabethan spying and counter-spying – it could result in brutal murder on one side and the atrocious horror of legal torture and execution on the other. Neither Radcliff and Leicester care for torture but Leicester is unhappily aware that, while he could not carry it out himself, he must ask others to do it for him. Elizabeth’s protection is all that matters. Swanston also doesn’t shy away from the Catholic slaughter of the Huguenots in Paris. I’ve always been fascinated by these appalling events and Incendium is built around them.

Incendium perfectly combines history and fiction, historical figures and those that aren’t, and together they paint such a colourful and compelling picture of Elizabethan London at a crucial time for its Queen and her servants. As a historical thriller it worked perfectly. I loved every page. I can’t wait to meet Christopher Radcliff again.

Other posts
The King’s Return
Spies and spying in the Civil War – a guest post by Andrew Swanston

What’s in a name? – Guest post by Joanna Hickson, author of First of the Tudors

First of the Tudors by Joanna HicksonOn 1 December, Harper published First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson, the first in a new series of novels to portray the rise to power of quite possibly the most famous, and infamous, royal dynasty in English history. It begins with Jasper Tudor, uncle to the young Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, and what a fantastic story it is. Moving from castle to castle at a time when England and Wales were torn apart by the Wars of the Roses, First of the Tudors is a thoroughly enjoyable and lively account of such a fascinating time and Jasper Tudor is placed right at the heart of it all.

To celebrate the publication of First of the Tudors, I’m delighted to host a guest post by Joanna Hickson, in which she discusses the problems she encountered in naming her historical characters. Jasper Tudor had a very unusual name, even for the 15th century. Where did that come from? And what to do when so many important historical figures share the same name?

Review of First of the Tudors

What’s in a name?

When you write novels based on the history of medieval Europe there is often a problem identifying one character from another, because the same Christian names crop up time and time again in the family trees of the major dynasties. In England during the fifteenth century for instance the name Henry occurs confusingly often, cropping up in kings no less than four times and, due to the habit of sycophantic nobles calling their offspring after the reigning monarch, in almost every other courtier family fortunate enough to have sons. In First of the Tudors I have avoided repetition by calling Margaret Beaufort’s posthumous son, who was dutifully baptised Henry, by the Welsh variant of his name, which is Harri, leaving the ‘proper’ name to his half-uncle, King Henry VI.

Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna HicksonIt was a device I adopted in one of my previous novels set earlier in the century when the name Richard had become almost ubiquitous, owing to the initial popularity of the boy-king, Richard II. I made a guess that this could have been awkward for young noblemen arriving at court twenty years later saddled with the name of a monarch who had been unceremoniously usurped by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who became King Henry IV. So, having an embarrassment of Richards to deal with in Red Rose White Rose I decided to give one of the three central Richard characters the nickname Hal after the new king’s son and heir, who Shakespeare also nicknamed Prince Hal. And following this thread, I had no hesitation in calling my Hal’s son and heir Dick rather than Richard, because he was a pugnacious character who became a very powerful earl, played a key role in the Wars of the Roses and eventually became famously known as ‘Warwick, the Kingmaker’. That left me free to use the name in full for his cousin, who so nearly became King of England himself, Richard, Duke of York, husband of the novel’s central character, Cicely Neville.

It was necessary to be similarly inventive when Henry VI’s longed-for heir was baptised Edward, named for the pre-Norman-conquest saint, King Edward the Confessor, at whose shrine in Westminster Abbey his mother had prayed desperately for a son. Unfortunately when this little prince was still a child, his cousin Edward of York seized the throne and became King Edward IV and suddenly there were too many Edwards in my timeline! However, as his mother was a French princess and a lady who dominated her monkish and withdrawn husband, I considered it more than likely that she would have insisted on using the French version of his name, so that he becomes Prince Édouard in the pages of my book. In the same vein, despite English historians invariably referring to her as Margaret of Anjou, she appears as Queen Marguerite in First of the Tudors, because one of the other important female characters is Lady Margaret Beaufort, also a proud and strong-willed woman, who definitely would not have appreciated having her name ignobly shortened to Meg or Maggie!

The Agincourt Bride by Joanna HicksonHappily I had no identity dilemma with the hero of First of the Tudors – Jasper Tudor. In fact it was his unusual Christian name that drew me to him in the first place as it was a conundrum I confronted in The Tudor Bride, a novel which focussed on the clandestine ‘misalliance’ between Henry V’s widow Queen Catherine de Valois and her Master of the Wardrobe, Owen Tudor. While their firstborn son received one of the usual panoply of noble names, being baptised Edmund, I felt I had to figure out why the couple went completely off-piste for their second and called him Jasper? While I would not claim that no other boy was baptised with that name in England in the fifteenth century, I have not come across one during many, many years of researching the period.

Don’t get me wrong, I personally think Jasper a splendid name and lucky are the several hundred boys who have received it annually in twenty first century Britain. But in 1430, which is roughly when my new hero was born, it was unusual – probably unheard of – in England. And therein lies a clue, for there were a number of Jaspers documented in France at the time and of course his mother, once again, was French. Jasper was thought to be a corruption of Caspar, one of the Three Magi who were much revered in the medieval Roman Catholic Church and perhaps a name given to boys born on Twelfth Night or Epiphany, celebrated as the day the Magi brought their gifts to the baby Jesus. The other two were called Balthazar and Melchior, names very occasionally also found in medieval European courts.

The Tudor Bride by Joanna HicksonSo as a princess, Catherine de Valois could have heard of the name but what circumstance might have caused her to break with English noble tradition and give it to her younger son? Well, Jasper also happens to be the name of a semi-precious gemstone, much used in medieval jewellery, most frequently in its red form known as bloodstone, although it comes in many and varied colours. Jasper Tudor was a redhead; the Welsh bards who sang his praises during the Wars of the Roses particularly refer to this fact. This is one of the delights of writing historical fiction; coincidence is allowed and we wander spellbound in the realms of extrapolation from the little snippets of information our research throws up. Another of them that rose to the surface for me was the fact that medieval midwives believed jasper to be an aid in relieving the pain of childbirth. It did not require a huge leap of imagination to picture Queen Catherine owning an item of jewellery set with bloodstones and for it to be used during the birth of her second Tudor child, a boy that proved to have hair the colour of those stones.
Jasper was a name that suited him perfectly, as a powerful courtier and wandering knight errant and one that actually ‘made his name’. For although he was created Earl of Pembroke by his half-brother Henry VI and should therefore have officially been referred to as Lord Pembroke, in the poetry of the Welsh bards and other fifteenth century historical sources he was simply called Lord Jasper – my hero!

First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson

Harper | 2016 (1 December) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book

First of the Tudors by Joanna HicksonIt is 1451 and Henry VI, a troubled and unhappy man, more monk than king, realises that he is in need of family. He has been unable to give his queen, Marguerite of Anjou, the child they need to secure their royal line, and the royal dukes are becoming increasingly watchful and belligerent. Henry summons his half-brothers to court, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, the sons of a secret and illegal marriage between Henry V’s widow Catherine of Valois and the Welsh poet Owen Tudor who stole her heart. Soon they are the confidants of Henry and his queen, given titles and lands, precedence, and the prospect of a rich and noble marriage. Lucky for them, then, that there is another new person at court – Margaret Beaufort, the charismatic, painfully young and tiny heiress, the richest in the land and in the gift of the king.

Edmund and Jasper endeavour to find their way at court in their different ways, with Edmund being the one to win Margaret Beaufort. Jasper deals with his disappointment in the best way he can, serving Henry as his most loyal and trusted servant, providing advice and support to Henry and then to Marguerite as Henry slips into illness and the country descends into civil war. Jasper has other cares. The fates have dealt their hand and Jasper is now custodian of Edmund and Margaret’s son, Henry Tudor. And it is in raising Henry, looking after his grand estates in Wales and growing close to Jane, young Henry’s governess, that Jasper finds comfort. But the call to arms isn’t far off as the Duke of York declares war on the king. The future has never been so uncertain for Henry VI, Jasper, Margaret Beaufort and the young Henry Tudor.

First of the Tudors picks up the thread of the story begun with The Agincourt Bride and continued with The Tudor Bride. These magnificent, enchanting novels told the tale of Catherine of Valois’ transformation into Henry V’s Queen of England and then, pulling happiness from grief, wife of Owen Tudor. And now, Joanna Hickson returns to the story of Catherine’s family, focusing on her second Tudor son, Jasper, and his closeness with her royal son, Henry VI. There’s no need at all to have read these two books before – First of the Tudors begins afresh – but I can never resist the opportunity to urge people to read The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride. I adore these two books and how good it is to find that First of the Tudors is every bit as wonderful.

As is regularly the case with Joanna Hickson’s novels, the narrative is split between two characters. This time Jasper’s perspective is alternated with that of Jane, the woman he loves and looks after his household and his ward Henry Tudor. This structure works brilliantly well because it gives the reader the best of both worlds – the court and the progress of war and the more domestic story of the childhood of Henry Tudor, with all of the instability brought about by the Wars of the Roses. I loved the characters of Jasper and Jane and their story is every bit as involving as the grander one played out by Henry VI, Marguerite, the Duke of York and Warwick the Kingmaker. But all these characters and more are also brought to life.

A standout figure for me is Margaret Beaufort. Joanna Hickson captures something enthralling about her. There is a power and strength to her that contrasts so well with her vulnerability and, for the earlier part of the novel at least, her innocence. Watching that innocence be destroyed is one of the most affecting and compelling parts of the novel. I’ve read many portraits of Margaret Beaufort in fiction over the years and this is without doubt my favourite.

Despite the focus on Jasper, Margaret, Jane, Henry VI and Queen Marguerite, there is another figure here who carries the weight of destiny on his young shoulders – Henry Tudor. First of the Tudors is the first, I trust, in a new series that will chart Henry’s path to the throne and I am so excited at the prospect. Henry VII is one of the most fascinating figures in English royal history but has, perhaps not surprisingly, always been overshadowed in fiction, and perhaps in history, by his son Henry VIII and his granddaughter Elizabeth I. But it’s with Henry Tudor that it all began and it’s an astonishing story and his uncle Jasper has such an important part to play in it.

There is romance in First of the Tudors but it isn’t a romantic novel, nor is it focused on the battles of the Wars of the Roses. Instead, this is a marvellous character-driven portrait of a family, albeit an extraordinary family with no normal cares and worries, leading unusual lives. And the setting is equally evocative. This is a tale that moves between castles. Coincidentally, I visited a fair few of the castles mentioned here in September and now I am desperate to go back. Joanna Hickson has brought those stone walls back to life and filled them with the voices of the people who called them home. With no doubt at all, this is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had this year and it’s the perfect novel to curl up with on a long winter’s evening.

Other reviews
The Agincourt Bride
The Tudor Bride
Red Rose, White Rose
An interview

The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth Norton – ‘Of Babies and Bellies’

The Lives of Tudor Women by Elizabeth NortonThe Tudor period continues to fascinate – a period dominated by so many larger-than-life, charismatic, powerful, fearful, proud and dangerous personalities, male and female. But what was life like for a Tudor woman away from the public eye, in those major life-changing moments, such as marriage, giving birth, widowhood, but also in her daily life? In The Lives of Tudor Women, Elizabeth Norton presents the seven ages of the Tudor woman from childhood to old age, from the first years of the Tudor period to its end in 1603, through the examples of a number of very different women, ranging from the royal to the merchant’s wife to the peasant and servant. Their stories highlight many aspects of the Tudor age, including the intimate and homely as well as the religious and the unconventional.

To celebrate the publication of The Lives of Tudor Women this month by Head of Zeus, I’m delighted to host a special post. Below you’ll find an extract from Chapter 1 – of Babies and Bellies – in which Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen, faces the anxiety of pregnancy and childbirth.

The Lives of Tudor Women – Book Extract from Chapter 1: Of Babies and Bellies

Towards the end of January or early February 1492, Queen Elizabeth of York, felt a familiar fluttering in her womb – a fluttering that provided proof that she had conceived for the fourth time.

Henry VII’s queen was, by then, close to the midway point of her pregnancy. But in the first months of pregnancy, the condition was notoriously difficult to diagnose. Could her symptoms merely be ‘her natural sickness or store of water’? Alternatively, could her increase in girth be due to ‘some windy matter’ rather than an expected baby? There were signs, of course, which could indicate pregnancy; but few physicians were prepared to confirm their diagnosis until the child actually began to stir in the womb. A mistake could be highly embarrassing for all concerned, and so for months women were left on tenterhooks.

The first gentle movements, when they came, were testament to the fact that a new life had begun. For as far as most Tudors were concerned, life did not begin at conception. The man’s seed entered ‘the woman’s privitie’ as one physician coyly called the neck of the womb, there to be met by a matching seed, released by the woman. To contemporaries, these were the raw materials for a child.

Even before conception, most Tudor parents had a preference for boys. They were then anxious for some hint that their wish had been gratified. It was theoretically possible, asserted some physicians, to tell the sex, since boys occupied a right chamber to a sub-divided womb and girls the left. This segregation was, of course, a myth (‘but dreams and fond fantasies’), as others rightly realized. Life itself was deemed to begin when the soul entered the fully formed foetus, which occurred at 46 days for a boy and 90 days for a girl. A Tudor girl was thus nearly three months in the womb before her contemporaries considered her to be a living person.

The question of gender still gnawed at the minds of many Tudor parents as the mother’s sickness subsided and her stomach began to swell; and most Tudor mothers wanted a son. The wealthier sort of parents could interrogate their physicians on the sex, their questioning filling the doctors with despair. ‘It is very hard to know at the first whether the woman be with child or no,’ complained the French royal physician, Dr Guillimeau, towards the end of the sixteenth century, and ‘so by great reason must it needs be far more difficult to discern and distinguish the difference of the sex, and to determine whether it will be a boy or a wench’. They were not miracle workers. But even Dr Guillimeau believed there were certain signs a mother could look for. Everyone knew that men were hotter than women, which gave them strength, intelligence and vigour. It stood to reason then that younger women, who became hotter than their seniors, would bear boys.

There were, it was thought, some helpful things prospective parents could do to better their chances of conceiving the right gender. Those most anxious for a boy should refrain from sexual intercourse when the wind blew southwards, since this was almost sure to result in a girl. The pregnant woman could also scrutinize her reflection – was her complexion clear? If so, it could be a boy. Carrying a girl was harder work, and so the mother would have ‘a pale, heavy, and swarth countenance, a melancholic eye’. Boys reputedly lay higher in the wombs than girls – again due to their heat – while a girl would lie ‘at the bottom of the belly, because of her coldness and weight’. Carrying a girl was even believed to affect a mother’s health more adversely than carrying a boy.

In early 1492, at least Queen Elizabeth of York could content herself that she had already fulfilled her dynastic duty, with the births of two fine sons – even though death could strike down seemingly healthy children at any moment.

Once pregnancy was established, it behoved a mother to ensure the health of both herself and her child. Spending her time in ‘good tempered air’ was particularly important, as was a good diet. Pregnant women also had to think about clothing, since few women owned an extensive wardrobe. Even queens adapted their existing clothes, with extra panels added to their dresses. They could supplement them with more-specific maternity wear, such as ‘self grow’ waistcoats, kirtles and gowns, which could be let out as the wearer’s pregnancy advanced. To begin with, gowns could first be unlaced to make them roomier, before more drastic changes were required. Women would also think about clothes for the birth itself. It was common for Tudor women to wear a hood with a shoulder cape in which to give birth.

Elizabeth of York may initially have had concerns over her fourth pregnancy, because she had conceived only three months after the birth of her second son, Henry, on 28 June 1491. Her husband, heir to the House of Lancaster, had won his crown on the field at Bosworth in August 1485 – inaugurating the Tudor dynasty. His marriage to Elizabeth, who was the eldest daughter of the Yorkist King Edward IV, had helped cement his position by unifying the houses that had fought for decades. To the royal couple, who were frequently surrounded by proud demonstrations of the new dynasty, each of their ‘issue lawfully born’ helped to symbolize their union and their hold on the throne. Nonetheless, such a rapid new pregnancy in 1492 – almost certainly an accident – was a cause for concern, given the very real dangers that threatened women in pregnancy and childbirth.