Serving QEI …Intimate Details from Whitelock’s “The Queen’s Bed”

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THE last Tudor bed in existence, made to mark Henry VII’s accession to the throne. This 527-year-old Paradise State Bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York was rediscovered in 2010. Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field to take the English throne and found the Tudor dynasty. The Paradise State Bed is an unrivalled masterpiece of 15th Century oak carving which was commissioned almost immediately after Henry VII was crowned to celebrate his marriage to Elizabeth of York and the end of the War of the Roses.

Once she finally ascended to the English throne in 1558, Elizabeth I’s opulent lifestyle was in stark contrast to most of her early life.  “The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court” by Anna Whitelock details what it really took to be “Queen Elizabeth” on a material, and perhaps on an emotional level.  Elizabeth was never alone, even asleep there was always someone in her room, even sharing those fantastic beds described in the book:

“... At Richmond Palace, Elizabeth might sleep in an elaborate boat-shaped bed with curtains of ‘sea-water green’ and quilted with light brown tinsel.  At Whitehall her bed was made from an intricate blend of different colored woods and hung with Indian-painted silk.  Her best bed, which was taken with her when the court moved from place to place, had a carved wooden frame which was elaborately painted and gilded, a valance of silver and velvet, tapestry curtains trimmed with precious buttons and gold and silver lace, and a crimson satin headboard topped with ostrich feathers.”

So much has been written about the life and times, love affairs and political maneuvers of Elizabeth I. Yet only a few books have approached Gloriana’s life from the behind the façade she presented to the world. Anna Whitelock succeeds in giving us Elizabeth with her best friends and confidantes. These women surrounded her and applied the make-up, gowns, and jewels each day to take her from mere mortal to dazzling queen. They served her well, kept her secrets, and did what good friends do: work on our behalf. There were even a few, like Kat Ashley and Dorothy Bradbelt, who politicked to help marry the queen. And others, who loaned Elizabeth their maid’s clothing or had private dinners so she could be with Lord Robert Dudley.  Whitelock reveals an Elizabeth who is in turns vulnerable, loving, inconstant, and even quite spiteful.

Elizabeth did a better job than anyone before her, and arguably after her, in creating a brand that even in her day became iconic and magical – which was of course the point. Against the backdrop of assassination attempts, marriage suitors, court scandals, favorites and power politics, Whitelock’s details of Elizabeth’s life do not get lost in the larger themes of Elizabeth’s reign but rather enhance our understanding this great queen and her Court.

A quick visit to the author’s website tells me that the BBC has optioned this book for a possible TV series, which would if done well would be terrific.  And let’s agree that the BBC does this type of program really well.  Bring it!

History Lady Review of Margaret George’s Elizabeth I 

Compelling “what if” novel about the son Anne Boleyn might have had…

What if Anne Boleyn's son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn’s son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn had not miscarried of her son and savior in the winter of 1536 and instead had given Henry VIII the son and heir for whom he was so desperate? Laura Andersen has written her first novel  in the Anne Boleyn Trilogy, “The Boleyn King” based on the tantalizing premise that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had a son named William who lived to become King of England. She creates an England that will still be familiar to Tudor-era fans, one with religious divisions, pretenders to the throne, the threat of Spanish invasion and territorial ambitions in France.The heart of the novel is not Will Tudor but Minuette Wyatt, born the same hour and day as Will and raised as a ward of Dowager Queen Anne (Boleyn). The novel begins with Minuette joining the court in the household of her good friend, Princess Elizabeth. The two of them, together with Will and his best friend Dominic Courtney, are a tight-knit group; the only people they trust are each other. But the friendships are tested by war, a romantic love triangle, and a plot to overthrow Will and place his Catholic sister Mary Tudor on the throne. This was a surprising gem and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I like my historical novels to be accurate, so I did not expect to like a novel that rewrites history, but it is always so hard to read Anne Boleyn’s story without wishing it had a happier ending.  Andersen has given Anne Boleyn fans the happy ending we desire, with a cast of likeable new characters like Minuette, Will, and Dominic, who blend with well-known historical figures like Elizabeth, Robert Dudley, Mary Tudor and the Norfolk family.

This review was first published by the Historical Novel Society in the Historical Novel Review.

Being close to the throne brings heartaches to heroines in “A Dangerous Inheritance”

A Dangerous Inheritance

A Dangerous Inheritance

A Dangerous Inheritance interweaves the stories of two lesser-known historical figures who lived 100 years or so apart: Katherine Grey, little sister of the famous Nine Days’ Queen Jane Grey; and Kate Plantagenet, illegitimate daughter of Richard III.  One woman stands to inherit the English throne; the other finds that throne casts a long shadow on her happiness.

We have all heard of Lady Jane Grey, England’s Nine-Day Queen executed by Queen Mary Tudor, but rarely told is the heartbreaking story of her sister, Katherine.  Upon her sister Jane’s death in 1554 Katherine became second in line to throne of England after Elizabeth Tudor.  But of course, there was plenty of controversy about Elizabeth’s right to that throne because she became illegitimate when her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed.  Many thought Katherine had a more legitimate claim (as the eldest surviving grandchild of Henry VIII’s sister Mary), which made her a serious threat to Elizabeth’s right to inherit it.  Elizabeth had good reasons not to like Katherine.  When she became Queen her animosity took on a vicious slant.

Weir portrays Katherine as a pretty, impulsive young thing, who secretly (sometimes not so secretly) covets the throne.  She marries for love without Elizabeth’s knowledge and consent, which is treason. When Elizabeth discovers Katherine is pregnant (with a Tudor heir, possibly a male heir) she locks up Katherine and her husband Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford in the Tower, separated from each other and the world at large.  A sympathetic jailer allows them to visit, with the result that Katherine bore two children in the Tower (infuriating Elizabeth).  Katherine lived out most of her married life in captivity.  Elizabeth I is almost never portrayed as an antagonist, and too many novelists gloss over her spiteful, jealous side.  Not Weir. I’m not sure I’ve read another novel in which Elizabeth I is portrayed as such a petty tyrant. I liked it, it felt true.

The other dangerous inheritance is to be the daughter of a usurper, which was the fate of Kate Plantagenet, the bastard daughter of Richard III.  In 1483, Kate travels to London for her cousin’s coronation only to see her father crowned King instead.  She learns her cousins—the Prince of Wales and his younger brother the Duke of York—have disappeared from the Tower of London.  Kate tries to discover their fate.  It is an uneasy time for Kate, who sees her father become harder, more ruthless and more political.  To broaden his power base Richard marries her to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, leaving her broken-hearted at the loss of her true love, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln.  When Richard III is killed at the Battle of Bosworth, Pembroke pledges his loyalty to Henry Tudor and Katherine goes from political asset to liability.  Moreover, Henry Tudor, now Henry VII, believes she may know the fate of the Princes in the Tower.  In the new Tudor-era, Kate risks her reputation and freedom to support the remaining Yorkists who would overthrow Henry VII.

The glue that holds the stories of these two characters together is the fate of the Princes in the Tower, which Kate tries to uncover during her father’s reign.  Katherine Grey, sixty years later, finds Kate’s notes on the disappearance and takes up the thread of the mystery.  I enjoyed the unique way in which Weir wove the stories of Katherine and Kate, drawing on the similarities in their stories.  Both are torn from their true loves; both are persecuted for their proximity to the throne, both die…well, I’ll not spoil the story further.

I’ve never read anything by Alison Weir I didn’t like, and A Dangerous Inheritance is no exception. She remains one of my favorite authors, as you might be able to tell from my reviews below:

Henry VII, Beset and Beleaguered in BBC’s The Shadow of the Tower

If you’ve read “About the History Lady” on this blog, you’ll know the BBC dramas The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R captured my attention as a 10-year-old and launched an interest that has held ever since.  The Shadow of the Tower is the third installment of the BBC’s series that was not (I believe) ever shown in the US.  It is every bit as good as the first two, but it focuses on the less glamorous (or less famous) of the Tudor monarchs, Henry VII.  But Henry VII is important not just as the founder of the Tudor dynasty but for his own achievements, probably too often eclipsed by his larger-than-life descendants, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

The Shadow of the Tower follows the reign of Henry Tudor from his victory over King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Henry united the warring houses of Lancaster and York by marrying Elizabeth of York, Richard’s niece and eldest daughter of Edward IV.  Despite securing the crown and uniting the country, pockets of rebellion and dissent continue to plague him throughout his reign.  Henry lives in the shadow of the Tower, aware of his tenuous hold on the throne.  As Henry VII, all he wants is to keep the realm at peace, fill the depleted royal coffers, secure the Tudor dynasty and be loved by the people. None of that is easy.  He is beset by royal competitors and pretenders (Lambert SimnelPerkin Warbeck), uprisings (Cornwall) and sundry traitors—real or imagined—from the Duke of Suffolk to the Earl of Warwick.  He keeps the Tower and its executioners quite busy.

It is actually a very good series, though you have to approach The Shadow of the Tower with an understanding of its limitations—some of which are glaring. You have to get past the really quite awful opening music and accept its set production is not of the 21st Century.  The screenwriting is very good—as is the acting, in particular James Maxwell plays Henry VII beautifully, trying hard to be a good, benevolent beloved king but having to continually to mete out the King’s Justice.

I nearly gave up on it after the first DVD with three episodes, at least two of which dragged a little, but persevered and was rewarded (perhaps I got used to the clunky sets and music).  The Perkin Warbeck episodes have terrific scripts, are well-acted and full of dramatic tension.  I finished the series, all 640 minutes of Tudor-loving viewing, very satisfied.  Yes, the story could use a remake, but it is still worth the screen time.

If you have not seen the two other dramas in the series, you must.  Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth R has not yet been surpassed even by Cate Blanchett or Dame Judi Dench (as terrific as they were).  Keith Michell in the Six Wives of Henry VIII is probably my second favorite Henry  ever (I give top marks to Ray Winstone in Henry VIII).

A couple of Tudor links you might find interesting:

“Anonymous” Suspends Belief

Portrait of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxfor...

Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Before I went to see Roland Emmerich‘s “Anonymous” I did a bit of research on the film’s premise, which is that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was the author of Shakespeare’s plays.  Indeed, there exists a whole De Vere  Society going back some 200 years whose members believe Shakespeare was a fake, apparently Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh among them.  Who really knows?  Feeling comfortable about the movie’s premise—from an historically plausible sense, off I went this afternoon, on my own (because some people who I’ll refrain from mentioning refused to join me based on the NY Times movie review).   The NYT called the film “a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination.”  I won’t go that far, but I did start muttering “what tosh” not far into the film.

On many levels, the movie is excellent theatre. I expect to see Academy Award nominations for set, costume design, and make-up, most of which was extremely accurate to the period.  The acting was very good—Rhys Ifans stands out as De Vere and erased from my memory (almost, some things are too funny to forget) his tour de force performance in “Notting Hill” as the goofy Welsh roommate.  I enjoyed both Redgraves, Vanessa and daughter Joely Richardson, as Elizabeth I, and I got a kick out of Shakespeare’s cockney accent and slang (which, given he was from Stratford-upon-Avon he would not have had, but details!).  David Thewlis makes an excellent William Cecil.  Jamie Campbell Bower does a creditable job as the young De Vere—much better than his work in the mini-series “Camelot.” But why was the most excellent Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi given a bit part?  I’ve seen Jacobi as Richard III (front row seat, she bragged) and having him introduce the film and disappear until the end was a giant tease.

Then there’s the plot—ah, there’s the rub.  Let me first say something nice.  What writer Christopher Orloff did well, and which I have not seen in other historical films, was to set up the Cecils pere et fils (William, Lord Burghley and Robert) as the villains of the piece, pursuing fanatical Puritanism at the expense of arts and culture.  Knowing something of how William Cecil plotted the downfall of Mary, Queen of Scots, I could buy this.  The film also did a nice job of portraying the real animosity that existed between Robert Cecil and the Earls of Essex and Oxford.  Orloff ‘s Cecils are master playwrights, and everyone, even Queen Elizabeth, are merely actors on the stage that is England.

Much of it was historically accurate.  Most of Edward De Vere’s life—including  killing a member of Burghley’s household–was true, as was De Vere’s estrangement from his wife.  Essex’s rebellion was fairly accurate, though the role of the play in his downfall—which was actually Richard II not Richard III—was overstated.

If they’d only sailed closer to historical winds of fact, this would have been a great film, especially for 16th C history aficionados. But, Orloff took some, er, creative license, that had me squirming in my seat through much of the movie.  The Earl of Essex AND the Earl of Southampton were Elizabeth’s children—Southampton her child by the Earl of Oxford, who was ALSO Elizabeth son.  Now, I’m sorry, but I could take one fictionalized bastard of Elizabeth I—many a good historical fiction novel was published about the rumor she had a child.  But three, and one the product of incest? This is where belief is suspended and fantasy fiction takes over. Elizabeth might as well have been a shape-shifter or a werewolf.  I do hate it when facts are flung out the window, because so many people will watch the film and believe Elizabeth did have multiple children and an incestuous relationship.  Hollywood. *Sigh*

I did enjoy the movie, although if it had stuck to its premise and worked a bit harder to be believable, it could have been a great film.  Was De Vere the “real” Shakespeare?  If, after seeing the film, you’re curious to learn more, head to the De Vere Society. But if you think it is bunk, then here are a few NY Times articles (“Hollywood Dishonors the Bard” and  “Wouldn’t It Be Cool if Shakespeare Wasn’t Shakespeare“) as grist for your mill.  In contrast, the UK’s Guardian review was much kinder.

Review: “Elizabeth I” by Margaret George is a Thoughtful Novel

Margaret George’s latest novel, Elizabeth I, is not a book that could have been conceived of, or written by, a young woman.  George’s insight and understanding of what it is to grow old (according to Wikipedia she is 68 years old) is what sets this novel, which focuses on the last thirty years of Elizabeth’s life, apart from the several hundred others about her (at least 50 of which are in print as I write) because you have to be aware of your own mortality to understand it enough to write about it.

The book opens with England facing invasion from the Spanish Armada.  The battle is inevitable, and Elizabeth is prepared.  This Elizabeth really is married to England, and you feel this throughout the novel. When Elizabeth narrates, the voice is regal.  Physically, she’s suffering through hot flashes, aching bones and is a bit forgetful, but she keeps the “show” alive—fantastical dresses, amazing jewels, and pageantry.  She’s wise—she’s the sum of life experiences about her legitimacy, scandalous affairs (Thomas Seymour, Robert Dudley), rebellion and Reformation and war with Spain.  She is old, burying her closest confidantes – Robert Dudley, Blanche Parry, William Cecil, Henry Carey, Francis Walsingham—and realizes she’s next.

Many authors paint Elizabeth as the vain, older woman who believed in a love affair with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, a much younger man—but George’s Elizabeth is smarter than that.  She sees Essex for the egotistical man he is, tolerates his foibles and failings, seeing him as harmless until it is nearly too late and he mounts a credible rebellion.

Because few authors have focused on the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, not many realize the challenges she faced at home and abroad.  She dealt with poverty and famine and continued religious strife between Catholics, Protestants and Puritans, rebellion from the Earl of Essex and of course, death.  Abroad, she faced down the might of Spain, quashed rebellion in Ireland, and founded colonies in Virginia.

So many books about Elizabeth revolve around the love story between her and Robert Dudley.  This is not that kind of novel—it is a thoughtful book, not a love story—unless you consider it a love story between Elizabeth and England.   And, though it took me a while to make up my mind, I like this Elizabeth who is more disciplined, less romantic than most portrayals.

The novel is narrated in two voices:  Elizabeth’s—regal, sometimes cynical, always shrewd; and the more earthy, sensual and desperately ambitious voice of her cousin, Lettice Knollys (granddaughter of Mary Boleyn).  Lettice is Elizabeth’s alter ego—she is the sum of choices Elizabeth did not make, i.e., to be a wife, mother and lover.   Her promiscuity stands in sharp contrast to Elizabeth’s virginity.  She looks like the Queen, only younger and still attractive enough to attract Elizabeth’s long-time love, Robert Dudley, and when the two marry Elizabeth banishes them from court, but Lettice craves reinstatement—missing the limelight and boisterous court life.  Lettice pins her hopes for reinstatement at Court on her beautiful, gifted but rash son Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex.  Those hopes end with third husband and her son being executed.  I can’t say I liked Lettice very much, but as a foil, almost a doppelgänger to Elizabeth, her character is perfect.

I’ve now read most of Margaret George’s novels and this one ranks up there with The Autobiography of Henry VIII and Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles as a favorite.  I read this book twice, and liked it even more the second time, when I understood the plot and could follow the depth and nuances George brings to her characters. It is beautifully researched, evocatively written and a satisfying, thoughtful read.  Like Elizabeth, and George, I’m not getting any younger, and I appreciate a novel that celebrates the older woman and mighty Queen Elizabeth became.

Confession: It was this book that sent me to an e-reader (after I got my autographed hardcover copy from Margaret George). At 688 pages, it is a heavy read – I did not mind the length as much as the weight! When I heard George speak about the book at a reading she talked about how her editors always want her to write shorter novels, but she says she cannot seem to! Perhaps it is because she researches her subject so thoroughly that it is hard to leave anything on the cutting room floor.

Elizabeth I: A Novel by Margaret George was published in April 2011 by Viking

Review: “VIII” by H M Castor Is A Great Read

Much of Henry VIII’s notoriety revolves around his six wives and marital peccadilloes, and it is a refreshing change to find an author who takes the reader back to before Henry was king (when he was Hal, the “spare,” not the heir) as Harriet Castor does in the YA novel “VIII.”  Told in the first-person, the author puts the reader inside Hal’s head for his perspective on life, and we begin to understand the events that shaped him and how he grew from the most celebrated, handsome prince of his day to become grotesque, suspicious, villainous King Henry VIII.

The novel begins with Hal as a boy, fleeing into the Tower of London from The Pretender (not named, but presumably Perkin Warbeck, who claimed he was the son of the Edward IV, and thus the rightful King of England).  You forget—or at least I had—how much of Henry VII’s reign was spent subduing rebels, pretenders, and unifying a country divided after the 100 Year’s War.   Hal grapples with fears for his life and a desire for paternal recognition.  He copes by wrapping his beliefs in a scrap of prophecy, which says he’ll be King someday.  Yet his belief is balanced by a terrifying apparition—one that haunts him all his life—that augurs impending disaster and seems to feed and grow on Hal’s fears, insecurities and obsessions.

The reader comes to understand the overwhelming pull of Hal’s belief in his own destiny, a belief reinforced by events in his teenage years that pave the way to the crown, such as Prince Arthur’s death and Hal’s growing popularity and strength in the tiltyard.  Hal thinks he is a combination of Henry V and a knight of Camelot. He’ll become king, woo and win the Princess Catherine, conquer France and found a dynasty.  He’s got the bravado of a young lion: “I’ll show them all.”

When he becomes King, events unfold as expected.  Hal—now King Henry, anointed by God—wages military and political campaigns to conquer France that seem to bear fruit and  Catherine of Aragon is young and pregnant wit his heir.  But we all know how this ends for him: instead of a paving a glittering future he leaves a trail of death—his unborn sons, his wives, his friends and advisors.

Castor weaves a compelling portrait of how Hal the promising young Duke of York turned into the tyrannical Henry VIII.  It was written for the Young Adult audience, but like many YA novels, it will garner readers from all ages. It is a great read!

“VIII” by H. M. Castor was published in Oct 2011 by Templar in the UK–US publication date pending.  If you can’t wait,  order it via Amazon.co.uk  (I did!)