Book review – Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser

Caidyn's review (1)

Mary Queen of Scots


I did a buddy read with the ever lovely Jaynie, who I read Elizabeth I with earlier this year!

And, this was really good. At times, it was pretty dull because it felt bogged down by details I didn’t need to know — names, family history, etc. — but most of the time it was interesting. I think it picked up speed after her second marriage to Darnley because that was when everything kind of went downhill for her.

One thing that came up when Jaynie and I discussed the book was Mary’s childhood and how, in a way, it was a disadvantage to her. She had a relatively stable childhood in France, removed from the people she would eventually govern. Scheming wasn’t her forte, although she did it throughout her life. She led with her heart and was an action person rather than hanging back to see how things played out. She didn’t exactly keep herself out of plotting or find a way to be able to deny it.

Very different than Elizabeth, her rival. Elizabeth had a very unstable childhood. She knew the players at the court in and out. She always found a way to keep her hands off of scheming so she didn’t get in trouble for it. And when she did get caught, she was able to get out of it eventually.

It’s hard not to compare the two women. Queens around the same time, same dynasty and family ties, both very ambitious. Yet, they were very different people and Mary’s upbringing was a deficit to her. She was a foreign queen in the end. Very different than the people she was meant to govern. She was basically French and she had a different religion than most of the people and she seemed to think more of her own passions than of what something would do to the people.

Their lasting image is also very different. Elizabeth is seen as very apt and smart while, in most of what I’ve read, Mary comes off looking like an idiot. I’ve read a fiction book about her and she really was an idiot. Yet, the movie that came out last year, which has the same name as this book (different source material, though — they used John Guy’s book, which I also plan on reading) made her look like a genius.

Fraser definitely came down in the middle of both those extremes. I loved how balanced the biography was. She showed Mary’s flaws and strengths, most of which go hand in hand. Fraser definitely knew her stuff about Mary. She cared about her subject but was as unbiased as she could be on the topic. In short, I really enjoyed this biography. It was good and an enjoyable read.

Talk to me!
Have you read this? What did you think?
What makes a biography balanced for you?

The Lazy Historian’s Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII by Jillianne Hamilton

The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII



Copy was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. This did not effect my rating.

At long last, I’ve found a book that I can give for a recommendation to people who want a good starting point in Tudor history. It’s a lot of history and a lot of years, along with a whole bunch of names as people go in and out of favor.

This is a very small book. It ends on page 173 and then there are about twenty pages after it of family trees, sources/book recommendations for each wife and the general topic of Henry’s wives, and a glossary of important people and places. All of those things are very important for a handbook like this. It’s an easy reference to draw from.

The life of each wife is covered from birth to death. A lot of their lives somewhat tangle together, but Hamilton keeps them very separate. In each section, she keeps to the specific wife without getting into too many things about the next one. That’s appreciated because you can turn to a specific section and you know it’s going to be only about that one wife rather than somewhat about her and also waxing on about a later wife.

At times, I kept wanting a little more or wishing there had been more ideas explored — especially in Catherine Howard’s section — but I had to take a step back to remind myself that this is just a handbook. It’s not a tell-all about that wife. It’s nailing down the important historical things and not every little detail. If I want all the little details, then I’d go to the back to see any book recommendations that were there.

When I glanced back at the sources used/book recommendations, part of me cringed seeing Alison Weir included. But then there were so many other books included — some I had read, some I hadn’t, but most I had heard of in some way — that it gives a better picture of the topic.

The humor really worked in this book. Sometimes I thought it was because I’ve already read a lot about Henry’s wives, but then I also think that it just worked. If you’ve wanted The Tudors, it plays on that and, at times, vocalizes the things that you were thinking while watching it.

I highly suggest this book to those who are Tudor history beginners or who want a refresher on what can be a very dense topic. Thanks to the author for providing me with a copy!

Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII by Gareth Russell

Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII



Color me impressed by this book.

It takes Catherine Howard, a woman who has been maligned by historians throughout the years, and turns her into a fleshed out person while not absolutely boring me in the process. Russel claims that she wasn’t ditzy, wasn’t stupid, and she had a very set personality. He also believes that Catherine never committed adultery with Culpepper, a theory that I’ve heard before.

While I’m still not buying the last half of that (because I think that there might have been something physical there and it wasn’t all just words or lies), I really found myself liking this Catherine. She was interesting. She had a personality. She wasn’t some little girl that Henry took an interest in, but really a woman who could have been a great queen because she was brought up in nobility. In some ways, she reminded me of myself. A penchant for getting things right, for not wanting to embarrass herself in front of everyone. And she got upset when someone did embarrass her in any way.

Russell structured giving her personality around explaining the history of her family and the times that they were in, showing how one influenced the other. I thought it was a bit heavy on explaining the history of those around her as opposed to her personal history, which is why I rated it four stars. Having read about this topic quite often, it just felt like but I also learned a lot more about foreign policies and specific family members she had that weren’t key players in the story that is usually presented about her life; that she had sex before Henry, cheated on him, which then led to her death. And that’s all her life amounted to.

In short, this book was beautifully written (seriously, it was for a history book) that challenged what has been said about Catherine Howard both in the past and now. He directly challenges quite a few theories and addresses various things by showing the logical conclusion. He shows what evidence is disregarded to get to those theories, then comes up with his own. That’s quite difficult to do since Tudor history is so talked about.

I found this to be a very refreshing book, one that I want to own and come back to one day to have a closer read.

Henry VIII: The King and His Court by Alison Weir

Henry VIII: The King and His Court



What can I say about this book…

Oh yeah.

I hated it.

I fucking hated this book.

I mean, look at all of those sticky notes. Look at those annotations. Look at the pure rage that I have for it.

Let’s start with the thesis:

My aim in this book is to draw together a multitude of strands of research in order to develop a picture of the real Henry VIII, his personal life throughout his reign, the court he created, and the people who influenced and served him. (p. 2)

To do this, she uses anecdotal evidence. No joke. She uses anecdotal evidence to show how the life was and how things were in the court. That’s horrendous. For a woman who bills herself as a historian, she comes across like Philippa Gregory. None of them studied history, but they pretend to be them without the same academic rigor.

So, what’s wrong with using anecdotal evidence? From my line of research — aka psychology — anecdotal evidence is a no-no because it holds no scientific basis. It has no grounding in fact. It’s just a story that someone told, one that can’t be verified by other sources.

A brief example of one of these anecdotes: A rumor went around the court that Anne Boleyn was the product of an affair Henry had with Anne’s mother, Elizabeth Boleyn (nee Howard). This rumor could be used to show what was going on in court and what people were whispering in the conservative (i.e. Catholic) faction.

But, no. Weir goes ahead and literally hashes out the rumor. She says that Henry couldn’t have fathered Anne, but that it might be possible that he had sex with Lady Boleyn when he was a teenager. And that it can’t be ruled out. When there’s no evidence to support something of that nature.

Which brings me to my second issue: The lack of citations.

The above anecdote and her conclusion did not have a citation to show that others have thought about this or spoken about it or that there were any sort of primary sources that hinted to this same thing. It felt like every few pages I was writing down “source??? citation???” because there was none.

Weir makes claims without supporting them. That’s just what she does. Or she doesn’t use citations correctly. I was always taught to cite early in the paragraph, as early as possible, when the same source is used. She cites at the last second, making it confusing. Then, she just makes claims without citing anything.

Then, Weir’s biases come into play. Especially against anyone in the Boleyn family. I’ve already written extensively about this in my review of her fiction book Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession. It was also discussed in the comments over on Goodreads, so I’ll also link that here.

This is best illustrated in Weir’s use of biased primary sources. I’m talking about Eustace Chapuys. While I will agree that Chapuys is a rich source to use to look at a very Spanish viewpoint of The Great Matter (aka the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Anne), he can’t be used as a verifiable source since he bought into any rumor or hint of slander against Anne Boleyn and her family. Yet, in one breathe, Weir said that historians have called him untrustworthy but she’s going to use him because he’s worth it.

So, you already know that with her use of a biased source, you’re not getting a real picture of what was going on and what the court was really like.

My last (I lie but the last gripe I feel like expanding on) is that Weir doesn’t focus on important power shifts. The rise of Cromwell was barely mentioned and he created the court. Wolsey’s fall was also barely talked about. Same with Anne Boleyn’s fall and the rise of the Seymours. Or the rise of the conservatives. Weir was far more interested in the properties that Henry owned, bought, and modified than actually telling me about the power factions in the court that he created.

So, what parting words do I have for all of you who stuck around to read this? Don’t read this. There are far better books on this topic than this. And if you do read it, constantly remember that Weir is literally banned from certain universities because of the issues that I’ve brought up and probably more since I’m not a historian. But I care about academic rigor like a historian.

The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII by Suzannah Lipscomb

The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII



Yet again, Lipscomb takes a topic that has been decided by former historians and turns it on its head. The long thought (even agreed upon) theory is that Henry VIII’s will was not created by him, but it was created by those at court who wanted more power before Edward VI reached his majority. And she argues that he was controlling up until the end, but that afterward people took advantage.

While I definitely have my ideas on Henry, I found myself agreeing with her. She pointed out that the will itself was very orthodox Catholic, just with some changes to keep him at the head of the church. And that goes with the rest of his life. If the upstarts in court had gotten a hold of it, it would have been more evangelical.

Also, the people he took out and added as protectors of the realm during Edward VI’s minority made sense. While they were certainly more evangelical (i.e. Protestant) than Henry himself, the conservatives (i.e. Catholic) at court had tried to make a coup against them. They targeted various members of the court, including the Queen, and it upset Henry.

It was the clause he put in about how he wanted all intended gifts to be given to people. Which meant that if he slightly hinted he might give something to you, they could just take and claim it. And there were a lot of missing people from court that had never been replaced, so the people closest to Henry snatched them up.

I think the only downside to this book is that it spends so much time examining the last decade of his life, then the last year, then the last month, and finally the last days before getting to a close examination of the actual will. The book is only ten chapters long (around 100 pages when you take out the appendices, bibliography, notes on the text, and index), so it spends a lot of time setting the stage rather than weaving that into an analysis.

This is a good book. It’s informative and challenges long-held beliefs that I’ve heard time and time again. And it certainly proves a point in doing that. Just that it was a bit too long.

First Lines Friday

First Lines Fridays is a weekly feature for book lovers hosted by Wandering Words. What if instead of judging a book by its cover, its author or its prestige, we judged it by its opening lines?

  • Pick a book off your shelf (it could be your current read or on your TBR) and open to the first page
  • Copy the first few lines, but don’t give anything else about the book away just yet – you need to hook the reader first
  • Finally… reveal the book!

Caidyn will be in blue.
Chantel will be in purple.

Henry VIII’s last will and testament is one of the most intriguing and contested documents in British history. Given special legal and constitutional significance by the 1536 and 1544 Acts of Succession, which allowed Henry to nominate his successor in his last will, it is exceptional among English royal wills. For Henry VIII, the monarch so renowned — or notorious — for remarrying in pursuit of a male heir, the succession was his abiding obsession until the very end.

Maybe that was a bit boring for you, but it was fascinating to me. It feels good to be back in Tudor history. I’ve had my eye on this book for a while, too! I’ve already read another book by the same author and was very impressed by it, so, of course, I’m looking forward to this one.

It is…

The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII

Last year, I read 1536 (the link takes you to my Goodreads review because we didn’t have this blog then) by this same author where she gives a very close analysis of a single year that definitely was a turning point in Henry VIII’s reign. I already have pretty solid beliefs about certain areas in that year but I was very impressed that Lipscomb actually managed to change my mind or to broaden what I thought about it.

I can’t say if I’d recommend this book (yet) but I know I’d tell someone who wants a close analysis of a specific point in Henry VIII’s life to turn to her, whether it’s a whole year or his final days.

She’s choking me. She’s really in there, fingers on cartilage, mashing my trachea and I can’t breathe, Maria thinks. She truly can’t breathe, but she can’t bring herself to care. There was a time in her life when this was new, when she was at least as hot for being choked as Steph was for choking her, but now they’ve got an apartment together -a cat, good lighting- and Maria can’t even muster a shiver. 

These first lines stood out to me so much that I continued reading. That’s what first lines should do. They should capture your attention and as a result, you want to keep reading. From the first lines of this book, you know that there is going to be a lot of brutal honesty. While it’s not in first person perspective, I feel it’s likely that we are going to know all of Maria’s truths which I’m frankly excited about. I’m always happy to know what characters refuse to tell others around them. 

Also, this book is queer and it’s about time I read a queer book again. 

Today I’ve picked…

Nevada by Imogen Binnie

nevada cover

Maria, the main character in this book is trans and I don’t feel I read enough about trans characters. Somehow I hadn’t heard about this book until a queer booktuber was talking about it. So, naturally I jumped on it and I look forward to reading it soon.