Day 1280: The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors

Cover for The Last White RoseI’ve read a couple of histories by Desmond Seward now, one of which, The Wars of the Roses, did a much better job of explaining the complications of those wars than any other book I’ve read. In The Last White Rose, Seward details the attempts by the first two Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, to wipe out the Plantagenet line.

Real or imagined conspiracies against the Tudors haunted the reigns of both these kings. At first, those conspiracies that actually existed had their roots in Henry VII’s very tenuous claim on the throne. There were still plenty of Yorkists around, and some of them had much better claims. It was Henry VII’s knowledge of these plots that led him to construct a complex web of spies for the state. Later, his growing paranoia led him to execute young Warwick, whose only crime was his birth.

Although Henry VIII continued his father’s policy of stamping out conspiracies, as he grew older and more erratic, he conducted a reign of terror. Courtiers were charged for slight errors or none at all. Henry succeeded in killing off almost every person with Plantagenet blood. His paranoia was manipulated by Thomas Cromwell, who invented conspiracies to rid himself or Henry of enemies.

Seward could be writing novels, his style is so easy to read and interesting. Although he introduces many players, he is somehow able to interest readers in all their fates. I found this another fascinating book about this period.

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Day 740: Richard III: England’s Black Legend

Cover for Richard IIIHistorian Desmond Seward explains in the introduction of Richard III that there are two views of Richard. He calls them the black legend—the traditional view—and the white legend—the notion that Richard’s reputation was blackened by the Tudors after Bosworth Field. This theory was first put forward by Horace Walpole in the 18th century and is famously supported by Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. The Richard III Society has even claimed that Richard was not a hunchback, which claim was proved false by the recent discovery of his bones.

Seward’s view is that of the black legend, that Richard was a ruthless man who committed many dark deeds, including killing the princes in the Tower. Richard III is an interesting biography of Richard, based on what is known of his life. There are few of his own writings to base it on, unfortunately, because Richard was not much of a writer, a situation common to nobility of his time.

Of course, Richard’s entire life was lived during the turbulent period of the Wars of the Roses. England experienced little peace during this period, and what little there was occurred during the reign of Edward IV, Richard’s older brother. This peace was marred mostly by the rapacious behavior of the Woodvilles, Edward’s in-laws, and that of the Duke of Clarence, his erratic brother. However, that peace was destroyed by Edward’s early death, which plunged the country into another succession crisis because the prince was only 12 or 13 years old. The last time a young prince had become king, Henry VI, was disastrous for the country.

My own impression from reading this book is that Seward invariably looks at the darkest interpretation of events. I guess you could call me of the dark gray school. Certainly, the murders of the princes in the Tower was a shocking event, viewed with horror during its time and since, and there seems little doubt that Richard ordered the murders. Still, the situation for Richard was difficult. In doing his duty by his nephew, he faced the prospect of at least six years of an unstable regime with continual battles for power with the Woodvilles. This is not to excuse his actions, but it is possible to view them as an attempt to maintain stability in the realm, and that’s probably how he explained them to himself. Instead, the result was to almost completely exterminate the Plantagenet family.

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Day 279: The Serpent’s Tale

Cover for The Serpent's TaleIn the first of the Mistress of the Art of Death series (minor spoilers ahead), Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, a medieval pathologist, solved a series of murders for the English King Henry II and fell in love with one of his soldiers, Rowley Picot. She declined his marriage proposal because he expected to be rewarded a baronetcy as a result of their success and she knew that as a baronet’s wife she would not be allowed to pursue her medical profession. As a more humble citizen she has a lot more freedom. So, they parted and, to his horror, he was made the Bishop of St. Albans.

In this second book, taking place almost two years later, Rowley fetches her for another mission. She is bubbling over with resentment because she has borne him a daughter, Ally, whom he has not acknowledged.

Rowley is on what he hopes is a preemptive mission. Using poison mushrooms, someone has attempted to murder Rosamund the Fair, Henry II’s mistress, and blame it on his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. In an effort to avoid civil war, Rowley wants Adelia to help him figure out who ordered the attempt before Henry hears of it.

But Adelia has bad news for him. The basket of mushrooms he brought to show her contains nightcaps, and Adelia explains that Rosamund may seem to have improved, but she is already dead.

In a frozen winter landscape, Adelia and Rowley travel first to a convent and then to the fantastic Wormwood Tower to investigate the crime, where Rosamund’s body lies protected by a labyrinth and an insane lady’s maid.

Franklin’s series is well written and carefully researched. Although she admits to taking a few liberties with historical characters in this book, for the most part it is historically based on Eleanor’s revolt against Henry in favor of her oldest son.

Franklin sets up a vivid backdrop in the icy English landscape, which plays more than an incidental part in the plot. In addition, she has the ability to make us care about Adelia and Ally, Rowley, Mansur, and Glytha, the main recurring characters. It is with sadness that I heard not long ago of Franklin’s death, and I regret that there are only four books in this series.

Day 102: Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery

Cover to Who Murdered ChaucerIt is an accepted interpretation of history that Richard II was a weak, dissolute ruler who was hated by the English people. But Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery makes a plausible case for the truth having been rewritten by the victors after Richard was deposed.

The version of events that has been accepted for centuries is that Henry IV saved the English kingdom by overthrowing the corrupt Richard II at the urging of the populace. Authors Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Alan Fletcher, Juliette Dor, and Terry Dolan provide plausible evidence that Richard was neither unpopular nor weak, but that he was a relatively enlightened monarch–a patron of the arts and an advocate for the new fashion of authors writing in their own languages instead of in Latin–and that he permitted criticism of the church.

However, his rule was periodically threatened by several of the more conservative members of nobility and the church, including especially Thomas Arundel, the younger brother of the Earl of Arundel. Richard eventually had to banish some of them, including Arundel, and others were killed. The end of Richard II’s reign actually came later when he felt secure enough to travel to Ireland.

As the result of a proposed duel, Richard also banished Henry of Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt. Henry was considered the consumate knight and was admired throughout the kingdom. Richard seemed to be fond of him and probably considered him his heir. Henry’s dispute with Thomas de Mowbray resulted in charges of treason, and they were both banished. Henry was banished for 10 years, but Jones et al. find plausible indications that Richard had an agreement to allow Henry back early. One was that Richard initially did not take Henry’s property, as was usual.

But Henry met with Arundel on his European travels, despite strict injunctions not to have dealings with him. The two plotted to overthrow Richard, attacking England when he was away in Ireland with his army. Henry won and became Henry IV, treating Richard shamefully. No one was sure what happened to him, except that he was dead. (Henry’s own son, after he became Henry V, had Richard’s bones brought to Westminster to be buried.)

The book shows that Henry relentlessly rooted out records that were approving of Richard, even implicitly, or that were negative to himself. He assiduously promoted propaganda alleging that Richard was hated, weak, and dissolute. He gave Arundel free reign, as Archbishop of Canterbury, to burn heretics for the first time in England and to set his own criteria for judging heretics. In short, he instituted a reign of terror.

What does this have to do with Chaucer? This shift in power left him very vulnerable. His works under Richard II had criticized the very things about the church that Arundel considered to be heresy. Chaucer disappears from the historical record right around 1400, about a year after Richard was deposed.

The book makes a shakier case that Arundel either caused Chaucer’s death, possibly in imprisonment, or paid to have him killed. There is no evidence of this, of course; the authors’ conclusions are drawn from things that happened to other writers, from some vague accounting records, and from hazy interpretations of some of Chaucer’s work. Although I feel that they have certainly pointed toward some possibilities, even they admit that it is unlikely anyone will know the truth.

The book is easy to follow and amusing at times. It is beautifully illustrated with pictures from illuminated manuscripts. The political and historical theories about Richard’s and Henry’s reigns are very interesting. However, I believe the book falls off a bit at the end when it settles down to examining the story of Chaucer’s end, especially when it resorts to interpreting Chaucer’s poetry.

Day 89: The Wars of the Roses

Cover for The Wars of the RosesThe Wars of the Roses were a series of complex events involving numerous significant figures. As such, when I have previously read about them, I’ve found it confusing to keep track of events and people.

In The Wars of the Roses: Through the Lives of Five Men and Women of the Fifteenth Century, Desmond Seward presents the clearest and most interesting explication I have read. He organizes the material and infuses interest by following the effects of the wars on five people–William Hastings, Edward IV’s best friend and one of the most powerful men in the realm during his (Yorkist) reign; John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, head of an ancient family and a loyal Lancastrian; Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor’s mother; Dr. John Morton, a loyal Lancastrian clergyman who turned Yorkist; and Jane Shore, mistress of Edward IV and daughter of a successful London businessman.

A series of battles between rival factions of the Plantagenet family for the throne, the Wars of the Roses lasted 32 years. The roots of the dispute lay in Henry IV’s usurpation of the crown from Richard II years before. Henry IV and his son, Henry V, were strong rulers, but Henry V’s heir, Henry VI, succeeded at the age of 15. He proved a weak and ineffective ruler who was dominated by his favorites and his wife’s rapacious relatives. Henry also managed to lose the portion of France that his father had so arduously and expensively won back, and England’s state of law and order had almost completely broken down.

The shift in government began when Henry VI had a son who replaced Edward Duke of York (later to be Edward IV) as heir to the throne. This made Edward’s position precarious and he had to flee to Europe. His subsequent battles against Henry’s adherents were only the beginning of years of instability that resulted in the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and the beginning of that of the Tudors.

History can be written with too much detail or in a too academic and dry style, or it can be so lightly researched as to seem like fluff. Seward hits the perfect balance with a terrifically interesting book that is wonderfully well written.