Elizabeth, Captive Princess by Margaret Irwin

Elizabeth, Captive Princess cover

Elizabeth, Captive Princess by Margaret Irwin was first published in 1948 and it’s the second book in the author’s Queen Elizabeth I trilogy. I really enjoyed the first book Young Bess and although I didn’t like this one quite as much, I’ll definitely be reading the third book Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain.

The book begins at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire where the Lady Elizabeth is living. A messenger had arrived from Duke Dudley an hour or so ago and everyone had guessed why he was there. The young and ailing King Edward must have died so Elizabeth must ride to London, but the messenger has apparently come with a plea from Edward for his sister Elizabeth to visit him. At first Elizabeth is keen to go, but then she thinks better of it. Both Elizabeth and her elder half-sister have been proclaimed to be illegitimate by their father Henry VIII which leads to the possibility of Lady Jane Grey being next in line to the throne.

As Duke Dudley has recently married his son Guildford off to Lady Jane Grey Elizabeth smells a rat. If she goes to London will she end up being taken to the Tower, never to be seen again like the two young princes in the past? Unknown to Elizabeth her half-sister Mary is having much the same suspicion, but as the elder of the two women she begins to travel around to rally support for her claim to the throne.

This is possibly one of the saddest eras in English history with the young Lady Jane being used and abused by her own parents, something she had grown used to over the years, but she could never have expected them to go to the lengths that they did to gain power through her.

I felt that Mary was given quite an easy time of it in this book as she really became a monster when she did attain the throne and you don’t get much idea of her cruelty and nastiness – all in the name of the Roman Catholic faith. Maybe that will be spelled out in the next volume.

The nursery rhyme
Mary, Mary quite contrary
How does your garden grow
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row

is thought by some to be written about Bloody Mary as she came to be known, due to her enthusiasm for executing non Catholics, usually having them burnt at the stake. The silver bells being part of the mass and cockle shells standing for martyrdom – I think. But others say that they were instruments of torture, something else that Mary was keen on.

Joseph Knight by James Robertson

Joseph Knight cover

Joseph Knight by James Robertson was published in 2003 and it won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award 2003.

This book flips backwards and forwards from 1746 to 1802 and dates in between. The locations range from Drumossie Moor – the Battle of Culloden – Dundee, Edinburgh, Perthshire, Fife, London and Jamaica.

James Wedderburn is a young man, a Culloden survivor and at the beginning of the book he’s hiding from the English authorities, if they catch him he’s a dead man. His father, who also took part in the battle has already been captured. Eventually he and his brother make their way to Jamaica and in time become very well off landowners, making their money from the sugar cane fields that are worked by their slaves.

James had always planned to return to Scotland when he had made enough money and he does exactly that. He isn’t willing to part with his slave Joseph Knight whom he has trained up to be his personal house servant. Joseph will be seen as a prized possession and proof of his owner’s success in life. Joseph has become a Christian and is obviously an intelligent man, he wants to be free to make his own decisions in life.

The upshot of that is that he marries and goes away to live with his wife in Dundee, of course he’s a ‘kenspeckled’ figure and eventually he is arrested as a runaway. However, slavery had been outlawed in Scotland long before then so surely as soon as Joseph got to Scotland he should be a free man. A court case ensues.

The author couldn’t resist the idea of having Boswell and Johnson as minor characters, both apparently being against slavery. I suspect this was to pep up the storyline as inevitably boozing and bawdiness was the result, I’m not sure that was necessary but others might dispute that. There are scenes of brutality in Jamaica, slave owners who regarded themselves as being fair-minded were far very from that.

This is a really good read, it’s based on a true story, if you’re interested you can read more here.

The blurb on the back says: ‘A gift for witty re-imagining and a canny understanding of the novelistic and its conduits to the worlds we live in now mark Robertson as a marvellous novelist and Joseph Knight as a work of cunning and great assurance,’ Ali Smith, Guardian.

You can read Jack’s much more detailed review of this book here.

Young Bess by Margaret Irwin

Young Bess cover

Young Bess by Margaret Irwin is the first book in a trilogy about Queen Elizabeth I of England. It was first published in 1944. I’ve been reading quite a lot of historical fiction recently, I think it’s because they take you well away from the worries of today and Covid-19 although having said that they do often mention plagues and fevers. I thought that maybe this book would be disappointing after reading The Mirror and the Light – but it wasn’t, I really enjoyed it and have ordered the next one in the series.

I’ve read a fair amount about the Tudor period but hadn’t read anything about the early life of Elizabeth, who was known as Bess and I was really pleased to read that Margaret Irwin was well known for the accuracy of her historical research.

The book begins when Bess is 12 years old and her father King Henry VIII is coming to the end of his life. Henry seems to have accepted that he will only have one son – the nine year old Edward to keep the Tudor line going and is rather dismissive of his two older daughters, both of whom have been deemed to be illegitimate.

Bess is very aware of what happened to her mother, Anne Boleyn. She’s keen to hear what her mother was really like from people who knew Anne. She realises that only her sickly half brother Edward and her sister Mary stand between her and the throne. But when Tom Seymour, brother of the late Jane Seymour begins to flirt with Bess and her step-mother Katherine Parr his actions incense those in the highest circles. They can see that he’s determined to grab power one way or another. It looks like madness but as his brother Edward Seymour had made himself ‘Protector’ of the young King Edward after the death of Henry, presumably Tom thought he had some protection himself. He couldn’t have been more wrong. This was a great read.

Again I had to resort to reading my copy of the Chamber’s Biographical Dictionary to remind myself what actually happened in the end to some of the characters in the book, I just couldn’t wait to see what happened next. I’m so looking forward to getting the second book in this series – Elizabeth, Captive Princess.

Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett

 Niccolo Rising cover

Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett is the first in a series and was first published in 1986. I really loved her Lymond series and was a bit loath to begin this new series as I didn’t think this one could match up to it, but I really enjoyed Niccolo Rising. As with the Lymond books it seemed to be non-stop action. The setting is Bruges in 1460 where Claes is an apprentice dyer who is always getting into scrapes, he’s a bit of a town fool but is very popular, especially with the young ladies.

But Claes is hiding his talents, it turns out that he has a great head for business, is able to decipher secret codes, gets on the right side of the Vatican – all of which ends up being very lucrative for his employer – the widow. But he has also made enemies as you would expect and there are attempts on his life.

Towards the end of the book his name lengthens to the original Nicholas to the disgust of some who wish to keep him in his place, and even some of his friends have doubts about his motives for some of his actions.

As you would expect from the author this is beautifully written although as ever you really have to concentrate on every word, but there’s quite a lot of humour and I was glad that I know Bruges, which can’t have changed much since the 15th century so I could picture it all.

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

 The House on the Strand cover

I had a feeling that I might have read The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier way back in the early 1970s. It was first published in 1969, but I definitely hadn’t read it before. The reason I wanted to read it is that a couple of weeks ago I caught the back end of a programme which mentioned that many readers said that Rebecca was their favourite du Maurier book, but older readers tended to plump for The House ion the Strand. I enjoyed this one but although it’s years since I read Rebecca I think I still prefer that one.

This is a time shift tale with the action split between the late 1960s and 1332, the setting is of course Cornwall.

Dick is married to an American widow who has two young sons, but at the beginning of the book he is on his own, waiting for his family to arrive at the house which has been loaned to them by his friend Magnus. Magnus is a professor, a scientist who has a laboratory in the basement of the house. Dick’s relationship with his wife Vita is a difficult one, not helped by Magunus’s attitude to his marriage.

Magnus asks Dick to be a guinea pig, helping in research he has been carrying out. It means that Dick has to take some liquid and report to Magnus what effects it has on him. For Dick the effects are amazing, he’s whisked back to 1332, where he can see what is going on in the area around the house he is living in. Although there seems to be no evidence of buildings which existed it seems that there was a lot going on. There was a priory and large farmhouses and Dick is a witness to murders and intrigue, without being able to do anything about them. When the effects of the liquid wear off he’s violently ill, but is unable to stop himself from repeating the experiment, wanting to find out what happens to the people who he is convinced used to live in the neighbourhood.

When Vita and the boys arrive it isn’t so easy for him to find time to take the liquid, and his behaviour causes problems with Vita

Actually it was the contemporary part of the book which didn’t ring quite true for me, mainly because I couldn’t believe in the relationship between Dick and Vita. He supposedly loved her but it seemed to be a sort of love/dislike thing and I must admit that there didn’t seem to be much to like about her.

I intend to read all of her books and only have a few still to read I think. So far I have enjoyed The King’s General most – apart from Rebecca. This book did make me think that I would like to read more about the history of the 14th century – and wouldn’t you know it – this did feature the Black Death!

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

I finished The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel this afternoon, so that took me eight days to read the 882 pages, I could have been faster, but I savoured every word. This last book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy was well worth waiting for, but I can hardly believe that it has been eight years since Bring Up the Bodies was published. I don’t go in for much in the way of re-reading but I intend to read the whole trilogy again at some point in the future.

If you’re at all interested in the history of the Tudors then you obviously know how this story ends, but despite that 874 pages before Cromwell’s execution are still a riveting read and from about half-way through I slowed down my reading, not wanting the book to finish and at the end I felt quite bereft, knowing that I was going to miss being in Cromwell’s company.

Well, none of us is perfect and he had a lot of flaws, but given the circumstances he could have been an awful lot worse than he was and in the end it was his lack of brutality and cruelty to others at Henry’s court that brought his downfall.

Cromwell had always been able to see that given Henry’s nature the possibility of swiftly falling out of the king’s favour was almost inevitable, he could have sailed to Italy or some other European country with some of his wealth, but he left it too late as he loved being at the centre of power.

Throughout the book Cromwell thinks back to scenes in his life from his childhood on, replaying the abuses that he had to put up with from his blacksmith father Walter, and his life in Italy as a young man, the loss of his wife and daughters and before that the loss of his ‘Anselma’, for me this had the effect of a man drowning and seeing his past life playing out in front of him. He could clearly see where he had gone wrong, what he should have done differently in his incredible career but at the time he didn’t think he could do anything different. In reality though he knew that if Henry wanted rid of someone it was going to happen, there was no getting away from it.

I was really glad that Hilary Mantel wrote three and a half pages of author’s notes explaining what had happened to many of the other characters in the book, as it saved me from having to look them all up. She explained that she had been given encouragement from many historians, academics, curators and actors over the years which had included many distinguished names but had decided not to compile a list of acknowledgments. She thought that it would be like a vulgar exercise in name-dropping. I think that’s a bit of a shame as I imagine that if I had been one of those people I would have been expecting such an acknowledgement, and as a reader I would have been interested to know who had contributed help over the years.

Anyway, I suspect that this one will also win the Booker, it’s a great read.

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer

Black Sheep cover

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer was first published in 1966 and my copy seems to be a first edition. If you’re wondering which book to read next from your to be read stacks and you just can’t make up your mind – as I often can’t, then a Georgette Heyer book will always hit the spot – I find.

The setting is Bath where unmarried sisters Abigail and Selina Wendover share the custody of their seventeen year old niece Fanny. Fanny’s parents are dead but have left her very well off when she comes of age, meaning that she’s a prey to all fortune-hunters – a type of beast which haunts the streets of Bath.

Stacy Calverleigh also inherited a large fortune but he has run through it all with his serious gambling habit and in no time at all he’s targetting Fanny for her money, and she very quickly believes she’s in love with him. But her Aunt Abigail knows of Stacy Calverleigh’s reputation and is determined to protect Fanny from him.

This brings Abigail into the society of Stacy’s Uncle Miles. He is the Black Sheep of his family and was sent out of the way to India to find his fortune (or fail) twenty years ago. Miles Calverleigh has just returned from India for good but he isn’t interested in his nephew, he’s enamoured of Abigail. But she believes Miles is a bad lot, she knows that he was expelled from Eton before being packed off to India, so she’s not interested in him.

If you’ve already read Georgette Heyer’s books you’ll know that there’s a lot of witty dialogue involved. The blurb on the inside dustcover says:

Black Sheep is one of Miss Heyer’s lighter-hearted romances, with a charming heroine and a most intriguing hero – mysterious, good humoured, cynical, outrageous and in the end irresistible.

A good read.

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

 The King's Evil cover

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor was published in 2019 and it’s the third book in his Marwood and Lovett series, the first one being The Fire Court and the second book The Ashes of London. It’s 1667 now, so just after the Great Fire of London and the city is obviously still in turmoil with homeless refugees forming lawless camps outside the city.

A body has been discovered down a well and Marwood is asked to investigate it. It turns out that it’s the body of Edward Alderley who is Cat Lovett’s cousin and a person that Cat despises for all sorts of reasons, not least because his branch of their family has robbed Cat of her inheritance. Marwood fears that Cat is the culprit since she had previously attacked Alderley, as she has disappeared things look very black for her, but Marwood is determined to save her from the noose. Obviously Marwood has to discover who the real murderer is.

As ever I’m not saying too much about the plot, suffice to say that for me there were plenty of surprises and interesting characters as well as historical details.

These books are so atmospheric of just how I imagine London to have been in the reign of Charles II. A dangerous place to be with huge differences in the wealth and poverty of the population – actually nothing much has changed in that regard in London!

The King's Evil End Papers

I really love the endpapers of this book however the publishers state that they are a map of the area of London affected by the Great Fire in 1666. This is obviously wrong and I suppose this is meant to show the type of grand house – Clarendon House, which appears in the book.

Ravenspur by Conn Iggulden

 Ravenspur cover

Ravenspur (Rise of the Tudors) by Conn Iggulden was published in 2016 and is the last in the author’s Wars of the Roses series which I’ve really enjoyed, although as you would expect some are better than others. This one wasn’t my favourite but it’s still a really good read and crucially the whole thing made that era of English history a lot clearer to me.

King Edward IV (York) who snatched the throne from the ill King Henry VI (Lancaster) is forced to flee the country when the Lancaster contingent gained ascendancy again. Edward had let himself go and spent his time drinking, eating and womanising. His wife, Elizabeth Woodville has had to grab her children and run to nearby sanctuary in Westminster Abbey where she hopes they’ll be safe, but she has spent years making enemies as she took nepotism to new highs, convincing the king to give all of her family money and status, to the detriment of others at court.

It isn’t long before Edward is back in England again raising an army to depose Henry and put him back in the tower. The shock kills Henry and King Edward returns to his high living which eventually ends in his early death at the age of 40. His brother Richard sets to work to get rid of Edward’s sons who should be the next in line to the throne, albeit through a regent as the eldest is only 12 or so. Richard has Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage declared as invalid and therefore all their children illegitimate making Richard next in line. I doubt if he really relished the thought of wearing the crown however with things as they were it was probably the best way of surviving – at least for a while. Three years pass and Richard is killed in battle when the Tudors decide it’s their time to be in power.

I think this is the weakest book in the series but if you’ve read the first three then you’ll want to read this one too. Warning – there are an awful lot of Henrys and Edwards!

The Summer Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine by Elizabeth Chadwick

 The Summer Queen cover

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick is subtitled Eleanour of Aquitane, History’s most powerful woman and it’s a hefty read at 478 pages. This is the first book by Chadwick that I’ve read and to begin with I was quite surprised as at times it’s a bit of a bodice ripper. I think on balance I prefer my historical fiction reading to lean more towards the battles fought rather than what goes on in the bedroom or in a secluded corner for that matter. I nearly gave up on it but I will definitely read the next one in this trilogy as I ended up enjoying it.

Eleanor’s mother was already dead when her father went off on a pilgrimage to Compostela and died on the journey. Her father had asked for his daughter to be protected by the King of France and taken into his household. Inevitably as Eleanor is heir to Aquitaine and very rich the king arranges a marriage between her and his son and heir Louis. Eleanor is only about 13 years old, but such was life in those days. Soon Louis and Eleanor are king and queen of France, but what had been an unexpectedly happy marriage turns sour when Louis becomes increasingly more pious and influenced by dubious advisers and hangers on.

As I knew absolutely nothing about Eleanor of Aquitaine I naturally wondered how much of this story was known history and how much research the author had done. Reading the Author’s Notes at the back of the book I was somewhat relieved to see that there is a Select Bibliography of history books mentioned however, when she mentioned using Akashic Records and a psychic perspective to fill in the blanks and explore what happened in the past I was really put off – what nonsense – what’s wrong with using your imagination?!