Witches by Tracy Borman

Title: Witches
Author: Tracy Borman
Genre: Non-fiction, history
Source: Library
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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In September 1613, the Earl of Rutland’s son fell ill and died. Within weeks his second son also fell ill and died. No one is sure what they died of but their deaths were long and painful. This was a time when people believed in witchcraft, and it was witches that were blamed for the young boys deaths. The witches at whom the finger was pointed were all from one family, the Flowers, a mother and two daughters who had a grudge against the Earl of Rutland and had been heard to curse him.

The Flowers women were eventually tried and found guilty and it is through them and their trial Tracy Borman tells the story of witch hunts and witch trials in the early 17th century. She touches on trials across Europe but focuses on England and how James I’s beliefs played into what was close to hysteria. It looks at how if you were a women and poor, old or ugly, prone to speaking your mind or not very good at getting on with your neighbours you were almost doomed to be called a witch and there was a very good chance you would be burned at the stake.

Borman does a really good job of setting the scene for the growing hysteria. I was amazed by how little it took to be accused of being a witch (one woman was accused because her neighbours pigs had started making a different type of grunt if I remember correctly) and how how hard it was to disprove an accusation. There really was no way out for a woman accused. If she stayed silent it was seen as an admission of her guilt. If she spoke up and proclaimed her guilt she was lying and under the influence of the devil. Read More »

Lancaster and York by Alison Weir

Title: Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses
Author: Alison Weir
Genre: History
Source: Library (audio book)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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When Henry VI came to the throne in 1422, he was 9 months old. The only son of Henry V, his age meant England was ruled by regents until he was 15. Once he was old enough, it quickly became clear that whilst Henry VI may have been born to rule, he wasn’t very good at it. He was too pious, too forgiving, and too easily led by the powerful factions that had developed during his minority. Add to that mental ill health and, from 1445, his domineering wife Margaret of Anjou, and things seem doomed to go badly.

The badly was the Wars of the Roses, 32 years of conflict which eventually led to the fall of Henry’s House of Lancaster and the rise of the rival House of York (before their defeat at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor).  Alison Weir’s book tells the story on these wars and what led to them, focusing on the people and how their personalities played a large part in what happened.

For me, it was absolutely fascinating to see just how many bad decisions Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou (plus their faction) made.  How many things they misunderstood about the English people and what they wanted in a monarch.  That doesn’t mean the House of York were much better but they understood how to get the public behind them.  And how to fight a battle.  I don’t know much about warfare but it seems they were a lot better at it.

The battles took up around half the book and Alison Weir describes them in great detail.  I learnt a lot about how wars were waged and was shocked by the level of brutality and cruelty (perhaps I shouldn’t have been but I was). By the end, though, I was a little battle’d out.  There was a bit too much pillaging and plundering for me and I started to lose track of what was happening, who was winning and who was losing.

The first half of the book was much more interesting for me because it was about the people.  I read Helen Castor’s book She Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth last year and so knew something of Margaret of Anjou but I knew very little about Henry VI, other than that he was insane.  (Insanity being the term used at the time for someone who was actually suffering from severe mental health problems, most likely brought on by stress).   By the end of the book, I actually felt quite sorry for him and wonder what would have happened if his father had lived longer or he had felt he could give up the throne and live a more peaceful life.

All in all, a good book if a bit too bloody for me.

Emma x

About the audio book

Narrator: Maggie Mash
Publisher: W F Howes
Release Date: Sep 28, 2012
Language: English
Duration: 22:10:51 (hh:mm:ss)

Goodrich Castle: A Noble Ruin

This weekend, we went to Goodrich Castle, a Norman medieval castle (or rather the ruin of one) just outside Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire and about 10 miles from Monmouth on the Welsh border. I read online that William Wordsworth described it as a noble ruin and I can see why. It’s pretty impressive and much more complete than I expected.

IMG_0087.JPG (Yes, this was another visit on a grey day – I have a knack for this!).

It was also much busier, despite the not that great weather, meaning my ability to take photos without people in them was limited but I did manage a few, mainly from outside the castle walls…Read More »

Love and Louis XIV by Antonia Fraser

Title: Love and Louis XIV
Author: Antonia Fraser
Genre: History, Biography
Format: Audio Book (narrated by Julia Franklin)
Release Date:2007 (paperback) 2012 (audio book)
Duration: 14:19:48
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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Louis XIV, who called himself the Sun King, was born late in his mother’s life – she was 36 which, for the period, meant she was almost elderly. The first, and therefore most treasured son, his birth was seen as a miracle and from the day he was born his mother – Anne of Austria – doted on him. At the age of five his father, the King of France died, leaving him a “child-king”, with his mother acting as regent. For the next eight years, until he reached the age of majority and could rule in his own right, Anne of Austria raised her son and ruled France in his name. A pious woman, with a strict morale code, she defended his future right to be King and taught him that one day he would rule France as an absolute monarch and the world would be shaped to his desires.

This relationship with his mother was probably the most important relationship in his life and framed how he ruled France and his future relationships women – both his wife, Marie-Therese of Spain, and his mistresses, of which there were many including three significant ones, two of whom he had children with. It is these relationships Antonio Fraser focuses on in her book, which is sub-titled: The Women in the Life of the Sun King.Read More »

Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir

Title: Mary Boleyn: The Great and Infamous Whore
Author: Alison Weir
Genre: History, Biography
Format: Audiobook (length 13 hours, 11 minutes)
Published: 2011 (audiobook released Sept 2012)
Source: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5

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Of all the periods in English history, the time of the Tudors is the one that fascinates me most. The people, the politics, the intrigue. Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve read about Henry VIII, his wives and his children. Other than in passing in these books, I’ve never read anything about Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne, mistress of Henry VIII and, quite possibly, mother of at least one of his illegitimate children. Coming across this biography in my local library, written by one of my favourite authors, seemed like a good opportunity to fix that. This was also a bit of an experiment for me as it was an audiobook, not something I normally choose but – with lots of long drives ahead of me in my new job – I thought it may be a good way to fill in the hours on the road.

The format itself had plus and minuses for me. On the plus side, I enjoyed listening in the car (whereas normally I would just be aimlessly flicking between stations most times) and it made being stuck in traffic much more tolerable. The narration was really clear and had a good pace so I was able to maintain my focus (which I’d been worried about as I do tend to wander when I listen to plays on Radio 4). However, as this was a biography with lots of dates, names and places, there were times when I wished I could go back to more easily to remind myself or check something. By the end, I had learnt to not worry about it too much and just go with the flow but it did take a while.

The book was really interesting, especially because I knew so little about Mary so as a subject it felt new and fresh. It dispelled a lot of myths about Mary and helped me form a much fuller picture of her and her place in history in my mind. It turns out, pretty much everything I thought I knew about Mary wasn’t true and I feel much more sympathetic towards her. My ending up with a more realistic picture of Mary would probably make Alison Weir happy one of her stated intentions was to help readers separate fact from fiction (including The Other Boleyn Girl books and films and The Tudors TV show, which were very popular whilst she was researching and writing this book).

One of the reasons that there are so many myths is that so little is actually known and, over the years, Mary has been subject to some very bad PR, being painted as a woman of “easy virtue” and not too bright. Alison Weir does a good job of building on what little is known to develop a pretty solid picture of Mary; as she does, she explains what she feels is credible evidence and why, and why she has made the assumptions she has. These include reaching the conclusion that not only did Mary have an affair with Henry, she did give birth to his daughter. Rather than being dim-witted or of loose morals, the Mary Weir describes is one who had very little control over her life until her later years, when she took the incredibly brave step for the time of marrying for love, saying “I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest queen christened”.

The main problem is this lack of solid facts about Mary, so Weir has to make a lot of assumptions, either from the little information that is available or from the lives of others, including her husband, her father, her sister or Henry’s other mistresses. It means as a reader you really are still not much clearer on the real Mary, unless you chose to see her as Alison Weir does (it’s what I chose to do). In a way, this makes Mary even more intriguing and it’s a pity there won’t likely be the opportunity to ever learn more.

Definitely a good read for history buffs or those, like me, who find the Tudor period fascinating. Is that you?

Emma x