Thursday, March 13, 2014

Researching the Beginnings: Reading, Reading, Reading

I have been rather quiet on the blog for most of 2014.  I have been incredibly busy with a lot of travel, including to England in mid-February 2014, and non-history related triumphs including running the Glass Slipper Challenge at Walt Disney World (10K on Saturday, 1/2 Marathon on Sunday). Whilst I have not been writing any new research that does not mean I have not been busy.

A lot of great books have been released in the past year that have focused on the Wars of the Roses (yes, I will continue to call them that romantic title rather than the Cousins' War which is another invention of popular culture). You may think to yourself, "Hey, Gertrude Blount, the Marchioness of Exeter is not alive during the Wars of the Roses, what does that have to do with your research, Diane?"It turns out it has plenty to do with it.

Earlier in 2013 I stumbled across the book Knights Banneret, etc. which listed everyone who was ever knighted from the 4th year of the reign of Henry VI through the reign of Charles II. Part of the story of Gertrude Blount's life has to be how did her family and her husband's family become such prominent courtiers in the court of Henry VII. After all, given that Henry VII married off the sisters of Queen Elizabeth of York to his supporters or, in the case of Princess Anne, to the Howard family heir to insure their loyalty, I do wonder how the Courtenays married into the royal family. Similarly I wondered how the Barons Mountjoy ended up the patrons of Erasmus' inviting him to come to England (Thomas More gets all the press, but it was William Blount, Lord Mountjoy who was Erasmus' first English patron).

It turns out that the many books I have read this winter (and continue to read) have given me some insight. Rather than reveal those insights here, as I hope to go into them in more depth, I will instead give brief reviews of two of the books I have recently finished.

I believe the explosion in books on the Wars of the Roses era has a lot to do with the finding of King Richard III's skeleton and with the popular dramatization of Philippa Gregory's books as the mini-series The White Queen. If these events lead anyone to seeking out the actual history of the era, then that is a good thing.

Tudor: A Family Story (UK Title) or Tudor: Passion, Manipulation, Murder (US Title) by Leandra de Lisle. This book takes us back to the beginning of it all. Covering the history of the Tudor family from Owen (Owain) Tudor, the lowly member of Henry V's Dowager Queen Katherine of Valois' household, who secretly married and fathered four children with her, to the ascension of King James VI and I this volume gives an overview of the entire family. To her great credit, this is not simply a recitation of the typical royal family biography. Ms. de Lisle looks at the entire family. Reading this book you get a better sense of some of the lesser known players in Tudor history. From Owen Tudor, who ends his life executed while fighting for his sons' half brother, Henry VI, to Owen's illegitimate son, David who would be a prominent courtier at his nephew Henry VII's court. The life of Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, who is the reason that Henry VII's survived to become the improbable King of England, just cries out for a modern full-length biography. Other members of the family getting a more indepth look include Lady Margaret Douglas, the daughter of Queen Margaret Tudor of Scotland and niece of Henry VIII who is best known as the mother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, ill fated husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. This book is a good recommendation for anyone interested in a overview of the entire Tudor dynasty. You can easily use this book as a jumping off point for more indepth study.

The Woodvilles by Susan Higginbotham. If there is a family more notorious in its treatment in history and popular culture than the Boleyn family it's the Woodvilles. The family of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV gets a lot of bad press being seen as upstarts who get vilified by everyone for taking full advantage of Elizabeth being queen. However, the real delight in reading this book is, once again, getting to know members of the family that are only a footnote in most history or popular culture treatments. Ms. Higginbotham addresses such controversies as Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Duchess of Bedford, mother of Elizabeth Woodville and the popular view of her as a practitioner of witchcraft. Ms. Higginbotham rightly points out that the mere accusation of practicing sorcery was used against a number of strong women in the 15th century. Why writers of popular historical fiction insist on continuing to demonize prominent women is just sad. We should embrace and admire women like Jacquetta, her daughter Elizabeth, Lady Margaret Beaufort and Queen Margaret of Anjou rather than portray them as grasping power-hungry bitches. (off soap box)
The other member of the Woodville clan that deserves a more indepth look is Queen Elizabeth's brother, Anthony, Earl Rivers. He is known as the footnote to the rise of Richard III when he and the Queen's son, Sir Richard Grey were arrested while escorted their nephew Edward V to London for his coronation. Anthony is revealed in this book as a fascinating man highly educated, and literate. Earl Rivers was the patron of William Caxton who brought the printing press to England. He was one of the first published authors in England having translated a few works from French into English. After his imprisonment he realized that he was going to be executed and took the time to write his will. His is a poignant story and you will be left wanted to know more about him.  Ms. Higginbotham strips away the popular myths surrounding the Woodville "upstarts." It is refreshing to see a fair biography of an important 15th century family.