Tudors by Peter Ackroyd.

fancyline7

tudorsackroyd

fancyline7

Peter Ackroyd may very well be God. I haven’t met him but I’m feeling pretty good about this. Any other explanation as to how he manages to produce so many huge books filled with so much knowledge in such a short space of time (commonly termed “prolific,” to be concise), all so well written, comes up short. I bow to him. Even genuflect. He is my hero and he is superhuman, with an exhaustive bibliography unparalleled by any writer save, perhaps, Joyce Carol Oates. His body of work encompasses:

Three volumes of poetry

Sixteen novels

Thirty-four works of nonfiction (to date)

Six television programs

As I said, unparalleled. I have read precious few of his writings. There is much work to be done, all of it pleasant.

lineplain

peterackroyd

lineplain

This second volume in his History of England series is exhaustive and exhausting, though not necessarily in a negative way. The level of detail is staggering, best ingested in small portions. This is not a book to race through. Rather, the more slowly you work your way through the better, to aid in the memorization of the cast of characters buzzing in and around the Tudor family like bees in a hive. It’s nothing if not phenomenal. Perhaps majestic. Mind blowingly incomprehensible. Very, very impressive.

Ackroyd begins with Henry VII, whose victory over Richard III at Bosworth Field assured him the throne, ending the Wars of the Roses. The simplified story is that Henry’s son Arthur inherited the throne from him, taking Katherine of Aragon as his wife. Arthur was not long for this world. Enter Henry VIII, who married his brother’s widow, immediately beginning the series of affairs that lead to much beheading of suspected unfaithful wives. Oh, but the beheadings and elicit sexual exploits are all but microscopic compared with the Reformation, England’s break from the Catholic Church effected by Henry’s demand his marriage to Katherine of Aragon be annulled, so he could marry that tramp Anne Boleyn. And the political intrigues, and the wars, and Henry’s ballooning weight and ulcerous legs. And the treachery. And the wars. And the blood and the blood and the blood. At the same time it’s riveting, it’s disgusting.

Upon Henry VIII’s death, the powers that be went mad jockeying for power. The winning straw was drawn by Lady Jane Grey, or her uncle, rather. Jane was too well educated to believe this could ever be a good thing but she had no choice in the matter. Into the Tower she went while, it was hoped, things would settle down enough to bring her out to rule. It was not to be. Poor Jane was executed – after nine days as queen – upon the successful rout by Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary. Mary, a devout Catholic who abhorred her father’s break with the Church in Rome, went about the business of undoing what her father had started, destruction of all Catholic trappings and killing of those practicing the religion. “Bloody Mary” attempted a bit of religious cleansing of her own, sentencing hundreds of Protestants to death for the crime of obeying the monarch, her father, who threatened to kill them for being Catholics.

It wasn’t really such a great time to be English.

After two years, Mary sickened and died. A bit of relief there, when she was succeeded by Henry’s son Edward VI, the product of his marriage to that slut Jane Seymour. Edward was nine years old upon his accession, so his uncle Edward Seymour acted as regent until the day Edward would come of age. Without his lifting a finger, Protestantism at last came to be the de facto national religion of Britain during Edward’s regency. It’s a really long story, filled with yet more killing and manipulation. But, as far as almost-monarchs go, Edward VI didn’t seem half bad. He’s largely in the background, left to his own devices save for the occasional raising of his head to ask a question or declare something or other, but what we do know of him may have made him a decent monarch. Damn the 16th century and its short life spans!

However, he left behind his diary, which is something to recommend him:

fancyline7

edwardvidiary

fancyline7I’ve ordered a used copy via Amazon and you may find more about the book here.

fancyline7

Edward sickened and died in 1553. Following Edward was Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, monger of wars and cousin of Mary, Queen of Scots. Then things really got interesting. Wars and intrigue, political back-stabbing and attempts to marry Elizabeth to various leaders for reasons of political gain characterized Elizabeth’s rule. Overshadowing it, how to solve a problem like Queen Mary. The English defeated the Armada and Elizabeth kind of, sort of worked out the whole religion thing.

Of course, Ackroyd fills in a few more details. Never before have I felt I understood the complex relationships amongst the Tudors and their hangers on until reading this volume. The family is a universal favorite, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I icons of British history, yet the whole story of who did what to whom – and who didn’t but got beheaded, anyway – is far stranger than any fiction. Peter Ackroyd accomplishes a breathtaking juggling act, keeping it all straight with minimal confusion for the reader busily working out all the Henrys and Edwards and Marys, and what country was at war with which in an age when power and alliances shifted seemingly daily.

He’s so easily read,  unlike any dry history we all suffered through in high school. I don’t know how he nails it but he does. He’s developed a method of telling a complex story in a straightforward way, so there’s no having to go back and read pages or even chapters to understand what’s going on. I already said it: he’s God. Or at least the God of British history. This is why I’ll be going back to read the volume preceding Tudors, The Foundation, and look forward to Volume III. The accomplishment thus far is astounding.

If you’ve had an interest in the Tudors, don’t bother with any other, single book. Read this, then have a go at Hilary Mantel’s series if you’re like me and hadn’t made it far before getting too muddled to carry on. I feel much less intimidated by British history of this era now, much better educated, though there’s more to be known. That’s the encouraging part, what makes my heart beat a bit faster. Riveting as this read was, fantastical and entrancing, it leaves out much branching off from it.

There is always more to be learned. Thank God – a/k/a Peter Ackroyd – for that.

signature
fancyline7Series: History of England (Book 2)

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books (October 8, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250003628
  • ISBN-13: 978-125000362

The King’s Grave: The Discovery of Richard III’s Lost Burial Place and the Clues it Holds by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones

fancyline7

So much and so varied. That’s what I’ve been reading and doing. Thanks for asking!

fancyline7

kingsgrave

fancyline7

I’ve always been a bit of an Anglophile, so when books on the history of the British Isles pop up for review I grab them with my grubby paws and run. Such was my luck to find this book via NetGalley and bless St. Martin’s Press for allowing me to read and review an eBook copy.

All I knew about Richard III prior to this book was what most people “know”:  he was ugly, hunchbacked, evil and a killer of the Princes in the Tower. This was somewhat vague knowledge, picked up from reading a little of this and that. I hadn’t read a proper biography of any British ruler pre-Henry VIII, or nothing dedicated solely to that ruler. So I went into the book believing what we’ve all been fed, that Richard III was a very bad man, indeed.

Well. Partly so and partly not, truth be told and depending on whom you believe.

Set your clocks for October 29, 2013, when this book chock full of all things Richard III will be available for purchase. Philippa Langley’s book tells the story of the recent discovery of King Richard III’s bones at the site of the long-lost Greyfriars Friary, in the city of Leicester, which you may recall was one of the most exciting news stories of 2012. Langley’s passion was the impetus behind the search, so she’s well able to tell the whole – often surreal – tale in minute detail. She’s also very unashamedly pro-Richard III, so in addition to the dig she spends a good part of the book debunking many of the myths surrounding him, myths perpetuated by the Tudors, whose royal claim was dubious, at best. Almost nonexistent, really. In comparison, Richard’s lineage was plainly legitimate. But the Tudors slaughtered him quite thoroughly at the Battle of Bosworth Field (giving him a few extra pokes, just to make sure) and, as you may have noted, made it to the throne. A nasty business but so it was in the 16th century.

Once you’ve read the book you’ll know pretty much all there is to know about Richard, the Wars of the Roses and the archaeological endeavor to locate the royal remains. I can’t imagine any stones were left unturned (pun partially intended) in the writing of King’s Grave. Since there is precious little written material that survived from the era it’s a case of, “Here’s what I have, so from that I can extrapolate…”  In other words, much of the book’s opinion, based on educated guesses. Experts from all disciplines are called in, don’t get me wrong. It’s not just one person’s suppositions. Rather, Langley takes the character assassination poor Richard III has suffered lo these many centuries and investigates each charge, holding it up against the knowledge in existence.

Trusting to the experts, I feel reasonably safe in saying we now have a much more fair and balanced portrait of the king. Seldom is history uncomplicated and it’s always told by the victor, so it’s said. High time someone had a closer look into this particular time and king. Does it matter? I think so. If an extremely famous historic figure has been slandered for centuries I believe someone should investigate the truth. Is everything put forward in The King’s Grave true? I doubt all of it is but I understand the reasoning behind some of their assertions Richard III has been unfairly treated. He was no saint. He probably did murder the Princes in the Tower but some of the charges against him do seem falsified, sensationalized by first the Tudors, then Shakespeare, carried forward to modern times. If the misinformation can be righted I say that’s all to the good. Not only does it take some of the weight off Richard III but it presents history in a more true light.

I pronounce this book fascinating. “Readable,” as is so often used, meaning it’s history but isn’t dull and dry. It’s sort of an adventure tale, part forensics and part historical action rife with lots of spurting blood and charging horses. And at 320 pages you can hardly go wrong, considering how quickly it reads (if you’re not up for memorizing all the Henrys and Edwards, at least).

Excellent book.

fancyline7

If you’d like to know what’s gone on since, or read back over the timeline of the dig, you can find a fascinating recap at the Richard III Society website. They’ve come up with a proposed design for the tomb they’re planning to have built, to consecrate and honor King Richard III and I think it’s lovely and respectful. Much more so than having been heaved into the ground, hands still tied, paved over with a parking lot. Then again, doesn’t take much to improve on that. But you can see the artist’s rendition on the Richard III site. It’s copyrighted and I can’t nip it to show you here, or I would have. What I can show you is the reconstructed face of Richard III:

Whoops, no. They’ve copyrighted that, as well. But I have to say, he was CUTE! The hairstyle doesn’t do it for me but this was no ugly hunchback.

The dig, though! Yes, the dig:

fancyline7

richarddig

fancyline7

Quite right and tally ho.

Also, poor Richard’s remains:

richardiiiremainsSource: University of Leicester c.

You’ll notice they really whomped him a good one on the head. Several times, including a cleaving to the back, taking part of his skull with it.

Very nasty.

The book details it all for you. Every last bit, complete with an estimated timeline of his injuries, how he likely sustained them and everything about the treatment of his corpse. Then, the Tudor after-party before good King Henry VI eventually made his way to the throne. Cozy up to the fire with it this fall. Methinks you’ll enjoy it, especially if you’re as much an Anglophile as I am.

fancyline7crownfancyline7