Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Books about Queen Mary I

Mary I by Hans Eworth c.1554

I have to say I've always loved an underdog and Mary I must be one of the biggest underdogs in history as somehow she won and held the English throne when all the odds were against her. I consider her to be one of the most underrated figures in British history as time and time again she has been written off as 'Bloody Mary' Gloriana's hysterical Catholic sister who some claim looks a bit like Jimmy Krankie (not sure that I see the resemblance though). For many people all they know of England's first Queen regnant is that she burned hundreds of people at the stake for their religious beliefs and therefore must deserve her bloody reputation. But I like her, flaws and all, so in this post I am going to recommend some books on Mary for those who wish to learn more about her, so that they can reconsider or reconfirm their views whatever they may be.

Mary Tudor: The First Queen by Linda Porter 
This book is a historical biography that provides a good introduction to Mary's life and times. The reader is introduced to a Mary who is intelligent and vibrant but left scarred by the emotional distress that she experienced during her parents' volatile divorce. The author's empathetic discussion of Mary's travails does not dismiss her as hysterical or take a 'little woman' approach, rather it presents an understanding view of her struggles while also acknowledging the bravery that she maintained. In the 418 page book around 10 pages are dedicated to the more controversial topic of the burnings; this provides an adequate introduction as there is discussion of the impacts of the persecutions, the response to them and Mary's involvement but I would say that this book is better as an introduction to Mary as a person rather than Marian policies/politics. Overall I would recommend this book to those looking to learn more about Mary's character and life because it presents a balanced and entertaining account of a much maligned monarch.

Mary Tudor by Judith M Richards 
This is one of my favourite books on Mary as it's relatively short at 242 pages but it still presents a rounded view of Mary taking into account her failures and successes. The book is written in an incredibly clear and readable manner through the way that the author uses a series of subheadings within the chapters of the book. For example within the chapter titled 'Religious trials and other tribulations' there are subheadings such as 'Mary's voice in English government' and 'The Marian burnings revisited', these allow the reader to closely follow the arguments presented while also making it easier to dip in and out of the book. This book details Mary's life and reign but rather than being a straightforward biography it embarks on some political and legal analysis of her policies and actions. Therefore I would recommend this book as a kind of stepping stone from historical biography into more academic works.

The Actes and Monuments by John Foxe 

I believe that to properly gain an understanding of Mary I, you ought to consider her critics' perception of her. One of her harshest and most vocal critics was John Foxe, the man who essentially initiated the blackening of Mary's name through his 'Actes and Monuments', which is also known as 'The Book of Martyrs'. Although not explicitly about Mary this book does devote a considerable amount of time to the persecutions that occurred in her reign and her involvement in them. It is certainly not a book for the faint hearted as ultimately it is recording the stories of martyred Christians in what is verging on gleefully grisly detail. Despite this it is fascinating as it provides a contemporary view of Mary from one of her biggest critics and by reading it you can begin to understand why this work has had such a momentous impact on Mary's reputation. It is very black and white with Foxe making his 'Protestant good, Catholic bad' distinction painfully clear at times. They say that history is written by the winners and unfortunately for Mary's reputation John Foxe was on the winning side so it is his perception of her that has percolated through the centuries and created the enduring sobriquet of 'Bloody Mary'. I would recommend this to those who are curious about the origins of Mary's bloody reputation with the warning that it doesn't make for pleasant reading.

Mary I England's Catholic Queen by John Edwards 
As a historian specialising in English and Spanish history John Edwards' biography of Mary addresses her position as a member of both the English and Spanish royal houses. Edwards made use of British and continental archives to piece together a picture of Mary that extends beyond the confines of the country in which she was born and died. It analyses the importance of family to Mary and through this her relationships with her Hapsburg relatives is extensively covered, which is a refreshing alternative to discussions of her siblings and oh-so-famous father. Religion is also explored effectively with past heresy cases in England being used to demonstrate that the Marian persecutions were not an entirely new phenomena. All in all this book is a good read for both Tudor newbies and veterans as it covers the 'standard' bases of Mary's life while also introducing more original arguments using a wider European perspective to create an engaging biography.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

480 Years of Elizabeth I

Portrait of Princess Elizabeth c.1546 
'The Rainbow Portrait' of Elizabeth I c.1600

Just a brief post to acknowledge that 480 years ago today Elizabeth I was born at Greenwich Palace in London. She was the first and only surviving child of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, but her birth was met with mixed emotions as her gender was a disappointment but the fact a healthy baby had been born was cause for celebration. She is thought to have been named after both of her grandmothers, her paternal grandmother Elizabeth of York and her maternal grandmother Elizabeth Howard. From birth she was styled as Princess Elizabeth and she was considered heir presumptive while her parents continued to hope for the birth of a son. Three days after her birth she was christened with Archbishop Cranmer, the Marquess of Exeter, the Duchess of Norfolk and the Dowager Marchioness of Dorset standing as her four godparents. At the time none of them would have thought that the little princess would one day become Queen of England and one of the most successful monarchs that England has ever had.

Elizabeth by David Starkey
Elizabeth the Queen by Alison Weir

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

James VI: The Paranoia of a Prince

Portrait of James VI by John de Critz

James VI of Scotland was an intelligent and politically astute monarch who became king after his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, abdicated when he was just thirteen months old. Some have described him as 'the most effective ruler Scotland ever had' on account of his shrewd management of factions at the Scottish court and his patronage of the arts. But for all his wisdom this ruler was plagued by the same fear of witches that ravaged illiterate peasants, pagans, priests and children across Europe.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe was experiencing a great rise in witch hunts that flared up in different localities leaving devastation in their wake. Scotland was a country that experienced a particularly volatile spate of witchcraft persecutions so that by the beginning of the eighteenth century some 2000 witch trials had been held. The rise of witch persecutions in Scotland was largely down to James' personal fear of witches. Prior to 1590 witchcraft was not considered to be a 'hot' topic by Scottish theologians and writers and it was only after James' personal experience with witches in 1590 that there was widespread Scottish theological condemnation of witchcraft, and following that a rise in persecutions in Scotland.

Anne of Denmark c. 1605 by John de Critz

The incident that convinced James of the reality of witches occurred after his marriage to Anne of Denmark. The original agreement between the Scottish and Danish rulers stated that Anne would sail to Scotland in order to marry James but severe storms forced her fleet to land on the Norwegian coast. In response to this James embarked on the 'one romantic episode of his life' and set out with his own ships to escort his bride to Scotland. Once they were married they visited the Danish court at Copenhagen and then set out to return to Scotland but their journey was blighted by a thick fog and treacherous storms that threatened to shipwreck them. Shaken by the experience, James was further disturbed when rumours began to spread that the storm had been conjured by witches that were intent on using their diabolical powers to kill him.

Evidence of witchcraft then seemed to emerge from the coastal town of North Berwick when the suspicious behaviour of a local servant girl, Gilly Duncan, led to her being confronted and then tortured by her master. Under torture she confessed to witchcraft and implicated many others, including Agnes Sampson an elderly 'cunning-woman' known locally as the 'Wise Wife of Keith' (Keith being a local district). Agnes was taken to the palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh where she was suspended using ropes and forced to wear a witch's bridle. James' personal interest in this case is clear as he personally interrogated the old woman until she confessed, and her confession shook the him further as she accused the Earl of Bothwell of trying to enchant James with a mystical ointment. Agnes also confessed to meeting with a great number of witches in the North Berwick church where they kissed the Devil's buttocks and conjured a storm to sink the king's ships by throwing a cat into the sea and shouting 'hola'. Agnes, Gilly and many of the other unfortunate people implicated were imprisoned and executed by hanging and burning at the stake, one of the few to escape death was Bothwell who went into exile.

The North Berwick witches being
examined by James VI

A witch's bridle. It was a method of torture
where a heavy metal cage was placed
on the witch's head and a spike was
placed into their mouth 

The Daemonologie

With James' belief in witches strengthened by the North Berwick trials he wrote an influential book in response to witch hunt critics and sceptics such as Reginald Scot. This book was 'The Daemonologie' published in 1597, it helped to introduce continental beliefs about witchcraft to England and it also provided background material for Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'.

Therefore the popular beliefs concerning witches affected people from all backgrounds in the early modern period and in the case of the Scottish witch hunts James VI's strong personal belief in witches was influential in sparking the hunts that occurred in Scotland from the 1590s to the late 1600s.

Further reading: 

  • Witch Hunts in the Western World by Brian A Pavlac 
  • A History of Witchcraft by Jeffrey Russell and Brooks Alexander 
  • The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe by Brian Levack 
  • The European Witch Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries by H R Trevor-Roper