Book Review – Owen Tudor by Terry Breverton

By Nathen Amin

Many will be aware of the work of Welsh historian Terry Breverton, particularly his recent forays into the world of the Tudors. Amongst his recent work has been biographies of Henry VII (2016) and Jasper Tudor (2014) which sandwiched the interesting Tudor Kitchen; What the Tudors Ate & Drank (2015). On the tails of his work on two previous Tudors come this interesting biography on arguably the most fascinating member of this Welsh dynasty that captured the English crown – Owen Tudor.

The book is subtitled Founding Father of the Tudor Dynasty and this aptly summarises the life and times of Owen Tudor. He was born around 1400 to a Welsh family torn apart by his uncle Owain Glyndwr’s Welsh Wars of Independence, and migrated to England at a young age to find his fortune. And find a fortune he did, in the form of a queen of England, no less. Owen met, fell in love, and married Katherine de Valois, widow of Henry V and mother of the incumbent king, Henry VI.

His life thereafter is one of the most remarkable tales in English or Welsh history. Through Breverton’s easy to follow, if often blunt, narrative, we learn how Owen survived persecution and imprisonment after his royal wife’s premature death, helping raise two sons who would become earls of the realm as half-brothers to Henry VI, and standing behind one of those sons, Jasper, as the Wars of the Roses erupted in the late 1450s. Owen’s life came to a brutal end during the aftermath of the battle of Mortimer’s Cross between his son’s Lancastrian army and a Yorkist force led by the future king Edward III, a skirmish in which the subject of this biography fought despite being around 60 years old. Owen was captured and led to Hereford where he was mercilessly beheaded on the market square.

Owen Tudor, Founding Father of the Tudor Dynasty, also covers the ancestry of Owen, along with that of the woman with whom he would become forever associated, Katherine of Valois. The book is particularly interesting in that it is often written from a Welsh perspective by a Welsh author, offering insight into the life and motivations of the subject often lacking in English accounts through the ages, ignorant of the importance of Welsh prophecies and legends in helping propel the Tudors towards the throne of these islands. A chapter on Owen’s legacy makes for interesting reading, and naturally leads onto Breverton’s other books on Jasper and Henry Tudor, whilst an appendix uncovering Owen’s appearances in literature discusses his place in numerous fiction works, from a 1600 play called Owen Tudor through to the recent 2016 release by author Tony Riches. Its intriguing to read how Owen has been immortalised having just read his actual life story.

Breverton’s book may at times deviate from its subject, as to be expected from a study of a life of which we don’t know a great deal, but that’s not to say this work doesn’t have worth. Owen Tudor has long been an enigma of the medieval period, a swashbuckling hero almost more suited to romantic fiction than serious academic study. Indeed, the author notes in his introduction that this wasn’t an easy book to research. That being said, Owen Tudor by Terry Breverton is a long-overdue work dedicated to one of the more captivating figures of the Tudor dynasty. It should be remembered that every English monarch post-Henry VII was descended from Owen, not to mention various foreign rulers including five kings of France, several German emperors, kings of Spain, Norway, Greece, Italy, Denmark, Bulgaria and Belgium and even Marie Antoinette. An accomplished effort to conclude Breverton’s Tudor biographical trilogy.

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Historian Terry Breverton is a former businessman, consultant and academic and is now a full-time writer, having received the Welsh Books Council’s Book of the Month Award five times. He is an expert in Welsh culture and history and has presented documentaries on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel etc. Terry has worked in over 20 countries and has written over 40 well-received books including Richard III: The King in the Carpark; Breverton’s First World War Curiosities; Owain Glyndŵr: The Story of the Last Prince of Wales; Wales: The Biography; Wales: A Historical Companion; Immortal Words; Immortal Last Words; Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities: A Book of the Sea; Breverton’s Phantasmagoria; Breverton’s Encyclopaedia of Inventions; Black Bart Roberts; The Journal of Penrose, Seaman and Breverton’s Complete Herbal.

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Book Review – The Family of Richard III by Michael Hicks

By Nathen Amin

It is fair to say that Richard III, whether his supporters appreciate this fact or not, is a veritable cash cow, a money-making market in himself into which many authors have recently jumped headfirst. Consequently, books on this infamous king are many, and have unquestionably accelerated since the uncovering of Richard’s remains in a Leicester car park in 2012. A simple search on a site like Amazon for ‘Richard III’ returns thousands of results, for example. Any book on Richard, therefore, is just one in a crowded arena jostling for attention, each covering the aspects of Richard’s life and times, before generally taking either a pro or anti view on his rise to the throne. Good King Richard or Bad King Richard, the debate shows no signs of dissipating, despite how tiresome that dispute sometimes is. It was with interest, therefore, that I opened the covers of ‘The Family of Richard III’ by Professor Michael Hicks, a book that promised to focus not on the well-trodden subject of the king himself, but rather on those currently marooned in the shadow of England’s most controversial monarch.

The author is certainly no stranger to the period, building a solid reputation as an authority on all things fifteenth century and with an extensive bibliography in his locker that includes biographies of Richard III, George, duke of Clarence, Edward IV plus work that looks at the Wars of the Roses in general. Having once been considered by BBC History Magazine as ‘the greatest living expert on Richard III’, Hicks is therefore an ideal scholar to examine this topic.

The Family of Richard III is at essence a biography of the House of York, building on much of Professor Hicks’ previous body of work and collating much of his broad research into one, handy production. The fifteenth century can often be difficult to comprehend when one contemplates the multitude of families at the top of English society, not to mention the fact these same families often intermarried and were therefore related in a variety of ways. Hicks’ book, therefore, endeavours to simplify this complexity for a reader who doesn’t have the wealth of experience of a seasoned medievalist, and in this he succeeds. This is not a book that takes any in-depth looks at the main events of Richard’s own life, that is, his upbringing, his years as duke of Gloucester or his seizure of the throne, but rather one about the people who flitted in and out of Richard’s life during these years. Therefore, the ‘family’ mentioned in the book’s title covers the life and times of Richard’s brothers, his wife and in-laws, and his own offspring, including those of illegitimate origins. England.

In the chapter Cadet of the House of York we are treated to a discussion of the first family Richard knew, that is, the one of his parents and siblings. A thorough account of the births and childhoods of all his siblings is included, and a brief look at the origins of the wider House of York to which he belonged as a son of Richard, the 3rd holder of the dukedom of York. Interesting is the section on King Richard’s wider relations, such as the Bourchier and Stafford families, an aspect regularly overlooked in books about the Yorkists, as well as the vast Neville connection Richard was kin to through his mother Cecily Neville. As Hicks astutely points out, ‘Richard of Fotheringay was related to almost everyone who was anyone, often several times over’.

The book also covers in considerable detail the first version of the royal House of York in the 1460s under the kingship of Richard’s brother Edward IV, examining Richard’s relationship with not only his brothers Edward and George of Clarence, but his Neville cousins under leadership of Warwick the Kingmaker, and Woodville in-laws that grew increasingly conspicuous as the reign progressed. This explosion in number of Richard’s relatives, both of blood and marriage, was bolstered by the illegitimate children he had during his youth, at least two of which are known, John of Pontefract and Katherine. Hicks speculates that Richard’s family grew so quickly during this period, he probably started to lose track of the sheer number of relatives he had – the marriages of his brothers alone brought Richard 11 brothers-in-law, 10 sisters-in-law, two nephews and a host of other cousins alone. The evolving relationship between the three brothers of York during the 1470s also receives attention, including the often confusing Neville dispute between Richard and Clarence, which prompted a chronicler to note how ‘so much disputation arose’ between the pair.

Richard’s own family unit, that is, his wife and legitimate son, are examined as would be expected, before Hicks considers what he terms ‘the self-destruction of the House of York’ through Richard’s usurpation of the throne. Hicks, for the avoidance of any doubt, is clear that it was a usurpation, arguing he was probably driven by ambition, and that the princes were dead by the end of 1483. If Richard had indeed killed the princes, the Hicks asserts this was ‘the most ruthless and unnatural rejection of family ties’ by the king. Whilst this is a traditionalist view of Richard, much to the chagrin of some, Hicks does sponsor two uncommon believes; firstly, that Elizabeth of York had romantic feelings for her uncle, and secondly that the bones in Leicester were not, in fact, those of Richard, arguing the identification with the king is ‘more unlikely than likely’. Whether you are in agreement with Hicks or not, and in the interests of clarity I personally do not subscribe to his theories, he certainly puts across his case in a manner as to make you consider his views.

Where I personally found particular value in this book is where Hicks, true to the book’s purpose, expands the study of Richard’s ‘family’ to the modern day, a discussion of the hundreds of thousands of descendants of the king’s various siblings, his collateral relatives, investigating the known status of this family as it exists in the present age. Plenty of tables are provided within the text to aid the reader in keeping tabs on the complex connections between individual and families, providing a helpful visual guide along with the six pedigree illustrations at the beginning of the book. It also serves as a valuable introduction into the often confusing world of DNA, particularly to the reader not Scientifically-minded, such as myself. The book gave me a far greater understanding of mitochondrial DNA than the academic press releases of Leicester University ever could, for example.

‘The Family of Richard III’ is not a book that uncovers exciting new research, or dares to raise new theories unpublished elsewhere. But that isn’t what the purpose of the author is for this work, as he openly states in the introduction. As a book which endeavours to collect all of Richard’s family, in their various guises across multiple generations, into one convenient study, however, the book certainly achieves all of its objectives. A recommended addition to the scholarship of Richard III, which in its own way helps add another context to the live, times and decisions of England’s most infamous king.

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Michael Hicks is Professor of History at King Alfred’s College, Winchester. He has written extensively on medieval England and is regarded by many as the leading expert on the Yorkist dynasty. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He lives in Taunton.

Book Review – The Seymours of Wolf Hall by David Loades

By Nathen Amin

The term ‘Wolf Hall’ has become widely recognised in recent years thanks to the title of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning tour de force, released to much acclaim in 2010. Whilst the protagonist of Mantel’s fictional work is a certain Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall itself refers to the family home of the Seymours, a provincially important dynasty based in the Wiltshire manor house.

David Loades book unquestionably intends to capitalise on the considerable attention given to Wolf Hall and its one-time inhabitants through Mantel’s award-winning words, but this isn’t to diminish the scope of Loades’ work; this is a long overdue assessment of the life and times of the foremost of the Seymours, briefly encompassing their beginnings to the apex of their influence during the reigns of Henry VIII and the Seymour-blooded Edward VI. As Loades notes at the outset; “The Seymour family was one of the most prominent at the Tudor court”. Their worth as subjects of such a work does not stem solely from Mantel’s influence.

The book is subtitled ‘A Tudor Family Story’, and with good reason, as the focus of the book is unquestionably Edward and Thomas Seymour, the brothers of Queen Jane who rose high in the Tudor court after their sister’s marriage to Henry VIII in 1537. Edward gradually replaced Thomas Cromwell as King Henry’s chief servant after 1540, becoming earl of Hertford, duke of Somerset and, after the accession of his nephew Edward VI, Lord Protector of England. Thomas was Lord High Admiral, and based at Sudeley Castle with his wife Katherine Parr, the final wife of King Henry, was briefly in custody of the young Princess Elizabeth. Queen Jane, meanwhile, was the focus of Loades’ previous work ‘Jane Seymour: Henry VIII’s Favourite Wife’, which serves as a great companion piece to this particular work.

The author is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Wales, not to mention a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and as to be expected from such an accomplished academic figure, the book is a thorough, thought-provoking, masterpiece when it comes to the Seymour family in the sixteenth century. You won’t find irrational leaps of opinion or wild speculation in this book unlike many other similar productions, but rather hard fact and logical conclusions drawn directly from available primary source material. Loades’ book is about the real Seymours and how they lived, politicked and endured, not fictional conjecture with little basis in reality. I do feel the book glosses over the origins of the family, founded in the seventh century, and quickly advances to the life and times of Sir John Seymour, the queen’s father, but this is probably not an issue for an intended audience primarily concerned with learning about the Tudor Seymours. This criticism is quickly offset by the engaging introduction from Professor Loades where he effectively justifies the necessity of his work.

The Seymours of Wolf Hall’ is ultimately a much-recommended companion to the more mainstream works on Henry VIII and his extraordinary reign, whilst also serving as a splendid book in its own right. It serves as an ideal read for those looking to broaden their horizons on all things Tudor, and ultimately, whether on topic or off, Professor Loades is one of the most eminent authorities on the Tudor court. There is much to learn from this book.

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David Loades was Emeritus Professor of the University of Wales and an Honorary Member of the University of Oxford, History Faculty. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Vice-President of the Navy Record Society and former President of the Ecclesiastical History Society. He is the author of over thirty books on the sixteenth century, specializing in the Tudors.

Book Review – The First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson

By Nathen Amin

First of the Tudors is the latest offering from best-selling author Joanna Hickson, and follows on somewhat from her previous books, The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride, released to critical acclaim in recent years. Her latest offering recounts the story of Jasper Tudor, son of the aforementioned bride and half-brother of the unstable king, Henry VI. Jasper was the product of a lengthy liaison between Katherine de Valois and the Welshman Owen Tudor, and occupied a curious position in 1451, when the story commences, as one of the king’s closest relations, albeit without the English blood royal.

The narrative is interesting, as Hickson uses two characters to deliver the story – Jasper, and a young Welsh maid Jane, who gradually becomes the protagonist’s lover. Despite regularly switching back and forth between the two voices, with their own interpretation of events, the flow isn’t interrupted and it adds another facet to the story. Jasper is wise, determined and compassionate, whilst the beautiful Jane, albeit headstrong and impulsive, is kind and devoted to her man. Two more likable characters you could not find. You will root for them throughout the book, especially as danger rears its end on more than one occasion.

Hickson’s use of the English language is clever, and emotive; her account of Henry Tudor’s birth is particularly descriptive and gripping, and even accounting for prior knowledge of what happened, still leaves the reader with a sense of dread as to the outcome. The story shifts between London and Wales, the latter an oft-overlooked setting for such books, and provides a whole new level of places and people for Hickson to explore, much to the reader’s benefit. It is what sets the book apart from others in the genre. It is a readable tome that you will put down at the end of one episode, then find yourself quickly returning to pick up the story.

15542094_1279307785470154_3069932482731460548_nIt is always a concern with historical fiction that the author will bastardise the facts to such an extent, the real people and real events become an afterthought. Hickson avoids falling into this trip; her book IS fiction, with invented speech between characters and even the main relationship between Jasper and Jane having no historical basis, yet, as anyone who has studied the period in depth will attest, nothing she has put to paper is outlandish, or even unlikely. I read this book, and believed in what she had to say. It was how I imagined the life and times of Jasper Tudor, and his young nephew Henry, was during the tumultuous years of the 1460s.

Jasper has a strained relationship with his elder brother Edmund, for example, and again, whilst historical evidence for this is lacking, it’s hardly unbelievable for there to have been some degree of gentle animosity between a set of brothers, as has been the case throughout time. Jasper places Margaret Beaufort on a pedestal, which again could have been the case; this is not a book where Jasper has an affair with Margaret, or any other preposterous invention. Hickson hasn’t gone out of her way to make things up for entertainment, as, quite frankly, there isn’t a need to when it comes to the Wars of the Roses. Everything has an air of believability to it, even for those coming to the text with detailed knowledge of the real story.

Essentially, Hickson’s evocative book is a classic ‘Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl Back’ production, but set in the tumultuous world of the Wars of the Roses. A classic theme set in a captivating period that works well. My only regret? The book ended.

Book Review – Richard, Duke of York; King by Right by Matthew Lewis

By Nathen Amin

In recent times there have been biographies aplenty in the Wars of the Roses, a trend that shows no signs of abating. Henry VII, Jasper Tudor, Edward IV and Richard III have received plenty of attention from historians in the last few years, to add to the Social Media groups and blogs dedicated to such luminaries of the fifteenth century.

Oddly, such a biography or study had yet to be written about the man who, in the eyes of many, initiated the brutal internecine conflict, Richard, Duke of York. It is true that he features as a major character either in works about others or general Wars of the Roses tomes, but for such an important figure however, a dedicated biography has been long overdue. Thankfully this is something Matthew Lewis has finally supplied.

Apart from being a highly influential fifteenth century figure deserving of modern analysis, Lewis outlines his motivation for the work to be an attempt to push aside the veils of myth and legend that surround the duke of York and to challenge the image of Richard as a man whose insatiable ambition dragged his nation into a civil war. Did Richard, after all, have a ‘burning ambition and unquenchable desire for the throne’ or was he merely acting in the general interest of the kingdom?

Lewis’ book begins with Edmund of Langley, a son of Edward III and the first duke of York; the narrative helps outline the importance of pedigree to Richard of York’s story, quickly zipping through the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V until we come to Richard’s early life. It is these early years that is often missing from other accounts in which Richard plays a part; most works feature Richard in his later life as a divisive magnate connected to the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, so it is refreshing to read his early years where Lewis reveals details about where he was based and the development of early connections.

51IZwV6HEuL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_A typical insight into this often unexplored period of his life Lewis’ inclusion of a letter written by King Henry VI to a 16 year old Richard in 1428. The king addresses his ‘dear and beloved cousin’ and requests his presence to join the king’s household. ‘Do not delay in any manner, but know that your arrival we shall provide for you so well in household for your residence that you will be very pleased and content with this’. This is where Lewis’ book has worth – regular readers of the genre will be aware of the caricature of Richard towards the end of his life, but here we are provided evidence of his early life, on the cusp of adulthood.

Elsewhere, I noted that Lewis openly acknowledges the use of propaganda by the House of York, a dark art which was certainly used before the Tudors acceded the throne. It has become clichéd in recent years to castigate the Tudor Dynasty for their use of spin tactics in establishing their supremacy, but with Lewis recognising and revealing Yorkist use of similar methods, it only serves to show this is not a book built on bias to its subject, albeit one primarily from the duke’s point of view.

An example of this can be seen how the author doesn’t dodge the controversial question of the paternity of Edward IV, Richard’s son. Accusations by anti-Yorkists have long been levelled that Edward was not the son of Richard, but rather of an English archer. This supposition is based on the fact that Richard was possibly not with his wife at time of conception. Rather than rejecting this as a fanciful story designed to ruin the duke’s reputation, Lewis pays notice to the rumours rather than dismissing it out of hand, and whilst ultimately concluding that this controversy cannot be answered either way in the absence of DNA testing, it’s a logical and rational answer to a topic often treated emotionally. His later assertion that Richard wouldn’t have bothered seeking a prestigious match for a son he thought was not his, as well as the fact the duke always acknowledged his son, particularly resonate as a collected summary of the controversy.

The book is easy to read, with an engaging narrative merging gently with original sourced material in the form of chronicles and patent rolls. Richard, Duke of York, is a figure who ‘towers over late medieval history in England’ and this is a handy and much-needed biography of his life and times. The fact that I spent every work lunchtime over the last two weeks reading the book, and not feeling that I had wasted that time, speaks volumes for the writing style and content. A good addition to Wars of the Roses genre that is even-handed if sympathetic, detailed if concise and enjoyable to read.

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Matthew Lewis is the author of two histories and two historical fiction novels about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses. The medieval period is a particular passion of his, which he hopes to spread through his blog. He is dedicated to teaching and discussing this period, operating two history podcasts and providing bite-sized facts to his Twitter and Facebook following. Wars of the Roses, the Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy, Medieval Britain in 100 Facts and Richard, Duke of York; King by Right are all available on Amberley Publishing.