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.