Book Review – The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and his Daughter Mary by Melita Thomas

By Nathen Amin

Interest in the life and times of the Tudor monarchs is as strong as ever, and so finding new ways to take a fresh look at a well-studied dynasty is always a difficulty for the historian wishing to bring something new to the table. As individuals, Henry VIII and his eldest surviving child Mary I have incurred considerable attention in recent years, but in The King’s Peal by Melita Thomas, the author has focused on dealings between father and daughter, and the result is an accomplished study of a complex and often fractious relationship that helps us understand better Mary the queen.

It is Thomas’ opinion that Mary, ‘a pearl of the world’, was a gambler – a headstrong force who risked everything she had in 1553 – her life, freedom and religion, in bidding for the throne, and this bold if reckless rise to become queen had its roots in her dealing with her father Henry, who both ‘loved and bullied’ his daughter throughout her youth. Recent re-evaluation of Mary’s reign has started to portray a queen who was more tragic than bloody, a victim of her father, but as Thomas exhibits throughout her work, their relationship was more complex than that – Mary was unquestionably doted upon by Henry when a girl but not so much when she developed into an obdurate teenager who questioned his setting aside her mother for Anne Boleyn.

When Mary continued to refuse to recognise Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church after both her mother and Anne’s deaths, matters reached a head in 1536, by which point father and daughter had been estranged for 4 years, when the king wrote to his daughter advising if she didn’t accept his will he would take leave of her forever, thinking her the most “ungrate, unnatural, and most obstinate person living”. Harsh words indeed, and just an insight into the tumultuous relationship of the pair.

And yet, as Thomas explores in The King’s Pearl, Mary remained the only figure to ever publicly clash in such a manner with the mighty king and not be destroyed. Wives, mentors and friends came and went, yet Mary remained, if at times firmly out of favour. Henry could willingly destroy any and every one, but he could never bring himself to wholly ruin his daughter, although it must be speculated upon how much such behaviour later affected her outlook.

Although the father-daughter personal relationship was complex and often confused by external political factors, Thomas’ book retains a gripping narrative throughout, never short on detail but always engaging. Well-referenced and commendably impartial, Thomas succeeds in not treating Mary or Henry as stereotypical two-dimensional parodies, and doesn’t take an obvious side in her study, preferring to present the evidence with reasoned commentary.

The book is a thought-provoking read that will help contextualise the later reign of Mary I, and perhaps explain the decisions taken by pearl who would, against the odds, one day become queen. Mary was far more her father’s daughter than is sometimes presumed, as this book superbly highlights.

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Melita Thomas is the co-founder and editor of Tudor Times, a repository of information about Tudors and Stewarts in the period 1485-1625 http://www.tudortimes.co.uk. Her first book ‘The King’s Pearl: Henry VIII and his daughter Mary’ is available now.

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Book Review – The Tudor Brandons: Mary and Charles – Henry VIII’s Nearest & Dearest by Sarah-Beth Watkins

By Nathen Amin

Anyone who has watched controversial Showtime Television Series ‘The Tudors’ will be well aware of name Charles Brandon, a brooding lothario who snagged the sister of a King. And King Henry VIII at that. We are introduced to the couple as they get together, marry without the king’s consent, suffer banishment from court, grow apart and eventually their respective deaths. But that is fiction. What Sarah-Beth Watkins succeds in accomplishing in her new book The Tudor Brandons is replace the fiction with fact, exploring the real life story of the Suffolks, bringing them to life with far greater accuracy than the television series.

Although things have changed in recent years, the Tudor book industry is still dominated by the larger than life figure of Henry VIII and his six wives, and so any book focusing on the lives of those in his circle rather than the king himself is always welcome in my house.

The book opens with a poem from the Suffolk Garland, a novel way of opening the story and setting the context for the book. We are instantaneously made aware that this is the story of the Brandons, and not their king or various sisters-in-law. An extract from the poem, perfectly summarises the couple’s early relationship, the fair Mary and the knightly Brandon;

“Eighth Henry ruling this land

He had a sister fair

That was the widow’d queen of France

Enrich’d with virtues rare

And being come to England’s court

She oft beheld a knight

Charles Brandon nam’d, in whose fair eyes

She chiefly took delight”

Before Watkins delves into their relationship however, she covers the ancestry of Charles Brandon with commendable detail, particularly as he was not descended from the great nobles of the realm and therefore information is not easily accessible. Most books which mention Brandon generally only make passing references to his lowly birth and occasionally a mention of his father who fought at Bosworth for Henry Tudor. It is here that Watkins truly distinguishes her work, covering the Brandon family story from 1443 to Bosworth. Their beginnings are not as lowly as it sometimes suggested, for it is recounted that Brandon’s grandfather William was a merchant closely aligned with the Dukes of Norfolk, perhaps ironic considering Charles Brandon’s later dealings with a duke of Norfolk in the 1520s and 30s. I enjoyed learning nuggets of trivia such as Brandon’s grandfather’s indictment for assault, theft and threatening behaviour, although he did fight for the Yorkists at the Battles of Towton and Tewkesbury. By 1483 William Brandon had transferred his loyalties to Tudor and was recorded as hiding from Richard III in Colchester, with his son, and Charles’ father, on the run. It seems that criminal behaviour run in the family, for Brandon’s father, also called William, was arrested for rape in 1478 and only just escaped hanging. It would have been an ignominious early ending to a family that would become renowned half a century later.

510k+JBcHcLThe rest of the Brandon story is covered, with Watkins exploring the French marriage of Princess Mary, her widowhood and her return to court with Brandon. We learn about their involvement in the rise of Anne Boleyn and what became of Brandon after his wife’s early death. It is the early years however that make this book worth its while, although the fact that Watkins doesn’t get bogged down on the minutiae of King Henry VIII’s reign, well covered elsewhere, is particularly helpful. This is, after all, the story of the Brandons and the author never strays far from her subject. Sizable extracts from surviving letters provide the reader with the sources to make their own deductions, always a bonus in historical non-fiction in my eyes.

All in all, Watkins book is a worthwhile addition to any Tudor library, its light and readable without shirking on detail and provides a brilliant introduction to the lives of the Suffolks during those momentous earlier years of Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign.

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Sarah-Beth Watkins works in publishing and has a BA in Social Policy. She grew up in Richmond, Surrey and began soaking up history from an early age. Her love of writing has seen her articles published in various publications over the past twenty years. Her history works are Ireland’s Suffragettes, Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII and The Tudor Brandons.