Book Review: Demon’s Brood: A History of the Plantagenet Dynasty by Desmond Seward

Plantagenet demons brood by seward
The Plantagenet dynasty will never cease to fascinate us. With the recent explosion of novels and TV shows, people have become more interested in them.
In spite of this, historians are careful not to treat their subjects as modern day celebrities. Many insist in treating them as we would any other historical subject, by being as objective as we can be. However, bias will always exist and as much as I enjoyed this biography, I found that the author perpetuates a lot of the old Victorian myths and stereotypes about these kings and queens.
Desmond Seward subscribes to the view that the celebrated heroes of this dynasty who continued to be revered as national icons, only became famous because of their success in battle and being surrounded by good councilors.
He is quick to tear down through the myths of the most famous of them all, Henry V, by pointing out that he was a far cry from the noble and reluctant hero of Shakespeare’s play of the same name when he invaded France. For this, I was grateful. I partly agree with him. When Henry V invaded France, he ordered his men to leave civilians alone but his soldiers being desperate, and to avoid them turning against him, he turned a blind eye to their crimes. When one town refused to open its doors to him, he charged against his inhabitants. The survivors fled to a fortress where it ended up capitulating to Henry V who had little qualms about the fate of the townspeople.
This is cruel behavior but it is the type of behavior you’d expect from a fifteenth century monarch. Classifying him as a murderer, zealot, power-hungry, and amoral while turning a blind eye to similar atrocities other monarchs engaged in, makes little sense
I also noticed that when it comes to searching for evidence to support his views, he engages in confirmation bias by heavily relying on secondary sources. While I can see the value in these, to place them in higher regard than primary sources is problematic. This is largely in part because they come from a later period where the social and religious background had changed, making this person(s) views quite different from someone living in that era. 
Do not get me wrong. This is not a bad book. Not at all! But it is not great either. History buffs looking for a good book on the Plantagenets might be disappointed in this one. It is entertaining and accessible for newcomers; something you could consider giving to your students if you are an educator or to a friend if you want to introduce him or her to this era.

 

Book Review: Katherine the Queen by Linda Porter

Kathryn parr linda porter bio
This is an exceptional biography that does justice to the sixth and last consort of Henry VIII. For centuries, Katherine Parr was seen in an auxiliary role. The nurse, the one that survived because she was tactful where two of her predecessors were not, and finally, the surrogate mother.
Out of these three, there is truth to the last two.
The real  Katherine Parr was a reformer. She had an active role in the English Reformation. While Anne Boleyn is credited with being the first royal consort to embrace Protestantism -and she certainly does deserve some of that credit- the truth is that it was Katherine Parr who was England’s first full fledged Protestant queen.
Where Anne believed that religious reformers should thread carefully and still embraced some of her forefathers’ traditions, Katherine Parr wanted to do away with almost every aspect of the old world.
In her view, women were the Protestant Reformation greatest asset. Women were supposed to be -according to the bible- virtuous. For this very same reason, Katherine encouraged her young charges to live up to the highest standard. Among her charges were the ill-fated Jane Grey and the future Gloriana, Elizabeth Tudor.
Linda Porter understands the period and her audience, including those who are new to this era. For this reason, she decides to cut straight to the chase and exclude details that might make newcomers lose interest.In spite of this, she weaves every thread to form a rich tapestry that presents us with a remarkable woman. Out of all of the Tudor consorts, she and Henry VIII’s first wife, Katharine of Aragon whom her mother -lady Maud Parr- served and whom she was named after) were the only queens to be appointed regents in their husband’s absence. Henry VIII saw in Katherine a nobility of spirit and intellect. When he left the country to seek glory in France, he entrusted the well-being of his nation and offspring into her hands. Though he had also left competent men who’d guide her through her new duties, the sole weight of England rested on her shoulders.
Katherine proved to be more than capable.
After having a brief brush with death, she spent her last years building a friendship with many members at court.
Porter is also quick to point out that while she did not want to take any credit for the English reformation, she was one of the de-facto leaders of this religious movement. Her last book, published months one year after Henry VIII died, helped shape Anglican thought.
Aside of her strict moral code, this biography also sheds light on her social life. Katherine fulfilled the other important functions of a consort by being an exceptional hostess. She loved to dance, hear her husband’s minstrels, and dress in rich gowns that would reflect well on the crown.
Porter is not afraid to touch on the controversy surrounding her youngest royal stepdaughter and ward, lady Elizabeth Tudor and her fourth and last husband, Sir Thomas Seymour, Baron of Sudeley.
Since most of our knowledge of that incident comes from sources that were written much later; she tries to be as factual as possible, delivering the most likely scenarios and the reason behind Katherine Parr reacting the way she did.

Lastly, this is one of the few books that paints a more complete picture of her noble ancestry. Out of all the four non-royals that Henry VIII married, her lineage was the most distinguished.
As previous stated, Linda Porter is not afraid of including the darker aspects of her life. In a perfect world, in a perfect time, she would have had it all. A learned and courteous woman, who was recognized for her intellect and her active role in the religious reformation, living happily ever after with a husband who loved and appreciated her with a child that will take after her mother.
 Nevertheless Katherine’s legacy lives through her writings and what she taught through her actions and her self to Elizabeth.

Book Review: Elizabeth: The Renaissance Prince by Lisa Hilton

Elizabeth i by lisa hilton

An objective, well written biography that explores the lesser known aspects of Elizabeth’s life, from her education, her relationship with her father, siblings and her eventual rivalry with Mary I and Mary, Queen of Scots, to the last years of her reign, and people’s perception of her during and in the aftermath of her death.
Elizabeth I is glorified in English history as the greatest monarch that ever lived. Not only that, but she has accolade of fans who -in their attempt to defend her- end up doing her the same disservice her rivals did back in the day. By putting her in a pedestal, she stops being a human being -an opportunistic, politically savvy, strong woman who was also a flawed individual, but didn’t let her demons get in the way of making her country great- and instead becomes a caricature.


Lisa Hilton also dispels myths about her rivals and family members, primarily her mother (Anne Boleyn), her half-sister (Mary I), her rival (Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots), and lastly, her last stepmother, Kathryn Parr. 


What emerges is a woman who was deeply scarred by her experience but, as previously stated, learned from them, and used her femininity as her shield against her enemies before she became Queen. When she was Queen, she was stern while also cautious to a fault, affirming nothing and denying nothing. She played both sides and like most female rulers, she regarded herself as half-divine, her power justified by her intellectual and political prowess. But Lisa Hilton notes that the Virgin Queen would not have been as successful had it not been for her councilors. She often clashed with the more radical Protestant faction. They wanted a republic, one modeled after the classical Greek and Roman Republics, and were emboldened by the Netherlands and their Northern neighbors, the Scots. Of the latter, the Netherlands were more successful, and it was largely in part to Elizabeth. But as with many politicians today, supporting one’s cause, doesn’t mean you agree with them.
As a pragmatist, Elizabeth was in need of allies and if the Catholic countries would continue to conspire against her, she would do the same and look elsewhere. The end result is a contradictory tale. Elizabeth applauded her father’s establishment and the supremacy of the Church of England because it placed the monarch above the law, on the other hand, she despised other Protestant doctrines that downplayed the monarch’s power and wished to return to the times of a classical republic. Elizabeth supported them because she needed them, but deep down she despised what they were doing and whenever some of her countrymen got similar ideas, she struck back.


This is a biography history buffs (especially those who are sick and tired of generalizations of their favorite Tudor monarchs) will absolutely love. If you are new to the Tudor era, worry not, this book is easy to follow, highly descriptive and engaging from start to finish.

The Myth of Convivencia: Nostalgic Storytelling

medieval convivencia

It is a popular myth that there was a period of religious tolerance among the three Abrahamic faiths during the middle ages which end came with the aftermath of the “Reconquista”. The Reconquista or Reconquest was the Spaniards’ efforts to recover the lands that had been taken by Muslim invaders in 711. At the time that Isabella became Queen of Castile and later her husband and cousin, Ferdinand, became King of Aragon and other territories he inherited from his father; there was only one Taifa (Moorish) kingdom in Spain. It was the last remnant of what some historians refer to as ‘Spain’s golden age’. This is none other than Granada.

While their Muslim invaders tried to do away with their culture, the more committed Spaniards pushed back. The term ‘Andalusia’ as Dario Fernandez-Morera explains in the next paragraph of his book “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval  Spain”, never took hold and in spite of the Christians and Jews submitting to their new masters, they still adhered to their cultural practices.

Al Andalusia 1024px-La_civilització_del_califat_de_Còrdova_en_temps_d'Abd-al-Rahman_III

“Medieval Christians considered the lands Islam had conquered to be part of Spain, not part of Islam, and therefore not as al-Andalus. Their chronicles refer to “Spannia,” avoiding the Arabic term. The mid-thirteenth century Poema de Fernan Gonzales which signs in medieval Spanish the deeds of a tenth-century Castilian hero, specifies that Castile is the best of the lands of Spannia and that Fernand Ggonzals fought even against the Christian kings of Spannia. In fact,  Christians in the North of Spain initially referred to Chrisian dhimmis in Islami Spain as Spani -that is, as Spaniards. “Until the twelfth century,” the historian Miguel Anel Ldero Quesade writes, “Christians, especially those in the Pyrenean area, frequently called the lands of ‘al-Andalus’ Hispani, and so did the ‘gothicists’ from the kindom of Leon, since they considered it unliberated territory.” Valve Bernejo and fellow historian Reinhart ozy have pointd out that the Latin chronicles by Christians in the North of Spain designated as Spania recisely the land that Muslims had conquered.
Significantly, these political references to the land as Spain occurred despite the fact that in the Midle Ages there was no single “kingdom of Spain.” Nonetheless, in 1077 Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile called himself “imperator totius hispaniae” (emperor of the whole of Spain). Another chronicle calls Sancho II of Leon and  Castile (1036-1072) “rex totius Castelle et dominator Hispaniae” (king of Castile and dominator of Spain.) … Christian historians as early as 754, in the Chronica mozarabica, were lamenting “the loss of Spain.” … Julian of Toledo, a prelate of Jewish origin who became bishop of all Visigoth Spain, wrote a History of King Wamba (Historia Wambae), which has been considered a “nationalistic work” defending the patria and the people of Spain in contrast to those of such “foreign lands” as Francia. Muslims themselves often used the word Sspain rather than al-Andalus … Archaeology confirms this Muslim usage: numismatics tells us that the earliest Muslim coins in  Spain, dating from the first half of the eighth century, a few years after the conquest, show on one side the name Alandalus in Arabic and on the other, for proper identification, the Latin abbreviation SPAN -that is,Spania.”
(Fernandez-Morera, The Myth of Andalusia)

Furthermore, there seems to be some misunderstanding among popular historians, who confuse religious taxation with acceptance of religious minorities. Simply put, there was no such thing as love between any of these groups. While people can point to some exceptions, these were extremely rare. For the most part, when Christian or Muslim rulers accepted peoples of a different faith, especially those the latter referred to as “people of the book” (those belonging to any of the Abrahamic faiths), it was because they offered a financial incentive (i.e. they could be taxed).

The special tax religious minorities, including the remaining few who still practiced the Zoroastrian faith, was known as the Jizyah. It can be found in the Quran, Sura (chapter( 9, section 4, verse 29: “Fight against such of the people who despite having been given the Scripture do not really believe in Allah and the Last Day, and who do not hold unlawful that Allah and His Messenger have declared to be unlawful, and do not subscribe to the true faith, until they pay the Jizyah, provided they cannot afford it, and they are content with their state of subjection …”

Furthermore, Muslim legalist scholar and Jurist, Abu Yusuf added: “After Abu Ubaydah concluded a peace treaty with the people of Syria and had collected from them the jyzya and the tax for agrarian land, he was informed that the Romans were readying for battle against him and that the situation had become critical for him and the Muslims. Abu Ubaydah then wrote to the governors of the cities with whom pacts had been concluded they must return the sums collected from jizya and kharja and say to their subjects: “We return to you your money because we have been informed that troops are being raised against us. In our agreement you stipulated that we protect you, but we are unable to do so. Therefore, we now return to you what we have taken from you, and we will abide by the stipulation and what has been written down, if God grants us the victory over them.”

While this may seem like a ‘fair’ treatment in an otherwise unfair era, you must not let the eloquence of this holy book and this Jurist fool you. In an earlier Surah, it reminds those who follow the path of Islam that they should be merciful to the unbeliever, but after a certain while, if this fails to convert them, they should turn against them and strike them down for rejecting conversion.

Quran Birmingham_Quran_manuscript“Verily, those who conceal the clear evidences and the guidance which We have revealed, after We have explained them to the people in this Book, these it is whom Allah deprives of His mercy and also disapprove all those who can disapprove, except such (of them) as repent and mend (themselves) and declare clearly (the truth which they used to hide), it is they to whom I shall tur with mercy, for I am the Oft-Returning (with compassion and) the Ever Merciful. But those who persist in disbelief and die while they are disbelievers, these are the ones upon whom be the disapproval of Allah and of the angels and of people and (in short) of all of them. They shall remain in this (state of disapproval) for long. Their punishment shall not be reduced for the, and no respite shall be given to them. And your God is One God, there is no other, cannot be and will never be one worthy f worship but He, the Most Gracious, the Ever Merciful.” (Quran, Sura 2, verses 59-63)

In her biography on Isabella, Kirstin Downey mentions the violent end that Jews suffered in Granada in 1066, at the supposed height of Spain’s golden age of religious toleration. As preached in the Quran, if a non-believer refuses conversion, he or she should no longer be treated with mercy. In this case, upon suffering an economic collapse, Muslims looked for someone to blame and who better than foreigners whom all of a sudden, it was forgotten how they were also affected by this crisis, and that in spite of facing continuous discrimination by their Muslim peers, they still followed the law.
Specifically, Muslim commons targeted Jews.

“In 1066, Muslims rioted and destroyed the entire Jewish community in Granada, killing thousands more, in fact, than the numbers killed by Christians in the Rhineland at the beginning of the first Crusade. In the twelfth century, the Muslims expelled the entire population of Christians living in the cities of Malaga and Granada and sent them to Morroco.” (Downey, Isabella: the Warrior Queen)

No Jew was spared. Neither were Christians who were captured in raids and sold off to slavery. Of the few that managed to escape and tell the tale is of Georgius of Hungary. After he became a priest, he wrote a memoir where he revealed the horrific details that he and his fellow Christians went through.

“In all the provinces, just as for other sorts of trafficking, a particular public place is held for buying and selling human beings, and places legally assigned for this purpose. To this location and public selling ground, the poor captives are brought, bound with ropes and chains, as if sheep for slaughter. There, they are examined and stripped naked. There, a rational creature made in the image of God is compared and sold for the cheapest price like a dumb animal. There (and this is a shameful thing to say) the genitals of both men and women are handled publicly by all an shown in the open. They are forced to walk naked in front of everyone, to run, walk, leap, so that it becomes plainly evident, whether each is weak or strong, male or female, old or young (and, for women,) virgin or corrupted. If they see someone blush with shame, they stand around to urge those on even more, beating them with staves, punching them, so that they do by force that which of their own free will they would be ashamed to do in front of everyone.
There a son is sold with his mother watching and grieving.  There, a mother is bought in the presence and to the dismay of her son. In that place, a wife is made sport of, like a prostitute, as her husband grows ashamed, and she is given to another man.  There a small boy is seized from the bosom of his mother, and his mother is separated from him. There no dignity is granted, nor is any social class spared. There a holy man and a commoner are sold at the same price. There a soldier and a country bumpkin are weighed in the same balance. Furthermore, this is just the beginning of their evils …
Oh how many, unwilling to bear the crisis of such an experience, fell to the depth of desperation! Oh how many, exposing themselves to die in various ways, fled into the hills and woods and perished because of starvation or thirst, an there’s also this final evil: taking their own hands against themselves, they either wrung out their own lives with a noose, or hurling themselves into the river, they lost the life of their body and spirit at the same time.”

As noted above in Georgius’ memoir, virgins were in high demand. Many of the Sultans’ mothers happened to be Christian women who rose through the ranks, becoming chief concubine or legal wife of their lord and master, the Sultan. Boabdil, the last Sultan of Granada fought with his father over his new favorite concubine who had been sold off into slavery to the Sultan. As it happened in such environments where women have to compete against one another so they could become the highest ranking woman in the harem, earning power and respect that they would not have otherwise (unless they were born in the aristocracy); Boabdil’s mother, Aixa felt threatened by his father’s (Abul-Hasan Ali) new concubine, Isabel de Solis. A beautiful Castilian who was the daughter of nobleman Sancho Jimenez de Solis, she was kidnapped by border raiders led by the Abul-Hasan Ali’s brother. Being the first to notice her beauty, he gave her as a present to his brother who was captivated with her on the spot. As a result, Boabdil and his mother sought to undermine her influence. When this didn’t work, they sought the aid of the Catholic Kings.

1492 Granada TCK
Conniving and astute, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, gave him his support, finding it easier to play the Nasrid dynasty against one another so when the right moment came to strike and recover the last piece of lands the Muslims had taken from them, they’d have an easier job doing so.
Their plan worked. As the old saying goes, Isabella and Ferdinand’s arduous campaign and plots paid off. On the 2nd of January 1492, Boabdil, the last Nasrid Sultan of the last Taifa Kingdom in Spain, surrendered to his once allies turned adversaries.
Isabel de Solis returned to Castile, re-converted to Christianity and lived a quiet life. The same cannot be said for other women. Many had to convert to Islam and adapt to their new surroundings. Boys for their part also faced many struggles. Some like Suleiman I -known as Suleiman “Muhtesem”, “the Magnificent”- former slave, Ibrahim, managed to rise through the ranks and become members of the aristocracy and were free to reconnect with their families, even inviting them to live with them. But once again, these cases were rare and the families had to convert and adopt Islamic practices or else, they wouldn’t be allowed to live with them.

As part of this religious harmonious society, Jews,  Christians and Zoroastrians were segregated. If the person was sickly, a priest, old, a woman or child, he or she would be exempt from paying the tax. Able-bodied men -unless they weren’t financially stable or joined the military- would be obligated to pay the tax if they wanted to be left in peace. However, they could not hold certain offices or walk on certain parts of the street or put their business in a place where it competed with local Muslim businesses.
Also, religious minorities were prohibited of living in the same neighborhood as their Muslim peers. The dead were also segregated. Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians had to have separate cemeteries.

One aspect that is often criticized of medieval Europe is the treatment of conversos of Moriskos, that is, Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity. Rarely, the same attention is given to the religious minorities that converted to Islam. As their counterparts in Christian Europe, these new converts were always seen with suspicion (and envy whenever they rose higher than their Muslim peers). Ibrahim, the aforementioned favorite of Suleiman I is proof of that. Jealous of his rise, they convinced Suleiman that he was a threat. Suleiman, threatened by his former slave’s popularity, believed them and he ordered his execution.

High or low, converts or still part of the religious minority; regardless of how productive they were or how much they achieved, they were never seen by their Muslim peers as their equals.

In his dissertation, Spanish scholar Eduardo Manzano-Moreno criticizes the proliferation of this myth, stating that it is nothing more than wishful thinking.
“El de Convivencia es un concepto que ha sido poco elaborado.”
(The concept of Convivencia is a concept that hasn’t been fully elaborated.)

He is right. “Convivencia” is a symptom of nostalgic story-telling. It is how some wish to remember the past instead of accepting it as yet another complicated era of human history.

Sources:

  • Downey, Kirstin. Isabella: The Warrior Queen. 2014.
  • Fox, Julia. Sister Queens: The Noble Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile. Ballantine Books. 2012.
  • Fernandez-Morera, Dario. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain. Intercollegiate Studies. 2016.
  • The Quran (Modern English Translation)
  • Manzano Moreno, Eduardo. Qurtuba: Algunas Reflexiones criticas sobre el califato de Cordoba y el mito de la Convivencia. Awraq n7, 2013. ( http://www.awraq.es/blob.aspx?idx=5&nId=96&hash=ac20943d589408c5a0a3cd2c1e0908a4 )
  • Tremlett, Giles. Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen. Bloomsbury USA. 2017.
  • I also recommend my co-author’s blog where my article is linked to her take on this subject. HERE

Richard III’s Thunderous Proclamation against Henry Tudor

RIII H7

On the 7th of December 1484, Richard III issued a thunderous proclamation against Henry Tudor (then) Earl of Richmond. Richard had sworn to protect his nieces and welcomed the eldest two (the once Princesses, now Ladies) Elizabeth and Cecily of York to court. Henry Tudor had been a nuisance to Richard ever since the Christmas of ’83 when he pledged to take the crown and marry Elizabeth of York, thus uniting both Houses. But for the first time during his reign, after the death of his son, Prince Edward of Wales, Henry had become a serious threat.
Those who criticize Elizabeth Woodville and her eldest daughters for accepting Richard III’s offer of peace, ignore the fact that when he did this, his son was still alive and as far as everyone knew, his reign could go on for many years. The death of his son changed all of this. With no heir and a sickly wife, the threat of Henry Tudor became greater. He had with him not only staunch Lancastrians but Edwardian Yorkists as well supporting his claim.

Henry VII White Queen
The proclamation not only attacked Henry but his allies, including Peter Courtenay (Bishop of Exeter), Jasper Tudor (Henry’s uncle), the notable Lancastrian loyalist John, Earl of Oxford (who was one of the greatest strategists of the age and ally Henry could count on), Thomas Grey (Marquis of Dorset), Sir Edward Woodville, and others as well, stating that
rebels and traitors disabled and attainted by authority of the high Court of parliament” also being accused of being “open murderers, adulterers, and extortioners contrary to truth, honour and nature” in addition to abusing “and blind the commons of this said realm of the said rebels and traitors have chosen to be their Captain one Henry late calling himself Earl of Richmond which of his ambitious and insatiable covetousness stirred and excited by the confederacy of the King’s said rebels and traitors encroacheth upon him the name and title of the Royal estate of this Realm of England. Whereunto he hath no manner, interest, righ or colour as every man well knoweth. And to the intent to achieve the same by the aid, support and assistance of the king’s said ancient enemies and of this his Council of France to give up and release in perpetuity all the title and claim that Kings of England have had and ought to have to the Crown and Realm of France.”

This last part is extremely serious because not only was Richard calling Henry ever nasty name in the book, but he was also accusing him of making a secret deal with the French of giving up England’s claim to the “the crown and realm of France” in order to have that country’s support.
The solution to Henry’s “insatiable covetousness” was supporting Richard who as “our sovereign lord” was a “well-willed, diligent, and courageous prince” who would put “his most royal person to all labour and pain necessary for the resistance and subduing of his enemies.”

Henry VII Richard III bosworth collage

Richard and Henry’s armies would meet the following year, not long after his wife’s death in that same year. The end result would be Richard dying battle and Henry becoming King of England, fulfilling his promise of marrying Elizabeth of York whose parents’ marriage was once again validated.

Cersei I vs Daenerys s7 1

This is why history will always be a major triumph over every fantasy and sci-fi it inspires. It is way more violent and filled with more surprises than fiction can ever come up with. It shows us that the impossible can often become possible, and that as Varys told Tyrion in “Game of Thrones” a small man can cast a “very large shadow”. In the show’s seventh season, Cersei took on the role of Richard III when she issued a thunderous proclamation of her own against Daenerys Targaryen. Like Henry, she was exiled across the narrow sea and come to reclaim the Iron throne, but unlike the Welsh dragon, it is unknown whether she will ever achieve her goal given that the show and the books are amalgams of different eras. Nevertheless, it shows how the past continues to be relevant and serve as a major inspiration.
But whereas Cersei was posh and delicate before the lords, Richard III did not mince his words. As it was pointed out, he didn’t pull back any punches and continued to attack Henry’s character, reminding everyone that the last time someone had a Lancastrian king, England had lost all of its prized possessions in France, and that aside of that, Henry descended from a lowly branch of that house that albeit being legitimized, in the eyes of many, it was seen as a bastard branch of the Plantagenet dynasty.

Sources:

  • Chrimes, S.B. Henry VII. Yale University Press. 1999.
  • Penn, Thomas. Winter King and the Dawn of Tudor England. Simon & Schuster. 2012.
  • Skidmore, Chris. The Rise of the Tudors: The Family that Changed English History. Martin’s Press. 2014.
  • de Lisle, Leanda. Passion. Manipulation. Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Royal Family. Public Affairs. 2013.
  • Porter, Linda. Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots. Martin’s Press. 2014.

Murder on the Orient Express (Movie Review)

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Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is one of her best novels, and the best in her Hercules Poirot series so it is with a heavy heart that I must express my deepest sympathies to those who feel that I am being unfair with my upcoming review of this latest adaptation.

I was eager to see this movie. As a big fan of police and crime dramas, I was excited to see one of the greateste detectives, as Kenneth Branagh who plays him in this film (which he also directs) boasted. But I was sorely disappointed. The movie feels extremely apologetic with the writers having tried so hard to make us like the characters. I ended up feeling that some of the theatrics were over the top and unnecessary. Indeed, some of the characters ended up being cartoonish, with Poirot not being played as the methodical, dapper, complex man that he is in the novels.
The end result is another one of Hollywood’s recent attempts to modernize a timeless classic. And I say classic despite the novel being less than a century old. Published in 1934, the story centers on a gruesome morder on the Orient Express. Poirot is the only qualified to take on the case. Whereas the film lacks some of the more comedic elements of the book, the latter doesn’t shy away from inserting light-hearted humor, balancing it with the darker overtones of the ‘victim’ (and I use that term lightly here for those who have already read the book or seen the film) and those involved in the murder.
The novel has a lot of heart. It is something unique, and as the other ones of Agatha’s detective novels, by making the characters flawed, and difficult to decipher they become subjects that we can all relato.
Poirot is not an easy man to interpret and I was hoping that if someone could outdo Finney and Suchet, it would be Kenneth Branagh. The man is not only a great director, he is a great actor. A Shakesperean actor at that! But the movie suffers from trying too hard.
The direction is good, the settings are wonderful, and it deserved to be at least nominated in those categories. But it cut through many important details and overdid it on others. Had it not left out the important details, then all of Poirot’s conclusions would have been easily understood. He is not just one of the world’s best detectives because of his intuition or passion to take on a big challenge such as this one, he is the best because he is highly methodical and nothing escapes his eye. In fact, Daisy Ridley’s character (the governess) points this out at the beginning of the film.
There is also some role reversals which I won’t complain about because it didn’t change the ending of the film, or undermine the plot; but I would have liked the movie to be longer so audiences would have become more invested on these characters and their grievances.

I will say this though. I do not hate this film. It is entertaining, but it is not as great as I thought it would be. Out of all the performances, the one that stood out the most was Michelle Pfeiffer.

Book Review (Nostalgia edition #1) Murder at the Orient Express

Murder at the orient express by Agatha Christie

Before watching the movie, read the book! That is the general rule, but it is truer when it comes to detective fiction because there is only so much that an adaptation can fit in, especially when in film.

While I do not wish to compare her fiction with that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle since the two lived at a different time and place, I feel that I must. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle no doubt inspired many authors, but it was Agatha Christie’s mysteries with her two witty protagonists, Hercules Poirot and Mrs. Marple that did more to popularize the genre of detective fiction.

These last two stand out more than their predecessor because whereas Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mammoth books tended to drag on, Christie’s mysteries cut straight to the chase. She did not shy away from pointing out the horrible nature of her suspects and victims without being as repetitive as the former.
Hercules Poirot relies purely on logic, being (as Kenneth Branagh who plays him in the recent adaptation of this novel brags) “possibly the best detective” that ever lived. Not apologetic about the arrogance her protagonist displays, Hercules Poirot remains one of the best detectives in fiction. He is not afraid to boast because he knows he can deliver, but he is also a human being subject to his own biases and as he comes closer to uncovering the truth, he’s faced with one the toughest decisions he will ever have to make.

The story centers on an unusual murder at the Orient Express, one of the most luxurious train rides of the last century. Hercules Poirot can’t come to grasp with the reality of the situation. Could there be more than one killer? The evidence suggests that there was more than one murderer, yet the case remains a paradox and with the train stranded, tensions continue to rise. Everyone is a suspect and no one is safe from Poirot’s watchful eye and methodical mind.
The end will leave readers shocked but satisfied as Poirot explains how he solved the case and what he plans to do next.
and the conclusion will be something that will leave everyone satisfied and shocked.

If you do not have time to read the book and prefer to watch the movie first, you can purchase it on kindle and then on audible or start a free trial on the latter to get it for free and after one month cancel your trial. Mystery and suspense readers won’t be disappointed.

Book Review: Anne Boleyn, Adultery, Heresy, Desire by Amy Licence

Anne Boleyn by Amy Licence

To understand Anne Boleyn, we have to know about her world first. Her roots, going back to the very beginning, tracing her family story, her role in the shifting religious climate of the Tudor era and finally, the differing views on women. When it comes to giving these women’s a voice, nobody is more suited for this task than renowned women’s historian, Amy Licence. The past comes alive in her new biography on Henry VIII’s second consort, and the mother to one of the world’s greatest female leaders who ruled England the longest out of all her dynasty, Elizabeth I.

Anne Boleyn lived during a time when many changes were going on. Nobody could have predicted her fall, or how far Henry VIII would have gone to have her. Nevertheless, looking back further, some things about her character start to make more sense.

Like her previous biography on Catherine of Aragon, this is a very detailed book. Highlighting the difference in status and the ever-changing cultural norms regarding gender, religion, and ceremony, she pulls the reader in to the 15th and 16th century eras. Another thing that I enjoyed from this book is that she did not shy away from the brutality and prejudices that characterized these time periods.

We often forget that these were people, subject to the same emotional and physical pain, although the later was augmented two-fold given the time and place they lived in, and the large gamble many of the up-and-coming families like the Boleyns took; nevertheless, something set them apart. They viewed the world through dark-colored lens.

The courts where Anne Boleyn served women like the archduchess Margaret of Austria and Queens Mary (her future husband’s youngest sister when she married Louis XII) and Claude of France, and later Henry’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon, valued order above all else. Decorum and class were everything for these people. Everything had to be structured, otherwise, society would come crumbling down and with it, chaos would reign.

Anne Boleyn was aware of this so she chose to follow the rules unlike her spirited sister Mary. But Anne was spirited in her own way. Instead of giving herself freely to men, be it through pressure or for passion, she preferred to shine by showing off her intellectual attributes. Her etiquette, her subtle playful and comely behavior, her occasional defiance, her passion for the new learning and indulging others, including Henry Percy and later the king, in harmless games of courtly love is what made her into one of the most alluring and interesting women at the Tudor court.

But, and this is something that historians still ask (and will likely continue to ask in the many years to come), is this what she intended? Was Anne Boleyn responsible for her fall? Was she a victim, pawn, or villain, homewrecker, or all of these things neatly wrapped together? Amy Licence doesn’t pretend to know the answer and as the book progresses, she is not about to give a definite answer but merely what she believed happened given what we know so far, and leave the rest for the reader to decide.

This is what a good historian. He or she gives the reader as much information as it is available, separates fact from fiction, primary from secondary sources and explaining the why, what, where, and when of the latter- letting the reader come to his own conclusion.

Anne Boleyn was a woman of many faces. She was a woman who might not have started out as the ambitious and unique ‘it’ girl from fiction, but as things got out of hand, she saw no other way but to play the waiting game and indulge the King. Having a strong moral compass -and another one of self-preservation- she did not let him take her virtue just like that. If the two of them were going to be together, he had to propose something grander. And ultimately that was marriage.

The road to the marriage bed was paved with obstacles, and it didn’t become any easier after she was crowned Queen of England. Anne was the first and only consort ever to be crowned with the crown of St. Edward the confessor -meant only for kings and queen regnants. Henry’s choice for this was not merely because of his passion and adoration for her, it was to symbolize something greater. He was not going to let anybody question their unborn child’s legitimacy, hence, his wife was going to have a coronation unlike something that hadn’t been seen before.
This is what the monarchy meant. Displays of force and splendor -and if there was something that Henry loved most of all, was wasting no expense on the latter.

But things turned sour and the rest as they say is history. Anne Boleyn’s story plays out like a Greek tragedy. A woman who chose to take the reins of her own destiny like her ancestors before her and navigate dangerous waters. Her gamble paid off (in the beginning). But she ended up losing everything. Yet, something of her remained, something which has catapulted her to fame. Her daughter. Elizabeth I is remembered as one of England’s greatest rulers. “Good Queen Bess”, “Virgin Queen” “Glorianna”, there is no shortage of titles that history has bestowed on her. But when it comes to Anne, people are still divided.

How do we view her? How do we judge a woman whose moral ambiguity still troubles many? The answer is simple and sometimes the simplest answer is the best: We view her as a woman of her times, a woman of her status, who rose too high and who was brought down by various factors. Some of them her doing, many of them not. Once we do this, a new picture of Anne starts to emerge -the same one which Amy Licence brings back to life in this stunning biography of one of England’s infamous femme-fatale.

Those of you interested in learning more about women’s lives, the struggles they faced, and how they used their different strengths to survive and fight against the rising tide, will devour this book.

Few historians choose to focus on women’s lives, and on the harsh realities that others had to face. And even fewer historians choose not to shy away from the less than flamboyant details that these people had to face, and this includes women’s hygiene, their ordeals during pregnancy, widowhood, and general views regarding these by the old and new church.
Ultimately, this biography is a great addition to our Tudor history bookshelves and more importantly to women’s history as it reminds us why Anne Boleyn is still relevant, and how easy it is for her story to be misappropriated or distorted. It is a product of the ever changing times just as she was a product of hers.

Book Review: The Martin Luther Collection: 15 Classic Works

Martin Luther collection book

To understand Luther, you have to go back to the source and that source is Luther himself. The best way to understand a person is hearing, or in this case reading, what he has to say.

Martin Luther was an avid student of history but like any man of his times, he was a product of it and should be seen as such. He did not see himself as a heretic but rather a reformer. When you read his best known writings, the ones that propelled him to fame (and in the Catholic Church’s eyes, infamy) you realize that he wasn’t saying anything new. Plenty of other protesters before him had voiced the same opinion and had been met with harsher opposition, but whereas most of them wanted to break away from the church and turn the world upside down, Luther simply wanted to reform it. He never intended for things to get out of control. He took the best of early reformers, people whom the church had branded as heretics, believing that he could succeed where they failed, but he soon found out that it was easier said than done and when he was pushed into a corner, he did the only thing that a person in that situation could do: push back.

The more you move forward towards the end of his writing, you realize how more paranoid and to some extent, radical he was becoming, but that unlike many of his contemporary Protestant leaders and those that came after him, he still had boundaries and didn’t agree with much of their ideology.

Once again, the Protestant Reformation is far more complex than what it is made out to be in pop culture, be it TV, film, historical fiction, or in some cases by some historians who still buy into the old myths or choose perpetuate to create a false (and more ideal) narrative of Luther, painting him as this firebrand reformer who always knew what his mission was from the very start. Luther did see his role in history as something larger than in life, but even this is subjective. Wishing to leave his mark, he also became stricter with his followers, urging them to follow Christianity in its purest form.
This book also presents much of them in the original language that they were first written, which makes it feel more original, like we have gone back in time to when they were first published.

This is a must-have for every history buff and person interested in finding more about the roots of modern Christianity. Luther was a precursor of many Protestant leaders who as it has been previously stated, he didn’t agree with, but whose movement wouldn’t have gone any further than a single pamphlet of protestation or become another footnote in history like their medieval predecessors, if it weren’t for this rebellious German ex-monk. And Luther’s influence continues to be felt among many leaders, not just religious but secular as well who view him in high regard. For better or for worse, whichever way you choose to look at it, Luther changed the world, and these writings proved that once again, the pen is mightier than the sword.

Book Review: Martin Luther, The Man who Rediscovered God & Changed the World by Eric Metaxas

Martin Luther bio by Metaxas

Martin Luther has become a firebrand icon but like so many firebrands, a lot of his story is steeped in myth. It has become another case of fiction replacing history, with novelists and (some) historians choosing that over reality. Eric Metaxas does a good job by deconstructing Luther and presenting us with the real man behind the leader of the Protestant reformation.

Novelists do not have an obligation to their readers, unless they feel they do. Some include author’s note explaining where they drew the line between fact and fiction, where they erred on the side of caution and where they took liberties for the sake of making their story more interesting. Historians on the other hand, do have a responsibility to their readers. Their jobs is to educate, but like Luther, they are trapped by their own biases. And we shouldn’t fault them for that, but we should hold them accountable when they let that take over the historical record to promote their agenda.

Martin Luther was for lack of better terms, a man of his times. Not ahead of them. He did what he did out of conviction and later desperation. His movement is also the product of centuries of heresies and attempts to reform the church that did not go unnoticed by the author.

By painting a vivid picture of the times he lived in, including explaining his background and the different customs in Western Europe, Eric Metaxas draws us the reader in right from the start. You don’t have to be a history buff and if you are but are new to this period, you don’t have to know a lot, to find this book engaging. Drawing on primary sources (and to some extent to understand where the fictional Luther comes from, secondary sources), and citing the archaeological evidence that still remains, Metaxas paints a vivid portrayal of the rebellious German ex-monk.

The man who rediscovered God and who changed the world is an accurate way to describe the figurehead of the Protestant movement -a movement he did not intent to create but like so much of what history has taught us, once things got out of his control, he had no choice but to push forward or to face certain death which would have meant being burned as a heretic like one of his idols, the infamous Dominican friar who also preached against the excesses of the church a century prior, Savonarola.

Ironically though, for better or for worse, Luther has also come to be seen as an icon and a source of inspiration for many political, religious and civic leaders. Some went so far as to change their names, and while others wasted no time placing him in a pedestal. Just as Luther did not intend to break away from the church, he did not intent to replace the cult of saints that he so much detested and railed against. But in the end, not even he would have gone against the power of the pen, nor controlled how he’d be remembered by his followers (or his rivals). And that is, as the author of this book points out, his greatest legacy -a legacy that will continue to be felt for decades to come.