THE SPECTATOR: The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee by Glynn Parry
3 March 2012
The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee Glynn Parry

Yale, pp.336, 25

Like the dyslexic Faustus who sold his soul to Santa, the life of John Dee was a black comedy of errors. His vain and vulgar efforts to harness the occult for material ends often rendered him ridiculous. But there is a darker tale in Dee’s work for the Tudor state: a story of dodgy dossiers, fear-mongering and greed.

During the Tudor period no clear distinction was made between science and magic. John Dee’s study at Cambridge of arithmetic, geometry and astronomy enabled him to become a navigational consultant, who worked with England’s greatest explorers. But it also helped him measure the rays of celestial virtue that emanated from the stars and influenced human affairs. Mathematics helped him predict the future — and that was a much sought-after skill.

In the absence of news media, economists and pollsters, the powerful were desperate for expert guidance on what the future might hold. And if their belief in the value of astrological readings is that of another age, their understanding of the propaganda value of political forecasts was as sophisticated as our own. In 1558 Catherine de Medici’s conjuror Nostradamus, predicted a stream of calamities for the English enemy under their new queen, Elizabeth I. To calm national nerves Dee was hired, not to pick an auspicious date for Elizabeth’s coronation, as has long been claimed, but (Parry reveals) in the assumption that he would cast a more positive horoscope.

For over 20 years Dee continued to prove occasionally useful to his political masters: hard-headed men such as Elizabeth’s favourite Robert Dudley, and her Secretary of State, William Cecil. His prophecies supported Dudley’s pursuit of war in the Netherlands and Cecil’s desire to ever raise the threat alert against Catholics. But the occult was a dangerous business to be in. Accusations of black magic could lead you to the rope, and having the right political protection was all-important. Invariably those in league with Satan were found amongst the ideological opponents of those in power.

The problem for a jobbing magician seeking patronage was that religious affiliations could change overnight. Dee had cast horoscopes and crystal gazed for Elizabeth during her Catholic sister Mary’s reign, at a time when Elizabeth was suspected of treason. He had saved his neck by ‘coming out’ as a Catholic priest and taking up a post with the Protestant-burning bishop of London, Edmund Bonner. This was not forgotten or forgiven by all Protestant Elizabethans. Despite Dee’s marriages and ‘discoveries’ of Catholic threats, he was smeared as a ‘conjuror’ of evil spirits.

Dee’s poor judgment got him into further trouble in 1583. The arrival of the exotic looking Polish nobleman Albrecht Laski caused a sensation at court. He wore a red costume and had a magnificent white beard tucked into his belt. The Queen seemed to like him. Dee had employed a new whiz of a ‘scryer’ who could talk to angels, and they were saying Laski would be King of Poland. Only too late did Dee discover that Cecil disliked any encouragement of the Catholic Laski’s ambitions. The angels’ prophecies did for Dee at court. He went broke and had to flee England with Laski and the scryer.  In Europe the comedy of errors continued as the scryer — a drunken fraudster called Kelly — developed a reputation as an alchemist. Kelly persuaded Dee that the angels had told him that he could only keep his powers of transmutation if they swapped wives for sex. Dee, and the wives, dutifully (if unhappily) agreed. And to be fair, the wife-swapping seemed to work. When Dee returned to England in 1589 it was only because Elizabeth hoped he might be able to bring the great alchemist, Kelly, with him.

The place of the occult in Tudor politics is a fascinating and largely untold story.  Unfortunately Glyn Parry’s life of Dee suffers the weakness as well as the strengths of the scholarly biography. The narrative sinks beneath the weight of detail. The long passages on Dee’s occult writings and practices are particularly dull — like having some one relay to you their dreams. We get to know Dee, but the ‘old imposturing juggler’, turns out to have been a bit of a bore.


THE SPECTATOR: Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn

There is something of Gordon Brown in the older Henry VII: an impression of darkness, of paranoia and barely suppressed rage, not to mention the terrifying tax grabs and tormenting of enemies. But Gordon was never quite as entertaining, or frightening, as Thomas Penn’s Winter King in this brilliant mash-up of gothic horror and political biography.

David Starkey once declared Henry VII ‘boring’. But in writing his magnus opus on the supposedly more interesting Henry VIII he got so caught up in the drama of Henry VII’s court that Henry VIII is now largely being relegated to volume two of his own biography.   

The first Tudor King had no legitimate English royal blood and no legal right to the throne. His father was the product of a scandalous marriage between a Welsh chamber servant, Owen Tudor, and Henry V’s French widow, Katherine of Valois. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, was a descendent of an illegitimate son of John of Gaunt, founder of the House of Lancaster. Henry was born at the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, in 1457. Violent death was the common lot of many of his relations, royal as well as non-royal. By mid 1471 Henry was the last man standing in the house of Lancaster. He spent the next 14 years in exile, at constant risk of being handed over to the Yorkist King Edward IV, and later, Richard III. As Starkey observes, ‘The story of how Henry Tudor survived against the odds, and won his…throne against even greater odds, is one of the world’s great adventures’. But that provides just a brief prologue to Winter King.

The 28-year-old who won the battle of Bosworth in 1485 was a leader of some charm, even charisma, but also a damaged man, ‘infinitely suspicious’. He did not know England and was acutely aware that what had been won by the sword could as easily be lost by it. Henry had gained his victory with the support of those Yorkists who had turned against Richard III after the disappearance of Edward IV’s sons, the princes in the Tower. Henry carried out his promise to them to marry Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, but was crowned in his own ‘right’ – and it was a ‘right’ that was often to be questioned. With the last Plantagenet – the Earl of Warwick – kept in the Tower, his enemies set up pretenders against him. For Penn a key moment is the appearance in 1491 of a young man who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward IV. Even Sir William Stanley, the man who had crowned Henry at Bosworth, was prepared to betray him for this boy. The pretender was executed in 1499 as Perkin Warbeck. Warwick, who had not left the Tower since childhood, was also killed. But Henry never felt safe, and the deaths of his elder son, Prince Arthur, in 1502, and his wife the following year, seemed to shut all the light out of his life.  

Henry disappeared like a spider into his private apartments. There he spun a web that allowed him unprecedented control over his subjects. He described it as keeping them ‘in danger at his pleasure’. Earlier kings had bound offenders and suspects for their good behaviour on pain of paying a ‘debt’. Henry VII extended this system to the entire propertied class. Opposition was priced out of the market. Penn’s description of this Tudor tyranny is a tour de force: both scholarly and a pleasure to read, covering the breadth of the European political scene, while providing the details that allow us to feel intimately the terror at home.  Hope for the future fixed on the young Prince of Wales, the future Henry VIII.  He is the spring that, at last, follows the Winter King. Unlike Gordon Brown’s successor, Henry VIII inherits coffers stuffed with cash (if Henry VII was ‘led into avarice’, it was, at least, to some good purpose).  The monster is dead.  People rejoice. But, this being a horror story, Penn leaves us with the icy sensation of some unimaginable terror ahead.    

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 

THE SPECTATOR: William Cecil by Stephan Alford

2 July 2008

A keen sense of duty

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, would be delighted that in his historical afterlife he remains the old man he died as, after 40 years of power. The frail flesh and white beard projects the image of the dull bureaucrat we remember: ideal cover for an ideologue who makes Donald Rumsfeld appear warm and fuzzy, and a spin doctor whose fictions retain, after 400 years, a powerful hold on the culture of the English-speaking world.

‘Terrifying’ is an adjective Stephen Alford deploys on more than one occasion to describe Cecil, and with reason. Cecil began his political career in the household of the future Protector Somerset, surviving his master’s fall to become Secretary of State to the boy King, Edward VI. In this role he helped introduce the most radical religious changes England saw before the Puritan Commonwealth. Organs and figurative art were torn out of churches, and books taken from university libraries and burned. When Edward fell fatally ill in 1553, Cecil was faced with the prospect of a Catholic queen in Mary I. Along with many in the Protestant elite, he signed a document backing the exclusion of Mary, and the future Queen Elizabeth, from the succession in favour of the doomed Lady Jane Grey.

There is groundbreaking work here on how Cecil flourished, nevertheless, during the subsequent reign of Mary I. He befriended Cardinal Pole, while, at the same time, anti-Marian propaganda, advertising the martyrdom of Lady Jane Grey, was being printed on his estate. Alford also charts his relationship with the future Queen Elizabeth before she re-appointed him as Secretary of State on her accession in 1558. Cecil liked clever women. His wife, Mildred, was one of the most highly educated women of her generation, and he counted several other remarkable women amongst his friends. They included the Queen Dowager, Katherine Parr, (until her death in 1548) and Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk, sometimes known as ‘the mother of English Puritanism’. This ability to get on with formidable women, combined with his political talents, must have played its part in the trust he was able to build with Elizabeth, and it is her reign that is the principal focus of Alford’s attention.

Alford carefully deconstructs the traditional picture of Cecil, revealing his partnership with the Queen in all its troubled complexity. Elizabeth was Protestant, but never Protestant enough for Cecil. He helped impose on her a religious settlement that was far more radical than she would have liked, and determined to preserve it. Cecil waged ‘a war on evil’, in which Catholics represented the forces of Satan, justifying the use of torture and the execution of priests, while doing all in his power to secure the royal succession, in ways Elizabeth agreed with or not. For ten years Elizabeth, the dynastic legitimist, maintained the claims of the Catholic, foreign Mary, Queen of Scots to be her heir, over those of Protestant, English, Lady Katherine Grey, and was at loggerheads with Cecil over it. Both these royal cousins were, in the end, destroyed: Katherine Grey by the Queen, while Cecil succeeded in having Mary Stuart executed.

In his latter years Cecil lost much of his old religious radicalism but he maintained a sense of duty to a Protestant nation beyond the reign of a single monarch. Critics often complained they were living in a Cecilian Commonwealth, and although Cecil saw himself as always the loyal servant, they had a point. It was as a citizen, not as a loyal subject, that he had had the death warrant against Mary, Queen of Scots delivered and this sense of civic responsibility, shared and inherited by others, would pose problems for Elizabeth’s autocratic Stuart successors.

Alford’s scholarly but pacey biography reads so fluently, and his subject’s career is so rich, it felt over too quickly. There are excellent pen-portraits of friends and rivals. But it is Cecil who really leaps from the page, as father and husband, but above all as politician and propagandist,with a sheathed sword at his belt, and the face of a man in his prime: dynamic, ruthless and with a long reach, even into our own time.

Leanda de Lisle’s The Sisters Who Would be Queen: The Lives of Katherine, Mary & Lady Jane Grey, will be published by Harper Press in September.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 

THE SPECTATOR: The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I by John Adamson

2 May 2007

The plot thickens
The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I John Adamson

Orion, pp.742, 25

John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt asserts the crucial role of political ideas in the coming cataclysm of the English civil war. His focus is close: the 18 months before the final breach between Charles I and Parliament, but it is as scholarly in depth as it is cinematic in scope. Here is a dramatic retelling of a story we thought we knew well. The old Marxist interpretation of class struggle is put to rest and so is the revisionist view that the civil war was brought about by unfortunate conjunctions of personalities and events. Instead we discover how a small group of ideologically motivated noblemen came to dominate the state and attempted to reduced Charles I to a puppet king.

Many of the noblemen in Adamson’s ‘Puritan Junto’ were related to Queen Elizabeth’s last favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and the late Earl’s ghost is ever present behind the story. Essex was executed in 1601 after leading a revolt whose aim was to force Elizabeth to name the Stuart King James of Scots her heir. There had already been almost half a century of struggle over the succession. Elizabeth had been queen for 43 of them, and her failure to secure the future of the Protestant elite by marrying or nominating an heir had encouraged the development of a conservative form of republicanism. This was not consciously anti-monarchical but a theory of good citizenship inspired by the classical republican traditions of the ancient world. There was a new sense of duty to the nation beyond the reign of a single monarch, and Essex was the self-appointed champion of the Protestant ‘military men’ and the ideal of ‘noble virtue’: the duty to act for the good of the commonwealth. That meant protecting liberties as well as religion, and there is evidence that Essex intended to offer James the throne with ‘conditions’.

The leading figure amongst King Charles’s enemies in the Junto of 1640-42 was Essex’s nephew, Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick. He has been left out of most histories written in the last 150 years, but he emerges here as important to the outbreak of civil war as Oliver Cromwell is to its conclusion. Warwick’s values remained close to those of his uncle and by 1638 Warwick and his allies were desperate men. Charles was ruling without Parliament and moving the English Church towards what they judged Popery. The difficulties of a noble revolt had been exemplified in the fate of Essex, who could only raise a few court gallants behind him. Several of the Junto considered leaving their estates to emigrate to America. But in 1640 Charles was obliged to call his first Parliament for 11 years in order to raise the money he needed to crush his Scots rebels. It was dissolved shortly afterwards, but Warwick and his allies encouraged the Scots to invade England to pressure Charles to call another. Thereafter they were utterly ruthless in pursuit of radical political reform in favour of a ‘Venetianised’ commonwealth that would give them control of Church and state.

This is a big book, but what Adamson has to say is not merely new and profound, it’s an exciting read, full of colour and finely drawn characters. The trial of Charles’s right-hand man, the Earl of Strafford, is a highlight. A loyal servant of the king, he was accused of a new sort of treason, against the commonwealth rather than the person of the king. He played his part brilliantly, entering the stage set of Westminster Hall in funeral black, the garb of penitence and mourning, and used his sharp wit and intellect to make mincemeat of his accusers. When the case looked to fail, the Junto turned to an Act of Attainder. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, would have sacrificed Strafford at the outset without blinking (successful tyrants know how to be popular), but to Charles such a betrayal would have touched on his honour. He tried to have Strafford sprung from the Tower. The plot failed, undermining the efforts of the moderate reformers amongst the nobility, who had little taste for Warwick’s Puritan clique of first cousins and intended to save Strafford’s life. His fate was now sealed and, in the words of a contemporary historian, as Charles signed the death warrant, ‘the same instant, with the same Pen and Ink, the King lost his Prerogative and Strafford’s life’.

Charles hoped to retrieve power by murdering his leading enemies in Scot- land (‘the incident’, as it became known, failed) and in England by instigating his own treason trials with the arrest of five MPs. He had on his side his own Scottish partners, such as the Earl of Roxburgh (another new character in the drama). But when he arrived at the Commons with his soldiers the MPs had already fled. ‘I see the birds have flown’, said the King. Fearing for his personal safety he himself left London with his family. That night at Hampton Court all five of them slept in one bed. The country meanwhile was dividing into two armed camps. The civil war was about to begin.

The Noble Revolt is an intimidating book to pick off the shelf. It has 200 pages of notes alone. But the ten years dedicated to writing it were well spent. You are in the hands not only of a scholar but also of a fine writer and each chapter becomes more gripping than the last. The King’s ‘peace’ is permeated with a sense of menace and fractured by violence. I look forward to Adamson on the King’s war.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 

LITERARY REVIEW: Catherine of Aragon: Henry's Spanish Queen By Giles Tremlett

Leanda de Lisle
Catherine of Aragon: Henry's Spanish Queen 
By Giles Tremlett (Faber & Faber 458pp £20)
A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I & Henrietta Maria
By Katie Whitaker (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 392pp £20)

Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!

Possible portrait of Catherine of Aragon

Henry VIII boasted to ambassadors of his vivacious eighteen-month-old daughter Mary, 'this child never cries'. The affectionate father was at the same time also a loving husband to Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon. When that changed so did the child, and there were tears aplenty, as well as a legacy of blood and fire.

Giles Tremlett's book is the first full-length biography of Catherine in forty years. Tremlett lives in Spain, where he works as a journalist for The Guardian, and had immediate access to Spanish sources. He paints an engaging portrait of Catherine's early life in Granada before she was packed off to England to marry Arthur Tudor.

Named after a cuckold, Arthur proved a rather unsatisfactory husband. He died, possibly of TB, after only a few weeks of marriage. According to Catherine, they had slept in the same bed no more than seven times, and never had sexual intercourse. Few Englishmen, however, were inclined to see their prince cast in so feeble a light. It was thought that women were by nature more highly sexed than men, and they preferred to believe Arthur had died after having exhausted himself trying to satisfy Catherine's insatiable lust. When a papal dispensation was sought for the widowed Catherine to marry Arthur's younger brother, Henry, it was thought sensible in the Vatican to appease both the Spanish and the English. It was granted on the stated assumption that the first marriage 'may' have been consummated.

Many years of happy marriage to Henry followed, more than he would enjoy with any of his subsequent wives. But Catherine failed to give Henry the healthy son he wanted. Contrary to myth, the king had male heirs (his nephews). As Anne Boleyn's biographer Eric Ives once observed to me, with Henry the desire for a son was all about his codpiece, and what lay behind it, rather than the Tudor succession and national stability. A male heir from his own loins was a symbol of his manhood, and when Catherine passed childbearing age without giving him one, he was determined to have their marriage annulled. He insisted that he had broken a biblical injunction in marrying his brother's wife, and that the papal dispensation was invalid. Henry did not approve of divorce and would never do so.

Tremlett's account of the subsequent battle of wills between the spouses is gripping. Catherine emerges as an extraordinary character, well deserving of a full-length biography. There is something fascinating and chilling in the detail that even as Henry humiliated Catherine and moved to have their daughter made a bastard, she was always seen smiling and was exquisitely polite to Henry. They would dine together, and at times he even visited her private rooms. With formidable discipline she continued to show him the comfortable familiarity of the affectionate partnership they had once enjoyed, while absolutely refusing to give him the annulment he wanted. In this she had public support.

Henry's mistress Anne Boleyn was the Camilla Parker Bowles to Catherine's People's Princess. Women in particular were vociferous in their hatred of 'that goggle eyed whore'. Catherine claimed that Henry knew full well she had been a virgin when she married him, and whatever the talk of the king's party at court, with their reminiscences of Arthur the groom and his 'erect and inflamed member', the English people continued to regard Catherine as their rightful queen. For six years Anne Boleyn was forced to remain always the betrothed, and never the bride. But the farce, and the spats, descended eventually into tragedy.

Tremlett movingly describes how, as Henry seized absolute power over Church and State, those who opposed him were murdered and martyred. Today, the walls of the Charterhouse in Granada are lined with full-length portraits of the Carthusian monks executed by the king. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently observed that without the prayers these men had offered the king, Henry VIII would surely be in hell. Catherine blamed herself for such deaths. But she died less distressed about the creation of martyrs than fearful that she had driven her husband and his subjects into what she regarded as heresy.

A century later the line of Henry VIII was extinct and the wife of Charles I, the French princess Henrietta Maria, was not enjoying a jot of Catherine's popularity. As Katie Whitaker's A Royal Passion describes, the fact that she was a Catholic, with most of England now Protestant, had much to do with it.

Henrietta Maria provided her husband with no fewer than three sons destined to live to adulthood. The 'hotter' sort of Protestant (dismissively known as 'puritans') viewed this, however, with dismay, fearing that her children would be contaminated by her religious beliefs. Such fears were only exacerbated when early quarrels in the royal marriage were patched up, and the couple fell in love. Charles's attitude to the Catholics he had earlier persecuted softened under his wife's influence, and fears grew that the king, with his love of church music, art and ceremony, was himself a closet Roman. Alongside this were concerns about Charles's authoritarianism.

Puritans, ironically enough, looked to pre-Reformation political theory for arguments to support their case that the king's power should be limited, while Charles followed in the footsteps of the absolutist Henry VIII and his archbishop, Thomas Cranmer. The cleric who had granted Henry the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had rewritten the coronation oath so that Henry's son Edward VI, instead of swearing to accept laws presented to him in parliament, swore that the people were to accept his laws. Charles swore this same oath (although many preferred to believe it was a dastardly Stuart innovation) and took his promise to the extreme of dispensing with parliament altogether.

The royal marriage did not ameliorate the growing anger towards the king among the political nation. Charles was a stubborn and blinkered man. It did not help that his wife was also tactless and bull-headed. But Whitaker, who is a fine writer as well as an excellent historian, manages to paint a sympathetic portrait of a queen whose courage and warmth endear her to the reader, even while she helps pave the way to civil war. We are given fresh insights into Henrietta Maria's relationship with Charles's favourite the Duke of Buckingham, and dramatic scenes are vividly evoked. In one such, Whitaker describes in cinematic detail the queen smashing the windows of her room to call out her farewells to the French servants Charles had expelled from the palace following their early quarrels. The later idyll of the 1630s is also beautifully rendered, with memories of an 'enchanted island' untouched by the ravages of war, filled with the scent of 'a field of beans when newly blown or ... a meadow being lately mown'.

PTension increases as war approaches, but the narrative halts rather abruptly when battle begins. We are propelled suddenly to January 1647, with the Scots handing Charles I over to parliament, and then rapidly onwards to the denouement of his trial and execution. I would have enjoyed two or three extra chapters. Charles was to be buried in the same vault as Henry VIII, and they still lie together today, Charles without his head, and Henry with his third wife, Jane Seymour, who gave him a son, destined to die aged fifteen: a lesson in hubris.

HISTORY TODAY: Tudors and Stuarts on Film, Edited by Susan Doran and Thomas S. Freeman

Tudors and Stuarts on Film

Edited by Susan Doran and Thomas S. Freeman

Palgrave Macmillan 256pp £49.50 ISBN 978 1403940711

The protagonists of the historical film are modern people with modern concerns placed in a period setting. Unsurprisingly then, while such films may kindle an interest in history, they often infuriate professional historians. This book gives historians the opportunity to bite back. There are essays offered from such stars of academia as John Guy, Christopher Haigh and Paul Hammer. Each is cast in a role for which they are not quite famous: their subjects being the screen representations of historical figures with whom their careers are closely associated. But something much more interesting is delivered than a list of the historical gaffs they have spotted. There is pleasure to be had from discovering more about the making of a favourite movie, or in tracking a historical figure’s changing representation on celluloid. But the essays also have a serious purpose in examining how films use and create myths. An essay on ‘The Armada, War and Propaganda in Cinema’ discusses the role of films in the 1930s, in preparing a country for war. Others examine the modern anti-heroes projected into an early modern court. When Fred Zinnemann’s 1966 feature film A Man for All Seasons, adapted from a play by Robert Bolt, turned Thomas More into a liberal paragon, it triggered a raft of new biographies from historians wishing to offer a sharp corrective. For this Zinnemann deserves an Oscar for services to history. But attention is drawn also to the dangers of film-makers claiming that fiction is fact, and in choosing to vilify religious or ethnic groups.

Shekhar Kapur’s 2007 film Elizabeth: The Golden Age taps into England’s traditional anti- Catholicism, while its portrayal of priests as fanatical murderers also plays on today’s fears of radical Islam. ‘Imagine the reactions to a movie that portrayed 16th-century rabbis as assassins,’ suggests co-editor Tom Freeman. ‘Film is too powerful a medium for its messages to be ignored and the past too crucial for us to be indifferent to the distortions in historical films.’

THE SPECTATOR: Bosworth by Chris Skidmore
Deadly rivals: Richard III (left) and Henry VII

Deadly rivals: Richard III (left) and Henry VII

Bosworth Chris Skidmore

Weidenfeld, pp.437, £20, ISBN: 9780297863762    LEANDA DE LISLE

Although Richard III was five foot eight, his spine was so twisted he stood a foot shorter. Imagine him hacking his way towards Henry Tudor at the battle of Bosworth; a furious human pretzel, ‘small in body and feeble of limb’, as a contemporary noted, he cut his way towards his rival ‘until his last breath’.

Earlier this year, five million people watched the Channel 4 programme The King Under the Car Park which first revealed that Richard really did have slight bones, and one shoulder higher than the other, as the earliest sources had always claimed. It caught the national imagination with the details of the injuries he suffered at Bosworth bringing the violence of the battle to life. Chris Skidmore’s Bosworthcould scarcely have been published at a better moment, and it is just the right book for all those whose interest has been piqued by the archaeology.

For admirers of Richard III, including all those who were convinced that tales of his twisted spine was Tudor propaganda, there is little comfort in Skidmore’s narrative. He expresses few doubts that Richard did away with his young nephews, the Princes in the Tower, in 1483. Nor does one warm to a king with henchmen like ‘the black knight’, who, tradition has it, punished offenders by rolling them downhill in spiked barrels. According to Skidmore, by the summer of 1485, Richard was haemorrhaging support so badly that even the servant who had dressed the king for his coronation abandoned him. Even so, England was not simply there for the taking by the obscure Henry Tudor.

Henry’s sole blood claim to the throne came through his mother’s illegitimate descent from John of Gaunt, which amounted to no claim at all. His army was an invasion force, backed by France, and over half the men in it were French, with the rest made up of Scots and Welsh, as well as English. In his rallying speech at Bosworth Richard condemned Henry as an ‘unknown Welshman’, come to ‘overcome and oppress’ England with his ‘fainthearted Frenchmen’. But as Henry reminded them, there was no hope for their survival or escape without victory. The ships that had delivered them from France had sailed away: ‘Backward we cannot fly, so that here we stand like sheep in a fold circumcepted and compassed between our enemies and doubtful friends.’

Pre-eminent amongst Henry’s ‘doubtful friends’ was his stepfather Thomas, Lord Stanley, whose eldest son was Richard’s hostage. Stanley’s vast force — larger than Henry’s entire army — was ranged on the hills above the opposing armies and neither side was certain whom he would chose to back and when. A shout from Richard’s greatest ally the Duke of Norfolk, and the whistle of arrows, announced the battle’s beginning. One of the most startling revelations concerning what followed is that it was a woman’s hand that then guided the manoeuvres of Henry Tudor’s army.

The Venetian-born Christine de Pizan is well known for her poetry and allegorical works, but she was also the author of a work on military warfare, The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry (c.1410). Henry’s commander, the Earl of Oxford, confronted and defeated Norfolk’s attack using a series of classic manoeuvres lifted from her manual, and in gratitude later commissioned William Caxton to translate and publish it.

After his ally Norfolk was killed, Richard decided to end the battle quickly with a direct attack on Henry, whom he spotted standing away from the body of his army, surrounded by a small guard. As Richard’s cavalry thundered down the hill, their standards streaming, Henry looked up and saw the crowned figure of the king galloping towards him. The hand-to-hand fighting was ferocious and Henry’s men were on the point of despair when Lord Stanley’s brother Sir William chose to engage his forces on Henry’s side. Richard, shouting ‘Treason! Treason! Treason!’. continued battling towards Henry until, ‘fighting manfully in the midst of his enemie, he was slain’. Skidmore describes in forensic detail exactly what happened, using evidence from the bones, contemporary descriptions and his knowledge of medieval warfare to build a vivid picture of the death of the last Plantagenet king.

Bosworth is also the story of Henry Tudor’s youth and of Richard III’s usurpation. And it is certainly now the definitive account of the battle that, in 1485, marked the last successful invasion of England.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 

LITERARY REVIEW: The Trials of Margaret Clitherow by Michael Questier and Peter Lake


In her York prison Margaret Clitherow practised for her execution. She stripped naked and put on a crude linen shift she had made, unstitched at the sides. Then she lay flat on the stones. The next day, March 25th, 1586, she lay down again, this time with weights laid over her, and was crushed to death. In 1970 the Catholic Church declared her a saint. But as Peter Lake and Michael Questier reveal, her fate was not only a consequence of Protestant persecution, but of a bitter ideological war between Catholics.  

 The arrival of Mary Stuart in England in 1568 had prompted a Catholic revival in the north.  The hope was that the Mary would succeed Elizabeth. In the meantime the question for Catholics was to what extent they should defy the state in practising their faith.  In particular, should they attend Protestant services, as required by law, or not? One Catholic priest, Thomas Bell, suggested Catholics attend Protestant services, but announce they did so, not out of any liking for the service, but as a demonstration of their loyalty to the Queen. Other priests feared that even this level of compromise would end in the acceptance of heresy. They preached separatism, with Catholics enduring the fines and imprisonment that followed.

 The laity often simply switched position from recusancy to so called ‘church papistry’, depending on the intensity of the persecution and their personal difficulties at any one time. But here too there were those who took a harder line. Clitherow was one such. She had converted to Catholicism two or three years after her marriage to a York butcher in 1571. He remained Protestant while she fitted her duties as a wife, mother, and the manager of his shop, around her religious work and devotions. She turned her home into a mass centre, went out to visit Catholic prisoners, and urged others to do as she did. Her husband complained drunkenly about her enthusiasms, and even Catholics felt rather sorry for him.  But others were also angered by her actions.  Eventually the regime, under the Lord President of the North, the Earl of Huntingdon, decided to publicly shame this dissident voice.

 The chief instigator of Clitherow’s arrest appears to have been her own stepfather, Henry May, who became mayor of York shortly before her trial. He wanted to produce enough evidence to bring her to heel, but not enough to make her a martyr. In the event the only real evidence against her came from a child witness. She was told they would not hang her on a boy’s word. All she had to do was make some public act of compliance. But May’s hopes for a show trial were dashed when Clitherow refused to plead.  The punishment for this was the medieval sanction peine forte et dure. Desperate attempts were made to save her from this fate. Four women, asked to examine her, insisted she was pregnant. But some local worthies wanted her dead, pregnant or not. They got their way.  Her ribs burst through her skin as she died slowly crushed under eight hundred weight, with a stone at her back. 

 On March 25th this year over seven hundred Catholics heard a Latin Mass held in Clitherow’s honour at York Minister, the first since the reformation. But Clitherow was in her life-time, and has remained, a controversial figure. Was she a saint or a suicide; a ferociously independent woman or the dupe of fanatics? Did she refuse to plead to ensure family and friends were not complicit in her death as witnesses and jurors? Or was it, as one historian has suggested, because she wanted to protect family property from confiscation? Peter Lake and Michael Questier certainly do not accept the latter. But nor do they simply reiterate more traditional views.

 Taking a fresh look at the sources the authors place Clitherow’s life and death at the heart of local, national and international politics. There is fascinating material on the role of women in defying the persecution, and on contemporary works of propaganda such as Leicester’s Commonwealth (I had no idea a similar work was penned on Huntingdon). But the authors’ principal focus is the divisions between those priests who preached separatism and those who allowed a degree of church papistry. The issues at stake did not dissipate after Clitherow’s death, and the second part of the book describes how contemporaries understood her fate up to 1603. The real horror in this story unfolds here, for it lies is not in Clitherow’s death, awful as it was, but in the vicious squabbles to which underground groups are so subject. Priest betrays priest to terrible deaths at the hands of the state. Amongst them Bell, who eventually becomes a Protestant and thus ‘proves’ his old opponents correct in their claim that compromise was corrupting.

 Lake and Questier argue that Clitherow refused to plead to deny the authorities a propaganda victory over defiant Catholics, and so as not to exacerbate Catholic divisions. She succeeded in the former but not the latter. This is an uncompromising book on an uncompromising woman, with little effort to dress up new, deeply researched arguments in the guise of a popular biography. But it seethes with passion: that of the men and women who killed and were killed, and of the authors in unearthing the murky realities behind the life and death of a Catholic icon.

A version of this review was published in the Literary Review in 2011

LITERARY REVIEW: The Children of Henry VIII by John Guy


 John Guy’s short but shocking The Children of Henry VIII delivers on its promise of a story ‘of jealousy, envy and even hatred’. Yet the Tudor siblings seem kindly when compared to their fratricidal, usurping antecedents, the children of Richard, Duke of York. And that, I think, was their mistake. They were horrid to each, but not nearly horrid enough.

 Henry VIII’s eldest child, Mary Tudor, in particular, would have done well to have emulated such examples of Yorkist family feeling as Edward IV’s drowning his brother, George, Duke of Clarence in a vat of Malmsey wine, and Richard III’s seizure of the Protectorship of Edward’s twelve year old heir (who subsequently ‘disappeared’ in the Tower, along with his little brother).

 For the first three years of Mary Tudor’s life, she was an only and beloved child. Nevertheless her father judged that, as a daughter, she was unfit to inherit his crown. John Guy believes that, for a time, Henry considered making Mary’s younger illegitimate half-brother, Henry Fitzroy, his heir, bestowing family titles of the boy and declaring he loved him, ‘like his own soul’. Fitzroy died aged seventeen, but Guy gives us a real sense of the boy who, while Mary proved the perfect student, would escape his lessons to hunt and shoot.

 Fitzroy too was passed over, however, in Henry’s expectation that his second wife, Anne Boleyn, would bear a legitimate male heir.  When Anne bore Elizabeth in 1533 it was Mary who was the first to pay for Henry’s disappointment, as he had her declared illegitimate to ensure she took second place to her little sister. In some of Guy’s most vivid passages we see Mary, aged almost eighteen, obliged to live in the baby Elizabeth’s household, raging against her humiliations, refusing to share a horse litter with her sister and insisting in taking the best place when they travelled by barge.

 Only when Anne Boleyn lost her head and Elizabeth too was declared a bastard, did Mary learn to regard her sister with affection, even praising Elizabeth to their father. Family relations improved still further after Henry’s son, Edward, was born, since everyone agreed he took precedence over his sisters.

 John Guy gives wonderful details on the intimate friendship Mary later developed with her last step-mother, Katherine Parr. But the family was torn apart once more on Henry’s death. With Edward VI aged only nine, his maternal uncle seized power as the Protector Somerset. Richard III, had seized the Protectorship precisely in order to prevent such a power grab by his nephew’s non-royal maternal relatives. And, watching what unfolded, Mary might well have concluded that Richard had been right to do so.

 Edward was to be raised in beliefs Henry had considered heretical, while Protestant iconoclasts unleashed a period of cultural terrorism that puts the recent Islamist destruction of tombs and manuscripts in Timbuktu into the shade.  Mary fought to defend her father’s religious settlement, arguing it could not be overturned during Edward’s minority. But Edward was being encouraged to grow apart from his sisters.  When he died at the age of fifteen, he excluded them from the throne on grounds of their illegitimacy, complaining that Mary was a Catholic and that Elizabeth’s mother had been an adulterous, treasonous slut.

 John Guy suggests (rightly I believe) that although Edward left the throne to his cousin Jane Grey, it was her husband, the teenage, Guildford Dudley, whom Edward hoped would rule England. The son of the Lord President of his Council, and with no royal blood, Guildford was a man from whom his subjects could expect ‘great things’, Edward argued.  Instead Mary I raised an army and took back her throne, tried her rivals for treason, and following a revolt, cut off Guildford’s head, and Jane’s also.

 There was then just the problem of Elizabeth left to deal with, and two possible means of Mary strengthening her position. The first was to have a child so Elizabeth was no longer her heir. But Mary’s pregnancy by Philip of Spain proved to be a phantom. Philip left the country and declined to return for a further eighteen months. Guy describes Mary as reduced haranguing Philip’s portrait, before kicking it out of the room in her anger and frustration.

The second means was for Mary to have Elizabeth executed. Guy outlines a series of Protestant plots to replace Mary with her sister. Mary’s great grandfather, Edward IV, had had his brother, Clarence, drowned in that vat of Malmsey after a brief treason trial.  It might have been appropriate to have had Elizabeth strangled with one of the prim and plain dresses she wore to flaunt her pious Protestant opposition to Mary.  It was to be Philip, Guy informs, who helped save Elizabeth’s life.

 Anxious to prevent the throne passing to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was to marry the French Dauphin, Philip insisted his wife protect Elizabeth’s place as heir to the throne.  He would get his just deserts for this almost thirty years later when Elizabeth backed the Dutch revolt against Spain in the Netherlands and then sank his retaliatory Armada. Meanwhile, the bitterest moment for Mary came at her death in 1558, when she was obliged to confirm her hated sister as her heir in order to insure a peaceful transition of power.

 Elizabeth showed little gratitude for her sister’s last personal sacrifice.  She wore Mary’s coronation mantle for her state entry into London the following year, not in an act of sisterly solidarity, or even to save a few pounds, but rather, Guy claims, to dance on her sister’s grave. 

 John Guy is that rare cross over: the scholar who also writes for the popular market. It shows here, as he sketches with verve and fluency the education and beliefs, as well as, briefly, the reigns of these last Tudors.  But where he excels is in illuminating the coruscating relationships between the squabbling siblings. They say if you’ve got lemons make lemonade, and in Guy’s hands the story of The Children of Henry VIII is fresh, sparkling and sharp.

THE LITERARY REVIEW: The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

It has been a week of competitive reading in the de Lisle household.  Bed time, back to back: he reading George RR Martin’s hugely popular Game of Thrones fantasy series; me reading Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets. We both read into the night. But I was the one unable to stop myself reading passages out loud.

 Jones covers an enormous amount of ground: eight generations of Kings and Queens from 1120 to 1399.  The risk with a long dynastic history is that it becomes just one damn thing after another, and the reader gets lost in a snowstorm of names and events. Jones avoids this with a combination of gripping story telling and pin sharp clarity. As I sometimes stop mid-paragraph to daydream around a subject, I was grateful to be kept on track by a text that is simple and direct, without leaving me feeling patronised.

 The narrative opens with a drunken party aboard a white ship – the white ship.  Amongst the Beautiful People revelling on deck is William Aetherling, grandson of William the Conquerer and only legitimate son of Henry 1st. Unfortunately those who are actually sailing the ship are also drunk and intend to race across the channel from France to England. They hit a rock before they have even left the harbour. The subsequent catastrophe reads like the sinking of the Titanic, but with royalty, and far more serious consequences.

 Following the death of William Aetherling, Henry I leaves his throne to his daughter, Matilda. Her husband, the handsome Geoffrey of Anjou, is the man who in legend inspired the Plantagent name: he wore a spring of yellow broom blossom (planta genista) in his hair. Four centuries before the advent of Mary Tudor, the question of whether or not England will accept a Queen regnant, has arisen. Matilda’s cousin Stephan of Blois, one of the few survivors of the white ship, seizes the crown, and so begins a long and grim civil war. 

 After a few years Malmesbury in Wiltshire was no more than ‘a wretched little town..Its walls and motte castle had been besieged at least three times..its people brutualized and plundered for many years. Now [Matilda’s son], Henry was at the walls…Torrential rain and winds lashed besiegers and defenders alike, soaking mud clung to them all’. The future Henry II eventually breaks through and even the priests in the town church are butchered.   Jones does excellent pen portraits, backed by vivid quotations. Here is Henry II, as rendered by Gerald of Wales,

 ‘.. a man of reddish, freckled complexion, with a large round head, grey eyes that glowed fiercely and grew bloodshot in anger, a fiery countenance and a harsh cracked voice. His neck was thrust forward slightly from his shoulders..His body was stocky, with a pronounced tendency towards fatness..which he tempered with exercise. For in eating and drinking he was moderate and sparing’.  The history of the Middle Ages supposedly suffers in relation to the Tudors because there are fewer portraits of the principle figures.  But with this level of physical detail who needs a painted image?

 Henry’s temper was monstrous. Apparently mentioning the name of the Kings of Scots in a pleasant manner was enough to make him eat the straw from his mattress.  I can imagine a time when many of us may come to feel like that about Alex Salmon. But Henry’s rages would eventually provoke the murder of his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett – a story chronicled anew in John Guy’s new blockbuster. Vicious tantrums that ended in murder ran in the Plantagenet family, however, and they weren’t all prepared to appear apologetic, as Henry II was obliged to do after Beckett’s brains were smeared over paving stones in his own cathedral.

 Maunday Thursday is one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar: the night of the Last Supper. On the Thursday before Easter in 1203 Henry II’s son, King John should have been at Mass, or perhaps reflecting on Christ’s coming sacrifice. Instead he was drunk at dinner and brooding on the wrongs done against him. One of his servants had, earlier that year, refused orders to castrate and blind his sixteen-year old nephew and heir, Arthur of Britanny.  His meal finished he staggered to the boy’s cell and murdered him with his own hands. I was strangely pleased to be reassured that Bad King John really was Bad  - even badder than I had remembered. The wife of one of his enemies ended up eating her own son as she starved in a dungeon. But my favourite incident took place after the Pope responded to John’s seizure of the proprieties of the See of Canterbury and placed England under Interdict. Instead of pretending to be sorry, and fretting that his subjects were no longer able to hear Mass, John devised new means of extracting money from the clergy: the most inventive being kidnapping their illicit wives and mistresses and then ransoming them back. 

 Plantagents is divided into seven sections, from the ‘Age of Shipwreck’, which covers the  period of sinking of the white ship to the eventual accession of Henry II, to the Age of Revolution, which sees the death of the Black Prince and the reign of Richard II.  There are plenty of passages in each I would read out again: Edward II, who decorated the walls of his wedding banquet with tapestries depicting his arms and those of his close friend, Piers Gaveston: apparently he didn’t die with a poker up his bottom. Edward III, the ancestor of the English Upper Middle Class, aged seventeen, sending a hit squad into Nottingham castle to overthrow his mother and her lover; the whispy boy king, Richard II and his descent into folie de grandeur. Yet Plantagents is not just a collection of great stories.

 Woven into the drama of the narrative we see the transformation of the office of kingship, the growth of a refined political philosophy that defined the king’s duties to the realm and vice versa, as well as the development of a body of common law and statue that underpinned how England was governed. The evolving symbolism of kingship, the changing architectural landscape, and the emerging use of the English language in government and in poetry, are also addressed.  This ensures Plantagents is a satisfying as well as an enjoyable read.

Jones is a journalist whose love of Medieval history was fostered at Cambridge. It is a passion he is keen to share, and if he is hoping to tempt readers away from Nazis, Tudors, or historical fantasy fiction, he succeeds brilliantly in this exhilarating real-life game of thrones.





THE SPECTATOR: Tudor and Stuart Fashion Exhibition


As soon as the battle of Bosworth was won, Henry VII’s politically astute mother sent him appropriate clothing for his state entry into London. A king was expected to look like a king, having ‘a prerogative is his array above all others’. Sumptuary laws policed the system under the Tudors, with everyone — in theory — wearing only as much glitter and flash as their rank permitted. You really were what you wore.

The Great Wardrobe Accounts of Henry VII and Henry VIII offer numerous unexpected insights into contemporary events. One sinister detail I spotted during my research on the period is a warrant issued in November 1498 for black damask to be made into doublet for the pretender Perkin Warbeck, then a prisoner in the Tower. Black was an extremely expensive colour to achieve, requiring multiple dyeing, and was favoured by royalty. The gift was a striking mark of the king’s favour. Soon afterwards, Warbeck involved the last genuine male Plantagenet, Edward, Earl of Warwick, a fellow prisoner, in a treasonous escape plot. Had the damask encouraged Warbeck to expect a pardon in return for acting as an agent provocateur and helping dispose of Henry’s royal rival? I think so, but he was executed anyway, shortly before Warwick and almost a year to the day after the damask was ordered for him.

There is no black suit in the sensational In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace (until 6 October). But we do have a terracotta figure, dating from this period, of a laughing boy in a jacket of green cloth of gold: almost certainly Henry VIII as a child. He often wore green, yet is rarely depicted in it. There is also a miniature of him here, however, as a young king in a green doublet. Henry VIII was considered the best-dressed Prince in Christendom, and in another portrait his silk costume is sewn thickly with jewels. It must have cut the ageing Henry to the quick when he learnt that Anne Boleyn later thought he had lost his touch, and was laughing at his elaborate dress. But then Anne was executed in 1536, wearing elegant grey, and their daughter Elizabeth declared a bastard.

Elizabeth remained as such in 1546, when she was painted by William Scrots in a red dress with foresleeves and forepart in tinsel — the most expensive fabric of all, sewn with raised loops of pure gold metal thread, a technique you can see quite clearly in the portrait here. Bastard or not, her father had named her in line of succession, following her brother Edward and sister Mary. The tinsel was a sparkling confirmation of her status.

What we don’t see in this exhibition is Elizabeth in the plain dress she affected during her brother and sister’s reigns, to boast her pious Protestant modesty. It was an aggressive statement against the Catholic Mary who ‘delighted above all in magnificence of dress’ and is depicted in a portrait after Antonis Mor wearing the great pearl known as La Peregrina, a gift from her husband, Philip of Spain, and later bought by Richard Burton as a gift for Elizabeth Taylor. Since Elizabeth commissioned few portraits of herself, we also glimpse something of the full extravagance of her costume only as an ageing Queen when she worked hard to outdo courtiers, who dressed ‘more richly than the proudest Persian’. But a Dutch portrait by an unknown artist, of Elizabeth’s dandyish favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, dressed in silver and gold, is a highlight of the more modest exhibition at the V&A, Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudor, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars(until 14 July).

There were 1,900 items of clothing listed in the royal wardrobe on Elizabeth’s death, and many were regarded as state treasure. But then it was out with the old and in with the new, with the Stuart Queen, Anne of Denmark, cutting up Elizabeth’s dresses to make fancy-dress costumes for the masques she gave that Christmas. There is a full-length portrait in the Queen’s Gallery of an unnamed court lady in a masque costume resembling a dressing-gown. Anne cut hers to the knee, prompting the courtier Dudley Carleton to joke that she must have done it so that ‘we might see a woman had both feet and legs which I never knew before’.She added ropes of diamonds that had once belonged to Mary I: Anne had a passion for jewellery, and her husband James I had sent her some of Elizabeth’s before the old Queen was even buried.

Among the first to congratulate James on his accession was the Infanta Clara Eugenia, herself an heir to the English throne. Frans Pourbus the Younger’s portrait of her, a rarely seen star of the royal collection, was a gift that both acknowledged James’s rightful claim and served as a reminder of their kinship: the dress is embroidered with the red rose of the House of Lancaster, from whom she claimed descent.

There are also three-dimensional objects on display in the gallery with exquisite items of early Stuart clothing individually shown off in Perspex boxes like works of art. There are brilliant-coloured jackets, purses shaped liked frogs and an example of the kind of lace collars sported by Charles I, in Van Dyck’s masterpiece of the King from three angles (and in three costumes); each collar worth the equivalent of £30,000.

The V&A exhibition has a particularly good display of still more valuable renaissance jewellery, such as the Knyvett seal, a huge sapphire engraved with the arms of the man who scoured the cellars of Westminster to find Guy Fawkes and his barrels of gunpowder. Nothing is quite on the scale, however, of the later Great George, at the Queen’s Gallery, set with huge diamonds, which belonged to Charles II.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it was this flamboyant restoration monarch who sought to teach the court restraint in dress. The sumptuary laws had been abolished under James I, but in 1667 Charles II, sporting a knee-length vest in black wool, invented the three-piece suit to encourage ‘thrift’. It is a more heart-warming story than that of the black suit Henry VII pressed on Perkin Warbeck, and is told both in the excellent exhibition catalogue and in a spoof fashion magazine Robe (1667): ‘The New Style Vest: What Your Man Needs to Know’. Needless to say, thrift never caught on.

While the V&A exhibition is enjoyable but a little gloomy and sad alongside the museum’s Bowie show, the Queen’s Gallery outdoes Bowie, with its bejewelled kings and court ladies in drag. It dazzles the eye and feeds the mind — a triumph of style and substance, witty, surprising and gorgeous.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 June 2013