by James Peacock, Founder of The Anne Boleyn Society
I love a good book, and as those who know me well can vouch, I am rarely seen without a book either with me or near me. In 2015, I read many fantastic books, so in this article I thought I would share my “top five”. I would like to emphasise that it was certainly hard to narrow it down to just five, so I will give some honourable mentions at the end.
Here are my top five books of 2015!
1) Elizabeth and Mary, Cousins Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn
Many books have been written about Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots, but Jane Dunn looks at both queens from a new perspective focusing on their relationship with one another. Elizabeth and Mary not only had the difficulty of living in a man’s world, they also ruled in one. What’s more, they ruled in neighbouring kingdoms. Both were disappointments upon birth to their fathers due to their gender, and both found themselves judged, every action scrutinised.
Dunn takes on a refreshing and impartial look at the two Queens, highlighting their merits and their faults. First, she points out that their early lives had a great shaping in how they would rule as monarchs. What is more interesting in my opinion is Dunn also highlights how each Queen won and lost in her battle for prominence. Mary succeeded in her goal of making herself a martyr upon her death. Mary’s death, however, also was also the prelude to Elizabeth’s finest hour — emerging as ‘Gloriana’ upon her sound defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Was Mary the winner between the Queens in the end? Her son James succeeded to the throne of England upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603- and her descendants have continued to rule since. Still, it was a Protestant England James Stuart inherited, an Anglican faith that flourished through the influence of Elizabeth through the ages.
The book itself is packed with information, sources and notes, giving people an impartial look at both Queens.
2) Elizabeth & Leicester by Sarah Gristwood
Like Elizabeth & Mary, this book focuses entirely on the relationship between Elizabeth I and her favourite ‘bonnie sweet Robin’ and ‘my eyes’ – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The relationship between these two continues to fascinate in the centuries after their deaths, with numerous TV portrayals and novels. In this book of over 500 pages, Sarah Gristwood examines the close bond between the Virgin Queen and her Master of Horse. It was a relationship in which unusually a woman held all the power, a relationship that was also “the scandal of Europe”, many lurid tales being told in the Catholic courts.
Gristwood starts by examining the early lives of Elizabeth and Dudley, highlighting how their similar childhood experiences helped form their strong bond. Both lost a parent to execution. Both were imprisoned in the Tower during the reign of Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary I. Both experienced favour at court- and then banishment. Thus, it is understandable that they understood each other like no one else could.
Gristwood also gives a more favourable view of Robert Dudley than many historians. Tainted by the reputations of his father and grandfather, Gristwood further examines Dudley’s military accomplishments, as well as his passion for the Protestant faith. She also presents a theory of the mysterious death of Dudley’s first wife, Amy Robsart that few other historians have considered! Additionally, there are chapters on Dudley’s illegitimate son, also called Robert Dudley, as well as Arthur Dudley, who claimed to be the son of Elizabeth and Leicester.
The pages are not packed with sources and notes, but Gristwood does examine every source written about Elizabeth and Leicester. She accomplished this before presenting her own theories and does so in such an incredible way that readers will not feel patronised or bogged down with sources. Instead readers are able to come to their own conclusions.
Alison Weir herself says of this book, “It is quite simply one of the most enthralling history books I’ve ever read”. I agree.
3) George Boleyn, Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat by Claire Ridgway and Clare Cherry
George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, younger brother to both Mary Boleyn and Anne Boleyn, is a someone whose story is often told as a side character to his sisters in historical accounts, novels, plays and television.
Most commonly depicted as close ally and beloved brother to Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII of England, and mother of Queen Elizabeth I, very little beyond his devotion to his sister and perceived hatred of his wife is generally highlighted. When so, it is typically in relation to stories highlighting his less famous, but certainly infamous, sister, Mary Boleyn Carey Stafford.
In this biography however, Claire Ridgway, creator of the successful The Anne Boleyn Files site, and her friend, Clare Cherry, a solicitor who has been researching about the life of George Boleyn for many years, set out to uncover just who this enigmatic man was. For the first time, George Boleyn steps right out of the shadows of his sisters and into the limelight himself.
Usually I must admit, I am a tremendously slow reader, taking weeks to finish a book. However with this book, I finished it in less then two weeks, finding the pace of writing, dialogue and style in which the book has been laid out incredibly absorbing to read.
The authors make no excuses for George’s less than remarkable qualities, but they do point out – with strong evidence to back it up – how George’s rise was not only down to his sisters position, but also his own intelligence and charm. George, in many ways, was a calming influence over his more hot-tempered sister Anne. Thus, many of the Boleyn enemies – Cavendish, Chapuys and others – grudgingly acknowledged George’s more remarkable attributes.
The book charts the background of the Boleyns, possibilities about George’s upbringing, and his rise and fall from power. Additionally, it dispels the myths around his marriage to Jane Parker. It also looks at the possible descendants of George Boleyn in Ireland, and whether George Boleyn, Dean of Lichfield, in the reign of George’s niece Elizabeth I, was an illegitimate son of George.
This biography has succeeds in taking George Boleyn right of the shadows of his sisters, and shows him for the intelligent and charismatic man that he is. It does not set out to make him a saint, but it does show how George Boleyn was an important figure in his own right in English history.
4) Anne Boleyn’s Letter from the Tower: A New Assessment by Sandra Vasoli
“To the King from the Lady in the Tower” — the famous letter has caused debate – and not to mention has puzzled historians – ever since it was first discovered. The letter is dated 6th May 1536, yet did Anne write it? And if so, why call herself ‘The Lady in the Tower’? And if it wasn’t written by Anne, then who wrote it?
Sandi delves into the subject straight away. In fact, as the book is only just over 60 pages long, she wastes no time in getting to the point. Sandi examines the letter paragraph by paragraph, its tone and style of writing. Sandi points out that the grammar and and style of speech is familiar to early-mid 1500’s. She goes on to trace how the original letter could have been passed from Cromwell to Ralph Sadler, then to William Cecil, then to William Camden, before finally ending up with Robert Cotton.
The original letter was badly damaged by a house fire in 1730s. Copies of the letter survive, however. Perhaps Cromwell kept it from the King so he would not change his mind over Anne’s fate. Sandi also gives a possible timeline for the famous letter. Without wanting to give too much away and spoil it for those that haven’t read it, you will come away from reading this convinced that the letter is genuine. Quite a few recent historians believe the letter to be a forgery. Some don’t even mention it in their work. But Sandi’s new and convincing assessment and incredible detective work shines a new light on this letter and will convince many of its authenticity.
During her research for this book and her second novel, the follow-up to her recent Je Anne Boleyn: Struck with the Dart of Love, Sandi uncovered some fascinating new evidence of King Henry VIII’s deathbed regret over the fate of Anne Boleyn. “The King acknowledges with great grief at his death the injuries he had done to the Lady Anne Boleyn and her daughter” is written on a sheet of disconnected recordings about Anne’s death, followed by several lines written in French. Sandi discovered this startling new evidence, originally written by André Thevet, a former Franciscan monk who was “in no way partial” to predetermined views on Anne.
André Thevet visited, and most likely lived in the Greenwich Franciscan Friar, a friary located in the building adjoining Greenwich Palace. It is interesting that Thevet, an opponent of Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, records Henry’s grief and remorse for what happened to Anne. Even more astonishingly, Thevet does not record Henry’s grief over others that he ordered to be put to death. An interesting discovery, this certainly adds an interesting dimension to the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
I recommend, urge, even beg, anyone with even a slight interest in history, to read this book. It is not at all long (just over 60 pages), packed with notes and sources, excellently researched — and is more like sitting down to a cup of tea (or something stronger if that is your preference), enjoying a chat with Sandi.
5) Thomas Cranmer: In a Nutshell by Beth von Staats
Now I know what some of you may be thinking… I am only adding this because Beth is the administrator of this website. Well I can tell you that is certainly not the case, and anyone that has read Beth’s excellent mini-biography on Archbishop Thomas Cranmer will agree with me that it is an excellent book. Having read articles by Beth von Staats before on various subjects, I knew I was in for a good read. I was right.
This short book on Cranmer is so absorbing I very much doubt anyone will be able to put it down until they have finished it. There is the only problem. You won’t want it to end. I’ve learnt so much about England’s first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury through this book, my respect for the Archbishop Cranmer has gone up – and it was already high to begin with. In this short biography, Beth manages to get the key points across very well. You really get to know Cranmer the man, as much as you learn about Cranmer the Archbishop and politician. I found Beth’s writing of Cranmer’s final years very moving. Cranmer is known a great Protestant martyr – a title I believe he completely deserves after reading this book.
My honourable mentions go to: Mary Boleyn: In a Nutshell by Sarah Bryson; The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII” by Suzannah Lipscomb; “The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown by Claire Ridgway; Katherine The Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr by Linda Porter; Sisters to the King: The Tulmultuous Lives of Margaret of Scotland and Mary of France by Maria Perry; Katherine Howard: A New History by Conor Byrne; Tudor Wales by Nathen Amin; Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses by Sarah Gristwood, The Boleyn Women: The Tudor Femme Fatales who changed History by Elizabeth Norton, and The Anne Boleyn Papers by Elizabeth Norton.