Monday, 15 June 2015

Lady Cecily Stonor of Stonor Park

The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Oxford, where the distribution of Catholic literature helped expose Lady Cecily's devotion to her faith

A few months ago, I fell into a conversation about heroism and whether it still serves a purpose. In his biography of Anne Boleyn, published in 2010, Professor George Bernard dismissed the idea, quoting the Communist playwright Bertolt Brecht's response to "Unhappy the land that has no heroes" - "Unhappy the land that needs heroes". Bernard, paralleling the old idea of heroism with the contemporary fascination with celebrity, continued, "Models are not necessary ... Men and women should not need to study the life of Anne Boleyn, or modern 'celebrities', to learn that if you do not like your lot in life, you should do what you can to improve it."

This certainly raises a valid point about projecting our own needs and neuroses onto the men and women of the past and, in doing so, misrepresenting them. However, I also think that people can be heroic and inspirational without being whitewashed. Theology teaches us that even the holiest saints had their flaws. To be inspired does not necessarily equate with creeping on metaphorically knee to the shrine of the revered. In this vein, I am delighted to share an article by American author Stephanie A. Mann, author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics endured the English Reformation, who has written a reflection on Lady Cecily Stonor, a English Catholic who defended her faith in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. 

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Lady Cecily Stonor of Stonor Park by Stephanie A. Mann

Although I write often about the Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation era and certainly highlighted them in my book about the English Reformation—and there are three women honored by the Catholic Church among the canonized and beatified martyrs of that era, I have not chosen a martyr as my heroine.

The heroine I’ve chosen does have much in common with those three martyred Catholic women (St. Margaret Clitherow, St. Margaret Ward, and St. Anne Line). She could have suffered the same punishment they did: she was a recusant Catholic and she protected Catholic priests in her home. Because she came to trial in 1581 before it was a felony for hiding Catholic priests, she avoided execution. But she suffered much because she remained true to her Catholic faith and her conscience.

Lady Cecily Stonor (nee Chamberlain) and her late husband Sir Francis Stonor (+1564) had two sons, Francis and John, and three daughters. They were recusants and because they would not attend Sunday services in the Church of England, they had to pay huge fines, selling land and estates as necessary. In 1577, according to the Stonor Park website, the family paid the modern equivalent of £50,000 in fines.

Cecily Stonor was elderly when she was brought to trial in Oxford for her recusancy. Her home, Stonor Park, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire was a refuge for Catholic priests. The Jesuit Edmund Campion stayed at Stonor and his “Decem Rationes” was printed there and then boldly distributed in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, copies laid out carefully on the benches for Commencement on 27 June 1581. The authorities hunted Campion down on his way to Norfolk and captured him at Lyford Grange in Berkshire on 15 July. Then authorities came to Stonor Park on 4 August, finding the press, another Jesuit priest, William Hartley, and the printer—they also arrested Cecily, her son John, and four servants.

Questioned about her recusancy, Lady Stonor proclaimed that she had remained true to her Catholic faith even though the monarchs and government of England had changed religious policy several times. She referred particularly to her devotion to the Catholic Mass in her statement:

I was born in such a time when holy mass was in great reverence, and brought up in the same faith. In King Edward’s time this reverence was neglected and reproved by such as governed. In Queen Mary’s time, it was restored with much applause; and now in this time it pleaseth the state to question them, as now they do me, who continue in this Catholic profession. The state would have these several changes, which I have seen with mine eyes, good and laudable. Whether it can be so, I refer to your Lordships’ consideration. I hold me still to that wherein I was born and bred; and so by the grace of God I will live and die in it.

Cecily Stonor had experienced the Tudor dynasty, seeing the religious changes made once Henry VIII had proclaimed himself Supreme Head and Government of the Ecclesiae Anglicanae, while she had remained unchanged in her profession of religion.

Although her son John bore the weight of the blame for the priests and the printing press, going into exile after breaking his parole and not conforming to the Church of England, Cecily and her daughters were placed under the authority of her elder son Francis Stonor, Jr. She was held in house arrest for the rest of her life—and the family remained resolutely Catholic.

Cecily Stonor is my English heroine because she remained true to what she believed and she bore the consequences. She represents many Catholics during the long recusant era in England who faced great fines, suspicion, arrest, harassment, and even exile or execution because of their loyalty to their faith. Lady Stonor resisted the tide of conformity to the state’s demands; all she wanted was to attend Mass and practice her Catholic faith.

Lady Stonor even has a royal parallel: the Old Pretender, whom his supporters called James III and VIII. Son of James II and Mary Beatrice of Modena, his birth precipitated the Glorious Revolution in 1688. He had the opportunity regain his father’s throne in 1714, if he had just renounced his Catholicism and embraced Anglicanism. Like Cecily Stonor more than 125 years before him however, he held “still to that wherein [he] was born and bred”. Unlike Henri IV of France who accepted the Mass to gain the crown, the Old Pretender kept the Mass and lost the crown to “continue in this Catholic profession.”

Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Edits, writing, research and trips

Beautiful Portballintrae on the Northern Irish coast, where I've been doing a lot of my writing

I have just returned from a flying three-day visit to London to carry out research for my next book, Young and Damned and Fair, a biography of Queen Catherine Howard. It was a macabre but fascinating trip, which gave me the opportunity to look at some of the original documents concerning Catherine and her tragic fate. 

I wanted to apologise for posting so infrequently over the last few months; they have been manic. My play, The Gate of the Year, a modernised imagining of the French Revolution, was revived in Belfast in December, and since then, my schedule has been consumed. I adore being busy, so I'm enjoying myself. I've also released my book with Made Global, A History of the English Monarchy from Boadicea to Elizabeth I, which is available now, and we're currently organising a blog tour for it. I've been giving talks in London and Belfast - one about The Gate of the Year and the interactions between history and fiction, and another about the Harden-Eulenburg Affair and the crisis of personal monarchy in Wilhelm II's Germany. I'm also thrilled and delighted to say that my first novel Popular is being adapted for a 10-part radio series in Northern Ireland, and there is some very, very exciting further news in the pipeline about another potential theatre tour - and a documentary about the novels! Which I'll be able to give more details about, very soon.

From this summer, I've also taken over as editor of the e-magazine Tudor Life, which is a subscription magazine featuring articles from experts, enthusiasts, art critics and reviewers, all of whom are writing about the Tudor, early modern and medieval world. I've been writing a column for the magazine since its first edition and it is so exciting to be involved in this next stage!

Over the next few months, our issues' themes will include vulnerability in Tudor Britain - for which I've contributed an article entitled "The Love That Dare not speak its name?: Homosexuality and moral complexity in Tudor England". (There's a short extract at the end of this post!) As well as issues on coronations, the Tudors in movies and fiction, attitudes to death and the afterlife, and the impact of the Protestant Reformation. Along with the magazine's wonderful regular contributors, we'll be hosting articles from people like Leanda de Lisle, Amy Licence, Toni Mount, Dominic Pearce, Conor Byrne, and Kathryn Warner.

At the end of the month, I'll be undertaking another research trip in England, so I've decided that I'll post a few videos and short articles to this blog while I'm there. My next few proper-length articles for this blog will be a few pieces I have musing on the nature of being British in the 21st century and answering the questions of if the national identity is in crisis and, if so, why.

I also have an Instagram and Facebook page, which I post on regularly. It has been such a pain not being able to post as often as I used to on this blog, although it's certainly for the best reasons. I don't want to post anything too distracting or half-hearted, so thank you for bearing with me and for all your encouragement with pursuing this biography. I hope it lives up to your faith in it, and your wonderful wishes!

Gareth 

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An excerpt from The Love that Dare not speak its name?: Homosexuality and moral complexity in Tudor England by Gareth Russell - published in the July 2015 edition of Tudor Life magazine

Within the aristocracy, attitudes were also much more heterogeneous than we might suppose. In the early 1600s, the Countess of Suffolk could discuss the King’s affair with the Duke of Buckingham with discretion and minimal embarrassment. A typical Renaissance education was heavy on the study of the Classics. This meant that young royals and nobles grew up being familiar with a few Classical myths that dealt with same-sex relationships, like the story of Jupiter and Ganymede, or Achilles and Patroclus in the Trojan saga – or even unambiguously homosexual historical figures, like the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Traditional moralists in Italy and France certainly blamed over-exposure to pagan histories in the classroom and universities for the alleged rise in ‘sodomy’ among young upper-class men in the late 1400s and early 1500s.

Monday, 20 April 2015

"Mary Boleyn" competition - winner!

British actress Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn in the television series Wolf Hall (2015)
The competition to win a copy of Sarah Bryson's new book "Mary Boleyn" has closed, and congratulations to Ines Eusebi, who correctly answered that the Christian or given name of Mary's mother was: Elizabeth.

There were over a hundred responses, and the names of everyone who gave the correct answer were entered into a random generator that then selected Ines's name. A huge thanks to everyone who participated, and to Sarah for stopping by to share her thoughts on Anne Boleyn's enigmatic sister.

Monday, 13 April 2015

"Mary Boleyn" by Sarah Bryson: giveaway and a look at Mary in popular culture


I am delighted to host a guest article from writer Sarah Bryson, who has just published her new book Mary Boleyn, a biography of Elizabeth I's longest-surviving aunt. The book has been released by Made Global, as part of their "In a Nutshell" series that provides short but thorough accounts of historical people, issues, and phenomenon (Claire Ridgway's instalment on the horror of the "sweating sickness" strain of plague in early modern England inaugurated the series.) 

As part of promoting her book, Sarah has stopped by to Confessions of a Ci-Devant with an article on changing perceptions of Mary Boleyn, who died in 1543, fifteen years before her niece succeeded to the throne and seven years after her younger sister lost her head in such hideous and murky circumstances. We are also giving away a copy of Sarah's book, with a question to be answered at the end of this article.

With that, over to Sarah!

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A later portrait of Mary Boleyn
The Changing Perceptions of Mary Boleyn by Sarah Bryson

Mary Boleyn has gained quite a reputation for herself over the years - mistress of kings, whore, schemer, giddy girl with little intelligence, a fierce rival to her sister... Yet upon what are all of these perceptions based?

When first beginning my research on Mary Boleyn I was bombarded with modern day perceptions of the woman. but I wanted to wade through these to find out what the true Mary Boleyn was like. Unfortunately during her lifetime there seems to have been very little written about her personality, let alone her thoughts, feelings and beliefs.

Mary is described by Antonia Fraser in her book The Six Wives of Henry VIII as “a high spirited, rather giddy girl who enjoyed all the pleasures of the court on offer” (Fraser 1992, p. 124), yet when I looked up where exactly Fraser had gained this information about Mary Boleyn’s personality I could not find a single source. David Starkey in his book Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII describes Mary as “a placid and unremarkable girl. But she was very attractive to men, and found them irresistible too – or, at least, her resistance never seems to have lasted long” (Starkey 2004, p. 258). Once more when I tried to find out where Starkey had gained this information there was no source provided. So why is this perception of Mary Boleyn taken for granted?

First and foremost, it does not seem that during most of her life Mary Boleyn was ever considered to be a whore. She was acknowledged as King Henry VIII’s mistress from around 1522 to approximately 1525 and yet there were no recorded whispers or conversations about the young woman being a whore. In fact, there were families at the time, including the Boleyns, Howards and Seymours who openly pushed their female family members before the king in hopes of gaining his attention. It was hoped that through the woman’s relationship with the king the woman might have some influence in helping to further elevate other members of the family. Instead of being considered as a whore for sleeping with the king, it was often seen as quite beneficial and as a means of progressing members of the family.

It seems that the rumours and thoughts of Mary Boleyn being a whore came into play around the time that Anne Boleyn fell from power and was executed. Rodolfo Pio, Bishop of Faenza wrote a letter on March 10th 1536 stating that:

“Francis said also that they are committing more follies than ever in England, and are saying and printing all the ill they can against the Pope and the Church; that “that woman” pretended to have miscarried of a son, not being really with child, and, to keep up the deceit, would allow no one to attend on her but her sister, whom the French king knew here in France ‘per una grandissima ribalda et infame sopre tutte.’” - “a great prostitute and infamous above all”. (L&P x. 450)

The first thing that should be pointed out about this letter is that it was written with the sole purpose of discrediting Anne Boleyn during her final months. Pio writes that ‘that woman’ (Anne Boleyn) pretended to have miscarried a son. First and foremost, we know that Anne Boleyn did in fact miscarry a male foetus of approximately three and a half months in gestation on 29 January 1536. Secondly, it should be noted that he writes that Anne would let no one attend her but her sister. Mary Boleyn was banished from court in 1534 for not only marrying beneath her status but also for marrying without her sister and the king’s permission, and not to mention for being pregnant at the time. With two blatantly incorrect pieces of information written in this letter how can we believe what Pio is writing when he himself is getting the facts wrong?

Author Sarah Bryson
In reference to the French King ‘knowing’ Mary Boleyn in France and referring to her as a great prostitute, how did he know her? Did he know of her, as he was aware of her presence at the French Court, or had he physically known her? The word opens up a Pandora’s box of interpretation. Was the French king assuming she was a prostitute or did he know that for a fact? Was the French king even telling the truth? It may have been that twenty years after Mary was at the French court the king was simply boasting about a woman he barely remembered. This letter, riddled with falsehoods, does not provide enough evidence to suggest that Mary Boleyn even had any relationship with the Francis I,  let alone having been his mistress or whore!

Unfortunately, it seems that this perception of Mary Boleyn has filtered into modern portrayals of the woman. In the TV show The Tudors Mary is portrayed as a slightly dim-witted, giddy young woman, who loved all the excitement at court and who caught the attention of Henry VIII and was used until he grew tired of her. There is little more story development regarding her except that she appeared at court pregnant and her sister was disgusted and banished her. These perceptions of Mary seem to be based upon so-called facts which have little or no evidence to back them up.

The television mini-series Wolf Hall has done very little to help portray Mary Boleyn in a positive light either and has seemed to grasp these negative perceptions of Mary with both hands. Mary is shown as being quite rude and as having a fierce rivalry with her sister Anne. Then, quite shockingly, she is shown on more than one occasion trying to seduce Thomas Cromwell! There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Mary Boleyn had any interest in Cromwell, never mind her trying to actively pursue or seduce him. This addition into the series only added to the perception that Mary Boleyn had loose morals and that she used her sexual appeal and persuasion to get what she wanted.

Scarlett Johansson starring as Mary Boleyn in the 2008 movie The Other Boleyn Girl
The movie The Other Boleyn Girl, based on Philippa Gregory’s novel, did a slightly better job at portraying Mary Boleyn. Played by the stunning Scarlett Johansson, Mary was shown as a woman with thoughts, feelings and desires. Instead of a one-dimensional character, she was shown to care about those around her, including her sister Anne. The movie does portray a strong rivalry between the sisters, although much of that comes from Anne Boleyn’s desire to attract Henry VIII’s attention for herself, or as it seems to ‘steal’ Henry from Mary.

There is no evidence at all to suggest any sort of rivalry between Mary and Anne.  In fact, after her banishment from court, Mary wrote to Thomas Cromwell, right hand man of Henry VIII, asking for his assistance to “recover the king’s gracious favour and the queen’s”. Mary also wrote that “her grace is so highly displeased with us both that without the king be so good lord to us as to withdraw his rigour and sue for us we are never likely to recover her grace’s favour: which is too heavy to bear” (Howard, A Collection of Letters, p. 525-257). Clearly Mary is upset that she has lost the favour and love of her sister, so why are the sisters portrayed in modern media as having such a fierce rivalry?


When there was so little recorded about what Mary Boleyn was truly like, why has such a negative perception of her developed over the centuries?  In modern times, she has become a woman often shown as having loose morals, using her sexual charms to gain what she wants, having a fierce rivalry with her sister Anne and more often than not being rather unintelligent. I wonder where these changing perceptions of Mary have come from and more importantly why? Have these ideas of Mary Boleyn grown out of misconceptions and not checking facts correctly? Or have they simply been generated to create a better story for modern viewers? If so, then I would argue that is a great shame as when all the false perceptions are stripped away Mary Boleyn is a fascinating woman. She travelled to France at just fourteen years of age, became a mistress to King Henry VIII, had two healthy children and defied all the social rules of the time and married for love. This is a far better story than that of a dim-witted whore! 

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Win a copy of Mary Boleyn by Sarah Bryson

To win, simply answer the question below by leaving your answer and contact e-mail address in the comments section. Neither will be published, but instead they'll be used in a random generator to pick a winner from all those who get the answer correct!

Question: What was the Christian name of Mary Boleyn's mother?

The competition will stay open until 20th April 2015. 

Thursday, 26 March 2015

A History of the English Monarchy

Henry V at Agincourt. Throughout the book, I am fascinated by the ways in which the legends of Camelot fuelled the monarchy's veneration of martial victory.
I am very excited to say that my new book A History of the English Monarchy: From Boadicea to Elizabeth I was released this week by MadeGlobal Publishing. I've been writing about the monarchy on this blog for a few years, so it was great fun to write the story of the Crown from its beginnings under Roman rule, right the way through to the accession of the first 'British', as opposed to English, sovereign in 1603. Thank you so much to everyone who has commented on my royal history posts in the past; for those who order History, I hope you enjoy it! Throughout, I was fascinated by the influence of the Arthurian legends in shaping how English kings, and their subjects, viewed and shaped the early monarchy. I was also particularly interested in telling the story of how the English Crown interacted with its Welsh, Scottish, and Irish neighbours, so chapters 3, 4, and 7 are heavy on exploring the often surprising story of how each part of the British Isles related to one another in that fascinating, bloody, compelling period of History. UK customers can order the book here; US and Canadian customers here.

The blurb reads: In A History of the English Monarchy, historian Gareth Russell traces the story of the English monarchy and the interactions between popular belief, religious faith and brutal political reality that helped shape the extraordinary journey of one of history’s most important institutions. From the birth of the nation to the dazzling court of Elizabeth I, A History of the English Monarchy charts the fascinating path of the English monarchy from the uprising of the Warrior Queen, Boadicea, in AD 60, through each king and queen up to the 'Golden Age' of Elizabeth I. Russell offers a fresh take on a fascinating subject as old as the nation itself.

INFORMATION: Each chapter is divided into sections, chronicling the monarchy’s story.

Chapter 1 - Conquest: The violent birth of the monarchy
* Britannia
* The Barbarian Conspiracy
* Seven Kingdoms
* Praying men, fighting men, and working men
* Edward the Confessor


Chapter 2 - God, Life and Victory: The coming of the Normans
* The Conqueror
* The Red King
* Beauclerc
* When Christ and His saints slept
* The Lioness in Winter



Chapter 3 - From Scotland to Spain: The empire of the Plantagenets

* Eleanor
* Henry
* Diarmait na nGall
* Murder in the Cathedral
* Family Strife
* Come, and see the place
* Sic Gloria Transit Mundi



Chapter 4 - Diluted Magnificence: The birth of Parliament
* The Wrath of God abideth upon him
* Crowned with a bracelet
* Know, Sire, that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd is dead
* The Jewish Diaspora
* Until a king is provided



Chapter 5 - Enemies Foreign and Domestic: The fourteenth-century monarchy
* Our friends do fail us all
* The glory of the English
* Shameless fire was thus mixed with sacred flame



Chapter 6 - Spilled Blood Does Not Sleep: The Wars of the Roses

* Necessitas non habet legem
* This story shall the good man teach his son
* The lords in England kill their enemies
* The sun in splendour
* No more sons of the royal blood



Chapter 7 - As the Law of Christ Allows: The rule of the Tudors
* The Welsh Moses
* Bluff King Hal
* The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn
* Deborah and Josiah
* The Queen of Scotland rises on the world
* That Good Old Princess



Epilogue - The word 'must'

Saturday, 31 January 2015

A few days in Oxford



Good morning! This was my view as I emerged from work yesterday afternoon. I am back in Oxford, carrying out some research for my biography of Catherine Howard, Young and Damned and Fair, which will be out next year. I'm so happy to be back here, working in the Bodleian again. When I was an undergrad here, I had my own preferred place to work, and the habit has stuck. My current nook of choice is in the Bod's Upper Reading Room, down by the windows that overlook the Bridge of Sighs, behind me, and the entrance to Holywell Street and what was once the History Faculty Library. Now, all the History books for the faculty are kept in the Gladstone Link, an underground facility with a tunnel that runs beneath the cobblestones. It's a bunker of books.

I got in yesterday morning and stayed at the Randolph Hotel again. I am a sucker for a good poached egg, and along with not being able to carry any kind of musical note in song, not being able to execute the perfect one myself is a huge regret. (Resolution for 2015?) The poachies this morning were fantastic - so I have no excuse after a good breakfast not to be as productive as possible for the rest of the day. The library closes a little early at the weekends, so this evening I'm having dinner with one of my favourite people in the world, a dear friend who I first met in these cobbled streets. I'm telling myself that these evening plans are a good incentive to plough through some very questionable handwriting, even by sixteenth-century standards. I'll think of it as earning rewards, and whatnot.

I am going to keep you all posted about how the research is going over the next few months, and where I'm off to. In the meantime, I'm off to some sixteenth-century wills. Have a wonderful day. 

Monday, 29 December 2014

My Top 10 Books of 2014


Good evening!

This was a great year for books, I think. The year started of well for fans of the sixteenth century with Lauren Mackay's fantastic biography of the diplomat Eustace Chapuys, which I reviewed and loved. If you're interested in the Tudor court or in the world of diplomacy, do pick up a copy. Since then, I've brought these books to New Haven, Oxford, London, Portballintrae and Gloucestershire with me and they have been great company. I'm currently working my way through two books that I hoped to finish before the end of the year - The Six Wives and Many Mistresses of Henry VIII by Amy Licence and The Medieval Housewife and other women of the Middle Ages by Toni Mount, both of which I'll post more about in the new year. From Inside the Tudor Court on, here are my ten favourite reads of 2014, in order of publication.

1. Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon (novel) (published by W. W. Norton & Company)  This novel reads as a love letter to Oxford no less effusive than Brideshead Revisited, but in this case the story of an archaeologist on the quest for the historical origins of the legend of King Arthur allows the story to lovingly evoke the one side of Oxford life that Brideshead tried to avoid at all costs - actual academics. Long and haunting descriptions of the British countryside and a crackling dynamic between the archaeologist and an employee at the Oxford English Dictionary make this a short but cerebral novel that I absolutely loved. It had me hooked, I stayed up to finish it and I hope we'll see more from Sean Pidgeon in 2015. (Full review to follow)

2. Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses by Helen Rappaport (non-fiction) (published by Macmillan) I thought Helen Rappaport's Ekaterinburg, about the weeks preceding the murder of the Romanov family in 1918, was a triumph of a book and while the decision to write the first full-length biography of Nicholas II's daughters meant that Four Sisters lacked the dramatic intensity of her earlier work, Rappaport managed to produce a deeply moving and painstakingly researched account of the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. Their childish quarrels, the friends they made when they volunteered as nurses during the Great War, the Grand Duchess Olga's deep love for a wounded soldier and the twilight of Imperial Russia intersect to produce an intimate account of four too-short lives.

3. George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway (non-fiction) (published by Made Global) One of three of Henry VIII's brothers-in-law to end his life beneath the headsman's axe, George Boleyn was no saint and no prude, either. But he emerges from the pages of Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway's biography as a committed and talented young man with a sincere passion for the Protestant faith. Cherry and Ridgway know their subject and his world, and they use that knowledge to lift him from the shadow thrown by his famous sister, rehabilitating him while never failing to remind us of the grizzly world in which he lived and died. 

4. How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne by Jonathan Beckman (non-fiction) (published by John Murray) I don't know what it is about the Affair of the Necklace, but it seems to produce more than its fair share of historical works that could also be praised for their literary merits. In 1942, the Hungarian-Jewish writer Antal Szerb produced a book called The Queen's Necklace which, if you can find it, cannot come any more highly recommended. It is utterly beautiful. Likewise, Jonathan Beckman's account of one of the greatest jewellery heists in history is written in such a delicious style that, if edible, it would produce moomoo-necessitating levels of obesity. It was a joy to read this book and Beckman works through the initiators, and victims, of the Affair with consummate skill. Like Szerb's book, and Antonia Fraser's biography, it left me feeling even more sorry for poor Marie-Antoinette, but it also managed to delve deeper than before into the murky personality of the Comtesse de la Motte and it's the inescapable whiff of that dreadful woman that lingered long after I finished reading. 

5. The Creeper by Emerald Fennell (novel) (published by Bloomsbury) I bought this sequel to Shiverton Hall because the author is a good friend of mine and because I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the series. On a side note, I have such a low threshold for any kind of horror that if Emerald does ever turn her hand to writing that genre for adults, you will find me manfully dousing myself in water from Lourdes and using rosaries like lassos. But I digress. This creepy and intrigue-laden ghost story at a ghoulish English boarding school is perfect for children or for those of us who have never been able to see the clock turn to 3 a.m. again without silent tears courtesy of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. 

6. Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang (non-fiction) (published by Vintage) Chairman Mao's biographer returns with this compelling and page-turning life of the notorious "Dragon Empress" who presided over the waning years of the Chinese monarchy. Cixi's insatiable ambition, murderous self-promotion and pathological meddling usually cause bile to mix with ink in the historian's pen, but Chang offers up enough of the Empress's virtues, namely her hard-headed pragmatism, her charisma and her impressive list of political victories to balance the scales. 

7. The Paradise Tree by Elena Maria Vidal (novel) (published by CreateSpace) Like Finding Camlann, this is a cerebral book with a love of nature underpinning its dialogue. Here, it's a defence of Catholicism and the experience of Irish immigrants as they set out for a new life in Canada and the United States during the reign of Queen Victoria. The grasp of Irish colloquialisms  is impressive, as is the way Irish words peppered conversation even before the Gaelic Revival at the end of the century led, irony of ironies, by the privileged offspring of the Protestant Ascendancy. A love of domesticity, quotes from the Bible and Irish folk songs to start each chapter, and a pretty heartbreaking subplot about how far one character will go to prosper in their new homeland made The Paradise Tree a thought-provoking read. (Full review to follow)

8. Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen by Sara Cockerill (non-fiction) (published by Amberley) Proof that biographies of medieval personalities don't have to succumb to flights of fantasy, The Shadow Queen was a wonderful read about a supreme multi-tasker. Businesswoman, landlady, princess, politician, adviser, wife, mother and patron of the arts, Eleanor of Castile also managed to keep the royalist home fires burning during the Second Barons' War. Like the indomitable Hapsburg Empress Maria Teresa five centuries later, Eleanor didn't seem to find being nearly-constantly pregnant a deterrent. The invasion of Wales and the Diaspora are also dealt with. I would say that The Shadow Queen deserves to be considered the definitive biography of its subject.

9. Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner (non-fiction) (published by Amberley) Sympathetic without being sentimental, The Unconventional King is as much a warning against trusting in the power of repetition as it is a biography of a monarch whose disastrous reign ended in his deposition and mysterious disappearance. Warner uses every contemporary source available to her to prove that nearly every popular image of King Edward II is totally unfounded - the effeminate appearance, the domestic cruelty, the cowardice, the alleged illegitimacy of his eldest child and the grotesque cameo of a red hot poker in his final moments. They're all bunkum. She's also refreshingly frank about what his bisexuality, to use a word familiar to us but alien to him, and lays out the evidence to support her view that his relationship with Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall was probably a romantic one. Gutsy, outgoing, strong, handsome and with a flair for bonhomie, Edward II has clearly caught Kathryn Warner's interest and she's repaid him with a stellar and brutally honest account of his life. 

10. Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King (non-fiction) (published by W. W. Norton & Company) It is hard to put into words how much I enjoyed Midnight at the Pera Palace. A social history of the city of Istanbul from the end of the First World War to the aftermath of the Second, the narrative is framed around a hotel that was built to attract a European clientele. Fantastically written, perfectly structured and with a cast of hundreds of men and women who visited the hotel from the fall of the Ottoman sultanate through the tortured birth of the Turkish republic, Midnight at the Pera Palace is a grand story of humanity. It is modern history at its finest. I could not put it down and I plan to visit the city next year. 

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