Friday, February 24, 2012


A review of Antonia Fraser’s Cromwell (1973)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Oliver Cromwell is a historical figure that I often find myself confused on how I feel about him. His story is very exciting, for the first forty years of his life he is mostly irrelevant until the circumstances of the English Civil War would send him at the forefront. A commoner who overthrew a king and took his life as well as his kingdom. On the other hand it is hard to see him as anything other than a hypocrite. How can one be a champion of liberty when that individual crushes the fledgling English Republic in its infancy and becomes a dictator? Cromwell is very complicated man and Fraser does a good job in presenting his many sides.

(Oliver Cromwell Warts and All)

In many ways Cromwell reminds me of King Henry IV. Like Henry, Cromwell had no right by blood to rule the kingdom that he would eventually take command. It is true that Henry was prince by birth as a grandson to King Edward III while Cromwell was just a well off commoner, but there were still a handful of royals in Henry’s time that had a far better claim than he. Both Henry and Cromwell would depose unpopular kings and end up ruling in their place.

That analogy carries us only so far. While Richard II was an outright tyrant, King Charles I was just bad at his job. Henry was smart enough to have Richard killed in secret while Charles was publicly tried, executed, and martyred. Henry also took the throne as King while Cromwell simply called himself the Lord Protector.

(King Charles I, many kings sent their subjects to the ax, he got sent there by his subjects)

Fraser discusses how often Cromwell was tempted to take the title of King and the many reasons he kept deciding against it. Interestingly it is never discussed if Cromwell would of found the title limiting. There were many advantages and disadvantages to being the King, but never is it pointed out that Cromwell had sent Charles to his death for seeking unlawful powers and tyranny. By wearing a crown he could open himself to be judged by the same standard. A problem that Henry IV learned after the overthrow of his tyrannical cousin.

“For whatsoever could be said of the execution of King Charles I, that it was inevitable, even that it was necessary, it could never be said that it was right.” (p.291)

Cromwell as a military leader is easy to admire for he always won. I think Cromwell represents what Napoleon might have been if Napoleon had been confined to an island kingdom as opposed to a great nation-state*. The fact that he had no military experience prior to the English Civil War is a testimony to his natural talent.

“The distinction is surely an unfair one, for Generals are not gods, and their role is not to create situations, but to provide solutions. Just as the function of the solider is to fight battles, the function of a commander is to win battles, and win them in such a way that the last victory also will go to his own side. In this function Cromwell was supremely successful. He never failed, whether in the crucible of Dunbar or with the pincer trap of Worcester, to find either by God’s providence or some special sort of military grace, exactly the type of victory that was required. To achieve what it was necessary to do, and achieve it perfectly is a rare distinction, whatever the scale: it is that which gives to Cromwell, him too, the right to be placed in the hall of fame.” (p.390)

However as a political leader if one wishes to view him as a champion of liberty they are going to be very disappointed. If Charles I committed an act of tyranny by trying to arrest members of the House of Commons on the House’s floor, then what does one call Pride’s Purge or Cromwell dismissal of the Rump? In many ways Cromwell is like a modern day petty dictator who comes to power after a revolution and makes the revolutionaries wonder if they have made a terrible mistake.

“So that into the basic dichotomy of his nature was introduced another discordant element of having to cope with those very problems which he himself had originally raised. More and more, as the shadows of the Protectorate lengthened, he found himself using those very expedients, financial or political, against which he had originally protested. Cromwell maintained his power by means that Charles I would have been delighted to use, if he had had them at his disposal, in the cause of what Cromwell had then termed arbitrary tyranny.” (p.704)

(Cromwell as tyrant)

Often when one reads about the English Civil War, it is said that the final result of the conflict was that Parliament is established as the supreme authority greater than even the monarch. However, in reality, all it did was prove the group with the most effective army was supreme above all law. Parliament created the New Model Army and the Army purged and emasculated the Parliament.

*Yes, I know Napoleon was born on and died confined to an island. My point is if Napoleon had been an Englishman then he would have to concentrate on creating a strong island and not a continental empire.

{Music from Monty Python}

Sunday, February 19, 2012


A review of Christopher Hibbert’s Charles I: A Life of Religion War and Treason (1968 original) (2009, my copy)

(Rating 5 of 5)

His life could have been much better had his older brother Henry lived. That way England could have had its King Henry IX and Charles, the Duke of York, could have been a great art director. Instead death took his brother’s life and sent Charles to a position in which he was so over his head that he lost it.

During the course of this book I wondered how a monarchy so powerful in the days of the Tudors could become so weak and feeble. Part of King Charles’ problem was he was the son of King James. King James I had often boasted of his absolute power and wondered why his ancestors allowed an institution such as Parliament to come into existence. If King James had only done a tad bit of research he may have discovered that Edward Longshanks stole the idea from Simon De Montfort. King Edward I thought it would be best to have a meeting where the various interests of the kingdom could discuss any problems the kingdom was facing, raise money, and if anyone had any grievances to be able to air them. This allowed the King to govern more effectively and for most of its history Parliament was just a state of being as opposed to an institution with its own interests. For many effective monarchs, Parliament was just a method used by the King to strengthen his own power. One could imagine that Edward I, Edward III, Edward IV, Henry VII, Henry VIII, or Elizabeth I could have handled the problems the King Charles had to deal with far more effectively than he did. For King Charles I was brought up listening to his father’s theories and believed every one of them.

(Charles I was a great patron of the arts, his personal painter Sir Anthony van Dyck made many masterpieces for him, including this Charles in three positions)

Charles was clearly the wrong man for the job. He was so stubborn in his position that he would never negotiate until it was too late, and then, when willing, he wanted the previous terms offered to him. He had almost no sense of his situation. Despite being absolutely sure in his position he was slow to action. Everything he tried from his attempts to arrest Pym and other members of the Commons to his battle strategies he was too slow and unimaginative.

“Underlying melancholy there was a certain lack of sympathy in the King’s responses, a defensive rejection of an intimacy that might reveal him as a less assured man than he tried to be. Few men ever felt that Charles really liked them. Few servants ever felt that their services were truly appreciated: if they did not do their duty they were politely dismissed, if they did do their duty they were doing what was expected of them, they were treated well but rarely with a hint of warmth or affection.” (p.136)

After his defeat and imprisonment he remained as stubborn as ever, he made several attempts to escape and he tried to hold out hoping things might turn his way again. His moment of glory and greatness came, ironically, at his lowest moments. An American statesman, Senator Al Gore Sr., once observed that in defeat one could often let their glory out. Charles could and did at his trial and execution. He directly challenged the court questioning its legitimacy. His bravery and dignity at his own execution turned him into a martyr.

The one drawback of this book is there is no real discussion on the legitimacy of King Charles’ trial. When Louis XVI is tried by his people it is done with the monarchy abolished and the former King reduced to just plain citizen Louis Capet. When King Charles is tired he is tired as the King of England. That the King could be tried under existing laws is something absurd when one thinks of it. Yet this is never brought up, the only thing about the legal irregularities brought about was the mention that most of the nation’s top attorneys refused to participate.

In the end I found this to be a great an informative book. King Charles I was probably the second worst King of England, with only King Edward II being worse. Was Charles a tyrant like Richard II? I do not think so. Yes, he could be brutal, but no more than the Tudors or many other great kings and monarchs of this time period. I do feel what replaced him was, in the end, far worse.

{Video is from the movies Cromwell and To Kill a King}

Friday, February 17, 2012


A review of Irene Carrier’s James VI and I King of Great Britain (1998)

(Rating 3 of 5)

Irene Carrier’s James is not a biography in the traditional sense, although it does contain some biographical narrative, it is an historical overview of the reign of the first monarch to rule over a united Britain. The book is divided into several chapters devoted to separate aspects of the reign. Each chapter has a biographical-type introduction, a timeline, and is loaded with primary sources that are mostly letters from James and his various associates. After each section of letters the author has questions for the reader—most of whom would be college students—to help them focus on the point of the letters.

The subject himself is pretty fascinating. The man who would succeed both of the rival queens, Mary I, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I, Queen of England, on their thrones. By the time he was a baby he was the son of a murder victim when his father, Henry Stuart, was killed. The primary suspect was his mother, the Queen. The controversy led to her overthrow and his enthronement as an infant. Like his mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather he would grow up as Scotland’s monarch. Later, he would lose his other parent when his mother, the dethroned Queen Mary, was executed under Elizabeth’s orders. Although he was more upset that his mother a queen was executed than his mother was executed.

Many Kings of England had tried and failed to add Scotland to their realms. However in 1603 the King of Scotland became the King of England. The man who was James VI in the north was now to the south, James I*. His great-great-grandfather, King Henry VII, whose James’ claim was based, had united the warring factions of the Yorkist and Lancastrians. Now the great-great-grandson was uniting two historically warring kingdoms.

(King James I, the first monarch of a united Britain)

“James VI’s departure for London in April 1603 amidst scenes of great emotion looked like the high point of Scottish pride. The Scots had given their ‘auld enemies’ a king, and thus provided the final answer to the aggression of Edward I, Edward III, and Henry VIII.” (p.142)

Dubbed by King Henry IV of France as the ‘wisest fool of Christendom,’ James would right three famous works. He would right about smoking, witches, and divine-right monarchy. He was against smoking**, against witches, and all for divine-right monarchy. The new version of the Bible was something that he had supervised at his Hampton Court Conference. Nevertheless he did have a heavy influence on the new version; you could say he was more the editor than the author of the King James Bible.

This is an okay book if you like primary sources and school textbooks. In the words of King Edward III ‘it is as is.’

*An interesting irony, James I, King of Scotland, was in England at the time of his ascension. He was there as a prisoner of England’s King Henry IV.

**Ironic considering Jamestown,the first permanent English colony, had as its primary crop: tobacco.

{Video from a BBC Documentary about the Gunpowder Plot}

Sunday, February 12, 2012


A review of J.E. Neale’s Queen Elizabeth I (1934, original) (2001, my copy)

(Rating 5 of 5)

When this book was first published in 1934 it was titled simply, Queen Elizabeth since there were no other Queens regnant named Elizabeth to distinguish her from. Nor were their signs of any to come. The future Queen Elizabeth II was then just the daughter of the Duke of York, who was the second son of the reigning King George V. When the new Elizabeth ascended in 1952 they had to republish this book under a new title, which made Neale really happy because now he could sell more books! Known as the book on Queen Elizabeth I, it does live up to its reputation.

A princess at birth and bastard by the time she could walk. Elizabeth’s early years were like riding in a modern roller-costar. An interesting irony of her life was her very existence was the result of her father’s desperate attempts at creating a male heir to inherit his throne. And that obsession led to England’s first two woman rulers, the second would be the one of the greatest rulers in all of history and arguably history’s greatest female ruler. From a historical perspective it made perfect sense for King Henry VIII to be so concerned with having a son. No King of England had ever successfully passed his throne to a daughter. The last who tried, Henry I, failed and England went into civil war. King Henry VII had ended the most recent civil war—the Wars of the Roses—and his son was not going to try to set stage for a new one. However, Henry VIII did give England something new to fight over, religion, and his second daughter would strike a victory to put Protestantism in place as England’s religion and Catholicism was sent on the defensive.

(Queen Elizabeth I)

It did not look like she would be the champion in the early days. Her younger brother, King Edward VI, showed no signs that he would not live as long as their father. She simply minded her studies and probably expected to married off in some way to support her brother’s regime.

“Events revealed another Elizabeth than the girl poring over Saint Cyprian, Sophocles, and Cicero. Her father died in January, 1547, when she was thirteen and a half years old. She was spared the harrowing sight of a death-bed, and as she precociously indicated in her letters to her brother, she was able to take her loss with Christian and philosophic fortitude. The future seemed bright. She shared the religious and intellectual outlook of the new king. Protestantism was in the saddle and the uncertainties of the old reign at an end. It might mean, it did mean ill for her sister Mary, but that was calculated to throw into even greater relief the perfect harmony between Elizabeth and Edward.” (p.17)

Destiny would decide on another role for her. Edward’s death brought their sister Mary to the throne of England. Mary I would try to restore the Catholic faith to England and Elizabeth would have to be at her most cunning to survive her sister’s reign as the Queen of England. But Mary’s reign was shorter than their brother’s and soon Elizabeth would begin one of the most glorious reigns ever. Key to the new Queen’s success was her intelligence, cunning and her ability to pick the right people to aid her in her rule.

(Queen Mary I, known as 'Bloody Mary')
“There was no greater tribute to the tolerance, sagacity, and masterful nature of Elizabeth than her choice of such ministers as Walsingham. She chose them for their ability, their honesty, and their unshakable loyalty. Even in their intensity they were the expression of the England she was nurturing, and if like thoroughbreds they were hard to ride she was the perfect horsewoman. Like them she covet glory, but thought it true glory to maintain the good yeoman, living in the temperate zone betwixt greatness and want, who wore russet clothes but made golden pocket. With a lively sense of the limitations of English resources, she preferred to trim the countries sails to the winds when and how they blew, rather than set them at once for a storm that might not come.” (p.234)

One area where Queen Elizabeth was extremely successful was foreign policy. She never developed a rivalry with any of the kings of France while she was Queen, like her father did with King Francis I. This probably had something to do with the fact that there were five men during her reign that were the King of France (Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX, Henry III, and Henry IV) therefore there was no time for any rivalry to develop.

(Queen Elizabeth I)

Like many English monarchs before her she had to deal with Scotland. Queen Elizabeth was the last Queen of England who would have to deal with a Scottish Monarch, for after her reign the crowns would unite in the person of her rival’s son. The main rival of her life was the Queen of Scots and her own heir presumptive, Mary Stuart. This Queen Mary would be Catholicism’s champion in the same way Elizabeth was Protestantism’s. Mary would become Elizabeth’s prisoner and Elizabeth would sign her death warrant to prevent a conspiracy from assassinating herself and bringing her rival to her throne. Elizabeth’s decision in some ways echoes Henry II’s decision to have Thomas Becket killed. It was probably the right decision, but both lived to regret it.

(Mary, Queen of Scots, executed by order of Elizabeth)

“On November 16th, Elizabeth sent to warn her of the sentence against her, of the Parliament’s petition, and the possibility of death. She did not flinch. No repentance, no submission, no acknowledgement of her fault, no craving for pardon could be drawn from her. She sat down to make her appeal to the world and posterity in eloquent and impassioned letters. She was playing her last act, still with a great heart, still without scruple. Her declarations to the Pope, though written in the solemn, confessional mood of death, are, some of them, sorry lies. And yet there was a sound instinct in the presentation of herself as a martyr for the Catholic faith. The Catholic struggle in England had been personified in her. She wished to die in that role. When Paulet down her cloth of state, she now being a woman dead to the law and in capable of all dignities, she set in its place pictures of Christ’s passion and a Cross.”(p.286-7)

Mary’s execution would mean England would have two consecutive monarchs whose mother had been executed for treason. Although James had no emotional attachment to his mother—she may have killed his father, parent slaying parent is also something Elizabeth could relate to—he tried to have her death prevented however his objections had limits.

“It was only a few months since James had finally concluded a league with Elizabeth, and his vigorous intercession for his mother’s life seemed at first to invaluable alliance. But Master James was still first and foremost interested in Master James.” (p.287)

(The defeat of the Spanish Armada)

Elizabeth’s most famous rival was her former brother-in-law, King Philip II of Spain. Although the two saw eye to eye on a lot of things in their early days, Elizabeth’s support of the Protestant rebellion in the Netherlands and Admiral Sir Francis Drake’s pirating ways set Philip against her. Philip would send his famous Spanish Armada after her kingdom to reclaim it for the Catholic faith. The battle was one the most important in history.

“Much had been at stake in the great fight; nothing less than the future of Protestantism. And throughout Christendom, Catholic and Protestant had been praying, hoping, fearing for champions of their faith.” (p.310)

Elizabeth’s reputation was probably equal to both her father’s and her famous ancestor King Edward III. Even those who hated her had to admit that she was very impressive.

“Hated by her enemies, feared or loved by her subjects, at times the utter despair of her councilors—she might be all these, but no one could deny her success. ‘She is certainly a great Queen,’ said the new Pope, Sixtus V, ‘and were she only a Catholic she would be our dearly beloved. Just look how well she governs! She is only a woman, only mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all.”(p.294)

Queen Elizabeth I is great book about a great individual who I personally believe was the most important woman who ever walked the Earth.

{Video is a preview for the 2006 movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age}

Thursday, February 9, 2012


A review of Alison Weir’s Henry VIII: The King and His Court (2001)

(Rating: 5 of 5)

Before I began this review I want to comment on the interview with the author located in the back section of the book.  As a student and teacher of history I think it is obvious that there seems to be people in the history profession whose sole mission in life is to make history a boring topic. They take the fascinating and make it dull. Weir describes her passion as coming not from her classes but from a novel on Katherine of Aragon. She found her classes on the Industrial revolution dominated by nothing more acts and factories. In response Weir spent most of her time studying history on her own in the library. Tragically, she was not allowed to attend the classes that she wanted because her earlier scores on the GCE exam. Weir’s success makes her personal story a strong argument against both jargon-filled history writing and standardized testing.

When people tell the story of Henry VIII they quickly switch the subject of the story from the King to the six wives. It is an easy trap to fall into for the storyteller gets to tell six stories for the price of one. Weir avoids this trap easily because she already wrote a book about the six wives of the famous king, and therefore had already scratched that itch. This book, as the title suggests, is about King Henry VIII and men who worked for him. The wives are at best supportive characters, with exception maybe to Anne Boleyn, they are trotted out only when they are relevant to what is going on. This book keeps the light on the rich characters of Margaret Beaufort, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, and Thomas Cromwell. The main focus, of course, is King Henry VIII and Weir’s successful in her goal to portray Henry, as he really was not how he is generally perceived.

(A young King Henry VIII)

King Henry VIII has been perceived as many things. He has been seen as bloodthirsty tyrant, a misogynistic manic, and a silly puppet that was controlled by the people around him. Weir portrays Henry as a man very much of control of things in his court, often playing factions against one another. Men who served the King and gained his confidence could gain great power, but they could fall just as far. Henry could be reasonable but in times of pressure or sickness his judgment could be swift and costly. A few times he would execute a person and later come to regret it.

(Henry's first 'prime minister' Cardinal Wolsey)

“Few could resist Henry’s charisma. ‘The King has a way of making every man feel that he is enjoying his special favor,’ wrote Thomas More. Erasmus called Henry ‘the man most full of heart.’ He would often put his arm around a man’s shoulder to put him at ease, although he ‘could not abide to have any man stare in his face when he talked with them.’ There are many examples of the kindness to others, as will be seen. Yet the King also had a spectacular and unpredictable temper and in a rage could be terrifying indeed. He was also very jealous of his houour, both as king and as a knight, and had the tenderest yet most flexible of consciences. His contemporaries thought him extraordinarily virtuous, a lover of goodness, truth, and justice—just as he was always to see himself.” (p.6)

In his life, Henry's primary rival, like all Kings of England, was the King of France. The first of these Henry had to deal with was King Louis XII. The elderly Louis XII had married Henry’s sister Mary, but he died shortly after. Then a much younger king, like Henry, came to the throne. King Francis I, who would be King Henry’s main competitor for both standing in Europe and in history*, came to the throne. Their relationship could be described as very odd.

“He ignored the advice of his lords, who thought he was putting himself at risk of some kind of treachery, and very early on Sunday 17 June, accompanied by only two gentlemen, went to Guisnes, where his brother monarch was sleeping. Henry woke to see the King of France standing over him, offering to serve as his valet and help him dress.” (p. 224)

Henry responded rather well to that incident, had it been myself I think I would have freaked out. Nevertheless, the two kings were competitors in almost every sense whether it be as kings or sportsmen.

(King Francis I of France, Henry VIII main rival.)

Henry VIII’s reign was of both achievement and revolutionary change. Henry’s regime would not only break away from the religious influence of Rome but it was full propaganda campaign to increase the monarchy’s power and tap into one of earliest forms of nationalism. During his reign his distrust of the nobility made him promote men to, and in, his inner circle on achievement as opposed to birth. His Privy Council was made up of the most talented individuals of the age. However, it was the establishment of the Church of England that would be his most lasting legacy.

(Thomas More, author of Utopia and friend of the King. He died for the 'crime' of not acknowledging the King as Head of the Church.)

“The symbolism of empire was again brought into play. A new coinage was issued bearing the image of the King as Roman Emperor, and a third Great Seal in the Renaissance style was made, featuring the King on an antique throne and bearing the title of Supreme Head; this image was designed by Lucas Horenbout, whose portraits of the King it greatly resembles. An imperial crown was added to the royal arms to signify that Henry recognized no higher power than his own save God. There was a deliberate revival of the cult of King Arthur, from whom the Tudors claimed to be descended, and who is said to have owned a seal proclaiming him ‘Arthur, Emperor of Britain and Gaul.’ Henry VIII, it was claimed, was merely reviving his ancestor’s title and dignity. It was also asserted that England’s sovereignty had for a thousand years been mistakenly subinfeudated to Rome by the King’s predecessors: now he had redeemed it.

No English king before Henry VIII had ever been so concerned to magnify and disseminate his public image. Under Cromwell’s auspices, there was a flood of tracts and pamphlets proclaiming Henry’s heroic virtues and moral superiority. Preachers, artists, craftsmen, writers, poets, playwrights, and historians such as Polydore Vergil were called upon to use their talents to advertise and glorify the New Monarchy. Propagandists such as Gardiner portrayed Henry VIII as semidivine, calling him ‘the image of God upon the Earth’ who ‘excelled in God’s sight among all other human creatures.’ A correspondent of Sir Anthony Browne declared that the King’s subjects ‘had not to do with a man but with a more excellent and divine estate,’ in whose presence one could not stand without trembling.

The effect of all this was to turn Henry into an imperious and dangerous autocrat who became mesmerized by his own legend.” (p.349)

(Thomas Cromwell, the man who did most of the work for Henry's reign. He died when he fell out of favor.)

Of course the wives have to be mentioned. Because the most pressing issue to Henry was the Great Matter, Henry’s relentless pursuit for an heir. When I was young, my mother once told me that Henry VIII was a crazy man who would kill his wife if she dare gave birth to a girl, and that is very silly because it was his fault if they were girls. Henry did not hate women he had a pretty good relationship with most women he knew. Henry obsession is understandable. His father had ended a civil war almost fifty years prior. Henry had no brothers and no woman had ever ruled in their own right, although their sons and grandsons could claim through them . Henry needed a son and it would be best for him to have two. He even thought of having his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, the Duke of Richmond, proclaimed the heir by Parliament, but he died before it could be done.

In the pursuit of a son, he would break from Rome to divorce his first wife, and execute his second. His third wife Jane Seymour would provide him the son that he always wanted. In pursuit of a second son he would marry three more times and another wife would face execution. The wife that lived the longest, not Catherine Parr who was just his last, Anne of Cleves marriage to Henry did her a lot of good.

“Anne made the most of her independence, looking more ‘joyous’ than ever and putting on a new gown every day, ‘each more wonderful than the last’. In the years to come, she would establish a considerable reputation of a good hostess, and entertained many courtiers at Richmond. Rarely had a royal divorce had such a happy outcome.” (p.428)

(A King who had six Queens)

Although Henry was not a tyrant, as was Richard II, nor a puppet ruler. However he did have massive flaws. Henry would do revolutionary things but his method with dealing with opposition was the chopping block. He would allow himself to be persuaded to turn on dear friends, colleagues, and spouses. He would execute people and then later regret it. Henry allowed his greatest servant Thomas Cromwell to be killed, earlier he had allowed Thomas More to die for the sole crime of not acknowledging he, the King, as Head of the Church of England. (Ironically, Cromwell was one of the people who engineered More’s fall. What goes around comes around!)

On a technical note I would like to say that I really like Weir’s capitalization. I know that seems silly to obsess about, but I really prefer King of England to king of England; Duke of Richmond to duke of Richmond, and Prince of Wales to prince of Wales.

This is a great book about King Henry VIII, after you read it you feel like you know whom King Henry VIII was as a person. Weir writes history in way that allows the interesting to remain interesting.

*Although it could be argued that they are both out shown by Emperor Charles V.

{Video is from Keith Mitchel's THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY THE EIGHTH