On 8 February 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots was executed at Fotheringhay Castle. She was 44 years old and had been imprisoned for nearly twenty years. She had been informed on 7 February that her sentence was to be carried the next morning and she had spent most of the intervening time at prayer. At 2 in the morning she wrote a letter to her one-time brother-in-law, now Henri III of France. The letter survives and is stored in the National Library of Scotland, in Edinburgh. It can be viewed online here along with a transcription of the French and English translation.

In the letter, Mary claims that she is to die for her faith, that she is innocent of any crimes and asks Henri to provide for her servants. She also wishes him a long and healthy life. He would follow her to the grave less than three years later at the age of 37.

Following on from the previous post, I thought I’d do a short round up of some of my 2011 fiction highlights.

First off, I should say that I am a rampant abandoner of books which I’m not enjoying. I know a lot of people will plough on to the end no matter how much they dislike a book but I’m not one of them. Life’s too short. If I’ve got to the end of a novel, that in itself indicates that I liked it. Having a Kindle makes that even easier- I can abandon a book on my way to work and have another to read on the way home. 🙂

Fiction-wise, I tend to read historical novels- a wide genre covering some wonderful depictions of the past and a whole lot of trash too. I also quite like a bit of European crime.

The Ground Is Burning, Samuel Black

My favourite novel of last year was Samuel Black’s The Ground is Burning: Seduction, Betrayal, Murder, a novel with multiple points of view telling the story of Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci in the early sixteenth century. Another point of view is that of Dorotea Caracciolo, a young woman who was kidnapped on her way to her marriage, thought to have been abducted by Cesare. Her uniquely female point of view is an interesting contrast to the various voices of the male characters. Black does a fantastic job of making these larger than life characters multi-dimensional, flawed and fascinating. There are battles, sex, betrayal and complex Italian politics. This is how historical fiction should be!

Another highlight featured the notorious Cesare: Sarah Bower’s Book of Love (entitled Sins of the House of Borgia in the USA). It’s mostly set in the much neglected Este court in Ferrara. Although enjoyable and clearly well researched, the central romantic relationship of the novel (though it’s by no means a romance), I found somewhat unbelievable. It was a bit rushed- the heroine falls in love within about 2 minutes of having met the man in question and the reader can’t quite understand why. If you can get past that (and I did), it’s a great read.

Secret of the Sands, Sara Sheridan

Veering away from my typical literary haunts of fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe, I read Sara Sheridan’s new book Secret of the Sands which is set in the Arabian Peninsula in the nineteenth century. The novel is a seamless blend of the factual (the story’s hero and heroine both existed) and the imagined (beyond her name, almost everything about Zena is invented). It’s a gripping account of slavery, cultural clash and adventure in the Arabian desert. Sara’s previous novel, The Secret Mandarin is a similarly engrossing tale of westerners in China just after the Opium War.

My non-historical favourites were Sarah Dunant’s Mapping the Edge, an account of a woman who goes on holiday to Florence and doesn’t come home. Dunant’s my favourite historical fiction author but her contemporary novels, though often neglected, are well worth a look too. This one is unsettling and disturbing but absolutely addictive. Fred Vargas’s most recent novel was translated into English in 2011 too. An Uncertain Place is another outing for Commissaire Adamsberg. A good novel though let down by poor translation. I was, for example, surprised to find out that the translator is a native English speaker.

I’m currently back in the fifteenth century, Venice specifically, with Michelle Lovric’s The Floating Book.

Michelle Lovric, The Floating Book

Happy New Year everyone. One of my resolutions is to update this blog far more often. I thought I’d start with some of my reading highlights of the past year, starting with non-fiction.

My non-fiction star of 2011 was Lost Girls, which I’ve written about before so won’t do again. I love it though.

My other non-fiction highlights have included Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence by Gene Brucker which I found second hand. It was first published in the 1970s after the author experienced one of those strokes of luck historians dream about: he uncovered previously unpublished records. Buried in the extensive Florentine archives were records of a marriage trial from the 15th century. His book is a fascinating account of the case brought by a widow against the young nobleman she claimed had married her. He did not acknowledge the alleged marriage and had married another woman. It may not have quite as exciting as Martin Guerre but it is a wonderful insight into marriage and sexual politics in the Renaissance.

I am currently reading Paul Strathern’s new book, Death in Florence: the Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City. I was thrilled that this one is available on Kindle (none of his others are). The book looks at Florence, the Medici and the radical Dominican preacher Savonarola. Strathern depicts Lorenzo and Piero de’ Medici and Savonarola as complex individuals when it is easy to portray them as caricatures- Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero the Unfortunate and Savonarola as the “mad monk.” Despite knowing where this story is leading, I’m hooked.< Christmas presents have also added to my already long list of books to be read, including Lauro Martines’s Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy which might be a good follow up to Death in Florence. As a leaving present from my old job, I was given a lot of book tokens and have so far bought Italy in the Age of the Renaissance (john Najemy, ed.) which is an academic introduction to the period. I am eying up Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence by Sharon T. Strocchia

St Catherine of Siena


As is probably obvious, my interested have swerved sharply towards the Florenitine and Italian Renaissance! This is in no small part due to visiting Florence for the first time last April.

The second in a series of posts looking at formidable Tudor women.

30 October is an important date for the early Tudors. Aside from being the anniversary of Catherine de Valois’s son, Henry VI, retaking the English throne in 1470, it is also the anniversary of the coronation in 1485 of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch.

Henry VII was the grandson of Catherine de Valois and Owen Tudor. His parents were their elder son Edmund Tudor and Margaret Beaufort.

Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII

Edmund and Margaret married on 1 November 1455 when the bride was probably twelve years old. The Wars of the Roses had recently started and less than a year after the marriage, Edmund was captured by Yorkist forces. He died of plague in captivity on 3 November 1456, leaving his 13 year old widow seven months pregnant.

On 28 January 1457 Margaret gave birth to their son. Margaret was young and small and it was a particularly difficult labour and for a time it was feared that both mother and child would die. However, both survived, and she named her son Henry.

Henry VII

Although Margaret married twice more, she would have no more children, perhaps as a result of complications after this birth. Her second husband was her first cousin Henry Stafford. They married in 1462 and she was widowed in 1471. Her third marriage was to Thomas Stanley in 1472.

It was her son, though, who was the focus of Margaret’ attentions. She plotted with Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV and mother of the Princes in the Tower (by then both boys were presumed dead) against Richard III. The two women decided to marry Margaret’s son to Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, also named Elizabeth. This marriage would unite the twin claims to the English throne as Elizabeth, the daughter of Edward IV represented the Yorkists and Henry was the last Lancastrian claimant to the throne.

Elizabeth Woodville

On 22 August 1485, Henry’s forces met Richard’s at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Although Richard’s army was superior in numbers, Richard himself was killed in the battle and many of his supporters fled. When the dead king’s crown was found (according to legend, in a thorn bush), Henry was crowned with it.

On 18 January 1486, Henry followed his mother’s advice and married Elizabeth of York at Westminster. Margaret’s influence over her son, however, was not eclipsed by his new wife. She was given titles and, unusually for a married woman, allowed to own property in her own right. Technically, the royal pecking order places Margaret lower than her daughter in law Elizabeth of York, the new queen, and Elizabeth Woodville, who as Edward IV’s widow was the queen dowager. Perhaps at Margaret’s insistence, Elizabeth Woodville was banished from court in 1487. Margaret refused to walk further behind the queen than half a pace, indicating that she only grudgingly acknowledged the latter’s superiority.

Elizabeth of York

Margaret continued to be a dominant influence on the new king. She was known for her piety and good sense and when her son predeceased her on 21 April 1509, she was named regent for his son, Henry VIII. Her stint at direct power, rather than behind the scenes influence, was brief though. Henry VIII turned 18 on 27 June and his formidable grandmother died two days later.

Margaret Beaufort

On 27 October 1401, Isabelle of Bavaria gave birth to her last daughter in the Hôtel St Pol in Paris. The baby’s father was Charles VI of France and the newborn princess was destined for great things, though she was to achieve them in rather unexpected ways. Catherine’s infamy lies in her determination that, once her duty had been performed, she would ensure her own happiness rather than blindly follow decorum.

Henry V

On 2 June 1420, Catherine married Henry V of England at the church of St John in Troyes. Henry had been besotted by the French princess since their first meeting the year before. In fact he was so in love with her that he married her without a dowry and settled a fortune of dower lands on her.

Marriage of Henry V and Catherine of Valois

The couple left for England at the end of the year and Catherine was crowned queen at Westminster Abbey on 23 February 1421. The couple spent the spring on progress so that the English could see their beautiful new queen. By the time Henry left for France once more, Catherine was pregnant. She gave birth to a son on 6 December. Though she was a devoted mother, in May 1422 she left her little son in England to join her husband in France. Within a few months, though, Henry had died of dysentery, leaving Catherine a 21 year old widow and never having seen his little son.

Her nine month old son was now Henry VI, king of England. Soon, the question of the queen mother’s marrying was raised. She was still a young woman, very attractive and potentially very powerful. There would be plenty of Englishmen keen to marry her. However, until 1425, Catherine showed no signs of looking for a new husband. Not until Edmund Beaufort appeared on the scene. Beaufort was nineteen years old and rather dashing.

Henry VI, Catherine's son

Their exact relationship is unclear but parliament were sufficiently concerned about it that they changed the law to forbid a queen to marry without royal consent on pain of forfeiture of lands for life. Regardless, Catherine did marry without consent, but not to Edmund. At some point between 1428 and 1432, she married Owen Tudor, a Welsh groom. As the marriage was morganatic, their children had no claim on any royal titles Catherine may otherwise have passed on to them. It has even been suggested that Catherine married Owen Tudor while (or just after) giving birth Edmund’s son, in order to ensure that her true love, Edmund Beaufort, did not suffer the loss of his lands under the new statute. This idea is given further weight by the fact that her first son with Owen Tudor was named Edmund.

This may be mere speculation. She went on to have two more children who were certainly Owen Tudor’s: a son, Jasper, and a daughter named Margaret who died young. Catherine herself did not survive into old age, dying at Bermondsey Abbey on 3 January 1437, aged only 35.

She was buried in Westminster Abbey but somehow her embalmed corpse was put on display. On 23 February 1669 the diarist Samuel Pepys, bizarrely, lifted Catherine’s body and kissed her on her mouth, ‘reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birthday.’

Catherine’s story has been the subject of many romantic legends but in fact, we know very little about what moved a queen to marry a squire in defiance of parliament. Perhaps it was an attempt to protect another man, or perhaps, having done her duty in marrying a king and providing an heir to his throne, she decided to marry a second time for love. Whatever her reasons, her actions would change England forever: the children of her second marriage would lay the way for a new dynasty.

Effigy of Catherine de Valois in Westminster Abbey

Next month, I’m going to London to the IHR’s Novel Approaches Conference which looks at the differences and similarities between academic history and historical fiction. This is a subject I’ve been interested in for quite a while. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with historical fiction. Some of my favourite novels are historical fiction but inaccuracies and deviations from historical fact drive me crazy.

While I’m in London, I’m going to the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery. I don’t know all that much about him but I’m really excited to see the exhibition. Ironically, given the conference, much of what I do know about him comes from historical fiction, specifically Samuel Black’s “The Ground is Burning” which I thought was fantastic.

The Belle Ferronnière, Da Vinci

I’m also hoping to visit the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library. This looks set to be a fantastic chance to see some of the British Library’s most beautiful items: the illuminated manuscripts from the the Medieval and Early Modern periods, belonging to kings and queens.

The History of Good King Alexander the Great

The Exploits of Alexander the Great, Paris, c.1420-1425

14 October is a bit of a hotspot for historical anniversaries, many of which are connected to an infamous (or otherwise interesting) lady.

In 1066, William the Conqueror defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. William’s wife Matilda of Flanders is the subject of Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror, a new book by Tracy Borman. (In fact, Matilda is not really infamous at all but was rather pious and good, however her granddaughter was the Empress Matilda who was the first woman to claim the English throne and ended up fighting a bitter twenty year civil war with her cousin Stephen over it.)

Death of King Harold, Bayeux Tapestry

The Battle of Hastings, which took place between the Norman and English armies, took place on Seniac Hill, around six miles away from the Hastings town of Battle. If you are fascinated by history and enjoy learning about infamous women throughout history, why not make yourself drink, sit at your computer and play games like Party Poker while you read through the important historic events which took place on 14 October. Did you known that Empress Matilda was betrothed to Henry V Holy Roman Emperor at the age of seven? One year later she was crowned Queen of Romans and in 1114, at the age of 12, she married the 28 year old Emperor at Mainz.

Other important 14 October events include:

In 1322, Robert the Bruce’s Scots forces routed Edward II’s English army at the Battle of Old Byland. Isabella of France, Edward’s wife, would later lead an invasion of England and depose him in favour of their son.

In 1499, Claude of France was born. I wrote a bit about her here.

In 1586, the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots began.

In 1793, the trial of Marie Antoinette before the Revolutionary Tribunal began.

Trial of Marie Antoinette

On 9 October 1514, the 18-year-old English princess Mary married the 52-year-old king of France, Louis XII, at Abbeville in great pomp and ceremony.

Mary Tudor, Queen of France

Louis had been married twice before. First, to the pious Joan (later canonised by the Catholic church) and secondly to Anne of Brittany who had also been queen to Charles VIII of France. Anne had died in early 1514 leaving only two daughters after no less than 14 pregnancies. Neither of his daughters could inherit the French throne and so Louis sought a third wife to provide him with a male heir.

Mary Tudor was a renowned beauty and her youth made her an attractive marriage prospect for the European nobility. Prior to her marriage to Louis she had been betrothed to Charles of Ghent (later the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) but it was later repudiated. We know nothing of Mary’s feelings about her betrothal to the king of France. There are stories that she made a deal with her brother, Henry VIII, agreeing to marry Louis without complaint if, after his death, she could marry whomsoever she chose. However, there is no evidence of this bargain.

Mary Tudor and Louis XII

Mary’s tenure as queen of France was short lived. Rumour suggested that in his enthusiasm to sire an heir, Louis wore himself out with his new bride. He died on 1 January 1515 leaving Mary a widow at 18.

It was soon clear that Mary was not pregnant with Louis’s child and so several suggestions of a new husband were forthcoming, including the dukes of Savoy and Lorraine. Henry VIII had other ideas and wanted Mary back in England where he could make plans to marry her off to his own advantage. He sent his close friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, to accompany her back to England.

Mary had her own plans though. Concerned that she would be forced into another unsavoury political marriage or that her reputation would be tarnished by the attentions of the new French king, François I, a notorious womaniser, she decided to take her future into her own hands.

Charles Brandon was a good looking man, an accomplished soldier and prominent courtier. The couple had earlier asked Henry’s permission to marry but were fobbed off with assurances that the king would consider it after an appropriate time had passed since Louis’s death. Doubting her brother’s promises, Mary decided that she would marry Brandon then and there. Brandon was, not unduly, fearful of her brother’s reaction but the beautiful young widow soon prevailed upon him and the two married in France in mid-February. Later, Mary would take the blame for the secret marriage and Brandon apologised to the king, claiming that he had been helpless as he ‘newar sawe woman soo wyepe.’

Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon


The couple returned apprehensively to England in mid-April and met Henry on 3 May. By that time, the king had calmed down and was, if not pleased, accepting of the marriage. He even attended their public wedding in England on 13 May. Henry’s acceptance of their marriage, Mary was always known at court as “the French Queen” and never as the Duchess of Suffolk (her title as Brandon’s wife).

The couple went on to have four children (Henry, died in childhood; Frances, mother of Lady Jane Grey; Eleanor, who had one surviving child; another Henry who also died in childhood). Despite their reconciliation, Mary and her brother fell out once again, this time on the matter of his marriage. Mary strongly opposed his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. She did little to hide her dislike for his new mistress, Anne Boleyn, who had waited on Mary in France. Mary avoided attending Anne’s coronation feast due to ill health. She died shortly after on 25 June 1533 at the age of 37.

Mary’s actions in determining her own second marriage, in defiance of the king, give a glimpse of a defiant spirit and the desire for self-determination that relatively few women of the period were able to show. I can’t help but imagine that she would have been formidable in old age, and wonder what side she would have taken had she been alive to see her granddaughter, Jane Grey, claim the throne of her niece and Henry’s daughter, Mary I.

Mary Tudor (detail)

This month, I’m proud to be hosting the Early Modern Carnivalesque here at Harlots, Harpies and Harridans. Nominations have been filtering in all month, with some really interesting posts for you.

As a huge bibliophile, I was pleased to see a number of bookish posts. Starting off with a pair of posts from Anchora on A1 pages (the page in an Early Modern book before the title page). The first post is fascinating and full of wonderful photographs of early books, including some beautiful engravings and illustrations. In a second post on the subject, Anchora-author Adam G. Hooks has some lovely owner’s marks in the form of notes and underscoring in an early seventeenth century book. The book was written by Robert Cecil (councillor to Elizabeth I and James VI & I) and was written in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot (1605). This post is also full of photographs, including some excellent examples of secretary hand from the period.

Elizabeth I's secretary hand signature

Over at Wynken de Worde, there’s a fascinating post about the arguments around digitising historic texts. There are some valuable contributions in the comments too so remember to read them! Despite my love for physical books (I am a hobby bookbinder after all), I am definitely on the side of digitisation, even if only for the accessibility. The Wynken de Worde post goes far beyond the accessibility argument and provides a highly convincing case for digitisation.

The next post, from the Folger Shakespeare Library is not only a great account of the wealth of new information old documents can provide but also features some excellent examples of digitised texts (in this case photographic reproductions), as if we needed to add further weight to the argument in favour. The deeds photographed are from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and feature some beautiful secretary hand writing.

Some of the submissions took a darker tone, in particular concerning one of the Early Modern period’s favourite forms of popular spectacle: executions. Executed Today has an interesting post on one of Henry VIII’s early executions in 1510 (before he really got into the swing of things!). Henry had acceded the previous year and won himself a big popularity boost by executing Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. Both men were prominent councillors to Henry’s father but were also focuses for popular discontent over the old king’s taxes. Dudley tried to win Henry’s favour by writing a treatise in favour of absolute monarchy, in the hope of a pardon, but was to be disappointed. His son John would go on to become the Duke of Northumberland before meeting the same fate as his father. John’s son Robert Dudley, who became the Earl of Leicester, was Elizabeth I’s Master of the Horse and life long favourite.

Execution of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

While poor old Edmund Dudley was beheaded on Tower Hill, our next post, over at The Chirurgeons Apprentice looks at hanging, the preferred method of execution towards the end of the Early Modern period. It features a fascinating account of a public hanging in England in 1726, written by a Frenchman and goes on to look at this rather gruesome method of execution in general.

Finally, we have a look at the Hapsbugs’ unwitting attempts to end their line through in-breeding in this post about Charles II of Spain. The Hasburgs, keen to preserve the purity of their bloodline, had an unfortunate habit of marrying their cousins. This was not immediately problematic but generation after generation, problems started to appear. Charles II (1661-1700) suffered from multiple physical and emotional disabilities which may well have been the result of centuries of inbreeding (Charles’s parents were uncle and niece which made Charles’s father also his great-uncle). His disabilities were obvious from birth and he was not expected to survive. He did and suceeded to the throne but was an ineffective king. He had no children of his own and his death in 1700, a few days short of his 39th birthday, sparked the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14).

Charles II of Spain

I hope you’ve enjoyed this selection of recent Early Modern blogging. The next Carnival is the medieval edition and will be hosted by She-Wolf next month and the next Early Modern edition will be in November at Anchora which has been featured here. Huge thanks to Sharon of Carnivalesque for letting me host this month!

At the end of this month, I’ll be hosting the September Early Modern Carnival on behalf of Carnivalesque. The carnival is a round up of great blog posts so if you would like to nominate a post, please do so here. You can nominate yourself, or any other blog post you’ve enjoyed that was posted within the last 2 months or so.

To give you an idea, the last carnival was at Pure Medievalry and the most recent Early Modern edition was at Madame Guillotine.

The Battle of Carnival and Lent

The Battle of Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel, 1559