Bag Full o’ Books, and a Mixed Bag at That

Partly for fun, and partly in the noble cause of providing some fodder for the Medieval Miniatures section of my website, I’ve been reading some nonfiction lately. Here are a few interesting things I’ve checked out from the library:

Hazel Pierce, Margaret Pole: Countess of Salisbury 1473-1541. A well-researched account of the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, who survived Richard III’s reign and Henry VII’s reign, only to be executed by Henry VIII when she was well into her sixties.

Anne F. Sutton & Livia Visser-Fuchs, Richard III’s Books: Ideals and Reality in the Life and Library of a Medieval Prince. Much more, as you can tell from the subtitle, than a simple inventory of books found in the king’s library.

Wendy Childs, editor, Vita Edwardi Secvndi: The Life of Edward the Second. A nice new edition of a chronicle written by an unknown contemporary of Edward II.

A. J. Pollard, Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. One of the most readable Richard III studies I’ve seen, and one that neither romanticizes nor demonizes the controversial king.

All of these books can come to my shelf and sit anytime they want.

I’m also reading Joanna Denny’s 2005 biography, Katherine Howard: A Tudor Conspiracy. Unfortunately, I can’t put this book in the same category as the ones above. Denny states as undisputed fact that Henry VIII was the father of Mary Boleyn’s children, when the prevailing opinion seems to be that Mary conceived them with her husband after the royal affair had ended, and she suggests, based on very shaky evidence, that Henry VIII had his own out-of-wedlock son, Henry Fitzroy, poisoned. She credits Henry VIII with having executed over 50,000 people (p. 133), a number that strikes me as incredibly high.

Since Katherine’s short life and even shorter reign are notable mostly for her sexual conduct, Denny understandably spends a lot of time on sexual mores. While it’s commendable that Denny recognizes that much of the behavior that would bring Katherine to the scaffold occurred at an age when she was easily led and vulnerable, Denny’s discussion veers toward the ridiculous. She spends too much time on generalizations such as “sex was hurriedly performed in darkness” (p. 84–was there a fifteenth-century version of Masters and Johnson surveying couples?) and on overdramatics such as “her innocence had been traded for food and lodging from the age of seven thanks to a wastrel father and a callous family” (p. 194). She discusses at some length the custom of “bundling,” stating that it was “an accepted part of 17th-century courting rituals” (p. 83) and even incorrectly citing Romeo and Juliet’s postmarital night together as an example (p. 83, 87), but she never explains how this custom relates to Katherine, who by her own admission went much further than bundling in her relationship with Francis Dereham.

Denny eschews footnotes in favor of a listing of sources for each chapter. Unfortunately, this system is fairly useless for someone wanting to know a source for a specific statement, such as the 50,000-executions figure mentioned above.

In short, I found this a biography that offered more frustration than information. As there has been relatively little nonfiction written about Katherine Howard, though, those interested in Henry VIII’s wives might find it worth their while to get a library copy.

6 thoughts on “Bag Full o’ Books, and a Mixed Bag at That”

  1. Margaret Evans Porter

    I’ve been keenly interested in Katherine Howard since portraying her in a play–at which time I discovered there was no bio. She gets lumped in with the “Six Wives” and thus gets short shrift and the focus is more on her sex-capades than her illustrious family or upbringing or Court life, etc.

    So I intend to read Denny’s book at some point, even if those caveats of yours make me suspect I’ll be as frustrated as you were.

    50,000 deaths….Perhaps, if French wars and English uprisings count. But executions? I don’t think so….

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    What play were you in?

    There is an old biography of Katherine by Lacey Baldwin Smith. It’s dated, but not bad considering.

    Denny uses the word “executed,” so I don’t think she meant to include other types of deaths. I didn’t get much response when I posted about the figure on a Tudor list, but those who responded thought the figure was high too.

  3. Apparently, the new book The Last Days of Henry VIII states that at least 150,000 people were executed in Henry’s reign. I haven’t read the book myself, so I don’t know what the source is for that astonishingly high figure.

  4. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Alianore. I’ll have to take a look at that one!

    Hanging my head in shame after scoring only 33% in POD-DY Mouth’s POD v. commercial test . . .

  5. I haven’t had a go at Poddy Girl’s exam yet, but when I scanned down the list I couldn’t tell the difference. Isn’t that her point?
    Did she tell you which ones you got right?

  6. Susan Higginbotham

    No, just my score. Guess I’ll have to wait until Thursday. She was right–one can’t tell the difference!

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