English history

The making of Good Queen Bess

In the course of British history there have been few royals with a childhood as traumatic as that of Elizabeth I. She endured the torment of her mother Anne Boleyn’s execution, her father’s death, the comings and goings of four stepmothers, sexual abuse from a stepfather (who was executed soon after), the death of a half-brother, imprisonment and the death of a half-sister before finally acceding to the throne. All this by the age of 25. Throughout her young life, Elizabeth veered from sole inheritrix of the crown to hated bastard child Not many could cope with such a relentless identity crisis. Throughout her young life, Elizabeth veered from sole

Ordinary women make just as thrilling history as great men

In 1348, the year the Black Death reached England and devastated the country, Matilda, the wife of Robert Comberworth, attacked someone called Magota and drew blood. She was fined 3d. Agnes, the wife of William Walker, attacked William de Pudsey and was fined four times the amount. Amica, an official watch-woman tasked with guarding a fruit crop, caught a certain Cecilia stealing. These women are among the many who star in Philippa Gregory’s latest book. Post-Conquest England is well-trodden ground, but Gregory’s history is not one of great men. It is of normal women – the women of legal battles, petitions, wills and letters. Her characters farm, pray, heal the

Rocked by rebellion: the short, unhappy reign of Edward VI

As Tory writers reflected on the safe passage of the Stuart dynasty through the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81, an anonymous author urged contemporaries to learn the lessons of English history. The Rebels Doom (1684) offered some thumbnail sketches of various unsuccessful rebellions and attempted revolutions that had threatened the monarchy since the reign of Edward the Confessor, in order to show ‘the Fatal Consequences that have always attended … Disloyal Violations of Allegiance’. The writer paused especially over one Tudor insurrection from 1549, in which 10,000 rebels from Devon and Cornwall took up arms against the administration of Edward VI and besieged the city of Exeter, but were ultimately crushed

The machinations of the Dudleys make Game of Thrones look tame

This is the gripping story of the ever-fluctuating fortunes of three generations of the Dudley dynasty, servants to — and at times rivals for — the Crown in the 16th century. As Joanne Paul observes in her engrossing biography of an extraordinary family, ‘had fate, Fortuna, Nemesis or God made only the slightest adjustment to their orchestration of events’, the Dudleys, not the Tudors, might have ruled England for generations. The narrative begins in the 1490s with Edmund Dudley, an Oxford-educated barrister who rose to a position of power, influence and wealth at the early Tudor court, only to be arrested and imprisoned in the Tower within days of Henry

Henry VIII’s windfall from the monasteries was shockingly short-term

In 1536 there were 850 monastic houses in England and Wales; just four years later they were all gone. The romantic remains of many of them still grace our landscape, Shakespeare’s ‘bare ruin’d choirs’ receiving more visitors today than the living communities did half a millennium ago. Now these visitors are primarily tourists and heritage lovers; then they were pilgrims, travellers, businessmen and, of course, those who toiled spiritually as servants of the Church, some more conscientiously than others. Monasteries were huge physically, commercially and spiritually; ‘they were never only scenery,’ declares James Clark in his new book: ‘Their profile defined not only a locality but sometimes a whole region.’

When sedition was rife in 18th-century London

Researching the seditious literature of earlier periods is seldom suspenseful, pulse-quickening work. For every thrill of archival discovery, there are countless hours of slow, methodical, sometimes crushingly unproductive labour aimed at uncovering the individuals and agencies behind books that, as clandestine productions, were primarily designed not to surrender such secrets. The underground networks behind dissident pamphlets in 17th- or 18th-century England, for example, frequently hid their own involvement by withholding the names of authors, printers and places of publication from their title pages, leaving puzzling blanks or laughable fictions in their stead. While contemporary press licensers had battalions of beagles, book-trade informants and the disciplinary machinery of the state to

The hazards of attending a queen

When Queen Alexandra chose her ladies in waiting she prudently surrounded herself with elderly and plainish ones, who did not tempt her susceptible husband Edward VII. ‘These are your wives?’ the Shah of Persia solicitously enquired. ‘They are old and ugly. Have them beheaded and take new and pretty ones.’ In earlier times, beheading was a definite possibility (one of Catherine Howard’s ladies was executed) and court life was, to say the least, fraught. As Anne Somerset reports, Tudor courts were a maelstrom of intrigue, surreptitious liaisons, political in-fighting, struggles for the ear of the monarch and rampant greed. Elizabeth I’s ladies were terrified of her: her sarcasm was withering