Leanda De-Lisle

Friend of Elizabethan exiles: the colourful life of Jane Dormer

Thomas Cromwell’s biographer Diarmaid MacCulloch once told me that my father’s family, the Dormers, had been servants of the great enforcer of Henry VIII’s Reformation. This may have been a tease. It is a matter of family pride that Jane Dormer’s great- uncle, the Carthusian monk Sebastian Newdigate, was executed for refusing to accept the

The plot thickens

John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt asserts the crucial role of political ideas in the coming cataclysm of the English civil war. His focus is close: the 18 months before the final breach between Charles I and Parliament, but it is as scholarly in depth as it is cinematic in scope. Here is a dramatic retelling

Elizabeth I, queen of the waiting game

Women are ‘foolish, wanton flibbergibs, in every way doltified with the dregs of the devil’s dunghill’. So a cleric reminded Queen Elizabeth I. His sermon reassured her that her personal qualities made her exceptional. But Elizabeth was not merely an ‘exceptional woman’, snorts Lisa Hilton. She was also ‘an exceptional ruler’ — one who refashioned

Thomas Cromwell: more Tony Soprano than Richard Dawkins

The travel writer Colin Thubron once told me that to understand a country and its people he first asks, ‘What do they believe?’ This is also a good place to begin when writing about the past, not least when your subject is Thomas Cromwell, a key figure in the English Reformation.  But Tracy Borman’s Cromwell

Anne Boleyn’s last secret

With his wife, Anne Boleyn, in the Tower, Henry VIII considered every detail of her coming death, poring over plans for the scaffold. As he did so he made a unique decision. Anne, alone among all victims of the Tudors, was to be beheaded with a sword and not the traditional axe. The question that

Bosworth, by Chris Skidmore – review

Although Richard III was five foot eight, his spine was so twisted he stood a foot shorter. Imagine him hacking his way towards Henry Tudor at the battle of Bosworth; a furious human pretzel, ‘small in body and feeble of limb’, as a contemporary noted, he cut his way towards his rival ‘until his last

His dark materials

Like the dyslexic Faustus who sold his soul to Santa, the life of John Dee was a black comedy of errors. His vain and vulgar efforts to harness the occult for material ends often rendered him ridiculous. But there is a darker tale in Dee’s work for the Tudor state: a story of dodgy dossiers,

From this week’s Spectator: The Winter King

This review of Thomas Penn’s biography of Henry VII, by Leanda de Lisle, is taken from the latest issue of the magazine. It is reproduced here for readers of this blog. There is something of Gordon Brown in the older Henry VII: an impression of darkness, of paranoia and barely suppressed rage, not to mention

Against all odds | 1 October 2011

There is something of Gordon Brown in the older Henry VII: an impression of darkness, of paranoia and barely suppressed rage, not to mention the terrifying tax grabs and tormenting of enemies. But Gordon was never quite as entertaining, or frightening, as Thomas Penn’s Winter King in this brilliant mash-up of gothic horror and political

A Tudor mystery unravels

The fate of Lady Mary Grey, Queen Elizabeth’s prisoner and a potential heir to the throne, has never been resolved. Now Leanda de Lisle tells all At the Prime Minister’s country residence at Chequers, scribbles on the walls of the 12-foot prison room bear testimony to the dreary misery of the woman Elizabeth I had

Progress at a price

I was sitting recently with a former US marine by one of the huge open windows on the top floor of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. Our drinks were being served on shiny black tables, and at the bar was a group of rather podgy prostitutes. There is something seedy but fun about the hotel,

A keen sense of duty

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, would be delighted that in his historical afterlife he remains the old man he died as, after 40 years of power. The frail flesh and white beard projects the image of the dull bureaucrat we remember: ideal cover for an ideologue who makes Donald Rumsfeld appear warm and fuzzy, and a

The return of the maypole

The return of the king follows a death. As the Lord Protector of the three kingdoms draws his last breath a great storm rises up, blowing down houses, trees and ships at sea. To Charles Fitzroy it is as if the elements themselves were celebrating Oliver Cromwell’s passing. But it was expected that tempests should

Diary – 9 June 2006

Researching the dead can feel like being buried alive with them. After months spent with manuscripts and dusty books about the 16th century I even look like a corpse. But this week I am taking a heart-stimulating trip to Manhattan. I am giving a talk to the St Andrew’s Society of the State of New

Diary – 13 May 2005

The trouble with country life is that it is so unhealthy. Where I used to walk to the Tube I now take the car. Where I used to go out and see friends I now ruin my eyes watching television. After 20 years in Leicestershire I am almost blind and I have no muscle tone.