Category Archives: history

Monthly Reading Roundup: April


A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray Rating: 4/5

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Reading Non-Fiction, especially History books for me, always seems more daunting than it actually is.  After neglecting my growing pile of history books, I decided to start with A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray. I couldn’t have asked for a better book to get me back into non-fiction, with Jenni Murray perfectly merging the general overview of these women’s lives with her personal experiences.  This helped make the book engaging and enjoyable, rather than it reading like a Wikipedia page or just dull retelling of facts like some history books. Every woman’s place in the book is justified, no matter how controversial, as well as how they helped to shape history. The book shines when Jenni Murray reveals her personal experiences with each of the women, high points I loved include her sighting of Boadicea’s statue, her relationship with Barbara Castle and her interview with Margaret Thatcher.

Jenni Murray focuses on women from every part of history, their impact on politics, literature, science, maths, and Art. I really liked how it was a mixture of well-known women such as Elizabeth I and Jane Austen, and then others I had never heard of such as Caroline Hershel, and Ada Lovelace. It makes me angry that a lot of the names in the book I had never heard of, and how their ground-breaking work into our society hasn’t been recognised, let alone taught nearly enough.

For women whose names you know and connect with immediately, for those whose names recognize but don’t know anything about, or for the women you haven’t heard of at all, this book covers all of them. If anything, this book demonstrated how and if anything, how there are still a large number of bold, brave, and brilliant women whose impact on our society still hasn’t been told.

Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe by Sarah Gristwood Rating: 4.5/5

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Yes, there’s a recurring theme with my book selection this month with regards to forgotten women in history, but hey, I have no regrets. Jenni Murray’s wonderful book gave me the courage to tackle the longest book that I got for Christmas, Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe.

This was not an easy read and took me longer than I would have liked, but it definitely paid off. This was a thorough and intense history book, but for me, it was the best mix of familiar women and history and those who I had never researched about before.  I love Tudor History, especially Henry VIII’s wives, and so I like how the stories of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were woven into the book with less written about Tudor women like Margaret and Mary Tudor, who I really enjoyed learning about.

All the women more or less seemed to be connected in some way, and Gristwood did a great job setting the stage beginning with the figure of Anne de Beaujeu, who helped bring up both Margaret of Austria and Louise of Savoy, who are linked to Isabella of Castile, Anne Boleyn and Marguerite of Navarre and Jeanne d’Albert, and who is quoted at the beginning of every chapter.

It is still so incredible to see all the women who exerted power and wielded such considerable influence during this period, yet are never taught about or given the praise they deserve. For me the biggest revelation was Margaret of Austria, a woman who I had heard of, but knew absolutely nothing about. Her role as regent of the Netherlands, who was at the centre of European politics, having dealings with all the political powers, governing her lands successfully, being crucial in gaining support for her nephew Charles V to be elected Holy Roman Emperor, and successfully negotiating a peace treaty on behalf of her nephew with France, in the Treaty of Cambrai in 1529, also known as the ‘Ladies peace’ as the French King’s mother, Louise of Savoy represented Francis in the treaty.

Gristwood keeps the book engaging, going through the century by switching back and forth between the various countries and their key periods. Even when the formidable figures such as Margaret of Austria pass, Gristwood proves how there were new emerging key players later on in the century, such as the rise of French Queen Catherine de Medici and Mary Queen of Scots, leading to of course Elizabeth I. This was a truly worthwhile read, and a must read for anyone who enjoys history and the 16th century.

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis Rating: 5 Stars

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I didn’t plan on reading yet another non-fiction book, but while on holiday in Dorset I spotted this book in a great independent bookshop, and so I had to buy it and read it straight away. I’d been looking for this book in bookshops near me for a while, as I’m trying to avoid getting my books online so I was surprised, yet incredibly happy to see it in a small independent bookshop.

As you may have seen in my last post, I’m incredibly interested in Anne Bronte, and I’m planning on focusing my dissertation on her and believe she is woefully underrated, writing two ground-breaking novels in her lifetime. I mentioned in my last post that Anne’s legacy had been improving with two new books being published about her this past year. Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis, was one of them.

Yes I’m incredibly bias when it comes to enjoying this book, but honestly it is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year, or at least tied with Ali Smith’s To Autumn. Like Jenni Murray it is not an academic book, but a mixture of the author’s life and experiences alongside the subject matter. Having only one subject to focus on made it easier to be attached to Samantha and Anne’s journey, and I can’t overstate how much I loved this book.

Samantha Ellis’s discovery of Anne Bronte’s strength is written about after she was shown Anne Bronte’s last letter at the Bronte Parsonage, and revealed what goes against Charlotte’s martyr-like portrayal of her sister, and that rather than Anne quietly and gracefully accepting her death, she didn’t want to die. Anne wanted to live, to write more and accomplish more than what she did. This courage and spirit sets off Ellis’ journey to uncover Anne’s story and what she was really like.

This book has a fantastic structure, every chapter focuses on an important figure in Anne’s life, whether real or fictional, and the role they played in Anne’s journey, such as her family, Ellis looking at not only Charlotte, Emily and Branwell, but their father Patrick, and mother Maria, as well as the two other Bronte sisters who died in childhood, Maria and Elizabeth. Haworth really comes to life in the book, and I’m visiting the Bronte Parsonage next month so Ellis’s descriptions of it has made me even more excited.

It was frustrating to read all the critical reception of Anne’s work, and how she has been so easily dismissed as the ‘other sister’, and Ellis too doesn’t hold back on her opinions on how Anne has been presented both then and now in contemporary society, looking at the portrayals of Anne not only by critics, but in media and other literature, as well as the television adaptations of her novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hal.

Ellis writes a truly brilliant book, it’s emotional, funny and heart-breaking and I felt so sad at how little we know of Anne and how so many of her letters and other works have gone, but happy to know of her determination and courage, and the wonderful works of fiction she left behind. My dissertation seems more and more daunting by the day, but reading this book reminded me why I chose Anne and how determined I am to examine the brilliance of her work, so I’m truly grateful I read it.

If you are a fan of the Bronte sisters, love Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and have never read Anne’s work, then I definitely recommend this book. Even if you haven’t read the Bronte’s, this book is worthwhile in highlighting an inspiring author that is excellently told by Ellis.

I’m hoping that after my exams finish next month I can post more, I’m planning a post on my trip to Haworth, as well as a post examining whether historical accuracy matters in Television and Film adaptations.



Queens that deserve their own television shows: Part two

Matilda-large      Matilda Empress of England 1102-1167

It greatly surprises me that Matilda hasn’t been a main subject in historical films or television, last appearing in the adaptation of Ken Follett The Pillars of the Earth. Matilda has yet however, to have her story fully told in film or television. Daughter of the King of England Henry I, Matilda married Henry V who became the Holy Roman Emperor when she was twelve. She ruled as regent of Italy for two years of their marriage, returning to England after his death in 1125. However England and Henry I were dealing with a political crisis after the death of Matilda’s brother on the White Ship which sank in 1120. The succession was now thrown into doubt, but unless Henry I gained no more male heirs, he selected Matilda as his preferred choice to be Queen, demanding the nobles swear to accept her as his rightful successor in 1127. Twenty five year old Matilda was then married to Geoffrey of Anjou, who was only aged thirteen. However in 1135, England was thrown into turmoil after Henry I’s death. Despite the nobles having previously pledged to support Matilda, a  woman ruling in her own right was greatly unpopular. Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois made himself King, with the support of nobles and the church. Matilda, along with her half brother Robert of Gloucester and uncle David I of Scotland continued to fight for Matilda’s claim in what became the civil war known as the Anarchy. After years of fighting and battles, Stephen was captured in 1141, and Matilda became Lady of England and Normandy. Matilda was unable to consolidate her position and maintain control, and eventually retired to France, her son Henry still fighting in England in 1148. When her son reinvaded England, the two sides eventually sought peace in the Treaty of Winchester, with Henry becoming Stephen’s heir. Though she did not succeed, Matilda’s fight put her son on the throne and showed a woman could garner support and strength as well as having the ability to rule. Her life and the Civil War is an ideal story for a historical drama, her story impacting England in the years ahead, the Civil War being a prime example to Henry VIII over his desperation to gain a male heir rather than naming his daughters.

MarMarie_Antoinetteie Antoinette Queen of France 1755-1793

The doomed queen has become a cultural icon, and is not forgotten at all in history compared to some of the other women on my list. Yet her tragic life and reign have yet to be fully explored in detail, and a series could truly show how this young Austrian teenager became a catalyst in the French revolution that brought an end to the French monarchy. Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film based on the brilliant book by historian Antonia Fraser successfully captured the struggles this woman faced, being a stranger in a foreign court when she was sent to France at aged 14 to wed its next King Louis XVII. While being historically accurate in parts, the film decided to omit the majority of the politics at the time, not showing the brutal and tragic end Marie Antoinette faced as well the political factors that led to her unpopularity. This Queen had a truly tragic life, and yet remained brave under the most perilous circumstances. Faced with embarrassment and humiliation after the non consummation of her marriage for 5 years, Marie Antoinette eventually had four children. An incredibly stylish figure, events such as the Diamond Necklace Affair and the lack of reform left the desperate and starving French people to blame her spending for their starvation, becoming a symbols for the greed of the French monarchy. Those involved in the revolution printed many pamphlets spreading rumours of her having affairs, being horrid to the poor and of course uttering the famous phrase ‘let them eat cake’ a quote that has been proven to be inaccurate. The King and Queen accepted a new constitution, the revolutionaries eventually abolished the monarchy in 1792, and Marie Antoinette and the royal family were eventually arrested and imprisoned, with Louis being executed in 1793.  Marie Antoinette was then put on trial for treason, as well as shocking falsified claims of sexual abuse towards her own son. She was then executed, nine months after the execution of the King. The political turmoil of the time as well as the personal life of Marie Antoinette and the lasting legacy she has means she would be the perfect subject for a television show, to fully develop her complex character, rather than simple painting of her as a villain or a victim she has received in history.


Eleb909528c1df708cd89c2b95f1fa251ceea86d13fanor of Aquitaine 1124-1204

When she simply 15 years old after the death of her father and brother, Eleanor was left with a vast inheritance and became the most eligible heiress in Europe. She quickly married the man who became Louis VII of France.  However their relationship turned sour on the Second Crusade as well as Eleanor only providing Louis with two daughters meant the couple divorced in 1152. The ending of this marriage gave Eleanor her territories back and again made her an incredibly appealing marriage prospect. Eleanor then married Henry of Anjou, the King of England who also ruled over territories in France. Eleanor played a large role in the ruling of these countries, as well as having five sons and three daughters. Their marriage strained, Eleanor returned to Aquitaine. Eleanor’s son Henry, annoyed at his lack of power and the little amount of wealth and land he received from the King along with his brother got Eleanor involved in a revolt against her husband. This revolt against her own husband was an incredibly bold move for a woman of her time, which led to her imprisonment in 1173. After sixteen years of imprisonment, her husband died in 1189 and her son Richard became King and secured her release. Now in her sixties, Eleanor still played a large role in her son’s government, even ruling as regent when he went away on the Third Crusade.After Richard was captured, she even managed to secure his release. After Richard’s death her son John became King and Eleanor still played an important role in government. Though later her role in England lessened and she remained involved in the affairs of Aquitaine. Eleanor’s long life and the political power she held throughout, and the successful rule she had over her own lands make her an incredibly interesting and admirable woman in history and someone that deserves a series of her own.

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Margaret of Anjou 1430- 1482

Most prominently featured in Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy and
Richard III, 
Margaret of Anjou was one of the key players in the Wars of the Roses, a conflict which spanned from 1455-1487.Daughter of the Duke of Anjou and the Duchess of Lorraine, Margaret married the King of England, Henry VI in 1445. The marriage negotiated that the territory of Anjou was to go to French, ending the Hundred Years War between France and England. Having a significant role in her husband’s reign, Margaret also founded Queen’s College in Oxford. In 1453, Henry became ill and had a mental breakdown, leaving the Duke of York to become protector of England. By this time, Margaret had also given birth to a son, Edward. Despite attempting to become regent of England, Margaret was rejected, but showing the confidence she had in her capabilities to rule England and protect her and her family’s interests.  By 1455 Henry had recovered, but civil war had now erupted between the York and Lancastrian factions. The Duke of York was the key figure on the Yorkist side, but Margaret was the key figure on the Lancaster side, defending her husband’s rule and her son’s title as the rightful heir to the throne. The Duke of York’s rival, the Duke of Somerset, was supported by Margaret until the Battle of St Albans which saw him and other key members of the Lancaster side defeated and killed.  York was back in power, but Margaret still attempted to raise support for the Lancaster side. More battles occurred, with Margaret’s army winning the Battle of Wakefield which resulted in  the Duke of York being beheaded. Despite her rival being defeated, the Duke of York’s son Edward soon took charge in leading the York side. He soon deposed Henry and claimed himself King Edward IV. Fleeing with her family to Scotland as well as France, Margaret soon planned her way back to England. Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had angered the Earl of Warwick who instead pursued an alliance with Margaret. He roasted Henry VI to the throne, and the Earl of Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville was married to Margaret’s son Edward. However, Henry’s restoration to the crown was short lived when the Earl of Warwick was killed in battle, just as Margaret landed in England. The Battle of Tewksbury left Margaret’s son Edward dead, and Henry VI, imprisoned soon died. Margaret was captured and eventually moved to France and lived as a poor relation of the King until her death in 1482. Her strong will and devotion to fighting for her family makes Margaret a great subject for a television show, especially considering the storytelling possibilities with the conflict of the War of the Roses.




Queens that deserve their own television show: Part One


For my second post, I planned and started and completely different post about my favourite television shows of 2015, a post I do intend to finish. However last week I watched She Wolves: Englands Early Queens, a documentary that highlighted the early Queens in England that struggled but achieved power and explored their reputations as ‘She Wolves’ in history. The incredible and interesting lives of these women, and the lack of popularity some of them have received in popular culture led me to think of all of the incredible historical women throughout history that deserve greater attention.

Numerous television shows have explored the reigns of monarchs and those who held great power in history  over the past 20 years or so, successfully drawing in audiences and truly showing the complex figures of history. Shows such as Rome, The Tudors, The Borgias and Vikings have done this well, even with historical inaccuracies. More have been made in other countries, the reigns of famous Queens Isabella of Castile and Catherine the Great being shown in Spain and Russia. A  French series Versailles about Louis XIV has just finished its first series, and will be aired sometime this year on BBC2.

Yet there are still many incredible women that deserve more attention, different and complex figures that would make great subjects for television.

Cleopatra Queen of Egypt 69 BC-30 BC2c0faf6f3e11a77c04238c61c34c6d4366d24671

Arguably the most famous woman in Egyptian history, Cleopatra was the Pharaoh of Egypt from 51-30 BC. Beautiful and intelligent, Cleopatra unlike some of the other women of my list has appeared numerous times in films and literature, and is a well recognised figure in history. It surprises me that considering she is incredibly famous, there hasn’t been a recent television show about her life. Most famous for her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, she also ruled as co regent with her brother, until she was exiled and her brother became the sole ruler of Egypt. After meeting Julius Caesar, he helped restore her to the throne. She eventually had a son by Caesar. Her relationship with Mark Antony bore her further children but the tensions between Mark Antony and the Roman leader Octavian eventually led to their defeat in battle and both of them eventually committed suicide. She would be a great subject for a television series, as a woman who successfully gained and maintained rule in her own right. A recent portrayal was by Lyndsey Marshal in HBO’s Rome, despite being a great portrayal she only appeared in 5 episodes, and it would be great to have a show solely focused on Cleopatra to fully explore her life.

Catherine De Medici Queen of France 1519-1589catherine-de-medici

A series focusing on Catherine herself would full of fascinating material that could last more than one series. Marrying Henry II of France when she was 14, she was sidelined from politics in the beginning of her marriage, due to her husband’s  long running affair with Diane de Poitiers. However after 10 years she finally gave birth to a son, which improved her position greatly, eventually giving birth to seven surviving children. After her husband’s death in 1559, her eldest son Francis was king  but died a year later. Catherine’s power increased dramatically as her next son and the king was only 10 years old. Catherine became regent of France, and was involved in the civil war that broke out with French Protestants  the conflicts eventually turning into the French Wars of Religion. Recently portrayed by Megan Follows in Reign that centers around the teenage years of Mary Queen of Scots, a series of Catherine’s life has great potential due to the personal and political conflicts in her life, as well as her strength in governing France.

Isabella of France Queen of England 1295-1358download

Isabella of France was a Queen I had not heard of until yesterday, something that surprised me considering the reputation she gained as a ‘she wolf’ and the power she managed to achieve. Isabella’s life would be ideal for a miniseries, married to Edward II when she was 12, the early years of her marriage were plagued with conflict due to her husband’s focus on his close favourite,  Gaveston which led to civil war. Giving birth to four children, her husband’s relationship with Hugh Despenser and the weak relationship she had with her husband’s favorite caused rising tensions and led to Isabella having her children, members of her household and land all taken from her by the Despenser family. When sent to France with her son Edward  to negotiate peace between her husband and her brother, King Charles IV, Isabella refused to return to England and stayed with her son in France and began a relationship with the Englishman Roger Mortimer. After her daughter married, she used the dowry to raise an army and invaded England. She executed Despenser and had her husband imprisoned, though he eventually died. Ruling as regent for her son for four years along with Mortimer, they became unpopular and her son eventually had Mortimer killed, and Isabella kept her life and lived a wealthy lifestyle outside of court and politics. She would be a fascinating subject for a miniseries, as a woman who successfully managed to depose a king and claim power for herself.

Mary I Queen of England 1516-1558

A controversial figure in history, Mary TudMTE4MDAzNDEwNjE5ODkzMjYyor may seem a surprising choice due to unpopularity of her reign as well as her reign being overshadowed throughout history by her sister Elizabeth I. Nicknamed ‘Bloody Mary’, Mary has unfairly been written off as cruel and sometimes even as one of the worst women in history. A miniseries about her life and reign would be a chance to shed light on Englands first Queen. The only living child to come out of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII’s marriage, Mary’s life was incredibly unhappy due to the divorce her father desperately seeked from her mother due to his obsession with getting a male heir. After 6 years, Henry finally had his divorce and married Anne Boleyn. Mary was declared a bastard, forbidden from seeing or communicating with her mother and forced to serve in her new half sister’s household. Mary refused to acknowledge any Queen but her mother, or accept the ruling that her parents marriage was invalid. Her devout Catholicism also put her in danger during the beginning of the reformation in England. After Anne Boleyn was executed when Mary was 20 in 1536, Mary was bullied into signing a document that acknowledged that she was a bastard and her parents marriage was invalid. Her father’s new wife Jane Seymour encouraged the reparation of the relationship between Mary and her father, and Mary was accepted back at court. In 1542 Mary was restored to the succession, to be Queen in her own right if her brother Edward died without an heir. When her brother ascended to the throne, England shifted into a fully protestant country, making relations between him and the devout Catholic Mary weaken. Desperate for England to remain Protestant, Edward made his successor Lady Jane Grey, his cousin and also a protestant. Jane Grey was only Queen for nine days before Mary got her rightful throne, rallying lords and nobles to her side and riding into london triumphantly with the people fully supporting her. However Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain in 1554 proved unpopular, leading to a rebellion to place Elizabeth on the throne. Mary maintained her throne and turned England into a Catholic nation once again. Those who recanted their protestant faith were allowed to live, but those who didn’t were burned at the stake, with 300 burnings taking place over the 5 years of her reign. Mary’s reign was plagued with poor harvest, a flu epidemic, a loveless marriage, and two phantom pregnancies as well as the loss of Calais. Mary’s reign while unpopular and unlucky is an important one to reflect on, and a miniseries would hopefully develop her complex character rather than just labelling her as ‘Bloody Mary’