Several years ago, the English Historical Fiction Authors group decided to take some of the various articles and essays written by authors and compile them in one collective book called Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales from English Historical Fiction Authors. I thought that was a marvelous idea, as many of these blogs and essays and articles get lost in cyber space, and yet, are full of research and tidbits that are interesting and useful! Debra Brown and the now late M.M. Bennetts did a marvelous job putting them all together.
This year, a voluminous second edition, now in memory of M.M. Bennetts, was released and the collection edited by Debra Brown and Sue Millard. This is a very large book to read at 600 pages, but it’s size is what makes it a great well-rounded collection to purchase to have on your shelf for a time you want to read a tale or two or use for research. Due to my limited reading time, I couldn’t quite get through all the stories in a few weeks, but I did get through many of them, reading a few every night, and I plan to continue on with that long after this review done.
The essays are absorbing and played right into my inquisitive, history loving mind in all the right ways and offer a wealth of knowledge on all various sorts of British history. Many are delightful, some sad, some useful, some funny, many adventurous, and all fascinating. It’s easy to be swept away into lands far in time and place and to want to keep heading into the next essay after completing a former. The voices of these particular authors are very strong and captivating.
Upon sliding to the first essay, I smiled to see the first was my friend Nancy Bilyeau’s essay about her dream coming true in flying to England during the research for her Joanna Stafford historical suspense series. It was the perfect essay to begin with as it encompasses the feelings most historical and fantasy readers have had in regards to being entranced by the worlds of Kings and Queens (and the lot) in our teen years. Didn’t we all wish to travel abroad? To see where the history happened we read about? It was fitting, her thoughts and evident enthusiasm, as this edition of Castles, Customs, and Kings is a way to do just that for those of us who can’t get back to England anytime soon to revel in exploring the history. This book allows us to steal into the history of England through words, until we can see her again, or for some, for the first glorious time.
With a perfect set-up into the collection by Nancy’s essay, they came one after the other in their uniqueness or lesson. I have a few other favorites so far, such as An Anglo-Saxon Christmas by Richard Denning (an essay everyone of most religions should read) which tells us definitively how paganism and Christianity became entwined. It’s something I knew from studies, but it was a great essay that would teach quite a few people about the origins of Christmas. I love anything about the history of Christmas so I enjoyed this article, as well as the very last one at the end of the book about plum pudding! Now I want to make some!
Being an advocate for women’s rights, and women’s history, I enjoyed Octavia Randolph’s Women’s Rights in Anglo-Saxon England: Why They Were Much Greater Than You Think. For women that don’t realize that before 1066 many women held great power and rights, this would be an excellent article. I also liked Randolph’s essay on Lady Godiva, which for all visual remembering of her, taught us that she was actually was a very rich woman.
Another of my favorite essays was Carol McGrath’s The Medieval Garden, which was interesting to me as I love gardens, mills, and orchards. I had never really read anything particularly about the history of them, though obviously, to this day they are glorious in England. (On a side note, when little and growing up in England, our neighbors had a huge garden that came up and through our fence. I couldn’t stay away from the flowers or plants then, and upon exploring all of them with my fingers during my terrible toddler years, ended up with pesticide in my eyes. A terrible few days at the hospital for my mom and me, but alas, I’m fine and still very curious about gardens!)
Quite a different essay that caught my eye, was Anne O’Brien’s The Power of a Red Dress, which was about my favorite color to wear–red, but also utilized one of my favorite classics, Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Her original style of writing this article made me read it twice. And yet, I wear red…..I can see what that says about me! (You’ll have to read it to find out)
There are articles stemming from medicinal uses and cures to art, music, weather, military battles, monarchy, nobility, religion…basically, you name a period and subject of history and you’ve got some sort of set of essays to fit your desires. I especially liked how many author’s essays balanced each other or built off one another, sometimes probably without even the authors having planned it that way. The editors did a good job of balancing an array of technical and educational essays with others that were more for the historically curious and sometimes ticked the funny bone or were surprising and witty.
I really could go on and on picking out essays and articles that already are my favorites or must reads, but it would take all night. I highly recommend if you have any love of English Historical Fiction that you escape quickly with a copy of this book for your shelf, either digital or tangible, but I can see that it would make a great print copy staple for your nightstand or your reference library (or a great gift!). This conglomerate of amazing authors know how to do their research and write up historical stories that leave us wanting more. I’m thrilled that all these essays will never be lost, but treasured.
Read One of the Essays from the Collection!
Seven Surprising Facts about Anne of Cleves
By Nancy Bilyeau
Everyone thinks they know the story of the fourth wife of Henry VIII. She was the German princess whom he married for diplomatic reasons, but when the forty-eight-year-old widower first set eyes on his twenty-four-year-old bride-to-be, he was repulsed.
With great reluctance, Henry went through with the wedding—saying darkly, “I am not well handled”—but after six months he’d managed to get an annulment, and the unconsummated marriage was no more. Although Anne had behaved impeccably as Queen, she accepted her new status as “sister” and lived a quiet, comfortable existence in England until 1557, when she became the last of the wives of King Henry VIII to die.
And so Anne of Cleves has either been treated as a punchline in the serio-comic saga of Henry VIII’s wives or someone who was smart enough to agree to a divorce, trading in an obese tyrant for a rich settlement. But the life of Anne of Cleves is more complex than the stereotypes would have you believe.
- Anne’s father was a Renaissance thinker. The assumption is that Anne grew up in a backward German duchy, too awkward and ignorant to impress a monarch who’d once moved a kingdom for the sophisticated charms of Anne Boleyn. But her father, Duke John, was a patron of Erasmus, the Dutch Renaissance scholar.
The Cleves court was liberal and fair with low taxes for its citizens. And the Duke made great efforts to steer a calm course through the religious uproar engulfing Germany in the 1520s and 1530s, earning the name John the Peaceful. He died in 1538, so his must have been the greatest influence on Anne, rather than her more bellicose brother, William. In Germany, highborn ladies were not expected to sing or play musical instruments, but Anne would have been exposed to the moderate, thoughtful political ideals espoused by John the Peaceful.
- Anne was born a Catholic and died a Catholic. Her mother, Princess Maria of Julich-Berg, had traditional religious values and brought up her daughters as Catholics, no matter what Martin Luther said. Their brother, Duke William, was an avowed Protestant, and the family seems to have moved in that direction when he succeeded to his father’s title.
Anne was accommodating when it came to religion. She did not hesitate to follow the lead of her husband Henry VIII, who was head of the Church of England. But in 1553, when her step-daughter Mary took the throne, she asked that Anne become a Catholic. Anne agreed. When she was dying, she requested that she have “the suffrages of the holy church according to the Catholic faith.”
- Anne’s brother had a marriage that wasn’t consummated either. Duke William was not as interested in peace as his father. What he wanted more than anything else was to add Guelders to Cleves—but the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had other ideas. William took the bold step of a French marriage so that France would support him should it come to war.
His bride was Jeanne D’Albret, the daughter of Marguerite of Angouleme and niece of King Francis. The “high-spirited” Jeanne was only twelve and did not want to marry William. She was whipped by her family and physically carried to the altar by the Constable of France. But when Charles V took hold of Guelders, France did nothing to help William of Cleves. The four-year-old marriage was annulled—it had never been consummated. Jeanne’s next husband was Antoine de Bourbon, whom she loved. Their son would one day become Henry IV, King of France.
- Hans Holbein painted Anne accurately. The question of Anne’s appearance continues to baffle modern minds. In portraits she looks attractive, certainly prettier than Jane Seymour. A French ambassador who saw her in Cleves said she was “of middling beauty and of very assured and resolute countenance.”
It is still unclear how hard Thomas Cromwell pushed for this marriage, but certainly he was not stupid enough to trick his volatile King into wedding someone hideous. The famous Hans Holbein was told to paint truthful portraits of Anne and her sister Amelia. After looking at them, Henry VIII chose Anne. Later, the King blamed people for overpraising her beauty, but he did not blame or punish Holbein. The portrait captures her true appearance. While we don’t find her repulsive, Henry did.
- Henry VIII never called her a “Flanders Mare.” The English King’s attitude toward his fourth wife was very unusual for a sixteenth century monarch. Royal marriages sealed diplomatic alliances, and queens were expected to be pious and gracious, not sexy.
Henry wanted more than anything to send Anne home and not marry her, which would have devastated the young woman. He was only prevented from such cruelty by the (temporary) need for this foreign alliance. But while he fumed to his councilors and friends, he did not publicly ridicule her appearance. The report that Henry VIII cried loudly that she was a “Flanders mare” is not based on contemporary documents.
- Anne of Cleves wanted to remarry Henry VIII. After the king’s fifth wife, young Catherine Howard, was divorced and then executed for adultery, Anne wanted to be Queen again. Her brother, William of Cleves, asked his ambassador to pursue her reinstatement. But Henry said no. When he took a sixth wife, the widow Catherine Parr, Anne felt humiliated and received medical treatment for melancholy. Her name came up as a possible wife for various men, including Thomas Seymour, but nothing came of it. She never remarried or left England.
- Anne of Cleves is the only one of Henry’s wives to be buried in Westminster Abbey. Henry himself is buried at Windsor with favorite wife Jane Seymour, but Anne is interred in the same structure as Edward the Confessor and most of the Plantagenet, Tudor, and Stuart rulers. In her will she remembered all of her servants and bequeathed her best jewels to the stepdaughters she loved, Mary and Elizabeth.
Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors (Volume 2)
Publication Date: September 30, 2015
Madison Street Publishing
Hardcover, Paperback, eBook; 598 Pages
An anthology of essays from the second year of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, this book transports the reader across the centuries from prehistoric to twentieth century Britain. Nearly fifty different authors share the stories, incidents, and insights discovered while doing research for their own historical novels.
From medieval law and literature to Tudor queens and courtiers, from Stuart royals and rebels to Regency soldiers and social calls, experience the panorama of Britain’s yesteryear. Explore the history behind the fiction, and discover the true tales surrounding Britain’s castles, customs, and kings.
“Thoroughly enjoyable and diverse…leisure reading for any history fan.”
– Elizabeth Chadwick, on Castles, Customs, and Kings (Volume 1)
Available for PURCHASE at~