Saturday, November 14, 2020

Book Reviews: A Dark History: The Kings and Queens of England

A Dark History: The Kings and Queens of England
by Brenda Ralph Lewis
This coffee table styled hardcover book details the histories of the English Royal Family, or rather the English Royal Families, from the 1066 Norman invasion to the present day. Human nature hasn't changed. It will be obvious upon reading this, not that he's ever denied it, just how much this history influenced the writer George R.R. Martin, as well as many other speculative fiction or historical fiction authors. 
Although we consider kinslaying as morally disgusting, when people are vying for power they often reject any standards. If your second cousin once removed gathers an army to support her claim that she's the rightful ruler, a recurring issue in England, you might find yourself doing shifty things. 
Some Kings and Queens refused to carry out the ultimate sanction against wayward relatives, often forgiving them, fining them, exiling them, or even imprisoning them instead. Other rulers, though, had no qualms about chopping heads at the first sign of problems, blood relative or not.
King Henry I, who was present at the "accidental" death of his older brother Rufus, cultivated a reputation as a hard unforgiving man. However, he liked his treasurer Herbert. So when the king discovered that Herbert had been involved in a plot against him, the King cancelled the normal punishment for treason: hanging, drawing, and quartering. In what the King considered to be an act of mercy, he instead ordered that Herbert be blinded and castrated. 
Nice guy, King Henry. 
King Henry's daughter Matilda inherited her father's bad temper and apparently passed it on to her son, King Henry II. King Henry II was an infamous hothead who made the mistake of marrying a woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was just as hot tempered and independent as he was. 
Eleanor was also ten years older than her husband; she may well have viewed becoming his wife as a step down. Eleanor was the former wife of the King of France. Eleanor had led armies in her own right during the Second Crusade. Queen Eleanor didn't bite her tongue about Henry's affairs or illegitimate children and was alleged by some to have taken lovers of her own, including her uncle and father-in-law. 
King Henry II became infamous for (accidentally?) ordering the murder of his former friend, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. The King's sons, urged on by their mother and her former husband, rose in revolt against their father on multiple occasions. Atypically, King Henry did not execute his wife but did have her placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.
Sometimes there are humorous reminders of how human nature doesn't change though technology does. King Henry VIII decided to marry Anne of Cleves, a German noblewoman, because of (1) political reasons and (2) he had been told Anne was beautiful. The king's advisers lied to him on the second point. King Henry VIII never saw Anne until she arrived in England. Apparently Anne was so ugly that when people played peek-a-boo with her as a child, first they peeked and then they booed. 
Even worse Anne's personal hygiene was lacking. Her stench preceded her arrival in a room. Given that no one in the 16th century had access to all the soap, indoor plumbing, showers, hot water, deodorants, and washing machines that we have today, for Anne to be singled out as foul during that time meant she must have been especially malodorous. 
King Henry VIII went thru with the marriage but refused to consummate it. He also assaulted and later executed his chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, who had arranged the marriage. King Henry VIII had the marriage annulled, which given his normal practice of executing his wives, was a good deal for Queen Anne. 
Stories such as this repeat regularly in the book. The names change, though not as much as the reader might like. It can be difficult to keep track of all the Georges, Matildas, Henrys, and Margarets. Learn about why Queen Elizabeth I never married. Discover the Machiavellian exploits of Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's ruthless Secretary of State and spymaster. Learn about female snipers during the English Civil War. Learn about what King George I did when he discovered his wife had taken a lover. It's not easy to be good and nice and be a ruler. There were some rulers who do seem to have accomplished it but not very many. This book will be of interest to any history buffs, particularly those interested in English or British history.
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