[Review] The Ismaili Assassins: A History of Medieval Murder by James Waterson

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The Ismaili Assassins were an underground group of political killers who were ready to kill Christians and Muslims alike with complete disregard for their own lives. These devoted murderers were under the powerful control of a grand master who used assassination as part of a grand strategic vision that embraced Egypt, the Levant and Persia and even reached the court of the Mongol Khans in far away Qaraqorum.The Assassins were meticulous in their killing. They often slayed their victims in public, thereby cultivating their terrifying reputation. They assumed disguises and their weapon of choice was a dagger. The dagger was blessed by the grand master and killing with it was a holy and sanctified act – poison or other methods of murder were forbidden to the followers of the sect.Surviving a mission was considered a deep dishonour and mothers rejoiced when they heard that their Assassin sons had died having completed their deadly acts.Their formidable reputation spread far and wide. In 1253, the Mongol chiefs were so fearful of them that they massacred and enslaved the Assassins’ women and children in an attempt to liquidate the sect. The English monarch, Edward I, was nearly dispatched by their blades and Richard the Lionheart’s reputation was sullied by his association with the Assassins’ murder of Conrad of Montferrat. The Ismaili Assassins explores the origins, actions and legacy of this notorious sect. Enriched with eyewitness accounts from Islamic and Western sources, this important book unlocks the history of the Crusades and the early Islamic period, giving the reader entry into a historical epoch that is thrilling and pertinent.

Anyone who knows me knows that I adore the Assassins Creed game franchise – the fictional stories of how the Assassins fought against the Templars gripped me from the very first game – set during the crusades, you play as Altair ibn l’Ahad and fight against the Templar menace, whilst in the modern day you are Desmond Miles, a man forced to relive his ancestors memories. Suffice to say this sparked an interest in the real history behind the assassin sect, so when the fantastic people at Pen and Sword/Frontline books offered to send me a review copy of this book, I jumped at the chance. It is only the second book I have read on the history of the Assassins and let me tell you, it’s made me hungry for more.

The first thing that struck me about this book was Waterson’s simple prose – something that is very much needed with such a heavy topic. Waterson weaves the tale of the assassins right from their very beginnings seamlessly, and it makes it an absolute joy to read. I was also very pleased to see footnotes within this work. These days, many popular history books have little in the way of citations so this was a really pleasing thing to see. With such a subject, one needs to be able to see where quotations from both primary and secondary sources have come from.

Waterson covers a huge expanse of time in his biography of the secretive sect of killers, starting with the origins of Islam and the controversy around who was to succeed Muhammad (pbuh) after his death. We see the rise of the assassins then and read about their suicidal acts – their usual method was to get up close and personal with a dagger, and if they were to die in the attempt then so much the better. They believed it would bring honour upon them and their brothers. And as one reads these tales of brutal assassinations, one can’t help but compare them to the awful modern day suicide bombers in the middle east – one wonders (although the author does seem somewhat loath to say such a thing) if the actions of the Ismaili assassins serve as a blueprint for such modern day horrors.

It must be noted that this book covers centuries of history in not a huge amount of pages and therefore serves as more of an introduction to an incredibly vast and complicated subject. However the author does a fantastic job of explaining the complex history of this mysterious sect of people and bringing their world to the fore. I honestly could not put this book down and it really has made me hungry for more information on these mysterious, violent people and the mindset behind what they did.

A huge thank you to Pen & Sword/Frontline books for providing me with a review copy of this book. The Ismaili Assassins can be found on Amazon and in all good book stores.

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IT’S TIME FOR A TALK – Winchester Heritage Open Days 2019 – Incest, Intrigue & Murder: Were the Borgias Really That Bad?

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I am SUPER pleased to announce that I’ll be joining the fabulous team at Winchester Heritage Open Days and giving a talk for them! Information below (and on the events page)

Date: September 21st 2019

Time: 11.30am-12.30pm

Location: Hampshire Records Office, Winchester

Admission is free but booking is essential. Click here to book

I’ll be talking (of course) about the Borgia family and the myths that surround them. Did Lucrezia really poison people? Did the family partake in incest? Did Cesare murder his brother. Join me to find out! I would love to see you all there if you can make it!

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[Review] Margaret Tudor: The Life of Henry VIII’s Sister by Melanie Clegg

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When the thirteen year old Margaret Tudor, eldest daughter of Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York, married King James IV of Scotland in a magnificent proxy ceremony held at Richmond Palace in January 1503, no one could have guessed that this pretty, redheaded princess would go on to have a marital career as dramatic and chequered as that of her younger brother Henry VIII. Left widowed at the age of just twenty three after her husband was killed by her brother s army at the battle of Flodden, Margaret was made Regent for her young son and was temporarily the most powerful woman in Scotland – until she fell in love with the wrong man, lost everything and was forced to flee the country. In a life that foreshadowed that of her tragic, fascinating granddaughter Mary Queen of Scots, Margaret hurtled from one disaster to the next and ended her life abandoned by virtually everyone: a victim both of her own poor life choices and of the simmering hostility between her son, James V and her brother, Henry VIII.

I always enjoy reading about historical women who seem to be outshone by their male contemporaries, and Melanie Clegg has written a number of books on amazing historical women who deserve far more attention from historians. She has previously written books on Marie de Guise and Henrietta Anne and now has written a wonderful introduction to Margaret Tudor, sister of the infamous Henry VIII.

From the moment I picked this book up I found it incredibly easy to read – Clegg’s prose truly makes it a page turner. And indeed she makes a complicated history incredibly accessible to those who are new to the subject, as well as to those who already have some interest in the history surrounding Margaret Tudor. It is a book suited to newcomers and old hands, and it makes a nice change to read a book that is so full of information but doesn’t come across as overly academic.

This book tells the story of Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII, whose life was full of betrayal and tragedy. She married the King of Scotland as a young girl yet was widowed at the age of just twenty three, when her husband King James IV at the Battle of Flodden. This battle has gone down in history thanks to the particularly callous actions of Catherine of Aragon, who sent the bloodied tunic of the Scottish King to her husband, and brother of Margaret, King Henry VIII. And things only got worse from there for poor Margaret with her struggling to balance the powerful Scottish factions as well as the whims of her later husbands and brother. Yet as Clegg shows, Margaret had the same will as her brother Henry – it just so happened that her sex made it so that, despite how much she tried and how much she wanted something, she couldn’t get her way.

Really the only gripe I have with this book is the lack of referencing. It would have been nice to be able to see where precisely the many letters that Clegg quotes were found – but that is a minor gripe and one that can easily be looked over.

All in all this book is exceptionally readable and tells the story of a woman much overlooked by history, and a woman whose future family members would go on to rule England.

4/5 stars

A huge thank you to Pen & Sword books for sending me a review copy of this book.

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On This Day – 24th June 1519 – Death of Lucrezia Borgia {500th Anniversary}

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Portrait of a woman, said to be Lucrezia Borgia, by Bartolomeo Veneto

Five hundred years ago to the day – on 24th June 1519 – the infamous Lucrezia Borgia died in Ferrara.

Lucrezia Borgia has long been assumed to be a villainess of the worst kind – accused of incest, murder and multiple affairs – and in more recent times the idea that she was this evil harpy seems to have come more to the forefront. In the name of telling a ‘good’ story television shows, video games and novels have once more cottoned on to the rumours that surround her life and, unfortunately, many are once more believing that these ideas are based in fact. It is a shame as Lucrezia Borgia was nothing of the sort. Rather than a wicked woman she was little more than a pawn in her father and brother’s political games and a deeply pious woman who spent much of her time (in periods of grief etc) closeted away in convents.

It is well documented that Lucrezia suffered from incredibly difficult pregnancies, and it was a pregnancy that would ultimately end her life in 1519. She died on 24th June at the age of 29, which for that day and age was a relatively old age for pregnancy. Although she gave birth to a daughter, named Isabella, the child was sickly. Alfonso d’Este, the child’s father and Lucrezia’s husband, feared that little Isabella would not survive so had her baptised quickly. Alfonso was correct and the child passed on 14th June 1519. Following the birth Lucrezia became seriously unwell to the point that her life was despaired of. Her doctors bled her and, in a last ditch attempt to save her life, cut off her beautiful blonde hair.

Just eight days after the death of her child, Lucrezia wrote a final letter to the Pope. She herself knew that she was dying, even though it was hoped that she was over the worst of things:

MOST HOLY FATHER AND HONORED MASTER: With all respect I
kiss your Holiness’s feet and commend myself in all humility to
your holy mercy. Having suffered for more than two months, early on
the morning of the 14th of the present, as it pleased God, I gave
birth to a daughter, and hoped then to find relief from my
sufferings, but I did not, and shall be compelled to pay my debt to
nature. So great is the favor which our merciful Creator has shown
me, that I approach the end of my life with pleasure, knowing that
in a few hours, after receiving for the last time all the holy
sacraments of the Church, I shall be released. Having arrived at
this moment, I desire as a Christian, although I am a sinner, to
ask your Holiness, in your mercy, to give me all possible spiritual
consolation and your Holiness’s blessing for my soul. Therefore I
offer myself to you in all humility and commend my husband and my
children, all of whom are your servants, to your Holiness’s mercy.
In Ferrara, June 22, 1519, at the fourteenth hour.

Your Holiness’s humble servant,

LUCRETIA D’ESTE. (Gregorovius 1904, 357)

On the night of June 24th, Lucrezia passed away with her husband Alfonso at her side. Alfonso was heartbroken at his wife’s death – although their marriage hadn’t initially been one of love, the two had grown to respect one another and perhaps even love each other. He wrote a letter to his nephew and it really shows how heartbroken he was:

ILLUSTRIOUS SIR AND HONORED BROTHER AND NEPHEW: It has
just pleased our Lord to summon unto Himself the soul of the
illustrious lady, the duchess, my dearest wife. I hasten to inform
you of the fact as our mutual love leads me to believe that the
happiness or unhappiness of one is likewise the happiness or
unhappiness of the other. I cannot write this without tears,
knowing myself to be deprived of such a dear and sweet companion.
For such her exemplary conduct and the tender love which existed
between us made her to me. On this sad occasion I would indeed seek
consolation from your Excellency, but I know that you will
participate in my grief, and I prefer to have some one mingle his
tears with mine rather than endeavor to console me. I commend
myself to your Majesty. Ferrara, June 24, 1519, at the fifth hour
of the night. (Gregorovius 1904, 357)

Lucrezia was buried in the Convent of Corpus Domini, a place where she spent much of her time during her last years of life. She would later be joined by her husband Alfonso and two of her children and today her grave is marked with a simple stone slab – I recently had the honour of being allowed inside Corpus Domini to view Lucrezia’s tomb, and the tomb of other members of the Este family including her eldest son and her granddaughter. The convent itself is an incredibly peaceful place and is still a working convent and as you stand before the tombs you can really understand just why Lucrezia Borgia spent so much of her time there.

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The tomb of Lucrezia Borgia

Here’s to Lucrezia Borgia, a woman who has inspired me in many ways. I’ll always fight her corner and aim to show the world that she wasn’t the villainess many make her out to be. I’ll be raising a glass to you tonight, Lucrezia.

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Tile featuring Lucrezia Borgia, purchased from the Castello Estensi in Ferrara

Further reading

Ferdinand Gregorovius: Lucretia Borgia According to Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day

Sarah Bradford: Lucrezia Borgia – Life, Love & Death in Renaissance Italy

Maria Bellonci: Lucrezia Borgia

Leonie Frieda: The Deadly Sisterhood

 

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[Review] Pirates and Privateers in the 18th Century: The Final Flourish by Mike Rendell

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Pirates and Privateers tells the fascinating story of the buccaneers who were the scourge of merchants in the 18th Century. It examines their lifestyle, looking at how the sinking of the Spanish treasure fleet in a storm off the coast of Florida led to a pirate’s gold rush; how the King’s Pardon was a desperate gamble – which paid off – and considers the role of individual island governors, such as Woodes Rogers in the Bahamas, in bringing piracy under control.The book also looks at how piracy has been a popular topic in print, plays, songs and now films, making thieves and murderers into swash-buckling heroes. It also considers the whole question of buried treasure – and gives a lively account of many of the pirates who dominated the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Piracy.

I’ve long had a fascination with pirates (thank you Pirates of the Caribbean and Black Sails) so when this book arrived in a box full of books from the lovely guys at Pen & Sword, I knew it had to be the first one I picked up. And I devoured in within three days, picking it up to read a bit whenever I had a few spare minutes.

This book tells the story of the end of what was known as the Golden Age of Piracy, giving case studies of various pirates and privateers who sailed the seas during that time. It also goes over what the differences were between a pirate and a privateer (honestly, they were practically the same thing. Privateers simply had a letter stating that they were allowed to do it whereas pirates did not.) and also goes over how the mythology of piracy has changed over the years, how it has been portrayed in books and media.

Rendell has managed to write a wonderful book here – his writing style make it an incredibly easy and enjoyable read. Whilst I would have liked a bit more information on the pirates he writes about – Charles Vane and Jack Rackham being just two of them – he provides an excellent introduction to the history of the era and the people who dominated it. Each section was concise and readable and really does keep the reader interested throughout without simply just throwing information at the reader and turning into a dry read. Rendell also makes use of documents from the time – however what I did find slightly disappointing that there were no footnotes or any references of any kind. I feel that this is a book that would have needed them – so that the reader can check out where these documents are and perhaps look at them for themselves. All history books, in my opinion, should make use of references.

All in all, however, a very concise introduction to the topic at hand that is written in an engaging manner. Those with no background in the history of piracy would be able to access this book and I feel that those with knowledge of the era would find it a good read as well. I certainly look forward to reading more of Rendell’s work in the future given what a wonderful read this one has been.

A huge thank you to Pen and Sword for sending me a copy of this book to review.

4/5 stars.

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