The Monmouth Summer by Tim Vicary

1685. King Charles II dies unexpectedly, and is succeeded by his brother James II, England’s first Catholic monarch since Bloody Mary. English Protestants feel threatened, and King Charles’s illegitimate son, the handsome young duke of Monmouth, rises against his uncle in armed rebellion. The rebellion turns young Ann Carter’s world upside down. Eighteen years old, she is betrothed to Tom Goodchild, a Protestant shoemaker; but secretly loves Robert Pole, an officer in King James’s army, who offers to take her to London as his mistress. Ann knows it is her duty to marry Tom, but does not love him; so when he marches away with the rebels, she imagines him being killed – which would set her free. But she knows such thoughts are wicked; her father is a rebel soldier too, like all the men of her village. So who should she pray for, when musket balls start to fly? What matters most – love or loyalty?

When I was asked to review this book, I jumped at the chance. As readers of this blog will know I have a bit of a thing for all things Seventeenth Century (despite having not really done much on it recently…), and a book set in the midst of the 1685 West Country Rebellion seemed like my perfect historical novel. Now I’ve said in before, and I’ll say it again – I’m not a big fan of historical fiction; but this turned out to be one book that was the exception to the rule. In a nutshell, I thought that this book was a masterpiece. My love of the Seventeenth Century includes pretty much everything from James I onwards, but I have a particular love of the English Civil Wars, Restoration and more recently, Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685. Over the past year or so I have been devouring non fiction books on James Duke of Monmouth and his rebellion; and it also helps having grown up near many of the towns featured in both the historical rebellion, and this novel. And from the get-go, I devoured this book.

Vicary’s writing style is second to none in this book. From the very first page, as we are introduced to the people of Colyton, and in particular the Carter family, the world in which the characters live in seems to burst from the page and come alive. Vicary weaves his prose together masterfully, and as I read I could quite clearly imagine the scenes being described. And as the story began to pick up pace, and the rebel armies of the Duke of Monmouth began to clash with the Royalist troops, it was as if I could hear the musket shots in my ears. It’s not often that a book does this to me, and when it happens it is a real breath of fresh air. As I was reading through however, I did notice a couple of odd grammar mistakes such as full stops in random places throughout the sentences, but I can overlook this as it wasn’t blindingly noticeable. As well as this, I really loved the way the Vicary made his characters speak. The town where the story is mainly set, Colyton, is a real town located in East Devon; and throughout the prose, the characters speak in a west country accent. And Vicary makes this clearer by having the characters actually speak as those in the West Country did (and still do for the most part!):

“Good day Mr Carter! Sorry ’bout Methuselah! Come here Methuselah, you stupid beast! You’m scarin’ they ‘orses!”

Almost all of the characters spoke like this throughout the story, and it really endeared many of them to me. It’s little things like this that can change a book from a good book, to an excellent one.

As I mentioned previously, the story follows the inhabitants of Colyton (a fun fact: known as the most rebellious town in Devon due to their part in the Monmouth rebellion) as they hear of King Charles II’s bastard son coming back from overseas to try and take the throne back from his Catholic uncle, James II. The main character of the story is Ann Carter, a young lady born to a good Puritan family, and she is betrothed to Tom Goodchild. The problem for Ann however is that she is secretly in love with Robert Pole, second son of the local Lord and a supporter of King James. Ann finds herself torn as the men of her village march off to war (including her father) and to fight for the Duke of Monmouth. She is betrothed to marry Tom, who she does not love; yet in love with a man who her father would likely end up meeting on the field of battle. The character of Ann is an interesting one and throughout the narrative you can really see how desperate she is to break free of the ties that bind her to the village and to see the bigger picture. So much so she finds herself highly tempted when Robert offers to take her to London as his mistress. And you can see this throughout the entire story – she fights to stay true to her family’s wishes, to marry Tom and remain true to her faith yet at the same time delights in escaping the village and travelling with the army. And yet despite this new found freedom she finds herself entangled in a life where she must face life or death decisions and finds out that the world is not one to be viewed through rose tinted glasses.

I was incredibly pleased also with the amount of research that went into this book. As a bit of a seventeenth century nut (who, to my shame, was in the Sealed Knot at one point as a musketeer), I was paying quite close attention to the description of the battles, and the musket drill. And it was spot on. And even though I was only ever in a pike block once in my time with the knot (and was rather drunk at the time, thanks for that Nantwich!), I couldn’t see any issues with the pike drill being described in the story either.

All in all, a fantastic story right from the get-go that includes some of the most names and faces of the Seventeenth Century – Prince Rupert, Judge Jeffries and the Battle of Sedgemoor. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the Seventeenth Century and looking to read a well researched, action packed story of an incredibly famous rebellion in English history.

You can pick up Tim Vicay’s novel from Amazon UK and Amazon US for kindle.

Review: The Sickly Stuarts by Frederick Holmes

It’s been ages since I’ve posted a book review on here so I thought I would delight you all and post one. I will warn you now that this review may end up with me yelling about how much I love the Stuart family and how much I want to hug them all. But I’ll try not to do that.

So, this book came through my letterbox yesterday morning, and I read the entire thing in a day. Whenever this has happened previously it’s because the books have been really pants. This one was however, rather good. I’d spotted Holmes’ book in the shop at Hampton Court before and kept wondering whether to pick it up or not, but if I’m honest it was the price that put me off. Then I found it on amazon, nice and cheap. And so when my ex library copy arrived, I settled down to read about the medical problems of my favourite historical family. And let me tell you, I learnt a lot, especially about the Stuart monarchs who I don’t know all that much about.

Holmes splits the book up into each monarch that ruled throughout the Stuart era, with one chapter that concentrated on the children of Charles I. But before Holmes gets into the nitty gritty medical history of each monarch we are given a rather good introduction to disease and doctoring in the seventeenth century. This chapter describes how rife disease was in Stuart England, London in particular, and how the ever increasing population affected said disease. We are also given a brief introduction to the various illnesses and epidemics that plagued the populace (including plague…see what I did there? lolol) as well as the various treatments that are given them. Now then, some of these treatments were a little daft, including the “hot and cold method” of treating small pox. There was one part in this introduction that really made me prick my ears up, and that was a brief mention of early methods of diagnosing diabetes (as a type 1 diabetic myself, the history of this disease is hugely fascinating to me):

“In 1694 Thomas Willis was the first to note that the urine of diabetics ‘is wonderfully sweet, like Sugar or hony’”

As I quoted on our tumblr page, this 17th century doctor really has earned my respect and I really like him (even though I don’t know all that much about him) because he had the balls the taste a diabetic person’s urine. Now that is pretty gross, but it really opened the door for further treatment and even (in some distant way) paved the way for the advent of insulin by Banting and Best in the 1900’s. Anyway, I’ll shut up about the medical history of diabetes now and get on with reviewing the book. So yeah, after this we are given an introduction to the main doctors of the Seventeenth Century, and these are the men who feature prominently as physicians to the monarchy – Theodore de Mayerne, William Harvey, Thomas Sydenham, Richard Lower, John Radcliffe, Richard Mead and John Arbuthnot.

Following this introduction, Holmes’ gets right into the thick of things and begins looking at each Stuart monarch. Of course we start out with James I (VI of Scotland) and Holmes then looks at each monarch in chronological order. The layout of each chapter is exactly the same – we start out with a brief look at their medical history, stuff that made them sick throughout their reign and their death and then goes on to look at their post mortem results to come to a conclusion as to what actually killed them. And as I made my way through each of the chapters, I learnt a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about these monarchs.

Of course, Holmes is unable to come to a definitive answer as to the right diagnosis for each monarch but he does a damn good job with the information he had available. Drawing on primary sources and post mortem reports he was able to say “ok then it is super likely that Charles II had this, but not likely at all he had this other thing because the post mortem report says this”. And although I’m not trained in medicine, a lot of Holmes’ conclusions made a lot of sense. OK so he used some big words for various illnesses, but he also explained what they meant and what the illness was made up of. So yes, good.

Interesting stuff I learnt from this book:

James I had dementia, weak legs and his tongue was too big for his mouth so whenever he drank anything he slobbered it everywhere. He also didn’t wash his hands, only dabbed the ends of his fingers.

Charles I had weak legs (inherited from his father), a speech impediment and according to Holmes was a tad delusional (mainly because he was all “lol parliament, I’m the King and I own all so shut up and let me rule on my own).

Charles II was actually pretty healthy until he made a massive derp of himself and conducted mercury experiments without safety gear (but then, was safety gear even invented then?) and gave himself mercury poisoning which killed him.

James II was also a derp, had an epic nosebleed that meant he couldn’t fight off William of Orange (later William III, or actually he probably used the nosebleed as an excuse because he couldn’t be bothered…maybe). And he died in exile of a stroke and pneumonia.

William III was an epic warrior who invaded England yet was pretty sickly and had asthma and died young because of bacterial pneumonia. His wife, Mary II confused everyone and no one knew whether she died of small pox or measles – at any rate she burned loads of her letters and papers before she died. And it was actually a really bad form of smallpox that killed her.

And last but not least, Anne was never really all that healthy. She survived 17 pregnancies, only 1 child surviving until he died of pneumonia at the age of 11, and eventually it was Lupus that killed her. And she was the last of the Stuart Monarchs…

All in all, an utterly fantastic book and a brilliant read. Some of it is a little complicated and I found myself having to read a few bits a couple of times before the medical terminology sunk in. This is certainly a book I would recommend for anyone interested in the Stuart family. It makes for quite morbid reading, and I won’t lie, I did shed a tear at Charles II’s death but it is hugely interesting and eye-opening. A good read and highly recommended.