[Review] Young & Damned & Fair – Gareth Russell

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Written with an exciting combination of narrative flair and historical authority, this interpretation of the tragic life of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, breaks new ground in our understanding of the very young woman who became queen at a time of unprecedented social and political tension and whose terrible errors in judgment quickly led her to the executioner’s block.

On the morning of July 28, 1540, as King Henry’s VIII’s former confidante Thomas Cromwell was being led to his execution, a teenager named Catherine Howard began her reign as queen of a country simmering with rebellion and terrifying uncertainty. Sixteen months later, the king’s fifth wife would follow her cousin Anne Boleyn to the scaffold, having been convicted of adultery and high treason.

The broad outlines of Catherine’s career might be familiar, but her story up until now has been incomplete. Unlike previous accounts of her life, which portray her as a naïve victim of an ambitious family, this compelling and authoritative biography will shed new light on Catherine Howard’s rise and downfall by reexamining her motives and showing her in her context, a milieu that goes beyond her family and the influential men of the court to include the aristocrats and, most critically, the servants who surrounded her and who, in the end, conspired against her. By illuminating Catherine’s entwined upstairs/downstairs worlds as well as societal tensions beyond the palace walls, the author offers a fascinating portrayal of court life in the sixteenth century and a fresh analysis of the forces beyond Catherine’s control that led to her execution—from diplomatic pressure and international politics to the long-festering resentments against the queen’s household at court.

Including a forgotten text of Catherine’s confession in her own words, colour illustrations, family tree, map, and extensive notes, Young and Damned and Fair changes our understanding of one of history’s most famous women while telling the compelling and very human story of complex individuals attempting to survive in a dangerous age

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Gareth Russell at an authors event in London so when I found out that he was bringing a book out on Catherine Howard I knew I had to pick it up. And let me tell you – I am SO glad that I did.

It’s not often these days that I will sit down and read much in the way of Tudor history, despite the fact that I have plenty of Tudor books sat on my shelf. I’ll stick my nose in every now and then, sure, but every so often a book pops up that makes me remember just why I like Tudor history so much and pulls me back in. Young & Damned & Fair is one of these books, a diamond in the myriad of Tudor non-fiction that’s out there these days. I’ve heard people say that Tudor history has been done to death but let me tell you, Russell’s book blows that out of the water and offers a new look at one of history’s most tragic Queen’s.

From the moment I picked this up, I couldn’t put it down. Russell’s writing style made me feel less like I was reading a heavy biography and more like I was reading something that had been written for the reader to enjoy. From the first word you find yourself immersed in the world of the Tudor court and that is simply because of the wealth of research that Russell has put into this work. Everything is taken as is. Assumptions are something that just aren’t there in this. Here we see every character of the Tudor court with their flaws written out for all to see – these people come across as human which is incredibly rare in biographies of Catherine Howard. Either Catherine is vilified as a young teenaged whore or those she had dealings with are seen as demons who deserved everything they got. Nothing is black and white in this book. Which is precisely as it would have been.

Having read other biographies on Catherine, and read about her in books on Henry VIII’s six wives, I can one hundred percent tell you all that this book deserves to be seen as the bible on Catherine Howard and her life. It is superbly well researched and excellently written – I can see this book opening up the door to Tudor history for a lot of people, and Gareth Russell deserves some high praise for this wonderful piece of work.

Review: The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

I was kindly sent a copy of this book by the author Nancy Bilyeau and her publishers after winning a giveaway on English Historical Fiction Authors. It arrived on Thursday, and by Friday evening I had finished it – and now I’m not normally one to coin this phrase but I just couldn’t put it down. Now you guys know me, I’m not normally one to break into historical fiction if I can help it as more often than not it disappoints me – the only exceptions recently have been Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” and Ken Follet’s “Pillars of the Earth” and normally I steer very very clear of Tudor fiction (please see Tired Of The Tudors, and you’ll understand why). “The Crown” is Bilyeau’s debut novel, and I have to say, she has done a very good job. Whilst the book isn’t perfect, with some inaccuracies, the fast paced storyline and exceptionally well developed characters kept me hooked from the first page right until the last. And I have to say it was a much needed break from my heavier non fiction that I’ve been reading lately.

First of all, the story is set within Dartford priory in Kent, which was the only house of Dominican Nuns in England., and the main character is Sister Joanna, or Joanna Stafford. Joanna is part of a much bigger family unit, related to the executed Duke of Buckingham and family ties to the Duke of Norfolk…and thus also a family connection to Henry VIII! But why do we encounter Stafford in a priory as a Novice? Quite simply, she had agreed to the dying Queen/Dowager Princess of Wales Katherine of Aragon, that she would take vows due to a huge sense of kinship, and her own huge religious faith. I found Stafford a hugely interesting character from the get go, she came across as hugely intelligent and incredibly loyal to her friends. The story is set amongst the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, an exceptionally turbulent time for England, and after being arrested at the public burning of her cousin, Joanna finds herself embroiled in a quest for a lost Anglo-Saxon artifact. And at the same time, as the story unfolds, we get a sense of how the dissolution affected not only those who were losing their homes but normal people too – there was one part of the book where Joanna was making her way out of the priory (and I’ll try not to give away any spoilers) only to be greeted with hostile looks and words. It was incredibly evocative, and I found myself feeling deeply for the characters.

Bilyeau does a fantastic job with her writing too, considering the massive cast of characters in the book and you find herself creating ties to each character for different reasons, even if they are only briefly mentioned. For instance, I found myself particularly to like John the Stable Boy – he was just awesome (and again I won’t go into too much detail of why because spoilers) and even with the characters who were the bad guys as it were, I found myself finding parts of them that I liked. The characters were not inherently good or evil, they were just human. And I liked that characterisation. It helped that the narrative was detailed, conveying a believable view of Tudor England, and hugely evocative visions of the frightening Tower of London; yet not too detailed to spend pages and pages talking about what someones shoe looked like (trust me, I’ve read books like this – and you get bored very quickly!). The story was fast paced and exciting, and it was that as well as the well rounded characters that meant I just could not put it down. Which has to be a good thing right?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and cannot thank the author and her publishers enough for sending me a copy. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for further work by this promising author. For anyone who likes Tudor fiction then I definitely recommend picking up this book, particularly if you like historical mysteries, and as I described it to my partner last night “It was like a historical Da Vinci Code only written a lot better, much more exciting, and with better characters…and without anything to do with Da Vinci!”. Sums it up nicely I think.