Review for ‘So Great a Prince’

“Ingenious… An assured and eye-opening introduction to the England of 1509.”

I’m not usually one to go blaring reviews all over town, but this one was quite exciting so I thought it deserved to be shared.

Tudor historian Steven Gunn – a man whose work was vital secondary reading for So Great a Prince – has reviewed So Great a Prince: England and the Accession of Henry VIII for The Times Literary Supplement.

Unfortunately only a snippet is available unless you subscribe to the TLS, but here is a little extract to give you a taster:

“Her book takes the year as contemporaries would have measured it, from one Lady Day (March 25) to the next, and moves from season to season, following events at court and linking them to the lives of the wider population.

The device is ingenious and largely successful. The political narrative is crisp and leaves room for a portrait of English life across a wide social and geographical range. Easter is used to describe religion, St George’s Day and Henry’s accession to consider education and apprenticeship. May Day and the marriage of Henry to Catherine of Aragon open a discussion of weddings, and Midsummer serves for mystery plays. Halloween brings on death and disease and Christmas fasting, feasting and food. Plough Monday and the assembly of Henry’s first parliament provide an opportunity to discuss the legal system. The court pageantry of Shrovetide with its exotic costumes introduces England’s contacts with the wider world. Lady Day 1510 and the aftermath of Catherine’s first miscarriage bring in sex and childbirth…

In general this is an assured and eye-opening introduction to the England of 1509.”

Everlasting Glory … For a While


Henry VIII as an adolescent.



I wrote this piece for History Today about Henry VIII’s accession.

Henry’s succession in 1509 was greeted by some contemporaries as marking the beginning of a golden age, but the early Tudor world was not as secure as it first appears…

Read on for more


Writing Women into History

So Great a Prince FINAL artBefore I started writing my latest book (So Great a Prince: England and the Accession of Henry VIII, out Thursday, sorry, getting the plug out the way early) I made one big decision: it would not include a chapter dedicated to women.

This isn’t because I don’t think women deserve a chapter all to themselves – women deserve all the chapters. A chapter for every one, as far as I’m concerned. I bloody love historical women. I’ve been trying to fill the gender gaps in my knowledge of the past since I was a kid, and not always with the greatest of ease. At university I was met with mild bewilderment every time – at least once a term – I asked to do a paper on women’s or gender history as part of my period of study. One tutor was so startled at the prospect of teaching me about medieval women that he grasped about for a couple of female mystics and left it at that. Not tremendously representative of general experience, it must be said.

No, the reason I denied women this chapter is because it is my firm belief that history should – must – always did – involve both men and women. Women deserve more than being relegated to a sparse twenty pages, in which all of them – from migrant apprentices to pawn princesses – are lumped together as a single entity. No queen in history would have considered herself comparable to a washerwoman. Female CEOs today still probably have more in common with other managers than they do with their cleaners. Obviously there are biological facts that remain common, but the experience of periods, childbirth and pregnancy would have varied enormously depending on a woman’s class and status.

Alice Middleton wikimedia.jpg

Alice Middleton in later life (Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, I set out very deliberately to use female examples of general historical experiences. Looking for a middle class parent? Clear off John Middleton, I’ll use your wife Alice instead. Want someone who trained apprentices and kept servants? Hello Thomasine Percyvale (nee Bonaventure – she demanded attention for that brilliant name alone). In this age of burgeoning new learning and ‘heresy’, yes I will pay you attention, Joan Warde.

I won’t lie, this made my life harder. Women’s identities are obscured in historical sources at the best of times and the late medieval period is far from the best (although it’s a lot easier than the early Middle Ages, so that’s a boon). Chronicles occasionally mention a queen or heretic but they were written by men about prominent public figures and so largely concern themselves with other men. Guild archives refer to women but often just as ‘so and so’s wife’. Married women could only write wills with their husband’s permission and many working class men and women were still dying intestate. Legal records brim with female criminals or those fighting for their rights, but these women pop into existence for the duration of the case and then promptly disappear again (and that’s if enough of the case survives to fully work out what was going on). Religious theory? Medical texts? Decidedly problematic.

History should – must – always did – involve both men and women.

After all this effort meticulously researching, carefully selecting and then writing my women into the wider narrative, it was with some dismay that I read the proofs of my index and found it’s full of bloody men! Flicking back through the book, my anxieties were slightly allayed. A number of women pop up alongside men, but are not indexed due to the brevity of their appearance. And the index entry for old Thomasine lists almost a dozen appearances. (As a wealthy widowed tailor who left a will, she provided me with an enormous amount of anecdotal detail – I even know her horse’s saddle was made of blue velvet.)

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda (wikimedia commons)

The relative sparsity of female figures in the final book – they make up less than half the total characters who appear – does not make me regret the approach I took. Without the often engrossing, occasionally frustrating, effort taken to dig out these women, I would have had an easier time but a much less rounded book. I also, whether I fail or (hopefully) succeed, feel it is my duty to try and find these women. Not because I am a woman or a feminist or because I personally find women’s stories fascinating – although all of these things are true – but because I’m a historian. History has always involved both men and women. If we only tell the story of one half of the population, we are missing a huge part of the picture. Let’s not just write women’s history in single chapters or consign it to the ‘women’s history’ corner of the bookshop. Let’s tell it in all our history books.

Let’s make all our stories History.



Lady Unknown

What links the British bee-keeping association, Ragged Schools, dog water fountains, the Royal Marsden Hospital and a refuge for prostitutes?

As you can read in my post for the ever-brilliant English Historical Fiction Authors crew, all these disparate causes – and many more – were patronised by the Victorian philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts. Often, Miss Coutts worked anonymously, simply appearing as ‘Lady Unknown’ in the list of benefactors.

I have been working on a play with Untold Theatre, Lady Unknown, about the life of Angela Burdett Coutts, and particularly her working relationship and friendship with Charles Dickens. As the director Anna Ehnold-Danailov says in this video about the project, while Dickens remains a celebrated public figure, Angela herself has been largely forgotten.

(National Portrait Gallery)

(National Portrait Gallery)

And yet many of the charitable works and political concerns she was involved in are still relevant today: she built new housing estates specifically designed with affordable rents and decent sanitation, to combat the spiralling London rents forcing out the working classes; she provided lawyers for the poor costermongers (street-vendors) of London during ongoing disputes with their landlords, in parallel to the desperate situation of those lacking legal aid today; she helped fund the building of what became the Royal Marsden Hospital, an institute designed to research and treat cancer; she encouraged practical training and education to break cycles of poverty and destitution. (She also imported llamas to encourage the use of alpaca in weaving and was heavily involved in the RSPCA.)

Angela fervently believed in helping others to help themselves, and thoroughly investigated philanthropic ventures before she invested in them. She travelled with a writing desk at all times, which you can see in the portrait here, so that she could stay informed about her projects and communicate with her agents about potential new ideas.

I hope that this play, which will be shown at the Charles Dickens Museum, London on 16 November, will introduce more people to Angela.

You can buy tickets here.

Lady Unknown is partially crowd funded.

We are currently just over half funded but we need more help! If you are able to donate even a small amount to the project it could make all the difference to us being able to bring Angela’s story to wider audiences in the future.

Lady Unknown pic

24 October 1537: Death of Queen Jane Seymour

On 24 October 1537 Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour died at Hampton Court Palace.


Only twelve days earlier Queen Jane had given birth to a long-awaited prince and heir – the child who would go on to succeed Henry as King Edward VI. Jane’s chosen royal symbol had proven to be eerily prophetic: like the Phoenix on her crest, she was destroyed in the creation of new life.

Her sacrifice was remembered and her memory cultivated by her grieving husband. Even a decade – and three royal remarriages – after her death, when Henry had a great dynastic image of his family painted Jane was the queen who was chosen to sit alongside him. It was with her that he chose to be buried at his own death.

Holbein portrait

In collective imagination, Jane is the ‘mild’ one – bland, meek and generally considered rather dull. Yet she married a man within weeks of the execution of his previous wife, she argued consistently for key dynastic and religious policies, she was associated with a clear court faction. And we know that for all Henry’s post-mortem romanticising, his relationship with Jane had been far from perfect.

If she had not died in childbed I’m convinced that Jane would have developed into a political force to be reckoned with. She was anything but meek and mild.

Read more about Jane, her turbulent relationship with Henry and her political interventions here.

The Dynasty Painting: Henry VIII surrounded by his family, part and present. By the time this was painted Jane had been dead for almost a decade.

The Dynasty Painting: Henry VIII surrounded by his family, part and present. By the time this was painted Jane had been dead for almost a decade.

Jack the Ripper, ‘interesting history’ and masculine violence

The revelation that a museum promising to be ‘the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history’ is instead opening as a Jack the Ripper Museum – telling the story of a Victorian serial killer – has rightly sparked outrage and astonishment. But eschewing social history in favour of misogyny and murder is far from uncommon in our public historical storytelling. One of those behind this museum, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, explained his decision to change its focus:

‘We did plan to do a museum about social history of women but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.’

(You can read more of the original planning application here.)JRM pic

This project is only the furthest extreme of a general trend in historical presentation, which takes ‘interesting history’ to mean ‘violent and masculine’. I had assumed that the issue here was confined to the Middle Ages, where so often historical events are regurgitations of scenes of (occasionally chivalric) violence. But the case of the Jack the Ripper Museum suggests that even the Modern Age – with its photographs, newspapers, written testimony for all walks of life, and concrete stories of political struggle between classes and sexes – has fallen victim to this trend.

I would argue that there needs to be a serious examination of our public history and the story it is telling. Too often, ‘interesting’ history means ‘violent’. How else to explain the endless posters covered in armoured or khaki-clad men that litter heritage events? Why else does ‘bank holiday weekend’ in heritage terms so largely mean ‘imitated fisticuffs on a lawn by a castle’? Where are the narratives of women in these events? In fact, never mind half the population – a good 90% are excluded from these stories. The poor, the labouring, the enslaved of both sexes; they didn’t participate in tournaments or head off to war on noble steeds, glistening in their full metal jackets. They did, however, till the land that fed the upper classes. They received, sought and occasionally abused the lords’ and ladies’ law courts. They brewed, they baked, they sang, they danced, they told stories and jokes, they went to the toilet on mysteriously constructed middens – in short, they undertook any number of fascinating and now arcane activities that intrigue and enthrall modern audiences. So why is there no ‘serfs weekend’ to set against the ‘knights tournament’?

Because the domestic and the working class have for some reason been deemed ‘uninteresting’. Take it from a convert: I also grew up thinking dungeons were more interesting than wells, then met teachers and interpreters who made me question that assumption and yearn to learn more. No history is boring. What matters is the way it’s told.

Leaving aside for a moment the extraordinarily distasteful victim-blaming that seems to be behind the Jack the Ripper Museum’s narrative (they want to look ‘at why and how the [murdered] women got in that situation in the first place.’ – um. Because someone chose to murder them), the moving of the historical goalposts here is a real shot in the foot.

A real East End woman - my great grandma.

A real East End woman – my great grandma.

Because I for one – and the twitter outcry suggests I’m far from alone – would LOVE a museum about women of the East End, not about half a dozen tragic victims. My own family was part of the myriad mobile communities who populated the East End for generations. I know nothing about them. Because they were poor and died young, they didn’t live long enough to tell me their stories nor did they live ‘interestingly’ enough to leave marks in most written records. (Although the presence of a single ‘burlesque performer’ called Robert in our family’s 1901 census does rather intrigue.)

I would dearly love to know how they lived, what they ate, where they went, what they did with their free time – basically, what their common or garden, unremarkable lives consisted of. THAT is the impulse that we should be fostering in ourselves and in future generations – empathy, interest, exploration, curiosity, extrapolation from the few scattered threads of ‘fact’ to weave together a tapestry of experience and possibility. Not the prurient interest in torture, misogyny and death, in men who kill women and get away with it.

Does this really matter though? Shouldn’t people be free to learn about murderers and watch kings on horseback if they want? Is this not just a case of – brace yourself for the inevitable – ‘PC gone mad’? Well of course it is fine to hold knight’s tournaments and Jack the Ripper exhibitions, if they are one event among many that reflect a more inclusive past. But too much time, money and attention is consistently spent on these masculine, exclusive representations, leaving little alternative narrative offered in public history. (Honourable mention here to Audley End House’s service wing and Beamish Living History Museum’s varied rural and urban landscapes – I’d be very happy to hear of more. *)

And if you are not offered a history that incorporates your own – or your family’s – experience, how can you feel invested in it? Tales of serial killers and monarchs are woefully unrepresentative of the reality of our collective history. We are a world, and especially a nation, who were historically and remain predominantly made up of workers. Men, women and children who moved in search of work, who settled in hopes of brighter futures, who agitated for greater liberties – in nothing else, this year when we commemorate and question Magna Carta should have achieved a sense of that. To present a version of history that is glaringly white, rich and male (not to mention brutally violent) is an aberration from historical reality far more than interpreting one that is multilingual, labouring, half female and predominantly peaceful.

These stories are a crucial part of our collective historical narrative, and they deserve to be told.

If you would like to be involved in the movement to found a real Museum for East End Women, you can get involved here.

* Please use this opportunity to comment below with places that you love or have visited who DO tell social history narratives, or of events that moved away from the purely monarchial, male or violent.

Making the Castle a Home: Creating an Immersive Medieval World Using Live Costumed Interpreters have blogged the talk I gave at the International Medieval Congress last week.

Read on for an explanation of how Live Interpretation works, and how I feel it can engage the public with the sometimes weird and alienating – but always fascinating – medieval world.

Henry VIII’s First Joust: 12 January 1510

On 12 January 1510 Henry VIII took part in his first joust as king.

Henry VIII as an adolescent.

Henry VIII as an adolescent.

During his youth the prince had been carefully cossetted, as befitted the only male heir of the first Tudor monarch. Henry’s life was precious, and if he had been killed engaging in the violent martial pursuits of other noble youths it risked pitching the country back into bloody civil war. Popular imagination claims that the ‘Wars of the Roses’ were ended when Henry VII slew Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and united the warring families by marrying a princess of the house of York – but in reality there were still many ‘white roses’ knocking around Europe during the reigns of the Tudors. At the jousts to celebrate his coronation in June 1509 Henry VIII had played the part of spectator and patron – the same role his father had filled for his entire reign. But it was not a part young Henry was prepared to play for long. In January 1510 he was eighteen years old, had been king for over six months and he believed his wife Catherine of Aragon was pregnant. Perhaps the possibility of an heir spurred him on – or perhaps he simply could not frustrate his masculine pride any longer. Only days after Epiphany 1510 Henry VIII entered a tournament at Richmond. He went in disguise with his Groom of the Stool and childhood friend William Compton alongside him. Dressed as ‘stranger knights’ they jousted alongside their peers, Henry acting the part of a hero in his own chivalric tale. But when Compton was pitted against Sir Edward Neville – an expert jouster, with height and build to rival Henry’s – he was bested. And badly injured. Other attendants at the joust must have known the secret identity of the ‘stranger knights’ and fearing that it was the King himself who had been hurt cries of ‘God save the King!’ went up, creating a panic. Men rushed to the stricken stranger knight, believing Compton to be their mortally wounded monarch. In the scrum Henry had to reveal himself as uninjured, apparently to general rejoicing – although one suspects there was more relief than joy.

Henry VIII jousting before Queen Catherine in 1511.

Henry VIII jousting before Queen Catherine in 1511.

Had Henry VIII been injured that day – as he was to be, seriously, later in his reign – the Tudor dynasty might have been a short one indeed. The teenage king was reckless. This joust set a pattern for his behaviour throughout his reign. For Henry VIII, his own passions came first. War, tournaments, women – involvement with all were heavily influenced by Henry’s heart rather than his head. At Henry’s first joust in 1510, we see the beginnings of the king Henry VIII was to become. Lauren is working on a history of the year 1509 for Head of Zeus, which will be published in 2016.

Twelve Days of Tudor Christmas

Elizabeth of YorkHappy New Year everyone! In celebration of the arrival of 2015, I’ve put up a tasty blog post for you all.

If you enjoyed my piece about early Tudor feasting at Christmas then find out more about Christmas and New Year customs during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII in my post for English Historical Fiction Authors:  Celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas in Early Tudor England.

Sneak peak:

In the household of Henry Percy, fifth earl of Northumberland, New Year’s Day dawned with a cacophony of trumpet blasts. First they belched out their tunes outside the Earl and Countess’s door, and then their children’s. Unpleasant as this sounds to us perhaps it wasn’t so bad for Harry Percy – he didn’t celebrate the turning year (and work on his ‘morning after’ headache) until that night, when he sat in state in his great hall at Wressle Castle and had largesse proclaimed by his heralds. The Earl celebrated the Twelve Days of Christmas in style: his half-dozen musicians played, there were dances, pageants, disguisings, plays, wassailing, carol-singing and gambling. He even had his own bearward to bring ‘his lordship’s beasts for making of his lordship’s pastime’.
Read more about Tudor japes, both high and low, here.