The Sunday Review: Getting Up to Speed on the Tudor Court

After Friday’s Travel Diary post, I’ve had several requests for the quintessential book about the Tudor Court. Clearly, I cannot name just one. Impossible. I can, however, give you a glimpse into a reader’s history and how I developed a passion for Anne Boleyn’s story.

Yes, that’s me inserted into the Queen Elizabeth I painting. My son gave me this for my birthday last year!

I came into my obsession through a couple of different avenues, but we’ll start with my childhood reading. As a precocious reader, my parents let me run amok in my hometown library, and I devoured everything I could find about the Tudor Court. I was fascinated with how a man, even if he was a king, could somehow get away with having six wives and killing two of them — remember the old saying, Divorced Beheaded Died Divorced Beheaded Lived? I was entranced with how Elizabeth I got to the throne and at some point, I figured out why the current Queen of England was Elizabeth II. I was hooked.

When I began to teach American history, I realized that my students had no idea why the early English colonists left to start over in what they called the New World. The idea of religious freedom had little meaning if not compared to the religious situation the colonists left. Teaching my students about settlements in what we now call the United States made me want to know more at an adult level about the English Civil Wars and the Reformation in Europe.

Click into this family tree for more resources on the War of the Roses between the Lancasters and the Yorks and how a Tudor got to be king!

Learning about how the Tudors got to the throne made me finally realize why Henry VIII was willing to do just about anything to get a legitimate male heir. After all that his ancestors went through to get that throne, he was pretty determined to keep it — and why Elizabeth I was just as determined to not let marriage undermine her authority.

Click into this family tree to find out even more information about what happened to the Tudor line.

Enter current historical fiction and its magic. Most historical fiction being produced today is well-researched and written by fine writers who do a great job of creating compelling stories that are reasonably accurate. There are myriad resources available to the HF writer today; primary sources are collected and shared in great libraries and on the internet. The body of “domestic” documents (diaries, recipe books, household accounts written by women) that have been collected give the authors a much better view into their characters’ lives and it shows in the books they write. I read historical fiction with my internet browser at the ready so that I can either verify or expand on the material presented. It’s a good time to be a writer of historical fiction and an even better time to be a reader. There truly is magic in these books for the adventurous reader.

So what do I recommend? Let’s start with three female writers who are well-known for their work in historical fiction about this time period. I’ve read “quite a bit” of their work . ūüôā

Phillipa Gregory is a well-regarded historian and author who has written many novels about the York/Lancaster/Tudor saga and her books are probably the most accessible of the three authors I have chosen for this post. ¬†Her web site has a nice feature with her books set against a historical timeline. Personally, if I were starting my reading today, I would follow her timeline and start with The White Queen, the story of Elizabeth Woodville. This book helps set the stage for the rivalries to follow. Next is¬†¬†The Kingmaker’s Daughters, which is followed by her newest and unreleased book about Elizabeth of York, who married Henry VII, thus starting the Tudor line. The Constant Princess depicts a fictionalized version of the life of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife.¬†The Other Boleyn Girl¬†is¬†loosely based on the life of Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister, who was Henry VIII’s mistress and that relationship was one of the reasons used to declare the marriage between Anne and Henry null and void. The Other Boleyn Girl was also made into a movie starring Scarlett Johanssen.¬†The Boleyn Inheritance covers the time period of Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, with Jane Boleyn finally getting consequences for her actions.¬†The Queen’s Fool¬†takes the reader into the problem of Mary Tudor, the forgotten heir to the Tudor throne.¬†The Virgin’s Lover features Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, and finally,¬†The Other Queen is the story of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Hilary Mantel is the author of two highly-acclaimed novels about the Tudor Court, written from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have won the Man Booker Prize in England and are extraordinary extensions for people who already know something about Henry VIII and the political shenanigans that went on during his reign. The third book in the Cromwell trilogy is due to be published in 2015. I loved both of these books and am eagerly awaiting the third of the set.

Last but certainly not least is Alison Weir, also a renowned historian and novelist. She has written so many books about this period that I have just linked up the Alison Weir book list on for you to look at. In checking out her online personna, I discovered that she actually leads British history tours. I AM INTRIGUED.

Although none of these ladies wrote a book about Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr, there are a number of authors that have. I read one of them and was not impressed, but just in case, here’s a link that gives you some options.

More than you wanted to know? I hope not. After all, writers are readers and readers make better writers. I hope you will read some of these books and let me know how you liked them. Want to recommend something else? Go for it — I’m always ready for something new in this genre, and thanks for spending time with my great obsession today!

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31 Days in Europe: Thoughts on Vacation Photos

Since it’s Saturday and we’re midway through the 31-Day Challenge, I thought it was time for a little reflection about all those photos that we take on vacation.

There are good ones…

Image credit: Got My Reservations

and there are bad ones.

I'm not claiming any credit for this image.

There are the ones that I¬†should have erased from my digital camera as soon as they were taken …

War memorial at Dover Castle

and there are the funny photos that it’s quite probable only you and a few select friends would even laugh at.

There are the ones that you collect…

We collect photos of stupid and ironic signs

and the ubiquitous photos of flowers that when separated from their context, look just like the other flower photos I took.

Image credit: Got My Reservations

So — what do you do with all of those photographs? In my house, we have a relatively healthy competition over whose photos are the best. We each keep photo files on our computers and historically haven’t been very good about sharing. This year was a breakthrough, though. As soon as we got home from England, we created a Snapfish hard cover scrapbook of our vacation photos. Husband went through all of the photos and pared them down to about 250 out of about 2,000 photos we took. Then we imported them into the Snapfish program and created our book. The fact that we had a 50% off coupon that was expiring provided motivation and created momentum to get the job done, and I’m glad we did this. It’s a lot easier to take a photo book to a party than to take my computer and hook it all up for people to view on a small screen.

Snapfish Photo Book

I think I may be addicted to these photo books. I used to try to scrapbook my vacations and events, and even though I have friends who regularly have scrapbooking parties and encourage me to share their scrapbooking habit, I just bought materials and never used them. I also think that in the long term goal of getting rid of things, these relatively small mementos of vacations are more likely to be cherished and revisited over the years.

What do you do with your photos? Do you still have hard copy prints in the envelopes from twenty years ago? What will your children do with your photos? I hope that the fate of your vacation and family stories won’t lie on the floor of a closet in a deserted home, as my next door neighbors’ are. When both parents passed away, the kids left all the slides and photos in the house they let go to foreclosure. It breaks my heart.

Although not a vacation photo, I thought I’d share a precious personal photo with you. My cousin and her mom (my mother’s sister) recently broke up their scrapbooks and sent me the photos that were of me and my family. I’ve never seen this photo before, but my forehead still bears the scar that resulted from the injury that is pictured in the photo. Thanks to the thoughtfulness of my cousin, I now have a totally cute picture of me with my band-aid.

Image via Got My Reservations

31 Days in Europe: Knole

Image credit: Got My Reservations

Okay, so the story of Knole is pretty juicy, but it starts way back during the mid-1400s, when it was first built. It is one of the largest houses in England, and its state rooms are largely preserved the way they were in the early 1600s.¬†In this section, the juicy part is in the way Henry VIII forced Thomas Cranmer, his Archbishop of Canterbury, to hand it to him in 1538, just cause Henry liked it, and we now know that you don’t fight with good ole Hal.¬†The Sackville family got control of the house during the reign of Elizabeth I in 1566 by being loyal courtiers, and Sackvilles have lived there ever since.

Image via

Many acres of park are still owned by the Sackville-West family and they live in over half of the house, but the National Trust owns the house and 43 acres of park. Its medieval deer park is comprised of 1ooo acres, and the deer that inhabit it are well-used to constant visitors, as Knole has been shown to the public for 500 years. Watching these very tame deer, it was sad to think that their original purpose on this property was to provide sport for the noblemen to hunt.

Image credit: Got My Reservations

Knole is so big and beautiful and full of ancient artifacts that it’s kind of hard to wrap your arms around its¬†magnificence. ¬†We weren’t able to take photos inside because the furnishings and art are so old that they are on the verge of crumbling into dust.

“In the early 17th century, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, transformed the late medieval archbishop’s palace into a Renaissance mansion. Towards the end of the 17th century, his great-great-grandson, the 6th Earl, acquired Knole’s unique collection of Stuart furniture and textiles through his office as Lord Chamberlain. And then, towards the end of the 18th century the 6th Earl’s great-grandson, the 3rd Duke, added Old Masters bought on the Grand Tour to Italy and portraits commissioned from contemporary English artists such as Reynolds and Gainsborough” (

The Stuart furniture and bed linens are in the process of being copied and hermetically sealed to protect them from further deterioration. It was really interesting to see the posters showing the original pieces prior to restoration and or duplication.

Now we get to the really juicy part. Thanks for waiting so patiently as the historian in me made her presentation.

Image via Wikipedia Commons

Enter The Honorable Victoria Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson,¬†¬†the only daughter of the 3rd Baron Sackville. Vita, as she was called,¬† grew up at Knole and talked about ¬†how living in Knole was like living in a museum. The family actually occupied a small part of the immense house and left the state rooms and ancient furnishings intact. Our guide told the story that once Vita snuck into one of the Stuart bedrooms and tried to use a hairbrush. Her mother about flipped out over this silly childish curiosity, but you can image mom’s horror to find her daughter playing with these priceless heirlooms!

Image via















By 1913, Vita had become the wife of Harold George Nicolson, a British writer and politician. Vita already had quite a history of having affairs with female lovers before her marriage, and although she and Harold were devoted to each other, their open marriage allowed them to experiment outside their marital vows. Their letters to each other were edited and published by their son, Nigel Nicolson, after their deaths, and show a couple deeply in love and committed to similar goals and values in life.

Although not officially a member of the Bloomsbury Group, Vita was a friend of the collective of writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists who lived and worked together in the London neighborhood of Bloomsbury. They were political and social liberals who believed passionately in the importance of art, and also of personal relationships and individual pleasure.

Image via

Among the many now-famous members of this group was Virginia Woolf, who began a lovers’ relationship with Vita Sackville-West in 1922. Although Vita claims that the affair was only twice consummated, the relationship lasted until the late 1920s and Woolf’s novel, Orlando, is set at Knole and is said to tell the story of Vita’s affair with a previous female lover. ¬†Orlando¬†explores the nature of gender difference and sexual identity because its main character goes back and forth in gender over its 400 years, and Woolf may have used Vita and her husband Harold, both openly bisexual, as the inspiration for Orlando.

Given the memories she had of Knole and her personal social agenda, you can imagine how difficult it was for Vita to be forced to leave it and renounce all claims to Knole simply because she was female. She was heartbroken when her father died and her male cousin inherited Knole and the hereditary title.

Image via

Vita and Harold purchased Sissinghurst in 1930 and began to revive the ruined property, which in the 15th century was owned by the Baker family, who were related by marriage to the Sackvilles. She ended up owning a piece of her own history and making new history with the gardens that she and Harold created together.

This post ¬†linked up with hundreds of other¬†31 Day-ers. Join the fun and visit other bloggers as they share a piece of themselves. I’m still number 568, by the way.

Book Review: Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Historical fiction or historical romance? Which is it?

Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel is set in Tudor England, with Sir Thomas More at its center. The story line, which has a number of subplots, is based on Hans Holbein‘s visit to the Chelsea home of More and his family to paint a family portrait. The author, Vanora Bennett, has used Holbein’s 1527 portrait as a jumping off point for her intriguing tale of religious wars, political intrigue, and family secrets.

The narrator of Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel is¬†Meg Giggs, the real-life adopted daughter of Thomas More. She is a typical 21st century heroine, and is smart, well-read, and well-loved despite her behavior which is out of synch with her times. Still, the reader is engaged and cheerfully fights her battles along with her. In the portrait, Meg is the woman on the left — the “plain Jane” of this Renaissance family. As a historical romance, this book has lots of disclosures about the love lives of its characters that are likely to keep you guessing.

As historical fiction, Bennett has deftly woven together the intersecting lives of a number of famous names in Renaissance history, including Martin Luther, Erasmus, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, and of course Thomas More’s family and their relationships with Hans Holbein and Henry VIII. Her attention to historical and court detail is beautifully researched, even if the facts are sometimes well- embroidered. She also has a clear understanding of Holbein’s painting techniques and the subtle details about his artistic messages are very interesting and made me want to study these works of art again.

It’s definitely historical fiction if you are a member of the Richard III Society. I’m not going to go any farther than that; those who love reading about this time period and the fate of the Plantagenet princes will either love or hate this book.

This is a book for the Tudor historical fiction lovers among you, and it’s important that you know who the players are in this sadly tangled web of lust in all of its incarnations. ¬†It starts a little slowly, and if you are not familiar with the painting, I suggest doing a little research about Holbein before you begin. Also, part of the poignancy of the book is that it is assumed that the reader knows what is going to happen to Sir Thomas More before you start and the dramatic irony is important to the telling of More’s story.

All in all, Portrait of an Unknown Woman is a good book for a lovely day on the couch or on audiobook in your car, as I did. Have fun with this one; I promise it will get your brain working!

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links, but I wouldn’t tell you to buy or read something if I didn’t believe in it. I’m just keeping it real.

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