Book Review: “Usurpers, a New Look at Medieval Kings” by Michele Morrical

Pen & Sword Book Cover / Jacket artwork

In medieval Europe, to be considered a strong king, you must keep a firm grasp on your crown, or those who see you as weak will take advantage. These men were known as usurpers throughout history who steal the throne through combat or by illegal means. Some of the most well-known kings in English history have been categorized as usurpers, but is this a fair assessment of their mark in history, or is it a case of propaganda changing their legacy? In her debut nonfiction book, “Usurpers, a New Look at Medieval Kings,” Michele Morrical explores the lives of six English kings who bear that title to see if it makes sense with the facts of how they came into power.

I would like to thank Net Galley and Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. When I heard this book was published, I wanted to see how Morrical described a usurper and which king she considered usurpers. I have never heard of a book that focused solely on those who stole thrones in England, so I was excited to see how well it read.

Morrical breaks her book into six sections, with each part focusing on one specific king and his rise to power. She focuses on William the Conqueror, Stephen of Blois, Henry IV, Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII as examples of rulers in English history known to be usurpers. Morrical writes biography vignettes to give her readers an understanding of how they came to power and who they had to remove from the throne to become the next monarch. In some cases, it meant starting a new dynasty, and in others, it was just a continuation of the family’s lineage, but it was a different branch of the family tree. The biographies tend to get repetitive, especially with the sections dedicated to the Wars of the Roses. If you are new to these kings and the events of their lifetimes, the repetitive nature will help you understand how everything is connected.

I think Morrical can improve if she writes another nonfiction book by using quotes from primary sources and other historians to strengthen her arguments. I wish she had included discussions from chronicles or other primary sources from around the times that these men became rulers to see the consensus of the time towards the new king. It would have added an extra layer to the stories, and readers could see how our definition of a usurper king would have compared or contrasted to the views of the past. I would have also liked Morrical to have discussed whether being a usurper king had a positive or negative connotation. Many kings on this list were considered game-changers when ruling England and transformed how England was viewed in the grander scheme of European politics.

I think for her first book, Morrical does a decent job of presenting her viewpoints about certain kings and presenting the facts about their lives. One can tell that Morrical is passionate about usurpers and understanding why they took the English throne from their predecessors. Overall, I think it is not bad for a book that combines the lives of six kings of England into one text. If you want a good introductory book into the lives of usurper kings, you should give “Usurpers, a New Look at Medieval Kings” by Michele Morrical a try.

Book Review: “The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream” by Charles Spencer

53604802._SY475_In the middle of the night on November 25, 1120, screams could be heard from the English Channel. A ship known as The White Ship hit a rock and began to sink. Those on board were the glamorous English elite, including the legitimate son of King Henry I, William Aetheling. In an era where people feared the sea and could not swim, those on board sank to their watery death on that cold winter night that began with such frivolity. No one knew that night that this one disaster at sea would cause a dynastic struggle that would lead to the founding of the infamous Plantagenet dynasty. In his latest book, “The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream”, Charles Spencer takes his readers on a journey to fully understand the impact that this tragedy had on the English royal family.

Charles Spencer has written many nonfiction books in the past, but they have all been out of the time periods that I enjoy reading about. I might go back and read them in my own time, but when I saw that this particular title was going to be published and how much praise it had received from prominent historians, I decided to give it a try.

Spencer’s tale into this tragedy begins with a vivid account of the night of November 25th and then it jumps to the first part of the tale. To understand why this event was so horrific for Henry I, we have to understand what it took for Henry I to become King of England. Henry, I was one of three sons of William the Conqueror. After his father died in 1087, the third son, William Rufus became King William II, much to the chagrin of the eldest son, Robert Curthose, who remained Duke of Normandy, but he continued to be a thorn at his brother’s side. When William II died after a hunting accident, Henry knew that it was his chance to beat Robert to the throne, which he did, becoming Henry I, who fought hard to restore order to England.

His two legitimate children, William Aetheling and Matilda, allowed Henry I to breathe a sigh of relief, although he had numerous illegitimate children. This is why this tragedy hit me so hard. With William’s death, it meant that anyone could take the throne after Henry I’s death, which is exactly what happened. The period we know as The Anarchy was a battle between Matilda, who was Henry’s heir, and her cousin Stephen of Blois for the throne of England.

Spencer has painted a dramatically dark portrait of the fall of the Norman dynasty. The Normans were notorious for their cruelty towards those who opposed them, even their own family. What I thoroughly enjoyed with this book was Spencer’s tone. It is as if you are having a casual conversation with Spencer about Henry I’s reign and his family’s drama for the throne. I was impressed with how well researched this book was and the new information that Spencer provided to present the bigger picture of this catastrophe.

I found this book to be a thrilling read full of information and vivid descriptions. This may be Charles Spencer’s first dive into the world of medieval nonfiction, but I hope it is not the last. If you want a brilliant read about the aftermath of the Conquest, the rise and fall of Henry I, and the Anarchy, I highly recommend you read, “The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream” by Charles Spencer.

Book Review: “Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey” by Sharon Bennett Connolly

Pen & Sword Book Cover / Jacket artwork

To survive during the reigns of the Norman and Plantagenet Kings of England, one must understand where their loyalty and trust lied. Did they follow the crown or did they take a risk and follow those who opposed the person who wore the crown? For one family, there was no question who they were loyal to, which was the crown. The Warenne Earls of Surrey served the Kings of England from William the Conqueror to Edward III, gaining titles, prestige, and marriages that would cement their names in history books. They survived some of the most turbulent times in English history even if they did have a few scandals in their illustrious history. In Sharon Bennett Connolly’s latest non-fiction adventure, “Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey ”, she explores this family’s history that spanned over three centuries.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books and NetGalley for sending me a copy of this book. I have been a fan of Sharon Bennett Connolly’s books for a while now, so when I heard about this title, I knew I wanted to read it. I was going in a bit blind since I have never heard of the Warenne Earls of Surrey, but that is part of the fun of studying a new aspect of history.

The first Earl of Surrey, William de Warenne began this family’s tradition of royal loyalty as he joined William the Conqueror on his journey to England and fought alongside him to establish Norman rule at the Battle of Hastings. William’s descendants would be involved in some of the most important events of the time, from the crusades to the 1st and 2nd Baron’s Wars and the sealing of the Magna Carta. At some points, the earls would briefly switch sides if they thought the king was not in the best interest of the country, but they remained at the heart of English politics and worked hard to help guide the king and the country to become stronger.

What made the Warennes a tour de force when it came to noble families was their ability to marry well, except for the final earl and his scandalous relationships. The second earl desired to marry into the royal family, which did not happen, but his daughter, Ada de Warenne would marry William the Lion, King of Scotland. One of the daughters of Hamlin and Isabel de Warenne would be the mistress of King John and would give birth to his illegitimate son Richard of Chilham. The only woman of the family who inherited the earldom of Surrey, Isabel de Warenne, was married twice and so both of her husbands, William of Blois and Hamelin of Anjou, are considered the 4th earl of Surrey.

Connolly does a wonderful job explaining each story in de Warenne’s long history, including the minor branches of the family. I was able to understand the difference between family members who shared the same first name, (like William, John, and Isabel) but I know that others might have struggled with this aspect. I think it would have been helpful if Connolly had included either a family tree or a list of family members of the de Warennes at the beginning of this book to help readers who did struggle.

I found this particular title fascinating. The de Warennes were a family that proved loyalty to the crown and good marriages went a long way to cement one’s legacy in medieval England. Connolly proved that she has a passion for bringing obscure noble families to the spotlight through her impeccable research. If you want a nonfiction book of a noble family full of loyalty, love, and action, you should check out “Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey” by Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Book Review: “A Princely Lodging: A History of Sheriff Hutton Castle” by Alexander Hill

Numerous castles with remarkable stories dot the landscapes of many European countries, especially England. Few are in good condition whereas others are in a rather ruinous stage. In the village of Sheriff Hutton, there is a shell of a once illustrious castle that protected England and its monarchs for centuries, aptly named Sheriff Hutton Castle. For those who are familiar with the family York and the Nevilles of the Wars of the Roses, you might be familiar with the name of this castle, but do you know the entire story of the castle? Why was this castle so significant to the history of northern England and why did it fall into disarray? These questions and more are explored in Alexander Hill’s debut book, “A Princely Lodging: A History of Sheriff Hutton Castle”.

I would like to thank Alexander Hill for sending me a copy of his book. I always like learning about new aspects of history that I never considered. Obviously, I have heard of Sheriff Hutton Castle, but I never considered its history, so I was excited to learn more about this castle.

In order to understand the significance of Sheriff Hutton Castle and why it was built in Sheriff Hutton, Hill takes his readers to the reign of William the Conqueror. William’s castle-building campaign was significant since the castles acted as defensive structures to protect the country. Later, they would transition to more palatial buildings, but they were still used by the military from time to time as headquarters for councils.

Knowing this information, Hill dives deep into the archives to explore the truth about Sheriff Hutton Castle. Hill tells the tale of Sheriff Hutton Castle in chronological order; from who built it, who owned it when, and why it is left in its current dilapidated state. The amount of care and meticulous research that went into writing this book is nothing short of astounding. Hill includes details about the landscape, the structure itself, how much it took to repair such a structure, and who acted as guests and caretakers of the castle.

What I found extremely fascinating is how much time Hill took on the Wars of the Roses and the Tudors period in the castle’s history. To see how the York dynasty used it as a strategic point for their Council of the North and how it was used as a nursery for some of the most famous royal children was interesting. One of my favorite parts of this book was the portion about Henry Fitzroy, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, and his time at Sheriff Hutton Castle. To see how he was raised and the education that he received was a breath of fresh air, especially for those who are fans of studying the Tudor dynasty.

Overall, I found this book rather enjoyable. There were a few grammatical mistakes, but the actual content of this book was engrossing and very original. This may be Alexander Hill’s debut, but I hope it is not his last book. I would love for him to explore even more castles in the near future. If you want to learn more about Sheriff Hutton Castle and its impact, I recommend you read, “A Princely Lodging: A History of Sheriff Hutton Castle” by Alexander Hill.

Book Review: “English Collusion and the Norman Conquest” by Arthur C. Wright

51352100 (1)The Norman Conquest of 1066 was one of the most important dates in English and world history. It signaled the start of the Norman influence in England with Duke William, also known as William the Conqueror, becoming King of England. But does William I deserve the reputation that is attributed to him in history, or should we be careful with how we view him because his story is told by the avaricious Church? How much help did William and the Normans receive from their English counterparts? Can we call this event a “conquest”? Who was to blame for the “Harrowing of the North”? These questions and more are discussed in Arthur C. Wright’s latest book, “English Collusion and the Norman Conquest”.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this book. When it comes to studying the Norman Conquest, I am a bit of a novice, so I was excited to read another book about this time.

I found this book rather difficult to understand. Wright writes in a style where he is having a conversation to experts, while at the same time saying that every historian has it wrong and he knows exactly what happened. This rubbed me the wrong way. If he had proved his point, I might have found his argument compelling, but he just came off as an angry rambler in the first half of this book. I really wanted to understand what he was trying to say, but I did not see his evidence for English collusion. Instead, he spent a lot of time arguing that feudalism is a myth, which was quite bizarre.

I think the second part of his book was stronger than the first half. It explored the life, commerce, and education of the average citizen. I think if Wright had reorganized his chapters, this book might have been a bit easier to comprehend. Wright tends to focus on after the conquest, without specifying dates, but it is hard to see where the English collusion comes into play. Another problem that I did have is when he tried to insert more modern sayings, ideas, and characters into the conversation. It felt out of place and rather distracting.

I do believe that Wright is knowledgeable when it comes to the subject of the Norman Conquest and England in the years that followed. Unfortunately, his writing style makes it difficult to understand what message he is trying to get across with this particular book. It was readable, but the focus was a bit off and it was hard to figure out his target audience. If you are familiar with the Norman Conquest and would like a challenge, check out “English Collusion and the Norman Conquest” by Arthur C. Wright. It was not my cup of tea, but that does not mean it is a bad book. Someone else might enjoy it.

Book Review: “Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown: The Kings and Queens Who Never Were” by J.F. Andrews

52645565._SX318_SY475_In history, we tend to focus on those who were crowned kings and queens of different nations. Their strengths and their weaknesses. Their accessions and the legacies that they left behind. With every story of someone who triumphed in gaining the throne, there are tales of those who were close to the throne but were never able to achieve the ultimate goal of ruling a nation. These “lost heirs” fall into two categories; either their names live on in infamy or they are thrown into the dust of the past. Who were these men and women and why did they lose their chances to sit on the throne? These questions are explored in J.F. Andrews’ book, “Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown: The Kings and Queens Who Never Were”.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. The title was what drew me into reading it, since these figures rarely get attention, let alone have an entire book dedicated to their lives. I have never read a book by J.F. Andrews, which is not surprising since it is a pseudonym for a historian who has a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies. I want to know who the historian really is since, in the historical field, it is a rarity to use a pseudonym, but that may just be my own personal curiosity.

Andrews’ book begins with the death of William the Conqueror and extends through the reign of Henry VII. With over 500 years of Medieval English history (with the main focus being on the Plantagenet family), it can get a bit confusing to figure out how everyone is connected, but Andrews provides a simplified family tree at the beginning of each chapter to help the reader out. It is a brilliant move and it also shows how vast Andrews’ knowledge of Medieval England’s royal families truly is.

When we tend to think about those would inherit the throne, we tend to think about the firstborn sons, like Robert Curthose, Henry the Young King, Edward the Black Prince, and Edward V. However, as the reader will learn, they were not the only ones who had a chance at the throne. Men, like Richard duke of York, believed that their claim to the throne was stronger than the person who was king. There were also those who were seen as a threat to the king who sat on the throne because of their lineage. They were all legitimate, as Andrews chose not to include those who were illegitimate.

Another factor that united all of these stories was that they all ended in tragedy. Some died from medical conditions at a young age. Others were either imprisoned, never to be heard from again. Yet the majority died in battle, either fighting for or against the king who sat on the throne at the time. Most of them, except for Richard duke of York, died relatively young, which makes us as readers wonder what their reigns might have been like if they were able to be crowned king or queen respectfully.

Overall, I found this book rather informative. Andrews’ writing is enjoyable and is easy to follow. This book really makes you wonder what if these lost heirs became kings and queens, how different history would have been. If you want to read an intriguing book about some mysterious men and women in history, I highly recommend you read, “Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown: The Kings and Queens Who Never Were” by J.F. Andrews.

Book Review: “A Year in the Life of Medieval England” by Toni Mount

27109857The medieval era was one of the most turbulent times in all of English history, full of family feuds, gruesome wars, and so many twists and turns. We tend to focus on the big stories, but, it was not just about the royalty and the nobility, there were also lower classes whose lives went on in the background. What was everyday life like for both the rich and the poor? What ceremonies and recipes did they use? What were wills and court cases like? These questions and more are explored in Toni Mount’s delightful book, “A Year in the Life of Medieval England”.

I would like to thank Amberley Publishing for sending me a copy of this book. This book looked really intriguing and I really wanted to read a book covering medieval England.

This book was an absolute joy to read. Mount’s book is like a diary, it documents every day of the year with new facts and events. From January 1st to December 31st, Mount dives into the lives of both the rich and the poor alike. Unlike normal diaries, Mount does not stay with one specific year. Instead, she includes events from 1066 all the way through 1500 to give a full view of what life was like in Medieval England. I normally do not like it when a book jumps around chronologically, yet it worked rather well in this book.

From William the Conqueror to King Henry VII and every king in between, Mount explores the lives of the monarchy, highs, and lows. Coronations, battles, births, and deaths, with numerous treaties in-between. Naturally, there were a lot more members of the lower classes than the royal houses, but Mount chose a handful of their colorful stories to include in this book. What is wonderful is that you truly understand what they might have been going through since Mount has transcribed letters, lawsuits and wills so that the readers can get that window into the past.

What I really loved about this book was that Mount was able to include a plethora of facts while keeping the writing style comprehensive so that even a novice can understand. Mount does site each of her sources at the end of each passage for convenience, but it also acts as a stepping stone for those who want to do their own independent research. Of course, with any dive into a new area of study, there will be terms that might be unfamiliar to new students, but Mount takes the time to define these terms.

From Plantagenets to peasants, the stories of Medieval England come back to life in this rather handy companion book for inspiring medievalists. An easy and thought-provoking read that anyone who is interested in Medieval England would be delighted to have in their own collections. If you want a book that explores what medieval people, both rich and poor, experienced in a year, I highly recommend you read, “A Year in the Life of Medieval England” by Toni Mount.

Book Review: “Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest” by Sharon Bennett Connolly

51uoBkbUhLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_There are quite a few events that one can name that radically shaped the course of British history. None more so than the events of 1066, the year that saw Norman, Breton, Flemish, and French forces, led by the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, invaded England in what we know today as the Norman Conquest. Most history books tend to focus on the men who lived before, during, and after the Norman Conquest: Aethelred the Unready, Edward the Confessor, Cnut, Harold II, Harald Hardrada, and of course William the Conqueror just to name a few. What the history books tend to gloss over is the strong women who stood by their husbands, brothers, and sons during this conflict. Who were these women? What were their stories? How did they help their families before, during and after 1066? These questions are answered in Sharon Bennett Connolly’s delightful book, “Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest”.

I would like to thank Amberley Publishing and Sharon Bennett Connolly for sending me a copy of this book. It has been a long time since I personally studied the Norman Conquest, so I found it rather enjoyable to read about a subject that I really don’t know a lot about.

Connolly explains in her introduction why she wrote this particular book about these extraordinary women:

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II, to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, we will trace the fortunes of the women who had a role to play before, during and after the momentous year of 1066. Throughout these tumultuous times, women played a prominent part, in support of their husbands, their sons and of their people, be they English, Norman, Danish or Norwegian. Their contributions were so much more than a supporting role, and it is time that their stories were told, and the influence they had on events, was examined in detail. …My intention is to tell the story of the Norman Conquest, while providing the women with a platform for their stories, from the dawn of the eleventh century to its close. (Connolly, 13-14).

The story of the Norman Conquest does not start or end in 1066; 1066 is the climax of the story, which is why Connolly explores women from before, during and after 1066. Women like Lady Godiva, whose story many people think they know, but the story of her infamous ride is more fictitious than fact. Emma of Normandy, the wife of both Aethelred the Unready and King Cnut,  who used her political influence to protect her sons. Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, who helped her husband as regent of Normandy while he was in England. St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, who helped reform Scotland and bring it into the Roman Catholic faith. Edith, Gytha and the wives of Harald Hardrada who followed their husbands into the battlefield. 

These are just a handful of the stories Connolly explores in this wonderful book. Connolly has meticulously researched the men and women who were all part of the events that led to and after the Norman Conquest. I took ample amounts of notes on this particular book, which to me was rather enjoyable. Connolly makes the rather daunting subject of the Norman Conquest and makes it so even a novice on the subject can understand it. If you are interested in the Norman Conquest, especially about the women during this time, I highly recommend you read, “Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest” by Sharon Bennett Connolly.