Sunday, September 15, 2019

Review: The Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown by JF Andrew

47355618Synopsis: When William the Conqueror died in 1087 he left the throne of England to William Rufus ... his second son. The result was an immediate war as Rufus's elder brother Robert fought to gain the crown he saw as rightfully his; this conflict marked the start of 400 years of bloody disputes as the English monarchy's line of hereditary succession was bent, twisted and finally broken when the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, fell at Bosworth in 1485.

This will make a nice little addition to anyone's history shelf. It is, as I mentioned, a very readable narrative on those who came so close and yet lost it all .... "there are very few happy endings ...".

" .... every game of thrones has its losers too .." and they are here in spades. The author is quite upfront when stating that the focus is on "genuine contenders not imposters" - so this means those, who in different circumstances, could have legitimately inherited the English throne.

We begin with the reign of the Normans in England, and the battle for the throne between the sons of William the Conqueror, and finish up with the tragic sons of the York brothers. 

A Brief Who's Who:
(1) Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror, and Robert's son, William Clito.
(2) William Adelin and Matilda, children of King Henry I.
(3) Eustace, William and Mary, children of King Stephen.
(4) Henry the Young King, son of King Henry II.
(5) Arthur and Eleanor of Brittany, children of Geoffrey, son of Henry II.
(6) Edward the Black Prince, son of King Edward III.
(7) Edmund Mortiner, son of Roger Mortimer, grandson of Edward III. 
(8) Richard Duke of York, nephew of Edmund Mortimer.
(9) Edward of Lancaster, son of King Henry VI.
(10) Edward V, son of King Edward IV; Edward of Middleham, son of Richard III, Edward of Warwick, son of George Duke of Clarence and brother of Edward and Richard.

Each chapter begins with the family tree - so you know who is who in the scheme of things - followed by a history of events. Then we conclude with a brief exploration and analysis of how and why they failed, and an assessment of each claimant's potential as a ruler based on what is known about each. 

The chapters are easy to read and the narrative not overly cumbersome or dry. There are extensive notes for those who wish to read further - I have quite a few of these resources myself! Even though I was familiar with all of the stories, I was happy to revisit them again.

note: whilst I took over a week to read, had I not been distracted by life, I could quite easily have read this in one day.

Review: Dover One by Joyce Porter

Image result for dci dover joyce porterSynopsis: For its own very good reasons, Scotland Yard sends Dover off to remote Creedshire to investigate the disappearance of a young housemaid, Juliet Rugg. Though there's every cause to assume that she has been murdered - she gave her favours freely and may even have stooped to a bit of blackmail - no body is to be found. Weighing in at sixteen stone, she couldn't be hard to overlook. But where is she? And why should Dover, of all people, be called upon to find her? Or, for that matter, even bother to solve the damned case?

DCI Wilfred Dover is not your usual Scotland Yard detective - he is not exactly likeable; he is described as tall, fat, unkempt, lewd, obnoxious; and never without his trademark bowler hat. His Sergeant, Charles MacGregor, is the total opposite - and like Nero Wolfe's Archie Goodwin, does all the leg work for Dover.

Kenneth Cranham as Dover
Dover was obese, lazy, unhygienic (the only man in the Metropolitan Police Service with underarm dandruff) and bordering on corrupt. MacGregor was keen, clean and ferociously ambitious. However, on the rare occasions he was able to put aside plate, pint-glass and cigarettes long enough to concentrate, Dover usually saw the answer first.
For reasons known only to the Scotland Yard hierarchy, Dover & MacGregor are sent to the investigate the seemingly innocuous disappearance of a local girl, Juliet Rigg, from Creedshire. Upon arriving in the village, Dover finds the eccentric inhabitants all had good reason to do away with the victim - for as Dover announces, murder it is.

I am really enjoying discovering some of these lost gems of British crime. This title originally was published back in the early 1960s - so to the modern senses, it may appear to be slightly un-PC - but get over it, afterall what is PC today may not be in 40 years time!

I am certainly interested in following up with the rest of the books in the 15 book series, and look forward to listening to those Inspector Dover books that were adapted for BBC Radio 4 by Paul Mendelson, and star Kenneth Cranham as Dover and Stuart McQuarrie as Sgt MacGregor (I found a few links on youtube)

side note: I love the fact that the author was born in ... Marple!

Review: The Song of Simon de Montfort by Sophie Therese Ambler

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Synopsis: this is the story of this extraordinary man: heir to a great warrior, devoted husband and father, fearless crusader knight and charismatic leader. It is the story of a man whose passion for good governance was so fierce that, in 1258, frustrated by the King’s refusal to take the advice of his nobles and the increasing injustice meted out to his subjects, he marched on Henry III’s hall at Westminster and seized the reins of power.

Montfort established a council to rule in the King’s name, overturning the social order in a way that would not be seen again until the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth century. Having defeated the King at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, Montfort and his revolutionary council ruled England for some fifteen months, until the enmity between the two sides exploded on that August day in 1265. When the fighting was over, Montfort and a host of his followers had been cut down on the battlefield, in an outpouring of noble blood that marked the end of chivalry in England as it had existed since the Norman Conquest.

" ... he was a man who would flee neither torment nor death for the sake of his oath ..."

Simon de Montfort is considered to be one of the important personages in English history, being credited as the founder of what is now the modern English Parliament. But much happened before that would influence events in the future. 

For many years King Henry III had run the country poorly. He had married a French woman, Eleanor of Provence, and many members of her family and of the French court came to England with her. The French replaced Henry's advisers and began to spend the country's money. Things came to a head in 1258 after a series of bad harvests and wet winters. This resulted in starvation for the country's poor and reduced taxes for the king. 

Image result for simon de montfortTo make matter worse Henry approached Parliament for funds to pay for a military mission to Sicily to put he son Prince Edward on the Sicilian throne. The time had come for the barons to voice their concerns. The group of barons, including Richard de Clare (Earl of Gloucester), John Fitz Geoffrey, Roger Bigod (Earl of Norfolk), Hugh Bigod (Roger's brother), Peter of Savoy, Peter de Montfort (not a relation of Simon), and finally Simon de Montfort (Earl of Leicester), vowed to stand together and oppose the king. Simon de Montfort was a close friend of the king and was married to the king's sister, Eleanor, but the country's future was more important to the Earl than his friendship with the king.

The barons arranged to meet King Henry at Oxford in June of 1258. As an act of faith Simon handed his castles at Odiham and Kenilworth over to the king. When the barons appeared before Henry they were fully armed and gave him no choice but to agree to their demands. The 'Provisions of Oxford' as they are known set out a system of government in which a council of fifteen members were to advise the king. The fifteen were selected by a committee of four, two from the barons and two from the king. The activities of the council were also to be checked by Parliament. A year later amendments to the running of the council were made by the 'Provisions of Westminster'.

Henry needed help to oppose the barons so he approached the French king Louis IX. At the Treaty of Paris in 1259 Henry agreed to admit that England had no rights to the lands of Normandy, Maine, Anjou and Poitou that had been lost by King John. Henry was allowed to keep lands in Gascony and Aquitaine as long as he accepted the French king as his overlord in these areas. In return King Louis promised to assist Henry in the fight against the barons.

Henry also approached the Pope for help. The Pope agreed that the Provisions of Oxford were illegal as Henry had been forced to sign the documents. Freed from the obligations forced upon him by the barons Henry resumed power. With an army of French bodyguards he went on the offensive against the barons. At the Battle of Lewes King Henry and his eldest son Prince Edward, the future king of England, were captured by the barons and held prisoner.

In 1265 Simon de Montfort laid the foundations for the current English Parliament. For the first time each county of England was allowed to elect and send two knights to Parliament to represent their areas. Each borough was also to elect and send two representatives.

The barons began to quarrel amongst themselves and a split developed. Prince Edward escaped from captivity and joined the group of barons opposing Simon de Montfort. At the Battle of Evesham on August 4, 1265 Simon de Montfort was killed. Although small pockets of resistance remained, the rebellion was over and King Henry again took control of the country.  "The murder of Evesham," wrote Robert of Gloucester, "for battle it was none."

The Song is really a family history, beginning with Simon's early life, that of his married life and political career, and finally that of his family after his death. Based heavily on the writings of Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay, Simon's story is told in an easy - slightly romanticised- style, which at times reads like it was written in Victorian times. Much attention is given to the history and politics of the day, supported by copious notes and explanations. This is really important in telling the story of de Montfort as much of his life was taken up with political and religious campaigns.  What we also discover is that de Montfort is a man of unfailing conviction and loyalty.  He has and is for me, one of the more interesting characters from the pages of history, and someone I have read extensively on.

However, the author states, quite early on, that this tome will also contribute to scholarship on the Crusades. Having read quite extensively on the subject of the Crusades, including the Albigensian Crusade, which is more pertinent to Simon's story, the author hasn't really added anything new on that front, which is rather curious as the author is a historian of the Crusades.  

The story presented of de Montfort, his life, his career, and his legacy, is extensively research and well documented in "the Song".  Those not overly familiar with this period will have no trouble following events as they unfold, though a little knowledge is not a bad thing.  It is a tome I would quite happily have sitting on the shelves of my own personal library.

I would be interested in comparing this title with another that sits on my shelves, "Simon de Montfort" by Darren Baker (previous published as "With All For All") as well as "Simon de Montfort" by JR Maddicott (considered the definitive biography).

read also: 

John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet by Jon Balserak

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John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet

John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet examines Calvin's sense of vocation. Jon Balserak argues that Calvin believed himself to be a prophet "placed over nations and kingdoms to tear down and destroy, to build and to plant" (Jer 1: 10). With this authority, Calvin pursued an expansionist agenda which blended the religious, political, and social towards making France, upon which he turned his attentions especially after 1555, Protestant. 

Beginning with an analysis of the two trajectories of thought existing within Christian discourse on prophecy from the patristic to the Early Modern era, this study goes on to locate Calvin within a non-mystical, non-apocalyptic prophetic tradition that focused on scriptural interpretation. 

John Calvin by Hans Holbein the Younger. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.Balserak demonstrates how Calvin developed a plan to win France for the gospel; a plan which included the possibility of armed conflict. To pursue his designs, Calvin trained "prophets" who were sent into France to labor intensely to undermine the king's authority on the grounds that he supported idolatry, convince the French Reformed congregations that they were already in a war with him, and prepare them for a possible military uprising. An additional part of this plan saw Calvin search for a French noble willing to support the evangelical religion, even if it meant initiating a coup. Calvin began ruminating over these ideas in the 1550s or possibly earlier. In this analysis, the war which commenced in 1562 represents the culmination of Calvin's years of preparation.

The Life of Madame Mao by Ross Terrill

The Life of Madame Mao by [Terrill, Ross]
A peculiar facet of China's history is that its greatest villains have often been women. The evil Empress Wu lives on in legend, as does another ogre: the "White-Boned Demon," Madame Mao Zedong. On January 25, 1981, Jiang Qing, widow of Mao, was sentenced to death. Two years later, that sentence was changed to life imprisonment.

The daughter of a concubine, Jiang Qing grew up as an outcast in the homes of wealthy men. In her early teens, she joined a troupe of roving actors. By the age of nineteen, she had exhausted two marriages. Reaching Shanghai, she won theatrical success as Ibsen's Nora - a role that gave expression to both her rage and ambition. At twenty-four, Jiang Qing abandoned stardom at the height of a movie career to join Mao Zedong after his Long March across China. She married the great revolutionary, after his current wife was ousted, and rose to be the inspiring and vengeful leader of the Cultural Revolution. As Mao sank toward death, Jiang Qing made her bid to be empress. She failed, and soldiers came to arrest her in the middle of the night. Her downfall reverberated across the world.

Ross Terrill, author of The Life of Mao, one of the West's most eminent Sinologists, is uniquely qualified to unearth Madame Mao's hidden story. Terrill went to China and Taiwan to track down documents and living sources and discovered secret papers and photos that had escaped Madame Mao's confiscation.

In the author's words, "This book tells Jiang Qing’s story through the eloquent, unofficial voices of China: oral histories, eyewitness accounts from the grassroots, testimony of those Chinese who watched, knew, hated, or loved Jiang Qing. . . ."

The result is a portrait of a woman, vivid, flawed, and human, who fought her way to a place in history, as well as a riveting view of one of the most momentous revolutions of all time.

Review: A Murder in Venice by Maria Luisa Minarelli

45727864. sy475 Synopsis: Venice, 1752. On a cold December night, a man is found strangled in a dark alley.   High magistrate Marco Pisani is tasked with investigating the grisly murder. When two more bodies are discovered, it is clear there is a serial killer on the loose. Helped in his investigation by lawyer Zen, daring gondolier Nani and the cunning Chiara Renier, Pisani is determined to uncover the truth before the murderer strikes again. But to find answers, he must move among the city’s criminal underworld of spies, shady taverns and gambling halls.

So a little bit of history which serves as a backdrop of events in the book.....

Venetian Nobles were wealthy merchants with voting rights and political roles, not feudal landowners with local jurisdiction and military responsibilities. From 1297, certain wealthy and politically-active families separated themselves and made membership to the Council a hereditary right, thus fashioning an aristocratic order. Later, in 1315, the Libro d'Oro (Golden Book) was created to record the names of those who were eligible nobles, further codifying the aristocratic social structure of the Republic. However, by the time of this story, to become part of the Venetian nobility one could aid the state during times of trouble, trace the family lineage back to a member of the government from 1293 or prior, or be willing to pay 100,000 ducats to the Republic in exchange for the right to join the nobility.

Families conducted business as a unit. This custom was known as fraterna, which meant that while one brother may pursue politics as a profession, other brothers would pursue other complementary professions to help grow familial wealth. The family unit would share the inherited patrimony and use it to reinvest in business ventures. Whilst the idea of shared familial wealth is great in theory, in reality, if one brother made a poor business decision, it led the entire family into abject poverty and dependence upon other rich nobles. 

By 1790 almost 1,200 nobles were receiving a pension from the Venetian state, totaling 130,179 ducats annually, at a time when there were only 1090 noblemen in the Great Council.

In Venetian Socitey of the 17th and 18th centuries, the combination of the mask with the black cape and tricorn hat symbolized the Carnival season. Venetians did not wear masks solely for celebration. In fact, for almost half of the year masks were worn to social gatherings, to attend the theater, for evening outings, and for visiting the the ridotto (gambling hall).  The wearing of the mask provided a release from strict moral codes and sumptuary laws implemented by the city’s conservative Great Council. Creating an appearance of equality, the mask eased the interaction of social classes, permitted women to go out unescorted, and allowed beggars to conceal their shame. And, of course, as profusely and notoriously demonstrated by Casanova’s exploits, the mask’s secrecy enabled a certain sexual freedom.

By middle of the 18th century, with Venice is visible decline, city officials had every reason to fear unrest might result in violence, and it has been suggested that the remarkable frequency of festivals and community-based events in the city’s squares —occurring at least two times each month — was part of a strategy on the part of the Venetian authorities to regulate and placate the population and diffuse discontent. 

Venetian Government was an oligarchy and all noble / aristocratic men over the age of twenty-five were eligible to work in the administration of the Republic. There were hundreds of offices to be filled and the only eligible candidates were wealthy aristocrats. All aspects of the Venetian foreign services were tied to extremely wealthy members of the Great Council, because while the government did provide a stipend for holding these posts, the cost of upkeep, entertaining visiting politicians, and staffing the posts were left up to the office holder.   Men of the middleclass also worked in the government as notaries and secretaries, as they were not eligible to hold political office by virtue of their birth. 

Another interesting aspect about the Venetian government is that the division of power was not strictly vertical, but rather many areas of authority and governance were shared linearly among several offices. This structure created problems in law making because several bodies had the authority to pass laws, yet there was no complete code used to record these laws, so they were often unenforceable. Even laws governing nobles were blatantly ignored.

Venice in Decline: the Venetian state became dependent on the patriciate, economically, politically, and militarily; and as the patriciate failed, the economy, government, and military also failed. 

Image result for 18th century venice in declineLeading up to the sixteenth century the Venetian aristocracy dominated international trade and funded a booming shipping industry that fostered a very powerful navy. Since the Venetian shipping industry and its navy were completely intertwined, the decline of the former caused the deterioration of the latter.    By the eighteenth century the Arsenal had not been updated in centuries and was still using outdated shipping; and rather than maintaining a separate military, the state relied on immigrants to fill the ranks of its military.

Venice was steadily losing its monopoly on trade in the Medieterranean and beyond; the loss of territories and colonies (to the invading Turks), and trade routes (to competitors), heavily impacted economic and mercantile prosperity.  The government was on the verge of bankruptcy; forced loans, taxation, poor-aid, in conjunction with a cultural shift away from commerce and industry, towards luxurious living, government dependency, and feudalism, disaster became imminent. Internal political reform was proposed at various times, but the vocal faction of the Barnabotti (destitute patricians who by virtue of their family name had a right to sit in the great council) vehemently opposed them. As a result of his political impotence, Loredan effectively sealed the fate of the dying Republic.

So, we now return to our murder mystery (also titled Venetian Scarlet) which is set in the reign of Doge Francesco Loredan of Venice. As the story opens, Loredan had only assumed the ducal throne in April, despite being elected in March. He was a man of little political experience and one of the biggest issues he faced in domestic politics was the clash between the conservatives and the reformers (as mentioned above). 

To use a quote from Mariana Starke, Letters from Italy, between the years 1792 and 1798
All was not well in the city where “every sensation is wound up to love,” as the wicked were often able to disguise themselves among churchgoers, singing psalms and receiving pious donations, and the judicial system often ruled murder cases in favor of the murderer. 

We follow magistrate Marco Pisani as he investigates a series of brutal murders among the nobility - what is the link between the victims, and will he solve the mystery before the death toll rises.

I enjoyed this cosy mystery set in Venice in the 1750s - its great to read mysteries set in places far from the picturesque English countryside or mean streets of America.   What I could take or leave was the "abilities" of Chiara Renier, the main female character and the relationship between Chiara and Marco - it felt a bit out of character for Marco. As this is the first in a series of four books, Ithis relationship could have been explored over the course of the series. However, others may feel differently - and it doesn't really detract from the enjoyment of the book.

Murder in Venice was an enjoyable afternoon's escapism and I am looking forward to reading the rest in the series!

more in the series:
Venetian Gold : it is one of the last days of Carnival when Sister Maria Angelica, a cloistered nun on Murano, is found barbarously killed in her secret apartment in Venice. While the city is celebrating, including masquerade balls in the palaces and in the fields, shows in theaters and night parades, avogadore Marco Pisani does not take long to discover that the nun had a double life. Assisted by his friend lawyer Daniele Zen, secretary Jacopo Tiralli and doctor and pathologist Guido Valentini, Pisani thinks he has identified the culprit. However, instead of the solution, he will have to deal with two other heinous crimes. Nothing seems to bring the three crimes together except for the disappearance of money and jewels and the presence of a gold medallion marked by strange symbols. 

Venetian Curtain : the city is is full celebration of the Sensa, including lavish stages and costumes, self-styled magicians and alchemists, women of the underworld, sopranos, sopranists and musicians.  Marco Pisani finds himself involved in a complex investigation, with a seemingly solutionless puzzle, which with take him from his beautiful and decadent city to Bologna, for an unexpected solution that will turn into an act of justice.

Venetian Crusade : Rome is plunged into madness: the sacred images are burned, nuns are snatched from their convents, ghosts roam the streets from which blood springs. Have the forces of evil seized the city or is it all the product of a human conspiracy? Pope Lambertini asks for help from his old friend Guido Valentini and avocadore Marco Pisani, who has moved from Venice to the Eternal City.

further reading online

Blog Tour: Wicked By Design by Katy Moran

Image result for Wicked By Design: Sexy, Thrilling, Swashbuckling Regency Romance with a Twist Katy MoranAbout the book 
1819: CORNWALL. 
Four women sit in the candlelit drawing-room at Nansmornow, an ancient Cornish manor house. The air is thick with unspoken suspicion and secret malice. As Hester Lamorna pours tea for her three guests, she has no idea one of them is about to rock her new marriage to its very foundations. 

Half a world away, Hester's impossible and charmismatic husband, Jack 'Crow' Crowlas, will be caught up in a chess game of sexual manipulation, played out across the sumptuous ballrooms of St Petersburg. All Hester and Crow hold most dear will be tested to the limit and beyond: their love for each other and their child, and for Crow, the loyalty of his only brother.

Here is an extract from the book:
Shouting to those of his men still on horseback, Crow called on them all to dismount. If he could not reach the Deliverance by sea, he must reach her from Carn Du itself: there was nothing to do but to send a rope-team into the water, himself at the fore. There was just a chance that men could be pulled from the water so close to the wreck, even if the gig could never reach them without also being smashed against the rocks with those waves rising like great whales. Whisking the coiled rope from his saddlebag, Crow slung it over his shoulder and sprinted to the narrow, winding path that led away from the beach and up towards the cliff-top, along to Carn Du itself. He snatched at handfuls of broom to steady himself, careless of the needles tearing into the palms of his hands. Once he reached the cliff-top, wind tearing at his face, his hair, he saw waves and spray smashing against the cliffs, against the rocks, and the spars of the Deliverance again, still sliding beneath the waves, with now only two figures clinging to them.
Run!’ Crow shouted at the men behind him. ‘With me, come on!’ And where in hell’s name were Castlereagh, Mulgrave, Vansittart or any of the others? Peers of the realm still asleep in bed, leaving servants and fishermen to save lives? Reaching the outcrop of Carn Du itself, the heap of vast grey rocks rearing up against a sodden sky, Crow tore off his coat and jacket and unshouldered the rope. He lashed it around his waist with swift expertise, leaving one long end for his men to belay him with, and the rest to throw. This he coiled for now, and slung over his shoulder. Looking again, there was but a single man still clinging to the yards of the Deliverance. Squinting through spray and rain, Crow saw that the survivor was not even a man, but a boy. If he climbed down the seaward face of Carn Du as far as he could, there was a chance he could toss the rope to him, and failing that to anyone still clinging to wreckage below even as it was flung at the rocks. Amid the thundering roar of the surf and the hideous crunch of wood against rock as the top spars of the Deliverance were smashed against granite by the force of the ocean, he shouted to Hughes to take up the belaying end of the line.

‘My lord,’ Hughes said, his face rigid with emotion, rain streaming down his dark skin from grizzled, short-cropped hair, ‘if you will permit me to speak? This is suicide. The waves are too high – you’ll be washed away yourself.’ 

Crow turned to his assembled servants and tenants, rain-soaked, hair splattered across their faces as they passed the rope from one man to the next. ‘What then must I do? Stand here on my own land and watch people die? Just for Christ’s sake don’t let go of the line.’

He ran light-footed to the great carn; he had climbed down it many times as a boy, clinging to fissures in the rock and leaping from narrow, algae-speckled ledges into the ocean twenty feet below, and he had clouted his young brother for doing the same too, but even then there had not been waves almost as high as the rock itself. Amid the roar of water and the groan of failing timber, Crow glanced over his shoulder as he climbed and saw the boy still clinging to a spar like kelp splattered against the upright timber of a jetty. What remained of the mast leaned at a heart-stopping angle. Wave-soaked, Crow clung to the rock, the rope taut above him, digging into the spare flesh of his midriff through his wet shirt. One boy out of a crew of seventy: was that really to be all? Another wave crashed into him, and he dug the fingers of one hand into a fissure in the rock, grasping a heaven-sent handful of sprouting marram grass with the other as he yelled over his shoulder at the boy, ‘Hold on.’ Crow could see now that he was really very young, perhaps only eight or nine, his face familiar – one of the many urchins one saw on the cobbled streets of St Erth. Crow knew in the same instant that the child was losing the will to hold on, that he was too cold, and too afraid, his face white and pinched with exhaustion and terror.

About the author 
Katy Moran is a Carnegie nominated author, she write high-octane Regency romance, which include, muskets, gunpowder, Cornwall and Russia. She writes that when she is inspired by a new place ‘Regency England, Cornwall, Russia, the ancient palace of Fontainebleau — I want to actually be there. I want to take you there too, in the company of complex characters that you will fall a little (or a lot) in love with on the way.’

Saturday, September 14, 2019

God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England by Jessie Childs

Image with no descriptionFor many Catholics, the Elizabethan "Golden Age" was an alien concept. Following the criminalization of their religion by Elizabeth I, nearly two hundred Catholics were executed, and many more wasted away in prison during her reign. Torture was used more than at any other time in England's history. While some bowed to the pressure of the government and new church, publicly conforming to acts of Protestant worship, others did not - and quickly found themselves living in a state of siege. Under constant surveillance, haunted by the threat of imprisonment - or worse - the ordinary lives of these so-called recusants became marked by evasion, subterfuge, and constant fear.

In God's Traitors, Jessie Childs tells the fascinating story of one Catholic family, the Vauxes of Harrowden Hall, from the foundation of the Church of England in the 1530s to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and their struggle to keep the faith in Protestant England. Few Elizabethans would have disputed that obedience was a Christian duty, but following the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth by Pope Pius V in 1570 and the growing anti-Catholic sentiment in the decades that followed, it became increasingly difficult for English Catholics to maintain a dual allegiance to their God and their Queen. 

Childs follows the Vauxes into the heart of the underground Catholic movement, exploring the conflicts of loyalty they faced and the means by which they exerted defiance. Tracing the family's path from staunch loyalty to the Crown, to passive resistance and on to increasing activism, Childs illustrates the pressures and painful choices that confronted the persecuted Catholic community. Though recusants like the Vauxes comprised only a tiny fraction of the Catholic minority in England, they aroused fears in the heart of the commonwealth. Childs shows how "anti-popery" became an ideology and a cultural force, shaping not only the life and policy of Elizabeth I, but also those of her successors.

From clandestine chapels and side-street inns to exile communities and the corridors of power, God's Traitors exposes the tensions and insecurities that plagued Catholics living under the rule of Elizabeth I. Above all, it is a timely story of courage and concession, repression and reaction, and the often terrible consequences when religion and politics collide.

read also:
review @ The Telegraph
review @ The Guardian
blog @ OUP

Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman

Cover for 

Invisible Agents

It would be easy for the modern reader to conclude that women had no place in the world of early modern espionage, with a few seventeenth-century women spies identified and then relegated to the footnotes of history. If even the espionage carried out by Susan Hyde, sister of Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, during the turbulent decades of civil strife in Britain can escape the historiographer's gaze, then how many more like her lurk in the archives?

Nadine Akkerman's search for an answer to this question has led to the writing of Invisible Agents, the very first study to analyse the role of early modern women spies, demonstrating that the allegedly-male world of the spy was more than merely infiltrated by women. This compelling and ground-breaking contribution to the history of espionage details a series of case studies in which women - from playwright to postmistress, from lady-in-waiting to laundry woman - acted as spies, sourcing and passing on confidential information on account of political and religious convictions or to obtain money or power.

The struggle of these women to construct credibility in their own time is mirrored in their invisibility in modern historiography. Akkerman has immersed herself in archives, libraries, and private collections, transcribing hundreds of letters, breaking cipher codes and their keys, studying invisible inks, and interpreting riddles, acting as a modern-day spymistress to unearth plots and conspiracies that have long remained hidden by history.