Review and Rambling: Crown of Thistles – The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots

Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots (or in the US Tudors vs. Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots)

By Linda Porter

Crown of Thistles cover

In the course of my hiatus, I had the opportunity to read a few books that’d been on my “want” pile, and at the very top was Crown of Thistles, which I purchased on my trip to England earlier this summer.  I’d already read the other “fun” book I purchased at the same time, a biography on Queen Matilda, whose husband was King William I of England.  I’d wanted to get one in temporal area of research and one out.  I was quite pleased to find one that seemed to be about Mary Queen of Scots, mother-in-law to Anna of Denmark, whom I presented a paper on this summer.

After presenting and having the opportunity to talk shop about history with the other presenters, I’ve become more resolved to look at not just English history, as I’ve done previously, but also Scottish.  Scottish history is a rich and vibrant field and I want to continue my study looking at royalty, the construction of feminine identity and authority, and educational history, especially in context of the other monarchy on the island and in relation to those on the continent.

So this book Crown of Thistles, fits in quite well with my geographic focus and my focus on royal studies.  Originally, from the title, I thought it was primarily going to be about Mary Queen of Scots, and a focus on her relationship with Elizabeth I of England, but I was mistaken.  From the start, I was annoyed that we were reading about Catherine de Valois, Queen Consort to Henry V, and James III, but I was drawn in to Porter’s prose with her flair for bringing these historical characters to life as flesh and blood people and realizing where she was going by starting so far in the past.

By starting in the 15th century, she carefully sets up the tempestuous relationship between the two dynasties, and then carefully gives us background and biography on each of the rulers and other main players in the government and society.  I was glad, it was a breath of fresh air, to read about Scottish monarchs James III, James IV, and James V.

Also written in great detail was the Battle of Bosworth Field, as well as the rest of Henry VII’s exile and battles for the throne.

Pulling together these two seemingly disparate threads to put light on Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth was an interesting approach, and although I’d wanted more on Mary, there are other sources which fall under that heading, like Lady Antonia Fraser’s work, or John Guy’s.  This put her childhood in France in context with the ambitious nature of her mother and brought to life the Auld Alliance.  As a reader, she helped me to understand that while the story can seem simple, it is infinitely more complex than it seems, and to bring an understanding of the people, as living-breathing people, can grant the reader more clarity.

 

I would whole heartedly recommend this book, with the caveats that it is 1) not just about Mary Queen of Scots, and 2) for a trade paperback, REALLY long.  It reads quickly and is not overly difficult.

Book Review: Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England

Luxembourg_-_La_Reine_Mathilde

Luxembourg_-_La_Reine_Mathilde (Image Courtesy of Wikipedia)  Statue of Matilda of Flanders

 

This biography is well researched and draws upon a variety of sources.  The author, Tracy Borman, does an excellent job of taking what could otherwise be dry, lifeless text and makes it into a relatable and accessible work of prose.  The work sets up Matilda in context of her relations to her natal family as well as some of the political climate of the time.  There are plenty of examples of other ruling females from the time, which I would be keen to know more about.  However, this work seem to, at least at this point, have one major flaw: even though it is a work centered around Matilda, much of it is a revisit of historical thought on the men in her life, not on her.  This may be due to scant evidence, but I was honestly excited to find out more about her, not William, not the Bayeux Tapestry, not the Battle of Hastings… her.  While it is fascinating to see more work done on William that paints him in a more sympathetic light (instead of only a warlike and cruel invader), this central focus on this work is purportedly Matilda, not her husband.  And while the author’s gift of prose is shown in describing the Battle of Hastings in detail (as well as setting up the context of the battle, in terms of Harold, the Oath, and the battles he’d fought against Tostig just before) that brings the battle to life and helps the reader to connect with the important event… where is Matilda?  Oh, she’s at home, ruling Normandy.  Doing a bang up job of it too, which Borman does a fantastic job of relating to the reader.  Also interesting that while the Tapestry was rightfully mentioned in the book, there are other volumes that do a better job of describing in detail and research the various theories of where it was created, who commissioned it, and for what reasons.  Andrew Bridgeford’s 1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry is one such work.  Borman, after discussing the various origin stories of the Tapestry concludes that it most likely wasn’t Matilda, after all, who commissioned it or worked on it.  So, then, why spend so much time and valuable space to bring it up?

Without the filler of work on William, Matilda’s family or the Tapestry, the book would probably be 3/4 of its final length.  However, especially for a casual reader, this book is still a valuable and engaging read.  As an introduction to the world of Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, this does a fantastic job of making the peoples, ideas and political climate of the time and place relatable and interesting.

 

Rating: 4.5/5 Owls

Why Owls?  Because everyone is fond of owls, and they’re wise.