Rating: 4 Stars
It pains me so very deeply that I have to return this one to the library without being able to give it a proper, in-depth review as I normally would for books about this period in England's history. Unfortunately, it's already had to be returned and honestly, I don't really have that many notes to go off of because I was so into the book that I rarely stopped long enough to jot anything down to mention in said review. Really, the only time I did make any notes is when it came to Mary vs. Elizabeth because this moment in time is forever infuriating to me, so in most books I HAVE to stop a bit when I get too rage-y.
I was happy to see Margaret Tudor given some page-time, and her story being incorporated into the queens of the age. Henry's sisters often get pushed to the side to make room for their larger-than-life brother, and so it was nice to see the focus specifically on women of the age. And not only the typical queens, such as Henry's wives and children, but those of other countries. And really, beyond Catherine and Anne, none of his other wives had any power or control over anything, and none but Catherine (please correct me if I am wrong) ever ruled as regent when he was off at war. Then of course come the next generation of Tudor women, Mary and Elizabeth, and finally their cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. But here we see so many other powerful women at work in the arena of politics: Isabella of Castile, Catherine de Medici, Margaret of Austria, Louise of Savoy. I knew very little about most of these women, and the others also touched on, so that was a fresh change of pace. However, I still remain most interested in the Tudor women and really breezed through those chapters so much more quickly because they were already so familiar to me.
My irritation usually stems from Mary's reign into Elizabeth's, so this will just be repetition for anyone who has read previous reviews of mine on similar books. I think Mary has been judged unfairly through the ages since her short reign, and I don't think the nickname 'Bloody Mary' is so terribly accurate. While it does not excuse the fact that she had many Protestants put to death, I think the trauma of her early teens into young adulthood truly shaped who she would become as an adult. Her mother's treatment by her father, their forced separation even in illness and finally Catherine's death, all of that formed who she was and how she would rule. She never had a chance.
I feel similarly about another Mary - Queen of Scots, that is. She too made some very poor decisions in her reign, the first she can hardly be faulted for though - she expected to be able to trust her half-brother James, Earl of Moray. She had the potential to be a good ruler, but the Protestant faction working against her, combined with her disastrous marriage to Darnley, were her undoing. And don't EVEN get me started on her captivity in England or her unjust execution. Elizabeth could cry all the big stupid crocodile tears she wanted and I will never believe for one moment she was sorry to have signed the death warrant. She knew damn well it would be carried out immediately; Cecil had been clamoring for Mary's death from the moment she set foot in England.
This is rapidly just turning into a rant about the last of the Tudor dynasty, so let me bring attention back to the book. I do have one teeny tiny bone to pick with the text, and perhaps it was unintentional but given my love for the Plantagenets, it jumped out at me right away. On page 213 (hardcover edition) the author states that Matilda had attempted to succeed her father (Henry I) and it started a civil war with her cousin Stephen. Technically yes that is accurate but to me that seems to imply that Matilda was the usurper, when in fact it was Stephen with that title in this scenario. After Matilda's brother William died when the White Ship sank, she was the last legitimate child of Henry I. He'd had his barons swear allegiance to Matilda before he died, and Stephen was among those who swore to uphold the transition from father to daughter. But as soon as Henry I was dead, Stephen swooped in and took the crown for himself. HE is the one who caused the civil war. I know that a female ruler was super scary to these dudes, but Matilda was claiming her rightful inheritance. I guess it all worked out in the end though, because though Matilda would never rule England her son, Henry II would upon Stephen's death. Helloooooo Eleanor!
Again, I do apologize for this not being much of a review, because this book certainly deserves it. Unfortunately time has simply not allowed that to happen here. What I can quickly say is that this is an utterly fantastic look at the powerful women of the 16th century, some names we know so well and others we might not be as familiar with. These women, some as much as any king at the time, helped shaped Europe. The book is so exhaustively research and well-written, it is certainly worth a read. Highly recommended.