Summer Reading Recommendations
A special shout out to my dear friend Heather Teysko of the Tudor History Summit, Tudorcon and the English Renaissance History Podcast for coming up with this idea first.
If you’re looking for a Tudor themed book to check out this Summer, I have created a list of my personal favorites and separated them by fiction and nonfiction. The books listed are in no particular order.
Elizabeth by David Starkey:
An abused child, yet confident of her destiny to reign, a woman in a man’s world, passionately sexual–though, as she maintained, a virgin–Elizabeth I is famed as England’s most successful ruler. David Starkey’s brilliant new biography concentrates on Elizabeth’s formative years–from her birth in 1533 to her accession in 1558–and shows how the experiences of danger and adventure formed her remarkable character and shaped her opinions and beliefs.
From princess and heir-apparent to bastardized and disinherited royal, accused traitor to head of the princely household, Elizabeth experienced every vicissitude of fortune and extreme of condition–and rose above it all to reign during a watershed moment in history. A uniquely absorbing tale of one young woman’s turbulent, courageous, and seemingly impossible journey toward the throne, Elizabeth is the exhilarating story of the making of a queen.
Crown of Blood by Nicola Tallis:
A significant retelling of the often-misunderstood tale of Lady Jane Grey’s journey through her trial and execution–recalling the dangerous plots and web of deadly intrigue in which she became involuntarily tangled, and which ultimately led to a catastrophic conclusion.
“Good people, I am come hither to die, and by a law I am condemned to the same.” These were the heartbreaking words of a seventeen-year-old girl, Lady Jane Grey, as she stood on the scaffold awaiting death on a cold February morning in 1554. Minutes later her head was struck from her body with a single stroke of a heavy axe. Her death for high treason sent shockwaves through the Tudor world, and served as a gruesome reminder to all who aspired to a crown that the axe could fall at any time.
Jane is known to history as “the Nine Days Queen,” but her reign lasted, in fact, for thirteen days. The human and emotional aspects of her story have often been ignored, although she is remembered as one of the Tudor Era’s most tragic victims. While this is doubtlessly true, it is only part of the complex jigsaw of Jane’s story. She was a remarkable individual with a charismatic personality who earned the admiration and affection of many of those who knew her. All were impressed by her wit, passion, intelligence, and determined spirit. Furthermore, the recent trend of trying to highlight her achievements and her religious faith has, in fact, further obscured the real Jane, a young religious radical who saw herself as an advocate of the reformed faith–Protestantism–and ultimately became a martyr for it.
Crown of Blood is an important and significant retelling of an often-misunderstood tale: set at the time of Jane’s downfall and following her journey through to her trial and execution, each chapter moves between the past and the “present,” using a rich abundance of primary source material (some of which has never been published) in order to paint a vivid picture of Jane’s short and turbulent life. This dramatic narrative traces the dangerous plots and web of deadly intrigue in which Jane became involuntarily tangled–and which ultimately led to a shocking and catastrophic conclusion.
The Sisters Who Would Be Queen by Leanda de Lisle:
Mary, Katherine, and Jane Grey-sisters whose mere existence nearly toppled a kingdom and altered a nation’s destiny-are the captivating subjects of Leanda de Lisle’s new book. The Sisters Who Would Be Queen breathes fresh life into these three young women, who were victimized in the notoriously vicious Tudor power struggle and whose heirs would otherwise probably be ruling England today.
Born into aristocracy, the Grey sisters were the great-granddaughters of Henry VII, grandnieces to Henry VIII, legitimate successors to the English throne, and rivals to Henry VIII’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. Lady Jane, the eldest, was thrust center stage by greedy men and uncompromising religious politics when she briefly succeeded Henry’s son, the young Edward I. Dubbed “the Nine Days Queen” after her short, tragic reign from the Tower of London, Jane has over the centuries earned a special place in the affections of the English people as a “queen with a public heart.” But as de Lisle reveals, Jane was actually more rebel than victim, more leader than pawn, and Mary and Katherine Grey found that they would have to tread carefully in order to avoid sharing their elder sister’s violent fate.
Navigating the politics of the Tudor court after Jane’ s death was a precarious challenge. Katherine Grey, who sought to live a stable life, earned the trust of Mary I, only to risk her future with a love marriage that threatened Queen Elizabeth’s throne. Mary Grey, considered too petite and plain to be significant, looked for her own escape from the burden of her royal blood-an impossible task after she followed her heart and also incurred the queen’s envy, fear, and wrath.
Exploding the many myths of Lady Jane Grey’s life, unearthing the details of Katherine’s and Mary’s dramatic stories, and casting new light on Elizabeth’s reign, Leanda de Lisle gives voice and resonance to the lives of the Greys and offers perspective on their place in history and on a time when a royal marriage could gain a woman a kingdom or cost her everything.
Young and Damned and Fair by Gareth Russell:
Written with an exciting combination of narrative flair and historical authority, this biography of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, is “a stunning achievement” (The Sunday Times, London), and “a masterly work of Tudor history that is engrossing, sympathetic, suspenseful, and illuminating” (Charlotte Gordon, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography).
On the morning of July 28, 1540, a teenager named Catherine Howard began her reign as queen of an England simmering with rebellion and terrifying uncertainty. Sixteen months later, she would follow her cousin Anne Boleyn to the scaffold, having been convicted of adultery and high treason.
The broad outlines of Catherine’s career might be familiar, but her story up until now has been incomplete. Unlike previous biographies, which portray her as a naïve victim of an ambitious family, Gareth Russell’s “excellent account puts the oft-ignored Catherine in her proper historical context” (Daily Mail, London) and sheds new light on her rise and downfall by showing her in her context, a milieu that includes the aristocrats and, most critically, the servants who surrounded her and who, in the end, conspired against her. By illuminating Catherine’s entwined upstairs/downstairs world as well as societal tensions beyond the palace walls, Russell offers a fascinating portrayal of court life in the sixteenth century and a fresh analysis of the forces beyond Catherine’s control that led to her execution.
Including a forgotten text of Catherine’s confession in her own words, color illustrations, family tree, map, and extensive notes, Young and Damned and Fair is “a gripping account of a young woman’s future destroyed by forces beyond her control…an important and timely book” (Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and A World on Fire). This account changes our understanding of one of history’s most famous women while telling the compelling and very human story of complex individuals attempting to survive in a dangerous age.
The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser:
The New York Times bestselling history of the legendary six wives of Henry VIII–from the acclaimed author of Marie Antoinette. Under Antonia Fraser’s intent scrutiny, Catherine of Aragon emerges as a scholar-queen who steadfastly refused to grant a divorce to her royal husband; Anne Boleyn is absolved of everything but a sharp tongue and an inability to produce a male heir; and Catherine Parr is revealed as a religious reformer with the good sense to tack with the treacherous winds of the Tudor court. And we gain fresh understanding of Jane Seymour’s circumspect wisdom, the touching dignity of Anna of Cleves, and the youthful naivete that led to Katherine Howard’s fatal indiscretions. The Wives of Henry VIII interweaves passion and power, personality and politics, into a superb work of history.
Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him by Tracy Borman:
Henry VIII is best known in history for his tempestuous marriages and the fates of his six wives. However, as acclaimed historian Tracy Borman makes clear in her illuminating new chronicle of Henry’s life, his reign and reputation were hugely influenced by the men who surrounded and interacted with him as companions and confidants, servants and ministers, and occasionally as rivals–many of whom have been underplayed in previous biographies.
These relationships offer a fresh, often surprising perspective on the legendary king, revealing the contradictions in his beliefs, behavior, and character in a nuanced light. They show him capable of fierce but seldom abiding loyalty, of raising men up only to destroy them later. He loved to be attended by boisterous young men, the likes of his intimate friend Charles Brandon, who shared his passion for sport, but could also be diverted by men of intellect, culture, and wit, as his longstanding interplay with Cardinal Wolsey and his reluctant abandonment of Thomas More attest. Eager to escape the shadow of his father, Henry VII, he was often trusting and easily led by male attendants and advisors early in his reign (his coronation was just shy of his 18th birthday in 1509); in time, though, he matured into a profoundly suspicious and paranoid king whose ruthlessness would be ever more apparent, as Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and uncle to two of Henry’s wives, discovered to his great discomfort, and as Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador of Charles V of Spain, often reported.
Recounting the great Tudor’s life and signal moments through the lens of his male relationships, Tracy Borman’s new biography reveals Henry’s personality in all its multi-faceted, contradictory glory, and sheds fresh light on his reign for anyone fascinated by the Tudor era and its legacy.
My Book Review of Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him from June 2019, click HERE to be redirected.
Anna, Duchess of Cleves – The King’s Beloved Sister by Heather R Darsie:
‘The King’s Beloved Sister’ looks at Anne of Cleves from a new perspective, as a woman from the Holy Roman Empire and not as a woman living almost by accident in England. Starting with what Anne’s life as a child and young woman was like, the author describes the climate of the Cleves court, and the achievements of Anne’s siblings. It looks at the political issues on the Continent that transformed Anne’s native land of Cleves – notably the court of Anne’s brother-in-law, and its influence on Lutheranism – and Anne’s marriage. Finally, Heather Darsie explores ways in which Anne influenced her step-daughters Elizabeth and Mary, and the evidence of their good relationships with her.
Was Anne – the Duchess Anna – in fact a political refugee, supported by Henry VIII? Was she a role model for Elizabeth I? Why was the marriage doomed from the outset? By returning to the primary sources and visiting archives and museums all over Europe (the author is fluent in German, and proficient in French and Spanish) a very different figure emerges to the ‘Flanders Mare’.
My Book Review of Anna, Duchess of Cleves from July 2019, click HERE to be redirected.
Thomas Cromwell – A Revolutionary Life by Diarmaid McCulloch:
Since the sixteenth century we have been fascinated by Henry VIII and the man who stood beside him, guiding him, enriching him, and enduring the king’s insatiable appetites and violent outbursts until Henry ordered his beheading in July 1540. After a decade of sleuthing in the royal archives, Diarmaid MacCulloch has emerged with a tantalizing new understanding of Henry’s mercurial chief minister, the inscrutable and utterly compelling Thomas Cromwell.
History has not been kind to the son of a Putney brewer who became the architect of England’s split with Rome. Where past biographies portrayed him as a scheming operator with blood on his hands, Hilary Mantel reimagined him as a far more sympathetic figure buffered by the whims of his master. So which was he-the villain of history or the victim of her creation? MacCulloch sifted through letters and court records for answers and found Cromwell’s fingerprints on some of the most transformative decisions of Henry’s turbulent reign. But he also found Cromwell the man, an administrative genius, rescuing him from myth and slander.
The real Cromwell was a deeply loving father who took his biggest risks to secure the future of his son, Gregory. He was also a man of faith and a quiet revolutionary. In the end, he could not appease or control the man whose humors were so violent and unpredictable. But he made his mark on England, setting her on the path to religious awakening and indelibly transforming the system of government of the English-speaking world.
The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman:
England’s Tudor monarchs–Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I–are perhaps the most celebrated and fascinating of all royal families in history. Their love affairs, their political triumphs, and their overturning of the religious order are the subject of countless works of popular scholarship. But for all we know about Henry’s quest for male heirs, or Elizabeth’s purported virginity, the private lives of the Tudors remain largely beyond our grasp.
In The Private Lives of the Tudors, Tracy Borman delves deep behind the public face of the monarchs, showing us what their lives were like beyond the stage of court. Drawing on the accounts of those closest to them, Borman examines Tudor life in fine detail. What did the monarchs eat? What clothes did they wear, and how were they designed, bought, and cared for? How did they practice their faith? And in earthlier moments, who did they love, and how did they give birth to the all-important heirs?
Delving into their education, upbringing, sexual lives, and into the kitchens, bathrooms, schoolrooms, and bedrooms of court, Borman charts out the course of the entire Tudor dynasty, surfacing new and fascinating insights into these celebrated figures.
The Path to Somerset – Book Two of the Seymour Saga by Janet Wertman:
After the tragic romance of Jane the Quene, the second book in The Seymour Saga trilogy, The Path to Somerset, takes a dark turn through an era in which King Henry VIII descends into cynicism, suspicion and fits of madness – and in which mistakes mean death.
Edward Seymour’s future is uncertain. Although his sister Jane bore Henry the son he’d sought for twenty years, when she died in childbirth, Henry’s good nature died with her. Now the fiercely ambitious Edward must carve a difficult path through Henry’s shifting principles and wives. Challenged at every turn by his nemesis, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Edward must embrace ruthlessness in order to safeguard not only his own future but England’s as well.
This is the account of Henry’s tumultuous reign, as seen through the eyes of two opponents whose fierce disagreements over religion and common decency fuel epic struggles for the soul of the nation. And for power.
My Book Review of The Path to Somerset from June 2018, click HERE to be redirected.
The Raven’s Widow – A Novel of Jane Boleyn by Adrienne Dillard:
Jane Parker never dreamed that her marriage into the Boleyn family would raise her star to such dizzying heights. Before long, she finds herself as trusted servant and confidante to her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn; King Henry VIII’s second queen. On a gorgeous spring day, that golden era is cut short by the swing of a sword. Jane is unmoored by the tragic death of her husband, George, and her loss sets her on a reckless path that leads to her own imprisonment in the Tower of London. Surrounded by the remnants of her former life, Jane must come to terms with her actions. In the Tower, she will face up to who she really is and how everything went so wrong.
My Book Review of The Raven’s Widow from January 2018, click HERE to be redirected.
The Light in the Labyrinth – The Last Days of Anne Boleyn by Wendy J Dunn:
IN THE WINTER OF 1535, fourteen-year-old Kate Carey desperately wants to escape her family home.
She thinks her life will be so much better with Anne Boleyn, who is both Henry VIII’s second wife and the aunt she idolises. Little does Kate know that by going to attend Anne Boleyn she will discover love, and a secret that will shake the very foundations of her identity.
As an attendant to Anne Boleyn, Kate is also swept up in events that see her witness her aunt’s darkest days. By the time winter ends, Kate will be changed forever.
My Book Review of The Light in the Labyrinth from July 2017, click HERE to be redirected.
Falcon’s Rise – The Early Years of Anne Boleyn by Natalia Richards:
The day before her death, Anne Boleyn remembers a journey that changed her life. She recalls how, as a young girl, she used her wits to secure a place at the prestigious Court of Margaret of Austria, where she soon realised that a woman had to be strong to survive the treachery of Court politics. And she came to understand that she must shape her own destiny if she was to be happy.
It is here that she met the young man who would one day make her his Queen. However, loathing his hateful boasting, this girl had plans of her own, and she was determined to impress her ambitious family.
Eight years in the writing, with meticulous research, Falcon’s Rise shows how the young Anne Boleyn grew into the woman who captured the heart of a King. The second book, Falcon’s Flight, covers Anne’s time at the dangerous French court. It follows her travels, her experience of first love, and her survival.
My Book Review of Falcon’s Rise from June 2017, click HERE to be redirected.
Fall of the House of Queens – Book One Of The Shattered Rose Series by Shelly Talcott:
From the moment William Somers first set foot in Henry VIII’s palace, his heart belonged to a beautiful kitchen maid and his loyalty to a great king. But fools are destined to witness history, not make it, and so William must watch and jest as Henry pushes aside a loyal wife for a woman capable of bringing a kingdom to its knees. But when William’s dearest friend Mabel is forced to bend to an equally cruel fate in the forgotten depths of the kitchens will he find the strength to defend her?
My Book Review of Fall of the House of Queen from April 2017, click HERE to be redirected.
Prince of York – A Story of Reginald Pole by Samantha Wilcoxson:
After his elderly mother is executed for treason, Reginald Pole must outsmart the assassins of Henry VIII. Through the political and spiritual upheaval of the Reformation, Reginald strives for peace and compromise. Is it possible?
With royal blood running through his veins, Reginald Pole could have been a Tudor king. His position as a respected Cardinal of the Catholic Church could have earned him the position of Supreme Pontiff. Reginald chose neither.
Instead, he chose to be a faithful friend to artists and churchmen alike, a man of God who could not be corrupted but was open to hearing opposing views, and a man who stood up to Henry VIII when others capitulated to the king’s demands. However, he may have underestimated the Tudor tyrant’s capacity for vengeance.
My Book Review of Prince of York from June 2017, click HERE to be redirected.
Forsaking All Other by Catherine Meyrick:
A historical novel set in England in 1585.
Bess Stoughton, waiting woman to the well-connected Lady Allingbourne, has discovered that her father is arranging for her to marry an elderly neighbour. Normally obedient Bess rebels and wrests from her father a year’s grace to find a husband more to her liking.
Edmund Wyard, a taciturn and scarred veteran of England’s campaign in Ireland, is attempting to ignore the pressure from his family to find a suitable wife as he prepares to join the Earl of Leicester’s army in the Netherlands.
Although Bess and Edmund are drawn to each other, they are aware that they can have nothing more than friendship. Bess knows that Edmund’s wealth and family connections place him beyond her reach. And Edmund, with his well-honed sense of duty, has never considered that he could follow his own wishes.
With England on the brink of war and fear of Catholic plots extending even into Lady Allingbourne’s household, time is running out for both of them.
My Book Review of Forsaking All Other from August 2018, click HERE to be redirected.
Before the Reign Falls – The Lost Words of Lady Jane Grey by David Black:
During the renovation of a decrepit old barn by several friends, the chance finding of various old manuscripts lodged between some wall cavities reveals clues to a mystery that goes back over four and a half centuries to the time of Queen Mary I, Queen Elizabeth I and Lady Jane Grey, who is often referred to as the Nine Day Queen.
Told from several viewpoints, the startling story of Lady Jane Grey finally comes to light as the previously unknown last moments of her life involving mystery, intrigue, politics and love, come to an explosive ending that may even force a revision of the history books.
My Book Review of Before the Reign Falls from May 2017, click HERE to be redirected.
The Tudor Conspiracy by CW Gortner:
England, 1553: Harsh winter encroaches upon the realm. Mary Tudor has become queen to popular acclaim and her enemies are imprisoned in the Tower. But when she’s betrothed to Philip, Catholic prince of Spain, putting her Protestant subjects in peril, rumors of a plot to depose her swirl around the one person whom many consider to be England’s heir and only hope–the queen’s half-sister, Princess Elizabeth.
Haunted by his past, Brendan Prescott lives far from the intrigues of court. But his time of refuge comes to an end when his foe and mentor, the spymaster Cecil, brings him disquieting news that sends him on a dangerous mission. Elizabeth is held captive at court, the target of the Spanish ambassador, who seeks her demise. Obliged to return to the palace where he almost lost his life, Brendan finds himself working as a double-agent for Queen Mary herself, who orders Brendan to secure proof that will be his cherished Elizabeth’s undoing.
Plunged into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a mysterious opponent who hides a terrifying secret, Brendan races against time to retrieve a cache of the princess’s private letters, even as he begins to realize that in this dark world of betrayal and deceit, where power is supreme and sister can turn against sister, nothing–and no one–is what it seems.
Owen – Book One in the Tudor Trilogy by Tony Riches:
Based on the true story of a forgotten hero, OWEN is the epic tale of one young man’s incredible courage and resilience as he changes the course of English history.England 1422: Owen Tudor, a Welsh servant, waits in Windsor Castle to meet his new mistress, the beautiful and lonely Queen Catherine of Valois, widow of the warrior king, Henry V. Her infant son is crowned King of England and France, and while the country simmers on the brink of civil war, Owen becomes her protector.They fall in love, risking Owen’s life and Queen Catherine’s reputation–but how do they found the dynasty which changes British history – the Tudors?This is the first historical novel to fully explore the amazing life of Owen Tudor, grandfather of King Henry VII and the great-grandfather of King Henry VIII. Set against a background of the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York, which develops into what have become known as the Wars of the Roses, Owen’s story deserves to be told.
My Book Review of Owen from October 2016, click HERE to be redirected.
Thank you so very much for including The Light in the Labyrinth in your recommended summer reading list, Rebecca!