Category Archives: history books

Book Review: Heresy by S.J. Parris

Cityread starts next month and you may already know that Prophesy by S.J. Parris has been chosen as this year’s title.  Hope you are planning to read it next month!  It is part of a series so I thought I would take a look at the first book in the series in preparation (Prophesy is number two in the series).


The sequence starts with Heresy, the first of five novels (so far) set in the late sixteenth century and following the story of Giordano Bruno, former monk turned travelling academic and part time sleuth!  Giordano Bruno was a real person and although all the novels are works of fiction they are littered with real characters and events.

The novel begins in Bruno’s youth as a monk in Italy and gives us a nice background into his character and situation.  Expelled from his monastery for reading banned books he has to go on the run and is then later excommunicated for his own controversial writings – making his existence even more perilous.


Portrait of the real Giordano Bruno

Despite his fugitive status he does find favour with some powerful people due to the brilliance of his philosophy and scientific ideas.  While this is a time of religious extremism and control it is also a time when learning and new ideas were embraced – these contradictions feature throughout the novels reflecting the confusing times he was living in.  After an exciting life on the run, including time spent working for the King of France, Bruno travels to England to a debate at Oxford University he is also hoping to locate a rare book he is eager to read – this is where the meat of this particular story begins.

Before travelling to Oxford Bruno is asked by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Walsingham, to keep an eye out for Catholic Heretics while in Oxford.  Bruno admires Walsingham and also needs the money offered for the task!  He accepts with some reservations.

So you can see he’s in a bit of a pickle before he even begins!  He’s hated by some in Protestant England because of his Catholic background.  Hated by others because he has been excommunicated.  People tend not to trust him because he’s a foreigner.  He is eager to impress in a prestigious academic debate even though he doesn’t know the English debating style.  He wants to find a book, but can’t ask openly about it as it concerns elements of sorcery and could see him accused of witchcraft.  He has been told to look out for Catholics and report them to the authorities but his own instinct is for religious tolerance.  As soon as he arrives in Oxford he finds himself attracted to the beautiful and clever daughter of the University Rector – and she is very much out of bounds to a foreign former Catholic!

There is enough here for an exciting novel already…but then there is a grisly murder!

I won’t go into too much detail about the crime as this is basically a plot driven whodunit and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

I do definitely think it is worth a read.  The novel really immerses you in this fascinating era and the plot is pacey and exciting.  I suppose my only criticism is that, now I have also read Prophesy, the second novel is considerably better!  But this is a good sign as it hopefully means the series will develop and improve as it goes on.  In Hersey, while the ideas and feelings of the era seem well described, I often found it difficult to imagine the physical surroundings as S.J. Parris describes them (whereas in Prophesy the setting of Elizabethan London is extremely vivid).



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Book Review: She Wolves by Helen Castor

I’m a big  fan of Helen Castor having really enjoyed her history programmes on TV.  This was the first book of hers I’ve read though.

Historian Helen Castor

Historian Helen Castor

She Wolves tells the story of English female rulers before Elizabeth I, there was surprisingly few of these and the ones she does include arguably not rulers at all as most only exercised power on behalf of male relatives.  Castor deals with the fact that until the reign of Elizabeth there were very real question marks as to whether a woman had the right to rule under any circumstances.  Throughout the middle ages a woman’s ‘natural’ character was seen to be gentleness and her role that of nurturing mother and helpmate to men – medieval kings had to be strong warriors a role viewed as impossible for a woman.

These particular issues are examined by Castor in the first section of the book telling the story of Matilda.  Matilda could be viewed as England’s first Queen (although she was never crowned) the only child of Henry I and her father’s recognised heir; under the heredity principles that have governed royalty in more recent times it seems obvious that she should have become Queen.  But these rules were not yet firmly established in the 12th century, only a generation before William the Conquer had seized the crown by force and force (or election/selection by nobles) were perfectly valid routes to power and different systems were used across Europe.  When her cousin Stephen seized the crown many supported his claim but many did not so civil war broke out!  If it had been 2 men fighting for the crown it would still have been an interesting story but Matilda’s sex makes it even more politically fascinating.  Matilda was a strong proud woman capable of proving those who said woman were weak wrong – but then she found out women rulers couldn’t really win!  At a point during the war she took the upper hand and seemed destined to be crowned but then lost a massive amount of support for behaving in a ruthless uncompromising manner (basically the way medieval kings were supposed to act) but from a woman it was seem as inappropriate, particularly by members of the church – which was a powerful force.  Rather than criticised for being naturally weak she was now attacked for being unnaturally strong – poor Matilda!

she wolves

Isabelle of France

Isabelle of France, wife of Edward II

Another strong story is of Isabelle wife of Edward II.  Edward II was almost certainly gay and had male lovers who he favoured with gifts and honours much to the disgust of his court.  The story and characters read almost like something out of Game of Thrones, particularly when teenage Isabelle, her husband and his long term gay lover are forced to go on the run together after a rebellion of key powerful nobles.  It’s hard to imagine the complicated dynamics within that triangular relationship; although Edward preferred male lovers he did have a physical relationship with Isabelle performing his dynastic duty and having several children with her.  She was only twelve when they married but as she got older she felt the humiliation of her husband’s public adultery harder to bear and began to become a force to be reckoned with.  She was a driving force behind the plot to overthrown her husband and replace him with her son with herself as regent (i.e. ruling England in practice if not name).  Being gay was seen as terrible sin in those days so Edward’s wife was viewed with a lot of sympathy and her actions of overthrowing an anointed King seen by many to be justified (in a way that they wouldn’t have been had he taken female lovers outside of his marriage – illogically mistresses were perfectly acceptable in fact expected of Kings!)  But support of Isabelle didn’t last after she took a lover herself she faced widespread condemnation and couldn’t hold power (Kings were allowed mistresses but Queens could not take lovers).

Overall this is a great book.  It deals with the stories of 6 female ‘rulers’ who came before Elizabeth and also tells us a bit about Elizabeth’s rocky path to power which finally lead to a woman successfully holding the crown.  It’s a very detailed book and I think I made a mistake in reading it from start to finish as I would a novel, I think I would have enjoyed it more had I dipped in and out of it.  I found my interest waning in the second half but don’t think the second half was necessarily less interesting just all those facts and huge cast of characters got a bit tiring!



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