What a difficult decision – to pick my five favourite of Tudor histories! I am not an avid reader but have decided to concentrate on the more modern books which have had a significant influence on my own efforts, covering the period of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth. Had I chosen an older historian I might have picked Elizabeth I by Sir John Neale. I found this incredibly difficult to read at school, but have got better at it, and it stands up well to more modern research. When faced with uncertainty, I always turn to Neale for advice! I have not chosen a novel, but enjoy those written in the context of history, although not otherwise. Nor have I chosen books on the Cecils, who I see as the unscrupulous protagonists of those who have been the subjects of my own books.
I do not always agree with the conclusions in the books I have chosen. What is important to me is that they are well researched and that they are willing to challenge the conventional paradigm of school room history.
Mary Queen of Scots, by Antonia Fraser I read this in the 1960s. It was the first book I had seen which challenged the tarnished image of Mary propagated by the Cecils. Suddenly Lady Antonia was depicting her as an innocent, badly let down by those on whom she relied for support, and an icon for her Catholic faith. The schoolroom view of her as a scheming murderess set upon gaining the English throne by any means is turned on its head and she does much to show up the fraudulence and illogicality of the evidence against her. While I may not agree with all its conclusions, the book opened my eyes to the opportunity to challenge conventional history for the propaganda which it so often is.
My Heart is my Own, by John Guy. Forgive me for choosing a second book about Mary Queen of Scots, but she has always been a subject close to my heart! It is chosen because it is beautifully written and impeccably researched. It contains extraordinary detail of Mary’s period in France as a young girl, even if it fails to satisfy me as a murder whodunnit. Nevertheless. as a source of original material, I have relied on it heavily in my own writing..
Crown of Blood, by Nicola Tallis. Although my objective in Elizabeth I’s Secret Lover was to rehabilitate Lord Robert Dudley, I could not set his family in context without covering the life of his sister-in-law, Lady Jane Grey. Crown of Blood shone out with its detailed account of her story. Not only is it impeccably researched but you feel the author’s sympathy for and understanding of her heroine as her tragic life unfolds, hugely academic, devoutly religious, extraordinarily self-composed in the face of her father’s incompetence, but unable to influence her own destiny.
Sweet Robin, by Derek Wilson. In writing my own biography of Lord Robert Dudley, I most carefully picked over every paragraph as a foil against which to test my own views as they developed. Yet again, it was Derek’s detailed research which attracted me, being well able to highlight the extraordinary range and influence of Dudley’s abilities which make him perhaps the most important figure of his age, coming, as he did, within a whisker of marrying Elizabeth, to whom he was devoted, despite what have to be accepted as his political shortcomings.
The Lady Penelope, by Sally Varlow. This may be considered a surprising choice, as Sally’s conclusions have faced criticism from acknowledged historians. She is an advocate of the view that Catherine Carey was the daughter of Mary Boleyn and Henry VIII, a possibility which I consider entirely plausible. She has also researched a fascinating if flawed personality in Lady Penelope Rich, a person who I would have chosen to have around a dinner table should time have stood still. I also consider her paramour, Charles, Lord Mountjoy to have been the finest of the Elizabethan generals among a galaxy of other contenders. Why have Penelope and Charles not gone down in history with a better press? It was their enemies, the Cecils, who commissioned William Camden to provide the adverse spin.
Robert Stedall is the author of Elizabeth I’s Final Years: Her Favourites & Her Fighting Men, published by Pen & Sword.