The Final Sacrament by James Forrester

url-1The last book in the Clarenceux trilogy, The Final Sacrament by James Forrester, is quite a dark and grim tale as the beleaguered William Harley, Clarenceux King of Arms, has to make decisions regarding the document that was entrusted to him in a previous instalment of the series and which, if placed in the wrong hands, could bring down the throne and kingdom.

The Catholics want it for their purposes, as do Francis Walsingham and William Cecil – the Queen’s Privy Councillors, men who, supposedly, are on Clarenceux’s side. But as friends betray him and those set to guard him seem more intent on guarding something else, and his family is threatened, desperation grows. William Harley no longer knows whom he can trust.

Death and danger stalk his every move and when it enters his home, he has no choice but to take drastic measures.

This has been a good series. Written by Ian Mortimer, whose non-fiction books (The Time Traveller’s Guides to Medieval England and Elizabethan England and The Fears of Henry IV among others) I think are brilliant, his strength lies more in the realm of fact than fiction.

While this is an engaging tale in many regards, it does become convoluted in spots and sometimes a character’s motivation is questionable.

Overall, however, Forrester, as one would expect, evokes the period so well and doesn’t baulk from revealing the dark underbelly and cruelty of this period.

For anyone who likes a rollicking but bleak read.

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Book Review: Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England

Having read Ian Mortimer’s wonderful Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, I sort of knew what to expect when I began reading The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England and was so looking forward to immersing myself in Elizabethan times as if I was a tourist with an extremely knowledgeable, obliging and sympathetic tour guide for company. For this is the magic of Mortimer’s work – he places the contemporary reader in the landscape and culture of a bygone era, ensuring we’re rubbing shoulders with people of all classes, and talks us through what we’ll find both familiar and strange and in doing this brings the past to life.

Beautifully written, this wonderful book invites us into a time that we sort of know through literature and film but in many ways we do not. Mortimer is at pains to overturn or at least challenge many of thThe Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan Englande shibboleths that accompany this period – such as those around cleanliness: personal and household. Of the brutality of the times, he doesn’t hold back, and descriptions of executions, fights, brawls and their victims litter the book in much the way severed heads did the Tower or London Bridge. Gird your stomach before reading.

A violent era where it really wasn’t safe to wander towns or cities at night and if you chose to move along the highways you should do so with guards, it was also a period where culture boomed – particularly music, poetry and theatre. Elizabeth, a proud, haughty queen who firmly established Protestantism as the faith of her land and had to cope with assassination plots, as well as disgruntles Catholics, foreign rulers, wars and Puritans, was also a great patron of the arts and it’s because of the context she created that it flourished.

While bear-baiting, cock-fighting and other amusements are, to the modern reader, an anathema and would have us calling the RSPCA, and taverns, ale-houses and other places you could get “cupshotten” (drunk) and often find a whore or two, dotted the landscape, especially of London, there were also places and spaces (such as the courtyards of inns and nobles’ establishments) where poetry and plays were performed much to the crowds’ delight.

The last chapter devoted to “entertainment” reminds us that it was during these times that William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe wrote their plays as well as Ben Johnson, Phillip Sidney and Edmund Spenser their gorgeous poesy (and more besides). Despite plague and petitions that sought to shut down the playhouses of Southwark and London, they grew in number and size, some entertaining around 2000 people a day each.

Popular entertainment also diverted the masses from the problems that beset them in this period such as famine, numerous outbreaks of plague and lack of work. Homelessness is not peculiar to the modern world and in Elizabethan times it exploded as more and more land was fenced to cater to sheep and the new market of wool and tenant farmers were ruthlessly thrown out without any regard for their welfare by greedy landholders. Laws were passed that made succouring or offering a roof to a vagrant illegal and so these destitute souls, who moved to the towns and cities seeking work, resorted to stealing just to feed themselves and their children and were more often caught and given a grim sentence. What the book tells us briefly, is that Poor Laws were later introduced that ensured villages and towns took responsibility for their homeless and thus the Poor House (which morphed into the notorious Workhouse) was born.

Mortimer doesn’t hold back when discussing the legal system in Elizabethan times, a system that required and had a great deal of policing at all levels but, as he also makes clear, not much justice.  Brutal and quick or painful and slow were the most common forms of rough justice and those administering it were not above some torture too. The only way of avoiding it was by bribery and as corruption was rife, it might be the only way to save your skin.

Social hierarchy was strict and generally adhered to – from nobles, to gentry to the rising middle class and merchants to yeomen and peasants. Mortimer also points out that due to the invention of printing in the last century, literacy was on the rise and many people could read, even if it was just to be able to quote a passage from the Bible and thus claim “Benefit of the Clergy” if they were caught committing a crime! This reduced if not abolished the sentence.

Of course, if you want wealth, a rounded education and even the prospect of change this is still very much the time to be a man (preferably a noble or the gentry), women are still chattels and objects of exchange, despite Elizabeth being on the throne. Being a woman and reading this book makes you glad you’re time-travelling and not, as interesting as the era is, confined to it.

The book also discusses food, clothes, accommodation (the latter two, while improving over the course of Elizabeth’s reign often being flea and louse-ridden, again depending on class), bathing, washing, modes of address, the landscape, travel and manages to answer most questions about the era – even how women dealt with menstruating and both sexes with going to the toilet!

This was also a period of great discovery and travels, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake being among the illustrious explorers and Mortimer tells some wonderful anecdotes about these men and others.

There’s a reason this period is called “Elizabethan” and that’s because the monarch cast her spell over the country in ways other kings did not. “Gloriana”, the “Virgin Queen”, Queen Elizabeth managed to rule Britannia with an iron fist, imposing her will and ways beyond mere religion. Her mercurial personality, low tolerance for fools, disloyalty and “popery” and her patronage of those she felt deserved it, served to confuse suitors, advisors and enemies alike and allowed her to maintain sole power for such a long and rich period.

A fabulous trip, Mortimer’s book is a great read for lovers of history, those curious about times gone by and, of course, for time-travellers. This is the literary person’s Tardis and I look forward to another journey with Dr Who – I mean, Mortimer – soon.

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Book Review: Henry IV by Ian Mortimer

When is a non-fiction book completely fabulous and unputdownable? Ironically, when it reads like a work of fiction. So it is with Ian Mortimer’s engaging and exciting biographical work on Henry Bolingbroke, The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King who was a son of John of Gaunt, cousin to Richard II, and who was mostly known as a usurper and murderer. He’s also, it turns out, one of the most under-rated kings in British history.

Mortimer begins by informing the reader that good ol’ Will Shakespeare has a lot to answer for. The reason he states this is because contemporary impressions and understanding of Henry IV are mainly drawn from the bard’s portrait of the man across a few plays. As a consequence, the man and king we “know” is largely a distortion drawn not for historical purposes soFears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-made King much as political and dramatic ones. Stating his case, Mortimer sets about trying to set this inaccurate portrait straight.

While each of the chapters has as an epigraph a quote from Shakespeare, the content is rigorously researched using the few extant documents available from the period – many of which are financial records of Henry’s court, all of which leave a terrific and interesting trail (at one stage, Mortimer knows where Henry is because of the toilet paper – cloth –he’s ordered to be at his residence! He literally follows his leavings) for us to follow. He also draws upon French and other documents about the period, analysing their biases or possible inaccuracies in the process. Finally, he also uses contemporary historians, emphasising where they may have misread or misinterpreted a fact or hit the nail on the head. In other words, this is a thoroughly researched book that also contains fascinating appendices, an extensive bibliography and from which a few academic journal articles arose as well.

Commencing in Henry’s childhood and creating a context for his later antagonism with Richard, Mortimer describes the cousins’ early years and is at pains to point out their differences: Richard was quiet, aware of the throne he was to inherit, greatly coddled, not an intellectual and certainly not a fighter. By contrast, Henry, as the eldest son of John of Gaunt, was well educated, privileged, a fine warrior (he was one of the youngest nobles ever to enter a jousting ring – fourteen!), travelled a great deal and was a deeply pious man who believed in the Holy Trinity with a passion.

What may have started out as familiarity, bred through ties of kinship, later became contempt, possibly fuelled through frustration, jealousy, fear and loathing – on both parts. I’m simplifying something here that is complex and which Mortimer explains and explores with the finesse and erudition of a forensic psychologist, profiling with expertise these two very dissimilar men.

Mortimer is at pains to show how Richard’s fears, cruelty and insecurities bred a particular type of response, not simply among his courtiers, but from political allies and enemies, as well as the king himself, and how these also led to Henry becoming and acting a particular way. He doesn’t judge or condone, but he does unpack the diverse approaches of the two men, the way they interact with others and how they understand their roles as men, leaders, friends and sons.

It’s these differences, physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual that set these men apart in every way and which lead to the huge schism that later divides England along the lines of Richard’s supporters and Henry’s.

Without going into too much detail for those who don’t know the story, Richard’s reign and Henry’s actions and reactions under it are explored – the battles, the pilgrimages, the attempt at crusades, the longing for public acknowledgement, the rewards, riches and punishments – all of which were delivered at the seeming changeable whim of an insecure and nasty king.

When, in 1399, Henry returns to England and takes the throne, it’s to a land confused about what’s happened, torn asunder by petty rivalries and jealousies and on the cusp of common – not rule – but legislature. It’s into this that Henry, a man never raised to be king, steps and takes the reigns of power. Wielding them as best he can it’s inevitable that he makes mistakes and earns the enmity of those who don’t seem to give him a chance. But, if there’s one thing Mortimer makes clear, it’s that Henry Bolingbroke, despite treachery, many, many assassination attempts, a treasury forever in gross debt, foreign countries plotting, scheming and changing sides, and a constant movement to dethrone him in other ways, survives.

While not remembered for performing any great deeds, nor leaving behind any churches or buildings of state (the only memorial to Henry IV is a statue on the east end of Battlefield Church at Shrewsbury), Mortimer proves that Henry was indeed a self-made king – someone who grew into the role and who did the best he could against formidable odds.

Tall, handsome, smart and deeply committed to his wives and children, Henry was a loyal man who nonetheless understood justice, even when it came at a high cost. Terribly ill from his late thirties on, he ruled against the odds in all sorts of ways. Reading his story, I felt like I was plunged into an action-adventure on minute, a political thriller the next, a romance with medical overtones after that. Marvellously told, rich and exciting, Mortimer is such a talent. He literally brings history and the people who made it to life on the page.

An outstanding book for those who love a good read, for the voracious history buff, and for anyone wanting to shed light on England’s past and thus present by looking at the lesser-known figures and their contributions – great and small, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Book Review: Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Historian Ian Mortimer does something really interesting with this book: he sets out to recreate the period (the Twelfth Century) as if he were writing a travel book for tourists as opposed to researching and explaining a forgotten time. In other words, he places the reader in the moment, advising you where to go, what to see, how to behave, speak, dress and what to expect should you happen to have the good fortune to be transported back to not-so-merry old England in the 1300s.

After my second reading of this book in less than a year, I wish I had access to Dr Who’s Tardis because, with Mortimer’s well-thumbed book under my arm, I would head straight for Exeter, where the book opens, prepared for the ordure of the aptly named, Shitbrook, the breath-taking sight of the cathedral, avert my eyes from the remains of criminals clinging to the gallows, and be careful not to stare at the bright and strange clothes the people are wearing, while tripping along the cobbles, one hand firmly on my money so a cut-purse does not take it.The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century

Like many contemporary historians, Mortimer believes in social history, reconstructing the past in order to understand how it was lived and not simply by kings, queens, monks, lawyers and nobles, those who have left records of their deeds and desires for us to absorb and through which we judge them. Instead, Mortimer turns to all classes and all experiences and takes the reader on a magnificent and fascinating journey back to a character-filled society with its own delights and dangers. It was so good the first time, I did it again and liked it even better.

Explaining where to stay, how to tell the time, greet people (Eg. “fellow or friend, ye be welcome”), about the sumptuary laws, what certain coins look like and what you might be able to buy and where, what diseases we might succumb to if we’re not careful, what we might be served and how to eat it whether it be in an inn, a peasant’s house or a king’s castle (all of which are thoroughly described as if you’re on a guided tour), Mortimer runs the gamut of class and place in this vivid recreation that is at once hugely informative and always vastly entertaining.

Even how to avoid running foul of the law and what punishment might be meted out is made clear as well as the significance of religious observances. Medieval humour is also explored as well as, for those so inclined, where you might find the best er hum, sexual services (Southwark, the Stews, in London, in case you wanted to know). He also discusses how to entertain ourselves while we’re there (the Stews aside) and who, among the great figures known to us now, we might expect to encounter on our journey – Geoffrey Chaucer anyone? He has rooms above Aldgate.

Just when you think you’ve stepped back into the present, Mortimer will remind you to take a deep breath and stop. Listen, he advises. What do we hear? Very little. Maybe some bells, the sounds of birds and animals and, above all, the chatter and clutter of people should we be near a town or city. Or, if present at a joust, the thunder of hooves. The medieval world is a very quiet place, something I hadn’t considered, along with many of the other preconceptions and yes, prejudices I had about this period and which Mortimer’s grandest of tours manages to overturn.

If you’re looking for a book that will literally transport you to another time and place, than I cannot recommend this one highly enough. A fabulous read.

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