Eleanor of Castile – Sara Cockerill

Before I read this book I didn’t know who Eleanor of Castile was or which of the medieval English kings she was married to.

Turns out she was married to Edward I and had a busy and eventful life.  Although not much of Eleanor’s life is recorded Sara Cockerill has inferred a good history from what is recorded and what is recorded about her family and dependents.

I certainly didn’t expect to learn about the Spanish Reconquista from book about an English queen, although I guess the clue is in the title!  Her father, Ferdinand III of Castile, was instrumental in reconquering Spain from the Moors.

I also learned that this Eleanor was great-great-granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of my heroines of the Middle Ages.  And this Eleanor had some of the intellect, business acumen and stamina of her grandmother.  She was also very well-educated for the era; both her father and half-brother, Alfonso, were patrons of the arts and encouraged literacy in their courts.

During the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to the future Edward I she appears to have struggled with her mother-in-law who wanted to retain her influence over her son Edward.  However, the young couple were soon sent to Gascony to manage the royal duchy and then went on crusade to Acre.

The overall picture that is create of Eleanor through this biography is of a busy, business-like Queen and a close Royal couple.  Eleanor was a successful businesswoman in her own right, accumulating property and managing it whilst travelling around supporting her husband.  Yet her business dealings didn’t always make her popular.  She was also well-loved by her husband and mourned by him even when he later remarried; imagine how his second wife must have felt attending mourning services for her predecessor with her new husband!

I really enjoyed finding out more about the Middle Ages.  This book fills in some of my gaps between Eleanor of Aquitaine and the start of the Wars of the Roses.

It’s also fascinating to speculate on how England might have been different if we’d had King Alphonso I instead of Edward II.

Which, sort of, leads on the one of the downsides of this book and that is that a lot of it is about what we can infer from the records there are.  On some things it can be very clear; there is plenty of evidence that Eleanor accumulated a lot of property in England and some evidence that she was actively involved in managing it herself.  But it is quite hard to pin down the person behind the facts so Eleanor isn’t really knowable as a person.

I would, however, still recommend this book as an insight into the Queen whose heart is buried in Lincoln and who was sincerely mourned by the King who erected crosses wherever her body rested on its journey from Lincoln to London.

Vice Versa – Plautus via Phil Porter for RSC

A new play by Phil Porter based on the Roman comedies by Plautus with the snappy subtitle of “The decline & fall of General Braggadocio at the hands of his canny servant Dexter & Terence the monkey”!

Knowing the plot wouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of this farce and is, more or less; General Braggadocio has taken Voluptua as his prisoner and made her his concubine.  She is really in love with Valentin, who has left Greece and is staying with the General’s neighbour to find a way to rescue her.  Valentin’s servant, Dexter, has also been kidnapped and enslaved by Braggadocio.  Dexter plans to rescue herself, Voluptua and Valentin by getting Voluptua to pretend to have a twin sister who is madly in love with the General.  After various twists and turns the three escape and Braggadocio is left broke and thwarted.

I always enjoy productions in the Swan when the cast start interacting with the audience before the play starts.  This one started with a con-merchant “selling” gold from inside his coat, a politician handing out leaflets and a sketch artist drawing members of the audience.  It was somehow inevitable that Michael would end up being one of the people being sketched and he is now the proud (?) possessor of a picture of Michelangelo’s David with his head on it, signed by Pysipos!

The play started with a colourful, musical pageant onto stage and set the scene well for what followed.

Felix Hayes was a wonderfully over the top Braggadocio, Sophia Nomvete an excellent Dexter and Geoffrey Lumb a remarkably dim Valentin.

The staging was reasonably simple without any of the props intruding on the action, which is unusual for a farce, and set the scene well.

The most disconcerting part of the play was Kim Hartman as Climax.  She has aged very well and it’s really hard to not still see her as Helga in ‘Allo ‘Allo.  It must be frustrating for her but she is so recognisable…and I wish I’d aged as well as her!

All in all I would say that this play is fun, frivolous and funny.  And fairly forgettable.  I would see it again.  And it would make me laugh all over again.  But it isn’t a play to make you think or ponder.

Click here for link to RSC “about the play”

Click here to find out more about Plautus


Waterloo – Bernard Cornwell

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this book.  I love Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series but haven’t enjoyed the other series I’ve tried.  And this is a non-fiction book.

I loved it!  It is one of the most readable books about the battle of Waterloo I have read.  Because it reads like a story book it holds your interest and, even though I already knew the history of the battle, I wanted to know more, I wanted to understand the whys and wherefores.

The book starts with Napoleon’s escape from Elba, covers Wellington’s life after the end of the Peninsular War, details the run up to the battle and then the three days of the fighting.  I really liked the fact it covers the viewpoints of the different nations involved; French, English, Dutch and Prussian.  This made me feel I was getting a balanced picture of the battle rather than the usual single perspective you get in a history book.

I also liked the fact Cornwell considers the different theories as to who won the battle and opened up readers to the idea that it wasn’t necessarily Wellington who won.  I think it’s useful to consider different perspectives than the ones we are fed as children in traditional history books.

I think it is impossible to make a battle of this type easy to understand and follow.  It is, inevitably, a confusing mass of concurrent activities.  That said, I think this book helped me to gain a better understanding.  Perhaps this is because it isn’t the first book I’ve read on the subject.  I think it is also down to the author’s writing style.

After I’d finished reading it I loaned the book to my partner.  It’s unusual for us to like the same book but, knowing he is interested in European history I thought he might enjoy it.  After some initial cynicism – “if you enjoyed it I won’t” type of comment – he read it in 1 weekend and finished it with the comment “that was a really good read!”

In short, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history, military or otherwise, and anyone who is interested in what happened at Waterloo but prefers a ripping yarn to a dusty tome.

Click here for Bernard Cornwell’s website

The Prussian Princesses; the sisters of Kaiser Wilhelm II – John van der Kiste

This is a biography of the 3 younger sisters of Kaiser Wilhelm II – Victoria, Sophie and Margaret – and their lives both growing up and after World War I.

The three girls were brought up by their mother, Kaiserin Frederick, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and they were brought up to think of themselves as “almost English”.  The stories of their childhood centre around their many visits to UK.

Their lives changed considerably as they reached adulthood.

Princess Victoria had problems finding someone suitable to marry, had an unhappy first marriage and her second husband turned out to be a Russian con-merchant.

Her younger sister, Sophie, married Prince Constantine of Greece.  Her married life was marked by the constant flux in the fortunes of her father-in-law and, later, her husband as they were deposed and reinstated to the Greek Crown.  She spent a long time of exile in Italy but died in her native Germany.

The youngest sister, Margaret, remained in Germany, married to the Prince of Hesse-Cassell.  She lost 2 sons in WW1 and became a Nazi in WW2.

It was interesting finding out more about the Prussian Royal family who were so closely related to our own.  However, in this book there is no real sense of these 3 women as people simply Princesses as pawns on the European political chessboard.  I think this is a shame as it’s always interesting to find out about the people behind the titles rather than add to knowledge of their dynastic significance.  That said, I didn’t really know that Kaiser Bill had siblings before reading this book so I have learned something from reading it.

I’m pleased I read this book.  It has increased my understanding of European politics in the early part of 20th century.  But I am disappointed that I didn’t get to know the 3 women as people.

The Family of Richard III – Michael Hicks

What a confusing book!  This is a book about the various families who surrounded Richard of Fotheringhay/Duke of Gloucester/Richard III throughout his life.  It tells of how anyone who was anyone in Medieval England was interrelated, often several times over, through birth and marriage.  And, as with any history of this period, there are far too many people who are important to the story who share the same name and/or title.  Keeping track of which Duke of York or Edward the author is referring is nigh on impossible.

That said I do now have a better understanding of Richard’s life and what is meant by family and family life in the middle ages.

The book is organised into chapters on aspects of the upper echelons of medieval society rather than chronologically and I found this helpful to put Richard into the wider context of his world.  Particularly useful were chapters on what was meant by family in 15th century, the House of York, the 3 brothers (Edward IV, Duke of Clarence and Richard III), the evolution of the Royal family and Richard’s heirs.

I’m still not sure I’m completely sure who is who in the War of the Roses saga but I’m pleased I read this book and I expect I might go back to it when I next read a book about that period.