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Category: Reviews

  1. Book Review - Jambusters

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    Despite living in a small countryside village between the ages of 3 and 25, I never actually joined the local Women’s Institute. Like many I tend to view the WI as the whole “Jam and Jerusalem” thing, a bunch of middle-aged ladies singing hymns and churning out award-winning cakes. But when I saw “Jambusters” sitting on the shelf of my local library something made me pick it up. Maybe it was the fact that it was about the Second World War, a part of history for which I only know basic dates and bits about the “Home Front” that I remember from Middle School history classes. Perhaps it was because it was quite clearly about woman’s role in the war; something which I think tends to be neglected and therefore is worth reading about.

    Either way I took the book home with me and got thoroughly absorbed in it. So much so that when it had to go back to the library I promptly bought it off Amazon, and still reread it every so often.

  2. Book review - England's Witchcraft Trials

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    I recently read “England's Witchcraft Trials” by Willow Winsham, published in 2018 by Pen and Sword Books.

    Witchcarft-trialsThis book arrived just after I saw the Doctor Who episode “The Witchfinders”, which as the title suggests featured a storyline involving witches (which included references to Pendle). Having seen the episode I felt like I could use a bit of an introduction in to the world of English witchcraft trials. I felt like I knew more about the Salem witch trials than anything that had happened in the UK, and that was just through Wikipedia reading. 

  3. Book Review: The Final Season

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    (This review contains an Amazon Affiliate link, clicking it takes you to the book on Amazon but will not cost you any extra money to buy it)

    Last Christmas I bought "The Final Season: The Footballers Who Fought and Died in the Great War" by Nigel McCrery, as a gift for my Dad. With the official start of the First World War Centenary, a lot of books about this period in history were released in time for the festive season. My Dad loves football and has always found history interesting, so this seemed like the perfect combination of interests. I also checked the index and found that his football team, Queens Park Rangers, got a small mention.

    He always gets a lot of books at Christmas and for his birthday a few months later, so this was put in the "to be read" pile. As a result I forgot about it, until I spotted him reading it a few weeks ago. Once he was finished I decided to borrow it, and I'm very glad that I did.

    Football and The First World Warthefinalseason

    This book starts out a foreword from Gary Lineker, which I actually enjoyed reading more than I thought I would (my thoughts were "bloody football pundit gets everywhere"). It then starts off right at the beginning of the war, and gives some context with explanations about the way they leagues worked at the time. Professional and amateur players, the role of the FA, the capped wages, are all dealt with concisely, so you get a good background without getting bogged down. It then moves on to the role that football played in the first months of the war, and the pressure that was put on players to sign up for the armed forces.

    After this the book proceeds pretty chronologically, tackling the main battles and theatres of war that we all know. But rather than look at the military side, the author instead puts the focus on the football players who were fighting at these different times and places. He gives you a quick background of their lives, moves on to their playing careers, and then raises their military history. Many of the men he discusses were killed, with one or two surviving but not able to play again.

    A Good Read?

    This book is not a good read. It is an excellent read. I struggled to put it down, I read it on the bus, in my lunch break and before I went to bed.

    I must admit, I'm struggling to put my finger on why I enjoyed it so much. It's very well written, if you don't know a great deal about football at the time then the opening chapter soon clears up a lot of misconceptions you may have. It also doesn't get bogged down in long explanations about military operations or War Office decisions. A few points are explained, but always quickly, and the focus is soon back on the men.

    I suspect though that the reason why I enjoyed this book so much, is because of the wide range of teams and areas that are mentioned. This is not a book that is focused on Chelsea, or Manchester United. It doesn't point solely at London as the centre of the footballing world. I bought it for my Dad because QPR got a small mention, but so many other teams are included too. Half of them probably don't exist anymore, or if they do they're merged with other local teams. The Welsh and Scots get a fair amount of attention, and goalkeepers and midfielders are discussed alongside record-creating strikers. For one last time these men are brought to life, before they are consigned to their memorials.

    At the end of the day this is a terribly sad book to read. Quite a lot of these men, heroes in their time for their antics on the pitch, have no known grave. The author explains which memorial they are recorded on, and highlights any family they had left. There are two who were awarded the Victoria Cross for their acts of bravery, several more were awarded the Military Medal. Some have been commemorated in recent years with statues and memorial plaques at their former clubs. 

    If you want a book for a football fan this Christmas, I cannot recommend this one highly enough. Even if they have only a passing interest in history, they will find this a good read. It doesn't preach about the rights and wrongs of the war, or go in to dull detail. It simply highlights the lives of men who ran out on to green pitches to cheering crowds, and who ended their lives far from home, deep in mud and surrounded by the sounds of guns, just like many other men who fought with them.

  4. Review: Museum of the Order of St John

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    One of the things I enjoy about London is the number of small, out-of-the-way museums that are tucked away in random corners of the city. When I moved down here four years ago I bought a book about London Museums, and promptly made a list of those that I would like to visit. Last weekend my boyfriend and I decided to tick another one off the list, and headed out to Clerkenwell to visit the Museum of the Order of St John.

    stjohn3 stjohn5

     What is the Order of St John?

    The old Order of St John was a medieval military order or society that was created after the First Crusade, when a hospice was created in Jerusalem to serve pilgrims that had travelled to the city and fallen ill. As the situation in the area deteriorated, the pilgrims needed military escorts in order to travel through the surrounding area to Jerusalem safely. The Order therefore served to both protect the pilgrims from attack, and look after those who fell sick or were injured.

    When Jerusalem fell in the 13th century the Knights moved on to Cyprus and then Rhodes, where they remained for three hundred years before finally relocating to Malta. From both locations the Knights fought frequent battles against pirates and Muslims, but they also continued to run hospitals and infirmaries, where they accepted anyone who was in need of medical help.

    In England the Order's work came to an end during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, when the Order's English properties were confiscated bystjohn4 the Crown. However in the 1800s the Order was reformed as a chivalric order, with a new hospitaller organisation created thirty years later. The Order founded a series ambulances, aptly named "St John's Ambulance", which were designed to give members of the public lessons in first aid. The rapid industrialisation in Great Britain had not been accompanied by an increase in helping people work safely, and certain industries such as railways and mines often had high casualty rates. By offering first aid to workers and the public, it was hoped that someone who had been injured could be kept alive long enough to be taken to hospital or seen by the local doctor. It's from this that the modern St John's Ambulance organisation grew.

    The Museum

    The Museum of the Order of St John can be found in the old St John's Gate. You simply go round a corner and suddenly find yourself facing a medieval gate surrounded by far more modern buildings. The gate is the only surviving part of the old Priory of the Knights of the Order of St John, and was purchased by the new Order in the 1800s. Although it is mostly a Victorian restoration, it still looks suitably medieval.

    You can take part in a guided tour, which I understand shows you more of the building, or you can simply pop in to the Museum itself. There is no entrance fee, but there is a suggested donation of £5 for the tour. Since there was two hours to wait until the next tour, we decided to simply have a look around the museum itself. Going through the doorway takes you in to the gift shop and visitor services area, and we were then pointed through the next door which leads to the display gallery. Following this takes you through the history of the medieval Order, including it's times in Cyprus, Rhodes and Malta, before you then double-back on yourself to past a few videos that tell you more about the Order's revival in England in the 19th century.

    Going through another doorway then takes you through to the final section, with a display of artefacts about both World Wars, including displaying their stjohn6"Roll of Honour" of members who died in the First World War, and more information about the first aid work of the modern St John's Ambulances, including it's work at the eye hospital in Jerusalem and training people in first aid in Africa.

    While the Museum was small it was very well organised and the displays were very interesting, for such a small space they managed to pack a lot of information in through a combined of display cases and videos, and using blank wall space to talk about the overall history. If memory serves it's wheelchair accessible through the fire-exit door (although you'll need to ask a member of staff to open it from the inside), and there were toilets towards the back of the gallery. There was also a sign outside about booking the rooms above for events and weddings, and as we were leaving there was clearly a group gathering for some kind of celebration, so you may find it's a bit more crowded at weekends. If you're in the Clerkenwell area and have an hour to kill then I would really recommend visiting this place.

  5. Book Review: Catherine de Medici

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    In my review of Alison Weir's "Elizabeth of York", I mentioned that it was a Christmas present. What I should have mentioned was that it was one of several books I received about incredible women in history. My Dad even commented that "all your books have a running theme", which is now a themed shelf on my bookcase.

    Leonie Frieda's book "Catherine De Medici" is another book in the same vein as Elizabeth of York. Catherine was a Queen of France as the wife of King Henri II of France, although at the time of their marriage it was his older brother who was due to inherit the throne.

    The Life of Catherine De Medici

    Catherine's life cannot be described as a particularly happy one. Orphaned within weeks of her birth,  her fortunes swung from being the adored relation of a Pope through to hated scion of Florence's foremost family. Caught between the peculiarities of medieval geopolitics, when today's enemy could be tomorrow's friend, she had several potential husbands waiting in the wings until Henri was picked. Their marriage would not be a happy one, her husband was obsessed with his mistress, and it took so long for Catherine to conceive a child that an annulment was considered on the grounds of infertility. Not only that, but her dowry was never paid as the De Medici Pope died a year after the wedding, and his successor refused to pay it.

    In the end though, Catherine and Henri had ten children, including several sons. Most of them suffered from poor health and the eldest, Francis, was fifteen when Henri died in a jousting accident. His own death eighteen months later meant that his younger brother, Charles, became king at the age of nine. Catherine effectively became Regent while her son grew up, and continued to give her advice and use her influence in many years to come. She is chiefly remembered for the St Bartholomew Day's Massacre, in which thousands of people, mostly Huguenots, were killed after the wedding of her daughter Margot.

    The Book

    Leonie Frieda's book covers the whole of Catherine's life, from the tumultuous childhood through to her death and the years that followed. Her evidence catherinedemediciincludes Catherine's own letters, which were preserved as her belongings were auctioned off after her death to pay her debts, as well as sources from archives in France and Italy, and earlier scholarly work. She includes family trees, lists of the main historical figures, and maps of France and Italy so you can go back and refer to them if you get mixed up (useful for me as I kept forgetting where La Rochelle is).

    The best thing about this book is that Frieda manages to make an excellent balance between discussing Catherine's life and explaining the actions of the men that were around her. Many books about women get very caught up in explaining the male side of things, and then return to explain the effect it had on the woman they're writing about. With this there was no point when I felt that Catherine was being forgotten in favour of her husband or sons. Her relationships with all her children are brought in and explained at various points, along with her various alliances and suspicions about France's other noble families. Since I know very little about French history, I found her explanations about the various Wars of Religion very informative, without being too confusing.

    If there is one fault with this book, it's the lack of pictures. Catherine's lack of beauty is mentioned several times, but with no pictures to refer to it's difficult to work out how she looked. The same can be said for some of the surviving buildings in Paris that were built in her time, while many were remodelled by later Kings, if there were any surviving floor plans or etchings, they would have been nice to see to add a bit of context.

    Pictures though is a very small point, even without them this book is still an excellent read. I would really recommend it for anyone that wants to learn more about Catherine, or just a well-known woman in history.

  6. Review: Anglesey Abbey

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    Back in the autumn me and my boyfriend paid a visit to Anglesey Abbey. Contrary to it's name, it's not actually on the island of Anglesey. It's just north of Cambridge, near Newmarket. I've visited Wimpole Hall, which is also in Cambridgeshire, plenty of times, but this was my first visit to Anglesey.

    The History of Anglesey Abbey

    Anglesey Abbey is a former priory that was originally founded during the reign of Henry I. Like many religious houses it was closed down on the orders of Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and then became a private residence.

    In 1926 Anglesey Abbey was sold to the Broughton brothers, who were from a very wealthy American family. The eldest brother, Huttleston, became sole owner when his brother Henry married. Huttleston was a collector of art and antiques, and used the house as both a country retreat, where he entertained various Royals, and a showcase for his collections. He set about restoring both the house and the gardens to their former glory, and on his death left the house, it's contents and the gardens to the National Trust.

    The Abbey Building

    Anglesey Abbey is a property that has benefitted from customer-friendly amendments over the year. The car park is tarmaced, with spaces for campervans towards the back and disabled spaces at the top. You can pay for your ticket or buy National Trust membership in the visitor centre, which also hosts the shop, café and toilets. You will be offered a map, and given the size of the gardens I highly recommend that you accept it!

    Once you're all paid up you walk through the gardens towards the Abbey building itself. Entrance is through one of the side doors, rather than through the main entrance. Even though it wasn't a particularly wet day we were asked to put carpet protectors over our shoes, and with that done we were allowed in to the building proper. Like many National Trust properties you follow a one-way system that leads you through some of the rooms, but not all of them. As you go around there are various paper-based guides that you can read, or volunteers who will answer your questions.

    The rooms that we saw were very well kept, and the various pieces of artwork and beautiful antiques were nicely displayed. My favourite room was the library, partly because of all the books, and partly because the volunteer pulled back the curtains to show the initials of various illustrious guests, carved in to the glass panes of the window. Upstairs one of the volunteers explained how various members of the Royal family stayed as over night guests when attending the races at Newmarket. Back on the ground floor we were about to descend a staircase in to another room when another volunteer stopped us to ask if we were both able to get back UP said stairs. The room had no doors or windows, and apparantly people frequently went down who then announced they struggled to get up stairs and would need some assistance! She also asked us to mind our steps as people fall down them as well. However the room was well worth it as it had some gorgeous examples of carved jade in green and purple.

    The Gardens

    The house is nestled in a lovely set of gardens, which have various areas hedged off to great smaller gardens, such as a rose garden. There's also various statues dotted around the place, and winding walks along gravelled paths. If we had had more time we probably would have seen more of the garden, but as we had been to Wimpole that morning we were both worn out. Instead we settled for a stroll outside the front of the house, followed a path down the side which led to a lovely lawn and some benches, and after a rest we walked along the river to Lode Mill, then went back via another path towards the house.

    Lode Mill

    Lode Mill is a working flour mill that is in the Abbey gardens. The National Trust states that "most of it's working parts are 150 years old", and also points out that a Mill was recorded on the site in the Domesday book. When we went it was covered in scaffolding as the outside was being repainted, but visitors were still allowed inside. It is still used to make flour to this day, which can be purchased from the gift shop back in the visitor centre. Even if you're not interested in the mill itself, it's still worth a walk up along the river due to the lovely view.

    Overall me and my boyfriend really enjoyed our visit, and once I get National Trust membership again I'll be popping back for another walk around the gardens. If you're near Cambridge then I highly recommend you give this property a try, just not when you're tired!

  7. Book Review: Elizabeth of York

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    One of my Christmas presents was Alison Weir's book "Elizabeth of York". This is the second of Weir's books on medieval women that I've read and reviewed, the first being her work on Katherine Swynford. I was really excited about this book as I was thoroughly disappointed by Philippa Gregory's "The White Princess", and really wanted to read something that gave a true picture of Elizabeth and her life.

    Elizabeth of York

    For those of you who are less historically inclined; Elizabeth of York was a daughter, wife and mother of Kings of England. Her father was King Edward IV, she was his eldest child by his wife Elizabeth Woodville (which Weir gives the old spelling; Wydville). Her husband was Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, and by him she had several children including the future Henry VIII.

    Elizabeth is believed to have been a rather submissive figure, weighed down by her husband's paranoia and his mother's dislike of her. While she certainly appears to have been more passive than her predecessors, Weir gives a much more rounded view of her, and explains some of the circumstances around her life that may have helped shape that side of her.

    york1The Book

    Weir starts this book in the tumultuous years leading up to Elizabeth's birth. The Wars of the Roses, Edward IV claiming the throne and his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville are all dealt with in the first chapter. Each chapter follows a similar pattern for the first part of Elizabeth's life, Weir sets the contextual scene and then explains how the events affected the young princess. In some cases she is able to use direct sources, but mostly it has to be conjecture based on other sources of the time. As a princess of England, Elizabeth was a valuable dynastic match. As a girl however she was of little interest to our sources, featured only in relation to her father's plans for her.

    This changes about a third of the way through the book. Edward IV died when Elizabeth was a young woman, and her role starts to become more prominent due to her age and her sudden significance in the reigns of Richard III and her husband Henry VII.

    One thing I like about this book is that Weir doesn't shy away from trying to get to the bottom of common controversies about Elizabeth. She doesn't just explain her own theories, she also explains what sources others have previously used to support the controversial viewpoints. Her pro-Elizabeth bias is obvious in certain parts, but she doesn't ignore the arguments of others. You start to understand where such legends and controversies come from, and how prevalent they have been over the centuries. Reading this book, I certainly came to see it as dismissing some of the things that Gregory put in "The White Princess". Whether Weir read it while she was writing this book, or merely heard about it, I can't say. But to me at least, I suspect she was as annoyed by the book as others are.

    So what didn't I like about this book? Like her book on Katherine Swynford, Weir dedicates a large amount of page space to the men in Elizabeth's life, to the point where parts of it more a biography of Henry VII than his wife. I know that this is because many of her readers need the context, and there are limited sources on Elizabeth herself, but there were parts where I wanted to skip ahead to where Elizabeth was next mentioned. I also wish she had mentioned more about Elizabeth's relationship with her children. Although she comments that Elizabeth regularly visited them, there's no other indication of what kind of parent she was. Again, this is probably due to lack of evidence, but I would have preferred it if there had been some acknowledgement of this. There were also one or two fact and spelling errors that should have been caught before publishing, but when you've been working on something for a while you do become a bit blind!

    Overall this is a really good read, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in Elizabeth of York. Weir does a really good job of writing a biography that is very readable, and even though it's quite big you'll still struggle to put it down!

  8. Book Review : She Wolves

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    Last Christmas I got a lovely collection of history books, and I've recently re-read one by Elizabeth Norton. The full title of this book is "She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England", and as you can probably tell it focuses on a cross-section of England's Queens. You won't find anything about Adeliza of Louvain or Jane Seymour in this book, instead Elizabeth Norton focuses on those Queens whose terrible reputation has been maintained down the centuries.

    This book is divided in to several parts and from there in to chapters under titles such as "Incestuous Queens", "Arrogance & Pride" and "Witchcraft". shewolvesnortonSome of these chapters encapsulate several Queens in one go, others are dedicated purely to one woman (such as "Witchcraft" which is about Joan of Navarre). Each part includes an introduction of a few pages before delving in to the chapters themselves, in total 19 Queens are analysed and discussed in this book, starting with the Anglo-Saxons and finishing with Mary I. 

    The book itself is an interesting read. Norton sets the Queens out in proper chronological order, which I much prefer over jumping backwards and forwards across centuries. Along with setting the background of each Queen discussing their actions, Norton also gives explanations for their actions and for the hostility of our sources. For readers that aren't used to reading about the medieval world, it brings you firmly out of the modern mentality of "women can do anything", and reminds you that while these women COULD do anything, they weren't actually supposed to.

    I also like that Norton didn't just jump straight into post-Conquest England and instead wrote about some Anglo-Saxon Queens. While many people think that the English monarchy began solely with William the Conqueror, in reality there were plenty of Anglo-Saxon kings. The major problem with this is that Queens are generally ignored by the sources in those times, unless they were "Bad Queens". By including them, Norton reminds us that there were notorious Queens before 1066.

    While I mostly enjoyed reading this book, where was something about it that just didn't sit right with me. For example in her summing up of Elizabeth Woodville she describes her as a "wailing Cassandra". Since Cassandra was a rather ineffective Greek "heroine", this epithet effectively casts Elizabeth Woodville in to the role of passive bystander, when in reality we know that she frequently took control of her own life and plotted against two Kings. It feels that with some of these women she is very quick to condemn them, and with others she takes all responsibility for their actions out of the women's hands, and places it firmly with the men in their lives.

    Being pedantic I also dislike the minor inconsistency of the chapter titles. As said above, each chapter has a title such as "Witchcraft", with the exception being the chapter about Anne Boleyn. It's only a small thing, but it just seems a bit lazy, as if a new title just wasn't possible when "Witchcraft" and "The Seductress" had been taken by others.

    Finally I felt that this book was just a bit too short. At 242 pages for these women it certainly isn't short, and yet several of the chapters seemed rather short for women who had led such varied and interesting lives.

    Overall I think this is a good read, but perhaps it's better off as an introduction to some of England's Queens, than as a book for those of us who have already read plenty of other titles on the subject. 

  9. Review: Ancient Lives New Discoveries

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    You probably don't know, but a few weeks ago was my birthday. To celebrate my partner got tickets for us to go and see the Ancient Lives New Discoveries exhibit at the British Museum. I've been dying to see this ever since the original media coverage for it's opening, so it was great to finally get along to it. We originally chose my birthday month as the exhibition was due to close a few weeks after, but it has been so popular that they've extended it to April 2015. This means that you've still got time to go and see it!

    Ancient Lives

    This exhibit focuses on the mummified remains of eight individuals from ancient Egypt and the Sudan, including the Roman and early Christian periods. They include those found with sarcophagi (not necessarily the right sarcophagus though) and who went through the full ritualised mummification process, through to those that were simply buried in the hot, dry sand and naturally preserved. Through the exhibit you see both the mummies, the sarcophagi where appropriate, and other ancient Egyptian artefacts that are either directly related to the mummies (including canopic jars) or which add context and detail to the information given in the displays. 

    New Discoveries

    You may be wondering what the point of the exhibit is. After all the British Museum already has multiple galleries dedicated to ancient Egypt, including displays of mummies, so why pay £10 for this?

    The difference is that all eight of these mummies have been digitally "unwrapped". Using the latest technology they scanned each mummy, and used the images to create digital 3D images of the remains under the wrappings. They managed to discover medical conditions, such as plaque in leg arteries and dental abcesses, amulets and other ritualistic equipment that was under the bandages, and in one instance they found a mummification tool left inside a skull.

    Probably the one let-down from it was that no attempt was made to recreate how the people would have looked when alive. One thing I loved about visiting the Jorvik Centre in York was that they using digital imaging to show what the skeletal remains looked like in life. However I think that it's easier to do that if you're just working with a skull, rather than mummified remains, so it may have simply been impossible to do in this exhibit.

    I will admit, I didn't learn much more about ancient Egypt than I already knew, and I'm certainly neither an expert nor an Egyptologist. But I did learn that medical technology has come on leaps and bounds in the past ten years, and that it can be put to some great uses in archaeology as well as medicine. I hope that the Museum manages to get funding for more scans of other mummies in their possession in the future, it would be incredible to find out what else is hidden under the bandages!