by Alison Weir (link)
This book, so the front cover tells me, was formerly entitled <em>The Children of England</em> and is an account of the ten years between the death of Henry VIII in 1548, and the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558. It is not a political history per se, but a story of the lives of the three monarchs of this decade, and their eventual successor. They are Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, and of course Elizabeth. It is a story of their lives, and their relationships with each other. The political and religious history of those times is the backdrop, the canvas on which their portraits are painted.
And this is a mixture of literary portraiture and historical story-telling. The story of these ten years is a compelling one, the personal stories of some of the main characters are riveting. It is very easy to be sympathetic to all the three women, each of whom faced various hardships with a fortitude that one has to commend. In contrast Edward, spoiled from birth, is someone that the distance of time allows me to pity, but not like in any particular fashion. He comes across in the book as rather cold.
There is plenty of tragedy in these ten years, and not very much happiness. There is scandal and betrayal, a litany of revolts and conspiracies. It helps explains why Elizabeth's reign is so praised: it provided a stability that had been torn completely away the previous decade. The pinnacle of both the tragedy and the farce though is at the midpoint, and that briefest of reigns that belongs to Lady Jane Grey. Alison Weir is more than able to bring out the dramatic elements of this story, though is left with a renewed since that no matter how fanciful fiction can be, history will always be more absurd.
Through it all we get a definite sense of these our main charcters, but Weir does not neglect the supporting cast, the nobles of England and the Ambassadors of France and Spain, not to mention Philip II and the off-stage Charles V. The final character, if you will, are the English people themselves. The people who in an undemocratic age made their feelings all too evident in their support for Mary in 1553, and Elizabeth towards the end of her sister's reign.
This is not a history, but if one wants to get a sense of the main people at play here, an inkling of the atmosphere in which they lived, a few details of the perils of their lives, this is an excellent book.