Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Little Boys in Windows

If you go to Hampton Court and walk along the Haunted Gallery, you might see a charming young boy staring at you through a window.

These lovely pictures, from the Flemish school, are designed to trick the viewer into engaging with the child, only to find that he is not real.

This picture, which was acquired in c.1600 by Prince Henry, son of James VI/I, is identified as ‘A Picture of a Buffone’ - a buffone, or buffoon, being a fool or jester, and was once thought to depict Henry VIII’s favourite fool, Will Sommers.

Following Prince Henry's death in 1612, the painting passed to his mother, Anna of Denmark, and then to his brother, Charles I. It was sold in 1651, but returned to the Royal Collection upon the Restoration of Charles II.

While many of these paintings are by anonymous artists, this one is known to be the work of Samuel Dircksz van Hoogstraten. Now part of the collection of the Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam, it dates from the late 1640s.

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Friday, 23 October 2015


Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII's Fifth Queen

Since March 2014 I have been working on my biography of Katherine Howard, the fifth Queen of Henry VIII. The work which was based on extensive research of the original documents held at the National Archives at Kew, was submitted on schedule on 1 June 2015. I am really excited about how things are going. The proof-reading and indexing have now been completed, and the book is well on course to be published by John Murray in April next year.

Katherine Howard was the fifth wife and queen of Henry VIII and cousin to the executed Anne Boleyn. She first came to court as a young girl of fourteen, but even prior to that her fate had been sealed and she was doomed to die. She was beheaded in 1542 for crimes of adultery and treason, in one of the most sensational scandals of the Tudor age.

Looming out of the encroaching darkness of the February evening was London Bridge, still ornamented with the severed heads of Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham; the terrible price they had paid for suspected intimacy with the queen.

The traditional story of Henry VIII's fifth queen dwells on her sexual exploits before she married the king, and her execution is seen as her just dessert for having led an abominable life. However, the true story of Katherine Howard could not be more different.

Far from being a dark tale of court factionalism and conspiracy, Katherine's story is one of child abuse, family ambition, religious conflict and political and sexual intrigue. It is also a tragic love story. A bright, kind and intelligent young woman, Katherine was fond of clothes and dancing, yet she also had a strong sense of duty and tried to be a good wife to Henry. She handled herself with grace and queenly dignity to the end, even as the barge carrying her on her final journey drew up at the Tower of London, where she was to be executed for high treason.

Little more than a child in a man's world, Katherine was the tragic victim of those who held positions of authority over her, and from whose influence she was never able to escape.

The book is now on pre-order at Amazon, Amazon US, Barnes and Noble, Blackwells, the Book Depository (free delivery!), Foyles, Wordery (discount prices and free worldwide delivery!) and Waterstone's and will be available in printed and e-book format.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Jesus and Brian

Congratulations to my former PhD supervisor, Dr William R. Telford, on the publication of Jesus and Brian. The books is a collection of essays exploring the life and times of Jesus through Monty Python's Life of Brian. Dr Telford writes the first essay, 'Monty Python's Life of Brian and the Jesus Film' - Great stuff!

The book is featured on its own page on the publisher's website: and it is available from all the usual outlets.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Interview with Josephine Wilkinson on Mary Boleyn

This interview was conducted by SARAH BRYSON and published on her website Queen-to-History (

Sarah: What attracted you to write a book about Mary Boleyn?
Josephine: To be honest, I had no interest in writing about Mary Boleyn when the idea was first suggested to me and I resisted it for quite some time. This was primarily because I thought there was so little to say about her that such a project would be frustrating and, sadly, a waste of time when there were so many other books to write. At length I allowed myself to be persuaded and I’m glad I did. I found I liked Mary very much, and I loved researching her life and the people in it as well as the places she would have lived, her dresses, portraits and so on. In the end, I found much more than my allocated 50,000 words would allow, but I had to keep it short!

S: What are your thoughts on the whereabouts of Mary Boleyn between 1515 and 1520
J: It is impossible to tell without sound documentary evidence, but it does seem probable that Mary returned to England with the Duchess of Suffolk. It is interesting that the seventeenth-century French novelist, Madame de Lafayette, includes Anne in her novel La Princesse de Clèves (link below), but mentions Mary only in passing. This is because the characters are discussing Princess Elizabeth and this, in turn, leads them to talk about Anne Boleyn and her life in France. Mary is mentioned only once as the mistress of Henry VIII, and she is not associated with France. As to where she was when she returned home, I can only speculate that she remained with her family until her marriage was arranged, although it is not impossible that she served at court.

S: Do you think Mary had an affair with Francis I?
J: I think she was possibly seduced by François, which is not the same thing. Also, François was probably bragging a bit to annoy Henry!

S: Who do you think fathered Mary Boleyn’s children, Catherine and Henry Carey?
J: I think there’s a very good chance that Henry fathered Catherine Carey, but I’m really not so sure about Henry Carey. Because there is no concrete evidence either way, it is difficult to talk in absolutes; however, there is strong circumstantial evidence, particularly the information contained in Sir Francis Knollys’s Latin dictionary. If the king did father him, then the love in which Henry Carey was conceived had died before he was born.

S: What qualities do you most admire in Mary Boleyn?
J: I think I admire her strength of character most of all and the fact that she knew her own mind. She does not appear to have been the favourite child of the family, where she comes across almost as an outsider. Anne and George were close, but Mary did not fit into their world. This is a difficult situation to be in, but she managed it perfectly. I also admire her determination - she married a man out of love, which was unacceptable for a woman of her status, but she stuck to her guns and lived happily with him for the rest of her life.
S: If you could find out one more piece of previously unknown information about Mary Boleyn what would you wish that to be?
J: I would like to find something about her in a household book or some other document that would confirm her whereabouts before her marriage. Primarily, though, I regret that more of Mary’s letters no longer exist. The one she wrote to Cromwell does not show her in the best light, although her anger and bitterness are understandable. If we had more of her letters, we could better discern her character and gain greater access to her inner thoughts, this would allow us a more rounded picture of her.
S: When she was older Anne Boleyn appeared to be closer to her younger brother George, what are your thoughts regarding Mary and Anne Boleyn’s relationship?
J: See above!
S: Do you think Mary Boleyn was grieved at the loss of her sister and brother despite being banished from court and not being able to see them in their final years?
J: Yes, without doubt. Mary had her differences with her family and with Anne especially, and she had been banished from court. This saved her life, but it also deprived her of any chance of resolving those differences, so she would have had no real sense of closure. This could only have increased her grief.
Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn in the BBC production of Wolf Hall
S: What are your thoughts regarding the recent portrayal of Mary Boleyn in Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”?
J: Actually, I like Wolf Hall very much (although my favourite Mantel remains A Place of Greater Safety), and I really enjoyed the BBC adaptation. Mary is portrayed as an unhappy woman, although she tries to cover up her unhappiness by making caustic remarks about Anne and flirting with Cromwell - but how much of this is the real Mary, and how much of it is Cromwell’s perception of her? One thing I especially love about Mantel is her characterisation and the way she makes readers think, and just when you think you understand a character, she throws you off, genius writing!
It is one of my greatest regrets that people seem to be losing their ability to understand literature (and its filmed adaptations) for the art it is; instead, they try to treat it as they would history and get indignant about what they see as libellous interpretations and portrayals of historical characters.
S: What’s next for Josephine Wilkinson?
J: I have just completed a biography of my favourite of Henry’s wives, Katherine Howard. I revisited all the original documents in the National Archives and came up with some fascinating material. The book is due out in April of next year.

Princesse de Clèves link:

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Josephine on Anne Boleyn by Paul Friedmann

This interview was originally published in March 2013 on the blog

Q1: Paul Friedmann wrote his two-volume biography of Anne Boleyn in the 1884 and the book is still used as a standard of reference by historians today. After over 100 years, why do you think this book remains relevant?
I think any work that is well researched and written in such an accessible and commanding way will always be an important reference for researchers, whatever era they live in and whether or not they agree with the author’s conclusions. Paul Friedmann, of course, worked extensively with original documents - not as they are printed in Letters and Papers, but the actual documents themselves, which are held in various archives and libraries across Europe, so his work will always stand as a valuable source.

Q2: You are credited as an editor of the new edition of Friedmann’s book. What kinds of edits or revisions did you contribute to the latest edition of the book?
My work as an editor of this work was purely technical - I transcribed the document from PDF into Word and ensured that everything came out correctly. This meant removing the marginal notes, checking that the text had come out correctly in each language and ironing out the funny characters that can crop up when software misreads certain letters and numbers. I also redid the index to match the new pagination. I did not revise Friedmann’s work in any way, but that was not the object.

Q3: You’ve published several books about the Tudors and also specifically about Anne Boleyn. How did it come about that you were asked to be an editor of Friedmann’s book? Why was this project of interest to you?
My commissioning editor had looked through the annotated bibliography that I included with my Anne Boleyn book and found the Friedmann title listed. He asked me if I thought it was worth publishing it in a new volume. I agreed that it was a very good idea, especially since no new addition had been done at the time and the original work was difficult to get hold of. I have always admired Friedmann’s work and thought it deserved a wider readership.

Q4: One of the reasons Henry VIII remains so famous is his six wives, of whom Anne Boleyn is perhaps the most well-known. Why do you think Anne Boleyn endures as a historical figure? What is it about her that contemporary people find so interesting?
Anne’s primary interest is that she is the only anointed and crowned queen of England to be executed (so far!). The story of how that happened is still, to some extent, shrouded in mystery. Although scholars are now more aware of the machinations of the Tudor court, there remain several theories about why Anne fell.
Then there is Anne herself. She was clearly a woman of great character, self-aware, self-assured and determined to live according to her personal codes of honour and right. She was a very intelligent woman, intellectual and artistically talented. She appeals to people today for all these reasons, but also because she held her own against a predatory and difficult authority figure, she won her man on her own terms and she exemplifies the female struggle against the ’glass ceiling’. It was only in the last few weeks that it all became unstuck; until then, she almost had it all.

Q5: Friedmann’s book is filled with rich details about the people and society in which Henry VIII and
Anne Boleyn lived. How do these descriptions of the Tudor world make Freidmann’s book unique? Do you feel this detail helps the reader to better understand the world in which Anne Boleyn lived?
I’m not sure Friedmann’s book is unique in that respect - Elizabeth Benger wrote a lovely biography of Anne which went into detail about the Tudor world, and Agnes Strickland included a biography of Anne in her Queens of England series. Friedmann’s particular strength lies in his extensive use of original sources and his careful analysis of them. He also delved more deeply into the politics of the period, showing the importance of Anne’s story in Europe as a whole. Certainly such details help readers understand Anne’s world, and this is essential for assessing Anne, her actions and her ultimate fate.

Q6: Does Friedmann’s book contain any ideas or theories that have been proven outdated by contemporary scholars? If so, did your edits revise these ideas or theories?
As I mentioned above, I made no revisions, but simply produced a Word copy of the biography. My publisher then decided what he would do with it. Friedmann work is a classic and his theories stand alongside those of modern historians, especially as there is still disagreement regarding the causes of Anne’s fall.

Q7: Is there anything about this Friedmann’s book that you’d like to bring to the reader’s attention?
If readers can get hold of the original two-volume work, they might find Friedmann’s own introduction very interesting. Unfortunately me editor did not think it necessary to print it. Volume one also contains a full and very useful chronology of events. It always makes me smile when I read Friedmann’s words (pp.250-1): ‘After a time their [the people’s] interest in Anne’s fate died out’ - if only he could have seen into the future! I also admire his modesty when he states (p.255): ‘My object has been to show that very little is known of the events of those times, and that the history of Henry’s first divorce and of the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn has still to be written.’ Certainly, historians have had new things to contribute, but Friedmann produced a wonderful piece of scholarship, a classic study.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Henry XXVIII and Anne Boleyn

Here is an excerpt from one of my ongoing private studies of puppets and their history:
It was not unknown for puppets to be conscripted into the service of one political cause or another. The Russian version of Mr Punch, Petrushka, is a famous, if tragic example. Another is Mr Punch himself who, by the early twentieth century, had become such a well-known figure that he could be used for such purposes to great effect. Mr Punch was brought in to comment on one of the several political upheavals that threatened to rock the country in the early part of the twentieth century: the emerging suffragette movement.

At the time, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, was playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Beerbohn Tree’s production was enormously popular, accomplishing no less than 254 consecutive performances between September 1910 and April 1911. Naturally, such a success came to the attention of the mountebanks and puppet showmen, and a Punch and Judy show opened for business close to the theatre.
In a tall booth, at ten in the morning, the notorious puppet took to the playboard, his performance heralded by the sound of the tolling bell. As the curtain rose to reveal the setting within, Mr Punch emerged and began, in his customary way, to insult the audience, before retreating into the confines of his colourful booth.
Then, just as the audience began to wonder what might happen next, Mr Punch reappeared dressed as King Henry XXVIII. ‘It was all very well, he began (and here, we must try to imagine Henry VIII speaking with Punch’s squeaky voice!), ‘for the ordinary run of fatheads to sit through a long-winded play by tiresome William,’ but Mr Punch had rewritten the bard. He had brought him up to date, ‘cut out some superfluous wheezy twaddle and verbiage’ and come up with a new play, ‘hot of the griddle.’

In Mr Punch’s version, the ‘Merry Monarch’ decided it would be great fun to host a beauty show. His eight wives were shepherded out to cast their vote, if they so wished. Seven of the wives were wise enough to turn down the invitation, but one was more than keen to have her say. This lady was none other than Anne Boleyn, who ‘longed for liberty’. To the dismay of the royal family, who formed an illustrious part of the audience, Henry decided that his seven wise wives, ‘being worthy English wives’ should be allowed to live. As to Anne Boleyn, she must be beheaded, the price of her outspokenness. As with all good Punch and Judy shows, the executioner appears on cue. All geared up to cut off Anne’s head, his axe slipped and he struck Henry in the face instead, taking his off head in a single stroke.
The play retains some of the elements that were characteristic of the ancient performances. There is the bawdy humour, the sense of irreverence to all and sundry, it plays upon factors meaningful to its time and it has a strong moral tone. In this case, it tacitly, albeit unintentionally, supports the suffragette movement by finishing off one who would suppress their cause.
Naturally, being a variation of Punch and Judy, it takes astonishing liberties with historical fact. Henry is described as the ‘Merry Monarch’, an epithet that was actually applied to Charles II. Henry was ‘Bluff King Hal’.(1) Henry has eight wives in this play as opposed to the six he actually had; but perhaps, like Mr Punch, Henry’s mistresses were also given starring roles. Although the Tudor court was known for its pageants and spectacles, as were many European courts at the time, beauty contests were unknown. Moreover, the idea that a woman, even a queen, would be called upon to cast a vote was definitely unheard of. The seven wives who abstained were considered ‘wise’, as indeed they were; it would be foolhardy for a woman to express an opinion, for what would happen should she disagree with the king? The seven, their silence and submission being seen as virtuous, fulfilled their proper roles as wives.

This allowed them to live - even Katherine Howard survives this story. Anne Boleyn, however, was different. She is every bit as strong-willed and independent as her historical counterpart, whose character of Perseverance continues to echo through the centuries since she first danced the part. She is depicted as the prototypical feminist fighting for the ultimate feminist cause, the Suffragette Movement. Her ‘outspokenness’, as it is called here, earned her the wrath of her husband, who decided she must be beheaded. No elegant and efficient French swordsman for Mr Punch’s Anne, she must make do with the axe. However, the executioner is as incompetent as ever he is. This reincarnation of Jack Ketch makes to behead Anne but accidentally kills Henry instead. Here is poetic justice. The historical Anne may have fallen victim to a cruel and tyrannical king, but, thanks to Mr Punch, she at last got her revenge.

Bluff King Hal was full of beans
He married half a dozen queens
For three called Kate they cried the banns
And one called Jane, and a couple of Annes.

How Old was Katherine Howard?

The question of when Katherine Howard was born has long exercised scholars. The answer is vital as it helps us to understand how old she w...