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Friday, August 26, 2011

An Inside View of a Tortured Heart - A Book Review of "Rivals in the Tudor Court by D.L. Bogdan

D.L. Bogdan made a wise choice when she decided to chronicle the lives of Thomas and Mary Howard, the Duke of Norfolk and his daughter as up until now there has been almost no fictional material available about those who played such an important role in the Tudor court.  Norfolk was the uncle who helped raise Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard to the precipice that was queenship, and it was this same uncle who stood by to condemn them when they came crashing down.  Poor little Mary Howard served both of her cousins and was married to Henry Fitzroy, Henry VIII's illegitimate son.  Until now most novels have stayed away from these characters.  Bogdan paints a beautifully illuminated portrait of their lives.

"Rivals in the Tudor Court" is a prequel to Bogdan's firsts novel "Secrets in the Tudor Court."  Bogdan's premier Tudor novel is a first person account of the life of Mary Howard, the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk and a chronicle of the twisted relationship Mary had with her father.  She so wanted his love so badly, but never seemed to be able to gain it, yet he wanted her under his control and by his side and she never understood why.  In the second book we find out what is behind Norfolk's strange and cruel love for his child as well as others in his life.  I cannot say enough about how well Bogdan brought out an understandable and even likable personality in such a difficult and unlikeable character as the Duke of Norfolk.  The book was magnificent in it's scope of the many years of Thomas Howard's life.  His life was filled with so many losses, so many changes, so many families.  But he is so knotted up inside because of the death of his first family that he destroys everything and everyone else around him for the rest of his life.  This book was beautifully written and took me on a sweeping emotional ride.

The young Duke of Norfolk was first wed to Anne Plantagenet, a princess of the blood, a younger daughter of the former King Edward IV and sister to the current queen Elizabeth Plantagenet.  Her brothers were the young princes who disappeared into the Tower of London and were never seen again.  From the first moment that Anne and Norfolk set eyes on each other they are in love.  He falls hard for her, and she, in her guarded but peaceful way loves him.  She deals with her grief for her lost brothers by believing that they have been taken to faery (British spelling) country.  She is not overt about it and her beliefs are not an issue within her marriage and are viewed by her husband as her form of escapism.  He halfway believes that she herself is not of this world, that there is something fey about her.  Together they have four children and over the years all four die of various diseases.  When his Princess dies too Thomas is almost mad with grief.  He hardens himself against everyone, but especially children and vows never to let them into his heart again.

He marries again quickly to the Duke of Buckingham's daughter Elizabeth.  She is young and dark and the total opposite of his "Princess" but Thomas chooses her all the same.  They have several children together and four reach adulthood before dying.  The Earl of Surrey, Norfolk's oldest son is executed for treason and his oldest daughter dies from the sweat or some other plague of the times.  This leaves him with his son Thomas and his daughter Mary.  It is Mary who is the focus of Bogdan's first book and finally we find out what is really between them from Norfolk's point of view.  The first book is fraught with Mary's confusion about her feelings for her father, her need for his approval and her simultaneous hatred of him.  We discover in this latest novel that Norfolk's feelings for his daughter are just as contradictory as her feelings for him.  When she is born Norfolk sees a flash or vision of his Princess.   He is in the middle of some sort of nervous breakdown because he is afraid he will lose his new wife and child because the labor is going badly.  He drags her from the house and attacks her with a knife and is only stopped by the vision of his former wife.   When the baby finally arrives he is at once horrified and thrilled to see that she looks just like his first wife, Anne Plantagenet.  This fact strikes fear into his heart because he has no idea how to deal with his feelings about the child.  Every time he looks at her he sees his Princess, but she is his daughter.  It is as if God has taken revenge on him in some sick way by giving him back his most beloved wife, the one thing he wants most in the world, in the form of his child who is forbidden to him.

He hardens himself against his daughter and keeps her at a safe distance for much of her life.  When he is called to court upon the ascension of his niece Anne Boleyn he takes Mary with him to wait on her cousin.  His hard heart enables him to stand firm during Anne's execution three years later and his hardness serves him well in the 1540s when he brings another niece, Catherine Howard to court.  He pretends to love and adore the girl, lavishing her with gifts and predictably turns his back on her when she is accused of adultery and executed.

During the intervening years Norfolk has kept his wife Elizabeth a virtual prisoner in their home and brought his mistress Bess Holland to court.  He warns her not to get pregnant as he wants no more children as they die and only serve to cause heartbreak.  Bess disobeys him and gives birth to a daughter that she names Jane.  Norfolk refuses to see her and sends her to live with a foster family.  He finally breaks down and decides to see the little girl and is disturbed at how much the baby's eyes look like those of his niece Anne Boleyn.  Poor Bess nurtures her anger and sadness and turns it into a hatred strong enough to allow her to testify against Norfolk some time later when he is arrested and accused of treason for his role in the Catherine Howard affair.  While in prison he is visited by the ghosts of those he has lost, his father, his Princess, his lost brothers in-law who disappeared so many years ago, and his executed nieces.  Bogdan makes the astute observation that Anne Boleyn's eyes are filled with accusation and amusement at his imprisonment while Catherine Howard's are filled only with astonishment at being betrayed.  Norfolk observes that Anne knew what game she was playing and the risks involved.  Catherine Howard however was young and naive and was shocked at the severity of her punishment for taking a young lover.  Catherine grew up a somewhat sheltered young lady (as far as cout politics were concerned) and Anne grew up serving at the French court, where intrigue was a part of daily life.  The child Catherine should have learned from her cousin's example. But maybe she did.  Anne died an innocent woman.  If one was to be accused of taking lovers one might as well be guilty so perhaps she then took her pleasure where she would knowing in the end that guilt was of little import. 

 Norfolk is eventually released after the death of Henry VIII and finally goes home to die.  He is attended by his estranged wife and his daughter Mary, who is deathly ill herself.  He dies calling for his Princess.  Peace at last.  This novel was a beautiful interpretation of the life of Thomas Howard, one of the most reviled and perhaps misunderstood characters in Tudor history.  He was a man who condemned two nieces to death to save his own hide, plotted against his enemies and rejoiced in their downfall.  But before all of that, perhaps Bogdan is right, perhaps he was someone else.


  1. I enjoyed this review--but frankly, I had a very hard time reading this blog's purple type on a purple background.

  2. Susan, I think I might do a dance now just because you actually read my blog!!! I like the purple but you are not the only one who has said it is hard to see, I guess I will take a hint and change the colors. My Amazon thing is not working either and I can't seem to get Blogger to respond to my pleas for help so I think that it looks rather messy right now. But thank you, I'm glad you liked the review, it's so nice to get comments!