I wasn't prepared for just how good this book would be, though. I have to say, without exaggerating, that this is the best nonfiction book I have read recently, and I literally could not put it down. I couldn't be happier today to be writing this review, and helping Ms. Tallis celebrate her publication day here in the US. I hope that ALL Tudor Enthusiasts will jump on the opportunity to purchase this book and dive right in.
"Good people, I am come hither to die, and by a law I am condemned to the same.” These were the heartbreaking words of a seventeen-year-old girl, Lady Jane Grey, as she stood on the scaffold awaiting death on a cold February morning in 1554. Minutes later her head was struck from her body with a single stroke of a heavy axe. Her death for high treason sent shockwaves through the Tudor world, and served as a gruesome reminder to all who aspired to a crown that the axe could fall at any time.
Jane is known to history as "the Nine Days Queen," but her reign lasted, in fact, for thirteen days. The human and emotional aspects of her story have often been ignored, although she is remembered as one of the Tudor Era’s most tragic victims. While this is doubtlessly true, it is only part of the complex jigsaw of Jane’s story. She was a remarkable individual with a charismatic personality who earned the admiration and affection of many of those who knew her. All were impressed by her wit, passion, intelligence, and determined spirit. Furthermore, the recent trend of trying to highlight her achievements and her religious faith has, in fact, further obscured the real Jane, a young religious radical who saw herself as an advocate of the reformed faith—Protestantism—and ultimately became a martyr for it.
Crown of Blood is an important and significant retelling of an often-misunderstood tale: set at the time of Jane’s downfall and following her journey through to her trial and execution, each chapter moves between the past and the “present,” using a rich abundance of primary source material (some of which has never been published) in order to paint a vivid picture of Jane’s short and turbulent life. This dramatic narrative traces the dangerous plots and web of deadly intrigue in which Jane became involuntarily tangled—and which ultimately led to a shocking and catastrophic conclusion.
As I said, I couldn't possibly be happier to be writing this review. I often read good books as The Tudor Enthusiast. Authors and publishers send me book after book, and I have the opportunity to read A LOT over the course of a year. Of course, the majority of these are good. This book, however, was fantastic. I can't actually believe that this is Nicola Tallis' first book, because it's so well-written and engaging. From the very first page, I knew this was going to be a book that I couldn't put down, and I was right - I read for approximately six hours straight.
The story of Lady Jane Grey is one that most Tudor Enthusiasts are quite familiar with. A tragic, young figure in sixteenth-century English history, she's one that most of us have read about in the past - but strangely, she's also one of the least-known figures of the time period, in terms of the little details. Her birthday, for example, is unknown - as is the place of her birth. Her familial relationships are clouded in rumors of bad (and possibly abusive) parenting, and therefore difficult to reliably pinpoint. Her personality is tough to decipher, though we have reason to believe - from several surviving letters - that she was strong-willed, highly intelligent, and often hard-headed. The story of Jane is well-known, but the person is harder to grasp.
Tallis does a phenomenal job of walking us through every aspect of Jane's life - as well as the world around her at the time. She explains in exquisite detail Jane's parents' lineages and how they all connect. Not once was I left feeling flustered that I couldn't follow the family trees. - thanks to Tallis' casual, familiar writing style, everything flowed beautifully to paint the clearest image of Jane and her family that I can imagine. And in those places where Tallis doesn't know the exact answer, she speculates (which may frustrate some other historians, but I find it helpful). I like that Tallis dives into the "what if" questions, and imagines what Jane might have been like, what she may have been thinking at certain times, and what people may have thought of her. At times, her writing becomes almost like that of a novel, and her descriptiveness makes the reader feel as if they are actually in the scene with Jane. Literally - during those six hours of reading - I felt like I was "hanging out" with Jane. Any nonfiction history book that brings out that feeling deserves an A+ in my mind!
Jane's story is one that evokes a ton of emotion, and that's evident throughout every page. Tallis even goes so far as to question the real reason why Jane is such a tragic figure. Is it because she was just seventeen when she died, making her the youngest woman at the time to be executed in such a way? Or is it because she was an innocent pawn who wanted nothing to do with the queenship that was thrust upon her by the greedy, ambitious men surrounding her? More still, is it because Jane was so full of promise - highly intelligent, incredibly passionate about religion, gifted in eight languarges, and intent on scholarly pursuits, that makes her so tragic? The "what if" of Jane's life - what she could have been, had she been given the chance to mature to adulthood - is perhaps what makes Jane's story such a sad one, as Tallis argues. I'd say I have to agree.
I also like that Tallis doesn't paint Queen Mary as a villain in Jane's story. Too many portrayals of Jane's downfall peg Mary as the evil cousin who couldn't wait for her opportunity to destroy anyone who had a different religious view from hers. But in fact, in this book, Mary is somewhat sympathized with, for the horrible decision that fell on her shoulders as the result of Jane's queenship, the horrible treason of her father and Northumberland, and the ultimately fatal Wyatt Rebellion. Mary is actually depicted as a generous and loving cousin, despite her differences with Jane - and her decision to execute her is all the more tragic as a result.
Through contemporary letters and accounts, as well as Nicola Tallis' flawlessly-research and articulated analyses, the reader gets what I consider to be a full picture of Jane's story. The themes of her life are conveyed beautifully (and tragically) - from her ravenous desire for learning and religious discourse, to her unfortunate tendency to be "used and abused" by powerful men around her. The ultimate theme that royal blood was often a curse, as opposed to a blessing, is absolutely clear in Jane's story.
I can't give any more of this fabulous book away, because I want ALL of my readers to buy it and enjoy it as I did. No number of reviews can do "Crown of Blood" justice, and I'm afraid, even in my enthusiasm, that I can't get across just how well I enjoyed it. Suffice it to say that this book will remain proudly displayed on my bookshelf, and will probably be re-read (something that very rarely happens with my nonfiction collection), and I'll recommend it to absolutely every Tudor enthusiast I come across.
Here's "Crown of Blood"'s Amazon page. If you're at all intrigued by this wonderful read, I encourage you to purchase it now! Let's help Nicola Tallis celebrate her extremely well-deserved publication day!
Happy Publication Day, Ms. Tallis, and Happy Reading, Tudor enthusiasts!