Perhaps the oddest episode in Mexico’s history is the French Emperor Napoleon III’s imposition of a French army-propped Habsburg emperor in the mid-1860s, a military adventure against the democratically elected government of Benito Juarez. Napoleon’s intervention was made possible by the US’s inability to respond to this violation of the Monroe Doctrine during its Civil War with the Confederacy. To make a long story short, the underestimation of the Mexican nation’s persevering will to fight for independence, the French inability to make the adventure pay for itself by draining Mexico of its wealth, the growing pressures put upon Napoleon III by Bismarck’s expansionist Prussia, an eventual American blockade, and the unyielding freeze-out of American political & economic support for the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian led Napoleon III to throw in the towel. The puppet monarch died before a Juarista firing squad in 1867.
That imperial adventure and Mexican resistance to it provide the background for an outstanding literary novel by C. M Mayo, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (Unbridled Books,2009, paperback 2010), deservedly awarded a Library Journal Best Book of the Year.
Like the best epics, the story is laser focused on the impact of great, swirling events on individual lives. Much like the Song of Fire and Ice (i.e., Game of Thrones) novels of George R.R. Martin, the story is told through the points of view (POV) of a large cast of characters. Several narrative threads weave in and out, but the heart of the book tells the tale of an American woman, Alicia Green Iturbide, daughter-in-law of the long-deceased first Emperor of Mexico, the self-proclaimed Agustín I, and the mother of the eponymous “Last Prince,” a toddler named Agustín de Iturbide after his father and imperial grandfather. Alicia and her husband, a well-meaning diplomat with no pretensions to imperial ambitions, are persuaded and bullied into giving up their son to the puppet Emperor Maximilian and his Empress Carlota, who named the boy their heir, a cynical charade to persuade the Habsburg family to donate one of Maximilian’s nephews as a truly suitable heir. Within figurative moments after giving up her son, Alicia bitterly regrets her decision and focuses all her energies on trying to get back her boy. The secondary plot involves the unassertive Maximilian’s efforts to decide whether he’d rather wear a crown or chase after butterflies.
In Mayo’s world, not a single character stands on solid ground. Everyone, from emperor and empress to court grandees, soldiers from general to private, priests and a Pope, diplomats, resistance fighters, bandits, nannies and kitchen maids, botanists and entomologists, assorted uncles, aunts, and in-laws, and the toddler himself, everyone, is, in some way, in a world they don’t recognize, cannot reconcile with what was anticipated, is both alluring and repelling, and, for nearly all, a place where they don’t belong. Even the Mexican characters, living in the locale of their birth, or perhaps not far from it, struggle to keep up as they badly fill the needs of the overweening, preening and ever-demanding Europeans. Not every character is fully drawn, fully realized, but the key ones certainly are, and their every conversation rings true. Scores of voices provide a wide range of views, hopes, fears, and day-to-day concerns one would expect within the top-to-bottom society-in-turmoil Mayo presents. It should be noted that, except for a few abruptly violent passages, the actual Juarista war of resistance remains the unseen backdrop for this story of families and nations at cross-purposes.
Mayo, a transplant from the United States who calls Mexico home, also immerses the reader in the sights, colors, textures, sounds, and especially the tropical (and kitchen) aromas of 1860s Mexico, when she is not transporting you to Napoleon’s Paris, Papal Rome, Trieste on the Adriatic, or rural Maryland. An indefatigable and quite intuitive researcher, the author has uncovered hidden family documents in addition to the usual archival sources on both sides of the Atlantic. This ranks among the best historically researched novels I have ever read, and the results show on every page.
Highly recommended to readers of historical fiction drawn to either a mother’s relentless quest to regain her child or to a convincing example of self-delusional hubris among the on-high.
First post in a good while. Been busy polishing up my manuscript, The Girl in the Iron Box: Tucson’s 1934 June Robles Kidnapping, & the Myth of J. Edgar Hoover’s Infallible FBI, and sending it off to a publisher for consideration. More on this in a future post.
Here is my annual list of best biographies and histories read during the previous year. As in recent years, I have been reconnecting with aspects of European (including Beatles!) history that held my interest prior to my own turn to writing Southwest Borderlands history.
- Winston S. Churchill, Marlborough: His Life and Times, Vol III: 1705-1708. This 4-volume biography, certainly Churchill’s finest work of history (rather than memoir), just keeps getting better and better. Winston’s ancestor, John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, was condemned to live in interesting times, never more so than during the years covered by Volume III. Arguably England’s greatest general ever, he scored several impressive victories in the War of the Spanish Succession over the previously unbeatable armies of the Sun King, Louis XIV, all the while having to fend off the undermining efforts of Great Britain’s Dutch, Austrian, Prussian, and other allies. At the same time, he was forced to fight a losing battle with both Tory and Whig politicians for influence with Queen Anne, the monarch whose prestige his victories raised high, but whose growing hatred of Marlborough’s wife, Sarah, probably did most to impel Anne to throw the Duke, her greatest and most loyal subject, under whatever passed for an 18th century bus. Churchill, a soldier by training and experience, a politician who held virtually every British cabinet post except Prime Minister before World War II, and a writer by profession, applied every one of these talents to bringing the personality-driven world of late-Stuart politics and war to life. His writing style is a wonderful mix of Victorian perceptions, psychological insights based on practical experience, and conversational tone, as if you the reader were held spellbound in his home at Chartwell as he held court for hours over brandy and cigars. One and two volume abridgments of the 4 volume work are widely available for those who do not have the time to read the complete bio.
- Lynne Olson’s Troublesome Young Men (2007) succeeds in rewriting history by convincingly explaining how Winston Churchill came to the prime ministership of the UK just in time to save his nation, and indeed the West, from the previously unstoppable scourge of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. And what happened is not what you thought. Most histories leave the impression that everyone simply realized at the critical moment that Churchill was the only man for the job. He was, but it was the courageous, unappreciated, and until now unrecognized work of a very few Tories, such as Harold MacMillan, who risked their careers to oppose, and, with virtually no help from Churchill, overthrow Nazi appeaser Neville Chamberlain’s government just as Hitler turned his Panzers on France, the Low Countries, and the British army. Without the Troublesome Young Men, the U.K. of Chamberlain and Halifax would have negotiated a settlement with Hitler, condemning all of Europe to tyranny and the U.S. to an uncertain future. No future book on the approach of the Second World War or its conduct or outcome should ever ignore Olson’s research or findings.
- Bonaparte: 1769-1802 (English translation, 2015), the first of two volumes by French historian Patrice Gueniffey, is a different take on Napoleon than the one-volume bio by Andrew Roberts that made my list last year. Much less of a military biography, Gueniffey’s book is an extended essay that more fully places Bonaparte within the political upheaval of the Revolution. He demonstrates how the young Corsican, despite some mistakes (notably during his coup of Brumaire), ran rings around the ideologues, rival generals, and venal politicians who comprised France’s revolving door revolutionary governments, and himself learned to govern above party in Italy and Egypt. No one else could have reconciled France’s monarchical past and its bloody revolution with a vision of a progressive future. How that reconciliation came at the price of subservience to one man’s will and a future of endless war is also part of the story.
- While Beatles fans patiently wait years for the 2nd volume of Mark Lewisohn’s All These Years trilogy (presumably to cover 1963-1966) we can slide ahead to the 1970s and beyond, thanks to Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup (2010). Doggett does not attempt a definitive biography of the post-Fab Four, but focuses on the endless fights over control of the Beatles finances, the lingering mutual hurts caused by their years of entrapment inside a bubble only they fully experienced without coming to grips with, and the many failed efforts by one Beatle or another to record together again. While every Beatle at some point expressed willingness to get back together on some sort of project, they never agreed at the same time. The head games the Beatles played with one another throughout the 1970s were mind-numbing in their repetitiveness and sometimes abject silliness. John Lennon may have been the worst one when it came to leading the others toward reconciliation and then sabotaging hope, but all four of them did the same in some way to some degree. Had John not been murdered in 1980, it seems likely that they eventually would have grown up, reasoned through their differences, and been able to create some work of value, much as the Eagles learned to do in recent years before Glenn Frey’s death. But maybe not. In any case, this is a marvelous book about missed opportunity and the thin line between love and hate.
- I’ve now read four books by Cornell history professor Barry Strauss, and The Death of Caesar (2015) is perhaps the most eye-opening of them. Whether we first came to the Ides of March by way of Shakespeare, Suetonius, Plutarch, or the reliable histories and biographies written in modern times, we invariably came away with the understanding that Caesar’s friend Brutus and the ambitious, coat-changing Cassius were the dual wellspring behind the dictator’s assassination. Strauss makes a convincing case that the key man was one who is relatively forgotten in most accounts, Caesar’s even closer friend and longtime lieutenant, Decimus Brutus. Strauss renders a thrilling, almost hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute account of the conspiracy, one that might have come undone at several points. We know how it ends, but it might well have gone another way, with incalculable results for Rome and western civilization. The most surprising read of 2015.
In 1974, in Sword and Pen: A Survey of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill, author Mannfred Weidhorn listed 33 books written by Winston Churchill. This was nine years after Churchill’s death, so you’d think the listing would be comprehensive. But it isn’t. There are more. Here we go.
1940: Addresses Delivered in the Year Nineteen Hundred and Forty to the People of Great Britain, of France, and to the Members of the English House of Commons, by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. (1940) Includes five speeches, including the “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech, and the “Never was so much owed by so many to so few” speech. Only 250 copies printed, but it’s a book!
1941: Broadcast Addresses to the Peoples of Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Russia, and the United States, by the Prime Minister of the British Empire, Winston Churchill MCMXL – MCMXLI. (1941) Six more speeches. Again, only 250 copies printed.
1946: War Speeches 1940-1945 (1946) – collects selected speeches from speech volumes published in these years.
28A: Painting as a Pastime (1948) – An essay, originally published in 1921, put in book form.
1952: The War Speeches: 1938-1945 (1952) (3 volumes) – High quality paper was at a premium during the war, so the various speech books were printed on cheap paper. This fine edition remedies that.
1960: Frontiers and Wars (1960) – A one-volume abridgement of young Winston’s war reporting. Abridges items 1-2, 4-5 above. Churchill, 86 years old, had nothing to do with the book’s editing.
1972: Young Winston’s Wars (1972) – Churchill’s first four war books were based on his war dispatches. This book contains the original dispatches. Published 7 years after his death.
1974. If I Lived My Life Again (1974) – Published on the centennial of his birth, a compilation of various writings by Churchill. Created to raise money for approved charities.
1974: The Complete Speeches 1897-1963 (1974) (8 volumes) – Makes available 9,000 pages of Churchillian speeches, 80% of which never appeared in the 18 previous speech books or two war speech collections!
1976: The Collected Essays (1976) (4 volumes) – Newspaper, magazine, and book essays and articles not published in the previous books.
One can make a case that the one-volume abridgement of his various multi-volume works constitute separate works, as they involve quite different, in some cases vastly different, reading experiences. But putting that aside, we now have 43 books and 73 volumes. Of course, if you’re a completist, you need the UK AND US editions, as well as the abridgements, the special limited edition publications, and whatever else publishers can think of. If you can find and afford the 8-volume speech collection, you can skip the twenty earlier speech volumes. Read the abridged major works, thereby cutting out 18 more, and now you’re down to just 35 volumes to read. But that’s just silly. Winston went to the trouble to write them all. We can try to read them. To do less wouldn’t be cricket. Working at Sir Winston’s pace, we’ll only need 66 years to do it, with time out for champagne, cigars, and saving democracy.
You can find more information from real authorities (and not just a dabbler) at these websites:
Don’t have $100,000 – $250,000 for a complete set of fine/near fine condition, signed and inscribed books? Maybe you can get some decent reading copies for much less. Here’s how: http://winstonchurchill.org/resources/articles/what-price-churchill-building-a-collection.
Oh, once you’ve finished, move on to Oscar Wilde. A signed Picture of Dorian Gray, all by itself, can cost $100,000.
Winston Churchill was a busy man. He gallivanted around the British Empire as both British cavalry officer and, simultaneously, war correspondent, sat over the course of seven decades in Parliament, holding virtually every cabinet post in the British government, from First Lord of the Admiralty to Prime Minister (twice), and saved the world from Hitler in a way no other person on the planet could have done. He wooed prospective brides, downed mass quantities of champagne, painted hundreds of canvasses, smoked uncounted big cigars, and flew three-quarters of the way to the moon (well, its equivalent, by air, to direct the British war effort and negotiate with FDR and Stalin). He also wrote. By one account, he “produced thirty-three titles in fifty-one volumes. [They] consist of eighteen collections of speeches, one of newspaper articles, four of war dispatches, two of essays and character portraits, one novel, one travel book, two biographies, one autobiography, two world war memoirs, and one history of a people.” That’s not to mention an estimated 500 articles and hundreds of uncollected speeches and papers. Eight-to-nine million words, all told. (from Sword and Pen: A Survey of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill by Mannfred Weidhorn.)
33 books in 51 volumes. Or was it 38 books? 43? In 58 volumes, 72, or 73? The authorities on Churchill don’t agree. But we’re here to find out. In the last column, I listed 19 books in 29 volumes, assuming you count Parts I and II of The World Crisis, Volume III as two volumes on your shelf. Let’s pick up where we left off, with his 20th book.
- Into Battle (titled Blood, Sweat and Tears in the US) (1941) – This speech collection includes some of his most enduring phrases (e.g., “This was their finest hour.” “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”)
- The Unrelenting Struggle (1942) – speeches given in 1941
- The End of the Beginning (1943) – speeches given in 1942
- Onwards to Victory (1944) – speeches given in 1943
- The Dawn of Liberation (1945) – 1944 speeches
- Victory (1946) – last of the war speeches
- Secret Session Speeches (1946) – 5 speeches presented in closed sessions of Parliament
- The Second World War (1948-1953) (6 volumes) – World War II from Churchill’s perspective. “This is not history;” he wrote, “this is my case. The one and only memoir of the war by a head of state. Published before most other participants got their memoirs out, he managed to steer the discussion for decades to come. Self-serving in many spots, but always revealing.
- The Sinews of Peace (1949) – Kicked out of office by voters, Churchill returns to the stump, delivering more warnings, including the “Iron Curtain” speech that helped America to understand the threat posed by the Soviet Union.
- Europe Unite (1950) – Speeches on this theme.
- In the Balance (1952) – More speeches
- Stemming the Tide (1954) – Speeches by Churchill, back in office as Prime Minister
- The Unwritten Alliance (1961) Winston’s last volume of speeches. Title refers to the Anglo-American bond, but book published only in the UK.
- A History of the English Speaking Peoples (1956-1958) (4 volumes) – Churchill was nearly done with this popular history, but then the Second World War began. He picked it up after exiting #10 Downing Street the second time, and, with a team to help this octogenarian, polished it off. Limited in what it covers – mostly politics, war and the great deeds of great men and women in Great Britain and the US. A more fitting title, tweaked Labour Party Prime Minister Clement Attlee, was “Things in history that interested me.” And we’re better off for it. Not totally reliable, but a smashing good read, written in Churchill’s usual conversational style.
OK, 14 books in this post, plus 19 in the last one. That’s 33 books in 51 volumes. Actually, just 33 volumes if you get the one-volume abridgements of all his multi-volume works. But is that it, or isn’t it? How do we get to 38 books or 43? See Part III.
Suppose you wanted to read, or decided to collect, all the books written by Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. Statesman, politician, soldier, writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and generally regarded as the man who saved Western Civilization. How many titles would you read? How many volumes? How many would you have to purchase? Well, google, go to this website listing or that, count the titles, count the volumes, and you have your number. Or do you?
Ah, it all depends on which definition of “books written by Winston Churchill” you accept. With the understanding that you might come up with something completely different, here’s what I found: Winston Churchill wrote 33 books in 51 volumes. He also wrote 38 books comprising 58 volumes. That is, unless he wrote 43 books in 72 volumes, or maybe 73.
Let’s start with the 33 books everybody agrees on. (You will find fuller, more authoritative descriptions at the websites I’ll list in a subsequent blog post.):
- The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898) – At age 22, Churchill was a both a lieutenant in the British cavalry and a war correspondent sending home dispatches about a rebellion along India’s Afghan frontier. Not much has changed in that part of the world
- The River War (1899) – 2 volumes. “More blood and guts reportage by young Winston,” says one authority of Churchill’s epic account of the British conquest of the Sudan. Winston had fun being a soldier, but he disapproved of much of much that went on.
- Savrola (1899) – Churchill actually wrote one novel. Disappointing results turned him back to non-fiction, but he did later try his hand at short stories.
- London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900) – Churchill loved soldiering, but he joined the army (and wrote newspaper dispatches) to become famous and grease his entry into politics. He succeeded beyond expectations by getting captured by South Africa’s Boers and then escaping. An exciting account.
- Ian Hamilton’s March (1900) – Back with the Army, Churchill joins the march to victory. These two books have recently been reprinted as one under the title “The Boer War.”
- Mr. Broderick’s Army (1903) – Having made it to Parliament, Churchill now turns his literary gift to public speaking. This is his first collection. Lots more to come.
- Lord Randolph Churchill (1906) in 2 volumes – Winston may have been coldly ignored by his father, but the son remained devoted. This is Winston’s passionate defense of a brilliant and unstable Victorian politician.
- For Free Trade (1906) – The second collection of speeches.
- My African Journey (1908) – A travelogue
- Liberalism and the Social Problem (1909) – Churchill started and ended as a Tory, the UK’s conservative party. But he made his first major impact as a Liberal pushing the enactment of social reforms, including unemployment insurance.
- The People’s Rights (1910) – more speeches from the Liberal party perspective.
- The World Crisis (1923-1931) – published in 5 volumes, one of which is in two parts, so 6 volumes on your shelf! – The First World War, seen from the unique perspective of the only man to erve at the highest level of government AND to fight as an officer in the trenches. Former Prime Minster Arthur Balfour called it, “Winston’s brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe.”
- My Early Life (US title: A Roving Commission) (1930) – How a lousy and troublesome student found his way to the threshold of great things. Entertaining.
- India (1931) – Britain’s foremost imperialist opposes the independence of the Empire’s “crown jewel.”
- Thoughts and Adventures (1932) – An anthology of Churchill’s essays and articles on a wide array of subjects.
- Marlborough: His Life and Times in 4 volumes (1933-1938) – This book resurrecting the reputation of Churchill’s ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough (the man for whom Blenheim Palace was built by a grateful nation) is Winston’s greatest historical achievement. Researched and written after he had again been tossed out of government and had time on his hands.
- Great Contemporaries (1937) – Essays on a wide range of notables, including late Victorian statesmen, World War I generals, rising leaders like FDR and Hitler, and Lawrence of Arabia, whom Winston very much admired.
- Arms and the Covenant (1938) – More aptly titled While England Slept in the US, this collection of speeches warns England and the West against Hitler’s rearmament of Germany and what that meant for the prospect of war.
- Step by Step 1936-1939 (1939) –A collection of foreign affairs articles, again warning of the threat posed by Nazi Germany’s unmatched growing strength.
When, in 1940, Winston Churchill was asked to become the Prime Minister of His Majesty’s Government, he was already 65 and the author of 19 books in 29 volumes. His most important achievements as a writer and statesman were to come. More in Part II.
Let us… tell sad stories of the death of Kings (Shakespeare’s Richard II, Act III, Scene 2)
Take away Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons, the superhuman White Walkers, and their the zombie-like minions, and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has a lot in common with England’s Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), an epic event Martin himself has identified as a key historical inspiration for his fantasy saga. Both stories involve complex, multi-generational, personal, dynastic, and military conflicts for multiple thrones. The Kings of Plantagenet England were also the sovereigns of Wales, Lords of Ireland, and, though the claim was already hollow by 1455, the asserted Kings of France. Both sagas, the fictional and the historical, have delicious characters aplenty, including tragic heroes, brutal, malevolent villains, ambitious, greedy, fractious, and scheming nobles forever changing their colors, and women behind the throne, energetically filling the voids created by inept, even mad, male royals. Both stories are filled with honor, backstabbing, battles, beheadings, betrothals, ruinous lust, secret marriages, and charges of witchcraft, if not actual sorcery. Militarily, the wars marked a period of transition. Ironclad knights faced off in individual combat, hacking and slicing one another, when not dodging the fire from newfangled cannon.
The Wars of the Roses may not have been called that at the time, but Lancastrians and Yorkists at times made respective use of red and white rose symbols. The intermittent struggle was a playground for William Shakespeare, who turned the conflict and its origins into two tetralogies, the so-called “Henriads,” eight historical plays (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1-3, and Richard III) that served as both high drama and a propaganda argument for the Tudor dynasty. That upstart family, the product of a secret union between Henry V’s French widow and her Welsh bodyguard, was the surprising, ultimate victor of the struggles among the houses of Lancaster, York, Neville, Beaufort, Stafford, Stanley, Woodville, and others that carried a drop, and sometimes less, of Plantagenet blood.
Just as the Wars of the Roses stimulated Martin to write A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin’s cycle (with its 24 million books in print, digital, and audio versions) inspired HBO to produce the better known, televised adaptation, Game of Thrones. Likewise, the BBC found the time was ripe to restage Shakespeare’s Henriads under the title, The Hollow Crown. In one speech, Shakespeare’s despondent Richard II (played magnificently by British actor Ben Whishaw—you may remember him as 007’s latest “Q”) sums up the epic, bloody struggle from a king’s perspective (Act III, Scene 2, excerpt):
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war, / Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d; / All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp, / Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks, / Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life, / Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin / Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Shakespeare’s insightful litany describes what the kings, queens, kingmakers, and other would-be masters of England faced during the long decades following Richard II’s overthrow in 1399 by Henry Bolingbroke of the House of Lancaster. Other takes are found in the many histories, biographies, and novels published or reissued in the aftermath of Martin’s and HBO’s success. What follows is not a bibliography of the Wars and their leading players (I’ll list an online bibliography URL below), nor even a list of the best books available. But I’ve selected 16 books that I found to be generally reliable entry points for the reader newly interested in this fascinating period of English history.
- The Wars of the Roses: From Richard II to the Fall of Richard III at Bosworth Field-Seen Through the Eyes of Their Contemporaries, by Elizabeth Hallum ed. (Grove Press, 1988, OOP). The first recommended volume is a beautiful, richly illustrated coffee table book, unfortunately out of print. The text includes many extracts of contemporary accounts, heavily influenced by Tudor rewriting of history.
Let’s continue with another tetralogy, four recent general histories of the wars.
- The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir (Ballantine, 1995; forever in print)
- Lancaster Against York: The Wars of the Roses and the Foundation of Modern Britain, by Trevor Royle (Palgrave MacMillan, 2008)
- The Wars of the Roses, by Michael Hicks (Yale, 2010)
- The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the House of Tudor, by Dan Jones (Viking, 2014)
None of these should be read as the last word on the conflicts. The authors differ in their views of individual culpability for tragedy of the major players, including Richard of York, Margaret of Anjou, Warwick the Kingmaker, Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, Richard III, Henry VII, and even the inept Henry VI. Hicks is perhaps the most “scholarly,” or at least academic in writing style. He examines the economic background more than the others. Weir and Jones have written the most accessible page-turners, though differing in their interpretations. Trevor Royle, more than the others, sees the conflict as one between two Plantagenet branches over who had the true right of succession. Weir and Trevor Royle trace the origins to the overthrow of Richard II, while Jones ignores Bolingbroke’s stroke of state and begins his tale with the death of Henry V, the succession of a child king, and the secret marriage of his widow to a Welshman of no importance. If you are new to the Wars of the Roses, I’d suggest you start with Jones or Weir, and take it from there. Weir begins earlier (1399) and ends earlier (she leaves out Richard III and the Princes, saving that for another book). Jones puts a greater focus on the bit players who began the Tudor dynasty.
Not every major player is the subject of a solid biography, but you can find works on the most interesting lives, including those of Warwick the Kingmaker, Margaret of Anjou, Edward IV, and Richard III. The lives of the “women behind the throne” have long been relatively ignored, but that’s changing lately. Of those biographies currently available, I’ve recently ordered three that have received wide, though not universal, praise:
- Margaret of Anjou, by Helen Maurer (2005)
- Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses, by Sarah Gristwood (Basic Books, 2013)… covers Margaret of Anjou, Margaret of Burgundy, Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth Woodville, and Cecily and Anna Neville.
- Warwick the Kingmaker: Power, Politics and Fame during the Wars of the Roses, by A.J. Pollard (Bloomsbury, 2007)
I’ve also read and can recommend a few (there are others) on the character I find most fascinating. Richard III is certainly the most controversial of all the “Rose” actors. He usurped the throne… or took it by legal right. In either case, he cast the two sons of Edward III, the brother Richard undeniably loved, into the Tower of London, a place from which the princes never emerged… or did they? Richard’s reign lasted just two years and ended with the establishment of the Tudor dynasty. From this point, the fallen king was the object of a vicious and sustained propaganda campaign. Shakespeare immortalized him as a hunchbacked villain who killed not only his nephews, but his brothers and wife as well. Richard’s reputation has been restored by some in the 20th century, but the arguments still rage. Kendall writes in a wordy style no longer fashionable, but it’s a delight to read. The original sources on Richard are sketchy in places, and Kendall does an excellent job of explaining the thinking behind his interpretation of the gaps. Carson, an unabashed “Ricardian” (supporter of Richard’s rehabilitation), addresses the many controversies surrounding his life, and, without claiming more than the facts allow, ably establishes that the charges laid against him are either utter rot or possibly the work of others without his knowledge. Hancock’s book provides a new theory as to why Richard summarily executed the man who did the most to place him on the throne. Hammond explains how it was that the unsoldierly Henry Tudor, with the possibly weakest claim to the throne ever asserted by anyone anywhere, defeated and killed Richard III. The story provides an excellent example of the treachery that so many nobles got away with so many times. Both Carson and Hancock are intended for readers already familiar with the period.
- Richard the Third, by Paul Murray Kendall (Norton, 1955; reissued 2002)
- Richard III: Maligned King, by Annette Carson (History Press, 2008, updated 2013)
- Richard III and the Murder in the Tower, by Peter A. Hancock (The History Press, 2009)
- Richard III and the Bosworth Campaign, by Peter Hammond (Pen & Sword Military, 2010)
The final controversy about Richard III arose years after his death. What happened to his corpse? Turns out it was not thrown into a river but remained buried beneath what became a paved parking lot. Langley and Jones describe how her intuition that the king was buried under a parking space marked “R” and the hints provided by old documents persuaded a university’s archeology department to undertake a dig, one that incredibly turned up Richard III’s skeleton and answered the question of whether he was hunchbacked or not. Pitts tells the same story, from an archeologist’s perspective.
- The King’s Grave, Philippa Langley and Michael Jones (MacMillan, 2014)
- Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King, by Mike Pitts (Thames & Hudson, 2014)
The most enduring and popular mystery may be “what happened to the Princes in the Tower?” Beginning with the Beefeaters who serve as tour guides at the Tower of London, everyone has an opinion regarding whether Richard III ordered the death of his little nephews. Fields, an entertainment lawyer, examines all the evidence and comes to some surprising conclusions.
- Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes in the Tower, by Bertram Fields (Regan Books, 1998)
George R.R. Martin was neither the first nor last to see a goldmine in fiction based on the Wars of the Roses. Possibly the longest novel was The Sunne in Splendour (1982), by Sharon Kay Penman. The most popular novelist currently mining this field is Philippa Gregory, whose books focus on the female leads and led to the BBC/Starz miniseries, The White Queen. Perhaps the most influential novel was written by Josephine Tey. Nearly forty years after its publication, Tey’s novel, the story of a modern Scotland Yard detective’s “reopening” of the Tower murders, was voted “the Top Crime Novel of All Time” in the U.K.
- The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, 1951 (numerous editions available)
Start with Weir or Jones, and move forward as the petals dictate. One good online bibliography can be found at http://www.richardiii.net/9_1_1_wotr_bibliography.php#guides
The list begins with Napoleon: A Life, the best book I read in 2014, and certainly the most impressive literary achievement among all the books listed. Runner-up is A Misplaced Massacre, a mesmerizing example of creative non-fiction. The final eight are listed in chronological order of subject matter, from ancient to modern.
*NAPOLEON: A LIFE by Andrew Roberts: My library contains some 250 books on the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. I thought I’d read virtually everything worth knowing, but I devoured this sympathetic and yet eyes-wide-open biography. Across 800 pages, Roberts weaves the Corsican’s personal and public lives into a coherent whole, no small achievement considering the subject was a giant who towered over a continent for two decades. Roberts’ Napoleon is fresh from the get-go, as he presents the boy as voracious reader, soaking up the adventures of Alexander and Caesar. Drawing on Napoleon’s newly published complete letters (tens of thousands of them), Roberts describes an indefatigable ruler who out-Caesared Julius. Even in the midst of his most difficult military campaigns, the imperial Napoleon bombarded his bureaucrats back home with mountains of correspondence on topics ranging from French theatrical productions to the untimely death in a traffic accident of a small boy he never knew. Napoleon the passionate lover, cuckolded spouse, and collector of mistresses also gets his due in Roberts’s book. The author’s admiration for Napoleon as military commander, enduring lawgiver, and effective administrator comes through, but he never fails to identify the blind spots and cascading mistakes that turned Europe’s foremost realist into the tragic captive of St. Helena. The book is by turns encyclopedic and novelistic. “Napoleon” is filled with riveting passages, such as the impact of typhus on the Russian campaign or the Emperor’s dramatic return from Elba to reclaim his throne. Few lives compare with Napoleon’s for adventure, tragedy and legacy: perhaps only those of Alexander, Caesar, Joan of Arc, and Lincoln. No single-volume biography of Napoleon I’ve seen compares with this one for insight and completeness.
*A MISPLACED MASSACRE: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, by Ari Kelman: A compelling and factually reliable account of the long and very contentious road traveled by the National Park Service, Colorado historians, local landowners, and, perhaps most determinedly of all, representatives of the Northern and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, to identify and settle for all time the true location of the (“misplaced”) Sand Creek Massacre site. Kelman manages to turn an irresolvable dispute of modern historical and archeological methodology versus traditional tribal lore and oral tradition into a dramatic narrative. Characters are vividly portrayed, warts and all, but always with sympathy.
*GHOST ON THE THRONE: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire, by James Romm: The author, in thorough command of the gap-filled and often conflicting ancient evidence available to scholars, skillfully crafts a most plausible version of events. In doing so, he reveals a solid understanding of human nature to explain the likely motivations and decisions of Alexander’s many would-be successors. Riveting history, filled with plot twists and fascinating characters
*THROUGH THE PERILOUS FIGHT: From the Burning of Washington to the Star-Spangled Banner: The Six Weeks That Saved the Nation by Steve Vogel: This is history as it should be told: immediate, engaging, filled with realistic characters and vividly presented events.
*WYOMING RANGE WAR: The Infamous Invasion of Johnson County, by John W. Davis: The best book on Gilded Age greed gone Wild West.
*TOM HORN IN LIFE AND LEGEND by Larry D. Ball: A deeply researched and well written bio of this fascinating cowboy, miner, mule packer, chief of Indian scouts, Pinkerton detective, feudist, and hired assassin.
*YOUNG TITAN by Michael Shelden: The story of how exuberant youthfulness and “glamorous charm” brought Winston Churchill nearly to the pinnacle of power, to be replaced after his fall in 1915 by “the cumulative force of a character that had been tested and strengthened over time.” Always a “dangerous optimist,” he believed in himself, and came back when no one else thought it possible, just in time to stop Hitler.
*CATASTROPHE 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings: Perhaps the finest synthesis of eloquent, first-hand accounts I’ve ever read in a military history. Includes views of the politicians, diplomats, and generals who started the war and “led” its downward spiral to catastrophe, transitioning into the emphasized “testimony of humble folk – soldiers, sailors, civilians (men, women and children) — who became its victims,” all explained with spot-on perceptive analysis.
*THE CHURCHILL FACTOR: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson: The current Mayor of London, like Churchill a journalist, historian, and rogue elephant of a Tory politician, has produced a wonderfully chatty book on Sir Winston Churchill. An illuminating study of what it was that made Churchill the only man who could have saved democracy and its benefits for all peoples in 1940. And did.
*CHANNELING ELVIS: How Television Saved the King of Rock and Roll, by Allen J. Wiener: The Elvises that emerge in Wiener’s account always command the spotlight. From the young, explosive force of nature, whose utter decency disarmed some (not all) of his fiercest critics, to the fully engaged and energized comeback artist whose televised brilliance made his rockabilly glory unexpectedly relevant in the psychedelic era, and on to the prematurely aging, drug-and-booze-addled performer of the late 70s, no longer caring to create, content to be a demigod among his adoring fans, Elvis was, from first to last, “must-see TV.”
THE CHURCHILL FACTOR by Boris Johnson (Riverhead Books, NY, 2014)
Mayor of London Boris Johnson, like Churchill a journalist, historian, and rogue elephant of a Tory politician, has produced a wonderfully chatty book on Sir Winston Churchill. Not a cradle-to-grave biography, it’s instead an illuminating study of what it was that made Churchill different. Not just different from every other British politician or world statesman of the 20th century (and beyond), but the only man who could have saved democracy and its benefits for all peoples in 1940. And did.
Johnson attacks his subject thematically, and with great dollops of humor. His chapters open with an evocative scene that introduces some revealing aspect of Churchill’s character. Johnson visits the graveyard of Winston’s nanny as a way of answering a question, “Was he a nice guy.” Yes, Johnson tells us unequivocally. And, in place of a beautiful, spendthrift mother who ignored her son and an erratically brilliant father who unaccountably denigrated the boy at every opportunity, it was the nanny, Johnson reckons, “who helped him to that vast and generous moral sense” that marked Churchill’s entire life.
Churchill began his political career as a rogue Tory, a very junior back-bencher forever attacking his party’s leaders and positions. He jumped party at a personally opportune time to become a Liberal before bailing and swimming back to his suspicious Tory “friends.” He remained officially a Tory for his last decades in politics but was at heart, like his ancestor and hero John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, an above-party man. During Churchill’s Liberal years, as Johnson makes clear, the once and future conservative was, alongside ally David Lloyd George, the founder of the British welfare state. And this, Johnson makes clear, was the result of no politically ploy but of deeply held conviction. It was Churchill who gave the British working man unemployment insurance and an afternoon tea break (a benefit previously belonging only to the working man’s “betters”).
Churchill jumped parties and positions so many times, and with such benefit to himself that he was accused by contemporaries as lacking any convictions. But, Johnson writes, “those who accuse him of political inconsistency have underestimated the depth and subtlety of his political thought.” Churchill’s principles were “unvarying,” Johnson writes. “He was both a reactionary and a liberal because he was a buccaneering Victorian Whig.” He believed in the greatness of Britain and her empire, in science and technology, and the role of government to “intervene to help improve the condition of her people.” That was the “essence of his Whiggish Toryism.”
His capacity for work rivalled Caesar’s and Napoleon’s, and certainly at a senior age neither imperator nor emperor attained. Churchill possessed, we are told, “phenomenal energy, a prodigious memory [he could recite entire poems where others could recall only a few famous lines], a keen analytic mind and a ruthless journalistic ability to sort his material so as to put the most important point first.” Add to this unbounded courage, whether displayed on the battlefields of Asia and Africa, across the rotting corpse-strewn no-man’s land of Flanders, behind the stick of very dodgy early aircraft, and the still fought-over Rhine crossings into Nazi Germany. He had to be virtually, if politely, ordered by his king not to join the Allied flotilla on D-Day.
Johnson admits to all of all of Churchill’s flaws (he never understood that Stalin was the source of the Soviet Union’s hellishness), although he credits his heavy and very expensive drinking as some marvelous fuel that kept the old man going. In one chapter, Johnson addresses Churchill’s biggest blunders, from Gallipoli and the bungled attempt to overthrow Lenin in 1919 to his racist opposition to Indian independence and his politically suicidal support of George V’s right to marry his American divorcée. Johnson largely absolves Churchill of the disastrous decision to put Britain on the gold standard, but not the other “cock-ups.” The apparent wonder is that Churchill came back from so many egregious blunders. The reason, Johnson maintains, is that Churchill was never personally corrupt. “Never was there the faintest whiff of scandal. None of his disasters came close to touching his integrity.”
Johnson acknowledges Churchill’s role in establishing the Middle East that is the mess it is today, but he places most of the blame on its residents, who never did get along in the way Churchill thought they would. He credits Sir Winston with contributing mightily, through the Atlantic alliance and the containment of war through summits, to the ultimate Western victory over the Soviets in the Cold War.
But it is the Second World War that Johnson repeatedly redirects our attention to, and deservedly so. Johnson pinpoints the moment when Churchill’s courage put his Cabinet colleagues, and eventually the world, on notice that there would be no negotiation with Hitler, no talks that would have melted a nation’s resolve. The “icy ruthlessness” of destroying without warning the fleet of his French ally further and violently displayed his determination to the world, and especially an America reluctant to go to war. Among allies, neither Roosevelt nor Truman, nor a parsimonious U.S. Congress hell-bent on bleeding Britain, comes off well in Johnson’s book in comparison to the large-hearted Churchill.
Whatever his flaws, Churchill applied his full energy, intelligence, wit, courage, and command of the English language to the most important task any leader has ever had, in preventing the “irredeemable disaster” of the surrender of Britain and the darkness that would have descended over all of Europe. Johnson does not know whether the Gestapo or KGB would have policed the continent in the end. He has no doubt that, without Churchill’s defiance, isolationist America would have steered clear, content to do no more than fight the Japanese. Would the U.S. have remained a democracy, in the face of the clear superiority of totalitarianism? Johnson is skeptical.
Fortunately, that never happened, thanks to Churchill. And almost as fortunately, this book is a fun read, filled with both Churchill’s humor (“Some chicken; some neck!”) and Johnson’s. The author’s subjects of disdain are clear, from French “surrender monkeys” to weak-kneed leaders like the “ineffectual mutton-like Asquith.”
For British readers, the book is an argument why Boris Johnson should be Prime Minister. For Americans readers, it’s perfect whether you wish to better understand the iconic, cigar-chomping English bulldog wearing the odd, high-topped bowler and sporting the up-Hitler’s “V for victory” sign or simply to spend several hours in a comfy chair with a breezy read in one hand and a swirling glass of brandy in the other.
I just received my copy of the December 2014 issue of True West magazine, which includes — on page 58 — an author profile of yours truly and my recommendations for five books on conflict, greed, and corruption on the Western frontier. (I had not yet finished reading Larry Ball’s TOM HORN bio and would certainly have added that!) The piece is the result of an entertaining — I know I was thoroughly entertained — and wide-ranging 90-minute interview conducted by True West’s Senior Editor Stuart Rosebrook. I was sorry that the conversation came to its inevitable end. But a hint of the result is in True West, the new issue with the unforgettably tattooed Olive Oatman on the cover. I’d post the cover image, but not online yet. Anyway, again I give my thanks to Stuart, Executive Editor Bob Boze Bell, and the staff at True West for this very nice addition to my “author platform.”
After five years with this project, The Mystery of the Iron Box, the story behind the 1934 ransom kidnapping of June Robles of Tucson, the book proposal is off to a university press for consideration. If all goes well, it will probably take about two years for publication, the academic hoops being what they are. Now to turn to the next project, whatever that may be. Each presents hurdles… another 1934 kidnapping that involves copying 15,000 pages of FBI files (Yikes!)…. or a biography of New Mexico rustler king, John Kinney….. never tackled biography before, and have yet to come across much of what went on in Kinney’s mind. Third option, trying to find a fresh take on the nemeses of Wyatt Earp, the Arizona Cow-Boys. I’ve got an idea for that, but will it translate into a book-length treatment or not? We’ll see.