Tudor Thrills & Chills


Vanessa Wilkie’s book focuses on a powerful woman and her dynasty, a woman who should be much better known.  This is a compelling story of upward mobility as Alice Spencer, the daughter of a wealthy sheep farmer, rose to wealth and status through two important marriages, married her daughters off extremely well, and worked hard to maintain all the right connections.

Status anxiety was rampant in this period and the author clearly lays out the importance of finding the right patron and keeping him happy, of marrying well, of expanding one’s holdings of land, and doing everything possible to rise higher.  There was always the possibility of the Wheel of Fortune dropping you to the bottom in an instant.  Doom could be quick and sudden and your head could end up on a pole.

There are times when the book reads like a thriller, as when Alice’s husband, the Earl of Derby, is approached by Catholic plotters who want him to depose Elizabeth and restore Catholicism in England.  They pick him because he’s a descendant of Henry VIII’s sister and might be a Catholic despite publicly adhering to the Protestant faith.  He alerts authorities that he plans to lead them to London where they should be arrested as traitors.  The ride south takes several several days.

Given legitimate paranoia about attempts to overthrow the Queen, there was the chance that he himself could be arrested, tortured, and executed on suspicion of treason, leaving his wife ruined and persona non grata.  It’s a harrowing episode in a generally well-wrought story of power and privilege. 

In some ways, the Tudor period in which Alice began to rise feels very close to ours: she needed good publicity as she made her way into the upper realms of Tudor society and did everything possible to enhance the position of her three daughters.  Alice, a book lover, was the recipient of fulsome praise via author’s dedications and thereby “gained social capital for being celebrated as [a patron] of the arts and religious works.”  No less a poet than The Faerie Queene’s Edmund Spenser  praised her in some really wretched verse that seems to have helped boost her reputation.  

The prose in this book often undermines the strength of the narrative because it’s filled with words like “probably,” “likely,” “would have,” “could have, “maybe,” “surely,” “may have been,” and “very likely.”

The author does offer up some fascinating material, like the fact that there were actually two forms of secular court at the time whose jurisdiction overlapped:  the common-law courts and so-called equitable courts that dealt with exceptions demanding demanded special attention.  This comes up in the context of a nasty lawsuit brought by Alice’s brother-in law that lasted for well over a decade.  And then there’s a bizarre, horrendous sex scandal worthy of the Marquis de Sade involving one noble daughter and granddaughter.  It’s so freakish, it could truly have been the focus of a separate book.

Alice Spenser was a strong, determined woman who actively built and fostered “a political and social network” while creating “a persona of grandeur” and amassing “landed wealth and power.”  Wilkie doesn’t downplay her faults–like being overly litigious and caring so very much about propriety–but deftly situates her in the complex, murky terrain of upper-crust Tudor and Stuart England.

Lev Raphael recently reviewed a dual biography of Queen Elizabeth I and Marie de Medici: Blood, Fire, and Gold.



Was Shakespeare Shady?

Recent studies show that conspiracy theories are highly democratic. These loony beliefs “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.” So despite all the evidence, there are people who maintain that President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., and just as tendentiously, there are people of all kinds who fervently believe that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays.
They’ll present a blizzard of proofs that melt  under close inspection and have suggested dozens of candidates as the “true author” over the last 150 years including Ben Jonson, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Philip Sydney, The Freemasons, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, The Rosicrucians, a whole assortment of nobles, poets and playwrights—and even Queen Elizabeth.There are many ferocious arguments and they start with a bogus negative. The Refuseniks simply cannot believe that someone who wasn’t upper class and a world traveler could have been a brilliant writer. This shows a gross misunderstanding of the creative mind and contemptuous snobbery. What about Jane Austen, the Brontës, James Joyce, and Dickens?

The  Shakespeare Deniers make lots of flimsy claims, as well as assertions that are anachronistic. These might look solid at first glance, convincing people who don’t know the period Shakespeare wrote in. Deep-fried Doubters want you to believe that there have always been suspicions about “authorship,” but that’s completely false.  Nobody in Shakespeare’s time and for years afterwards every doubted that he wrote the plays. The “controversy” started in the middle of the 19th century.

And one of the main “proofs” that he didn’t write the plays is this: we don’t have any of his manuscripts or his handwriting. Well, guess what? That doesn’t mean anything at all. University of Chicago’s David Bevington, a Professor of English, notes that “the lack of manuscripts, of handwriting samples . . . are what one would expect of a playwright of the period, even the most famous. We don’t read and preserve movie scripts today, and often do not even know who wrote a movie we particularly like. Play scripts were like that in the Renaissance. They existed to enable an acting company to put on a play. The wonder is that so many of Shakespeare’s plays were published at all. We have no manuscripts of plays by Marlowe or Jonson or Webster, even though some of their plays rival Shakespeare’s in their literary and dramatic qualities.”
The Nonbelievers also argue that Shakespeare was barely mentioned in his own time. But that’s simply not true if you bother to read that great Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro’s book Contested Will. There was solid contemporary commentary about Shakespeare. People who claim otherwise are discounting inconvenient evidence that shakes and topples their conspiratorial Tower of Babel.
Shapiro dives deeply and amusingly into the slumgullion of falsehoods and half-truths cooked up with rabid intensity by a thriving industry that can easily convince the gullible and the uninformed.  But let’s face it: going against the settled truth of a few centuries is a good way to gain notoriety and generate headlines. A few years ago, the widely distributed magazine Reform Judaism devoted a badly edited cover story to proving Shakespeare was actually an obscure Jewish woman poet. It ignored the highly inconvenient fact that she wasn’t really Jewish because Jewish descent has traditionally been matrilineal and her mother was not a Jew. It also side-stepped her authorship of a viciously anti-Semitic poem that’s a stone dud and shows nothing like the artistry of his plays whatsoever. But hey, why let any of that that get in the way of a good, sexy theory? I’m surprised the story didn’t throw in Queen Elizabeth and the whole Tudor court as secret Jews for extra points. That could have been the real reason Spain sent the Armada….
It’s probably exciting to uncover a “secret,” to feel like a hero, to connect disparate dots as if the fate of the world depended on your dazzling acumen. It likely gives people a sense of power and control, and can make any life seem like a Dan Brown thriller. And as in The X Files, these people see, to desperately want to believe—for reasons of their own—that the truth is out there. So Shakespeare Skeptics and the legion of cranks who think our moon landing was faked might have more in common than you’d think.
Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and many other books in genres from memoir to writer’s guide.
This blog was adapted from an article in Bibliobuffet.