The King’s Sister by Anne O’Brien

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Elizabeth of Lancaster was the second of John of Gaunt’s four daughters and, until now, the one I knew the least about. It was rather comforting that Anne O’Brien admitted that she didn’t know very much about her either, until she was asked to give a talk at the place where she’s buried. Then she found out more about her and decided to write a novel about her … and I’m very glad she did, because it’s fascinating!

Philippa of Lancaster married King Joao of Portugal, and became the mother of the “Illustrious Generation” of Portuguese royals. I read quite a lot about her before going to Portugal on holiday last year. Catherine of Lancaster married King Enrique III of Castile, and was the great-grandmother of Catherine of Aragon. Joan Beaufort, John of Gaunt’s daughter by Katherine Swynford, married into the Neville family and was the grandmother of Edward IV, Richard III and Warwick the Kingmaker. I well knew all that. I must confess that I didn’t know about Elizabeth … about how, at 17, she was married to an 8-year-old earl, and about how she had to get a rapid annulment and hastily marry John Holland, Richard II’s half-brother (the younger son of Joan of Kent’s first marriage), considerably less than 9 months before their first child was born!

So Elizabeth was half-sister-in-law to Richard II, who was also her first cousin. And sister to Henry IV. And, therefore, caught right in the middle when Henry took Richard’s throne. The book depicts Elizabeth as being in the middle of events and having to make the difficult decision to tell her brother about a plot against him which involved her husband: maybe that happened and maybe it didn’t, but Elizabeth was indisputably caught up in at all, in a horrifically impossible situation – and, in the end, her brother had her husband put to death.

Elizabeth comes across as a very feisty character. She must’ve been, to’ve got her love life in such a tangle! & John Holland comes across as a bad boy hero, irresistible to Elizabeth … as she seems to’ve been to him. Two fascinating characters. And there are a lot of other fascinating characters too. John of Gaunt. Katherine Swynford, very sympathetically portrayed. Richard II, rather unfavourably portrayed. The wonderful Joan of Kent. Elizabeth’s sister Philippa. And Henry IV – who, despite attracting attention from Shakespeare, seems to attract surprisingly little attention generally. Everyone’s got an opinion on Richard III overthrowing Edward V, Henry VII overthrowing Richard III, and William and Mary overthrowing James II, but Henry’s deposition and murder (because it must have been murder) of Richard II is far less well-known. Possibly because of Shakespeare, I tend to think of Henry as a rather guilt-ridden character, but this book shows him as supremely confident and self-assured – as I suppose he must have been in 1399 and 1400, whether or not he was later on.

For all that, this book’s actually quite an easy read. It isn’t full of complexities, deep analysis, symbolism, anything like that. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. I’d like to see Anne O’Brien write something that does go a bit deeper, but I’ve still thoroughly enjoyed all the books of hers I’ve read so far, and this one was particularly interesting because it was about someone I honestly didn’t know very much about until now.

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