Anne O’Brien’s books are superb, and this one, about Constance le Despenser, Countess of Gloucester, born Constance of York and her role in the political machinations during the early years of the reign of Henry IV is no different. I do feel that she limits her appeal by writing about relatively obscure figures, though. It’s great that such a good author *does* write about the forgotten figures of history, rather than churning out yet another book about Anne Boleyn or Richard III; but the book is only really about the politics of the time and the personal life of the main character, with very little of the detail about the clothes, food, leisure activities etc of the time that some authors include, and so it’s only going to appeal to someone with an interest in medieval English political history.
However, if that *is* your thing, then this is well worth reading. English history is littered with the names of forgotten boys who could, and probably should have been king, but weren’t. Edgar the Atheling, Arthur of Brittany, Edward, Earl of Warwick … and Edmund Mortimer, whom Constance hoped to see replace Henry as king. It’s also littered with the names of forgotten royal women, and all credit to Anne O’Brien for giving them her attention, especially when a book about Constance le Despenser is never going to sell as well as a book about, or at least prominently featuring, a household name.
Constance was the daughter of Edmund, Duke of York, fourth son of John of Gaunt, and Isabella of Castile (no, not that Isabella of Castile, obviously), and therefore first cousin to Henry IV and first cousin once removed to Richard II. She was also the grandmother of Anne, Countess of Warwick (the one who was married to Warwick the Kingmaker). Her husband was the great-grandson of Hugh le Despenser, the one who’s supposed to have been Edward II’s lover, and his mother was a Ferrers of Groby, so he was related to Elizabeth Woodville’s first husband and the Grey family of Dunham Massey somewhere along the line. And he got to be Earl of Gloucester because he was related to the infamous de Clares, so he was also related to William Marshal, who features in a lot of Elizabeth Chadwick’s books. And she had an illegitimate child with Edmund Holland, grandson of Joan of Kent by her first marriage. You may wish to keep a royal family tree to hand, or else to refer to Wikipedia!
Anyway. The Yorks at this point weren’t in a position to challenge the Lancastrians, who were descended from Edward III’s third son. They only really got involved when Constance’s brother Richard married Anne Mortimer, granddaughter of Edward III’s second son. Whose mother was the sister of Constance’s lover Edmund. Not to be confused with another sister, who was Constance’s stepmother. According to this book, Richard wasn’t actually the Duke of York’s son at all, but was the product of an affair between Isabella of Castile (not that one) and Richard II’s half-brother John Holland, who was Edmund Holland’s uncle. Keep up!
Neither Richard nor Anne were really relevant at this point, Richard being second fiddle to his brother Edward, and Anne third fiddle to her two brothers, Edmund and Richard. Everyone swapped sides every five minutes and no-one seemed at all clear who was on Henry’s side and who wanted rid of him. Nor is it very clear why they changed sides – the author does her best with this, but it’s not easy when no-one really knows. Nor is the exact relationship between Constance and Edmund Holland known, but Anne O’Brien goes for the idea that they were secretly married and that Edmund then betrayed her by ignoring the marriage.
The book centres on two plots – the Epiphany Rising of 1399, intended to overthrow Henry and restore Richard II, after which Constance’s husband was executed, and a 1405 plot to overthrow Henry in favour of Edmund Mortimer … which involved Constance, her brother Edward, Edmund Mortimer senior (the uncle of Edmund Mortimer junior), and Edmund snr’s father-in-law Owen Glendower. It’s heavy on political history, and it really is very interesting if you’re into that, especially as it’s such a neglected area of history. The reign of Henry IV was famously covered by Shakespeare, but not very accurately, and it’s largely ignored in history teaching at schools and is a period most people don’t know much about.
The history can’t be faulted: there are things which we just don’t know the truth of, and which the author’s had to draw her own conclusions about, but there are no glaring blunders, or liberties taken with the known facts. But not everyone is going to want to read a novel that’s mainly political history, especially when it’s about a little-known figure in a little-known period – you’d think people would want to know about something different, but it doesn’t always seem to work like that, which is why there are so many books about the best-known figures in history. But, if you want something and someone different, give this a go!