The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien


Well, I never knew that Margery Paston and Edward Poynings were first cousins.   Not that that’s really very relevant to anything, but even so.  Anne O’Brien’s back on form with this book, but has opted for a change from writing about royal women and turned instead to the Pastons, of Paston Letters fame.

However, the book’s not only called “The Royal Game” but has pictures of white roses, crowns and sceptres on the cover, and “She does not need a crown in order to rule” emblazoned across it, giving the very strong impression that it’s a sequel to her recent book about Cecily Neville.  Which it isn’t.  Very odd.  What it *is* is a very interesting picture of the fortunes of an ambitious family in 15th century Norfolk, and how lawless things were before Henry VII sorted them out, with powerful families or those with powerful connections able to make a claim to a property and just barge in … and how much time people like the Pastons spent arguing about it all in court!

It’s not really about either lawsuits or fighting, though.  It’s told largely from the viewpoints of three women.  The main character is the heiress Margaret Mautby, who married into the Paston family, then only two or three generations removed from serfdom, and brought them estates both as part of her own dowry and through her connections with Sir John Fastolf (on whom Shakespeare’s Falstaff was based, although for some reason Anne O’Brien doesn’t mention this).  The others are her sister-in-law Eliza Paston, who married into the Poynings family and became the mother of Edward Poynings, of Poynings’ Law fame, and Elizabeth Woodville’s cousin Anne Haute, who hoped to marry Margaret’s eldest son John.

I could have done without the chapter headings being “Margaret Mautby Paston” and “Elizabeth Paston Poynings”, rather than just “Margaret Paston” and “Elizabeth Poynings”, the book being set in 15th century England rather than 20th century America, and also the the number of times that people want to “talk with” someone rather than “talk to” someone (ditto); but those are fairly minor quibbles.

This book, the first in a series, takes us from 1444 to 1469.  We do see the path of political events, as allegiances shift around, and the Pastons throw their lot in with the Yorkists but struggle for power and position even once Edward IV’s on the throne.  I haven’t actually read the Paston Letters, but Anne O’Brien is usually very good on historical accuracy, so I assume that the book does reflect what they say.  Quite a lot of it’s about personal relationships, but we also see the legal wranglings, the way in which different families all tried to claim the same properties, and how a family like the Pastons could be disbarred from holding property because of their “unfree” ancestry.  We tend to think that the feudal system in England died out with the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt, but there were still a few serfs until 1574, and elements of the feudalism lingered until Restoration times.  And we also see the Pastons forging a family tree which showed a free and entirely fake pedigree going back to the Norman Conquest, and getting away with it!

Pandemics can change things.  In the aftermath of the Black Death, everything was in flux, and the Pastons were able to take advantage of that.  The Paston Letters are usually associated with the Valentines sent to Margaret’s son John (confusingly, she and her husband John had two sons who were both called John, so this was not the same John who was engaged to Anne Haute!) by his future wife Margery, and Margaret’s daughter Margery’s controversial marriage to the family’s bailiff Richard Calle.   Romance is more interesting than lawsuits, after all!   But they do tell us a lot about 15th century England, and this book is a great read.

I just wish I knew what the point of the misleading front cover was …


The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien


I did actually enjoy this book, about Cecily Neville, but it wasn’t what I was expecting.  Anne O’Brien’s other books about medieval royal women, all excellent, have all been ordinary fictional prose.  This one reminded me of being about 12, and being told to write a history essay in the format of a letter or diary because a teacher for some reason thought that kids would find that more interesting than just writing a normal essay.   It was a strange combination of letters, signed “Your affectionate but thwarted sister”, “Your concerned brother by law”, etc, diary entries, articles from a fictional 15th century equivalent of a tabloid newspaper gossip column, diary entries and even prayers, not to mention recipes for eels in garlic sauce.

It was completely unrealistic – would anyone have put down their plans for overthrowing the king in a gossipy letter, which could well have been intercepted en route? – but it was a very entertaining read.  Despite the rather bizarre format, all the history of England during the period from 1459, when Cecily and her younger children were left to face the Lancastrian forces at Ludlow Castle, and 1483, when her youngest son Richard III overthrew his own nephews (it finished before their disappearance) was in there.  And much of that was family gossip.  Nearly all the familiar stories, including the butt of malmsey wine, were in there: the only one missing was the Duke of Clarence putting Anne Neville to work as a kitchenmaid, which for some reason Anne O’Brien didn’t include.  But I hope she reverts to her usual style of writing in future.  This was a bit odd!

Some of the letters were between Cecily and other members of the Yorkist dynasty, but most were between her and her sisters and other members of the Neville family, which allowed the author freer reign than more political letters would have done  It didn’t go as far as the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, as I’ve said, so we didn’t get to see the author’s thoughts on what Cecily might have believed about that.  We saw Cecily being rather scathing about her nephew, the Earl of Warwick, Margaret of Anjou, George of Clarence and, as time goes on, Edward IV.  I don’t think anyone could argue with any of that!

In particular, she  was shown as being very critical of her daughter-in-law Elizabeth, and the entire Woodville family and their grab for money and power.  Again, whilst we can’t know what Cecily thought, that was probably pretty much it!   I did initially assume that the title “The Queen’s Rival” meant that Cecily was a rival to Margaret of Anjou, but, as I read on, I felt that it was cleverly ambiguous – was she a rival to Elizabeth Woodville as well?   And, as ever, people were very quick to blame the woman.  Edward didn’t have to let the Woodvilles gain money and power and advantageous marriages, did he?  He was the king.  They were a minor gentry family.   They hardly forced him.

So what of the tangled web of claims of illegitimacy?  We were shown that Cecily was devoted to her husband, even though she eventually acknowledged that he made mistakes.  We were also shown that she thought very well of her son Richard, who, unlike George, seemed loyal to the family.  It was even indicated that it was Cecily who suggested that Richard should marry Anne Neville, not Richard himself.  As far as the Eleanor Butler story went, the picture given was that Cecily – like everyone else over the past five and half centuries – couldn’t possibly have known what had happened, didn’t find it hard to believe that Edward would have promised anything to get a woman into bed, but wasn’t at all convinced that he’d said anything binding.

The portrayal of events here was that she agreed to go along with it, partly because, especially after all the dynastic warfare she’d seen during her lifetime, she felt that it would be better for the country to be ruled by a grown man than by a young boy … but also because, otherwise, he’d have opted for trying to declare his brother, rather than his nephews, illegitimate, by bringing up the Blaybourne story again.

The book was weirdly ambiguous about the Blaybourne story.  Anne O’Brien’s rubbished it in her previous books.  It is rubbish, surely.  Yes, there’s an issue with the dates – as a very poor TV programme a few years ago emphasised –  but only by a few weeks.  It’s hardly unknown for a baby to be born a few weeks prematurely.  Richard could even have come back during the few weeks he was away: he wasn’t that far from Cecily.  And, as this book did say, a premature birth could explain why only a small christening was held.  So could umpteen other factors.  The argument that Edward was tall and blond whereas his father was small and dark is irrelevant: most of the Plantagenets were, famously, tall and blond.  George of Clarence included.  Henry VIII looked nothing like Henry VII, and Edward VI looked nothing like Henry VIII!  But, most of all, even if anyone actually believed that Cecily had been carrying on with an archer, how could anyone believe that the Duke of York would have accepted an heir who wasn’t his biological child?  It’s just nonsense.

So why was the book so ambiguous about it?  We did see Cecily make the points about a premature birth etc, but we also saw her refuse to answer questions.  I don’t know why Anne O’Brien did that, especially as she has rubbished the story in other books.

Was there any truth in it?
Was Edward betrothed to Eleanor Butler?
Was Henry VI really the father of his son Edward?
Was Catherine de Valois really married to Owen Tudor?
Was there anything going on between Richard III and his niece Elizabeth of York?
What really happened between Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon?

Fascinating, isn’t it 🙂 ?  Never shall I understand why schools make kids learn about stuff like the three field system and the lives of medieval monks.  If you want to get kids’ attention, or indeed adults’ attention, this sort of thing is what does it – letter format, diary format, or anything else!







A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien


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!

Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien


I really like Anne O’Brien’s books.  She writes about historical periods which few other novelists cover, doesn’t mess about with the known facts, and gives plenty of historical detail without ever treating the reader as if they’re ignorant.  This particular book’s about Elizabeth Percy, nee Mortimer, wife of Henry “Hotspur”, aunt of the young Earl of March who was widely recognised as Richard II’s heir before Henry Bolingbroke’s coup, and sister of Sir Edmund Mortimer who allied with the Percys and Owen Glendower in the uprising of 1403 (defeated at the Battle of Shrewsbury, on the site of which there’s a very nice farm shop and cafe!).  It’s both very informative and very readable.

This is a period of history which is more familiar from Shakespeare than anywhere else.  It’s not generally taught in schools, and it wasn’t even taught when I was at university.   Yet the names are well-known – if only because Owen Glendower had a terrorist group named after him, and Henry Percy, because the Dukes of Northumberland owned land in Tottenham, has got a Premier League football club named after him!! Seriously, the Percys, Earls and later Dukes of Northumberland, are still going strong.  Often in the gossip columns, because the present duke’s children are pals with Princes William and Harry.  And still at Alnwick Castle – now also known as Hogwarts!  There aren’t all that many great homes and great noble names which go back so far.

The forgotten name’s that of Mortimer.  Well, you do hear it a lot at lovely Chirk Castle, one of my favourite National Trust properties; but the Mortimers could have been Kings of England, and, instead, the Duke of Lancaster deposed Richard II and became King Henry IV – an elusive figure despite the Shakespeare plays, and, like Henry VII, completely overshadowed by his more glamorous son – and the Mortimer line, with no male heirs after the deaths of Elizabeth’s Mortimer nephews, merged into the Yorkist line.

Richard II had no surviving royal brothers, no children by his first wife, and a second wife who was only a child.  So who was his heir?  Edmund Mortimer, descended from the second surviving son of Edward III but through the female line, and only a child, or Henry Bolingbroke, descended from the third surviving son, the Duke of Lancaster, through the male line?  Edward III’s supposed to have ruled out succession through the female line.  But England had never had the Salic Law – and Edward himself had claimed the throne of France through his mother.  And England’s not always that fussy about lines of descent anyway.  It shouldn’t have been relevant, because Richard would have expected to have children with his second wife eventually, but he fell out with Henry, and Henry deposed him, and … did he have him killed?  You’ve got to think so.  As with Peter III of Russia, it was all a bit too convenient that a recently deposed king just happened to die.

Shakespeare’s got Henry Hotspur, heir to the Earl of Northumberland, being a similar age to the future Henry V, the aforementioned glamour boy, but he was actually more of an age with Henry IV.  Henry IV really should have tried to keep the Percys, the so-called Kings of the North, on side, but he didn’t.  Hotspur and his brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer both fought for Henry against Owen Glendower, but Mortimer was captured and Henry refused to let the Percys ransom him.  Because he thought Mortimer was in league with Glendower?  If he wasn’t then, he was soon, and so were the Percys – planning to divide the country between them.  But the rebels were defeated, at Shrewsbury.  Hotspur was killed.  Elizabeth was pushed into a second marriage. Henry IV was duly succeeded by his son Henry V … and, if Henry V hadn’t died young, and his son Henry VI hadn’t suffered from mental health problems, the succession disputes would probably have ended there, but that’s another story.

So it’s quite a messy, complex period of history; and Elizabeth Percy, nee Mortimer, was closely connected to all the major figures involved.  This book suggests that she was always determined that her nephew was Richard II’s rightful successor, and that she.played a crucial role in her husband’s decision to join Mortimer and Glendower.  We can’t know for sure exactly what her role was, but it’s certainly not unlikely that she’d have been heavily involved in the decision-making, and there’s nothing in this book that couldn’t have happened.  The fact that it is about Elizabeth means that we don’t see or hear that much about the motives and actions of Richard II, Henry IV or Owen Glendower, but, to be fair, the book is not about them.  We see Elizabeth at court, though, and talking to her Mortimer nephews, and meeting Owen Glendower.  There’s also quite a bit of personal stuff about her relationship with her husband – we can’t know much about their marriage, but it rings true, and it works well in the context of the book.

It’s told from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, but it’s not really that sympathetic towards her, or towards anyone else involved.  Everyone – apart from the young Earl of March and his brother, who didn’t really seem that interested in the throne – was on their high horses about who was entitled to what and how badly they’d been treated, but no-one really behaved very well.  It must be far easier to write a book in which the protagonist is shown as being in the right, and in which the narrative takes one side or the other, than to write one like this.  And it’s probably also easier to write about a well-known figure like Anne Boleyn or Queen Victoria than to write about someone who was just a real as they were but of whom a lot of readers may never even have heard.

Probably quite tempting, as well.  Books about the Tudors and the Victorians always sell!  But I’m so grateful to the people who write about the more neglected periods of history – especially Jean Plaidy, who was the person who showed me that medieval history was absolutely fascinating and wasn’t all about motte and bailey castles and the daily lives of monks, which was much of what I’d been taught in the very brief time given to it at school!   And I also like the fact that Anne O’Brien focuses on women, who, unless they’re queens, and sometimes even then, are so often overlooked.

This is historical fiction for historians – there’s a lot of politics in it, and it helps to be familiar with the Plantagenet family tree, and it assumes that you know the basics.  I love that!  Not everyone will, but I do.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and will certainly be reading Anne O’Brien’s next book, part of which will overlap with this one, when it comes out later this year.