The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien

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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 …