Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien

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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.