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 …

 

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

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   As the title suggests, this is a novel about Cecily Neville, Duchess of York.  There’ve been a number of novels in recent years about or featuring Cecily (contrary to what the blurb says about her being overlooked!), but this is a particularly readable one.  We follow Cecily from the early years of her marriage to Richard of York up to their son Edward becoming king – through their time in France, their time in Ireland (where some interesting points were made about Richard, as Henry VII would do later, playing on his Celtic connections to win support), and the tangled politics of the English court as we head into the Wars of the Roses – and the text is full of historical facts and detail without ever seeming too academic for a novel.

We also very much see her as a woman, coping with multiple pregnancies, miscarriage, the loss of children in infancy, and worries about her surviving children.  We see her ambition for Edward and her concern about finding husbands for her daughters, and, of course, her relationship with her husband and with her siblings and other family members.

And what I particularly liked was that the author clearly assumes that the reader knows all about what’s to come.  Jacquetta Woodville plays a big part in this book, with the impression being that she and Cecily were long-term frenemies, and that Cecily and possibly even Edward would have known Elizabeth Woodville as a child.  I’m not sure that that’s entirely accurate (!), although all the main historical events shown are accurately portrayed; but it was interesting to see Jacquetta woven into the story, and also several references to Eleanor Talbot, the woman to whom Richard would later claim that Edward was secretly engaged when he married Elizabeth.

We’re also told that Richard would have quite liked a big christening for Edward, but that Cecily, very nervous after their first son had tragically died shortly after birth a day earlier, was worried about tempting fate and just wanted it done quickly and quietly.  No reference is made to the absurd story that Edward’s real father was an archer called Blaybourn and that that was why the christening was so quiet, but the author clearly wants to make it obvious that she thinks that that story’s nonsense, and assumes that the reader will understand what she’s doing.

Oddly, though, given all that, there’s only one brief reference to the birth of Margaret Beaufort, none at all to her marriage to Edmund Tudor and the birth of their son, and, although we’re told about the birth of Isabel Neville, no mention was made of Anne.  There’s quite a bit of scandalmongering, though, about Edmund Beaufort senior being the real father of Edmund Tudor (which I don’t believe for a moment) and Edmund Beaufort junior being the real father of Henry VI’s son Edward (which, let’s face it, is quite likely).

Marquerite of Anjou is vilified.  I really do feel sorry for that woman!   I think, in forty years or so of reading historical fiction, I’ve read one novel which was positive about her.  What was she supposed to do, married to someone who, for medical reasons, wasn’t fit to be king?  But, OK, the book is written from Cecily’s viewpoint, and plenty of other people are vilified too!

The fifteenth century is a controversial period in English history, and people will have their own views on the events and personalities of the time, but this is a really, really good historical novel, and particularly impressive given that it’s the author’s first book.  My one big quibble is that it’s written in the present tense, which is OK for reviews 🙂 but a bit infantilising for books.  Other than that, highly recommended.

The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson

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Hooray, a book that gives a positive view of Lady Margaret Beaufort, someone of whom I am a great admirer and who has been very unfairly maligned in a lot of novels in recent years. There seems to be a trend these days to try to present Richard III in a positive light: I don’t know whether that’s just for the sake of going against the traditional view or whether he’s become, even before his remains turned up in a car park in Leicester, a bit of a cult figure.  As a result of that, other figures of the time have been having their reputations blackened, and Margaret’s one of them.  I’m having none of it, nor, I’m pleased to say, is Joanna Hickson.  Richard dunnit, OK!

This book, although it does cover the crucial period from 1483 to 1485, and also the period of the second part of Edward IV’s reign (i.e. 1471 to 1483) doesn’t really cover all the same old, same old stuff about the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, Elizabeth of York wearing the same frock as Anne Neville, the machinations of the Duke of Buckingham, and all the rest of it, though. It does mention all of those events, obviously, but it doesn’t really focus on them.

In some ways, it’s quite annoying that there is so little politics in the book. It seems quite frivolous at times, because so much of it’s about the domestic lives of the characters.  But, fascinating though the high politics of the time is, it’s all been done to death.  Some authors try to do something completely different, but that can end up being utter twaddle, like Philippa Gregory making out that Perkin Warbeck really was Richard, Duke of York.  And, fascinating though it is that there are such completely different versions of the same events (I don’t know why anyone thinks “fake news” is a recent thing, when it so clearly isn’t!), repeating the same arguments becomes rather … well, repetitive.

Joanna Hickson does take the traditional view, i.e. the Tudor view, that Richard usurped the throne – although even I’m prepared to admit that he probably did so because “Woe to thee, o land, when thy king is a child” – and had the princes murdered.   I thought that “woe to thee” quote was Shakespeare, but Google says it’s the Bible.  Shows what I know!!   However, she doesn’t really show that much about Margaret negotiating with Elizabeth Woodville, and all the “Song of the Lady Bessy” stuff isn’t there at all: Elizabeth of York only really features early on, as a child.  The focus is on Margaret’s domestic life, at court (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) and with Thomas Stanley, and on the future Henry VII’s time in Brittany and France.

The popular image of Margaret is of the famous portrait of her wearing what looks like a nun’s wimple, and she is generally portrayed as someone who was stern, strict, ascetic and obsessively pious. This book shows a new side to her, as someone who enjoyed court life and giving entertainments, and also as someone who was very close to her many official and unofficial wards – poignantly, it’s suggested that this was partly due to her sadness at being unable to have more children after Henry’s difficult birth when she was so young.  It’s a side to her that’s not usually shown, even in novels, and it’s very appealing.  Her strength of character, her learning, and her devotion to Henry make her one of the most admirable personalities of the time, but it’s nice to see this softer side to her as well – and it does all seem to be fairly accurate.

The sections about Henry, other than the Battle of Bosworth Field itself, are all fictional, though. That’s not because the author isn’t sticking to the facts: it’s because we don’t know the facts!   So much has been written about the 1470s and early 1480s, but virtually none of it concerns Henry – and his uncle Jasper – ‘s time in Brittany and France.  I would think that that’s because Henry was keen to play down the fact that he’d spent so much time abroad, but it does leave huge gaps in his story.

This book features the fictional mistress and illegitimate children of Jasper Tudor, who were in one of Joanna Hickson’s previous books, and also features a fictional relationship between Henry and a local woman, who dies, along with the baby, in childbirth. It’s made clear in the afterword that all of that is fictional, and it’s hard to know what to say about it, but it is well-written and makes an engaging storyline.  As the author says, it seems unlikely that Henry wouldn’t have had any romantic relationships before his marriage.  It’s strange that we know so little about that period of his life, when we do know so much about the Tudor dynasty in general.  We’re so used to seeing what was going on in England at the time, especially in the period between Edward IV’s death and Bosworth Field, and it’s easy to forget about Henry kicking his heels on the other side of the Channel and probably thinking that he was going to be there for the rest of his life.

What an incredible change for him!   William I was Duke of Normandy before he became King of England, William of Orange was the Stadtholder of the United Provinces, George I was the Elector of Hanover, and, for that matter, James I was King of Scotland.  Henry IV and even to some extent Edward IV had had their time in the thick of all the political intrigue.  But Henry VII had been completely out of it.  Someone with no political experience suddenly being in charge of the country does not always work very well – mentioning no names! – but Henry did the most incredible job of being king.

Neither he nor his mother were exactly up there in the charisma stakes, and, especially coming in between the charismatic Edward IV, the controversial Richard III and the most recognisable king in English history, Henry VIII, they’re never going to get as much attention as they deserve. So it’s great to see a book that focuses on both of them, and that doesn’t present them as being boring, vile or both.  It’s a shame that so little’s known about Henry’s life in exile, but Joanna Hickson’s made a good story out of it, and has explained that it’s not factual.  This isn’t the most challenging or thought-provoking book you’ll ever read, but there are plenty of challenging and thought-provoking books about this period already, and this one’s that bit different.