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.