Conquest: Daughter of the Last King by Tracey Warr

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  Why isn’t the fascinating Welsh Princess Nest, daughter of the last King of Deheubarth, (probably) a lover of Henry I and ancestress of the Irish Fitzgerald dynasty, better known?   There seems to have been some interest in her in Victorian times, when she was known as “the Welsh Helen” due to her abduction by a rival lord (which doesn’t actually come into this book, although it’s the first of a trilogy so presumably it’s covered in one of the later books), but she’s rarely mentioned now.

It’s a great shame.  She had a fascinating life, at a fascinating time in history.  In this book, we see Nest captured as a young girl as her father’s kingdom’s taken over by the Normans, caught up in the political entanglements as William Rufus, Robert Curthose and the future Henry I vie for the English throne, become the mistress of Henry I and bear one of his illegitimate children (which probably happened, although it’s not 100% certain), and then be married off to Gerald FitzWalter of Windsor, a Norman knight who was made constable of Pembroke Castle.

It’s an overlooked period of history generally.  Everyone knows about the Battle of Hastings, but the decades which followed tend to be neglected.   Having said which, we “did” do the Normans in the first year of secondary school, but most of it was about motte and bailey castles and the daily lives of medieval monks, which, let’s say, are not the most fascinating aspects of medieval history for a class of 11-year-old girls.  Family feuds and court gossip would have been far more interesting!

This is a really enjoyable book, and, unlike certain other authors, Tracey Warr explains where she’s changed the facts slightly for the sake of the story, or where she’s filled in things which aren’t known for definite.

We see Nest, after her father’s killed and she becomes a hostage, enter the household of one of the influential Montgomery family.   That doesn’t seem to be a matter of record, and most sources suggest that Nest was taken immediately to the court of William Rufus; but certainly Nest’s time at the court of Henry I, which the book does show, is a matter of fact.  The book suggests that Henry only married Nest to Gerald to give her the position of a married woman before making her his mistress, which probably isn’t quite what happened, but it does seem likely that she was Henry’s mistress, and certainly she did marry Gerald.  And it’s all portrayed in a very readable way – Nest, Gerald, Henry and Queen Matilda are very well-characterised.

I’m definitely going to try to get hold of the second and third books, and I gather that, as with Mary Queen of Scots and Bothwell, and, indeed, as with Helen and Paris, there’s a lot of debate about whether Nest was abducted or whether she ran off with Owen ap Cadogan of her own accord … sadly, it sounds to me as if she was forced, but there seems to have been a lot of debate about it at one time.  And now there isn’t: Nest has been largely forgotten.

Anyway, this is a very good book about an intriguing woman who really does deserve to be better known than she is … and it’s fairly cheap on Kindle.  Recommended!

The Mortymer Trilogy by Alexander Cordell

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Do people get a bit parochial about the protest movements of the early to mid 19th century?  *We* talk about Peterloo, the Great Chartist Meeting on Kersal Moor and, later, the suffragettes.  People in the East Midlands might talk about the Luddites, people in Dorset about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and so on.  Maybe we should all be paying more attention to South Wales – the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the Newport Rising of 1839, the Rebecca Riots of 1839-43, and a succession of sometimes violent strikes thereafter: the last of these three books takes us right up to the early 1870s.  Even going into the 20th century, there was the Taff Vale legal case, and, later, the Tonypandy Riots and the Llanelli Riots.

They’re not exactly the most cheerful of books, because most of the characters seem to end up being killed in mining accidents, dying of cholera or being transported as convicts – although the author does try to lighten things up a little by providing extremely long descriptions of drunken nights in the pub or trying to move house by barge whilst accompanied by an incontinent donkey.   However, there’s plenty of interest in them (although I wouldn’t really include the pubs and the donkey in that).

The three books are Rape of the Fair Country, Hosts of Rebecca and Song of the Earth, and we see the Mortymer and Evan families at various times working in coal mines, ironworks, as barge workers, on a farm (in order to cover the Rebecca Riots, which were mainly protesting against rural toll roads) and, finally, on the railways.

The author, despite being English himself, is rabidly anti-English, which I must say I could have done without.  He keeps making the point that a lot of the coal mine/ironworks owners were actually Welsh, and also that miners in England were treated just as badly as those in Wales, and also that some of the miners in Wales had actually come from England, but then going back to slagging off “the English” again and again.  A lot of this involves complaining about the Marquess of Bute – who was actually Scottish!   There are also a lot of anti-Irish comments, accusing Irish immigrants of accepting low wages and therefore undercutting the Welsh workforce, although those are more from the characters than the narrative. So don’t read these if you’re easily offended!   He keeps having a go at the Church of England as well.  I’m no fan of religious organisations and I would definitely have been backing disestablishment, but I’m not sure how the Church of England was to blame for miners being underpaid.  And what exactly did he think the mines in Wigan or Barnsley or Newcastle were like – a bed of roses?!

Anyway, to get back to the point, we do see a lot of English, and in particular Irish, people living in South Wales at the time, and also some Spanish people.  We see Nonconformists – including a lot of references to religious Revivalism – , Anglicans, Catholics and, perhaps surprisingly, Jews.  It’s certainly quite a mixed population – and, as so often happens, that perhaps weakened the workers’ movements, with people not always working together.  We also see splits within the families over unionism and strikes, as in How Green Was My Valley.

There’s some romance, and there are some nice descriptions of the countryside, but the mood of the books is generally angry and everyone constantly seems to be arguing, especially in the final book.  Don’t read them if you’re looking for something light and comfortable, but they’re well worth reading if you don’t mind something hard-hitting.

 

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

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Yes, I know that this book’s over 80 years old, and, yes, I know that it was made into a film during the war, and has been adapted for TV; but it was new to me!

We’ve got a small Welsh mining community, in the late Victorian/early Edwardian era; and the story is told, in English but with Welsh idioms/speech patterns, from the viewpoint of a boy called Huw as he grows up.  On the plus side, Huw’s part of a loving family and a close community.  On the minus side, the mines are terribly dangerous and fatal accidents are common, wages are low, the community is divided over union membership and strike action, and the tyranny of the chapel is like something out of the Netherlands or Geneva at their most Calvinistic.  Any young woman unlucky enough to get into trouble is hauled up before the entire congregation and berated for her wickedness –  whilst her boyfriend, natch, gets off scot free.  However, no-one seems to have an issue with the two gay boxers who run one of the local pubs, so at least that’s something.

There are various romances involving Huw’s many siblings, including a love triangle between one of his sisters, the Methodist preacher (who’s actually very nice when he isn’t berating girls in trouble) and one of the mine owners.  And we hear all about Huw’s schooldays – he’s all set to get a white collar job and escape poverty, but then he gets expelled just before his exams.

It’s a lovely book in many ways, but Huw is really rather annoying.  The reason he gets expelled from school is one of the many fights he gets into.  OK, lads get into playground scraps, but Huw beats up the teacher, so badly that the police get involved.  The teacher did ask for it, but still!   And then Huw’s girlfriend disappears.  To be fair, he does ask her brother where she’s gone, but he can’t get an answer.  He doesn’t twig to what’s going on until his sister-in-law tells him that she’s been sent away … hopefully to a place with no chapels.  After that, she’s never mentioned again, and he doesn’t seem to give the baby a second thought.  It’s a bit silly anyway, TBH.  Surely the girl and her family would have tried to make him marry her?

However, despite the fact that Huw isn’t a very appealing protagonist, it’s really a very interesting book.  No dates are actually given, but, from references to the Diamond Jubilee and the Boer War, we can tell that it starts off in the late 1890s.  Strangely, even though everyone is a devoted royalist and they all get incredibly excited when the choir led by one of Huw’s brothers goes to sing in front of Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, Victoria’s death’s never actually mentioned – we just suddenly start hearing about “the King” rather than “the Queen”!   As is often pointed out, the late Victorian/Edwardian period’s seen as a Golden Age which was destroyed by the Great War; but, for people in working class communities, and especially for women, it really wasn’t that great.  But then there were these very close communities, and that’s something that we’ve pretty much lost now.

This book’s been criticised for being maudlin and sentimental (especially as the author claimed that it was about his own experiences, until it transpired that he’d actually grown up in London!)  and that’s certainly what the title suggests – oh, everything was so wonderful back in the day, the sort of thing we’ve been hearing right back to when William Blake moaned about dark satanic mills.  But I didn’t read it like that – the book did not pull any punches about the conditions in the mines, the struggles by some families to put food on the table, the treatment of “fallen women”, the teacher who got angry with any pupils who spoke Welsh rather than English at school, and so on.  But nor was it a misery memoir like Angela’s Ashes.  Nothing’s all good or all bad, and that’s what this book shows.  Not bad at all!

Now … do I buy the three sequels, and add to my already ridiculously high book mountain?   Still thinking about that!

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.