Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien

Having enjoyed some of Anne O’Brien’s previous books, I was excited to learn that her latest novel, Queen of the North, was going to tell the story of Elizabeth Mortimer, wife of the famous Harry Hotspur, heir to the Earl of Northumberland in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. So much English historical fiction concentrates on London and the south, it’s always nice to find something set in my part of the country instead.

The novel opens in 1399; King Richard II is still on the throne, but for how much longer? His power is weakening rapidly and the exiled Henry of Lancaster is preparing to return to England and reclaim his lands. Elizabeth Mortimer’s husband, Harry Percy (known as Hotspur), and his father, the Earl of Northumberland, are among the northern Lords who decide to take Lancaster’s side against the King. This worries Elizabeth, who is convinced that Lancaster’s ultimate goal is the throne of England itself – and soon she is proved right.

Although Lancaster is Elizabeth’s cousin, she is disappointed when the Percy family support him in deposing Richard and claiming the crown. She believes that her young nephew, Edmund Mortimer, has a stronger claim and she is determined to do whatever it takes to help him take his rightful place as King. This will bring Elizabeth into conflict not only with the newly crowned Henry IV but also with her husband and she will have to decide where her loyalties truly lie: with the Mortimers or with the Percys?

Elizabeth’s efforts on Edmund’s behalf eventually lead her to Wales, where Owain Glyn Dŵr is planning a rebellion and looking for support from the Mortimers and Percys. Alliances are formed and broken, friends become enemies then friends again in an instant; it’s a dangerous time, but a fascinating one to read about!

I loved Queen of the North; I think it’s my favourite of the five Anne O’Brien novels I’ve read so far. As I’ve said, I really liked the northern setting, which gave me some glimpses of places I know and have visited, such as the Percy stronghold of Warkworth Castle when it was a living, working building rather than the semi-ruin it is today. The Percys were one of the most powerful and influential families in the north of England at that time; they were wardens of the Marches (the area surrounding the border with Scotland) and virtually ruled the north on behalf of the king, but this did not mean they could not be brought down and replaced if they fell out of royal favour. Anne O’Brien does a great job of showing how precarious their position actually was, when an error of judgement, a wrong decision or an act of betrayal could mean their downfall.

The central two characters in the novel are well drawn, strong and convincing. I liked Elizabeth – although her obsession with putting her nephew on the throne becomes frustrating at times (partly because we already know from history that she wouldn’t succeed), but it’s obvious that it means a lot to her and that she is only doing what she believes is right. With her husband reluctant to help and the old Earl completely in opposition, she takes matters into her own hands and although her actions are not always sensible I did admire her courage and persistence. I also liked Harry, nicknamed Hotspur because of his brave, reckless and impulsive nature. His relationship with Elizabeth is very convincingly portrayed – their personalities clash at times and they don’t always see eye to eye, but their love is strong enough to survive these differences of opinion.

Because we are seeing things through Elizabeth’s eyes, a lot of important events – such as battles, rebellions and some of Hotspur’s meetings with Henry IV – take place ‘off the page’. However, this does not mean that Elizabeth’s personal story is boring; she has plenty of adventures of her own as she tries to navigate her way through the various plots and schemes of the shrewd old Earl of Northumberland, the Welsh hero Owain Glyn Dŵr, and her own Mortimer relatives. There’s never a dull moment and in comparison to Anne O’Brien’s last book, on Joan of Kent, I think this is a much more exciting and compelling novel. Speaking of O’Brien’s other books, there is also some overlap here with The Queen’s Choice, which tells the story of Henry IV’s wife, Joanna of Navarre.

I really enjoyed Queen of the North – and have been reminded that I never did look for the final two books in Carol Wensby-Scott’s Lion trilogy, which was my only other encounter in fiction with Elizabeth and Hotspur. Can anyone recommend any more books set in this time and place?

Thanks to the publisher HQ for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

27 thoughts on “Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien

  1. Margaret says:

    I’ve not read any of Anne O’Brien’s books – would this one be a good one to begin with? I like the sound of the Northumberland setting – and have visited Warkworth Castle. And I’m not far from Alnwick, the Percy familys’ ancestral home.

    • Helen says:

      Alnwick Castle appears in the book too, so I’m sure you would find it interesting. Anne O’Brien’s books are all standalones, although some of them overlap with each other slightly. I think this would be a great one to begin with.

  2. Lark says:

    The only place I’ve run into these particular characters is when I read Shakespeare’s play of Henry IV. Great review! Queen of the North sounds like another really good historical fiction novel. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I will have to read Henry IV one day! I’ve always intended to read all of the history plays, but just never seem to be able to get started. And yes, this is a great book for anyone interested in knowing more about these characters.

  3. Ann says:

    Just ordered this from the library. I grew up in Northumberland and look forward to reading about places I knew. I actually went to school in Alnwick Castle when the Newcastle Churcn High School was evacuated there during the war.

    • Helen says:

      That’s interesting, Ann. I have visited Alnwick Castle a few times, but hadn’t realised it was used as a school. I hope you enjoy the book.

  4. elainethomp says:

    MArtha Rofheart had a Henry V boy & man novel, which included Hotspur, and also wrote one about Glendower. Pargeter had The Bloody Field, centered on the battle of Shrewsbury. And I can’t recall the title, I read it at least 30 years ago from the library, but it was a very fat tome all about Henry V from birth on by a guy who was shelved near Thomas Mann. The library apparently purged it, as I just checked their catalog. Had lots about Lancaster, obviously.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve read a few of Martha Rofheart’s books, but haven’t got round to the Henry V and Glendower ones yet. I do want to read the Edith Pargeter book too, but I already have a copy of The Heaven Tree which I haven’t read yet and should probably read first!

  5. elainethomp says:

    Me again, my memory disgorged the title of the one I couldn’t remember earlier: Harry of Monmouth, which Amazon tells me was written by A.M. Maughan. i liked it 30 years ago.

  6. Carmen says:

    Excellent review, Helen! I would love to read this one as it brings to mind the TV series I saw last year, titled The Hollow Crown, based on Shakespeare’s historical plays of that period as well as the War of the Roses. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any book to recommend, as usually it’s you who does the suggesting. 😉

  7. sighthound6 says:

    Brian Wainwright’s novel Within the Fetterlock covers this era, and Percy family, and the Mortimers, pop up as supporting cast. It is mainly though from the POV of the York family.

    • Helen says:

      I remember enjoying Brian Wainwright’s The Adventures of Alianore Audley a few years ago but never got round to reading Within the Fetterlock. It seems to be out of print now, but thanks for reminding me about it.

  8. jessicabookworm says:

    Ooo Helen, if this is your favourite of the five Anne O’Brien novels you’ve read so far, I am looking forward to reading it even more! This will be my first time reading about Elizabeth Mortimer and her famous husband, Harry Hotspur.

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