A King Under Siege by Mercedes Rochelle

I have previously read Mercedes Rochelle’s Heir to a Prophecy, a historical novel inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and her Last Great Saxon Earls trilogy, which tells the story of Godwine, Earl of Wessex, and his children in the period leading up to the Battle of Hastings. With this new novel, A King Under Siege, she moves forward in time to 14th century England and the reign of the young Richard II.

The first part of the book deals with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when a series of rebellions break out across the country, partly in response to the excessive collection of poll taxes. Richard is still only fourteen at this time (having come to the throne at the age of ten) but he shows a maturity and courage beyond his years in riding out to meet the rebels at Smithfield in an attempt to negotiate and bring an end to the violence. Unfortunately, Richard is unable to keep the promises he makes that day and he is left feeling that he has let his people down.

There is more trouble to come for Richard later in the novel as tensions grow between the king and his noblemen, with his uncles – particularly John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester – gaining in power and influence. Richard’s reliance on a small circle of friends and advisors, such as Michael de la Pole and Robert de Vere, also causes conflict and leads to a group of noblemen known as the Lords Appellant seizing control of the government. These events are covered in the final two sections of the book, finishing at a point which sets things up nicely for the next book in the series.

The novel is written from the perspectives of several different characters, allowing us to see both sides of the story. The account of the Peasants’ Revolt is very well balanced, with the viewpoint switching between the king and the rebels, showing us the anger and discontent that led to the rebellion as well as Richard’s response to it. Later, we are given some insights into the thoughts and actions of both the Lords Appellant and Richard’s allies. There are interesting parallels between the way Richard is being treated and the fate of his great-grandfather Edward II, and there is a sense of Richard’s frustration as he feels that power is being taken away from him.

I don’t think this is one of my favourites of Mercedes Rochelle’s novels, but that is entirely due to the fact that I don’t find this particular time period quite as interesting as the one covered in The Last Great Saxon Earls and no reflection on the quality of the book itself. She has clearly carried out a large amount of research for this novel and does a good job of making complicated history easy to follow and understand. A map, character list, author’s note and bibliography are included in the book, providing additional information and ideas for further reading. I think this would be a good introduction to the period for readers who are unfamiliar with the details of Richard II’s reign.

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this book for review.

6 thoughts on “A King Under Siege by Mercedes Rochelle

  1. Café Society says:

    Richard’s reign contains so many contradictions: the bravery of the boy in front of the rebels and yet his failure as a mature king. Was there some weak strain that ran through parts of the Plantagenet blood line? I’m thinking about Henry VI who would make an even bigger mess of things, and who, if my reckoning is correct, would have been Richard’s first cousin twice removed.

    • Helen says:

      A lot of the Plantagenet kings made a complete mess of things, so maybe it did run in the family! I think part of the problem with Richard and Henry was that they both came to the throne as children and then later struggled to take back control of the government from their noblemen. Henry almost certainly suffered from a mental illness as well, though it seems to be debatable whether Richard did.

    • Helen says:

      I’m not a fan of Henry II either, not just because of Thomas a Becket, but also his treatment of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Richard II, who this book is about, does have some good qualities as well as bad, I think, but I’ve never liked him very much either.

  2. Carmen says:

    Perhaps reading this book would do me good, because my knowledge of Richard II’s reign is through the adaptation The Hollow Crown, based on Shakespeare’s historical plays. I only know of what led to Richard II’s deposition by his cousin Henry Bollingbroke. His early life is a mystery to me.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve seen The Hollow Crown and although it’s a good introduction to Richard II, as you say, it doesn’t cover the earlier part of his life. He isn’t one of my favourite historical figures to read about, but he did have a very eventful reign!

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