Catching up…three historical reads

I usually try to write about each book I read as soon as possible after finishing it, but sometimes that doesn’t happen and I find myself with a backlog of reviews to write for books read earlier in the year. Here are three historical novels that I read a few months ago and haven’t got around to writing about until now.

I was drawn to The Minion (1930) both because I’ve loved some of the other Rafael Sabatini books I’ve read and because it is a fictional account of the Thomas Overbury Scandal, a 17th century murder case I’ve previously read about in The Poison Bed by EC Fremantle and The King’s Favourite by Marjorie Bowen. Set during the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland, the novel follows the story of Robert Carr, a young man who becomes a favourite of the king. The ambitious Earl of Northampton sees a chance to get closer to the throne by encouraging his great-niece, Frances Howard, to begin an affair with Carr, but the romance is opposed by Carr’s friend, Thomas Overbury. When Overbury is found dead in the Tower of London, suspicion falls on Carr and Frances.

As a fan of Sabatini, I have to confess I didn’t really like this particular book very much. Unlike the other novels of his I’ve read that have mainly fictional characters and storylines, this one is based very closely on real history and I think maybe he felt too constrained by historical fact to be able to create a compelling, entertaining story like his others. The characters seemed quite lifeless and the writing felt a bit dry – not really his usual style at all. Having said that, the history on which it is based is fascinating and Sabatini makes no secret of how he feels about the petty rivalries of the Jacobean court. It’s still an interesting read, if not a great example of Sabatini’s work.

If you want to know more about the Thomas Overbury affair, try the Fremantle novel instead – and if you’re new to Sabatini, start with Scaramouche!

Joanna Hickson has previously written several novels set during the Wars of the Roses, one of my favourite periods of English history. Her latest book, The Lady of the Ravens (2020), opens just after the final major battle in that conflict – the Battle of Bosworth, which resulted in Henry Tudor taking the throne as King Henry VII. This novel looks at the events of the early part of Henry’s reign from the perspective of Joan Vaux, lady-in-waiting to Henry’s queen, Elizabeth of York. We see how precarious Henry’s grip on the throne is, with challenges from various Yorkist pretenders, and the steps he takes to deal with these threats, and we are given some glimpses of his children, including Prince Arthur, his eldest son who is betrothed to Katherine of Aragon, and the future Henry VIII, seen here as a charming, confident young child, already popular with his father’s subjects.

Joan herself has very little, if any, direct involvement in the political intrigues of the court, which perhaps makes the story less exciting than it could have been, but she does form a strong bond with Elizabeth, bringing her close to the lives of the royal family. Joan’s own family life is also explored; I don’t know how historically accurate the book is regarding her personal relationships, but the fictional Joan appears to have been quite fortunate in her marriage to Sir Richard Guildford. It might not exactly be love at first sight, but she and Richard soon learn to get along with each other and, for an arranged marriage in the 15th century, it’s not an unhappy one. As for the ‘ravens’ of the title, they are the birds that live at the Tower of London; as legend has it, if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall, so Joan, who has become fascinated by the birds, does her best to protect them from those who wish to do them harm.

I didn’t find this quite as interesting as Joanna Hickson’s previous book, The Tudor Crown, maybe because that one was about Henry Tudor and took us straight to the heart of the action, whereas the choice of Joan as narrator of this book, as I’ve said, means a slower pace and a more domestic story. Still, I enjoyed it and was pleased to see that there’s going to be a sequel.

Having enjoyed some of Margaret Irwin’s other books, particularly the first two of her Elizabeth I trilogy (I must read the third one soon), I had high hopes for this one, about Charles II’s younger sister Henrietta – known as Minette. Royal Flush (1932) is a straightforward fictional retelling of Minette’s life, beginning with her exile in France as a child during the period of her father, Charles II’s, beheading and the rule of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. Growing up at the French court, it is at first hoped that Minette will marry the young king of France, Louis XIV, but when another bride is chosen for Louis, Minette finds herself married off to his younger brother Philippe instead.

I won’t say any more about the plot as you will either already be familiar with Minette’s history or, if not, you won’t want me to spoil it for you. However, if you’re completely new to her story, be aware that the book is quite slow and detailed and possibly not the best starting point (although this is the first novel I’ve read specifically about Minette, I’ve come across her many times as a secondary character in books like Dumas’ Louise de la Vallière and Margaret Campbell Barnes’ Lady on the Coin and I found it very useful to have that little bit of prior knowledge about her). I do like Margaret Irwin’s writing and the old-fashioned charm of her novels, which have quite a different feel from most of the historical fiction being published today, but I think this is the weakest of her books that I’ve read so far.

~

Have you read any of these – or any other books by these authors?

Elizabeth the Beloved by Maureen Peters

elizabeth-the-beloved “Sometimes it is an exceedingly sad thing to be a queen.” These words are spoken by Anne Neville, wife of Richard III, halfway through Maureen Peters’ Elizabeth the Beloved, but they are words which could just as easily be attributed to any number of England’s other queens, including the title character of this novel – Elizabeth of York. Born in 1466, Elizabeth was the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville; she later married Henry VII and became mother to another king – the future Henry VIII.

Beginning with her childhood, this novel follows Elizabeth through the years, covering some of the key moments and events of her life and her time as queen. Growing up during the final years of the Wars of the Roses, things were not always easy for Elizabeth. As the elder sister of the Princes in the Tower who disappeared and were believed to have been murdered, she then had to endure the appearance of several ‘pretenders’ claiming to be her younger brothers. One of these pretenders, Perkin Warbeck, is given a lot of attention in the second half of the book as his story becomes entwined with Elizabeth’s.

Maureen Peters was a Welsh historical novelist who, like Jean Plaidy, wrote a large number of novels covering the lives of famous historical figures. Elizabeth the Beloved was published in 1972 and is the third of her books that I’ve read – the first two were The Queenmaker and The Virgin Queen, about Bess of Hardwick and Elizabeth I respectively. I had some criticisms of those other two books and was hesitant about trying another one, but I’m glad I gave this one a chance as I thought it was better written, more interesting and much more enjoyable.

This novel is written in the third person from the viewpoints of several different characters and at first there was so much jumping around from one perspective to another that it made my head spin. After a while, though, things settled down and the narrative began to concentrate on Elizabeth herself. I liked the way Elizabeth was portrayed as a warm, caring, sensitive woman but also an intelligent one who would have liked to have played a bigger role in politics and the running of the country if she had only been given the opportunity.

I had no major problems with inaccuracy, although Peters does stick faithfully to the traditional legends surrounding the Wars of the Roses, such as the Duke of Clarence being drowned in a butt of malmsey, for which there’s no real evidence one way or the other. She also suggests that Elizabeth and her uncle, Richard III, were in love and may have been considering marrying when it became obvious that Richard’s wife, Anne, was dying. I’ve come across this theory before in other books, but as far as I know there’s not much evidence for this idea either; it seems to be based around a letter allegedly sent by Elizabeth to the Duke of Norfolk in which marriage is referred to. If you want to know more about this, I found an excellent, thorough article on the subject.

Of course, one of the reasons I love reading about this period so much is that there are so many mysteries and controversies: things like the fate of the Princes in the Tower and the nature of the relationship between Richard and Elizabeth are open to interpretation by each individual author or historian. Like the other Maureen Peters novels I’ve read, however, this is a fairly short novel and I think the author’s aim was probably to give an overview of the period suitable as an introduction for readers who have never read about Elizabeth of York before. She doesn’t go into a great amount of detail and some of the people and events which usually appear in books on the Wars of the Roses are entirely omitted here.

Although I can’t really say that I learned anything new, I found Elizabeth the Beloved a quick and entertaining read and enjoyed immersing myself in my favourite time period once again!

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review.

The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

The White Princess - Philippa Gregory The White Princess is the fifth book in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series. The Cousins’ War is another name for the Wars of the Roses, a series of 15th century conflicts between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, two rival branches of the English royal family. This novel is set at the end of the period, just after Henry Tudor has defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and has been crowned Henry VII. Our narrator is Henry’s wife, Elizabeth of York, a niece of Richard III and daughter of another former king, Edward IV. The novel takes us through the early years of Elizabeth’s marriage to Henry (an alliance which was supposed to unite the houses of York and Lancaster), the births of their children and the plots and conspiracies that troubled Henry’s reign.

The Wars of the Roses is a period filled with mysteries and controversies and every author or historian seems to have their own set of opinions and theories. The most intriguing of these mysteries is of course the question of what happened to Elizabeth of York’s two younger brothers who disappeared from the Tower of London never to be seen again. Were they murdered and if so who by? Or did one of them manage to escape? Henry VII was unable to prove that the two princes were dead, so the possibility that they could have survived gave rise to a series of Yorkist rebellions. In The White Princess we focus on one of these uprisings, centred around a pretender known as Perkin Warbeck who claims to be the younger of the princes, Richard, Duke of York. Is he really who he says he is and if so, must Elizabeth choose between her husband and her brother?

While I’m not a particularly big fan of Philippa Gregory’s writing and I think there are much better historical fiction authors out there (and much better Wars of the Roses novels – The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman is my top recommendation) I have quite enjoyed following this series and learning more about the women of the period. This one, though, was disappointing and the weakest of the series, in my opinion. It felt repetitive and unnecessarily long and I just didn’t find Elizabeth a very engaging narrator.

The story is based around two theories that you may or may not find plausible. The first is the idea that Elizabeth was in love with Richard III, her uncle, and that they were romantically involved. As far as I know, there is no historical evidence for this but Gregory is not the only author to have suggested it and I suppose it did add an extra layer to her portrayal of Elizabeth and Henry’s marriage. Then there’s the Perkin Warbeck story, which dominates the second half of the novel. I have read about Perkin Warbeck before and am familiar with the arguments for and against him being the lost prince; the theory Gregory describes here seems very unlikely to me, but this is fiction after all!

Something I think Philippa Gregory is very good at is making a complex period of history easy to understand. Even with no previous knowledge you would probably be able to follow what is happening in this novel without too many problems. Sometimes, though, I think she goes too far in her attempts to clarify things for the reader. For example, when Elizabeth is talking to her sister Cecily about their half brother she refers to him as “Thomas Grey, Mother’s boy” which just sounds silly, doesn’t it?

My biggest problem with this book, though, was the portrayal of the main characters. Elizabeth had such an interesting life and yet she comes across in The White Princess as boring. She doesn’t have the strength, intelligence and spirit of the other women who have been featured in the series – Elizabeth Woodville (The White Queen), Margaret Beaufort (The Red Queen), Jacquetta Woodville (The Lady of the Rivers) and even Anne Neville (The Kingmaker’s Daughter). The portrayal of Henry VII is very negative, which makes it difficult later in the book when we are expected to accept that Elizabeth is starting to love him. I don’t see how anyone could have loved the cruel, petty, vindictive Henry described in this book – especially after something he and his mother do to Elizabeth at the beginning of the novel, which I won’t go into here!

I think maybe I should have skipped this book and gone straight to the latest one, The King’s Curse, which sounds more intriguing and seems to be getting better reviews than this one. It’s about Margaret Pole, Elizabeth’s cousin, an historical figure I know nothing about. I’m looking forward to reading it eventually despite my problems with this one.

For more Wars of the Roses recommendations see My Journey Through Time: The Wars of the Roses and for more on Elizabeth of York and Henry VII see The Tudors – Part I.

Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World by Alison Weir

Elizabeth of York Elizabeth of York’s story is a fascinating one. As the eldest daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville (the alternate spelling of Wydeville is used in this book), Elizabeth lived during one of the most turbulent periods of English history, the Wars of the Roses. She was the sister of the two young princes who it is believed may have been murdered in the Tower of London, she married the first Tudor king, Henry VII, who defeated her uncle Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, and she was also mother to another king, Henry VIII. Despite all of this, Elizabeth is not usually given as much attention as other figures of the period. This new biography, Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World, explores Elizabeth’s life and her historical significance.

Alison Weir is an author of both historical fiction and non-fiction. Although I have read one of her novels, Innocent Traitor, this is the first of her biographies I’ve read and I was very impressed. The book is written in a style that I found engaging and easy to read but it’s also a very thorough, long and detailed account of Elizabeth’s life. An incredible amount of research must have gone into the writing of this book and it contains an absolute wealth of information…I read it on my Kindle and was constantly bookmarking interesting facts and passages.

As well as taking us, in chronological order, through Elizabeth’s entire life from her birth to her death and its aftermath, we are also given lots of details on the social history of the period and what life was like for people who lived during that time: what they ate and drank, the clothes they wore, and the way children were treated and expected to behave. There are lists of dishes served at banquets, descriptions of the duties of ladies-in-waiting and even an appendix giving a full description of every known portrait of Elizabeth. Sometimes there’s too much detail (I didn’t really feel the need to know the names of the nurses of each of Elizabeth’s younger sisters, for example, and the lists of her privy purse expenses and all the gifts she bought and received were a bit overwhelming) but it all helps to build up a full and vivid picture of Elizabeth’s world.

Less is known about Elizabeth than other Tudor figures, so there are times when the focus of the book switches to important political events, conspiracies and other things taking place in the wider world, rather than on Elizabeth herself. The only drawback here is that with so few primary sources remaining to give us information on Elizabeth’s life, Weir can only assume what Elizabeth may have thought or how she felt. This is not really the author’s fault but it would have been interesting to know Elizabeth’s true thoughts on some of these issues, such as the pretenders to the throne who appeared during Henry VII’s reign claiming to be Elizabeth’s lost brothers.

Much as I enjoyed this book, I did have a problem with the portrayal of Richard III. I was aware before I started reading that Alison Weir has a negative opinion of Richard and believes him guilty of all the crimes that he has been accused of, but I still thought there was too much speculation and personal bias in her discussions of him. In the absence of any real evidence, we are told that ‘maybe Elizabeth hated him’ and ‘maybe Cecily was furious with him’, for example. These are not really historical facts, are they? The opinions of other authors and historians who take a more sympathetic view of Richard are dismissed as ‘wishful theories evolved by revisionists’. Anyway, this is just a small criticism of what is otherwise a wonderfully entertaining and informative book. For anyone interested in learning more about this important but often forgotten Tudor queen and her world, I would highly recommend reading Elizabeth of York. It really is a fascinating period of history and Elizabeth deserves to be remembered!

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley.

The Queen’s Confidante by Karen Harper

One of the things I like about Karen Harper’s books is the fact that although she writes about a period of history that has been covered many times before – the Tudor and Elizabethan era – she manages to find new and original ways to approach the subject. The first book I read by Harper, The Queen’s Governess, told the story of Kat Ashley, who was governess to Elizabeth I and an important part of the Queen’s life, but who is usually reduced to just a brief mention in other historical novels. Her next book, Shakespeare’s Mistress, was the story of Anne Whateley (probably a fictitious character) and her relationship with William Shakespeare. This latest novel, The Queen’s Confidante, is set in 1501 and follows the adventures of a young woman with her own candle making business who becomes embroiled in two historical mysteries.

Her name is Varina Westcott and she’s a candlemaker who specialises in making angel-shaped candles for funerals and who also has a talent for carving wax likenesses of real people. When Queen Elizabeth of York, wife to Henry VII, hears about Varina she secretly commissions her to make effigies of her dead children and also of her two younger brothers, the Princes in the Tower, who it is rumoured were murdered by Richard III. Elizabeth has always wanted to learn the truth behind the disappearance of her brothers, but if she delves too deeply into the mystery will she discover something she would rather not know?

Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Henry’s eldest son, Prince Arthur, has just married the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon. When Arthur dies suddenly of a mysterious illness, Elizabeth asks Varina to investigate on her behalf. Varina has lost a child of her own so she understands the Queen’s suffering and agrees to help. She is joined in her investigations by Nick Sutton, a courtier whose family fought against Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth and who is now trying to prove his loyalty to the new King.

The story is told in two alternating narratives, Varina’s and the Queen’s, though Varina’s forms the largest part of the book. I could see why it was necessary to have the Queen narrate some of the story because it allowed us to see things from another viewpoint and filled in some information that Varina did not have access to, but I think I would have preferred to stay with Varina for the whole book as I thought her character was better written than Elizabeth’s. I particularly enjoyed learning about Varina’s work as a candlemaker in the early 1500s. As a woman, Varina is not allowed to join the Worshipful Guild of Wax Chandlers and although she owns her own business, she is at the mercy of decisions made by men – she is even prevented from selling her beautiful angel candles until the guild members decide how to price and distribute them. Yet another example of how frustrating and difficult it must have been for a woman trying to make an independent living for herself in the 16th century!

The theory Harper suggests which explains the mystery of the Princes in the Tower was satisfactory enough. Considering nobody knows what actually happened or who was responsible for the disappearances, I found it no less believable than any other I’ve read. But the book’s other mystery, the death of Prince Arthur, is something I don’t know as much about – I’ve never given any thought to whether he could have been murdered and have always assumed he died of natural causes. Nothing I read in this book did anything to convince me that Arthur really had been murdered, though it was interesting to read Karen Harper’s comments on this in her author’s note.

I’ve enjoyed all three of the books I’ve read by Harper, but this one is my least favourite. I just found it too hard to accept the idea of the Queen of England asking a candlemaker to act as an undercover detective. Also, as someone who believes Richard III has been unfairly treated by history, I didn’t like the fact that he and his supporters are viewed as villains by most of the characters in the story and this meant I enjoyed the book less than I might otherwise have done. I admit that I’m biased though, and this probably wouldn’t be a problem at all for readers less familiar with the period than I am and who haven’t already formed their own opinions of the historical figures involved!

Note: The US title of this book is Mistress of Mourning.