A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien

One of the things I like about Anne O’Brien’s books is that they tend to be about women who are not usually the subjects of historical fiction. I have read five of her previous novels, all set in the 14th and 15th centuries, which told the stories of Katherine of Valois, Elizabeth of Lancaster, Joanna of Navarre, Joan of Kent and Elizabeth Mortimer. Now, in her latest novel, A Tapestry of Treason, she brings another medieval woman out of obscurity and gives her a voice. She is Constance, Lady Despenser, daughter of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, the fourth surviving son of King Edward III of England.

The novel opens in 1399. Constance’s cousin, Richard II, has reigned for over twenty years but another cousin, Henry of Lancaster, now has his eye on the throne. The York branch of the family – Constance, her father, her brothers Edward and Dickon, and her husband Thomas Despenser – must decide with whom their loyalties lie, knowing that if they give their support to the wrong man they could lose everything, including their lives. History tells us that Henry would be successful, taking the throne as Henry IV when Richard abdicates, but of course Constance and her family don’t know how things will play out and this leaves them with some difficult choices to make.

Cold, ambitious and determined, Constance is not an easy character to like, but the fact that the story is told from her point of view allows us to have a certain amount of sympathy for her. She makes some terrible mistakes and, despite having grown up in a world of shifting politics and court intrigue, she judges the situation wrongly on several occasions and pays the price for it. It’s frustrating to see her at the heart of one plot or conspiracy after another and she never seems to learn from her mistakes, but as we get to know Constance better we understand that she is only trying to look after her family’s interests and help them to advance in any way they can. In this respect she reminded me of Elizabeth Mortimer, heroine of Queen of the North, who is actually involved in some of the same conspiracies.

Constance’s hard and emotionless exterior can probably be explained by the lack of love she has experienced throughout her life. Her parents have shown her very little affection – and although her husband, Thomas Despenser, is not a cruel man, their marriage took place at a very early age and was definitely a political match rather than one based on love. There is a chance of romance for Constance later in the novel, but she makes mistakes here too and risks having her heart broken.

There are two other relationships in this book which interested me more than the romantic one. The first is Constance’s relationship with her elder brother, Edward of York, a man who is as ambitious and ruthless as Constance herself, but unlike his sister, thinks only of himself. He shows no real loyalty to anyone and is ready to betray his family and friends if it means saving his own skin, yet Constance always gives him the benefit of the doubt and it is never quite clear whether he cares for her even a little bit or not at all. The other is the relationship between Constance and her young stepmother, Joan Holland. At first they make no secret of the fact that they dislike each other but as the story progresses they settle into an uneasy friendship.

A Tapestry of Treason is not my favourite Anne O’Brien book; although this is a fascinating period of history, I felt that for a long time Constance was plotting and scheming in the background, watching events unfold from afar rather than taking an active part in her own story. Not the author’s fault, but an indication of the limitations and constraints placed on women at that time. It’s only from the middle of the novel onwards that Constance begins to play a bigger role and becomes more directly involved in carrying out her treasonous plots.

I did still enjoy the book, though, and it was interesting to read about the origins of the conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York which would later intensify and lead to the Wars of the Roses. Now I’m wondering if there are any other fictional portrayals of Constance of York; if you know of any please let me know!

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

Rebellion by Peter Ackroyd

Rebellion Rebellion, subtitled The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution, is the third volume in Peter Ackroyd’s History of England series. I haven’t read the first one, but I did read the second – which covered the Tudor period – and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to seeing how Ackroyd would tackle the Stuarts in this latest volume. Before I go any further I should point out that Rebellion is the US title, which I’m using here as this is the edition I received for review via NetGalley; the UK title is Civil War.

The book opens with the reign of the first Stuart king of England, James I, who acceded to the throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. He was, of course, also James VI of Scotland and united the two countries under one crown. James was followed by his son, Charles I, and most of the book is devoted to discussing the Civil War which ended in Charles’ execution. After several years of rule by the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, the Stuart monarchy was restored under Charles II and the Restoration period is also covered in this volume. Finally, Ackroyd looks at the reign of James II and finishes with the Glorious Revolution which marked the arrival of William of Orange and his wife, Mary.

I have condensed eighty-five years of history into one paragraph here, but the book itself goes into a huge amount of detail, describing the life of each Stuart monarch and the key events of their reign. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you have a particular interest in this period of English history, and like the previous volume, Tudors, it’s written in a style that is factual without being too academic for the general reader. While the lives of kings and queens are interesting to read about, I also like to know how ordinary people lived, so I was pleased to find that Ackroyd gives some attention to the social history of the period and includes some chapters on literature, science, music and drama.

The only problem I had with this book was that I felt too much time was spent on the Civil War while the reigns of Charles II and James II had been squeezed in at the end. The chapters describing the events leading to the Civil War and the religious and political reasons for it seemed to go on forever, and although I can certainly understand why Ackroyd chose to make this the focus of the book I did start to get bored and found myself looking forward to moving on to the Restoration period.

While I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Tudors, I do feel that I’ve learned a lot from it. I am definitely not an expert on seventeenth century history but having finished this book, I now know much more than I did before I started. I haven’t heard anything about the fourth book in this series yet, but I expect it will continue to move forward chronologically into the eighteenth century. While I’m waiting maybe I should find a copy of the first volume, Foundation, which I still haven’t read…or I could try one of Peter Ackroyd’s other books. He has written more than thirty non-fiction books and a large number of novels too, so there would be plenty to choose from!

England, Arise by Juliet Barker

England Arise After reading Dan Jones’ The Hollow Crown recently, I moved straight on to another non-fiction book on English history while I was still in the right mood! But while The Hollow Crown looked at the Wars of the Roses, a period I’m starting to become very familiar with, this book deals with an entirely different subject and one that I previously knew very little about: the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

The first thing I discovered on beginning Juliet Barker’s England, Arise was that even the little I thought I did know about the revolt was incorrect. To call it the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ is inaccurate because the people involved actually came from a range of different backgrounds and included craftsmen, artisans and apprentices as well as agricultural workers. Peasants’ Revolt was a label used by 19th century historians; Barker replaces it in this book with other terms such as ‘Great Revolt’, which is a more accurate description. I also hadn’t realised that there was not just one single revolt, but a whole series of uprisings, riots and rebellions taking place across large areas of the country.

In the first few chapters of the book, Barker puts things into context for us and explains some of the possible causes and motives for the revolt. First, she provides some political background by discussing the final years of the reign of Edward III and the challenges faced by his successor, his grandson Richard II, who came to the throne at the age of ten. The ongoing war with France meant that money was urgently needed and the solution was to tax the English people…three times, in quick succession. There was widespread discontent and resentment over the collection of the taxes and this is what sparked the rebellion. Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that – in some cases the anger was directed at the church or at corrupt officials, and this is also discussed in the book.

Next, we are given some information on living conditions in England at that time: the feudal system and why it was starting to break down, the effects of the plague on the population, the differences and similarities between rural and urban societies, and the types of employment people could expect to find. The author also tries to dispel some popular perceptions of medieval life, suggesting that literacy levels were higher than we tend to think and that travel from one place to another was much more common. People were becoming increasingly literate and well informed but still had little say in how the country was run. All of these things may have contributed to the circumstances that led to the revolt.

I loved reading about the lifestyles of medieval people, but the part of the book dealing with the revolt itself was actually of less interest to me. I found it too detailed for the general reader, describing countless incidents that occurred in each county and giving names of dozens of individuals who rebelled and who they were rebelling against. I didn’t feel that I really needed all of this information and it quickly started to become repetitive. The book does seem to be very sympathetic towards the rebels. At first I thought this was fair but as I read one account after another of their burning and looting, stealing from churches and plundering palaces, beheading the Archbishop and Chancellor, storming prisons, destroying legal documents and murdering Flemish immigrants, I wasn’t so sure!

The only individual name I had ever heard of in connection with the revolt (or the only one whose name has stuck in my mind, at least) was Wat Tyler, but it seems that Wat Tyler played a much smaller part in the revolt than I had imagined. He and two other names commonly associated with the period – Jack Straw and John Balle – are each given their own appendix at the end of the book, but there were many, many other participants in the revolt whose roles are also discussed throughout the text. The reaction of Richard II and the way he tried to respond to the rebels is examined too, and the final chapters of the book look at the aftermath and consequences of the revolt.

England, Arise was a fascinating read and I do recommend it but, as I didn’t find the actual revolt as interesting to read about as I’d hoped, I think a more general social history of the 14th century would probably have been a better choice for me. I would still like to read Juliet Barker’s biography of the Brontës, though – it’s only the length that has been putting me off that one!

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

The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones

The Hollow Crown A rare non-fiction review here today! Having loved Dan Jones’ book on the Plantagenets, I was curious to see how he would approach the Wars of the Roses, which is one of my favourite periods of English history. I was looking forward to another well written, thoroughly researched book that would make a complex subject accessible and easy to understand – and that’s what I got, although there were one or two problems which prevented me from enjoying this book as much as the previous one.

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors begins with the marriage of Henry V and Catherine of Valois, laying the foundation for the years of conflict that would follow. Best known for his victory over the French at Agincourt, Henry V was considered one of England’s great medieval kings, but when he died in 1422 of a sudden illness with his only heir still a baby, the scene was set for decades of uncertainty and instability. As Henry’s son, Henry VI, grew into an adult it became obvious that he was unfit to rule. Suffering from an unspecified mental illness, he was a weak and ineffectual king, and this paved the way for rival claimants to the throne – Richard of York and his son, the future Edward IV.

From the 1450s to the 1480s a series of battles were fought between the two rival branches of the royal house – York and Lancaster. This book takes us through the entire period in chronological order, detailing each battle and its outcome and examining the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III and finally Henry VII, who defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth and founded a new royal dynasty – the Tudors. Naturally a lot of the focus is on the male figures of the period – the kings and dukes and earls – but Jones shows understanding and sympathy for some of the women too: Margaret Beaufort who gave birth to Henry Tudor at the age of thirteen and according to Jones may have been left physically and mentally traumatised by the experience, and Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, who found herself with the responsibility of trying to maintain some sort of control of the kingdom during her husband’s long spells of illness.

This is a shorter book than The Plantagenets (and focuses more intensely on a shorter period of history) and, like the previous volume, it’s very readable and even quite gripping in places. There was one area, though, where I felt that this book was not as good as the first one. In The Plantagenets I felt that Jones had given a fair and balanced account of the historical people and events concerned but The Hollow Crown feels very biased towards the Lancastrian/Tudor point of view. The bias is most noticeable, maybe not surprisingly, in the sections dealing with Richard III where Jones makes it clear where he stands on the questions of what happened to the Princes in the Tower and how Henry VI met his death. Now, I know Richard is a controversial figure and it would be difficult for any historian not to have an opinion of him one way or the other, but it would have been nice if some alternative theories could have been explored here as well instead of just being dismissed in one or two sentences!

I did enjoy The Hollow Crown, though. Dan Jones’ writing style is lively and entertaining, which means his books are good choices for someone like myself who prefers fiction to non-fiction. I feel that I’m starting to have quite a good knowledge of the Wars of the Roses now but there was still some information here that was new to me (particularly near the end of the book, where he looks at the fate of the de la Poles, the final Yorkist claimants). This book could also be a good place to start if you know nothing about the Wars of the Roses – it’s a very complex and confusing period but Jones does a good job of making it as easy to understand as possible…I hope you’ll find it as fascinating as I do!

I received a copy of The Hollow Crown for review via NetGalley.

Falls the Shadow by Sharon Penman

Falls the Shadow Although I just finished reading this book at the weekend, it was actually one of the first books I started in 2014. While I think Penman’s novels are wonderful, they are not quick reads, for me at least; they’re long, complex and emotionally intense and I like to give them the time and attention they deserve.

Falls the Shadow is the second in the Welsh Princes trilogy which began with Here Be Dragons, the story of King John’s daughter Joanna and her husband Llewellyn Fawr, Prince of Gwynedd. Falls the Shadow begins where Here Be Dragons ended, but while you may prefer to read them in order so that the end of the previous book is not spoiled for you, it’s not essential. This is a complete novel in itself and tells the story of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, the French nobleman who ruled England for more than a year after leading a rebellion against King Henry III in 1264.

The story begins with Simon visiting his cousin, the Earl of Chester, to ask him to restore to him the earldom of Leicester which he believes is rightfully his. The Earl agrees to his request, but Simon’s visit is also successful in another way because it is here that he meets his future wife, Eleanor (known as Nell), the sister of King Henry III. Henry reluctantly agrees to the marriage between Simon and Nell, but a dispute over debts soon leads to Simon being temporarily exiled from England – and this is only the start of the turbulent relationship between the two men.

In contrast to Henry, who is portrayed as a weak, incompetent king, Simon is a great soldier and leader who believes in a more democratic form of government. Simon’s growing disillusionment with Henry, as well as his reluctance to abandon his principles and his hopes for England, leads him into war against his King. As one character comments, “it was not treason, was but a dream bred before its time”.

We are also reacquainted with some of the Welsh characters we first met in Here Be Dragons. After Llewellyn Fawr’s death, we see that the united Wales he had worked so hard to achieve is now at risk of division and disintegration again as his descendants fight amongst themselves. It seems that only his grandson, another Llewellyn, shares his vision of a strong and independent Wales. Llewellyn’s family have some blood ties with the English royal family (Joanna was the half-sister of Henry and Nell) and the events in England also have an impact on the lives of our Welsh characters.

Thanks to Dan Jones’ book on the Plantagenets which I read recently, I was able to begin Falls the Shadow knowing some of the basic facts surrounding the de Montfort rebellion and the reigns of Henry III and his son, Edward I, but this is still a period of history I know very little about. I think this was actually an advantage because it meant the story felt fresh and new to me and I didn’t always know what was going to happen next. I am always amazed by the accuracy of Penman’s novels, right down to the smallest details, and impressed by both the extent of her research and the fact that so much information has survived through so many centuries! The way in which one particular character died, for example, seemed a bit too dramatic to be likely, but when I looked it up, yes, that was how it really happened.

Penman is also one of the few authors who writes battle scenes that I actually enjoy reading. She manages to explain the tactics and strategies in a way that I can understand and follow without becoming bored or confused. There are two main battles in this novel, both part of the Second Barons’ War – the Battle of Lewes and the Battle of Evesham (described by the medieval chronicler Robert of Gloucester as “the murder of Evesham for battle it was none”).

I loved this book, but it did feel slightly unbalanced. In the first half the Welsh story runs parallel with the English one, but in the second half Simon and Nell’s story dominates completely and very little time is spent with the Welsh characters. Having finished the book and read the author’s note, she says this was intentional; there was too much material to fit into one novel, so she made the decision to devote this one to Simon and the next one to the Princes of Wales. At first I was disappointed that the Welsh storyline was virtually abandoned halfway through the book, as I was enjoying following the rivalries between Llewellyn’s sons, Davydd and Gruffydd, and later between his grandson, the younger Llewellyn, and his three brothers, but I didn’t mind too much because Simon’s story was so compelling as well.

I didn’t realise quite how much Penman had made me love Simon until I reached the end of his story. Not knowing much about the real Simon de Montfort, it’s possible that she has romanticised his character, but I do think she did a good job of showing both his good points and his flaws. As with The Sunne in Splendour (Penman’s Richard III novel) where I approached the final chapters with a growing sense of dread, it was the same with this book as I knew there wasn’t going to be a happy ending – and yes, it was as tragic and heartbreaking as I’d expected, and yes, I cried! I’m now looking forward to the final book in the trilogy, The Reckoning, and hoping to enjoy it as much as the previous two.

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

There seem to have been a lot of historical thrillers in recent years that focus on the search for a valuable item – a book, a crown or a manuscript. A Burnable Book is another one, but with enough differences to make it feel refreshing and original. While many authors (CJ Sansom, SJ Parris, Nancy Bilyeau to name a few) set their stories in the Tudor period, this one is set in the 14th century, during the reign of Richard II, a period covered less often in historical fiction. The missing item in question is a book of prophecies which accurately predicts the deaths of the previous twelve Kings of England…and the one who is currently on the throne, King Richard II.

This book – and the embroidered cloth in which it is wrapped – has fallen into the hands of Agnes Fonteyn, a ‘maudlyn’ (or prostitute), who receives it from another girl whom she meets just outside London’s city walls. Minutes later this girl is murdered, leaving Agnes, who is unaware of the book’s contents, wondering what is so special about it that someone was prepared to kill for it.

John Gower, poet and ‘trader in information’, hears about the book from his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, who asks John to find it for him but refuses to explain exactly why he wants it so desperately. When John begins his search for the book he soon discovers that he and Chaucer are not the only ones looking for it and that the prophecies it contains could implicate one of England’s most important noblemen in a plot against the King. As the action moves from one side of London to the other, over the Thames to Southwark, to the libraries of Oxford and then to Florence and back again, the history of this ‘burnable book’ is slowly revealed.

The name of the author, Bruce Holsinger, should be familiar to anyone who took the Coursera course “Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction” last year (Holsinger was the instructor). This is his first novel and after listening to him talk about other works of historical fiction during the course, I was interested to see what his own book would be like. I’m pleased to report that it’s very good! The setting is believable, the historical background feels thoroughly researched, the plot is cleverly constructed and the story is exciting.

I did have a slight problem with the number of characters in the book as I found some of them difficult to distinguish from each other, particularly some of the bishops and noblemen who only played a minor role in the story. After a while, though, several characters began to emerge as stronger and more interesting than the others: John Gower, whose strained relationship with his exiled son, Simon, is tested during the course of his investigations; Millicent Fonteyn, sister of Agnes, who will do anything to avoid returning to life in the brothel where she grew up; and Edgar/Eleanor Rykener, born “a man in body, but in soul a man and woman both”. I liked the fact that the novel shows us the lives of people from all levels of society, from the nobility and clergy of England to London’s lower classes, including butchers’ apprentices and the ‘maudlyns’. Eventually the stories of each of these characters and more begin to come together, connected by the common thread of the burnable book and its treasonous prophecies.

Bruce Holsinger is a medieval scholar and it shows in his portrayal of the 14th century world which feels accurate and authentic. I can’t say the same for the dialogue, which is too modern for the period, but this didn’t irritate me as much as it sometimes does and the slang probably reflected the way some of the characters would have spoken. When reading the author’s note at the end I was interested to find that some of the things I’d assumed were fictional were actually based on fact. The character of Edgar or Eleanor Rykener, for example, was inspired by historical records of a transvestite prostitute. The poet John Gower really existed but not many details of his life are known, so Holsinger was able to use his imagination to fill in the gaps.

I think my favourite aspect of the novel was the concept of the ‘burnable book’ itself and the cryptic messages it contains. It was fascinating to learn more about the process of creating and breaking ciphers and codes and to watch as various characters tried to interpret the meanings of the prophecies. I also enjoyed following Gower’s mission to locate the book and identify its author, and the problems faced by Agnes and the other maudlyns in deciding what to do with such a dangerous possession. I don’t know if Bruce Holsinger is planning to write a sequel to A Burnable Book but I hope so as I would love to meet some of these characters again!

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

The Plantagenets As someone who has always read mainly fiction, I have been making an effort to read more non-fiction. The type of non-fiction books I find myself drawn to tend to be books about history or biographies of historical figures; I’ve read a few of these recently and The Plantagenets by Dan Jones is one of the best I’ve read. It’s a very long book at almost 700 pages but as the book covers two centuries of history that’s not surprising!

The book begins in the year 1120 with the wreck of the White Ship in which King Henry I lost his only son and heir. This led to the period of English history known as The Anarchy, a civil war with the country divided between supporters of Henry’s daughter, Matilda, and of his nephew, Stephen. It was the son of Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, the future Henry II, who was England’s first Plantagenet king. Dan Jones tells the story of not only Henry II’s reign, but the reigns of all the Plantagenets who followed, up to and including Richard II who was deposed in 1399. Of course there were several more Plantagenet kings after Richard II, but Jones does explain why he chose to end the book at this point.

I love reading about the Plantagenets and find them far more interesting than the Tudors. However, I have to admit that most of my knowledge of them comes from reading historical fiction and while I certainly think it’s possible to learn through fiction, it was good to have the opportunity to read a factual account of the period. Actually, I found this book almost as entertaining and compelling as a novel anyway; Dan Jones does a great job of making the historical figures he’s writing about come to life and conveying the drama of some of the most important events of their reigns. Instead of just telling us that Henry I’s son died in a shipwreck, for example, he describes the sails of the ship billowing in the wind, the shouts of the crew and the freezing water pouring into the ship. This makes the book very readable, though despite it not being too academic it still feels thoroughly researched and I never had any reason to doubt the accuracy.

Before beginning this book, there were some Plantagenet kings whose lives I was more familiar with than others. I found that I already had quite a good knowledge of Henry II and his relationships with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, his sons and daughters, the knight William Marshal and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. And I knew the basic facts about Richard I (the Lionheart) and his crusades, and about his brother, King John. The story of the final king featured in the book, Richard II, was also familiar to me, but I had less knowledge of the others in between – Henry III and the three Edwards (I, II and III). I enjoyed learning about Simon de Montfort’s rebellion during the reign of Henry III, the 1326 invasion of England by Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, and the possible fate of Edward II, all subjects I had previously known very little about.

The Plantagenets would be a great choice for any history lover looking for an accessible introduction to a fascinating time period. I’m hoping for a second volume covering the 15th century and the Wars of the Roses.

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