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.

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

The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson

The Wars of the Roses – the 15th century series of conflicts between the House of York and the House of Lancaster – is one of my favourite periods of history to read about, partly because there are so many different ways in which the people and events of the time can be interpreted. Although I’ve read a few Wars of the Roses novels that take a more objective view of the period, authors – and readers – tend to be biased towards one side or the other. My personal preference is for York, but Joanna Hickson’s new novel The Tudor Crown is written from a decidedly Lancastrian perspective and shows both Henry Tudor and his mother, Margaret Beaufort, in a much more positive light than usual.

The Tudor Crown is a sequel to First of the Tudors and picks up where that book left off, but it does stand alone perfectly well so if you haven’t read the previous novel that shouldn’t be a problem. The story begins in 1471, just after the Lancastrians have been defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury. With both Henry VI and his heir, the Prince of Wales, dead, and the Yorkist king, Edward IV, back on the throne of England, the Lancaster hopes seem to be in ruins. As one of the remaining Lancastrian claimants, young Henry Tudor’s life is now in danger and, accompanied by his Uncle Jasper, the Earl of Pembroke, he flees the country and takes refuge in Brittany. And here he must stay, for almost fourteen years, biding his time and trying to build up the support he will need to one day return to England and take the throne he believes is his.

Meanwhile, Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother, has been left widowed following the death of her husband at the recent Battle of Barnet and has married again, this time to Thomas Stanley. She returns to court where she serves the wives of first Edward IV, then Richard III, but she has still not given up hope of Henry becoming king and continues to work tirelessly on his behalf. If only she could persuade Thomas Stanley to help her…but Stanley has been walking a tightrope between York and Lancaster for years and won’t make a final decision until he is sure victory is within reach.

The Tudor Crown is written partly from Henry’s point of view and partly from Margaret’s, with the chapters alternating between the two. I found the Henry chapters the most interesting because I have never read about his time in exile in so much depth before. I was pleased to read in Joanna Hickson’s Author’s Note that most of the people Henry met during this time really existed. She does invent a romance for him with the fictional Catherine de Belleville, but I didn’t mind that as factual information on Henry’s exile is quite limited and if the author hadn’t used her imagination to fill in some of the gaps this wouldn’t have been much of a story. I loved the descriptions of the various places Henry visited and stayed at in Brittany, such as the Château de l’Hermine in Vannes (again a real place, but which sadly no longer exists in its original form). The Margaret chapters held less appeal for me simply because I am much more familiar with the events taking place in England during that period.

Both characters are portrayed with sympathy and understanding; in fact, I think Joanna Hickson might be the first author who has succeeded in actually making me like Henry (or Harri, as she refers to him, using a Welsh version of his name). He feels very human in this book and I almost found myself supporting him in his attempts to become king – although I still couldn’t bring myself to side with him against Richard at the Battle of Bosworth or to accept that Richard was responsible, beyond doubt, for the deaths of the Princes in the Tower. I think there is plenty of doubt, which is why it is still being discussed and debated more than five hundred years later.

This is Joanna Hickson’s third book about the Wars of the Roses, following Red Rose, White Rose and First of the Tudors (her other two novels, The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride are set in the period just prior to this). She mentioned in her Author’s Note that she is planning to write about Margaret Beaufort again in her next novel, so I will look forward to that one.

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson

first-of-the-tudors Yes, I’ve been reading yet another Wars of the Roses novel! One of the things I’m enjoying about reading so many books set in the same time period is seeing the variety of ways in which different authors choose to approach the same subject as they search for a new angle and some fresh insights. In First of the Tudors, Joanna Hickson takes us right back to the early days of the conflict and the beginnings, more or less, of the Tudor dynasty to tell the story of Jasper Tudor, uncle of the future Henry VII.

As the sons of Welshman Owen Tudor and Henry V’s widow, Catherine of Valois, Jasper and Edmund Tudor are half-brothers to Henry VI, who is King of England as the novel opens in 1451.  Being closely related to royalty but with no real claim to the throne for themselves, Edmund and Jasper are welcomed to court by Henry who rewards them with lands and titles, making Edmund Earl of Richmond and Jasper Earl of Pembroke. Edmund also wins the hand in marriage of Margaret Beaufort, which is seen as a great accomplishment as Margaret, despite being little more than a child, has royal blood and is one of England’s richest heiresses.

When Edmund dies at Carmarthen Castle in 1456, possibly of bubonic plague, he leaves Margaret pregnant with his child. The baby, when it is born, is named Henry and is taken into Jasper’s care (before later being placed in the custody of the Yorkist William Herbert). As the years go by and Henry grows into a man, Jasper is occupied with looking after his estates, trying to keep the peace in Wales and supporting his brother the king as unrest grows and the country heads towards civil war. Based closely on historical fact, we see all of this through Jasper’s eyes, as he narrates his own story in his own words.

But there’s also a fictional story, built around the idea that Jasper had a cousin, Sian (or Jane) Hywel, who became his mistress. There is no historical basis for this, but it is known that Jasper did have illegitimate children, so I have no problem with Joanna Hickson inventing the character of Jane, especially as she makes clear in her author’s note which parts of the novel were factual and which weren’t. However, I felt that too much time was devoted to Jane – she narrates around half of the book – and I would have preferred to concentrate more on Jasper and the other historical figures. This is just my personal opinion, though, and I’m sure other readers will like the domestic scenes and the love story more than I did.

I’ve always found Jasper Tudor intriguing, maybe partly because he tends to be overshadowed in historical fiction by other, more well-known characters. I had been looking forward to seeing him take centre stage for once, but I didn’t really find his portrayal in this novel entirely convincing. I can’t quite explain why, other than to say that his narrative voice was almost identical to Jane’s and that I could never fully believe in him as a 15th century man. I did like the portrayal of Margaret Beaufort, however, which made her seem slightly more endearing than in other fictional portrayals I’ve read! I also enjoyed the focus on Wales, the descriptions of the Welsh castles and the Welsh people who played a part in this fascinating period of history – one secondary character whom I found particularly interesting was the poet Lewys Glyn Cothi.

First of the Tudors ends abruptly, leaving the feeling that there is much more of this story still to come, and the author’s note confirmed what I had already expected: there will be a sequel and Henry Tudor will take more of a central role in that one. If you’ve never read Joanna Hickson before you may also be interested in The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride, which tell the story of Catherine of Valois, or Red Rose, White Rose, the Wars of the Roses from Cicely Neville’s perspective.

Thanks to the publisher HarperCollins for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson

Red Rose White Rose A few years ago I read Joanna Hickson’s The Agincourt Bride, the first of two novels on the life of Catherine de Valois. I didn’t enjoy it enough to want to read the sequel, The Tudor Bride, but when I saw that she had written a new novel telling the story of Cicely Neville (the mother of Edward IV and Richard III) I couldn’t wait to read it. The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite periods of history but I haven’t read very much about Cicely and I was interested in learning more.

The novel begins in 1433 and introduces us to the seventeen-year-old Cicely Neville. As the youngest daughter of the late Earl of Westmorland, Cicely belongs to one of the richest and most powerful families in the north of England. Born at Raby Castle in County Durham, Cicely is known as ‘the Rose of Raby’ – but her brothers have also bestowed on her the less flattering nickname of ‘Proud Cis’. Cicely has never given much thought to the children of her father’s first marriage – a branch of the family who feel they have been pushed aside and disinherited – but when she is briefly held hostage by one of these relatives, Sir John Neville, she discovers just how far they will go to reclaim their lands and titles.

Restored to her own family at Raby, Cicely is married off to Richard, Duke of York, to whom she has been betrothed since she was nine. As a descendant of Edward III, Richard believes his own claim to the throne is stronger than that of the present king, Henry VI, and as his frustrations with Henry’s weak leadership increase, so do his ambitions. Soon the House of York finds itself at war with the King and the House of Lancaster, a particularly traumatic situation for Cicely, with not only her husband in danger but also her two eldest sons, Edward and Edmund, her brother Hal and her nephew, the Earl of Warwick. But even while she fears for the men in her life, Cicely is haunted by memories of another man – Sir John Neville, the man she truly loves.

Raby Castle I enjoyed Red Rose, White Rose and thought it was a big improvement on The Agincourt Bride. It was the first half of the book that I found the most interesting, possibly because I’ve read about the Wars of the Roses, the battles and the rise of the House of York many times before, whereas Cicely’s early story was something different (even though it seemed to be largely fictional – Hickson states in her author’s note that there was no historical basis for the affair between Cicely and John Neville). I also loved the fact that these early chapters were set in the north, in an area I’m familiar with; I visited Cicely’s childhood home, Raby Castle, just two years ago so could picture it very clearly (see my photograph above).

Something I haven’t mentioned yet is that while part of the book is narrated by Cicely herself, the rest is narrated by her illegitimate half-brother, Cuthbert. Most of the characters in the novel are based on real people, but Cuthbert is not and I’m not sure that I really liked the inclusion of a fictitious storyline alternating with the historical one. I also thought the two narrative voices felt too similar and if the name of the narrator hadn’t been given in the chapter headings, I would have had difficulty distinguishing between the two. However, I did like Cuthbert as a character and he takes us to places that Cicely isn’t able to go herself, such as onto the battlefield, so he does have an important role to play in the story.

There was a good balance of war, politics, romance and adventure in this novel; there’s also a huge amount of historical detail – if you’re expecting a very light, easy read I think you may be surprised! This is a long, complex story and some concentration is needed to keep track of the relationships between the characters. I found it particularly interesting to read about Cicely’s daughter, Anne, forced into marriage against her will to her father’s ward, Harry Holland, the Duke of Exeter, and finding herself on the Lancastrian side of the conflict – as does Cicely’s sister, another Anne. The way these characters felt about their divided loyalties and how they coped with the tensions it caused within the family was portrayed very well.

Finally, while I think Red Rose, White Rose is the perfect title for a book on the Wars of the Roses, it did bother me slightly that there were so many references to the red rose being a symbol of Lancaster. According to the non-fiction I’ve read on the subject (including most recently The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones), although the red rose had possibly been associated with the House of Lancaster since the 13th century, it wasn’t commonly used as a symbol until Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth when he combined it with the white rose of York to form the Tudor rose. I don’t think the Lancastrian army would have been wearing red rose badges as described in the novel, but I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong.

Now I’m wondering who and what Joanna Hickson’s next book will be about. The way this one ended leaves plenty of scope to continue the story of the Wars of the Roses!

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review

Meeting Katherine de Valois

I have read two historical fiction novels recently both on the subject of the fifteenth century French princess, Katherine of Valois, the wife of King Henry V of England. The Forbidden Queen by Anne O’Brien and The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson both tell Katherine’s story but in very different ways and as I’ve read them so close together, I thought it would be interesting to combine my reviews into one post.

The Forbidden Queen Let’s start with The Forbidden Queen by Anne O’Brien, my favourite of the two books. The novel is narrated by Katherine herself and covers most of the significant events of her life. The youngest daughter of King Charles VI of France and his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, Katherine is married to Henry V several years after the English victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Queen Isabeau has agreed to a settlement with Henry that would make him heir to the throne of France in place of Katherine’s own younger brother, the Dauphin.

When Henry dies just a few years into their marriage, Katherine falls in love with his cousin, Edmund Beaufort – but does Edmund love her in return or is he more interested in the power he would gain as husband of the Queen Dowager? It’s not until Katherine gets to know her Welsh Master of Household, Owen Tudor, that she finally has a chance of true happiness.

This is quite a romance-based novel, but maybe that’s to be expected as Katherine sadly didn’t seem to have much of a part to play in politics or in the reign of her son, the young Henry VI. O’Brien did such a good job of making me see how Katherine was desperate for love and affection and how disappointed she was when she realised that she was going to get neither of these from the King. Henry V was not portrayed as a cruel or deliberately unkind husband, just one who was insensitive and indifferent, and it was so sad when Katherine realised the true nature of the man she was married to. But while I could have a lot of sympathy for the young, naïve Katherine I did start to wish that, as she got older, she would become more mature and independent. It was sad and frustrating to see her making the same mistakes again and again, looking for love where there was obviously none.

Although Katherine sometimes irritated me, I did like her. I also thought O’Brien’s characterisation of the three very different men in Katherine’s life was very well done: the distant, preoccupied King, interested only in battle strategies and military campaigns; the charismatic but ambitious and untrustworthy Edmund Beaufort; and the proud, quiet Welshman Owen Tudor. This is the first Anne O’Brien book I’ve read and I was quite impressed with the overall quality of her writing and her ability to tell a good story.

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

The Agincourt Bride Now for The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson. In this book, the author has used the alternative spelling, Catherine, rather than Katherine, so I have done the same in this review. This is actually the first of two volumes and covers only the early part of Catherine’s life, from her childhood until shortly after her marriage to Henry. The sequel, The Tudor Bride, is due out later this year.

This novel is narrated by Catherine’s nursemaid, Guillaumette Dupain (known as Mette). Mette, the daughter of a baker, is brought to the royal household to act as wet nurse for the baby Catherine, having recently had a stillborn child of her own. With Catherine neglected and ignored by her parents, Mette becomes almost like a mother to the princess. They are separated during Catherine’s years in the convent at Poissy but are reunited when Catherine is thirteen. Despite the attempts of others to part them again, Mette is devoted to Catherine and manages to stay with her, becoming her Mistress of the Wardrobe and her friend and confidante.

While both this book and the one above are at the lighter end of the historical fiction range (as you would probably expect from the cover designs and titles) this one was a bit too light for me. I also thought it was too long and I’m not sure there was really enough material for a book this length focusing on only the first years of Catherine’s life. Mette’s own personal story didn’t interest me much; her main function in the novel is to provide the perspective of someone close to Catherine, and there have been so many historical fiction novels published in recent years narrated by a conveniently placed servant that I think it’s becoming boring and formulaic. Seeing Catherine only through Mette’s eyes, I couldn’t engage with her the way I did in Anne O’Brien’s book and as a result I didn’t like this version of Catherine very much.

Joanna Hickson does go into a lot of depth in areas of Catherine’s early life that O’Brien didn’t have time to explore. I was intrigued by the storyline involving John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, who is portrayed here as a violent monster and I would be interested to know if there’s any evidence that he really behaved like this. We also get to know Catherine’s brothers and sisters much better than in the O’Brien book. None of them are particularly endearing characters, but Mette, having known them all since they were children, displays an amazing amount of patience and understanding with each of them. Their mother, Isabeau, comes across as completely selfish and heartless, and their father, Charles VI, suffers from a mental illness that causes him to believe he is made of glass and will shatter if anyone touches him. I got a real feeling for the sadness and loneliness Catherine and her siblings may have experienced as children, and could also see how France had been left in a vulnerable position without strong leadership.

The Agincourt Bride ends as Catherine travels to England for her coronation. It’s quite an abrupt ending, but presumably the next book is going to pick up the story from this point.

Having read both of these novels I’m glad to have had the opportunity to learn about a period of history I previously knew very little about. If you only want to read one book about Catherine (or Katherine) of Valois, I would say read The Forbidden Queen as it covers Catherine’s whole life and I enjoyed it a lot more than The Agincourt Bride. I would be happy to read more books by Anne O’Brien but I’m not sure about Joanna Hickson yet and will have to decide whether or not I want to continue with The Tudor Bride.