Richard III: Fact and Fiction by Matthew Lewis

I find most periods of history interesting, but there are none that fascinate me quite as much as the Wars of the Roses, the name given to the conflict between two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet – York and Lancaster. This period included the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III and ended following Henry Tudor’s victory at the Battle of Bosworth. Matthew Lewis (not to be confused with the Gothic author of the same name!) has written several non-fiction books on this subject, as well as two novels; Richard III: Fact and Fiction, was published earlier this year by Pen and Sword and is the first of his books that I’ve read.

Richard III is surely one of England’s most controversial kings; no two historians seem to agree on any of the mysteries surrounding his life and reign, while fictional depictions range from the saintly to the wicked. As Lewis explains in his introduction:

Contradictory facts are launched from either side causing the deafening cacophony of explosive opinions that can make the real facts hard to discern and deter some from becoming embroiled in the debate.

Lewis then takes one question or supposed ‘fact’ about Richard at a time and attempts to separate the facts from the fiction. Some of these are very basic (such as “Was Richard III the Duke of York?”) and can be given simple, factual answers (No – that was his father’s title) but others give rise to longer, more involved discussions. The various crimes of which Richard is often accused – including the murders of Edward, Prince of Wales, and King Henry VI, and the alleged poisoning of Queen Anne, which would clear the way for Richard to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York – are all examined, setting out the evidence for and against Richard being responsible. The author manages to stay largely neutral and unbiased, which I’m sure is no easy feat when writing about Richard! I was a bit disappointed that the greatest mystery of them all – the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower – was covered relatively briefly, but I see Matthew Lewis has written another book devoted to that topic, so maybe didn’t see the need to explore it in depth here too.

Although I’ve already read a lot about Richard III, there was enough new information in this book to keep me interested; for example, I can’t remember having read anything before about Richard’s dispute with Thomas Stanley over the ownership of Hornby Castle, which could be one reason for Stanley’s treachery at Bosworth fifteen years later. However, I think this book would be a particularly good choice for someone who knew much less than me about Richard III and was looking for a place to start learning. The way the book is divided into short sections, with each question and answer followed by a ‘Little Known Fact’ and a brief Glossary picking out one or two words which might be unfamiliar to the reader, makes it easy to read and to digest what we are being told. There are also lots of pictures interspersed throughout the text, including some of the author’s own photographs of castles and monuments from his private collection, which I thought added a nice personal touch.

Thanks to Pen and Sword for providing a copy of this book for review.

If you’re interested in reading about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses, you can see a full list of all the fiction and non-fiction books I’ve read on the subject on my Wars of the Roses page.

Rhoda Edwards: Some Touch of Pity and Fortune’s Wheel

These two novels from the 1970s had been on my wishlist for a while, since I first developed an interest in reading about the Wars of the Roses, and I’m pleased to have finally had an opportunity to read them. Some Touch of Pity, in particular, is an excellent book; although, chronologically, it is set after Fortune’s Wheel, it was published first (in 1976) and is the first one I’m going to write about here.

Some Touch of Pity (US title is The Broken Sword) covers a relatively short period of history, beginning in 1483 just before the death of King Edward IV and ending with Richard III’s defeat by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. In between, all the major events of Richard III’s ill-fated reign are covered – if you know the period you won’t need a summary from me and if you don’t then I won’t spoil the story for you other than to say that it was a time marked by rebellion, betrayal, rumour and several tragic deaths.

The book is divided into several sections, each one written from the perspective of a different narrator and offering different insights into Richard as a man or as a king. There are even one or chapters narrated by Richard himself – interestingly, of all the novels I’ve read about Richard III, I think this is the first one that allows us to hear his story, even a small part of it, from his own point of view. Other narrators include Richard’s close friend Francis Lovell, his niece Elizabeth of York and court physician William Hobbes, but my favourite is Anne Neville, Richard’s beloved wife and queen. I found Anne’s sections of the book particularly moving and poignant, painting an intimate picture of Richard as a husband and father, whereas some of the others are more concerned with how he deals with the political and military challenges he faces as king.

The novel is perfectly paced, spending just the right amount of time with each narrator before moving on to the next. As it heads towards its inevitable conclusion there’s a sense of dread, but even knowing what’s ultimately going to happen, it’s difficult not to find yourself hoping that this time there will be a different outcome. The section describing the Battle of Bosworth is powerfully written, brilliantly showing Richard’s state of mind before and during the battle as well as the crucial role of Lord Stanley and his brother in deciding the result. However, I wished the book had ended here as the final chapter, giving an account of the aftermath of the battle and the abuse inflicted on Richard’s body was so harrowing and graphic I could hardly bear to read it!

The only thing left to mention is the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. Rhoda Edwards gives a plausible explanation for their disappearance (although it’s not one I’ve ever found very convincing), but as we don’t actually see the princes after they enter the Tower, we have to rely on the word of several of the other characters – and who knows whether they’re telling the truth. It’s all quite ambiguous!

Fortune’s Wheel was published two years later, in 1978, but is actually a prequel to Some Touch of Pity. It covers an earlier period in Richard’s life, starting in 1468 when, as the young Duke of Gloucester, Richard is caught up in the conflict between his elder brother, Edward IV, and the Earl of Warwick, the man known as the Kingmaker. The novel takes us through Warwick’s rebellion, the betrayal of George, Duke of Clarence, and ends in 1472 with Richard’s marriage to Anne Neville.

The style of this novel is different from the previous one; rather than being a collection of first person accounts, it is a straightforward third person narrative. This means that Fortune’s Wheel lacks the intimacy of Some Touch of Pity but at the same time it does have a broader scope – this is not just the story of Richard, but also of Edward, George, Warwick, Anne and many other characters. It’s not a very long novel but still manages to give a fair and balanced view of this period of history, bringing each character to life as a real human being with a mixture of good points and bad points.

Although Some Touch of Pity is my favourite of the two books, I enjoyed them both. They could be a good choice for readers new to the period, but in that case I would recommend reading them in chronological rather than publication order to make the timeline easier to follow. Rhoda Edwards also wrote a book on Elizabeth I, None But Elizabeth, which is now on my TBR!

Under the Hog by Patrick Carleton

I had been looking forward to reading this book since I first became interested in the Wars of the Roses and decided I wanted to read as much as I could on the subject. First published in 1937, Under the Hog gets good reviews and appears on several lists of recommendations of novels set in this period, so when I settled down to read it I expected something special – and luckily, I wasn’t disappointed.

Under the Hog is a fictional account of the life of Richard III, but along the way we also enter the minds of the other notable men and women of the period, get amongst the action on the battlefield, witness private conferences and murders carried out in secret, and are offered a surprising solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to give a synopsis of the plot here, as it does follow the course of real history very closely – and I’ve already written about this period many times before in previous reviews – so instead I’ll just make some general observations about the novel itself.

The approach Patrick Carleton takes is quite unusual. Rather than writing from the perspective of one character or even a few, he writes from many different viewpoints, switching from character to character as the story requires. These include Thomas Wrangwysh, the Mayor of York; the diplomat Philippe Commynes; the scholar Dr Warkworth; Richard III’s close friend Francis Lovell; Margaret of Burgundy, sister of Richard and Edward IV; and Ralph Miller, a young soldier at the Battle of Barnet. So many different voices and personalities, each one coming forward to tell their own part of the story, however big or small, before retreating into the background, in some cases never to be heard from again.

Richard himself is seen mainly through the eyes of other people. It’s only really his wife, Anne Neville, who sees the warm, sensitive man behind the rather grim and austere exterior. Carleton’s portrayal of Richard is largely sympathetic – not a saint, but a human being who sometimes makes mistakes like the rest of us, ruthless when necessary but not needlessly cruel. I appreciated the fact that Carleton takes the time to show us some of the good things Richard achieved during his reign, which are often overlooked, such as his reforms to law and justice. The only thing I didn’t like was his persistence in drawing attention to Richard’s height – or lack of it. When Richard’s skeleton was discovered in Leicester in 2012, it was found that he suffered from scoliosis which would probably have affected his height, but Carleton’s constant descriptions of him as being unusually tiny still seemed a bit strange. He also has Richard continually biting his lip and playing with the rings on his fingers – presumably inspired by the way he has been pictured in his portraits – but again, it was a bit distracting!

The other characters, including the minor ones, are generally very well written. I particularly loved the portrayal of the spiteful, petulant but strangely tragic George of Clarence (I liked the way Carleton tackles the legend of George being drowned in a butt of malmsey) – and of Anthony Woodville, brother of Edward IV’s queen, quietly scheming to keep control of the power his family wield in England. It’s Anthony who, in one of the most memorable scenes in the book, comes up with the idea of murdering the deposed Henry VI in the Tower of London, which I think might be the first time I’ve seen him blamed for that particular incident.

I loved this book, but I don’t think I would necessarily recommend it as a first introduction to Richard III and the Wars of the Roses. The reader is very much dropped straight into the action and it is assumed that you will have at least some background knowledge; names are given their less familiar old-fashioned spellings – Tydder and Wydvylle for Tudor and Woodville – and there are passages of untranslated French. This is probably one to enjoy after you’ve already gained a bit of familiarity with the period.

If I hadn’t known that this was a book from the 1930s I would probably have assumed it was a lot more recent than that, as it has aged very well. It is witty, unromantic and written with a mixture of darkness and lightness. Although it unfortunately seems to be out of print at the moment, if you share my interest in this fascinating period of history, you could do a lot worse than to find yourself a copy of Under the Hog.

Sons of the Blood by Robyn Young

Sons of the Blood Having read Robyn Young’s Robert the Bruce trilogy recently, I was looking forward to reading her new novel, Sons of the Blood. It’s the first in a planned series – New World Rising – set in Renaissance Europe and following the adventures of Jack Wynter, the illegitimate son of royal chamberlain Sir Thomas Vaughan.

As the novel opens in 1483, the unexpected death of Edward IV after several years of stability has plunged England back into turmoil and uncertainty. Just when it seemed that the Wars of the Roses were over, the country now faces the prospect of another child king on the throne, unable to provide the strong leadership required. But as Thomas Vaughan escorts the young Edward, Prince of Wales, to London to be crowned, they are intercepted at Stony Stratford by the prince’s uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Accused of treason and fearing for his life, Thomas finds an opportunity to send one of his squires to Seville with an urgent message for his son, Jack, who has been in Spain for several months guarding a mysterious leather scroll case. To Jack, this had seemed like an excuse to remove an inconvenient illegitimate son from the country, but when he learns that his father’s messenger has been attacked on his way to Seville, he realises that the case really does contain secrets of great importance and that men are prepared to kill to get their hands on these secrets.

Returning to England in the hope of learning more, Jack finds himself surrounded by enemies, one of whom is his own half-brother, Harry Vaughan. Desperate to find answers to his questions, Jack decides to seek the help of another boy to whom Sir Thomas had been a father of sorts – the young Edward V, who has now been deposed by his uncle Richard, and has disappeared, along with his brother, into the Tower of London. As rumours of the princes’ deaths begin to spread throughout the city, Jack is drawn into one of history’s greatest mysteries.

I have to say, this wasn’t quite what I expected when I first heard that Robyn Young was writing a series set during the Renaissance; I had thought there would be a wider geographical scope, so I was surprised to find that this first book is set mainly in Richard III’s England. The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite subjects to read about, though, so I’m not complaining – and I’m sure Jack’s adventures will be taking him to other locations in future books.

I have read a lot of different portrayals of Richard III over the last few years and a range of different theories and opinions on the question of what really happened to the Princes in the Tower. From the beginning, Robyn Young’s depiction of Richard was quite negative – he comes across as ambitious and ruthless (a human being, though, rather than an evil monster) – so I thought I knew which direction the story was going to take. I was wrong, of course! Richard is responsible for a lot of the bad things that happen in the novel, but not all of them, and it’s worth mentioning that Henry Tudor isn’t exactly shown in a very good light either.

As usual with one of Young’s novels, there’s a lot of additional material which all adds to the experience: maps, character lists (clearly showing who is real and who is fictional) and a comprehensive list of sources. Young admits in her author’s note that she had little prior knowledge of the fifteenth century, having been immersed in earlier periods while writing her previous trilogies, but I would never have guessed because, as far as the historical background is concerned, everything in the novel feels fully researched and authentic. I think she does a good job of working Jack Wynter’s fictional story into the historical facts – however, I’m slightly disappointed that the conspiracy/secret society/mysterious document aspect of the novel is so dominant. This period of history is interesting enough as it is!

With Sons of the Blood, the New World Rising series is off to a good start. I did enjoy it, despite having one or two reservations, and now I’m curious to see how the story is going to develop.

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet by Dora Greenwell McChesney

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet With the Wars of the Roses being one of my favourite periods of history, I like to read everything I can find on the subject. This novel by Dora Greenwell McChesney – an author completely new to me – sounded particularly intriguing because it was published in 1913, making it the oldest Wars of the Roses novel I have read, coming sixteen years before even Marjorie Bowen’s Dickon (1929).

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet begins with the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 and ends with Richard III’s defeat at Bosworth Field in 1485. Between these two events we are given not so much a confession as a fairly straightforward account of Richard’s life, showing the circumstances which led to him taking the throne following the death of his brother, Edward IV, and then leading us through the key moments of his own brief reign.

As this is described on the front cover as ‘a sympathetic novel of Richard III’, I was interested to see how McChesney was going to tackle the many controversies surrounding Richard, such as the death of Henry VI and, of course, the disappearance of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Well, this novel does show Richard either directly or indirectly committing some of the crimes of which he has traditionally been accused, but always for good and noble reasons or because he has been left with no other choice.

I can appreciate that because she was writing what was surely one of the earliest pro-Ricardian novels, McChesney (like Marjorie Bowen with Dickon) was trying to counteract the more widely held view of Richard as an evil, hunchbacked murderer, but I think she went too far the other way, with the effect that Richard comes across as blameless and almost saintly. Still, it was interesting because the approach taken in this novel is slightly different from others I’ve read. This is why I’m happy to keep on reading about the same historical people and events again and again – because each different author offers a different set of opinions, ideas and interpretations.

If you have never read about this time period before, however, I probably wouldn’t recommend starting here. McChesney seems to assume the reader has at least some prior knowledge, so if you’re not already familiar with the background to the Wars of the Roses and the names and relationships involved, you might find the plot difficult to follow, especially in conjunction with the style in which the book is written.

Like a lot of older historical fiction novels, the language McChesney uses is archaic and flowery, particularly in the dialogue. As someone who reads all sorts of historical fiction, from the latest releases to books written hundreds of years ago, I always find it interesting to see how trends in the genre have changed. McChesney’s dialogue feels very outdated today, but personally I liked it once I got used to it and thought it added to the atmosphere of the novel.

Despite the flaws I have mentioned I enjoyed reading this version of Richard’s story and I’m sure it won’t be long before I find myself picking up yet another one!

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

Dickon by Marjorie Bowen

Dickon Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952) was a very prolific author of historical fiction, romance, crime and horror, producing over one hundred and fifty books during her lifetime. Endeavour Press have gradually been making some of them available to modern readers and there are several that I’m interested in reading, but I decided to start with this one, Dickon, as it is set during one of my favourite historical periods: the Wars of the Roses.

The title refers to Richard III (Dickon, of course, is a nickname for Richard) and the novel follows Richard throughout his entire life, beginning with the moment when, as a child, he learns that his father, the Duke of York, and elder brother, Edmund, have been killed at the Battle of Wakefield. The book is divided into three sections; the first is called The Three Suns, which refers to the parhelion which appeared in the sky at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, but could also be a pun on the three remaining ‘sons’ of the Duke of York – and covers Richard’s childhood up to the point where his brother wins the throne for York, becoming King Edward IV.

The middle section, The Bear and Ragged Staff (a reference to the emblem of the Earl of Warwick) concentrates on 1470-1472, the period of the rebellion of Warwick and George, Duke of Clarence. Finally, The White Boar takes us through Edward’s death and the period immediately afterwards – Richard’s own brief reign and his tragic end at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. There is no doubt that Richard suffered a lot of misfortune and tragedy and this is symbolised in the novel in the form of Jon Fogge, a man-at-arms whom Richard believes has been haunting him throughout his life, bringing bad news and bad luck to the Plantagenets.

Dickon was published in 1929 and I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite different from the majority of historical fiction that is being published today. The dialogue has a very old-fashioned feel, being sprinkled with words like ‘thou’, ‘thee’, ‘doth’ and ‘hath’, something that seems to have been dropped by most modern historical novelists, and the whole novel also has an air of innocence, with sex scenes only hinted at rather than explicitly described. I do like ‘older’ historical fiction but I suspect some readers will find this book too archaic and romanticised.

In her preface to the novel, Marjorie Bowen says that she has studied all of the known sources and “has violated no known fact, nor presented any character or action in any light that is not probable, as well as possible”. I did notice a few historical inaccuracies, but as I’m not completely sure how much material was available in 1929 and how much has only come to light in more recent years, I’m not going to be too critical. There are also a lot of controversies surrounding Richard III and his reign – there is no one version of events that has been accepted by everybody – so different authors and historians do have different theories and different interpretations. I was particularly curious to see how Bowen was going to approach the mystery of the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, so I was disappointed to find that her solution was simply to ignore the whole episode!

Richard himself is portrayed as sensitive, loyal and trusting, a brave warrior and a devoted brother, father and husband. His character lacks the depth and complexity I would have liked and sometimes seems too good to be true, although I can appreciate that this is one of the earliest pro-Ricardian novels, written decades before books like The Daughter of Time or The Sunne in Splendour, and that the author was trying to provide an alternative to the usual view of Richard as the hunchbacked villain of Shakespeare’s play.

If you’re completely new to this period of history and the life of Richard III, this book is maybe not the best place to start, but I did find it quite enjoyable and a good addition to my collection of Wars of the Roses fiction. I will be reading more by Marjorie Bowen.

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

A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

A Dangerous Inheritance The disappearance of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ (twelve-year-old Edward V of England and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York) remains a mystery to this day. Some believe that they were murdered by their uncle, Richard III, some suspect Henry VII or the Duke of Buckingham, and others prefer to think that one or both of the Princes managed to escape. My fascination with this mystery leads me to want to read everything I can find about it, even books like this one, written by an author whose views on the subject are entirely different from mine.

Alison Weir is an author of both historical fiction and non-fiction and A Dangerous Inheritance is one of her works of fiction. I had enjoyed a previous novel of hers, Innocent Traitor, which told the story of Lady Jane Grey, so I thought I would try this one despite knowing that Weir does not like Richard III at all and I was unlikely to agree with any conclusions she might come to.

Actually, this novel is only partly about Richard and the Princes; at least half of the book is set eighty years later and follows the story of Katherine Grey, the younger sister of the ‘nine-day queen’, Lady Jane Grey. After Jane’s very brief reign as Queen of England comes to an end when she is deposed by Mary I and beheaded, Katherine herself moves one step closer to the throne. To her disappointment, Mary is followed by Elizabeth I, who refuses to acknowledge Katherine as her heir and treats her badly. When Katherine marries the man she loves against Elizabeth’s wishes, she finds herself imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Katherine Grey’s story alternates with the story of another Katherine – Katherine Plantagenet (referred to as Kate to avoid confusion), an illegitimate daughter of Richard III. Kate loves her father and refuses to believe that he had any involvement in the disappearance of the two young princes. After Richard is defeated at Bosworth in 1485 and Henry Tudor takes his place on the throne, Kate’s loyalty to her father and her determination to clear his name could be considered treason. Several generations later, Katherine Grey discovers some letters written by Kate, learns of Kate’s connection with the princes and decides to continue investigating the mystery from within the Tower.

On the subject of the princes, I do find it fascinating that different authors and historians can begin with the same facts and come to entirely different conclusions! As nothing has ever been proven either way regarding the disappearance of the princes and the other controversies surrounding Richard III, I’m happy for it to remain a mystery. Having read quite a lot on the subject over the last few years, I personally find the pro-Richard viewpoint much more convincing than the anti-Richard one, but I can accept that we’ll probably never know the truth and that everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

For Alison Weir, although she states in her author’s note that she likes to keep an open mind, there is clearly no mystery: Richard was guilty of everything. As I was familiar with her views before beginning the book, I suppose I shouldn’t really complain! I was disappointed, though, that the main source Katherine uses in her investigations appears to be Thomas More (who was only seven years old at the time of Bosworth, is thought to have relied upon Richard’s enemy, Archbishop Morton, as his own primary source, and wrote his histories during the Tudor period, when it was obviously to his advantage to please the Tudor monarchs by discrediting their predecessors). However, as Weir explains in the author’s note, she could only use sources that would have been available to Katherine in the mid 16th century.

I did like the fact that this was a dual time period novel where both time periods were historical, rather than one being set in the present day, though I did sometimes feel that I was reading two separate stories that didn’t really belong in the same book. Apart from the fact that both main characters were Katherines and both suffered from being close to the throne, there was very little to link the two. It’s only in the final 100 pages of this 500-page book that Katherine Grey begins to investigate the mystery of the princes and parallels start to be drawn between the two storylines – some of them of a paranormal nature, which you may or may not appreciate!

Of the two, I enjoyed the Katherine Grey storyline the most. I found Katherine a much more engaging character, which is probably not surprising as she narrates in the first person while Kate doesn’t. Also, there is almost no historical information available on Kate Plantagenet, which meant that her sections of the book were largely fictional. I couldn’t help feeling that Katherine Grey’s life story would have been interesting enough to form the basis of a whole novel on its own without the addition of a second, imaginary storyline and without squeezing the Princes in the Tower into the same book as well.

Have you read anything about the Princes in the Tower? Who do you think was responsible for their disappearance?