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?

The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan

The Master of Bruges The Master of Bruges is presented as the fictional memoirs of the 15th century artist, Hans Memling. In December 1464, following the death of his master, the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden, Hans travels to Bruges where he works at the Burgundian court, painting portraits of the nobility. As an artist, Memling is naturally a very observant, perceptive person and can offer the reader some insights into both the politics of the period and the lives and personalities of the people he meets in Bruges.

One night two strangers calling themselves ‘Ned and Dick Plant’ come to seek refuge at Memling’s house and Hans finds himself drawn into the drama and intrigues of the Wars of the Roses, the conflict between England’s House of York and House of Lancaster. And when several years later he is invited to England and renews his acquaintance with Ned and Dick, he becomes caught up in one of history’s greatest mysteries: the disappearance of Edward IV’s sons, the Princes in the Tower, who many people believe were murdered by their uncle, Richard III.

Before reading this book I had heard of Hans Memling but was not familiar with his work. The only one of his paintings I knew anything about was his triptych The Last Judgment, which featured a portrait of the banker Tommaso Portinari being weighed in St Michael’s scales, and was captured by the Danzig pirate Pauel Benecke as it was being shipped to Italy. The only reason I was aware of this anecdote was because it formed a minor plot point in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series (specifically, in To Lie with Lions and Caprice and Rondo). Luckily, many of Memling’s paintings can be seen online and I can guarantee that you’ll want to look at them as you read. There are also some short chapters interspersed throughout the novel in which Hans shares with us his views regarding artistic technique, perspective, focus, colours, and some of the tricks artists use to please their sitters, and I enjoyed reading these. As well as being fascinating to read, these chapters are relevant to the story as Memling’s descriptions of his techniques are either directly or indirectly linked to aspects of the plot.

I thought the first part of the novel, which details Hans’ early days as an artist, worked very well but not the second part, after he travels to England. I was interested in learning about Hans and his portraits and I was also interested in the Richard III story – it was the way the two were combined that didn’t work for me. Despite the Wars of the Roses being one of my areas of interest in historical fiction, I think I would have liked this book more if it had continued to tell the story of Memling’s life in Bruges rather than changing focus halfway through to concentrate on the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.

I don’t expect historical novelists to always stick rigidly to the facts, otherwise they would be writing non-fiction rather than fiction, but this particular book stretches credibility too much for me. I appreciated the author’s note at the end of the book, but I wished it had given more information on exactly which aspects of the story were based on fact and which were fictional. As far as I can tell there is no evidence to suggest that Hans Memling ever came to England or had any involvement with the Plantagenets. I also found it hard to believe Morgan’s theories regarding what happened to the two princes (especially a plan of Edward IV’s to have them declared illegitimate), though they were certainly very imaginative ideas. I was happy enough with the characterisation of Richard III, though – he is one of my favourite historical figures and I am definitely of the opinion that he has been unfairly treated by history, so it was good to see him portrayed in a more positive light in this book.

Because of the problems I’ve noted above, I can’t say that I loved The Master of Bruges, but I’m glad I kept reading to the end as there were some big surprises within the final chapters. I think as long as readers are aware that this book does not always give an entirely historically accurate account of the period and that it sometimes takes a more speculative approach to what might possibly have happened, it can be enjoyed as something refreshingly different and fun.

Truth is the daughter of time…

Richard III
I couldn’t let today pass without mentioning the exciting news that was announced this morning: A skeleton discovered by archaeologists in Leicester has been identified as Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

As followers of my blog will probably know, Richard III is one of my favourite historical figures and the Wars of the Roses is one of the periods of history I’m most interested in, so I’ve been anxiously awaiting this announcement for months! For those of you in the UK there’s a documentary on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm, The King in the Car Park, which will reveal the details of the archaeological dig and the scientific tests that were carried out on the skeleton. And in honour of today’s news, I have put together a list of the books (both fiction and non-fiction) that I’ve read over the last few years on the subject of Richard III or the Wars of the Roses in general.

The Sunne in Splendour

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

This is one of my favourite historical fiction novels and the best book I’ve read on Richard III. Don’t let the length put you off! Penman does a great job of making a complicated period of history easy to understand as she tells the story of Richard’s life from childhood to his tragic death.

The Daughter of Time

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Published in the 1950s, this is the story of Inspector Alan Grant who in hospital with a broken leg and decides to investigate Richard III and his alleged crimes from his hospital bed. Reading everything he can find about Richard and the disappearances of the Princes in the Tower, Grant begins to discover that historical sources can’t always be trusted and that history is written by the victors.

Treason

Treason by Meredith Whitford

Like The Sunne in Splendour, this novel also covers Richard III’s life but from the perspective of his cousin Martin Robsart, a fictitious character. I loved this book – it was well-researched, the characters were believable and I could even follow the battle scenes!

The Adventures of Alianore Audley

The Adventures of Alianore Audley by Brian Wainwright

A parody of the historical novel, this book takes a humorous look at the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of 15th century ‘damosel’, spy and knight’s lady Alianore Audley. Some familiarity with the period is needed to fully understand all the jokes and get the most out of this book.

Review: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

The Cousins’ War series by Philippa Gregory

I wasn’t a fan of Philippa Gregory’s Tudor court novels but have been following her Cousins’ War series from the beginning because I find this period of history so much more interesting. There are four books in the series so far and each one focuses on a different female historical figure: The White Queen (Elizabeth Woodville), The Red Queen (Margaret Beaufort), The Lady of the Rivers (Jacquetta of Luxembourg) and The Kingmaker’s Daughter (Anne Neville).

The Women of the Cousins War

The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen and the King’s Mother

A non-fiction companion book to the Cousins’ War series mentioned above. The book contains three essays – one by Philippa Gregory on Jacquetta of Luxembourg, another by David Baldwin on Elizabeth Woodville and the final one by Michael Jones on Margaret Beaufort.

Blood Sisters

Blood Sisters by Sarah Gristwood

I read this book in January and will be posting my review soon. Like The Women of the Cousins’ War this is another non-fiction book that looks at the period from a female perspective.

A Secret Alchemy

A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

A present day historian, Una Pryor, researches the lives of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, and her brother Anthony, and begins to investigate the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. No review link for this one as I found it difficult to get into and didn’t finish reading it.

This is far from being a comprehensive list as this is a relatively new interest of mine and I have only featured here the titles I’ve read or have attempted to read – there are a lot of other books on the Wars of the Roses and Richard III that I’m looking forward to reading.

Please feel free to recommend your favourites!

The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory

This is the fourth book in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series which looks at the Wars of the Roses (the series of conflicts in the 15th century between the House of York and the House of Lancaster) from a female perspective. The others in the series are The White Queen, the story of Edward IV’s wife Elizabeth Woodville, The Red Queen, which follows Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and The Lady of the Rivers, the story of Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta. This one, The Kingmaker’s Daughter, focuses on the life of Anne Neville.

Anne is the daughter of the powerful nobleman Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker for the part he played in putting Edward IV on the throne in place of Henry VI. When Edward marries the beautiful Elizabeth Woodville despite Warwick’s attempts to negotiate a marriage for him in France, Warwick changes allegiance and rebels against the King he had once helped raise to power.

Warwick has no male heirs, but he does have two daughters, Isabel and Anne, and is determined to make one of them Queen of England. Anne, our narrator, is only eight years old at the beginning of the book but soon both she and her sister become caught up in their father’s political machinations. Isabel is married to Edward IV’s brother George and Anne to Henry VI’s son, Edward of Lancaster. But after Warwick’s rebellion fails and Anne finds herself widowed, she marries again – this time to the Duke of Gloucester, the man who will become Richard III.

I’m sorry if I’ve made this sound very confusing, but it was a confusing period of history and Philippa Gregory does a good job of presenting the information in a way that is easy for the reader to follow and understand even if you’ve never read about the period before. Although this is the fourth in the series, these books could be read in any order and all four also work as standalone novels as Gregory does not assume that the reader has any knowledge of events that happened in the previous books. However, reading the whole series helps to build up a full and well-balanced picture of the period. I love the way the books overlap, showing us some of the same events but from different perspectives. This book, for example, seen through Anne Neville’s eyes, is extremely biased against Elizabeth Woodville and her family, the Rivers – but if you also read The White Queen you get Elizabeth’s point of view which is obviously very different!

Like The White Queen and The Lady of the Rivers, this book has strong themes of witchcraft and magic. Elizabeth Woodville and her mother Jacquetta were supposedly descended from the water goddess, Melusina, and Gregory suggests that they might have had magical powers. There’s a lot of focus on this in The Kingmaker’s Daughter, with Anne becoming more and more convinced that Elizabeth is using witchcraft to attack her family, to whistle up storms and put curses on people. This is one aspect of the series that just hasn’t been working for me; I feel that this period of history is already interesting enough without needing to bring in an element of fantasy.

Richard III is one of my favourite historical figures and I was happy enough with the way he is portrayed in this book. He’s not perfect, but he’s certainly not the villain of Shakespeare’s play either – he comes across as a loyal brother and husband and a good king who really cares about the future of his country. This book is also more sympathetic towards George, the Duke of Clarence, than any other novel I’ve read and it was refreshing to be shown the good sides of his character as well as the bad. The characterisation of Anne, though, was not quite what I would have expected or hoped for. In other books that I’ve read about her, she has been portrayed as quiet and gentle with a lot of inner strength and dignity, but this version of Anne doesn’t display much strength or courage, while being too ready to blame other people (usually Elizabeth Woodville) when things go wrong. But I did think the relationship between Anne and Isabel was handled well, showing how they were friends one minute, rivals the next – the ‘sisters’ aspect of the book reminded me of Mary and Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl.

This was not my favourite of the Cousins’ War books but I’m enjoying the series and will look forward to the next instalment. Apparently the fifth book will be about Elizabeth of York, the sister of the Princes in the Tower and daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.

I received a copy of this book from Simon & Schuster for review

The Adventures of Alianore Audley by Brian Wainwright

I’m always looking out for novels about one of my favourite periods in English history, the Wars of the Roses and the reigns of King Edward IV and Richard III. When I came across The Adventures of Alianore Audley, described as “a brilliantly funny, subversive spoof” I was intrigued…it sounded like something very original and refreshing. I was even more interested in reading it when I found that the author Elizabeth Chadwick had named it one of her top ten historical fiction novels!

This book is a lively and entertaining account of the Wars of the Roses as seen through the eyes of Alianore Audley, a fictional 15th century ‘damosel’ who is present at some important moments in history and meets some of the leading historical figures of the period. She has an interesting personal story of her own, involving her marriage to the knight Roger Beauchamp and her career as a spy for Edward IV and Richard III, collecting information for ‘Yorkist Intelligence’, but the main focus of the novel is on Alianore’s sharp and witty observations of the historical events of the time.

The language Alianore and the other characters use is (deliberately) filled with modern slang and references that would sound ridiculous in a serious historical fiction novel, but perfectly suit the tone of this book. Alianore is quite pro-Richard and the way she explains the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower is about as believable as any other theory I’ve read. And if you’re a Ricardian you’ll probably appreciate all of her comments about “the obnoxious Tudor slimebag”, Henry VII, who she wishes she’d dropped down the shaft of the garderobe at birth.

I enjoyed Alianore’s jokes about her hennin (the cone-shaped headdress fashionable at the time) and I loved the idea of Richard reading the Court Circular and looking for his latest war horse in the “Used Destriers” section! Another thing I liked was the way so many parallels are drawn between 15th century and 21st century politics. Alianore is always worrying about Richard’s “image problems” and on another occasion she tells Edward his “ratings in the North have plummeted to their lowest levels since 1469”. I’m going to be completely honest though and say that unlike most of the reviewers of this book on Amazon and Goodreads, I didn’t find it hilariously funny. I did think it was amusing and witty but I suppose a sense of humour is an individual thing and while this book might have made other people laugh out loud it didn’t quite have that effect on me. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it though, because I did.

Despite the light-hearted feel of the writing, it’s obvious that the author has a good knowledge of the period (and I’m sure it’s usually the case that you would need to fully understand a subject to be able to write a convincing parody of it). Although this book was not difficult to read I don’t think I would recommend it as a first introduction to the period because to understand most of the jokes you really need to be familiar with at least some of the history involved. You might still enjoy it, but you wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate all of Alianore’s wit and sarcasm. But if you do decide to give this book a try, I can almost guarantee that it will be unlike any other historical fiction novel you’ve ever read!

One final thing I should mention: The Adventures of Alianore Audley is published by BeWrite Books, who are now an ebook only publisher. You might still be able to get a print copy, but I read the Kindle version which I thought was reasonably priced and well worth the money.

Treason by Meredith Whitford

Treason is the story of Richard III, beginning with his childhood as the youngest son of the Duke of York and moving on through the various battles of the Wars of the Roses, the reign of his brother Edward IV, Richard’s own time as King and his eventual defeat by Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth. The story is narrated by Martin Robsart, one of only a few fictional characters in the book. As Richard’s cousin and closest friend, Martin is present at some of the most important moments in English history.

I thought telling the story from the perspective of Richard’s fictional cousin and best friend worked very well and I could almost believe Martin had really existed. He has his own storylines, including a romance with Innogen Shaxper (another fictional character), but his main role as narrator is to share with us his observations on Richard, Edward and the others.

In Treason, Richard is not portrayed as the evil, scheming hunchback he is often believed to be, thanks to Shakespeare’s play. Instead, he is shown as being brave, intelligent, loyal to his brother, respected by his men, and a loving husband to Anne Neville. And although his reign is so tragically cut short at Bosworth, during his brief time on the throne he proves himself to be a good king. He does have a few faults, but nothing that would make me think he was a man who was capable of murdering his own nephews or committing all the other crimes he’s been accused of. On the subject of the disappearance of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, by the way, the author offers an interesting and believable theory, though not one that I personally think is very likely.

I was impressed with the depth given to the other characters too. I thought Richard’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, was portrayed more sympathetically than in other books I’ve read. He did some terrible things, but I see him more as a person who was weak and easily led, and his eventual fate was, for me, one of the saddest moments of the story. Elizabeth Woodville (Edward IV’s wife) and her family are shown in a very negative light, but it’s worth remembering that we are seeing everybody through Martin’s eyes and as his loyalties lie firmly with Richard it’s understandable that his opinions of other characters aren’t always going to be completely unbiased.

The dialogue is quite modern – too modern at times, maybe – but I know this is something which is very difficult to get exactly right in historical fiction. I find that when an author tries to make the language sound more authentic, it can either work very well or very badly! I didn’t have a problem with the dialogue in this book and I could tell that Meredith Whitford had given a lot of attention to period detail (food, clothing etc) which made the descriptions of fifteenth century life feel very convincing. Battle scenes are an aspect of historical fiction that I sometimes find difficult to follow, but there are only a few in Treason and the author makes them easy to understand by concentrating on Martin’s emotions and personal experiences of the battle rather than giving us pages and pages of military tactics.

Reading Treason was proof, if I needed it, that it’s worth looking beyond the more popular names in historical fiction and taking a chance on a book I had never heard about before. It’s a shame this book is not better known as I’m sure many readers who enjoyed books like Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour or Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time would probably enjoy this one too. And for anyone new to Wars of the Roses fiction, this would also be a good starting point – it makes a very complicated period of history both easy to understand and fun to read about. I loved it!