The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

This was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and for once, I have managed to read it and post my review by the deadline, which is today!

I have had mixed results with Robert Louis Stevenson in the past: I loved The Master of Ballantrae, liked Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, couldn’t finish Kidnapped and can hardly remember Treasure Island, which I read as a child. I hoped The Black Arrow would be another good one; it sounded as though it should be fun, at least, and the setting – 15th century England, during the Wars of the Roses – appealed to me. Originally published as a serial in 1883, then as a novel in 1888, it is often labelled a ‘children’s novel’, but apart from the fact that the hero and heroine are in their teens, I think it’s a book that could be equally enjoyed by older and younger readers. It’s probably too old fashioned for a lot of children today, but any who do like reading classic adventure stories should find this one entertaining.

The Black Arrow tells the story of seventeen-year-old Dick Shelton, an orphan who comes to believe that his guardian, Sir Daniel Brackley, was responsible for the murder of his father. Setting out to discover the truth and obtain justice for his father, Dick joins a company of outlaws known as the fellowship of The Black Arrow who also have reasons for wanting to take revenge on Sir Daniel. Meanwhile Dick falls in love with Joanna Sedley, a young heiress kidnapped by Sir Daniel so that he can arrange a marriage for her to his own advantage. And while all of this is taking place, the Wars of the Roses plays out in the background and Dick must decide whether his loyalties lie with York or Lancaster.

The novel is written in a sort of pseudo-medieval style, with archaic words and phrases like ‘ye’, ‘methinks’, ‘forsooth’, ‘cometh’ and ‘goeth’ – common in older historical fiction, but not usually used today, so could take a while to get used to if you don’t read a lot of books like this. In many ways it reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, particularly once the band of Robin Hood-like outlaws appeared, and I think readers who enjoy one book will probably enjoy the other.

Despite the historical setting, you won’t really learn a lot of accurate history from this book. Throughout the first half, at least, the focus is on Dick’s mission to avenge his father’s death and rescue Joanna from Sir Daniel’s clutches. We hear of battles taking place but don’t see much of the action until the second half of the novel when Dick is drawn into the fictitious Battle of Shoreby and meets Richard ‘Crookback’, Duke of Gloucester – the future Richard III. As the events of the novel are taking place in 1460-61, Richard would actually have been about eight years old at that time (not the adult man we see in the story) and not yet Duke of Gloucester, but Stevenson does admit to this in a footnote!

I can’t really say that I loved this book – although I was entertained at first by the spying and intrigue, the disguises and daring escapes, the shipwrecks and secret passages, I felt that the story and the characters lacked depth and eventually it all started to become slightly tedious. Apparently Stevenson himself didn’t rate The Black Arrow very highly and described it as “a whole tale of tushery” (tushery referring to the archaic language). I still think it was worth reading and I preferred it to Kidnapped – although, to be fair, I should probably try Kidnapped again as I didn’t get very far with it. For now, I’m just pleased to have finally read another book from my Classics Club list as I’ve been making very little progress with it this year!

This is book 18/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

The Brothers York: An English Tragedy by Thomas Penn

I don’t often get excited about non-fiction books, but having enjoyed Thomas Penn’s Winter King – a biography of Henry VII – a few years ago, I was really looking forward to reading this new one, particularly as it covers one of my favourite periods of English history: the Wars of the Roses. I’ve read about this period many times now, but it sounded as though this book had something different to offer, promising to focus on Edward IV, Richard III and George, Duke of Clarence – three of the sons of Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville.

The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles for control of the throne of England fought between two rival branches of the House of Plantagenet: the House of York and the House of Lancaster. The background to the conflict is quite complex, but Thomas Penn devotes the early chapters of the book to explaining how it came about and the efforts of first the Duke of York and then his eldest son, Edward – assisted by his cousin, the Earl of Warwick – to take the throne from the Lancastrian king, Henry VI. Penn then takes us through the whole of Edward’s reign until his death in 1483 when his youngest brother, Richard, claims the throne under controversial circumstances. A relatively short account of Richard’s reign follows, before the book comes to an end with Richard’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth and the rise of a new dynasty: the Tudors.

The Brothers York is as well written and thoroughly researched as I would expect from a Thomas Penn book, yet I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it provides an excellent overview of a complicated, fascinating period of history written in a very readable and accessible style; on the other hand, if you’re already familiar with the period, as I am, there’s nothing new here that hasn’t been covered before in other books. I found The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones, for example, just as engaging and informative – and a more manageable length! I should mention that The Brothers York is a very long book that took me most of January to read; if you’re planning to read it, bear in mind that it’s going to be quite a commitment.

The majority of the book deals with Edward IV, which is understandable as his reign spanned more than twenty years (apart from a few months in 1470-71 when the crown was briefly reclaimed by Lancaster). I thought Penn’s portrayal of Edward seemed quite fair and unbiased, showing his transformation over the years from the brave, handsome, charismatic young man who succeeded so brilliantly on the battlefield to an increasingly overweight and unhealthy king, interested mainly in comfort and pleasure, accused of showing favouritism towards his wife’s Woodville relatives, something which caused resentment amongst his own loyal friends and supporters.

The portrayal of Richard, whose short and troubled reign is covered in the final section of the book, is less well balanced. It’s certainly not as negative as some I’ve read, but I definitely felt that Penn was selective about which sources he used and which aspects of Richard’s life he chose to focus on in order to show him in a bad light. That’s not really surprising though, as his sympathies are clearly with Henry Tudor, the subject of his previous book. What did surprise me was that the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is hardly mentioned at all. It’s implied that Richard was responsible, but it’s all passed over very quickly and none of the other theories for the princes’ disappearances are explored, which I thought was unusual (not that I particularly wanted to read about all of that again, but if this was the first time you’d read about it you wouldn’t realise it was actually one of history’s biggest unsolved mysteries).

As for the third York brother, George, Duke of Clarence, although he never becomes king himself he spends most of his adult life alternating between supporting Edward and conspiring against him, and in conflict with Richard over the inheritance of the Neville lands (George was married to Isabel Neville and Richard to her sister, Anne). The book is subtitled An English Tragedy and I think it’s obvious that the tragedy we are being shown here, as far as the House of York is concerned, is that the division within the family and the inability of the brothers to stay united and work together is what led to their downfall.

While the focus of the book is obviously on the situation in England, events taking place elsewhere in Europe are also discussed, including the succession to the Duchy of Burgundy and diplomatic relations between France and England. It’s all very interesting and all adds up to give a full and detailed portrait of the period. What I really wanted from a book with the title The Brothers York, though, was more analysis of the relationships between the three brothers and more insight into their characters, and there was just not enough of that for me. I think I learned almost as much about the Earl of Warwick as I did about Edward, George and Richard.

Overall, this is a very good book but I suppose I was slightly disappointed because I was hoping for something a little bit different and not just a straightforward retelling of the Wars of the Roses. For newcomers to the period, though, I’m sure you will find a wealth of information here and I would have no hesitation in recommending this book as a suitable place to start.

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

Dark Queen Rising by Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty is a very prolific author of historical mysteries; he has been writing since the 1980s and has written many series under several pseudonyms, set in a variety of periods including medieval England, Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. So far, my only experience of his work has been his standalone novel, Roseblood, which I really enjoyed, so when I came across Dark Queen Rising, the first in a new series set during my favourite period – the Wars of the Roses – I immediately wanted to read it.

The novel opens in 1471, just after the Battle of Tewkesbury, a battle which has ended in victory for the House of York and defeat for their rivals, the House of Lancaster. With the deposed Lancastrian king, Henry VI, held prisoner in the Tower of London, the victorious Yorkist army sets about destroying the other prominent noblemen who fought for Lancaster, including Henry’s heir, the young Prince of Wales. The Yorkist king, Edward IV, now sits securely on the throne of England – or does he? Margaret Beaufort, mother of one of the few remaining Lancastrian claimants, Henry Tudor, is making plans on behalf of her son, while Edward IV’s own brother – George, Duke of Clarence – is also gathering information that could bring about the king’s downfall.

Dark Queen Rising is described as the first in a series of ‘Margaret Beaufort mysteries’, which I think is slightly misleading – and looking at other reviews, it does seem that a lot of readers were expecting a different sort of book. There is a mystery, which develops when four men in the service of the Duke of Clarence are found dead in a tavern, but this doesn’t happen until the middle of the book and is never really the main focus of the novel. It’s more of a thriller, delving into the politics of the time and exploring some of the intrigue, plotting and controversy that makes this such a fascinating period of history.

Bearing in mind that Margaret Beaufort is one of the main characters in this book, I was surprised when, early in the novel, I saw a reference to her husband, ‘Sir Humphrey Stafford’. Margaret’s husband, of course, was Henry Stafford. Henry did have a brother called Humphrey who, coincidentally, was also married to another Margaret Beaufort, so I can see where the confusion has come from, but there’s really no excuse for not knowing which Margaret your novel is about. I was even more disappointed when, later in the book, references were made to Margaret’s future husband, William Stanley. This should have been Thomas Stanley, William’s brother. As the names of not just one but two of Margaret’s husbands were wrong, this made me question the accuracy of everything else in the novel, which is a shame as I do love this period and really wanted to enjoy this book.

George, Duke of Clarence has clearly been cast as the villain in this series, which is fair enough as history certainly tells us that he wasn’t the most honourable or trustworthy of people, but the way he is depicted in this book made him feel more like a caricature than a real person. When I think of the much more nuanced portrayals in books like Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour and Patrick Carleton’s Under the Hog, it’s disappointing. The character who did intrigue me in this book was Christopher Urswicke, who appears to be in Margaret’s employ but whose motives and true loyalties are not always very clear. I found the parts of the story written from Urswicke’s perspective much more interesting.

The second book in the series – Dark Queen Waiting – is out now, but because of the inaccuracies in this one, I’m not planning to read it, although I could possibly still be tempted by a sequel to Roseblood if one is ever written. Meanwhile, I’m now reading Thomas Penn’s new non-fiction book on the Wars of the Roses, The Brothers York, so I should be posting my thoughts on that one soon.

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

Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey by John Ashdown-Hill

As this is Nonfiction November, I have been working through a few of the non-fiction books on my TBR this month. This one, by the late historian John Ashdown-Hill, is a biography of Elizabeth Woodville, who became queen consort of England when she married Edward IV in 1464. Ashdown-Hill, who died in 2018, spent many years studying and writing about the Wars of the Roses and was a member of the Richard III Society, playing a part in the discovery and identification of Richard’s remains in 2012. This is the first of his books that I’ve read so I hoped I would be in good hands with an author who seems to have been an expert on his chosen subject.

As soon as I started to read, the depth of Ashdown-Hill’s research and knowledge was obvious. He begins with a detailed discussion of the origins of the Woodville name and why he believes ‘Widville’ is a more accurate spelling, before going on to spend several chapters looking at Elizabeth’s ancestry and genealogy charts. This level of detail continues throughout the book as we are taken through the rest of Elizabeth’s life, including her first marriage to Sir John Grey, her widowhood and meeting with Edward IV, the births of her many children and, after Edward’s death, how she fared under the reigns of Richard III and Henry VII. He frequently quotes long passages from primary sources (and doesn’t make it easy for us by translating them into modern English). However, his main source seems to be himself – he constantly references his own earlier works, which is not particularly useful when you haven’t read them!

Another thing that quickly became obvious to me was that this was not going to be a balanced, unbiased account of Elizabeth’s life. In his introduction, Ashdown-Hill questions whether Elizabeth could really be considered Edward IV’s wife and queen as Edward had allegedly been pre-contracted to another woman, Eleanor Talbot, before marrying Elizabeth (hence the book’s subtitle which refers to Elizabeth as ‘Edward IV’s chief mistress’). I already knew about the pre-contract, but Ashdown-Hill also puts forward a theory I haven’t come across before, which is that Elizabeth was responsible for Eleanor’s death. And this is not the only murder he attributes to Elizabeth; he also suggests that she was behind the deaths of the Earl of Desmond and of George, Duke of Clarence, and that she poisoned Clarence’s wife and young son. There is no real evidence for any of this and I found it disappointing that the author makes no attempt to be fair and objective, letting his own personal dislike of Elizabeth come to the forefront.

As this is my favourite period of history to read about, I found it interesting to read Ashdown-Hill’s thoughts on Elizabeth, even if I didn’t necessarily always agree with them – and, as I’ve said, the amount of detail he goes into is very impressive. He can even draw on his own studies into the mitochondrial DNA sequences of Elizabeth’s descendants. If you’re new to the period, though, I would recommend looking for a good general book on the Wars of the Roses first. As for other non-fiction specifically on Elizabeth herself, I remember enjoying David Baldwin’s essay in The Women of the Cousins’ War, but haven’t read any other full-length biographies. If you know of any good ones, I’d love to hear about them.

Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Following in the Footsteps of Henry Tudor by Phil Carradice

As those of you who have been following my blog for a while will probably know, my favourite period of English history is the Wars of the Roses, the conflict that dominated the second half of the fifteenth century as the rival houses of York and Lancaster fought for control of the throne. The Wars of the Roses came to an end shortly after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, during which Richard III was killed and the victorious Henry Tudor came to the throne as Henry VII. In Following in the Footsteps of Henry Tudor, Phil Carradice looks at Henry’s life from childhood to death, but with a special focus on his journey to Bosworth Field.

Beginning with Henry’s birth at Pembroke Castle in Wales to Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor, Carradice goes on to give us an overview of the period, explaining how the throne changed hands several times between York and Lancaster and describing Henry’s fourteen years in exile under the protection of the Duke of Brittany. In 1485, with Richard III’s reign becoming increasingly troubled, Henry returned to Wales ready to launch his own claim to the English throne. His long march into England at the head of an army – a journey which took more than two weeks – where he would meet Richard on the battlefield at Bosworth, is the main subject of this book.

Carradice goes into a lot of detail on why the place usually described as the site of Henry’s landing in Wales may be incorrect and attempts to establish exactly where he did begin his journey. He then looks at some of the legends that surround the various stages of the march and whether they are likely to be true or not. He draws on primary sources such as The Ballad of Bosworth Field and the chronicles of Polydore Vergil, but also refers to the work of more recent historians and even includes some excerpts from his own interview with a man who decided to mark the 500th anniversary of Bosworth in 1985 by recreating Henry’s march. The one thing that was missing and would have really added to my enjoyment of the book was a map showing the route taken by Henry and his men; there was plenty of other additional material, such as photographs and illustrations, a bibliography and an index, so it’s disappointing that no map was included.

The account of the Battle of Bosworth itself was particularly well written and interesting, giving a good idea of how both Richard and Henry may have felt as they made their preparations and how each of their fates rested on winning the support of Thomas and William Stanley, who waited until the very last minute to enter the battle. The author makes no secret of the fact that his sympathies are with Henry and the Lancastrians rather than with Richard and the House of York – and he gives his reasons for his bias in the prologue at the beginning of the book. However, he does acknowledge some of Richard’s good points, such as his courage on the battlefield and his skill as a soldier, and in general I thought the book was quite fair and balanced – certainly not as biased as others that I’ve read.

As for accuracy, I noticed a few small errors such as a reference to the white rose of Lancaster and red rose of York (it’s the other way round, of course) but I’m sure these were silly mistakes rather than a lack of knowledge from the author. Overall, I found this an enjoyable and informative read; even though it’s a period I have read about many times before, I felt that I was learning new things from it – and I think it would be accessible for readers with little or no knowledge of the period too.

Following in the Footsteps of Henry Tudor is published by Pen & Sword Books as part of their ‘Following in the Footsteps’ series. The other books in the series explore the stories of Edward II, Oliver Cromwell and The Princes in the Tower. Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing me with a copy of this book for review.

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.

Nonfiction November Week 3: Be (and ask) the Expert

For Week 3 of Nonfiction November, the topic is as follows:

(Nov. 12 to 16) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (hosted by Julie at JulzReads): Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

I haven’t really read enough non-fiction on any subject to be able to call myself an expert, but here are three books I have read about one of my favourite periods of history, the Wars of the Roses:

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones

This is a sequel to Dan Jones’ previous book, The Plantagenets. The book covers the whole of the Wars of the Roses period, beginning with the marriage of Henry V and Catherine of Valois and ending with the reign of Henry VII. It’s both factual and entertaining, although I found it slightly biased towards the Lancastrian/Tudor side.

The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen and the King’s Mother by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones

A companion book to Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series of novels. The book contains essays on three of the most important female historical figures of the period – 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. It’s not necessary to have read the novels first.

Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses by Sarah Gristwood

Another non-fiction book that looks at the period from a female perspective. The seven women whose lives are covered in this book are: Margaret of Anjou, Cecily Neville, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret of Burgundy, Anne Neville, Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth of York.

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Now I’m going to ‘Ask the Expert’…

Have you read any good nonfiction about the Wars of the Roses or any of the historical figures who lived during that time? I would love some recommendations!