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.

~

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!

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.

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.