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.

Jane Shore: The Merry Mistress

jane-shore Elizabeth Shore, known as Jane, was a mistress of King Edward IV of England and said to be “merry in company, ready and quick of answer”. She often appears in fiction set during the Wars of the Roses as a minor character – depending on the book, either as a bad influence or a comfort to Edward in his declining health, and a possible conspirator against his brother, Richard III – but several novels have also been written specifically about Jane. I have read two recently and am combining my reviews into one post.

The first of the two books is an old one, written in the 19th century by Mary Bennett, a truly ‘forgotten’ author if ever there was one. She’s so forgotten that I’ve struggled to find any biographical information at all about her (the Database of Victorian Fiction has a paragraph) and can’t even find a definite publication date for Jane Shore – I think it could have been 1869. It seems that Bennett had quite a few novels published, though, so she must have had some level of success at the time.

As Jane was a relatively unimportant historical figure, there is still a lot that we don’t know about her today; obviously even less would have been known in Bennett’s day and fewer sources would have been available to her in researching her book.  Bennett refers to Jane as the daughter of Mr Winstead and the wife of Matthew Shore, ‘the goldsmith’,  while most modern novels give Jane’s father’s name as John Lambert and her husband’s as William Shore, not a goldsmith but a mercer.  It’s difficult for me to comment on the historical accuracy of Jane Shore, then, as it depends on which sources the author had to work from – and it could be that what was considered accurate then is not considered accurate now.

Bennett’s Jane is portrayed, in typical Victorian style, as an innocent, virtuous young woman at the mercy of the king, his friend Will Hastings, and several other men who want to steal her away from her father and husband. She is the sort of person who has things happen to her rather than making them happen herself, which means she is not the most interesting of characters to read about. In fact, I didn’t feel that any of the characters in this novel ever came to life on the page or seemed like real people at all.

The book is entertaining in parts – mainly when the action switches to Wales and the story of two fictional characters, Nesta Llewellyn and the musician Leolin – but very tedious in others and certainly wouldn’t be the best introduction to Jane Shore’s life.  Having read it, I understand now why Bennett is a forgotten author!

the-merry-mistressAfter reading the Mary Bennett book, I remembered that I had also received The Merry Mistress by Philip Lindsay from NetGalley a while ago, along with another book of his, The Devil and King John. I had mixed feelings about the King John book so was a bit apprehensive about reading this one. I’m determined to get my NetGalley shelf up to date, though, so I decided to give The Merry Mistress a try anyway.

The first thing to say is that this book couldn’t be more different from the Bennett one! Lindsay’s Jane is a much more forceful personality who decides what she wants out of life and then goes and gets it. I expect the fact that this novel was published more recently – in the 1950s – will have something to do with that. But despite Jane making a point of telling us that she expects no rewards or favours from the king in return for becoming his mistress and that she always does her best to help the poor and needy, I didn’t think she was a particularly likeable or sympathetic character. She uses her beauty to get her own way or to manipulate the men around her and I found her quite a shallow, controlling person.

The story is narrated by Jane herself, beginning as she is forced to walk through the streets of London dressed in her kirtle as public penance for her part in the conspiracy between Will Hastings and the Woodvilles. Jane then looks back on her life, starting with her unhappy marriage to the mercer William Shore and then taking us through her romances with Edward IV, Hastings and Thomas Grey, the Marquess of Dorset. Lindsay ignores other possible facets of Jane’s character to focus almost exclusively on her relationships with the men in her life. I appreciate that Jane was a royal mistress, after all, and not famous for much else, but I still felt that this book needed something more.

Things do become more interesting and more compelling in the final third of the novel, when Edward’s death throws the court and the country into disarray once more after several years of relative stability. However, this is very much Jane’s story, so politics are pushed into the background apart from when they touch directly on Jane’s life. Still, I thought The Merry Mistress was a much better novel than Mary Bennett’s Jane Shore. My personal recommendation, though, would be to skip both of these and read Royal Mistress by Anne Easter Smith instead!

First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accession by Livi Michael

accession Having followed the stories of Margaret Beaufort and Margaret of Anjou throughout the early stages of the Wars of the Roses in Livi Michael’s Succession and Rebellion, we come at last to the third book in the trilogy, Accession, which covers what is, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the period – Edward IV’s final years, the troubled reign of Richard III and Henry Tudor’s victory at the Battle of Bosworth.

The novel opens in 1471, shortly after the Battle of Tewkesbury which has secured the throne of England for the Yorkist king, Edward IV. Despite her best efforts, the Lancastrian queen, Margaret of Anjou, has had to admit failure: her armies have been defeated, her husband – the late King Henry VI – is dead, and her son, the Prince of Wales, on whom all her hopes rested, has been killed. Margaret, whose role in our story is almost over, is placed in the custody of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk, where she will remain for the next few years.

For Margaret Beaufort, however, all is not lost. Although her son, Henry, the remaining Lancastrian heir, is still in exile in Britanny with his uncle, Jasper Tudor, Margaret is slowly preparing the ground for his return. The first stage in her plan is to marry again and the husband she has in mind – her fourth – is Thomas Stanley, a man who has become an expert at navigating through dangerous political waters and who has no qualms about changing sides between York and Lancaster whenever he believes the time is right to do so. Just the sort of man, she hopes, who has the power and the influence to help turn her dreams into reality.

I think Accession is probably my favourite of the three books in this trilogy. Although the writing feels a little bit dry on occasions – more like non-fiction than fiction – the story is still compelling, even for someone who has read about these historical figures and events many times before! As in the previous two books, Livi Michael incorporates excerpts from contemporary chronicles of the period to tell part of the story, which is a method I have found both unusual and very effective. The use of the chronicles helps to set these novels apart from others that I’ve read on the Wars of the Roses.

Another thing I appreciate about this trilogy is that Livi Michael has avoided making her characters into heroes or villains, instead giving each of them a mixture of good points and bad points – and that includes her two protagonists, neither of whom are very easy to like. Margaret Beaufort in particular is portrayed as ambitious, scheming and manipulative – but always with the best interests of her son at heart. Almost everyone in this novel appears to be out for what they can get…and yet there are little touches of humanity too: Margaret Beaufort feeling sorrow at the death of Queen Anne, for example, despite having secretly been working against Anne’s husband, Richard; or Henry Tudor recognising the sacrifices made for him over the years by his uncle Jasper.

As for Richard III, he is no more of a hero or a villain than any of the other characters in the novel. Whenever I read a book which covers Richard’s reign, I look forward to seeing how the author will choose to tackle the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, and I’m pleased to say that I was happy with the approach taken in Accession! It wasn’t quite what I’d expected, but I found it convincing and a little bit different from the theories given in other novels I’ve read.

I’ve enjoyed reading all three books in Livi Michael’s trilogy and will continue to read about this period of history as I never seem to get bored with it!

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

Rebellion by Livi Michael

rebellion This is the second in Livi Michael’s trilogy of novels telling the story of the Wars of the Roses from the perspectives of Margaret Beaufort and Margaret of Anjou. After reading the first book, Succession, a few months ago I was keen to continue with the trilogy; Rebellion picks up directly where Succession ended, but as long as you have some knowledge of the period, it’s not really essential to have read the previous novel before starting this one. I’m not going to go into the background to the Wars of the Roses here, though; if you’re not already familiar with it, I’ll refer you to my review of Succession so I don’t bore you by repeating myself!

Rebellion begins shortly after the Battle of Towton, often described as the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, which ended in disaster for the House of Lancaster and put a new Yorkist king on the throne – Edward IV. The defeated Henry VI and his wife, Margaret of Anjou, have fled to Scotland and from there Margaret travels to France to plead for help from the French king. Determined to win back the throne for Lancaster and secure the inheritance of her young son, Prince Edward, she eventually returns to England to lead an army into battle against York once again.

We also follow the story of another mother, Margaret Beaufort, whose only son, Henry Tudor, has been taken from her to be raised in the household of a guardian, William Herbert, at Raglan Castle in Wales. Margaret wants nothing more than to be reunited with Henry and can’t bear to think of him growing up in someone else’s care – but Henry is also a Lancastrian heir and it seems that there are people more powerful than Margaret who are making other plans for him.

Rebellion has a wide scope, encompassing most of the key events which occur from 1462-1471 and incorporating many important historical figures of the period from Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, to Margaret Beaufort’s husband (her third), Henry Stafford, and the family of the Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker. We also have our first glimpses of Edward’s younger brother, Richard of Gloucester, who I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of in the final novel. The characterisation is generally quite well done; my only problem was with the portrayal of Edward IV. I know he wasn’t perfect and, like his grandson Henry VIII, is said to have become fat and gluttonous as he approached middle age, but even so, I don’t think we really needed such graphic descriptions of his bodily functions!

As in the first novel, though, the main focus is on the lives of the two Margarets. I think both of these women are great subjects for historical fiction and both have interesting stories to be told; neither is particularly likeable, but their emotions, ambitions and thought processes are convincingly described. I could feel for Margaret of Anjou as she struggled to keep the Lancastrian hopes alive and I could sympathise with Margaret Beaufort as she suffered the pain of being separated from her beloved son.

I preferred this book to the first one, I think; I found it easier to get into, probably because the first few chapters concentrate on one character (Margaret of Anjou) so the narrative is more continuous at the beginning instead of jumping from one perspective to the next – although there’s plenty of that later in the book. The most notable thing about the previous book, Succession, was the use of medieval chronicles, from which quotes are given at the beginning or end of almost every chapter in such a way that they form a large part of the story. The author uses the same method again in this book, but the extracts seem to be used more sparingly than in the first one, so that they add an interesting angle to the novel without being too much of a distraction.

Rebellion, then, has its good points and its bad, but there’s no doubt that it’s set during a fascinating time in England’s history. Something that comes across strongly in this novel is the uncertainty of the period and the way in which fortunes can unexpectedly rise or fall and hopes and dreams can be destroyed in an instant:

“None of this is as we initially planned,” Warwick said, gazing intently at his son-in-law. “And none of it is set in stone.”

I’m looking forward now to reading Accession, the novel which will bring the trilogy to a close.

Thanks to the publisher, Penguin, for providing a review copy of this book.

Succession by Livi Michael

Succession With my interest in the Wars of the Roses, I remember hearing about this book, the first in a trilogy, when it was published a couple of years ago, but for one reason or another I never got round to reading it. Two years later, the third and final novel has just been published, and Penguin have kindly sent me the whole trilogy for review. I’ve now read the first book, Succession, and am sure I’ll be reading the other two very soon.

I know not everyone is familiar with the background to the Wars of the Roses, so I should start by explaining that they were a series of wars fought in the second half of the 15th century between two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet. With King Henry VI of England (a descendant of Edward III through the Lancastrian line) suffering from an unspecified mental illness, there were many who considered him unfit to rule, leaving the way open for another claimant to the throne – Richard, Duke of York, another of Edward III’s descendants. From 1455-1487 a number of battles were fought between supporters of Lancaster and supporters of York; Succession covers only the early part of this period.

There are interesting, colourful characters on both sides of this conflict, but if I had to choose, I would say that I’m a Yorkist. This novel, however, is written mainly from the Lancastrian perspective, concentrating on two young women who share the same name – Margaret. The first is Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, and the second is Margaret Beaufort, mother of the future Henry VII. We do meet plenty of other characters (so many that you may need to make use of the character list and family tree at the beginning of the book to keep track of them all) but the stories of these two women are always the main focus of the novel.

We first meet Margaret Beaufort as a little girl who has become a ward of the Duke of Suffolk following the death of her own father, the 1st Duke of Somerset. A childhood marriage to Suffolk’s son, John de la Pole, is annulled when Henry VI chooses to marry the twelve-year-old Margaret to his half-brother, Edmund Tudor. Within a year, Edmund is dead of the plague, leaving his young widow pregnant with his child and at the mercy of his brother, Jasper (who is portrayed here in a surprisingly negative light).

Margaret of Anjou also has a difficult life, trying to hold the country together during the king’s long spells of illness so that she can keep the throne secure for their baby son, Edward. Neither of the Margarets are very likeable characters, but it would be difficult not to sympathise with the situations in which they find themselves. Some of Margaret of Anjou’s attempts to communicate with her unresponsive husband are very moving, while Margaret Beaufort’s story is sometimes quite disturbing – for example, the trauma suffered by a small thirteen-year-old giving birth is described in detail.

This is a period of history with which I’ve become very familiar over the last few years and, as this novel follows the historical sequence of events very closely, I always knew, more or less, what was going to happen next. There’s nothing very new in terms of plot, but the approach Livi Michael takes to telling the story is quite different from anything I’ve read before. She writes in several styles throughout the novel – sometimes a chapter is written in the first person, sometimes in the third – and from the perspectives of many different characters (a red or a white rose at the start of each chapter gives a useful indication of whether the character’s allegiance is to York or to Lancaster), but the most striking thing about Succession is the use of extracts from contemporary chronicles such as the Crowland Chronicle or John Benet’s Chronicle.

Each chapter starts or finishes with at least one paragraph taken from a chronicle of the time and it’s important to read all of these because they are used to advance the story and to relate events which our characters may not have personally witnessed. The Battle of Blore Heath, for example, is told entirely in the form of chronicles with no original prose at all. I liked the feeling of authenticity that this provided; however, it could also be distracting at times and, together with the very short length of the chapters (many are only one or two pages long), it made me feel that I was constantly being pulled out of the story. There is one much longer chapter in the middle of the book entitled Margaret Beaufort Travels to Wales and this was my favourite part of the novel, as we were finally given an opportunity to spend a decent amount of time getting to know one character with no interruptions.

Although the style and structure of Succession weren’t always a complete success with me, I did still enjoy the creative approach to a story I love and I will certainly be picking up the second book, Rebellion, soon.