Chunkster Challenge #1
Sixty years after the House of Lancaster usurped the throne, the House of York is trying to do the same. The third Lancastrian king, Henry VI, is simple and saintly and completely under the thumb of his formidable wife, Marguerite d’Anjou. Determined to hold on to her crown, she has gone to war against the Duke of York, a man who has a stronger claim to the throne than does her husband. He has no choice but to fight, and ends up dying in the battle for a crown he never wanted.
His eldest son Edward does want the crown, and succeeds in grabbing it after the Battle of Towton. England loves its handsome young king, but Marguerite loathes him. And Marguerite’s not giving up - particularly if the Earl of Warwick, who’s already made one king, can be persuaded to switch sides and help remake another. It’s ten years before the House of York has a firm grip on power - and with it the Woodvilles, the numerous and ambitious relatives of Edward’s beautiful, hated Queen.
After Edward’s death the Sunne in Splendour turns out to have been just a little tarnished. A bishop drops a bombshell that sees Edward’s sole remaining brother take the crown, producing one of the great unsolved mysteries and leading to one of the blackest reputations in history.
It was big, heavy, awkward to hold and not quick to read. And I loved every last page of it, no matter how many nights I ended up with aching hands and thumbs from keeping it upright and open. After I finished it, it was a full day before I could bring myself to pick up another book. In the absence of time travel, a good historical novel is the next best thing; and this novel makes you feel as if you’re right there with the characters. This can be nerve-wracking at times, as the Plantagenets weren’t a family given to happy endings - and some of them ended rather unpleasantly.
From a series of names and dates, the Wars of the Roses have become a collection of distinct personalities who will be remembered long after the last page. Most of these are from the second and third generations of the battle: the descendants of Richard of York, Warwick the Kingmaker, and Marguerite d’Anjou. Because they were still children when Edward took the throne, the years skip by quickly at first - from 1459 to 1470 in 166 pages. For a while I wondered how the years that remained could be stretched to fill the rest of the book. I needn’t have worried; there was no such thing as a quiet life in the royal family of the time, particularly not with Clarence and Elizabeth around. Elizabeth reminded me of Becky Sharp - I didn’t like her, but couldn’t help admiring her ingenuity and determination. All the characters are well-drawn, so much so that I rarely had trouble distinguishing between the multiple Elizabeths, Richards, and Edwards; and I now almost feel like I know them. When something comes so much to life it can be hard to remember that it’s just one person’s interpretation of the historical record. This difficulty is compounded by Edward’s extraordinary luck; there were so many places where things could have gone horribly wrong and didn’t, and the Battle of Barnet is something no writer would dare invent. Such a series of chances and coincidences would be laughably absurd if fictional.
Having read a couple of other interpretations of the same period in the last few months - The Goldsmith’s Wife and The Daughter of Time - I had a good deal of fun playing spot-the-difference. Penman’s answer to the Princes in the Tower mystery is, I think, more plausible than Josephine Tey’s - in fact, the most plausible I’ve yet read. And of all the versions of Richard I’ve read, this one is my favourite. I liked him from the first page, and he’s about as far as you can get from the monster of Shakespeare. I actually procrastinated over finishing the book just because I knew what history and Henry Tudor had in store for him, and didn’t want to see it happen. Instead of a calculating villain he comes across as, if anything, not calculating enough; unable to always think three steps ahead the way his brother did. I read the final chapters, watching things start to go wrong, and couldn’t help thinking each time: “What if-?”