The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory begins in 1464 when the York and Lancaster cousins are at more than daggers drawn. The king of the moment is Edward IV of York. It’s a well known tale of how he was waylaid by an older and beautiful widow Elizabeth Woodville, already the mother of two sons. Unlikely as it may seem, she managed to get the highly promiscuous Edward to actually marry her. Edward had been expected to make a lucrative marriage alliance with a foreign princess, probably French.  His choice of wife is very unpopular, particularly by Warwick, and the gossipers say that Elizabeth must have bewitched him in some way.  Elizabeth and Edward set about arranging marriages for her relatives with powerful families, much to the fury of courtiers who had been hoping to marry their offspring to them.

Eventually Elizabeth’s luck runs out and she’s forced to take sanctuary at Westminster and even has to give up her eldest (Grey) sons who are placed in the tower and probably murdered there. But according to Elizabeth she had substituted her eldest son with a page boy, and sent her son abroad, we’ll never know though.

I quite enjoyed this one but I think I’ll have a rest from historical fiction for a while. I was slightly put off because when I reached page 125 I was astonished to read Cecily’s favourite son being described as: ‘An utter numpty’. CLUNK I checked just to make sure and as I thought – the word ‘numpty’ was first coined in 1985, Glaswegian dialect, so it’s astonishing to read a character in 1470 using the word! That really should have been picked up by an editor, but Gregory should have realised it is a modern word.

The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory was published in 2011. It’s part of the author’s fictional Three Cousins’ War series. I decided to read it after I read her essay about Jacquetta in the book which I reviewed here.

It begins in 1430 at the Castle of Beaurevoir near Arras and Joan (of Arc) has just been billeted there as part of the houshold, which includes Jacquetta who despite just being 15 or so has been married off to the much older Duke of Bedford,  Regent of France and uncle to the young English King Henry VI. It’s a marriage in name only as the duke just wants to use Jacquetta’s gifts.

Jacquetta is supposedly descended from Melusina, the river godess and can sometimes see the future, a dangerous trait to have when women in particular can easily be accused of being witches. There’s nothing that she can do for Joan when she herself is accused of witchcraft.

With the death of her husband Jacquetta is free to marry Richard Woodville, her husband’s squire, although they end up having to pay a fine because Jacquetta shouldn’t have married out of the aristocracy.

When they return to England they’re warmly welcomed by the king and so begins their life at the court, never an easy place to be but it has its compensations. Richard is made a baron and is given an estate, mainly because Jacquetta is a favourite with the queen.  It’s the royal couples worst habit, handing out goodies to courtiers for no good reason which incenses those who might be more deserving of notice. Jealousy and anger abound, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Jacquetta seems to have been some sort of superwoman as she had at least 14 children, would hardly have had time to get over one pregnancy before she was pregnant again and still managed to pack a lot into life, supporting the king. But war was never far away and changes mean danger.

I must admit that I had never even heard of Jacquetta until recently, it’s really sad the way strong women have been overlooked by historians. Although this is a work of fiction the author has done plenty of research and woven an entertaining story around what is known.

Death of a Chief by Douglas Watt

Death of a Chief by Douglas Watt was first published by Luath Press Ltd in 2009.

Tthe setting is Edinburgh, it’s 1686. To begin with there’s a ‘prelude’ which tells of Lachlan MacLean’s experience as a youngster on the battlefield of Inverkeithing where he had lost two of his brothers. But now he’s Sir Lachlan MacLean, clan chief, but not for long as he is the chief referred to in the book title.

When Sir Lachlan’s body is found in his bed in his Edinburgh lodgings it’s not clear if his death was murder or suicide. The victim had borrowed money from people for years and often hadn’t been able or inclined to pay his debts.

The Edinburgh lawyer John MacKenzie is tasked with the work of investigating, helped by his young scribe Davie Scougall. They have to travel to the Highlands to Sir Lachlan’s home to look through the papers in the chief’s home, looking for clues. Davie Scougall had barely been out of Edinburgh before and he had certainly never been to the Highlands. He’s nervous about the journey as he has heard so many stories about the lawless area which is apparently populated by violent marauders. Even his granny has warned him never to go there! There’s a possibility of clan warfare to avenge the death, but there are plenty of suspects, including the new clan chief.

This was a quick read at just 187 pages but it’s an enjoyable read with some likeable characters, it’s well written by an author who prior to writing fiction was more used to writing about Scots history. He wrote The Price of Scotland: Darien, Union and the Wealth of Nations. I might give that one a go – sometime. I borrowed this one from the library.

 

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle – 20 Books of Summer 2023

 

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle was published in 2016 and it definitely didn’t appear in my original list of 20 Books of Summer, because it’s a library book which I picked up after reading that it was set in Hardwick Hall, a place I’ve really enjoyed visiting in the past.

But Hardwick Hall is just a sumptuous prison for Arbella, she’s the granddaughter of Bess of Hardwick, but is also the great-granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister and that means that she’s in the running to be next in line to the throne when Queen Elizabeth I dies. Sadly Bess has no real love for her granddaughter, Arbella is just a step to power for the wildly ambitious Bess. Arbella has only one friend, her tutor and she’s bereft when he is sent away.

There are others who regard their family as having a good claim to the throne and with Elizabeth not making clear who she wants to succeed to the throne after her death it’s a breeding ground for family intrigues.

The chapter headings range from Hardwick, Clerkenwell, Richmond Palace, Barnet, Whitehall and Bishopsgate. The Clerkenwell sections feature Aemilia Lanyer who had been a poet at court and had lived a comfortable life until the death of her partner had plunged her into poverty. She’s living a hand to mouth existence and is in danger of being accused of witchcraft.

This was a really enjoyable read and the author was able to read the many letters which had been written by Arbella over the years, which must have been a great help in capturing her personality.

 

 

The Witch’s Brat by Rosemary Sutcliff – 20 Books of Summer 2023

The Witch’s Brat by Rosemary Sutcliff was published in 1970. The setting is England in the reign of Henry I. Lovel is a young lad, just eleven years old, and his  grandmother has just died. She had been the local healer and herbalist so she had been tolerated in the village. But Lovel was born with a crooked back and his mother had died when he was born, his father is dead too, so he’s all alone in the world and the villagers hound him out. They think that his crooked back means he must be a witch.

Lovel has no option, he has to keep walking, but eventually a swineherd finds him and takes him to a Benedictine Abbey where they take care of him and he finds a place as a bit of a dogsbody within the community. When Rahere the King’s Jester (jongleur) arrives he sees something in Lovel that nobody else does and he gives some hope of a different kind of life in the future for Lovel, maybe he’ll take Lovel to the king’s court one day. Soon after that Lovel is taught to read when it’s realised that he has a good knowledge of medicinal herbs and his life begins to change for the better.

This book is partially based on reality as a man called Rahere who was the King’s Jongleur founded Saint.Bartholomew’s Hospital in London and you can visit his tomb in the Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, London.

This was an enjoyable read,  Rosemary Sutcliff books are always good.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell – 20 Books of Summer 2023

I’m finding The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell quite a difficult one to write about, but I really enjoyed it, which is the main thing. I always enjoy her books,  despite or maybe because they are all different.

At the beginning of the book we’re told in an historical note that Lucrezia di Cosimo de Medici had died within less than a year of her marriage, but the time slips all over the place so you have to pay attention to the date at the beginning of each chapter. The time wanders from 1544 just before Lucrezia’s birth to 1561.

Lucrezia is the fifth child of a Grand Duke and is regarded as strange, she’s always being compared with her older sister Maria who is the parents’ favourite and has been set up to marry a powerful Duke. When Maria dies suddenly Lucrezia is put forward as the replacement bride, it’s a political alliance so it doesn’t really matter who  Alfonso marries, as long as it’s into that family.

As Lucrezia isn’t even 13 her nurse decides to conspire with Lucrezia to keep her unmarried as long as possible, hiding from everyone that she has hit puberty, as that’s  the time when there can be no more excuses to delay her marriage. An unfortunate leak leads to celebrations and the marriage is quickly planned and in no time Lucrezia has left her family and moved to her husband’s estates. She’s expected to get pregnant fast and  Alfonso  arranges to have her portrait painted, it is after all a time when women often died in childbirth, but ominously Alfonso describes Lucrezia as being his first duchess!

This is a good read, but it isn’t my favourite by Maggie O’Farrell. You can read Jack’s much more detailed review of the book here.

 

 

The Stronghold by Mollie Hunter – 20 Books of Summer 2023

The Stronghold by Mollie Hunter was first published in 1974 and it is a Carnegie Medal Winner.

The setting is the Orkneys at a time when the islands were often being raided by Romans (around the middle of the first century BC) who were searching for people they could drag off to enslave. This meant that the islands were being deprived of the strongest and fittest members of their society. Somthing had to be done. When Coll was a child he had witnessed a violent Roman raid which had culminated in his mother being dragged away and enslaved, Coll was thrown on the rocks by a Roman, breaking his hip badly, and now as an 18 year old cripple he’s left behind as a look-out while other males of his age are taking a more active role in the defence of their island.

Coll has spent a lot of time thinking about how things can be improved and eventually in desperation the leader agrees to allow Coll to organise and direct the building of a huge defensive structure, called a broch. It will be big enough to house the whole community and they can safely fight against the Roman Navy from the top of the tower.

In reality nobody knows how brochs came about, there are the remains of over 500 of them in the north of Scotland and the islands to the north of the mainland. It’s thought they originated on Orkney and they have all been built to the same design. They are drystone roundhouses with outer and inner walls with a stone staircase between the two walls.

Mollie Hunter took this information and developed a plausible and entertaining tale around it, featuring some great characters, both good and evil. The Stronghold won the Carnegie Medal in 1974.

You can read a bit more about brochs here.

 

 

 

Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Trease – 20 Books of Summer 2023

Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Trease was first published in 1940 but my copy is a Puffin reprint which was published in 1965.

This book begins in Cumberland where there are a lot of skirmishes around the Scotland/England border, but it’s the local landowner Sir Philip who is causing the villagers big problems as he’s enclosing the land which had been used by the villagers for grazing their cattle on. The land grab has huge consequences for the locals who are already living a hand to mouth existence. They decide to break down Sir Philip’s wall  but Sir Philip and his men are about and Peter Brownrigg can’t resist the temptation to throw a stone at him, unfortunately he’s spotted doing it and a gun is fired at him, narrowly missing Peter’s head. The next day Sir Philip’s men come looking for Peter and he has to run away, if he’s caught he could be hanged!

London is the place to aim for and he falls in with another runaway lad on the way. They decide to stick together and look for work. They get taken on as apprentice actors in a travelling theatre group.  Of course it turns out to be William Shakespeare’s  company and the youngsters get involved in a dangerous intrigue involving the politics of  Elizabeth’s court.

This is the second book I’ve read recently which involves William Shakespeare and his company of players, even so this was a really good read.

The Thistle and the Rose by Jean Plaidy – 20 Books of Summer 2023

The Thistle and the Rose by Jean Plaidy was published in 1963 and if you’re interested in Scottish history reading this book will probably teach you quite a lot, in a painless fashion although I must say that at times Plaidy’s writing style seems quite stilted, certainly when compared with writers like Hilary Mantel and Alison Weir. This is the eighth book by Plaidy featuring the Tudors

The book begins in the Tudor court of Henry VII, not long after his heir Prince Arthur has died.  Only Princess Margaret, Prince Henry and Princess Mary are left, but Margaret is of an age to be married off and Henry VII negotiates with the Scottish King James IV. Margaret is sent to Scotland to become a Stuart Queen and be a political pawn for her father. Unexpectedly Margaret falls for James IV and for her new country, despite it being obviously poorer than England. She has at least escaped her father’s famous meanness. But James had had an even worse father, he wanted nothing to do with his son, giving him no love or time. Despite his upbringing James was a good and successful king.

When James dies at the Battle of Flodden Margaret is made Regent, she has one small son and gives birth to another soon after her husband’s death. The Scottish ‘nobles’ are of course all fighting among themselves and Margaret ends up losing her children and the Regency. Her brother Henry VIII is no help at all.

I liked this and might try to track down the others in the series. It’s amazing how often Stuart kings died, leaving young children at the mercy of men who want the power for themselves. History does indeed repeat itself.

This is one of my 20 Books of Summer 2023.

 

 

 

Friend and Foe by Shirley McKay – 20 Books of Summer 2023

Friend and Foe by Shirley McKay is the fourth book in the author’s Hew Cullan mystery series. The setting is St Andrews in 1583. At the back of this book there is a glossary of Scots words used by the author which I imagine will be useful to some readers, I must admit there were a few that even I didn’t know, but I think they’re always easy to take a guess at from the context.

It’s over three weeks since I read this book and so much has happened in the time since I finished it that some of the details of the mystery are a bit of a blur to me, but I did really enjoy it.

Hew’s sister Meg isn’t really happy in her new home in St Andrews, but her physician husband Giles works at the university and must live within the town. Meg misses her old home which is just a few miles outside the town, but she had a garden there where she grew the herbs she needed to make her lotions and potions. Giles is worried about her and has begun to extend their home so that Meg will have a place of her own where she can continue with her own herbalism.  But they find themselves in trouble when it looks to others that their renovations have an ulterior motive.

Hew has made more enemies and things are just too hot for him in Scotland, it looks like he’ll be leaving home for his own safety, but will he be jumping from the frying pan into the fire?  It looks like the next book in this series will find Hew in England again.