HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Queen of the North’ by Anne O’Brien

1399: England’s crown is under threat. King Richard II holds onto his power by an ever-weakening thread, with exiled Henry of Lancaster back to reclaim his place on the throne.

For Elizabeth Mortimer, there is only one rightful King – her eight-year-old nephew, Edmund. Only he can guarantee her fortunes, and protect her family’s rule over the precious Northern lands bordering Scotland.

But many, including Elizabeth’s husband, do not want another child-King. Elizabeth must hide her true ambitions in Court, and go against her husband’s wishes to help build a rebel army.

To question her loyalty to the King places Elizabeth in the shadow of the axe.

To concede would curdle her Plantagenet blood.

This is one woman’s quest to turn history on its head.

cover and blurb via amazon

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It’s 1399 and King Edward III’s descendant Elizabeth Mortimer is married to Henry Hotspur Percy, heir of the Earl of Northumberland. Richard II is king, and deposed by Henry Bolingbroke under dubious circumstances. Richard II had no heirs, but he did have someone ready to replace him until Henry IV takes his crown. That is where Elizabeth comes in.

Elizabeth expected her nephew Edmund Mortimer to take the throne, also a descendant of Edward III, a boy born of royal Plantagenet blood.  Elizabeth’s family has just as good a claim to the throne as the new Lancaster king. Whenever there are multiple claims to a throne, blood is certain to follow.

Elizabeth is not a man who can go into battle for the Mortimer claimant. She is not a beautiful young princess to be traded by families and launched into power. Elizabeth is a smart noble woman, who knows her family has a valid claim, who has given her husband the children he needs, and, to history, should be left on the sidelines. But Elizabeth is not a woman who should be cast aside in the battles of men and the throne, for she has the knowledge, skill and education to make a difference in the Mortimer claim to the crown.

 

All sides the early battles had legitimate claims to the throne, and we have a viewpoint in Elizabeth which is valid yet undemanding, unlike the men who surround her. Real life Elizabeth is not a well-known figure of history, so the author has had to use historical detail of others, and weave Elizabeth into the story, which gives new life to an old tale. Percy takes the Lancaster’s side of the war and Elizabeth is rich in the blood of the Mortimers, and nobler than her husband.  But what can a wife do in such challenges? Elizabeth is the wife of Percy, who holds the north. Whether it is from London or the Scots, the Percys have plenty of battles to face and Elizabeth is the northerners queen.
No sooner than choices are made, Elizabeth and Percy find they should be on the side of the Mortimer. Politics, treason and ambition are going to explode, and I am desperately trying not to write spoilers, but all I can say is you really need to read this book! Everyone knows what happened to Hotspur Percy at the Battle of Shrewsbury, part of a plot to overthrow Henry IV, but Elizabeth and her family’s claim carries on.  The Bolingbrokes and the Mortimers are going to need to be friends if civil wars for the throne are to end, and greed is as powerful as blood. This book has historical accuracy combined with beautiful storytelling. I adored this novel.
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HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Richard, Duke of York’ by Matthew Lewis

Richard, 3rd Duke of York is frequently used to recall the colours of the rainbow with the mnemonic ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’, wrongly believed to be the Grand Old Duke of York who had 10,000 men, or mistaken for his youngest son, Richard III. The son of a traitor, he inherited a dukedom aged four, became the wealthiest man in England at thirteen and later rebelled against his king, and if he is remembered, it is as a man who ignited the Wars of the Roses. Further eclipsed by two of his sons, who would become the mighty warrior Edward IV and the recently rediscovered Richard III, he is an ancestor of the Tudor monarchs and fifteenth great-grandfather to Queen Elizabeth II, yet the man himself is obscured from view. Matthew Lewis pushes aside the veils of myth and legend to challenge the image of Richard as a man whose insatiable ambition dragged a nation into civil war, revealing a complex family man with unparalleled power and responsibilities. The first person ever recorded to use the Plantagenet name, he pushed the political establishment to its limits, dared to fight back and was forced to do the unimaginable.

cover and blurb via amazon

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I was looking forward to this book for a number of reasons – firstly, because it’s Matthew Lewis, and also because Richard, Duke of York, really was kinda sorta the right person to be king if you dig through the family tree. This book didn’t disappoint at all.

Henry VI was in power, a man who was king as an infant, and England first had to go through a period ruled by the Lord Protector, the Duke of Gloucester, before Henry VI, a meek boy and then weak man, took over. Henry VI got himself a bride who was smart, strong and up to something with the Duke of Somerset. French lands in English hands were lost before Henry VI had a chance to rule them, and England was going to hell. (No offence, H6, it wasn’t really your fault).

Richard Plantagenet was a descendant of Edward III, like pretty much everyone in the War of the Roses. Through his mother, Richard was related to Edward II’s son Lionel Duke of Clarence, and through his father, Richard was related to Edward III’s son Edmund Duke of York. Edward III had five sons and three daughters who survived to adulthood (eight sons, five daughters in total, yikes!), and Richard Plantagenet was a descendant of surviving sons number two and four. As King Richard II, son of Edward The Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III, died without children, Lionel’s descendants were supposed to inherit (Richard’s mother’s family line, the Mortimers).

But the Lancaster branch took over. Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt – the Lancaster line, usurped the throne from Richard II, led by Gaunt’s son Henry IV, leading to Henry V and Henry VI. But the Mortimer/York branches, now joined in marriage, thought they deserved the crown. And by right they did.

Richard Plantagenet sought to claim his right, resulting in the War of the Roses, killing off all the direct male descendants of Edward III, more or less. It was bloody, it was awful and needless and could be confusing if not for great books like this one. Richard had a solid claim to the throne, but Henry VI also had a claim, and was an anointed king. Richard Plantagenet is portrayed as a greedy, bloodthirsty man who tried to steal the throne, when it was essentially stolen from him by his own relatives years ago. Richard’s own father was beheaded for trying to assert the same right. Richard’s head too ended up on a spike, and his son Edmund was killed with him.

But two of Richards’ three remaining sons went on to be kings – Edward IV and Richard III (they killed their other brother, long story). Richard may have been killed in 1460, but his seven surviving children all continued to fight as Yorks against the Lancasters for the right to the throne, ending with Richard’s granddaughter Elizabeth, who married Lancastrian Henry VII and became queen, ending the wars for good.

A huge thanks to Matthew Lewis for this book, giving Richard Plantagenet a book of his own to show him as more than a usurper who got what he deserved. The Yorks had every right, just as Richard believed.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Owen Tudor’ by Terry Breverton

For generations, the ancestors of Welshmen Owen Tudor had fought Romans, Irish Picts, Vikings, Saxons, Mercians and Normans. His uncles had been executed in the Glyndwr Welsh War of Independence, his father pardoned, but his estates stripped from him. Owen’s now landless father took him to London to try and find employment, and Owen fought for Henry V in France. He entered the service of Henry’s queen, Catherine of Valois, and soon after the king’s death he secretly married her, the mother of the eight-month-old Henry VI. Owen and Catherine would have two boys together, hidden from the world and the boy-king Henry VI by the Bishops of London and Ely. Henry VI would go on to ennoble them as Edmund Earl of Richmond, and Jasper Earl of Pembroke, but upon Catherine’s death Owen was imprisoned. Escaping twice, Owen was thrown into the beginnings of the Wars of the Roses with his two sons. Edmund died in Wales, and Jasper became the only lord who fought throughout the civil wars until his nephew, Edmund’s son Henry Tudor, was established on the English throne as Henry VII. When Jasper led the Lancastrian forces at Mortimer’s Cross in 1461, the aging Owen led a wing of the defeated army, was captured and executed. Without the secret marriage for love, there would have been no Tudor dynasty.

cover and blurb via amazon

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I have to admit I had only read fiction about Owen Tudor until I picked up this book. The author has written a bountiful amount of Tudor works, so before reading the books on Jasper Tudor and Henry VII, I decided to start with Owen Tudor.

Tudor was, of course, a Welshman, from a family fraught after the Welsh Independence wars. Tudor, born Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur, left for England for a new start. Tudor got a job, working for Queen Katherine de Valois, the bride Henry V took from France in return for peace. While Shakespeare wrote of Henry’s love for Katherine, all he did was basically purchase her, get her pregnant and then die. Katherine was left in England with a tiny baby who was king at nine months old, and all alone.

But all was not lost. Katherine had fallen in love with Owen Tudor, who had been working in her household on behalf of the king’s steward. Katherine and Tudor secretly married, and had up to six children – two sons who survived, Edmund and Jasper, plus Edward and Margaret ( who may or may not have entered the church and died young), and possibly two more, unknown, who did not survive (it’s a murky situation. For an author researching, a bit of  nightmare really). Sadly, Katherine passed away in 1437, aged only 35, leaving her kingly son in the Lord Protector’s hands and Tudor with the boys. Tudor was lucky not to be imprisoned or worse for secretly marrying a queen, as a law was in place that she could not marry without the king’s permission. There was no proof Katherine and Tudor ever legally married, and could have been nullified anyway. Tudor had all his possessions and lands seized but did keep his head and children.

Once Henry VI grew up a little, he treated his half-brothers well and kept Tudor on a good salary. Poor Tudor however was captured in Hereford during the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461 when his son Jasper’s army was defeated. Tudor was beheaded, his last words about Katherine. The bastard son he had fathered two years earlier had a headstone placed on his father’s grave years later.

Owen Tudor must be a hard man to write about, as he was not born royal and has a murky history, along with his family, given the lack of evidence about his life. What we do know is that Edmund died, leaving a pregnant Margaret Beaufort behind, who had Henry VII, and of course, had his bloodline through the royals ever since. I am definitely going to read the other books written by Terry Breverton.

The Pop-up Globe Reviews – Part 1: Henry V

HENRY V – Come for the sword fights, but stay for the monologues

Source

First off, hello to everyone. Once again I slipped away into obscurity, and yes, it was due to working at another sports event. I am who I am. The World Masters Games have just finished in Auckland, and I have been with the organisation since last September. The main event itself was held over the last two weeks and now I am back to my desk, back to writing articles and finishing up my Thomas Cromwell Frailty of Human Affairs monster, which will be released on September 1 (pre-orders will be available soon).

As many of you know, last year I worked at Auckland’s Pop-up Globe. This year, for a variety of personal reasons (much to do with schedules), this new season of Shakespeare was to be one of watching the shows and being a volunteer. If you are still in the dark about PuG, it is a replica of Shakespeare’s second Globe in London (he burned the first one down with a cannon, because, you know, cannons). This year, PuG has two acting companies and four performances to be witnessed. I was going to review all four in one post, but you would have nodded off trying to get through it all. So here we are, first up with my personal favourite, Henry V.

Before I begin – a disclaimer. I tend not to review books/shows/articles/anything done by friends unless specifically requested. This is an exception; I was not asked to review, I chose to, and while I do have friends at the PuG, I have done all I can to be impartial. Also, no whining about spoilers; Henry V died in 1415 and Shakespeare wrote about it in 1599. The PuG season is 90% done.  Let’s not go down the spoiler road again.

The PuG first appeared in a dirty inner-Auckland carpark last year, with the classic ‘build it and they will come’ approach. And come they did. A temporary, exposed scaffold circle within the working dimensions of Shakespeare’s outdoor playhouse had a beautiful naivety about it. A world first; an idea born of passion and creativity, filled with people personally invested in its success. The public were to be personally welcomed in; my playhouse is your playhouse. Come and enjoy the spectacle. The PuG company of actors produced two shows, each so popular that by four weeks into the 12-week season, you could not get a seat. Some nights I had to get my ticket scanners to stop logging tickets and just get people through the gates because of the sheer volume of people lined up, desperate to get inside. People reappeared after Twelfth Night, still wiping tears of laughter, after Romeo and Juliet, out came hundreds of stunned faces.

For season two, the child has grown into a teenager, the same playhouse in a new spot. Now, a new location in an easy, flat (on grass, which for Auckland this rainy season has been a challenge), wide open location. No more queues at the box offices in an attempt to get in, with fingers crossed you can take someone else’s place. There are always seats and space to go around. No more queues at the gate or tackling the crowds to enter the site. Now you will be sent straight in with barely a smile, whereas last year staff chatted through endless discussions on the novelty of the project. The bar area is bigger and better this year, the wine drinkable, and you can easily find yourself making new friends before the playhouse even opens. Gone are the t-shirted volunteers, trotting back and forth, welcoming and discussing all things Shakespeare and PuG before the door opened (though they still around, still acting as ushers this year). The friendly faces at the merchandise box can answer all your queries and supply better programmes, and beautiful PuG posters (sadly the t-shirts did not make a comeback – staff only).

As I say, the child has grown up. The doors open and you are shown your seat, or to the groundlings yard, and told what you can and cannot do. The bulk of people are those who visited last year, or came this year due to the ear-chewing they got from friends for missing out. The playful innocence is dead, the novelty has worn off – now it’s down to business. And that is what you see on stage – last year saw two shows done by PuG, and another half-dozen shows by visiting companies (whose reviews ranged from ‘fun’, ‘intense’, ‘adequate’ to ‘can I get refund’). This year, PuG provides two acting companies, the Queen’s Company, a mix of ten men and four women performing Othello and Much Ado About Nothing, and the King’s Company, another all-male cast of 16 (like last year) with As You Like It and Henry V.

As I was saying – HENRY V – Come for the sword fights, but stay for the monologues

I have seen Henry V at PuG a whopping 28 times so far this season. I am a historian, okay? I had no plans to see every performance, I just somehow ended up seeing the first 20 and then decided to stick with the theme. We can wax lyrical about how Shakespeare murders history, but like it or not, much of how history is conveyed and believed is down to Shakespeare’s take on the facts (look at poor Richard III). Henry V is taken on by the King’s Company, with many of the cast of 16 taking on multiple roles to get the show done, a feat in itself. No need to be a history buff – the moment the actors appear in traditional costumes, you are right there in the mix of 1415 and 1625 (because, you know, Shakespeare). The costumes in Henry V are the jewel in PuG’s crown, and it is easy to be distracted by the desire to want to feel the fabrics, touch the crowns, flick the feathers in the hats. If they wanted to sell tickets for people just to get close the costumes, PuG could make a profit in just that alone.

Henry V is marketed as an action-packed night out, and it really is. The sword-fighting, the loud cannons, the flaming arrows have the crowd cheering and yelling with excitement. Gone is the temporary-looking scaffold behind the stage, now it sports a very permanent-looking backdrop, a brick castle facade, the heavens painted above for maximum effect. As I say, the novelty has worn off and PuG has gone pro. Fight Director Alex Holloway has been given free rein, hence the flaming arrows soaring overhead as Harfleur is tackled by the English. Shakespeare, when done well, uses little in terms of props. These fight scenes, clanging swords and all, takes this minimal prop usage and creates a spectacle that has groundlings stepping back from the stage for their own safety and then peering forward for the bloody climaxes. 10/10 for effect and enjoyment.

Shows so often have one or two performers who steal the show, and that effect goes in the right direction. Chris Huntly-Turner plays Henry with a performance which will leave you cheering for war, not exactly a sensation many want aroused within them. From the beginning, Henry comes across as both eloquent and rational, compelling and convincing. Henry was a man not born for the throne, but through battle became beloved, though Shakespeare cast him as a man who played away his youth and then became a King and a hero. Huntly-Turner shows that transformation; a young man prepared to stand alongside all who came before him, to take France by force, as his right. Henry is charming, honest, trusted and alluring in Huntly-Turner’s hands. He can swing a bloody sword and threaten rape and pillage at Harfleur, but can pray to God through tears when help is needed. He can put convincingly condemn lifelong friends to death or plead for the love of a French princess with equal poise and confidence. One school matinee gave me the opportunity to witness school boys gathered around Huntly-Turner, who sat with them, talking of the internal conflict a King has when sending men to their gruesome deaths, before giving them tips on winning the heart of a lady not half an hour later, the boys’ eyes lit with excitement the whole time. In a play which shows the realities of living during the Hundred Years’ War period, Huntly-Turner has the crowd laughing and cheering as well as in tears. It is possible to watch the entire performance through Chris Huntly-Turner’s facial expressions alone, such is the depth of the actor’s performance.

The sheer volume of passion in the voice of Michael Mahony, playing the role of Chorus (believed to have been played by Shakespeare himself), is enough to interest even the biggest Shakespeare beginner. Clad in an orange vest and pushing a cleaning trolley, Mahony sets the scenes, guides the audience, and bridges the gap between actor and audience member, regardless of the subject matter. From opening the play with a stirring pageant of words, to guiding the crowds over the sea, to the sad final moments about what came after Henry V, Mahony is a driving force in the cast, forever being in the action, and relatable to everyone in the playhouse.

Another stand-out is Joe Dekker-Reihana, who takes on the roles of both Boy and Princess Katherine. Dekker-Reihana brings a sincere and tenderfooted character to life, playing Boy, a commoner sent to fight for the King. Armed with a frying pan, Boy is subjected to much terror and pain as bit by bit, all he knows is destroyed. Dekker-Reihana then turns completely into the Princess Katherine, and in a flawless switch between French and English, adds laughter to the show when needed and stops the unwavering Henry in his tracks, a force all of her own. It is no wonder the end is so satisfying for the audience.

I could go on and on but instead, I’m going to tell you what you need to go and see (or see again). Watch out for –

  • Stephen Butterworth as Montjoy, an overconfident Frenchman who starts off telling Henry where to get off and ends up giving profound respect. Regardless of how the relationship evolves, Butterworth is engaging and believable (bonus point – Butterworth also plays Alice, Katherine’s maid, and is a real sweetheart)
  • Jonathon Tynan-Moss as Jamy, a Scottish captain who brings levity right when it is needed. You will also love him as the purple-clad Duke of Berri, a tearful prostitute, and as the Earl of Cambridge crying ‘never did faithful subject more rejoice at the discovery of most dangerous treason’
  • The epic costume changes done by Edward Newborn who plays both base-born Pistol and the King of France. Newborn plays two very different characters and pulls it off without so much as a wipe of his brow (except when the mud and blood needs to come off I assume). Newborn also holds one of the most powerful moments in the show, when he and Katherine share a silent moment after the capture of Harfleur
  • Joel Herbert as Westmoreland is uttering convincing and terrifying with a sword in his hand. Also keep an ear out for him in Act 2 Scene 4: ‘Scorn and defiance; slight regard, contempt, and any thing that may not misbecome the mighty sender, doth he prize you at. Thus says my king; an’ if your father’s highness do not, in grant of all demands at large, sweeten the bitter mock you sent his majesty, he’ll call you to so hot an answer of it, that caves and womby vaultages of France shall chide your trespass and return your mock in second accent of his ordnance!’
  • The moment Antonio Te Maioha appears as the Constable of France, ready for the final showdown with Henry

Much has been made of the use of all-male casts at PuG, but I will save my opinion on that for my As You Like It post. Henry V only has four female characters anyway (thanks, Shakespeare), and in this, three are played by men, one omitted completely. Hey, Shakespeare – #ifshecanseeitshecanbeit

Henry V still has five shows left. I will be there for all of them and you should be too. I recommend standing: I always do. I have a great ability to be invisible, so my constant presence has probably gone unnoticed, though my blanket in the colours of the flag of St George might make me stand out more on these last few cold nights, so come and say hi.

The dates are (pop ‘groundlings’ into the promo box for a $1 ticket) –

I shall be back tomorrow with my As You Like It review.

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All opinions and photos are author’s own unless specified.