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: ‘ The Nevills of Middleham’ by K.L Clark

At a time when family name was everything, the Nevills were the most influential people in England. They saw the Wars of the Roses from both sides—Yorkist and Lancastrian—but mainly from their own. Their men lived and died violently, and the Nevill women married leading players on both sides. Their bitter and violent rivalry with the Percy family tumbled into the wider political unrest that resulted in the Wars of the Roses, the ongoing feud between York and Lancaster that deposed two kings. This is the first definitive history of a fascinating family, and is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the Wars of the Roses.

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Richard Neville was one of the famous descendants of the Beaufort dynasty, and by 1465, he was one of the most powerful men in England. He was the 16th Earl of Warwick and nicknamed the Kingmaker, with good cause. Married to the wealthy Anne Beauchamp, Neville was constantly at King Edward IV’s side. He was not the only powerful Neville – brother George Neville was Archbishop of York and John Neville, Marquess of Montagu, was a famed soldier. Sister Katherine had married into the powerful Hastings family, and Cecily was a duchess, Alice a Countess, just a sample of the all-powerful Neville empire.

While Richard Neville stood at the side of a York king, the Neville name harks back to Lancastrian kings, due to being linked by blood to Joan Beaufort in the late 1300’s. The Nevilles moved toward the York arm of the royal names before spending time in exile and rebellion, before Anne Neville took the throne at Richard III’s side. The Neville name then started to fade from the annuls of history.

This book takes on a complex family and helpfully provides a way through the many branches of the family tree. While the Kingmaker is the most studied Neville, there are many more to learn about and the author has encompassed them all.

Warwick the Kingmaker was a man like any other when in power; he was a selfish . He saw fit to execute many enemies, his own brother dispatched to take part on many killings. He was revered by the men he kept on his side and a villain to anyone be opposed. Like most in the War of the Roses, Richard Neville was neither hero or villain, he was both. I found this to be the most comprehensive book on this family.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Edward IV: Glorious Son of York’ by Jeffrey James

Few English monarchs had to fight harder for the right to rule than King Edward IV – Shakespeare’s glorious son of York. Cast in the true Plantagenet mould, over six feet tall, he was a naturally charismatic leader. Edward had the knack of seizing the initiative and winning battles and is free from the unflattering characterisations that plagued his brother, Richard III, having been portrayed as a good-looking and formidable military tactician. Described sometimes as reckless and profligate, all sources remark on his personal bravery. In the eleven years between 1460 and 1471 he fought five major battles in the Wars of the Roses. Three of them – Towton, Barnet and Tewkesbury – rank among the most decisive of the medieval period. This book covers Edward’s family background, the Yorkist takeover and the drift to war. It charts the tensions created by the controversial Woodville marriage and Edward’s deposition by the Earl of Warwick and subsequent exile. The return of the king brought with it battles anew and Edward’s decisive campaigns against Warwick and Margaret of Anjou. Finally, Edward’s sudden death heralded the demise of the House of York and the triumph of the Tudors against Richard III. This is a history of Edward IV’s struggle to gain and retain the kingship of England during a period of sustained dynastic turmoil during the Wars of the Roses.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Edward IV had a great claim to be England’s king, sadly, he was not the only one. The author starts easily, giving us the background of Edward’s family claim to the throne. A monster of man in those days, at 6′ 4″, Edward took the throne in 1461, and reigned over nearly a decade which had some of the most bloody battles of the War of the Roses.

While Edward was in line to claim the throne, overthrowing a sitting monarch, betraying his greatest ally and marrying for love (lust?) instead of gain did Edward no favours. For a man with battlefield experience, and political knowledge, he made errors during these dangerous years, racking up local enemies like no one else.

Edward had no trouble winning battles; Towton, then Barnet and Tewkesbury are just some of the battles he needed to fight in order to hold the throne, and this book tells the tale more like a story rather than a military strategy. Included are illustrations of the locations pivotal in Edward’s life.

One of Edward’s largest mistakes was the marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. However, had Edward married as his allies wanted, things could have still fallen apart, but without the Woodville family, doubtless lives may have been saved.

The book flies though these troublesome years until Edward’s overthrow in 1470, only to win his crown back again in six months, shortly before the death of Henry VI in prison. While the second half of Edward’s reign was far quieter, having killed the vast majority of his enemies and relations, Edward still fought in France, killed one of his brothers and grew chubby and lazy. His death in 1483 was still a great loss; while the War of the Roses saw much blood under his rule, at least some peace had begun to settle in. It would be only two years before all Edward fought for would be erased, his two sons killed and his precious brother Richard deposed by the last remaining Lancastrian enemy, Henry Tudor. But not all was lost; Edward’s daughter Elizabeth became queen, there as peace reigned in England (mostly), and their children became king of England, queen of Scotland, and (briefly) queen of France.

What I like about this book is that, while accurate, it doesn’t flow like a non-fiction biography, rather more of a story of a man who thought he was the rightful king. Trouble was, everyone thought themselves the rightful king.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The House of Beaufort’ by Nathen Amin

The Wars of the Roses were a tumultous period in English history, with family fighting family for the greatest prize in the kingdom – the throne of England. But what gave the eventual victor, Henry Tudor, the right to claim the throne? What made his mother the great heiress of medieval England? And how could an illegitimate line come to challenge the English monarchy? Whilst the Houses of York and Lancaster battled directly for the crown, other noble families of England also played integral roles in the war; grand and prestigious names like the Howards, Nevilles and Percys were intimately involved in the conflict but arguably none symbolised the volatile nature of the period quite like the House of Beaufort. The story of the Beauforts, with their rise, fall and rise again, is the story of England during the period, a dramatic century of war, intrigue and scandal. Many books have been written about individual members of the dynasty but never has the whole family been explored as one. This book will uncover the rise of the Beauforts from bastard stock of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, to respected companions of their cousin Henry V, celebrated victor of Agincourt. The Beauforts fell with the House of Lancaster during the 1460s and 1470s, and their hopes and fortunes came to rest upon the shoulders of a teenage widow named Margaret and her young son, Henry. From her would rise the House of Tudor, the most famous of all England’s royal houses and a dynasty who owed their crown to their forebears, the House of Beaufort. From bastards to princes, the Beauforts are medieval England’s most intriguing family.

cover and blurb via nathenamin.com

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One family which doesn’t get enough love are the Beauforts. Nathen Amin has done everyone a favour and produced this wonderful and descriptive book to shed more light on this remarkable line. The story of the Beauforts is one that can last forever. Many families such as the Lancasters, Yorks, Warwicks are often mentioned, when the Beauforts are most important and relevant from the late 1300’s right down to today’s noble families.

Joan Beaufort was the daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and his then-mistress Katherine Swynford, remarkable people in their own right.  Joan was the only girl born to this first generation of Beauforts, named illegitimate offspring. Joan married very young and had two daughters, but by her mid-teens, her parents gained a legitimate marriage recognised by the Pope, and Joan herself was already a widow. Joan went on to marry into the Neville family, and produced 14 Beaufort-Neville babies to go with her previous two, and her husband’s eight from his first marriage. Eek!

Nathen Amin has drawn on a countless amount of resources in order to produce such an interesting level of detail, and I found I took so many notes that the whole book was in my notebook. Had the Beauforts not gone on to do so much more, the information on Joan Beaufort could be enough for a book on its own.

Joan’s children went to create the families which ruled England and fueled both sides of the War of the Roses. There was the famous Neville line, including a queen of England and multiple earldoms, including the powerful Warwick family. Joan’s blood flowed through the families of the Dukes of Westmoreland, Somerset and Exeter. Thanks to Joan’s eldest daughter they joined the Mowbray family; another daughter married into the powerful Percy lineage, another into the dynasty of the Staffords, the Dukes of Buckingham. More sons became barons, the family boasted archbishops, and the baby of the family was Cecily, married to the Duke of York, creating two kings, Edward IV and Richard III. That’s just a selection of their greatness!

But nothing destroys families like the quest for power. The 1400’s saw much wealth and success, but also death. By the time Margaret Beaufort (great niece of Joan), who married into the Tudor family, saw her son Henry defeat Richard III for the crown, the Beauforts’ power had spread out like a spiderweb of noble houses.

I am not new to the history of the Beauforts, nor their struggles to take the throne, but I found plenty to enjoy in Amin’s book. If you are new to the subject, this is the number one place to begin. The author has written a book without bias, simply presenting facts written to be entertaining, instead of heavy and academic.

Truth always beats fiction, and while I read this in ebook style, once my hardcover arrives, this book will now sit on my top shelf, where I keep all the books I go back to and reference while I work. History is filled with incredible tales, and Amin’s book brings together so many people that you too could be an expert in no time.