Richard II: A True King’s Fall by Kathryn Warner

This is a very well researched book which covers the life and reign of the much-maligned (and arguably, misunderstood) Richard II, the boy king who inherited the throne after the death of his revered grandfather, the “warrior-king” Edward III (his father, the Black Prince, having died a few years earlier).

With a great knowledge of family trees and the complicated familial links of the great British and European dynasties and making solid use of contemporary records and chroniclers, Warner unravels aspects of Richard’s early years as king, the hurdles he had to overcome, his love of pomp and finery, his devoutness to his first wife, Anne of Bohemia and great love of his friend, De Vere, and the impact the loss of both these people had upon the man. She also describes how contemporaries both manipulated the boy-king for their own ends, how Richard II indulged in blatant favouritism and puerile revenge against those he didn’t favour, how the people swiftly turned against their liege, and how all this came back to bite him viciously in his final years.

The tale of how Richard was usurped by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke or Henry IV and ended up starving to death (whether deliberately or against his will) is well known. So are stories that he didn’t actually die but was replaced by a look-a-like and lived for many years after (imposters did spring up from time to time). As Shakespeare and other writers and poets have found, Richard’s life and reign are the stuff of stories – full of pathos (the little boy who lost his father while young, his grandfather, beloved wife; was rumoured to have a homosexual relationship,  betrothed to child for  his second marriage, was spoiled, prone to tantrums, failed to live up to the great expectations his father and grandfather set in terms of being a militant leader; earned the contempt of parliament and the people, the cautious warnings of poets and clergy, was vengeful, spoiled, prone to temper tantrums and yet also generous at times and when young, incredibly brave (he faced a huge rebellion when a mere teenager and quelled it) and yet, this biography didn’t capture the imagination or this reader in quite the way other stories about this king have.

Warner’s writing is lovely and when she unspools the life and times of the king and those around him, it is engrossing reading. For example, early in the book she describes the king physically based on a study of his remains at Westminster and contemporaries’ descriptions. She also tells us that he was prone to revealing his emotions on his face as he changed colour when angry or upset. He also ”invented” the pocket handkerchief – that is a piece of fabric exclusively dedicated to blowing and cleaning the nose – fascinating! These are wonderful gems with which to approach the later political machinations with which he not only became embroiled but facilitated. However, these parts are too often dominated by reams of reams of what seems like unnecessary information about bloodlines and relationships of British royals and other nobles that reads like the Old Testament where so and so begat so and so for generations. You end up becoming not only side-tracked from the main narrative but lost in a blizzard of names. It was, for a life of a remarkable and fascinating – for all the wrong and right reasons – king, often boring. I also found that Warner sometimes passes moral judgements about various people’s lives and actions which grated. Or she adds suppositions that don’t seem to have a place in what is otherwise a fine work of research and evidence-based accounting.

Overall, however, I found this an interesting read that placed Richard II and his reign in a slightly different context to usual.

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The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation by Ian Mortimer.

Whenever you pick up one of Ian Mortimer’s non-fiction books, you know you’re guaranteed to be taken a meaningful and relevant journey through a period of British history, all while being engaged, educated and thoroughly entertained. The Perfect King, which tells the story of Edward III from boyhood to death, is no exception.

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I confess to not knowing much about Edward before reading this book, my knowledge extending mainly to his famous son, John of Gaunt, grandchildren, the future kings, Richard II and Henry IV, and his much-maligned mistress, Alice Perrers.

Yet the story of Edward is not only about a young boy who though he was thrust into kingship when his father, Edward II was deposed and placed under the regency of manipulative men, grew into a martial and mostly just king, it’s a tale about a man who transformed the English nation in multiple ways. The title, The Perfect King isn’t a hyperbolic description of Edward’s time on the throne rather, as Mortimer explains, it’s aspirational in that it refers to what Edward always strived (yet often failed) to be. While his contemporaries and early historians granted him almost legendary status, later historians were not so kind, painting him as a war-monger who ran amok with foreign policy to the detriment of England. Mortimer determines to set the record straight and, using contemporary sources and revisiting evidence, accomplishes this. In the final chapter, he sums up the man’s reign with these words: “The hard fact is that Edward was hugely successful king, even though he had his fair share of failures and arguments and died lonely and in misery.”

The story of Edward’s reign is complex, fascinating, filled with deception (the story about his father’s deposition, supposed death and the cover-up around that is amazing), wars (the period known as the Hundred Years War began at this time), loyalty, chivalry, loss, tragedy, luck, misfortune, death, plague, and contradictions – but this is what makes this time and the man at its heart so damn interesting.

Edward may have started life in the shadow of his father and then as a pawn in someone else’s political machinations and ambitions, but once he overthrows them he quickly establishes himself as a king of which England could be proud. Not only was Edward responsible for changing parliamentary representation and giving the common people a genuine voice, he also ensured that by ordering ordinary men to train to shoot with the longbow, they not only became formidable fighters, but were held in an esteem previously reserved for knights. Suddenly, the peasants were also the fighters too giving them a certain status as well as propelling them into danger. Edward also undertook, after winning war after war in France and Scotland, a remarkable building program and sponsored and fostered the arts in a manner never seen before. He also, despite some later historians decrying the fact some of his peace negotiations failed or his many battles came with a great loss of life and cruelty, ensured no major battles were ever fought on English soil. In that way, he always kept England (though not necessarily his soldiers) safe.  Further, he also heralded the change from French as the major spoken language to English – not just on the streets, but by the nobles and in parliament and through the passing of legislation (it was spoken in English and written in Latin). He was also responsible for establishing the Order of the Garter, which was emulated throughout the continent with varying degrees of success.

A multifaceted man, he had contradictory traits and flaws, but this is what made him potentially a good leader of men too – in that, he understood what made people tick.

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Feared, admired, loved and loathed at the height of his reign, it’s indicative of the era, that once he passed his fiftieth year and thus was unable to be at the forefront of his beloved jousts or lead battles like he used to, he went into a slow decline in the public’s eye and, years later, in reality. When many of his beloved children died, then his closest friends and advisors and finally his wife, he retreated into the comfort of another woman’s arms, a woman to whom history has been mostly unkind, but who Mortimer chooses not to judge too harshly but, to his credit, understand.

Edward may have died with only a priest by his side, but in the aftermath of his death and the reign of his grandson, Richard II, he was remembered in almost legendary and deified terms – as a noble, courageous and wise man whose counterpart had not been seen for centuries except in the legends he so loved and which, it’s touted, likely inspired many of his actions and decisions: the tales of King Arthur and his knights.

This is an excellent book that draws you into the period and Edward’s life and reign in an uncompromising but always thoughtful way – a way always supported by facts but also intelligent supposition where necessary. A terrific book for anyone interested in English history and one of the not so perfect, but very human, rulers.

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A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

This was an intricately plotted, historically accurate medieval mystery, full of intrigue, tragedy and rich characters.

When a book of prophecies that foretells the death of the last twelve English kings and the current one, Richard II, is rumoured to be circulating in London, there are many ruthless folk out to retrieve it and for different reasons. Enter, stage right, one John Gower, who discovers the book is in the hands of those who don’t understand what it is they have or how dangerous it is – not just to king and country, but them. Tracking the book and the current holders proves more difficult than Gower could have foreseen, especially when other copies of the original start to manifest and Gower learns that not only is his best friend, poet, diplomat and customs official, Geoffrey Chaucer, somehow embroiled in what’s going on, but possibly his estranged son as well.

Determined to save the king and, if he can, those he cares about as well, Gower risks life and limb, journeying from the pungent and grimy streets of London, the stews of Southwark, the halls of Westminster and the hallowed cloisters of Oxford to get to the bottom of what’s swiftly becoming a deadly game – a deadly game of death. Further afield, there are those plotting revenge and the presence of the book has just made the possibility they might finally get to serve it more desirable than ever.

Filled with minute detail of the era, from fashions, political machinations and plots, real people of the period (rulers, politicians, poets, maudlyns, diplomats, mercenaries etc), I confess I first struggled with this novel as the desire to be authentic almost overwhelmed the story – a story that, I should add, presents London and, indeed England at that time as almost totally joyless and always dangerous. Having said that, one of the delights of this book is the way in which Holsinger brings to bear his incredible knowledge of the era as a medieval scholar, imbuing each and every page with sights, smells and sounds – even when you wish he hadn’t!

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politics and wheeling and dealing is also spot on as the rich and powerful (and those who desire to be both) manoeuvre to either get closer to the throne, or bring it down. This is a grim and dark tale but it’s also incredibly clever and the weaving of actual historical figures, and the formation of what were to become major literary works (eg. The Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Cresida as well as the work of John Gower – himself a burgeoning  poet of the time) with fictional ones is seamlessly achieved.

If you enjoy superbly crafted historical novels which really evoke time, place and people and a damn fine mystery, then this is the book for you.

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Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England by Liza Picard

If anyone knows how to breathe life into the past, to imbue the people, landscape, cities, trades and the nobility who rule over all of them with colour, drama and adventure, it’s Liza Picard. Her latest book, Chaucer’s People is no exception as she takes as her frame narrative the characters Geoffrey Chaucer introduces in his Canterbury Tales and frees them from the confines of his wondrous prose to teach us about the Middle Ages.

Rather than explicating the uncompleted poem with its pilgrims and the tales they tell to help the trip from Tabard Inn Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral pass more pleasantly, Picard examines not just the individuals as Chaucer describes them, but the trades and roles of each of the pilgrims, setting them in a broader social and historical context.

The book is divided into expansive parts, such as Country Life, City Life, The Armed Services etc. before chapters are given to the well-known pilgrims. Yet, this book isn’t about analysing the characters as Chaucer defines them or their tales reveal. Starting with Chaucer’s physical and sometimes psychological descriptions, she then delves into the characteristics of the pilgrims’ roles, trades or professions; how and where they fit into the broader medieval landscape and beyond. So, for example, she deals with the religious figures by outlining just how their various orders were established, when and where, the specific role say a friar, prioress, abbot or parson might play (eg she unpacks the Pardoner as someone who travelled to Rome to purchase indulgences for sins from the Pope then returned to England to sell them at an elevated cost (along with fake holy relics), thus profiting from people’s desire to seek penance for their spiritual offences. Picard makes it clear – as does Chaucer – that Pardoners and their motivation as well as public perception were becoming increasingly questioned). From lawyers, to merchants, clerks, yeomen, squires and, of course, the Wife of Bath, each is taken out of the tale and placed in history. For example, the Shipman, to which the final chapter is dedicated, is located within not just the actual maritime wars and adventures of the period, but within the broader discourse of travel writing which was growing in popularity at this time and of which medieval audiences would have been aware. Thus we’re given a potted history of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, their writings, their reception and the fantastical sites they claim to have seen and of which, according to Picard, any shipman worth his salt would have been aware.

Just like the Tales upon which this draws, this is a colourful, fascinating and ofttimes very funny book that casts an intellectual’s eye over medieval times in order to bring them into sharp focus. I found this book difficult to put down. If only all history was written in such a lively and irresistible fashion! For lovers of history and well written books, I can highly recommend a journey with Picard and her version of Chaucer’s pilgrims.

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Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Here are two reviews of historian and fiction writer, Ian Mortimer’s wonderful book written six years apart. I first read this book in 2013 – not once, but twice, when researching my medieval novel, The Brewer’s Tale. I loved it then and enjoyed it even more now as I commence research for my next fictional foray into medieval England and Europe with my new novel, tentatively entitled The Mostly True Story of the Wife of Bath. So expect a great many works of non-fiction about these times and fiction set in this period as well to be reviewed over the next few months!

Original review written in 2013: Historian Ian Mortimer does something really interesting with this book: he sets out to recreate the period (the Fourteenth Century) as if he were writing a travel book for tourists as opposed to researching and explaining a forgotten time. In other words, he places the reader in the moment, advising you where to go, what to see, how to behave, speak, dress and what to expect should you happen to have the good fortune to be transported back to not-so-merry old England in the 1300s. 

After my second reading of this book in less than a year, I wish I had access to Dr Who’s Tardis because, with Mortimer’s well-thumbed book under my arm, I would head straight for Exeter, where the book opens, prepared for the ordure of the aptly named, Shitbrook, the breath-taking sight of the cathedral, avert my eyes from the remains of criminals clinging to the gallows, and be careful not to stare at the bright and strange clothes the people are wearing, while tripping along the cobbles, one hand firmly on my money so a cut-purse does not take it. 

Like many contemporary historians, Mortimer believes in social history, reconstructing the past in order to understand how it was lived and not simply by kings, queens, monks, lawyers and nobles, those who have left records of their deeds and desires for us to absorb and through which we judge them. Instead, Mortimer turns to all classes and all experiences and takes the reader on a magnificent and fascinating journey back to a character-filled society with its own delights and dangers. It was so good the first time, I did it again and liked it even better. 

Explaining where to stay, how to tell the time, greet people (Eg. “fellow or friend, ye be welcome”), about the sumptuary laws, what certain coins look like and what you might be able to buy and where, what diseases we might succumb to if we’re not careful, what we might be served and how to eat it whether it be in an inn, a peasant’s house or a king’s castle (all of which are thoroughly described as if you’re on a guided tour), Mortimer runs the gamut of class and place in this vivid recreation that is at once hugely informative and always vastly entertaining. 

Even how to avoid running foul of the law and what punishment might be meted out is made clear as well as the significance of religious observances. Medieval humour is also explored as well as, for those so inclined, where you might find the best er hum, sexual services (Southwark, the Stews, or specific areas in London, in case you wanted to know). He also discusses how to entertain ourselves while we’re there (the Stews aside) and who, among the great figures known to us now, we might expect to encounter on our journey – Geoffrey Chaucer anyone? He has rooms above Aldgate. 
Just when you think you’ve stepped back into the present, Mortimer will remind you to take a deep breath and stop. Listen, he advises. What do we hear? Very little. Maybe some bells, the sounds of birds and animals and, above all, the chatter and clutter of people should we be near a town or city. Or, if present at a joust, the thunder of hooves. The medieval world is a very quiet place, something I hadn’t considered, along with many of the other preconceptions and yes, prejudices I had about this period and which Mortimer’s grandest of tours manages to overturn. 

If you’re looking for a book that will literally transport you to another time and place, than I cannot recommend this one highly enough. A fabulous read. 

Review written March 2019: Having just reread this marvellous book, I have to change my rating to five plus stars. This was even better on a third read. Immersive, dark and wondrous, Mortimer really does bring alive aspects of the calamitous Fourteenth century and the people who inhabited this era.

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Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson

Veil of Lies is a medieval “whodunnit” that pits the wits of a disgraced knight against the equivalent of “the mob” as well as an elusive killer.

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The disgraced knight is one Crispin Guest, formerly of the House of Lancaster, but now of the less than salubrious streets of London. Known as “The Tracker”, against his better judgement, accepts a commission from a wealthy merchant who believes his wife is being unfaithful. Required to follow the man’s wife, what Crispin discovers confirms his employer’s concerns. When the merchant is found dead shortly after, suspicion falls on the lovely wife. But Crispin is not convinced by her guilt.

When Crispin learns that the merchant was also in possession of a valuable holy relic, a veil believed to bear the impression of Christ’s face and which forces anyone in its vicinity to speak the truth, he understands there are darker forces at work. This is relic is something that other parties are willing to kill to possess. Suddenly, a great deal more than a wife’s honour and a man’s life is at stake.

There’s no doubt Westerson brings the seamier side and brutality of this era London to vivid life in this tale of secrets, murder, and deception. The plot ticks along at a steady pace and with enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. As a hero, Crispin is somewhat wanting (which I also liked) as he struggles with his loss of status and the people he’s not only forced to reckon with daily, but how he’s perceived and treated by others as well. Crispin is an unapologetic snob who manages to seriously offend and thus offside those whose help and trust he needs, let alone those he likes. In that respect, the novel exposes the class system extant at the time and how much appearances and connections counted. The woman at the centre of the tale is also flawed, but I enjoyed reading a book that didn’t rely solely on binary characteristics to spin a good yarn – so much so, I’ve downloaded the next book in the Crispin Guest series.

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