Bloodline | Conn Iggulden | 2015, Pb 2016 | Michael Joseph | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book
In the cold earliest days of 1461, three heads are wedged on to spikes on the battlements of York, all three slain at the Battle of Wakefield: Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury, Richard, Duke of York, and York’s son, the young Edmund. With the deaths of York and Salisbury, one might think that the York cause is lost, that the Lancastrians have triumphed and that the Wars of the Roses are finally over. But the Lancastrian figurehead and English King, Henry VI, is a prisoner. It’s his wife Margaret of Anjou who is inspiring armies in his name. And the deaths of York and Salisbury mark a turning point – Margaret has unleashed their sons. Edward of March, now Duke of York, declares himself King, supported by the Kingmaker, Richard Earl of Warwick, Salisbury’s son. Both men are sworn to vengeance. They will win and they will remove the heads of their fathers from York’s walls. But at what cost?
Bloodline, the third in Conn Iggulden’s magnificent Wars of the Roses chronicles covers the events of 1461-1464, three remarkable years in England’s history and among the bloodiest. While it appears that the Yorkists have all but won there is about to be a reversal of fortunes on a staggering scale, largely due to the indomitable martial spirit of Edward, now declared Edward IV. England has two kings, one – the mad, saintly Henry VI – under lock and key and the other one – Edward – a giant of a man, practically living in armour, inspiring his knights and archers from the front, aided by the most powerful family in the land, the Nevilles, headed by Richard of Warwick.
These years contained the Battle of Towton, arguably the bloodiest day on English soil, and it forms a stunning centrepiece for Bloodline. Conn Iggulden makes us hear the terrifying sound of the arrow flights, the clash of swords, and the cries of men fleeing for their lives, cut down or smothered by the muddy snow during this most unseasonable of battles.
Aside from the scenes of war, Bloodline is at heart a novel about the men and women at the core of the Wars of the Roses. This was a Royal family civil war – the descendants of Edward III tore themselves apart, killing the majority of their sons and heirs. This meant that men such as Edward and Warwick were motivated in large part by grief and Conn Iggulden roots the conflict in emotions we can understand and share today. It’s not about politics – it’s about vengeance and power. And some of Edward’s decisions are clouded by personal feelings, especially after his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. This marriage changed completely the balance of power and from this point on the war is fuelled by the aggrieved feelings of another indomitable man – Warwick. This is a struggle between alpha males with incredible power and personal charisma and presence.
Bloodline is historical storytelling at its finest – the Wars of the Roses are brought out from the past and made fresh because they are presented as raw, violent and deeply emotional. This extraordinary family is wiping itself out at the most horrendous cost for the people of England. We are not spared the utter outrage of these battles. While nobles are executed – no hostages were taken by these vengeful princes – the commonman is slaughtered in his thousands. The characters are sensitively drawn, combining knightly flamboyance, youthful energy and sad, depressed rage. Edward IV stands head and shoulders above the others, a giant in size and action, while Henry VI appears as some pitiful, little figure, well-meaning but so ill-suited to wear his crown. Edward is no perfect warrior, however. He is easily led and flattered. He needs to be contained. Margaret continues to challenge our sympathies while Warwick manages to raise them. Warwick is a wonderful creation. You can almost see his thought processes as he tries to deal with his own agenda while coping with his personal grief and the wavering of a capricious young king.
There is a considerable amount of heart in Bloodline. It’s an exciting read – these are the most incredible times, after all – but it’s enriched by insight and sensitivity. There is a melancholy air to it but that seems especially appropriate to its themes. Conn Iggulden is such a fine writer, well-skilled at immersing his reader in the past and making it relevant. I’ve read most of Conn Iggulden’s novels over the years and, with no doubt at all, I can declare Bloodline my favourite.