Ravenspur | Conn Iggulden | 2016, Pb 2017 | Michael Joseph | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Wars of the Roses reach their conclusion in Ravenspur, the fourth novel in Conn Iggulden’s magnificent chronicle of late medieval England. History records the path to Bosworth Field and Richard III’s defeat by Henry Tudor and so you could read this final stage on its own but here is a series that demands to be read in sequence. By doing so you will follow the careers of Warwick and Edward from the very beginning, two young nobles, driven by thoughts of vengeance and destiny, who inherited their determination from their slaughtered fathers. Ravenspur tells us how finally it all came to an end.
It is 1470 and the tides have turned once again in the Wars of the Roses, a conflict that has caused harm to more than one generation. Warwick the Kingmaker is in supremacy, ready to open the door of Henry VI’s prison. Edward IV, grown indolent and fat through soft living, feasting and obliging maids, is put to flight. Edward barely escapes with his life. He flees with his brother Richard of Gloucester to the continent, leaving his pregnant wife Elizabeth to claim sanctuary from the monks of Westminster Abbey, in the heart of the lion’s den.
But, while this is a moment of triumph for Warwick, a man who feels he has been unfairly forced to turn traitor to Edward, his old friend and brother in arms, there is little he can do with Henry VI, a half-mad gentle man who can barely keep hold of his senses, let alone his crown. Henry’s ambitious and determined Queen Margaret hastens from her own exile in France to help her husband govern, prepared to unite with Warwick, an enemy of years’ standing. But she must move quickly. Edward and Richard are already stirring, regaining their prowess, becoming re-inspired. And when Edward and his men land at Ravenspur near Hull, Warwick must fight once again to turn back the tide. Meanwhile, in the wings, Henry Tudor, the last surviving Lancastrian heir, watches and waits.
Conn Iggulden is arguably peerless in his ability to understand and portray the motivations and inspirations of men and women who lived centuries ago. We are presented with the battles and the military to and fro of an even-handed conflict that took many years to complete but this series gives us much more than a dramatic and thrilling account of war, it takes us inside the heads and hearts of the people who fought it and endured it. It is often an intimate story, with the great stage of the battlefield mirrored by heated arguments in state rooms between combatants who knew each other far too well. It has become all too personal. We know well what Warwick and Edward have shared, the grief they still feel. While Warwick and Margaret are natural enemies, there is something tragic in the transformation of Warwick and Edward’s brotherhood into hatred.
There are other relationships explored here and they are fascinating – the one that stands out the most for me is the relationship between Edward and his younger brother Richard of Gloucester. Richard is a relative newcomer to this series due to his youth but in Ravenspur he comes into his own. Conn Iggulden’s interpretation of Richard’s character is a masterstroke, engrossing and full of surprises. I say surprises but there are moments here, especially one moment in particular, when I sat up in my seat shocked. It’s not often that a well-known historical figure surprises me in a novel, Conn Iggulden manages it more than anyone and here most memorably of all. The portrait of the young Henry Tudor, the founder of a new age, is also well worth remarking on. We’re used to seeing Henry VII portrayed as a penny-pinching dour and ageing king. It’s good to be given the chance to consider the younger man he once was, his unusual and malign childhood, a soldier who won his crown on a battlefield.
Ravenspur contains some of the most critical battles of the Wars of the Roses, notably the battles of Tewkesbury and Bosworth. We are carried into the heart of the battle, witnessing the effort, wounds and mortal suffering of both sides. Lancastrians and Yorkists are intricately linked by this stage of the war. There are so few members of these noble houses left. The battles are brilliantly drawn, violent, exhausting, desperate, unlucky or favoured. But in between the battles, the movement of forces from one war-torn part of the tired country to another, Ravenspur presents the story of a few individuals as they finally reach their destiny after such a long, painful fight.
Ravenspur, and the entire Wars of the Roses series, is historical fiction at its very best, taking the reader for a few glorious hours out of the present and into the past, informing, entertaining and inspiring by turn. It is a significant series. My view of Richard III has been altered forever by Ravenspur. That in itself is quite an achievement and there are plenty more to be found in this wonderful novel.