Harper | 2016 (1 December) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1451 and Henry VI, a troubled and unhappy man, more monk than king, realises that he is in need of family. He has been unable to give his queen, Marguerite of Anjou, the child they need to secure their royal line, and the royal dukes are becoming increasingly watchful and belligerent. Henry summons his half-brothers to court, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, the sons of a secret and illegal marriage between Henry V’s widow Catherine of Valois and the Welsh poet Owen Tudor who stole her heart. Soon they are the confidants of Henry and his queen, given titles and lands, precedence, and the prospect of a rich and noble marriage. Lucky for them, then, that there is another new person at court – Margaret Beaufort, the charismatic, painfully young and tiny heiress, the richest in the land and in the gift of the king.
Edmund and Jasper endeavour to find their way at court in their different ways, with Edmund being the one to win Margaret Beaufort. Jasper deals with his disappointment in the best way he can, serving Henry as his most loyal and trusted servant, providing advice and support to Henry and then to Marguerite as Henry slips into illness and the country descends into civil war. Jasper has other cares. The fates have dealt their hand and Jasper is now custodian of Edmund and Margaret’s son, Henry Tudor. And it is in raising Henry, looking after his grand estates in Wales and growing close to Jane, young Henry’s governess, that Jasper finds comfort. But the call to arms isn’t far off as the Duke of York declares war on the king. The future has never been so uncertain for Henry VI, Jasper, Margaret Beaufort and the young Henry Tudor.
First of the Tudors picks up the thread of the story begun with The Agincourt Bride and continued with The Tudor Bride. These magnificent, enchanting novels told the tale of Catherine of Valois’ transformation into Henry V’s Queen of England and then, pulling happiness from grief, wife of Owen Tudor. And now, Joanna Hickson returns to the story of Catherine’s family, focusing on her second Tudor son, Jasper, and his closeness with her royal son, Henry VI. There’s no need at all to have read these two books before – First of the Tudors begins afresh – but I can never resist the opportunity to urge people to read The Agincourt Bride and The Tudor Bride. I adore these two books and how good it is to find that First of the Tudors is every bit as wonderful.
As is regularly the case with Joanna Hickson’s novels, the narrative is split between two characters. This time Jasper’s perspective is alternated with that of Jane, the woman he loves and looks after his household and his ward Henry Tudor. This structure works brilliantly well because it gives the reader the best of both worlds – the court and the progress of war and the more domestic story of the childhood of Henry Tudor, with all of the instability brought about by the Wars of the Roses. I loved the characters of Jasper and Jane and their story is every bit as involving as the grander one played out by Henry VI, Marguerite, the Duke of York and Warwick the Kingmaker. But all these characters and more are also brought to life.
A standout figure for me is Margaret Beaufort. Joanna Hickson captures something enthralling about her. There is a power and strength to her that contrasts so well with her vulnerability and, for the earlier part of the novel at least, her innocence. Watching that innocence be destroyed is one of the most affecting and compelling parts of the novel. I’ve read many portraits of Margaret Beaufort in fiction over the years and this is without doubt my favourite.
Despite the focus on Jasper, Margaret, Jane, Henry VI and Queen Marguerite, there is another figure here who carries the weight of destiny on his young shoulders – Henry Tudor. First of the Tudors is the first, I trust, in a new series that will chart Henry’s path to the throne and I am so excited at the prospect. Henry VII is one of the most fascinating figures in English royal history but has, perhaps not surprisingly, always been overshadowed in fiction, and perhaps in history, by his son Henry VIII and his granddaughter Elizabeth I. But it’s with Henry Tudor that it all began and it’s an astonishing story and his uncle Jasper has such an important part to play in it.
There is romance in First of the Tudors but it isn’t a romantic novel, nor is it focused on the battles of the Wars of the Roses. Instead, this is a marvellous character-driven portrait of a family, albeit an extraordinary family with no normal cares and worries, leading unusual lives. And the setting is equally evocative. This is a tale that moves between castles. Coincidentally, I visited a fair few of the castles mentioned here in September and now I am desperate to go back. Joanna Hickson has brought those stone walls back to life and filled them with the voices of the people who called them home. With no doubt at all, this is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had this year and it’s the perfect novel to curl up with on a long winter’s evening.