Category Archives: Medieval

The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer

Simon & Schuster | 2017 (15 June) | c.350p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Outcasts of Time by Ian MortimerIt is December 1348 and the Black Death ravages England’s terror-stricken population. God has turned His back. The bodies of men, women and children fill great death pits in the towns and cities while more corpses rot where they fell – on streets, on country roads, in their houses, in each other’s arms. Brothers John and William are travelling by foot to Exeter, a place that both know well but is especially meaningful to John, a stone mason, who carved some of the brand new cathedral’s statuary, incorporating representations of himself, his brother and his beloved wife into its carvings.

But they see the work of pestilence everywhere and know it is only a matter of time before they too are stricken. And when the inevitable happens, they seek to make peace with God in a sacred place. But instead they are made an offer: they can either return home to live out the six days remaining to them or they will experience each of those six days, 99 years apart from the one before. They would move through the centuries with all sign of the plague removed. But at the end of those six days they will face the Final Judgement.

And so begins an extraordinary journey for two men whose lives have been lived firmly within the medieval world of the mid 13th century. Men for whom God is central to their existence, just as the Earth is the centre of the universe. Both John and William fought for Edward III in France, determined if necessary to die for their beloved King. As they make the first leap – to 1477 – they realise that everything will change, that they will stand out more and more. Not just for their clothes and their accents, but also for their faith, their convictions and their morality. All of these elements of life are fickle. All of them change through the centuries as John and William experience such times as the rise of Protestantism, the English Civil War, culminating in the early 1940s. While their world expands across seas, some things remain the same. War, above all else.

The Outcasts of Time is an astonishing novel, not least because it combines a fascinating, irresistible Faustian tale with a clever scrutiny of the transition from the medieval to modern worlds as it would have affected an unexceptional everyman from the 13th century. It’s a personal story, as told through the words of John, and, as such, it is moving, heartfelt and often tragic, especially as he misses his wife and children. But it also tells the broader tale of humanity’s progress (or lack of it) through seven hundred years. The judgement on how well we have done comes from John as he struggles to make sense of it all, or at least some of it. Hanging over it all, though, is the memory of the plague and the descriptions of this are powerfully repulsive and painful to read. We all know about the Black Death and how it eliminated so many villages and devastated towns and cities but this novel reminds us of the countless human tragedies that combined to create the disaster. What John and William and others had to endure is appalling.

The novel is rich in themes but it is also packed with the most fascinating historical details, as you’d hope when considering the credentials of the author historian Ian Mortimer. I loved all the details about dress, houses, the shifting form of the city of Exeter and the changes to the use of the countryside, as well as the gradual introduction of developments in technology, the sciences, the arts. Imagine seeing trains for the first time, or a clock, or hearing a piano or Mozart, or a line from Shakespeare, seeing a movie. Or learning that man’s position to the universe and God is not what you thought. That morality can shift, even the nature of good and evil. Yet you can look into the night sky and the stars are still there. Whenever I visit a historic place I always think about the people who trod those stones before me – what did they see? What did they think? The wonder that history holds is everywhere in this novel.

The Outcasts of Time is one of those novels that I think would actually benefit from a second reading. It is so richly layered with themes that it is only when you (or at least me) reach the end that you fully realise what an achievement this book is, how much there is in it to discover. At the time of reading it, I was caught up in each of the episodes and I didn’t make all of the connections between the centuries. At the end I realised that I had missed some of the ‘clues’. This is most certainly a novel that deserves and rewards a close reading and your full attention.

The ideas in The Outcasts of Time are huge but they are also wholly accessible because they are planted in a story about two brothers who, when faced with a most terrible and frightening death, have to make a personal choice. This marvellous novel engages the heart and mind and, when finished, it’s not one you want to forget.

What inspired me to write about Joan of Kent? Guest post by Anne O’Brien, author of The Shadow Queen

The Shadow Queen by Anne O'BrienThis week, on 4 May, HQ publishes Anne O’Brien’s latest historical novel: The Shadow Queen. To mark the occasion I’m delighted to host a guest post from Anne in which she writes about what inspired her to write about Joan of Kent, the wife and widow of the Black Prince and mother of Richard II.

First, here is a little of what The Shadow Queen is about:

From her first clandestine marriage, Joan of Kent’s reputation is one of beauty, rumour and scandal. Her royal blood makes her a desirable bride. Her ambition and passion make her a threat. Joan knows what she must do to protect her reputation… the games to play, the men to marry. She will do anything to get what she wants: The Crown of England. A tale of ambition, treachery and desire, The Shadow Queen tells of a woman’s ascent through the court to command royal power alongside her young son, King Richard II.

What inspired me to write about Joan of Kent?

Who was she?

Joan of Kent, during her eventful life, was Countess of Kent in her own right, Princess of Wales, Princess of Aquitaine and ultimately King’s Mother. She was a woman of royal birth and unsavoury reputation. What was it about this woman who made an impact on the court circles of the late fourteenth century that appealed to my imagination?

A Plantagenet princess, she was first cousin to King Edward III, a woman of royal status although her father’s name was tainted with treason. Joan was by tradition beautiful, raised in the royal household, but was salaciously notable for her three marriages, two of them clandestine and one certainly bigamous. Thus she has intrigued readers of history as much as she has invited condemnation. Was she ‘the most beautiful lady in the whole realm of England, and by far the most amorous’. Was she ‘beauteous, charming and discreet’? Or was she ‘given to slippery ways’?

But scandal was not the only element of fascination in Joan’s life. So was her ambition. As wife of Edward of Woodstock, later to be known as the Black Prince, she blossomed as Princess of Aquitaine where she made as many enemies as friends. As King’s Mother to the boy King Richard II she succeeded in the early years in keeping a firm grip on the power behind the throne. But her past scandals could undo all that she had achieved, threatening to destroy her secure hold on power. Would it, because of Joan’s marital history, be possible to accuse Richard of illegitimacy and so dethrone him?

How was the proud woman to be able to protect herself and her son? Always subtle and carefully manipulative, Joan exhibited a range of talents drawing into her political net the Royal Council and the powerful prince, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

There is so much here to entice the lover of medieval historical fiction. Was Joan simply a pawn in the pattern of royal alliance-making, forced into marriage with a powerful family against her personal wishes, or did she take her future into her own hands? Was she a woman of perfect compliance, or did she have a will of iron? Was her marriage to Prince Edward one based on a childhood love affair, or were Joan’s motives far deeper in her bid for personal power?

A character of much notoriety, some charm and considerable ambition. This is Joan of Kent, The Shadow Queen.

The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien is published 4 May by HQ (£12.99 hardback)

Other post
The Queen’s Choice – review and extract

Kin of Cain by Matthew Harffy – an extract

kin-of-cain-by-matthe-harrfyOn 1 March, Aria published Kin of Cain, a novella in Matthew Harffey’s Bernicia series set in Anglo-Saxon Britain during the first half of the 7th century. I’m delighted to take part in the celebratory blog tour. You’ll find an extract below but first here’s a little about what this Bernicia Tale is all about.

630 Ad. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical tale set in the world of The Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell. Winter grips the land in its icy fist. Terror stalks the hills, moors and marshes of Bernicia. Livestock and men have been found ripped asunder, their bones gnawed, flesh gorged upon. People cower in their halls in fear of the monster that prowls the night. King Edwin sends his champions, Bassus, Octa and band of trusted thegns, to hunt down the beast and to rid his people of this evil. Bassus leads the warriors into the chill wastes of the northern winter, and they soon question whether they are the hunters or the prey. Death follows them as they head deeper into the ice-rimed marshes, and there is ever only one ending for the mission: a welter of blood that will sow the seeds of a tale that will echo down through the ages.

Reviews
The Serpent Sword
Blood and Blade

Extract

The scream silenced the mead hall like a slap to the face of a noisy child.

A chill ran through the throng. The brittle laughter died on lips that quickly twisted from smiles to scowls. The warm hubbub of moments before was shattered as easily as the thin skin of ice that formed on the puddles in the courtyard outside.

One of the hounds looked up from where it gnawed a bone by the hearth fire and whimpered.

Ælfhere, the scop, lowered his lyre, the last, interrupted notes, jangling in the air.

Octa set aside the mead horn he had been drinking from. His senses were dulled by the drink, but not enough that the small hairs on the back of his neck did not prickle with the sound of anguish that came from outside the hall. He turned to his friend, Bassus, who sat on his left. The huge warrior’s brow furrowed. Bassus met his gaze and opened his mouth, but before he could speak, another scream rent the chill night that smothered the great hall.

There were words in that scream.

“The night-walker! The sceadugenga brings death!”

Night-walker. Shadow-goer.

Octa felt bony fingers of terror scratch down his spine. He shuddered, hoping none of the other king’s warriors would notice. He had not long before joined the king’s gesithas and some of the men were wary of him, he knew.

They had feasted; eating, drinking and boasting. Trying to ignore the one who haunted the dark winter paths. They had prayed, some to the old gods, others to the king’s new Christ god, in the hope that the night devil would prove to be nothing more than a wild animal. A man could hunt an animal. Arrows would pierce a wolf or a bear’s flesh. But deep down they had all been expecting more screams in the night. More death stalking the shadows. Few of those in the hall had seen the remains of the people who had been slain by the beast, but the tales of the corpses, ripped and raw, bones smashed, limbs removed, had reached them all. This was not the work of any animal. This was something else.

Something evil.

At the head of the hall, the imposing figure of the king surged to his feet. Edwin, King of Deira and Bernicia, pointed to the end of the hall where the door wardens stood.

“Open the doors,” he said, his tone commanding.

The shorter of the two warriors who guarded the door hesitated. There was a murmur in the great hall. There were many present who did not wish to see the stout wooden doors opened to the night. For who knew what horrors dwelt there in the darkness?

“Lord?”

“You heard my words clearly,” Edwin said. “Open the doors.”

Another scream, closer now.

“I am king of the folk of these lands. I will not leave them outside in the dark while we feast in the fire-glow and warmth of my hall. Now, open the doors.”

“Wait, lord king,” Bassus’ rumbling voice stilled the door ward’s hand before he had lifted the bar. Edwin looked to his champion, arching an eyebrow at the interruption.

“You are right, of course,” said Bassus, “but let us arm ourselves first. We know nothing of what awaits us beyond the walls of Gefrin’s hall.”

Edwin nodded. The door wards quickly distributed the weapons that had been left in their care. A hall crammed with drunken warriors carrying swords and seaxes was not wise, hence the precaution, but now protection of the king and the hall was more important.

Octa retrieved his seax. The weapon had been a gift from his uncle Selwyn and the smooth antler handle was comforting. For an instant his mind was filled with memories of his home in Cantware. Edita and Rheda. His mother. Beobrand. Would he ever see them again? As usual when he thought of them, he felt a pang of regret, a twist of guilt at having abandoned them. But Bernicia was his home now. Edwin his king, and the men around him, his sword-brothers.

He readied himself with the rest of the men near the doors of the great hall of Gefrin. Women and children huddled at the far end of the room, with the priests and the queen.

The reek of fear-sweat filled the air as another wail came from just outside.

“Open the doors!” roared Edwin.

The door wardens lifted the bar and swung the doors open.

Cold night air cut into the hall’s muggy warmth like an icicle plunged into pliant flesh.

For a moment, nobody breathed. The hall was silent, all eyes staring into the utter blackness of the night.

Then, stepping out of the dark and into the frame of the doorway, came a vision from nightmare. Blood-slick and steaming, staggered a figure into the hall. The men stepped back, without thinking, wishing to be distanced from this ghoul. The women gasped. The dark-robed priest, Paulinus, raised the amulet he wore at his neck and recited words of magic in the secret tongue of the Christ followers.

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For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

kin-of-cain-blog-tour

Viper’s Blood by David Gilman – An extract for the Blog Tour

Viper's BloodLast month, Head of Zeus published Viper’s Blood, the fourth novel in David Gilman’s fine Master of War chronicle of the Hundred Years War. I’m delighted to be part of the Blog Tour to celebrate the publication and you’ll find below an extract from the novel in which Sir Thomas Blackstone and his loyal bowmen and swordsmen carry war into the streets of a besieged French town in the 1360s.

You can read my review of Viper’s Blood here.

Extract

Hundreds of fireflies shimmered from the dark alleys. Burning torches. And what had been silence a few heartbeats before was now overtaken by a rising roar of men’s voices as from the streets and alleys men and women advanced in a surging line, torches held high. Fear and anger mingled in their throats. They carried pitchforks and scythes, falchions and iron bars. Women held kitchen knives ready to stab, their voices an eerie pitch that could raise the dead. Anger and fear drove them against the English invaders. And the French troops who pushed their swords into their backs. The garrison were using them as shields against the Englishmen.

Blackstone saw the threat. They would be overwhelmed. A greater fear needed to be inflicted. He raised his sword arm towards Longdon and his archers on the walls. ‘Kill them!’

Without hesitation Will Longdon’s archers turned their bows towards the snarling faces in the shimmering torchlight and as Blackstone raced for the steps screams echoed against the walls. The bowmen were slaughtering the townspeople, but, shields held high against the arrows, the French soldiers came on, trampling their bodies underfoot. To French eyes, this was to be an easy victory. Fewer than fifty men appeared to have breached the walls. They looked to be routiers and they were now trapped in the confines of the square. Crossbowmen sheltered behind the advancing soldiers and four of Longdon’s archers died on the walls.

Blackstone reached the windlass. He jammed in the turning pole. Normally it took two men to turn the drum but, letting Wolf Sword dangle from its blood knot, he grasped the handle and heaved his weight against it. The chain bit and the great door creaked. Meulon was suddenly at his side and lent his weight. The door was barely halfway up. ‘Enough!’ Blackstone said and Meulon jammed the holding rod into position.

They turned for the square. A hay cart blazed; shadows loomed high on the walls. They hurled themselves into the fray. Renfred, Perinne and John Jacob were shoulder to shoulder holding ground; Killbere was to one side and it looked as though he had been separated by a mixed group of troops and townsmen. The townsmen’s fury and terror made a heady mix as the torches illuminated a scene from the underworld. Dogs howled and barked; some driven mad by the smell of blood panicked, snapping and snarling at both attackers and defenders. Both sides slew them. Will Longdon ordered some of his men to keep shooting at the surging crowd as Jack Halfpenny and Thurgood ran further along the wall with three other bowmen and loosed arrows into the Frenchmen’s flanks.

Blackstone glanced over his shoulder. Where was Chandos? He turned around and saw the flames illuminating the throng of men and women who were still surging forward. Their weight of numbers might push Blackstone’s few men back through the very gate they had raised. Killbere had cut down four of the attackers but he was overwhelmed and fell beneath repeated blows. Blackstone turned again, Meulon at his shoulder.

‘John! Perinne!’ Blackstone yelled. They saw him move towards Killbere and within a few strides joined him. Thirty paces away Gaillard and his men had raised a shield wall and that had slowed the French advance; his men were thrusting beneath the wall into those who pressed against them, making no distinction between those they struck, turning the square into a charnel house more terrifying than any priest’s threat of purgatory. Women writhed, screaming from their wounds; soldiers fell to their knees, hands grasping at entrails spilling from pierced bellies.

‘Get him back,’ Blackstone shouted to the men-at-arms who had manoeuvred themselves to join him. Two men grabbed Killbere and dragged him into an abandoned building. ‘Stay with him!’

Several men were now at Blackstone’s shoulder and with a skill borne from years of efficient killing they moved forward in a wedge like a broadhead arrow, forcing the French back yard by yard in a grunting, sweating trial of arms that few could match. Blackstone reached Gaillard, saw the arrows still cutting into the French. Panic was claiming the enemy.

As John Chandos and his men stormed through the half-raised gate the looming shadows of Blackstone’s men methodically killing anyone who challenged them almost made the veteran knight falter. He had never seen so many being slaughtered by so few.

And then he brought his men to bear and the surge forced the French to turn and run.

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If you want to read more, you can find Viper’s Blood here or in all good bookshops.

For other stops on the Blog Tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Viper's Blood blog tour

Viper’s Blood by David Gilman (Master of War 4)

Head of Zeus | 2017 (9 February) | 494p | Review copy | Buy the book

Viper's Blood by David GilmanViper’s Blood is the fourth novel in David Gilman’s powerful and uncompromising chronicle of the Hundred Years War. If you haven’t read the others in the series, beginning with Master of War, then tread no further with this review. Much has happened to our hero Thomas Blackstone in the years since the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and so spoilers for the earlier novels are inevitable.

It is 1360 and although Sir Thomas Blackstone and his men remain in the military service of Florence they are currently fighting alongside Edward the Prince of Wales, and Black Prince, and his father, the mighty Edward III, in France, a country that has good cause to fear the knights and long bow men of its greatest enemy. France’s king has been caught and is held to ransom in England. The dauphin, weak and uncertain, relies on his counsellor Simon Bucy for advice, as the English threaten the very walls of Paris itself. But Bucy has more on his mind than the Wars – he is intent on the destruction of one man, Thomas Blackstone, the nemesis of France, and he will stop at nothing in his desire to see him dead. And then one day Bucy sees a way. A peace treaty between France and England gives him the chance to throw Blackstone into the lap of the Englishman’s greatest enemies, a nest of vipers if ever there was one.

Thomas is not the man he once was. Grief has done that to him. But with his son Henry by his side, Thomas is intent on wreaking vengeance on the men who almost destroyed his life and that of his son. He has loyal men around him, many have been with Thomas since Crécy, and their support is absolute. Just as well because they have quite a time in front of them as they follow their king’s orders on a journey of battles and hardship that will take them across northern France to Paris and then to the Alps and northern Italy. And everywhere they go they will find conflict, division, distrust, murder and bloody violence. For this is the age of war and plague. Chivalry has died.

Viper’s Blood is a compelling and dark chronicle of war, lightened only briefly by the camaraderie and affection between soldiers. But this is now not really a war of pitched battles. Those are in the past and still to come. Instead, there are skirmishes, the seizure of towns, the slaughter of communities, the scramble for land and roads. And when Thomas and his mean leave France for Italy they find no peace. The cities there are constantly at war with one another, the situation merely aggravated by the neighbouring Hundred Years War.

Thomas and his men are little different from the other routiers who terrorise Europe at this time, despite his rules forbidding rape and needless slaughter. But be under no illusion – Thomas is as violent as any and we see his ruthlessness on more than one occasion. And we might warm to his men but there are sudden, shocking reminders – one in particular – that they are no different violence, particularly towards women, lies only just under the surface.

This is the man’s world of war but women suffer in it perhaps more than most and I must admit to struggling with the novel’s representation of women. They don’t come out of it well – whores, witches, rape victims, greedy thieves or innocent princesses seems to sum them up. I’m fully aware that this is a historical novel about medieval warfare and, as such, I don’t expect women to play much of a part, but I wish I had a pound for every reference to a woman’s breasts, clearly her most notable feature. I really felt the loss of Blackstone’s wife in this novel – she’s missed.

Viper’s Blood tells the story of a journey from fight to fight, covering much of France and northern Italy, following Thomas Blackstone’s quest for vengeance. There are moments of extreme action and violence, offset by times of hardship on the road. I really enjoyed the depictions of Paris and Milan – 14th-century Europe is described so well, with its walled towns hiding from mercenaries and roaming armies, vulnerable to disease and greed. I also liked the camaraderie between Thomas and his men, especially Killbere. I did feel a great deal for Thomas’s son Henry whose life seems terribly harsh and yet he never complains. Thomas can be a hard man to like, particularly in his behaviour towards Henry. Even his memories of his wife seem chilled. But Thomas is a damaged man, albeit a remarkable warrior.

Viper’s Blood is an exciting, bloody and well-written tale of Europe at a time of terrible crisis. Surely, there can have been few worse times in history in which to live than the mid 14th century? It’s harrowing at times, chilly in others, and, perhaps, is a little too long, but it is certainly a fine addition to a series that continues to bring these cruel years to life in such rich and meticulous detail.

Other reviews
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death
Gate of War and interview

What’s in a name? – Guest post by Joanna Hickson, author of First of the Tudors

First of the Tudors by Joanna HicksonOn 1 December, Harper published First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson, the first in a new series of novels to portray the rise to power of quite possibly the most famous, and infamous, royal dynasty in English history. It begins with Jasper Tudor, uncle to the young Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, and what a fantastic story it is. Moving from castle to castle at a time when England and Wales were torn apart by the Wars of the Roses, First of the Tudors is a thoroughly enjoyable and lively account of such a fascinating time and Jasper Tudor is placed right at the heart of it all.

To celebrate the publication of First of the Tudors, I’m delighted to host a guest post by Joanna Hickson, in which she discusses the problems she encountered in naming her historical characters. Jasper Tudor had a very unusual name, even for the 15th century. Where did that come from? And what to do when so many important historical figures share the same name?

Review of First of the Tudors

What’s in a name?

When you write novels based on the history of medieval Europe there is often a problem identifying one character from another, because the same Christian names crop up time and time again in the family trees of the major dynasties. In England during the fifteenth century for instance the name Henry occurs confusingly often, cropping up in kings no less than four times and, due to the habit of sycophantic nobles calling their offspring after the reigning monarch, in almost every other courtier family fortunate enough to have sons. In First of the Tudors I have avoided repetition by calling Margaret Beaufort’s posthumous son, who was dutifully baptised Henry, by the Welsh variant of his name, which is Harri, leaving the ‘proper’ name to his half-uncle, King Henry VI.

Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna HicksonIt was a device I adopted in one of my previous novels set earlier in the century when the name Richard had become almost ubiquitous, owing to the initial popularity of the boy-king, Richard II. I made a guess that this could have been awkward for young noblemen arriving at court twenty years later saddled with the name of a monarch who had been unceremoniously usurped by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who became King Henry IV. So, having an embarrassment of Richards to deal with in Red Rose White Rose I decided to give one of the three central Richard characters the nickname Hal after the new king’s son and heir, who Shakespeare also nicknamed Prince Hal. And following this thread, I had no hesitation in calling my Hal’s son and heir Dick rather than Richard, because he was a pugnacious character who became a very powerful earl, played a key role in the Wars of the Roses and eventually became famously known as ‘Warwick, the Kingmaker’. That left me free to use the name in full for his cousin, who so nearly became King of England himself, Richard, Duke of York, husband of the novel’s central character, Cicely Neville.

It was necessary to be similarly inventive when Henry VI’s longed-for heir was baptised Edward, named for the pre-Norman-conquest saint, King Edward the Confessor, at whose shrine in Westminster Abbey his mother had prayed desperately for a son. Unfortunately when this little prince was still a child, his cousin Edward of York seized the throne and became King Edward IV and suddenly there were too many Edwards in my timeline! However, as his mother was a French princess and a lady who dominated her monkish and withdrawn husband, I considered it more than likely that she would have insisted on using the French version of his name, so that he becomes Prince Édouard in the pages of my book. In the same vein, despite English historians invariably referring to her as Margaret of Anjou, she appears as Queen Marguerite in First of the Tudors, because one of the other important female characters is Lady Margaret Beaufort, also a proud and strong-willed woman, who definitely would not have appreciated having her name ignobly shortened to Meg or Maggie!

The Agincourt Bride by Joanna HicksonHappily I had no identity dilemma with the hero of First of the Tudors – Jasper Tudor. In fact it was his unusual Christian name that drew me to him in the first place as it was a conundrum I confronted in The Tudor Bride, a novel which focussed on the clandestine ‘misalliance’ between Henry V’s widow Queen Catherine de Valois and her Master of the Wardrobe, Owen Tudor. While their firstborn son received one of the usual panoply of noble names, being baptised Edmund, I felt I had to figure out why the couple went completely off-piste for their second and called him Jasper? While I would not claim that no other boy was baptised with that name in England in the fifteenth century, I have not come across one during many, many years of researching the period.

Don’t get me wrong, I personally think Jasper a splendid name and lucky are the several hundred boys who have received it annually in twenty first century Britain. But in 1430, which is roughly when my new hero was born, it was unusual – probably unheard of – in England. And therein lies a clue, for there were a number of Jaspers documented in France at the time and of course his mother, once again, was French. Jasper was thought to be a corruption of Caspar, one of the Three Magi who were much revered in the medieval Roman Catholic Church and perhaps a name given to boys born on Twelfth Night or Epiphany, celebrated as the day the Magi brought their gifts to the baby Jesus. The other two were called Balthazar and Melchior, names very occasionally also found in medieval European courts.

The Tudor Bride by Joanna HicksonSo as a princess, Catherine de Valois could have heard of the name but what circumstance might have caused her to break with English noble tradition and give it to her younger son? Well, Jasper also happens to be the name of a semi-precious gemstone, much used in medieval jewellery, most frequently in its red form known as bloodstone, although it comes in many and varied colours. Jasper Tudor was a redhead; the Welsh bards who sang his praises during the Wars of the Roses particularly refer to this fact. This is one of the delights of writing historical fiction; coincidence is allowed and we wander spellbound in the realms of extrapolation from the little snippets of information our research throws up. Another of them that rose to the surface for me was the fact that medieval midwives believed jasper to be an aid in relieving the pain of childbirth. It did not require a huge leap of imagination to picture Queen Catherine owning an item of jewellery set with bloodstones and for it to be used during the birth of her second Tudor child, a boy that proved to have hair the colour of those stones.
Jasper was a name that suited him perfectly, as a powerful courtier and wandering knight errant and one that actually ‘made his name’. For although he was created Earl of Pembroke by his half-brother Henry VI and should therefore have officially been referred to as Lord Pembroke, in the poetry of the Welsh bards and other fifteenth century historical sources he was simply called Lord Jasper – my hero!

First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson

Harper | 2016 (1 December) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book

First of the Tudors by Joanna HicksonIt 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.

Other reviews
The Agincourt Bride
The Tudor Bride
Red Rose, White Rose
An interview