Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Search Terms, Favorites, and Happy New Year!

This will probably be my last post for 2009, so I wanted to start off with some search terms:

queen isabella s what happened with piracy

She gave it up after deciding that the eyepatch was just too unbecoming, darling.

cases of siblings mistakenly marrying

Practice moderation on New Year's Eve, folks, or this could be you.

1885 will changed edward iv

And I thought I procrastinated.

is duchess richard the third male or female

Wasn't giving the man a hunchback bad enough?

what was elizabeth woodville like as a child


Quite cute. Now at last is the time to unveil a newly discovered portrait of her:



why did the blonde leave sanctuary

Normally, this blogger tries to stay well within the bounds of political correctness, but this clearly calls for a blonde joke, and your blogger is, after all, a lifelong brunette. So here goes:

Q: Why did the blonde leave sanctuary?

A: Because she finally realized it wasn't a health spa.

And, in the interest of not alienating blondes who read this blog:

Q: Why did the brunette leave sanctuary?

A: Even as the only woman in a place full of men, she still couldn't get any of them to look at her.

OK, moving on.

I didn't get much reading done in 2009, but I did have a few books I particularly enjoyed, including Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon, The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan, A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin, King's Fool by Margaret Campbell Barnes, Drood by Dan Simmons, and Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold. For nonfiction, I particularly enjoyed The Sisters Who Would Be Queen by Leandra de Lisle, which was a refreshing reminder that one can reevaluate historical figures without indulging in wild speculation, engaging in sloppy research, or smearing other historical figures' reputations. I also enjoyed very much Christopher Wilkins' The Last Knight Errant about Edward Woodville, a well written look at a neglected and often slandered historical figure.

For 2010 I'll be continuing to work on my novel about Margaret of Anjou, and I'm be looking forward to the appearance of The Stolen Crown on March 1! Once the holidays are past, we'll get back to more substantive blog posts, including posts about some of the men who fought and in many cases died for Margaret of Anjou. But don't worry, we'll continue to have fun here too!

Happy New Year to all of you!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Book Review: The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan

Some time ago, I read The King's Touch by Jude Morgan (about James, Duke of Monmouth) and loved it, so I'm surprised it took me so long to read Morgan's latest novel, The Taste of Sorrow.

The Taste of Sorrow tells a familiar story, that of the Bronte sisters' childhood, rise to fame, and premature deaths, but Morgan manages to make this oft-told story seem fresh. He doesn't do this by telling his story through an unusual perspective or by adding sensational elements; rather, he accomplishes his task through exquisite writing, a dry wit, and rich characterizations. Though all of the Bronte siblings emerge with distinct personalities, I especially liked the character of Anne, who's given the honor of uttering one of the funniest lines of the book following a particularly spectacular spree by the sisters' wastrel brother, Branwell. Morgan also does a fine job with Patrick Bronte and with the Hegers.

I would have liked it if the novel had devoted a little more time to Charlotte's life after the deaths of her siblings, instead of a single chapter, but that's not so much a criticism as just a wish that this book could have gone on a little longer. As one who enjoys author's notes, I wish Morgan had added one, or at least indicated which sources he found most useful, though it's clear that he's researched the lives of the Brontes and their circle thoroughly.

Familiarity with the Brontes' novels will add to one's enjoyment of Morgan's novel, but it's not a prerequisite, so don't let a lack of such familiarity keep you from reading The Taste of Sorrow. It's one of the best historical novels I've read, this year or any other year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas Sweater

Here's a seasonal sweater for your delectation:



Alas, I tried to make Richard III a Christmas sweater at another site, but the e-mail function there doesn't appear to be working, so I shall have to leave the dressing of the king to more technologically skilled minds than mine. Trust me, darlings. He looked marvelous.

EDIT: OK, I finally found an e-mail address it liked. So here are sweaters for Richard III and Elizabeth Woodville (who wanted equal time). Isn't everyone entitled to a cozy Christmas?

Merry Christmas, all!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Last Christmas at Grafton: 1463


As promised, here's my entry for the 2009 Virtual Advent Tour. Naturally, it features my favorite family, the Woodvilles.

(December 1463, at the Woodville family manor at Grafton. The walls of the manor are full of holes, which have been haphazardly stuffed with old Lancastrian banners. There is a profusion of chickens inside the manor’s great hall. Standing in the great hall and dressed in various degrees of raggedness are the twelve Woodville children.)

Richard Woodville senior: Children, where’s your mother?
Anthony: At the river communing with Melusine.
Richard senior: (nodding indulgently) Your mother and her Melusine. But again? That’s the third time this week.
Lionel: Yes. She says that she and Melusine are onto something really big and that we shouldn’t disturb her.
Katherine: Pa, it’s really cold in here.
Richard senior: Oh, girl, stop whinging and bring a couple of more chickens inside. They warm the place up.
(Jacquetta enters. She is wearing a gown decorated with pentagrams and is closely trailed by thirteen black cats, who momentarily abandon their duties to take an intense interest in the chickens.)
Jacquetta: (excitedly) My dear ones, such great news! You will not believe what Melusine, the water goddess who is the ancestor of my family, has told me!
Anthony: Mother, is it really necessary that you tell us who Melusine is every time you mention her name?
John: Yes, Mother, she’s almost like a member of the family. A member of the family of whom we’re getting a little tired.
Anthony: Sort of like Queen Isabella got tired of Edward II.
Jacquetta: (forbodingly) You two will have cause to regret someday that you spoke ill of Melusine, the water goddess who is the ancestor of my family. Mark my prophecy. But never mind that for now. Melusine has spoken, and she has said that Elizabeth will be queen of England!
Katherine: Oh, yes, Mother, and I’m going to be Duchess of Buckingham. Tell us another, please.
Anthony: And I’m going to have an earldom.
Lionel: And I’m going to be Bishop of Salisbury.
John: And I’m going to marry a duchess forty years my senior. (Thinks.) You know, that doesn’t sound half bad, in a way.
Mary: Oh, John, you’re so kinky.
Richard senior: And I’m going to be a Knight of the Garter.
Katherine: Pa, you already are a Knight of the Garter.
Richard senior: Oh, that’s right. (Looks down at the garter below his knee, then around with irritation) Then why do I have to live with all of these chickens? And why is everyone calling me "Pa"?
Jacquetta: Would you shut up and listen?
Richard senior: “Father” or even “Papa” would be much more appropriate.
Jacquetta: I tell you people, Melusine has spoken, and she never lies!
Edward: What about that time she said Henry VI would once again sit upon the throne?
Richard junior: They’re right, Mother. Melusine is—how can I put this nicely—unreliable.
Jacquetta: Melusine is always right in the end. Sometimes she works in ways we mere mortals cannot understand. You just need to give her time.
Richard senior: Of course, dear. Now, shall we have our Christmas dinner that the women have worked so hard to prepare?
Anthony: Yes, let’s do. Mother, shall the girls set an extra place for Melusine?
Jacquetta: Laugh if you dare, but next year we’ll be celebrating Christmas with the king. Mark the words of the water goddess, my ancestor Melusine. Come along, Elizabeth, and help me bring in the Christmas dinner. (Walks stage right with Elizabeth.)
Elizabeth: Mother.
Jacquetta: Yes, my dear?
Elizabeth: Did—er—Melusine say that the king was good-looking?
Jacquetta: Oh, yes, indeed.
Elizabeth: And good in bed?
Jacquetta. Oh, yes, yes, yes indeed.
Elizabeth: Hmm. Well, Merry Christmas, Mother. And Merry Christmas, Melusine.
Jacquetta: And Merry Christmas to you, my dear. Men. What do they know?


***

And if you're in the mood for more 15th-century Christmas cheer, here's a piece I did several years ago about Christmas with everyone's favorite English king, Richard III.

I can't tell you how many great people I've met over the past few years through this blog. I may not be be posting much next week, and I know some of you will be traveling and going offline, so here's holiday greetings to you, and may everyone who reads this have a great 2010! It seems like only yesterday that we were fussing over the year 2000, doesn't it?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Kate Gets a Makeover!


As I've probably mentioned here once or twice, The Stolen Crown is due for publication on March 1 of next year. It now has a brand-new cover, so if you've got an advance review copy with the old cover, hang on to it as a rarity!

Here's Kate's new look. The detail, in case you're wondering, is from Lady North in a Blue and White Dress by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

By the way, I'm doing the Virtual Advent Blog Tour this year, so check out my entry on December 19. And no, I haven't the slightest idea of what it will be, but I hope to figure it out soon!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Squidoo Lens and Some Nonfiction Reading

For a long time now, I've maintained a Squidoo Lens on Reading Historical Fiction, where I list sites and blogs devoted to historical fiction (reading it, not writing it). I updated it tonight, but I suspect I've left some deserving blogs and sites out, so if you know of any that should be listed, please let me know! Do note that I haven't included individual author websites on it, because that would make it unwieldy (and would be a lot more work than I need at present), and I haven't included author blogs (including my own) except when the author primarily reviews other people's books on it or interviews other authors.

Thanks to Margaret of Anjou, I haven't had much time for reading lately, but I did want to mention that Dear Hubby bought me The Last Knight Errant: Sir Edward Woodville and the Age of Chivalry by Christopher Wilkins for my birthday last month. I've been dipping into it whenever I can and have enjoyed it thoroughly. It's especially interesting with regard to Edward's post-1485 career, which Wilkins appears to have been thoroughly researched.

Also sitting in my pile of nonfiction to thumb through at leisure is John Sadler's The Red Rose and the White: The Wars of the Roses 1453-1487. Sadler, a battlefield tour guide, seems to know his subject very well, and his narrative is a lively one. Ricardians probably won't care for some of Sadler's conclusions, but Sadler is fair-minded and acknowledges that there is room for doubt as to whether Richard murdered his nephews.

Finally, I'm looking forward to David Santiuste's Edward IV and the Wars of the Roses, coming out early next year. Between that and the new Edward II biography, it should be an expensive new year.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Economic Stimuli We Could Use

I saw in the news today that President Obama is proposing an expansion of his stimulus plan, which includes a program called "Cash for Caulkers" for homeowners who weatherize their residence. (This follows upon the "Cash for Clunkers" program from a while back.)

I think these are excellent programs, but they ignore an important segment of the public: book lovers. So without further ado, here are some stimulus programs that I'm sure readers of all political stripes can agree upon:

"Bucks for Books." To shore up the ailing publishing industry and encourage literacy, an incentive that gives tax breaks to those who spend more than $1,000 per year on books. The more books you buy, the bigger the tax break.

"Cash for Kindles." Encourages the growth of the e-publishing industry by putting a Kindle into the hands of everyone who hasn't succumbed to its lure yet. (For those who prefer Barnes and Noble's e-reader, there could be an alternative program called "Nickels for Nooks.")

"Breaks for Bookshelves." Makes the costs of new bookshelves tax deductible, thereby getting new bookshelves into the hands of all Americans who are still living with those cinder-block contraptions from their college days or who are having to double-book their existing shelves.

"Pennies for Plantagenets." An exciting new program that offers up to $3,000 in matching royalties to any writer who publishes a book-length work of fiction about a dynasty other than the Tudors.

I'll be home all day tomorrow if the White House wants to give me a call. And I won't even expect an invitation to the next social gathering--no, no. I'm doing this solely as a public service to my country.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Richard III the Sickly Child?

Of all the myths that modern writers have created about Richard III, one of the most pervasive is that he was a frail, sickly child who was lucky to have reached adolescence. It pops up in a number of older biographies of Richard, most memorably in that of Paul Murray Kendall, who writes poignantly and purply, "The sickly child who had become a thin, undersized lad drove himself to grow strong, to wield weapons skillfully. . . . His vitality was forced inward to feed his will."

But what evidence does Kendall base his statement on? Upon one stray line of verse: "So precarious was his health that a versifier, rhyming the family of [Richard, Duke of York], could only report, 'Richard liveth yet.'"

The verse, however, doesn't bear this interpretation, as was pointed out way back in a June 1992 Ricardian article by Anne Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs entitled, "'Richard Liveth Yet': An Old Myth." As they explain, the comment appears in the context of a 1456 listing of the descendants of Joan of Acre and Gilbert de Clare, known as the Clare Roll. It is a statement of genealogical fact, not a comment on Richard's health. The Clare Roll, in the form of a dialogue between a friar and a secular visitor, ends with a listing of the various children of Richard, Duke of York, some of whom are described as having died:

"Sir, aftir the tyme of longe bareynesse,
God first sent Anne, which signifyeth grace,
In token that at her hertis hevynesse
He as for bareynesse would fro hem chace.
Harry, Edward, and Edmonde, eche is his place
Succcedid; and after tweyn doughters cam
Elizabeth and Margarete, and aftir William.

"John aftir William nexte borne was,
Whiche bothe he passid to Goddis grace:
George was next, and after Thomas
Borne was, which sone aftir did pace
By the pathe of dethe into the heavenly place.
Richard liveth yet; but the last of alle
Was Ursula, to him God list calle."

As Sutton and Visser-Fuchs point out, earlier in the verse, Richard, Duke of York himself is spoken of as "Richard which yet liveth," not as a comment on his health but simply to contrast him with his dead ancestors. The similar comment with regard to the future Richard III should be taken in the same spirit, as distinguishing him from his siblings who have died.

Later, the friar informs his visitor,

"To the duke of Excestre Anne married is
In her tender youth: But my lord Henry
God chosen hath to enherite heven blis,
And lefte Edward to succede temporally,
Now Erle of Marche; and Edmonde of Rutland sothly
Counte bothe fortunabil. To right high mariage
The othir foure stonde yit in their pupilage.

So Richard, along with his siblings Elizabeth, George, and Margaret, is not lying in bed fighting for his next breath, but is merely "yit in [his] pupilage."

Despite this debunking by Sutton and Visser-Fuchs, the assertion that Richard was a sickly child continues to pop up, especially on the Internet and in historical fiction, probably due in part to the enduring popularity of Kendall's biography. Given the romantic appeal to Richard's admirers of the idea of the frail but determined young boy battling his way to adulthood against all odds and the rather Victorian notion that ill health somehow denotes nobility of spirit, the myth is likely to be around for a long time.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

In Which I Follow the New FTC Guidelines, and Then Some

As you bloggers in the United States probably know, the Federal Trade Commission has issued a rule entitled, "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising," 16 CFR Part 255. In a nutshell, bloggers who receive items free for review are expected to disclose this fact.

I have a couple of books I've received for free from the publisher that I'll be reviewing in due course, and I'll comply with the new rule. In the meantime, though, I'll do the FTC one better and disclose some of my chief biases that play into my own reviews of historical fiction. So here goes.

1) I have never enjoyed a novel when a character is described as being "fey." Or when a character has "the Sight."

2) I went to Wales several years ago and did not see a single soul there who appeared to have mystical powers. I therefore fail to appreciate novels where a trip over the Welsh border somehow endows everyone present with mystical powers.

3) Most dialect makes my head hurt. I hate it when my head hurts.

4) Gracing a lead character with physical beauty does not relieve an author of the duty to endow him or her with something resembling a personality.

5) Once it has been established that the heroine and hero have a full and rewarding sexual relationship, it is not necessary to graphically remind me of this fact every thirty pages.

6) I can live with it when an English character in 1470 sits down to a meal of turkey and potatoes. When said character is eating this meal in 1470 despite being known to have died in 1460, however, I get very cranky. When said character proceeds to father a child after his meal in 1470 despite having died in 1460, I get even crankier, and only the presence of small animals in the vicinity will prevent the book from going airborne.

7) The idea of a high-born medieval heroine protesting endlessly that she wants to marry for love and not to enter into an arranged marriage was probably an original one at some point. It has long since ceased to be so.

8) I think that not liking a historical figure is not a valid ground for turning him into a murderer, a rapist, or a child molester without any supporting evidence.

9) I appreciate the fact that authors who feel compelled to write ten-page childbirth scenes are faithfully depicting the dangers of childbirth before modern medicine. That still doesn't mean that said scenes couldn't be cut down to five pages. Or two pages. Or two paragraphs.

10) I will find it very hard not to like a novel where the writer gets Katherine Woodville's approximate age right. Ditto for a novel that correctly states that Edward I, and not Edward II, arranged the marriage of Eleanor de Clare to Hugh le Despenser the younger. Just don't muck things up by giving any of them the Sight, please.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Search Term Season!

Yup, it's that time of the year again! Here are searches people have used to reach my website over the last couple of months:

was elizabeth woodville nice?

Certainly. That was:

edward iv s reason to marry elizabeth woodville

was elizabeth woodville beautiful?

Probably, but she was mainly nice.

how to hate elizabeth woodville

Easy to do if someone is beautiful and nice. Just jealousy, of course.

how played the duke off buckinghams sister in the tudors

Most likely, without many clothes on

formula for historical fiction novel

Find some history. Write about it. See? I've saved you the expense of all of those writing classes.

how did edward deal with his enimies

Threw dictionaries at them until they begged for mercy.

dr. susan higginbotham

That has such a nice ring to it.

was the woodville family social greedy

Sadly, they might have been. According to Mancini, they were always the first at the hors d'oeuvres at any party.

why did duke of buckingham not kill the princes

Because Katherine kept him busy doing chores around Brecon Castle.

the first name of duchess the man

That's Mr. Duchess to you, sonny.

how to become a king maker wife

First, find a king and ask who made him. Then get a good makeover, get some Botox treatments if necessary, and make sure you get invited to every party at which the kingmaker will be present. Then just let him talk about himself and ask a few intelligent questions from time to time, and wedding bells will soon be ringing.

what did piers gaveston look like?

Hot, I tell you. Hot.

glass drink despenser with stand

You'll need that drink after you've finished thinking of Piers Gaveston.

read book of edward ii

I couldn't agree more. Read one now (check the sidebar for a suggestion).

wars of the roses university

I would so love to attend this.

elizabeth woodville on horse back portrait

This is what you can paint if you're an art major at the Wars of the Roses University.

does gaveston use his relationship with edward to gain power and status?

No. Just lots of bling-bling.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Why no one in my family has ever suggested that we have Thanksgiving dinner at our house:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Letters from Oxford, and Some Google Books Lurve

If there's one thing that I am thankful for this Thanksgiving, it's Google Books. I can't tell you how many trips to the library it's saved me, or how many books I've found on Google Books that aren't available in the library.

Anyway, last night I was looking up a letter in what I thought was surely going to be a hard book to track down (Epistolae academicae Oxon. by the Oxford Historical Society), and sure enough, I found the book straightaway on Google Books. While looking for the letter in question, I found this 1478 letter mentioning Lionel Woodville's honorary degree at Oxford (I'm copying the Latin letter as well as the English abstract so people unfamiliar with this blog can be vastly impressed):

288.
To the Dean of Exeter.

It has ever been the wisdom of our predecessors to show peculiar respect for learning in persons of high social rank : it is due both to their position and their merit, whereof the one adds lustre to the University and the other advances its work. You have been raised to a position to which your family could never have aspired, and we ought not to be behind hand in conferring upon y ou a corresponding degree of academical advancement. In communicating to you the unanimous vote of Convocation by which the degrees are conferred, we hope you will not consider them an unworthy tribute, and that we may reckon upon your help and protection.

1478. Prestanti ac nobili viro, domino Leonello Widewill, Exoniensis ecclesie decano colendissimo, Cancellarius Universitatis Oxoniensis universusque regentium in eadem cetus salutem plurimam dicunt. Sapienter instituisse majores nostri nobis videntur, amplissime domine, viros ingenuos litteris operam daturos summa semper apud nos veneratione colendos esse. Hoc enim et nobilitatis conditio et meritorum magnitudo postulabat. Tanta namque fuit multorum nobilitas, tanta fuerunt merita ut illa in gloriam ista in utilitatem Universitatis nostre redundarent. Nos igitur, quoniam certo scimus ea te nobilitate pollere, ad quam nulli tuorum majorum propemodum aspirare poterant, par est ut te etiam, in disciplinarum studiis aliquamdiu Oxoniis obversatum, non minori tandem observantia prosequamur. lis enim honorum gradibus tuam nobilitatem ornandam duximus, quibus benemeritos viros in hoc nostro litterarum ocio versalos donare solemus. Placuit sane summo nostrum omnium consensu fieri, ut primum ad extraordinariam decretalium lecturam admitti, tum in decretis licentiari possis; ea tamen lege ut ad incipiendum nullo tempore cogi prestantiam tuam oporteat. Hoc unictim est, clarissime domine, parentis nostre donum; revera tantum ut nec majus ab illa aut expeti debeat aut rependi possit; donum certe tua, ut confidimus, amplitudine non indignum; quod si gratie nomen merito sortiri debebit, necesse profecto erit ut et te nobis et nos tibi gratiores efficiat. Magna igitur est, colendissime vir, in tuenda republica nostra tue probitatis expectatio, quam, quia nonnullis antehac meritis concitasti, facile speramus te longe singularissimum Universitatis nostre patronum fore.

____

Don't you love the slightly snarky tone of "you have been raised to a position to which your family could never have aspired"? Oxford elected Lionel its chancellor later in 1478 or in 1479, and he became Bishop of Salisbury in 1482. (One historical novel set during the Wars of the Roses--the same one that has the dead William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, rising from the grave to have a go at fathering Edward of Lancaster--has Lionel becoming bishop around 1465, when he was probably no more than fifteen and possibly as young as ten.)

Speaking of Suffolk, the letter I was looking for was this one to his wife, Alice de la Pole, dated May 6, 1450:

217.
To the Duchess of Suffolk.

To the rigth and myghti princes, the duchesse of Suffolke, oure ryght especiall benefactrice and singuler lady.

Ryght high and myghty princes, We youre humble oratours recommaunde us unto youre good ladyshippe an noble grace wyth the gostely suffrages of oure prayers, inioyng gretly als wel of youre goude spede late in youre matyrs at London, as of youre commyng home and abydyng in this contre : whiche treuly beth un to us grete glore and comfort. And for as much that hit hath plesed youre noble ladishippe but late ago to shew unto us grete liberalite and tendyrnes in sondre wyse, therfore we besech devotely almygthi god to thank yow ; and we for oure deute, als ferforth as is possible unto us, thanke yowr heynesse al so w* alle the internes of oure hertes ; Recommending us w* lowly spiryts into the gracyous continuaunce of youre rygth heyh and benigne ladishippe ; as we shall dayly offre to god oure prayers and devocions for youre noble estate, good helth, welthe and prosperite : whiche oure lord graunte yow abundantly at the meke instance of oure prayers. Writ at Oxford in oure sembly hous the 6 day of may

---

The interesting thing about this letter, aside from its obsequiousness that would do Jane Austen's Mr. Collins proud, is its singularly bad timing: It was sent on May 6, and the duchess's husband William de la Pole, on his way into exile, had been murdered at sea on May 2. It seems that word of the murder hadn't reached Oxford as of May 6, or surely the writers would have mentioned prayers for the duke's soul.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dumb-Cluck Woodville Statement O' the Day

In a discussion group, I was alerted to the current Wikipedia entry on Jacquetta Woodville ("Wydeville" for you purists here). Among other misinformation, it contains this particular gem:

"She arranged for her 20-year-old son, John Woodville, to marry the widowed and very rich dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Catherine Neville. The bride was at least forty years older than the groom at the time of the wedding. The marriage caused a furore and earned the Woodvilles considerable unpopularity. Catherine Neville's son, John de Mowbray, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, especially, turned against the Queen and her family and vowed vengeance against them and the Yorkists for the stain on his family honour."

Our Wikipedia writer is correct about the age gap, though whether Jacquetta herself arranged the marriage is open to debate. But John de Mowbray, third Duke of Norfolk, vowing vengeance? Minor hitch: The wedding between John and his elderly bride took place in 1465, and the third duke died in 1461.

We also are informed that Richard III ordered Parliament in 1483 to attaint Elizabeth Woodville for witchcraft, though Richard III didn't hold a Parliament in 1483 and Elizabeth was never attainted, for witchcraft or for anything else. Jacquetta also gains two nonexistent children courtesy of Wikipedia: Agnes and Thomas. Since "Thomas Woodville" is referred to as marrying Anne Holland, I presume that he is being confused with Thomas Grey, Jacquetta's grandson, but where on earth Agnes came from I don't know, though she seems to pop up on other genealogical sites from time to time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Unlucky De La Pole Family

Medieval history is full of singularly unlucky families--the Despensers, whose lords each died violently, young, or both, being one of the primary examples. The de la Pole family is another ill-fated clan.

It probably didn't look at all bad for the de la Poles initially. William, who died in June 1366, had been a financier to the crown as well as a successful wool merchant. Though William's activities proved controversial, and he was ultimately forced to forgive the outstanding royal debts owed him, he nonetheless died wealthy and in his bed.

William's eldest son, Michael, devoted himself to a military career instead of to the wool business. He served under both the Black Prince and John of Gaunt, and won the favor of the Black Prince's son Richard II, who ultimately made him the Earl of Suffolk in 1385, when Michael was 55. Unfortunately, being a favorite of Richard II was a risky business, and he and other royal advisers were accused of treason. Michael fled the country, eventually reaching Paris, and was convicted of treason in his absence in 1388. He died in Paris, still in exile, in 1389, leaving behind six children, including his heir, another Michael.

The younger Michael was restored to the earldom of Suffolk in 1398. He served the crown militarily but largely stayed far away from national politics. In 1415, he accompanied Henry V on his campaign in France, where he fell victim to the dysentery that plagued the soldiers. He died on September 17, 1415, during the siege of Harfleur. The earldom passed to his eldest son, yet another Michael, who enjoyed his title for only a few weeks. He died at Agincourt on October 25, 1415. He and the Duke of York had been the only English noblemen who fell there. Thus, Michael's younger brother William became the fourth Earl of Suffolk, just nine days after his nineteenth birthday.

William had been wounded at Harfleur and had been sent home to recuperate; thus, he missed Agincourt. He returned to military service in France in 1417, however, and remained abroad almost continuously. On June 12, 1429, at Jargeau, he met disaster in the person of Joan of Arc, who defeated his forces. William's younger brother Alexander was killed that day, and another brother, John, was taken captive and died of his wounds shortly thereafter. William himself was captured. He remained in captivity until 1430, when he was released on a promise to repay his ransom, which he later claimed was 20,000 pounds. He was required to leave his only surviving brother, Thomas, as a hostage in his place. Thomas himself died in captivity.

In 1430, William returned to England, where he gradually became a favorite of the maturing Henry VI, with disastrous results. William was sent in 1444 to negotiate Henry's marriage to the 14-year-old Margaret of Anjou; following William's return to England, a grateful Henry VI made him Marquess of Suffolk. Four years later, in June 1448, William was made Duke of Suffolk. This was singularly bad timing on Henry VI's part, for in 1445 Henry had secretly promised to cede Maine to the French. The promise, which proved deeply unpopular, had at last been carried out in March 1448.

Suffolk had had the unenviable task of facilitating the cessation of Maine. Apparently in an attempt to head off further losses, he came up with a scheme to force Brittany into an alliance with England by seizing the wealthy Breton town of Fougères. This scheme, which looks absurd to modern eyes, must have made sense at the time, for Parliament in 1449 was all approval when word of the successful seizure of the town arrived. Unfortunately, the scheme backfired miserably by causing Brittany to turn to France and by giving France the opportunity to break its truce with England. Town by town, Normandy fell back into French hands.

With Maine ceded and Normandy all but lost, blame had to be placed somewhere, and as Henry VI's chief minister, Suffolk was the natural scapegoat. In early 1450, the Commons accused Suffolk of treason; among the charges was that he had secretly promised to hand over Maine (in fact, the secret promise was made by Henry, and other lords reluctantly acquiesced) and that he had plotted to depose Henry VI and raise his own son to the throne by dint of the son's marriage to little Margaret Beaufort.

Suffolk submitted himself to judgment by Henry VI himself, who held him "neither declared nor charged" on the treason charges. With regard to a series of lesser charges, mostly relating to finances, Henry VI ordered that Suffolk absent himself from England for five years.

The sentence of banishment was undoubtedly meant by Henry VI to save Suffolk from a worse fate, but it failed miserably. While heading into exile, Suffolk was intercepted by a vessel named Nicholas of the Tower, forced on board, and subjected to a mock trial by its crew. Not surprisingly, he was found guilty. Having been allowed to spend time with his confessor, he was taken into a smaller boat on May 2, 1450, and beheaded with six strokes of a rusty sword. His head and body were dumped on the Dover shore. Thus, William, his four brothers, and his father had each fallen in some way that was connected with the war in France.

William de la Pole had only one legitimate child: his son, John, who was just seven when his father was murdered. He succeeded to his father's dukedom. His child marriage to little Margaret Beaufort having been annulled (leaving Margaret free to remarry and give birth to the future Henry Tudor), Duke John, as we will call him, married Elizabeth, one of the daughters of the Duke of York. Though this made him the brother-in-law of the future King Edward IV, he never played a leading role in the Yorkist government despite his loyalty to the new king. He seems to neither have helped nor hindered Richard III's ascent to the throne. His transition to Henry VII's reign was equally smooth; he was at Henry's first Parliament.

Duke John's sons were another story. His eldest son, another John, the Earl of Lincoln, might have been intended by Richard III, whose only legitimate son died in 1484, to succeed him on the throne were Richard to die without legitimate heirs. Lincoln was apparently at the Battle of Bosworth, but he was not punished by Henry VII, whose coronation he attended. In 1487, however, he became embroiled in the Lambert Simnel conspiracy and led troops against Henry VII at Stoke, where he was killed on June 16, 1487. Lincoln, who was married but childless, was posthumously attainted, but his father was exempted. Duke John continued to serve on commissions for Henry VII until his death in 1492. His heir was his next surviving son, Edmund.

Henry VII's generosity toward Duke John did not extend to Edmund. The estates that had been settled by Duke John on Lincoln were forfeited to the crown upon the duke's death, and Edmund ultimately had to pay for the privilege of entering some of them. His income was insufficient to support a dukedom, but he was allowed to bear the title of Earl of Suffolk. Henry VII otherwise treated him well; he was made a Knight of the Garter in 1496 and served Henry militarily in 1497. Nonetheless, Edmund left England without royal license in 1501 and began plotting, along with his younger brother Richard, to seize the crown from Henry VII. By 1506, however, he was fed up with life on the run and was allowed to return to England, albeit as a prisoner in the Tower.

Unfortunately for Edmund, his younger brother, Richard, remained abroad and plotting. Accordingly, a nervous Henry VIII had Edmund executed in 1513. Richard, now calling himself the Duke of Suffolk and also known as "the White Rose," continued to make trouble for Henry abroad, where he served as a soldier. On February 25, 1525, he was killed at Pavia while fighting for François I against Charles V.

Two of the de la Pole brothers died of natural causes: Edward had died in 1485, having become Archdeacon of Richmond, and Humphrey, rector of Hingham in Norfolk, died in 1513. The remaining brother, William, was arguably the most unfortunate of Duke John's offspring. Sent to the Tower in 1502 on the ground that he was plotting with his brothers Edmund and Richard, he remained there for 37 years, dying as a prisoner some time before November 1539. With him, the male line of the de la Pole family died out.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Yes, It's My Favorite Time of Year Again

It's November, and that means county public library sale time! As I have been for the past couple of years, I volunteered to help and as a perk got first pick of the books I was unloading. I had a nice haul:

Charles II by Ronald Hutton
Isabel of Burgundy by Aline Taylor
Eleanor of Aquitaine by Desmond Seward
Food in History by Reay Tannahill
Sex in History by Reay Tannahill (they weren't together, I just got lucky)
King James by Antonia Fraser
Henry the Eighth by Francis Hackett
Elizabeth I by Paul Johnson
The Goldsmith's Wife by Jean Plaidy (I had this one, but my copy was too fragile for reading)
The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory (hey, it was $2)
Louis XIV by Ian Dunlop
Monarchy by David Starkey
Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch
The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (I can take Melusine for $2, and I did like parts of it)
The Days of Duchess Anne: Life in the Household of the Duchess of Hamilton by Rosalind Marshall (I have no idea who this is, but it might come in handy one day)
Abe by Richard Slotkin
The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn by Retha Warnicke (I was really excited to find this one, and let out a whoop. Well actually, being an introvert, I said, "Isn't that nice," in an undertone).
Louis and Antoinette by Vincent Cronin
Life on a Medieval Barony by William Stearns Davis
The Spider King by Lawrence Schoonover (I think I had this one already, but I couldn't find it the other day)
England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton by Kate Williams (I rescued this one from the romance section, where it was languishing next to books with bare-chested Scotsmen on the cover)
The Queen's Husband by Jean Plaidy
Queen in Waiting by Jean Plaidy (I have this one, it turns out, but I got so excited about finding old Jean Plaidy paperbacks that I decided to take a chance and get it anyway)
A Coffin for King Charles by C. V. Wedgwood
The Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford
Henry VIII: Images of a Tudor King by Christopher Lloyd and Simon Thurley
Elizabeth: Captive Princess by Margaret Irwin
Anne Boleyn by Norah Lofts (as usual, the Tudors were well represented at this sale)
Medieval Warfare Source Book by David Nicholle (Vol. 1. No, I didn't see volume II)
Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King by Peter Rex
The Plantagenet Prelude by Jean Plaidy (another duplicate--I really need to bring a list)

Goofiest question a customer asked me: "Are there any good books here?" My answer, "What do you like to read?" Customer: "I don't know."

Book that will probably get a title change if it's ever reprinted: Gay Monarch: The Life and Pleasures of Edward VII.

Number of copies of The Autobiography of Henry VIII in the Biography section: 1 (usually I pull three or four out of there).

Most underloved area of the book sale: Westerns

Times I appeared on TV tonight, according to my daughter, when the local news channel did a broadcast about the sale: 1. My daughter says that I have my back to the camera and am rubbing one foot with the other. My feet were aching by then.

Anyway, the sale was held in a former grocery store. As you can see, the romance paperbacks fit quite nicely in the frozen food area:



I probably shouldn't go back, but I probably will give into temptation (especially since many books were still in their boxes when I left today because of lack of shelf space).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What Edward V and the Woodvilles Should Have Had

Richard III and the Fates of Protectors

First, if you happen to follow me on Twitter, please don't open any direct messages purporting to be from me. They were sent by a hacker, not by me. I very seldom send direct messages on Twitter, and I never send messages inviting people to take IQ tests and so forth.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

When Richard III's admirers touch upon the subject of why he chose to take the crown (leaving aside the question of whether Edward V was legitimate), they invariably offer up this: Richard was protector. Protectors inevitably came to bad ends. Once Edward V came out of his minority, he was bound to murder Richard, because this was what happened to protectors and because Edward V would have been no more than a Frankenstein's monster controlled by the Evil Woodvilles, who were known to harbor murderous intentions against Richard. Thus, Richard's defenders conclude, Richard had to take the crown in order to save his own life.

Well, there are a couple of problems with this scenario, which hardly ever seem to be acknowledged. First, for people who supposedly were bound and determined to murder Richard in order to prevent him from becoming protector, the Woodvilles were singularly inept at doing it. Following Edward IV's death, Anthony Woodville, instead of rushing up to London with his charge Edward V and sending out assassins to murder Richard as he made his own way to London, dawdled at Ludlow and even made time to attend a St. George's Day ceremony. Once his journey to London was underway, Anthony, accompanied by only a small escort, backtracked from Stony Stratford to meet Richard at Northampton, stayed overnight, and was taken prisoner the next morning. That same morning, Richard traveled to Stony Stratford to confront Anthony's supposedly murderous entourage, waiting at Stony Stratford with Edward V. There, the future Richard III effortlessly arrested Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan, after which Anthony's men dispersed without a fight. Clearly, Anthony, Richard Grey, and Thomas Vaughan were mighty ineffective at protecting their own selves against arrest, much less at killing Richard. Perhaps they should have given their copy of Murdering Dukes for Dummies a more careful reading.

Aside from this alleged plot, in support of which Richard never bothered to offer any evidence other than to display cartloads of weapons supposedly belonging to the Woodvilles, there's no evidence that the Woodvilles ever intended to kill Richard as protector, or anyone else. It seems a trifle speculative, then, to say that the inevitable result of a protectorship by Richard would have been death for Richard at the hands of Edward V and his maternal relatives when Edward V came of age.

The other part of the argument that Richard took the crown in self-defense centers on the notion that protectors inevitably met bad ends at the hands of their erstwhile charges, with the usual examples given being Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester (for Richard II), and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (for Henry VI). There are problems, though, in drawing parallels between the careers of these two men and Richard's potential career as protector of Edward V. First, though one recent apologist for Richard III, Annette Carson in The Maligned King, describes Thomas of Woodstock as having been Richard II's protector (p. 32), this isn't a position Thomas ever held; to the contrary, he was omitted from Richard II's council when the boy became king. It was not until 1387, when Richard II was nearly twenty-one and had in effect already been ruling on his own, that Thomas and the other Lords Appellant began the process of purging Richard II's household of their enemies and forcing themselves into a position of control over the king. While Richard II did indeed eventually get a chance to revenge himself upon Thomas in 1397, it is stretching things, to say the least, to characterize this as vengeance taken for actions done by Thomas while Richard II was a child king, unless one characterizes a man's early twenties as his childhood.

Unlike Thomas in regard to Richard II, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, actually did serve as protector to the child Henry VI. But Humphrey's arrest in 1447, when Henry was twenty-five, was most likely a preemptive strike by William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, to ensure that Humphrey did not interfere in the fraught peace negotiations with France. (Though the unfortunate Humphrey is often said to have been murdered following his arrest, it's far more likely, by the way, that he died of natural causes; tellingly, murdering Humphrey was not among the many charges that were brought against Suffolk in Parliament in 1450). Humphrey's arrest (ostensibly for plotting against Henry) might well have been on trumped-up charges, but it was most certainly not connected with anything Humphrey had done or hadn't done as protector during Henry VI's minority.

So, in sum, evidence that the Woodvilles were murderously disposed toward Richard as protector is sadly lacking, and the deaths of Thomas of Woodstock and Duke Humphrey cannot be attributed to actions they took with respect to being protectors of a child king, but to situations that arose when the monarchs in question were adults. Perhaps, then, it's Time to Retire the protector-as-automatic-death-sentence justification for Richard III's actions. What about it, folks?

Monday, November 09, 2009

A Night at the Opera with Margaret of Anjou

I promise to do a more substantive post soon, but while surfing this weekend, I came across an opera of which I hadn't heard before, Margherita d'Anjou by Giacomo Meyerbeer, with a libretto by Felice Romani. (Doesn't using the word "libretto" make this blog seem ever-so-classy?) This is known as an opera semiseria, or a semi-serious opera. (Feel the high culture simply oozing from this blog today.)

As I understand the storyline, the opera, which premiered at La Scala in 1820, takes place in Scotland around 1462, when Margherita, widowed from Henry VI, is fighting to regain her throne, from which she has been removed by one Riccardo, our very own beloved Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III. Margherita has other things on mind besides Riccardo, however; she's having an affair with the Duke of Lavarenne, whose wife, Isaura, is understandably unhappy about this. Isaura disguises herself as a doctor's page in order to win back her husband, and Margherita in turn disguises herself as a peasant in order to avoid detection by Riccardo. Eventually, the duke and his wife are reconciled, Riccardo is thwarted, and Belmonte, Margherita's general who had defected to Riccardo, returns to her service. (I should point out before some irate Ricardian does that the real-life Richard was ten years old in 1462 and thus unlikely to be chasing Margaret of Anjou around Scotland at the time.)

The opera was revived in London in 2002; some reviews can be found here. It was also recorded; a review of the recording is here. Some more information about the opera (from which the summary above was largely drawn) is here. Incidentally, Richard III is also the subject of an opera by Giorgio Battistelli, based on Shakespeare's play. The opera had its world premiere in 2005 at Antwerp. I know that a couple of opera buffs read this blog; has anyone seen/heard either of the operas in question?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Guest Post, and Some Nifty Books

Having finished reading my page proofs, I'm returning to blogdom to let you know that I have a guest post up on Holly Tucker's excellent Wonders and Marvels site. It's about the wooden town Edward III built to house his troops during the long siege of Calais. Stop by--there's plenty on that site to look at!

Speaking of Calais, I picked up a nice haul of new books at the library the other day, including Susan Rose's Calais: An English Town in France, 1347-1558, Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales: Life, Death and Commemoration, edited by Steven Gunn and Linda Monckton, Catherine Parr by Susan James, and The Calais Garrison: War and Military Service in England, 1436-1558 by David Grummit. (Three of them were so new that the poor desk clerk had to paste a due-date slip inside--it's always nice reading a virgin library book.) I tend to dip into nonfiction and read the sections that interest me more than reading cover to cover, especially when I'm doing research, so I can't do a review as such, but I can say that all are well dipping-in-able.

One book I probably will be reading front to back is Seymour Phillips' upcoming Edward II (though the man could have had the decency to publish it when I was researching The Traitor's Wife instead of waiting). And my husband has been advised in no uncertain terms that I want Christopher Wilkins' biography of Edward Woodville for my birthday. It has its "look inside" feature activated at Amazon UK, so take a peek-I certainly have been!

Monday, November 02, 2009

A Winner!

Congratulations to Julianne Douglas, who will be receiving a copy of The Traitor's Wife! Hope you enjoy it, Julianne!

While I'm here, I'd like to remember Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, the co-narrator and hero (antihero if you will) of my forthcoming novel, The Stolen Crown. Henry was executed at Salisbury on November 2, 1483, for his role in the rebellion against Richard III that bears his name. Henry's own motives for rebelling against the man he helped to bring to power will probably never be known, but it's worth pointing out that for the men of lesser rank who were planning the rebellion weeks before Buckingham himself joined the conspiracy, the initial objective was to restore Edward V to the throne. Some of these men might have been motivated by self-interest, but many others had lost nothing materially by Richard's seizure of the throne; a number of the rebels, indeed, had gained at the hands of Richard III. For these members of the gentry, loyalty to the memory of Edward IV, and their belief that Richard had acted wrongly in deposing his son, drove their actions. To me, these brave men were the heroes of 1483.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Just dropping by to wish you all a rather belated Halloween. Here's Boswell in his hot dog costume:



I'll probably be rather quiet for the next few days, as I've got page proofs of The Stolen Crown to review and am getting on with the Margaret of Anjou novel (it's not been a very good time for dukes or for the English in France).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In Which I Breathe New Life Into an Old Cliche

Let sleeping dogs (and a cat) lie:



(Boswell's brother Merritt, who lives with my parents, is visiting while my parents are at Disney World with my great-nephews. Unlike certain people I can think of, we are nice to our nephews in our family.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

New Things and Giveaways

First, I want to congratulate Alianore and Lady D on their new Edward II website! It looks great, and is chock-full of information. Stop on by and soak up the Edward II knowledge it contains.

Second, I've put a couple of new letters in the In Their Own Words section of my own website, these from Richard III and Henry VII to their respective mothers. I have to say I think Henry's letter is the more personal and friendly, but take a look and see what you think. (EDIT: After reading a Yahoo posting which claimed that Elizabeth Woodville was one of 16 Woodville siblings who lived to adulthood--when in fact there were only 12, including Elizabeth, who lived to adulthood--I also added my article on the lesser-known Woodville siblings to my website. From what orifice are people pulling this nonsense about the Woodvilles?)

Third, Michele over at Reader's Respite is giving away a copy of Hugh and Bess. Her only condition is that entrants must agree to read The Traitor's Wife, which of course suits me just fine. So as a bonus, I'll send the winner of her giveaway a copy of The Traitor's Wife! And I'm giving away a second copy of The Traitor's Wife to anyone who comments here before November 1. (Except for the person who keeps attempting to post spam in Japanese on this blog. Dude, give it up. That's why I moderate comments.)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Some Privy Purse Expenses of Henry VII

In my gambling post, I mentioned some of Henry VII's expenses for gambling. Here are some more of his expenses. They give a rather broader view of Henry than that of the miserable miser:

To a fello with a berde a spye in rewarde, £1.

To Carter for writing of a boke, 7s. 4d.

To one that brought the King a lyon in rewarde, £2. 13s. 4d.

To my Lady [of] York mynstrels in rewarde, £1.
[This lady was Cecily, Duchess of York]

To the childe that playeth on the records, £1.

To bere drunken at a fermors house, \s.

To the folysshe Duke of Lancastre, 3s. 4d.
[This was for a fool nicknamed the Duke of Lancaster]

To the children for singing in the gardyn, 3,y. 4d.

10. To a woman for a neste of leveretes, 3*\ 4d.

To one that brought the King a fresh stirgeon, 13s. 4d.

To Grifhth Aprice, a man with a berde, 6s. 8d.

To the making of the bonefuyr on Middesomer eve, lOs.

To a woman that presented the King with cheryse and strawburyers in rewarde, ls. 8d.

To Savage wiffe for a partrich neste, 6s. 8d.

For burying of a man that was slayn in my Lady Grey
chamber, 6s. 8d.
[I would love to know the story behind this one.]

To three string mynstrels for their wags, £5.

For new furnishing casting and reparing of the round organes, £7-

To an Italian, a poete, £20.

To a Walshe man that maketh rymes, 6s. 8d.

To Mutis for a glistning stone, 13s. 4d.

Delivered to the Quenes grace for juels, £31. l0s.

To a woman for aqua vite, 5s.

To Sir Edward Wingfieldfor finding ij hares aboutes Master Vaux place, 6s. 8d.

To a mayden for presenting floures, 1s.

To a woman for a rede rosse, 2s.

To Mastres Brente for a forke of silver, pois iij oz. 12s.

To a felow for eting of coles, 6s. 8d.

To John Sudborough for a songe, £1.

To Ruge Dragon for crabbes and creves, 13.s\ 4d.

To the Quenes grace for the disguysing, 10s-
.
To a mariner that brought an eagle, 6s. 8d.

To one that brought haukes from the Newfounded Island, £1.

To Clays goying to Richemount with wylde catts and popyngays of the Newfound Island for his costs, 13s. 4d.

To Portyngales that brought popyngais and catts of the mountaigne with other stuf to the Kinges grace, £5.

More expenses (which include grimmer expenditures like those for the burying of the Earl of Warwick) can be found in Excerpta Historica, edited by Samuel Bentley. It's on the Internet Archive and Google Books.

Speaking of works available in the public domain, I've added a section to my website featuring letters written by some of the historical figures in my novels. I'll be adding regularly to the collection, which is taken from books that have gone out of copyright. So far, I've got letters from William de la Pole, Margaret of Anjou, and Margaret Beaufort up there, and will be adding more, including letters from Richard III and Henry VII to their respective mums.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

In Which I Fall Into Bad Company

I was checking my website statistics this morning, and on the page that lists links from which people reached my website, I found that no fewer than three people came from this site:

http://wvjails.info/

Beats me, but if you're on that site for a good reason (or, as seems more likely, for a bad reason) and have some time to kill (I don't mean that literally, folks) while you're waiting to call your lawyer, you might be interested in reading this post on Richard III and bail I did a while back.

Incidentally, when growing up, I was always told that if I committed a crime, I should cross a state line so I would end up in federal prison instead of state prison. I have no idea why the people in my really quite law-abiding family felt impelled to give that advice, but it's stuck with me.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Medieval Gambling

I'm back from the annual general meeting of the American Branch of the Richard III Society, which took place in, of all places, Las Vegas. Since the Saturday banquet was a costume-optional occasion, this gave me the opportunity to strut through a casino floor wearing a medieval gown and hennin, an opportunity I will surely not have again any time soon.

My fellow Woodvillians were either too busy with their fulfilling lives elsewhere to make it or hadn't had time to practice the secret Woodvillian handshake, but nonetheless it was a fun conference.

Anyway, I gave a presentation on medieval gambling, the text of which I've included below if you're interested. I didn't pass out at the podium from stage fright, which I always consider the mark of a successful presentation.

Oh, and my gambling losses--one dollar in the airport slot machine--were most unimpressive. (Getting to the conference via Airtran--my flight Friday was delayed, causing me to miss my connecting flight and have to spend seven hours in Atlanta waiting for the next available one--was quite a gamble enough!)

Plantagenets at Play: Gambling in Medieval England


Whether you were in a tavern, a ship, a solar in a great castle, or camped in a battlefield, no matter what your station in life, there was one way you could pass the time in medieval society: by gambling.

Games of chance, of course, have an ancient history, and cubic dice appeared as far back as the seventh century B.C. [1] There were many different sorts of dice games. Among the favorites were raffle, where the winner had to throw all three dice alike or the highest pair, and hazard, which seems to have been aptly named because it had the worst reputation. It was most often played in taverns, and it attracted cheaters, who if caught could be led to the pillory and made to wear their false dice around their necks. [2]

Crooked dice were quite common: the Museum of London has some examples, including a stash of dice bearing only high numbers or only low numbers and dice that had been weighted with drops of mercury. Such dice, the museum website reports, were called “fulhams,” apparently because “the Thames-side village of Fulham was notorious as the haunt of dice-sharpers.” [3]

On a more pleasant note, when Hugh le Barber claimed in 1307 to have been miraculously cured of blindness, he noted that he could once again see to play dice as well as chess. Commissioners sent to test his story reported that he could now see the points of a dice. [4] The apprentice in Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale was an accomplished dice player:

For in the toune nas ther no prentys
That fairer koude caste a paire of dys [5]

Dice was the simplest form of gambling, but it was by no means confined to the lower classes. The future Henry IV, one of the most well traveled of English kings, lost at dice at Calais, in Prussia, and at Danzig. [6] Henry VII was an especially avid gambler, as we shall see: dice was just one of the means by which he lost money. [7] John Howard, the future Duke of Norfolk, paid five pence for a “bale [that is, a pair] of dysse.” [8]

A close relation of dicing was a game called cross and pile, named for the two sides of a coin—in other words, “heads or tails.” One of the royal practitioners of this sport was the ill-fated Edward II, who had to borrow money from his barber and his usher to play at the game. This appalled a nineteenth-century antiquarian, who wrote that such pastimes would now be considered “insufferably low.” One can only wonder what the man would have made of Las Vegas. [9]

Checkers, or queek, was another way a gambler could be parted from his money. One enterprising soul designed a checkerboard with depressed squares so that those betting that their pebbles would land in a black or a white square would lose. The board was only profitable for a short time, however: it cost its proprietor an hour in Newgate for three consecutive days. [10]

Betting on horses was a perennial favorite, with John Howard, the future Duke of Norfolk, being a notable devotee. Howard also bet on cockfighting. [11]

Medieval people, in fact, could turn almost any type of recreation into a money-losing enterprise. Henry VII lost money at tennis and archery as well as traditional games of chance, [12] and the future Henry IV proved to be as unlucky at tables as he was at dice. [13] Even chess, the most respectable of medieval pastimes, could be bet upon. [14]

Fifteenth-century England did see one new arrival on the gaming front: cards. Though cards existed in tenth-century China, European playing cards apparently derived from Egyptian models. [15] In 1371, they are first mentioned in Spain, [16] and by 1377, both Florentine and Parisian officials had enacted restrictions on playing cards. [17]

It would be several decades before cards became popular in England. Chaucer, it has often been noted, never mentions them in his works. The earliest reference I have found in England is in 1413, and it has a good Yorkist pedigree.

Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, was uncle to Richard, Duke of York, and therefore a great-uncle of Edward IV and Richard III. He had a good claim to the throne and for that reason, Henry IV and Henry V kept a close eye on him. In the period from September 1413 to April 1414, the twenty-three-year-old was traveling in the company of Henry V—and losing over 157 pounds in gaming. Mortimer’s companions must have been delighted when the young lord proposed a game of chance, because the word perdebat—“lost”—occurs with distressing frequency in his household accounts. Mortimer lost at tables, raffle and chance, a game called devant (apparently a dicing game)—and at cards. [18]

Despite Mortimer’s enthusiasm for cards, it would be decades before another mention of them occurs in English sources. That is in 1459 in the Paston letters, where Margaret Paston reports that over Christmas, a widowed acquaintance forbade the members of her household to engage in dancing, harping, luting, singing, or “loud disports,” but permitted them to play tables, chess, and cards. [19]

In 1463, Edward IV’s Parliament forbid the importation of playing cards as well as the importation of dice and tennis balls, in an effort to protect English craftsmen. [20] This, as card expert David Parlett points out, suggests that they were being produced in England, although no English cards from this period have been found.

The following year, Edward IV secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, and at least one of the king’s new extended family members was a card player. In November 1464, when at Reading with the king, John Howard lent Eliza Scales, Anthony Woodville’s wife, eight shillings and four pence to play at cards. [21]

The early English cards did not bear the suits of spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds that they do today; those suits made their first appearance on French cards in around 1470 and are accordingly referred to as the French suits. Parlett suggests that the early English cards bore what are known as Latin suitmarks: swords, clubs, cups, and coins. [22]

Though Parlett states that no English cards dating before 1590 have been found, [23] some earlier packs from other countries are extant. One of the most striking is a set from the Netherlands known as the Hunting Pack, which dates from about 1470 to 1480. The four suits in the 52-card pack consist of hunting accessories: bundles of cord, dog collars, double nooses, and hunting horns. Each suit has a king, queen, and jester and 10 numbered cards. The entire set can be seen in the Cloisters in New York. Its website indicates that other than Tarot cards, this is the only complete set of illuminated playing cards to survive from the fifteenth century. [24] One wonders if Margaret of York or her brothers might have seen this set!

Gambling, of course, is a social concern now, and was in medieval times as well. Most anti-gambling legislation in medieval England was aimed at ordinary people. During Richard I’s crusade of 1190, for instance, anyone below the degree of knight was prohibited from gambling. Knights and clergy, on the other hand, could play as long as they did not lose more than twenty shillings in a single day. If they did pass the twenty-shilling limit, they had to cough up one hundred shillings. Not surprisingly, Richard the Lionhearted and Philip of France were exempt. [25]

Edward IV’s first Parliament in 1461 was not only bad news for Lancastrians, but for card players. (Lancastrian card players must have been in particularly bleak spirits that year.) As part of a general crackdown on lawlessness, Parliament directed, “And also that no lord or other person of lower estate, condition or degree, whatever he may be, shall allow any dicing or playing at cards within his house, or wherever else he may prevent it, by any of his servants or others outside the twelve days of Christmas; and if any presume to do the contrary at any time, that he shall expel them from his house and service.” [26]

Again and again, medieval English kings forbade commoners from engaging in various pastimes, including football and dicing, ostensibly because it distracted them from practicing the archery skills they needed to defend their country. This must have been a losing proposition, since successive Parliaments kept passing such legislation. Edward IV himself had a second go at an anti-gaming law in 1478. The act, entitled “Closh” (a bowling game that Elizabeth Woodville’s ladies were spotted playing in 1472), conquers up a world straight out of the film Reefer Madness:

To the king our liege lord; the commons assembled in this present parliament pray, that where according to the laws of this land no person should play any unlawful games such as dice, quoits, football and similar games, but that every strong and able bodied person should practise archery because the defence of this land relies heavily on archers; contrary to which laws the said games and several newly invented games called closh, kayles, half-bowl, hand-in and hand-out, and checker-board are played daily in various parts of this land, both by persons of good repute and those of lesser estate, not virtuously-disposed, who fear neither to offend God by not attending divine service on holy days, nor to break the laws of this land, to their own impoverishment, and by their wicked incitement and encouragement they induce others to play such games so that they are completely stripped of their possessions and impoverished, setting a pernicious example to many of your lieges, if such unprofitable games are allowed to continue for long, because by such means many different murders, robberies and other most heinous felonies are frequently committed and perpetrated in various parts of this land, to the very great disquiet and trouble of many of your well-disposed lieges, and the unbearable loss of their goods: which players have daily been supported and favoured in their said misbehaviour by the officers and occupiers of various messuages, tenements, gardens and other places in which they play and pursue their said wicked and disgraceful games. [27]


Henry VII passed legislation in the same spirit. In 1495, his parliament decreed that “no apprentice, agricultural worker, labourer or employee in a craft shall play at the tables from 10 January next except for food and drink only, or at tennis, closh, dice, cards, bowls or any other illegal game in any way other than at Christmas, and at Christmas to play only in the dwelling house of his master or where the master of any of the said servants is present, upon pain of public imprisonment in the stocks for one day.” [28] Household ordinances also restricted gambling: in 1468, the servants of George, Duke of Clarence, were subject to dismissal if they played games for money, except during the twelve days of Christmas. [29]

Whereas commoners were the target of such legislation, kings and their offspring could gamble to their heart’s content, if they were so inclined. In 1377, mummers entertaining the future Richard II at Kennington played dice with the young prince for a ball of gold, a cup of gold, and a gold ring. Young Richard won each object, because the dice “were subtly made so that when the Prince threw he would win.” [30]

On the whole, however, in gaming, the House of Lancaster seems to be ahead of the House of York. Henry IV as Earl of Derby, we have seen, was quite fond of games. I have found nothing to indicate whether Henry V had a taste for gaming, but as young Edmund Mortimer suffered so many gambling losses while in that king’s company, it must have been common in his household. Despite his drearily pious reputation, Henry VI is known to have lost sums at gaming. [31]

Edward IV seems to have been fond of a board game called fox and geese, though whether he played it for stakes is not recorded. [32] He ordered “two foxes and fourty-six hounds of silver over-gilt to form two sets of merelles.” [33] Fox and geese (or in Edward IV’s case, fox and hounds?) was essentially a hunting game in which the fox captured the geese. [34] (Others who enjoyed the game were the monks of what became Gloucester Cathedral; a board was found cut into the benches there. [35])

Sadly, I have found no indication of whether Richard III was a gambler—unless, of course, one counts his fatal charge at Bosworth as a gamble. Charles Ross notes that he enjoyed hawking and commissioned his servants to search out new birds for him, [36] but there is no indication of his attitude toward even eminently respectable pastimes such as chess. It may or may not be significant that in his censorious account of Richard’s Christmas court of 1484, the Croyland chronicler complained that “too much attention was paid to singing and dancing and to vain exchanges of clothing between Queen Anne and Lady Elizabeth,” but did not mention gambling in his parade of horribles. [37]

Richard, however, was evidently not disposed to tolerate much frivolity among his common subjects. In May 1485, he sent a letter to James Herde, bailiff of the town and lordship of Ware, marshalling the archery argument and threatening the man with the loss of his position if he did not bring the locals into line:

Forsomoche as it is commen (to) unto oure knowlaige that diverse & many personnes inhabitants within oure said Towne whiche be of habilite in theire persones & expert in shoting approved a lawfulle game and necessarily requisite to be exercised for the defense of this oure Royalme refusing the same game applie theim customably to use carding dising Boling playing at the tenys Coyting picking and othre (unf) unlefulle and inhibited disportes. . . . marveling that ye have suffred any suche inconveyences soo to be used within youre Offices.


Those who continued to play the prohibited games after a warning (along with offenders caught taking hares, partridges, pheasants, and other game) were to be committed to prison to remain there at the king’s pleasure. [38] Whether Herde managed to bring his unruly town into line is unknown.

Henry VII, who has been rather unfairly saddled with a reputation as a miser, was quite fond of gaming. Extracts from his accounts aptly demonstrate the willingness with which he was parted from his money through playing cards, dice, tennis, and even chess:

To the King to pley at cardes, £5.

To the King which he lost at cardes, £4.

For a par of tables and dise bought, 1s. 4d.

To the King for his losse at cards, £2.

To a Spaynyard the tenes pleyer, £4.

To Sir Charles Somerset for the Kinges losse at tenes, to Sir
Robert Curson, with the balls, £1. 7s. 8d.

To the King for pleying at the cards, £3.

To Hugh Denes for the Kinges losse at tenes, 14s. and for a
silke girdle, 6s. 8d.—£1. 0s. 8d.

For the Kinges losse at the paune pley, 7s. 8d.

To the Kinges grace to play at the cardes, in gold, £20., in
grotts, l00s. in grotts, £19., and in grotes, 60s.

To the new pleyer at tenes, £4.

To Jakes Haute for the tenes playe, £10.

For the Kinges losse at cardes at Tawnton, £9.

To Hugh Denes for the Kinges pley at dice upon Friday last
passed, £7. 15s.

To the Kinges losse at cardes at Hegecote, 3s. 4d.

For the Kinges losse at tenes, 8s.

Delivered the Kinges grace for play on Sonday at night,
£1. 13s. 4d.

To my Lorde of York to pley at dice, £3. 6s. 8d.

For the Kinges losse at chesse, 13s. 4d.
To Weston for the King to pley at cleke at Burton-opon-
Trent, £2. [39]


On one occasion, Henry VII lost half a mark at cards to his seven-year-old son Henry. [40] The future Henry VIII did rather better than his older brother Arthur, who lost forty shillings in 1496. [41] The Tudor family matriarch, Margaret Beaufort, was not above wagering herself. Michael Jones and Malcolm Underwood report that she “sent a man of Buckden to go on pilgrimage on her behalf whilst she gambled at blank or cards”! [42]

Elizabeth of York’s privy purse expenses from the last year of her life show her to have been an avid player as well. In August 1502, 10 shillings were delivered to her for “tabuls”; in October 1502, Lady Guildford delivered 13 shillings and 4 pence for the queen to play at dice. In December, the queen received 100 shillings “for hure disporte at cardes this Cristmas.” [43]

The subject of Elizabeth of York and cards leaves us with a final question: Was Elizabeth the “playing card queen”? This has been stated as fact many times, including by an authority no less august than The Weekly World News, [44] but there seems to be little or no evidence to support this proposition, other than the vague resemblance between Elizabeth of York’s most famous portrait and the stylized queen that appears on modern playing cards. Parlett makes no mention of Elizabeth of York. The International Playing-Card Society’s website states that Anglo-American cards take their design from the patterns used in Rouen in the 1400’s, where the kings, queens, and jacks mainly represent named figures from antiquity, although some of the names may have become corrupted over time. [45] Notably, in a fifteenth-century French set, the Queen of Diamonds clutches a flower, just as do Elizabeth of York and the Queen of Hearts in English decks. [46] Unfortunately, then, it seems as if the story of Elizabeth of York inspiring the Queen of Hearts must be consigned to the stuff of legend, though we can take comfort in the fact that the queen did enjoy a good game of cards nonetheless.


Bibliography

John Ashton, The History of Gambling in England. London: Duckworth & Co., 1898.

Samuel Bentley, Excerpta Historica, or, Illustrations of English History. London: Richard Bentley, 1831.

S. B. Chrimes, Henry VII. Yale University Press, 1999.

Anne Crawford, intro., Howard Household Books. Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton, 1992.

James Gairdner, ed., The Paston Letters. Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1983 (reprint of 1904 edition).

C. Given-Wilson et al., eds., The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England. CD-ROM. Scholarly Digital Editions, Leicester: 2005.

R. A. Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI. Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2004.

Francis Grose and Thomas Astle, eds., The Antiquarian Repertory, Vol. 4. London: 1784.

Rosemary Horrox and P. W. Hammond, eds., British Library Harleian Manuscript 433. Gloucester: Richard III Society, 1979.

Michael K. Jones and Malcolm G. Underwood, The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby. Cambridge University Press, 1995 (reprint).

Teresa McLean, The English at Play in the Middle Ages. Berkshire: The Kensal Press, 1983.

Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. London: Bodley Head, 2008.

Nicholas Harris Nicolas, ed., Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York. London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1972 (reprint of 1830 edition).

Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children. Yale University Press, 2003 (paperback edition).

David Parlett, The Oxford Guide to Card Games. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Nicholas Pronay and John Cox, eds., The Crowland Chronicle Continuations: 1459–1486. London: Richard III and Yorkist History Trust, 1986.

Compton Reeves, Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England. Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1995.

Charles Ross, Richard III. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981.

C. M. Woolgar, The Great Household in Medieval England. Yale University Press, 1999.

C. M. Woolgar, ed., Household Accounts from Medieval England, Part 2. Oxford University Press, 1993.

C. M. Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England. Yale University Press, 2006.

[1] McLean, p. 102.
[2] McLean, pp. 103-04.
[3] http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/English/EventsExhibitions/Permanent/medieval/objects/record.htm?type=object&id=515184
[4] Woolgar, Senses, pp. 185-86.
[5] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales. http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/gchaucer/bl-gchau-can-cook-m.htm
[6] McLean, p. 104. A detailed record of Henry’s gaming can be found in Lucy Toulmin Smith, ed., Expeditions to Prussia and the Holy Land Made by Henry, Earl of Derby . . . in the Years 1390-1 and 1392-3. Camden Society, 1894.
[7] Chrimes, p. 306.
[8] Crawford, vol. II, pp. 327, 524.
[9] Grose and Astle, pp. 406-08.
[10] McLean, p. 105.
[11] McLean, p. 22-23; Crawford, vol. 1, p. 227.
[12] Chrimes, p. 306.
[13] McLean, p. 108.
[14] McLean, p. 117.
[15] Parlett, pp. 38-40
[16] Parlett, p. 35.
[17] Parlett, pp. 36-37.
[18] Woolgar, Household Accounts, pp. 592-94.
[19] Parlett, p. 46; Paston Letters, vol. vi, 78-79. Gairdner dates the letter in 1484, but as Parlett points out, it appears to be from an earlier time.
[20] Parliament Rolls, April 1463, Edward IV; Parlett, p. 46.
[21] Crawford, vol. I, pp. 480-481.
[22] Parlett, p. 43, 46. For an illustration of some French cards of the late fifteenth century, see http://www.cs.manchester.ac.uk/~daf/i-p-c-s.org/faq/history_6.php
[23] Parlett, p. 46.
[24] http://www.metmuseum.org/works_of_art/collection_database/the_cloisters/set_of_fifty_two_playing_cards/objectview.aspx?collID=7&OID=70016900. Another view of the cards can be seen at http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bnpr/hod_1983.515.1-52.htm
[25] Ashton, p. 13.
[26] Parliament Rolls, November 1461, Edward IV.
[27] Parliament Rolls, January 1478, Edward IV.
[28] Parliament Rolls, October 1495, Henry VII.
[29] Woolgar, Great Household, p. 44.
[30] http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/a_christmas_mumming_1377.htm. See also Mortimer, p. 253.
[31] Griffiths, pp. 250, 269 n. 99.
[32] Reeves, pp. 76-77,
[33] McLean, p. 110.
[34] Id.
[35] Reeves, p. 77.
[36] Ross, p. 142.
[37] Pronay and Cox, p. 175.
[38] Horrox and Hammond, vol. 2, p. 219.
[39] Taken from Bentley, pp. 85-133.
[40] Woolgar, Great Household, p. 101.
[41] Orme, p. 178.
[42] Jones and Underwood, p. 158.
[43] Nicolas, pp. 42, 52, 84.
[44] ‘Every Poker Player Knows This Gal!” Weekly World News, July 6, 1993, p. 28. Page 7 of same issue informs the reader, “Space Alien Graveyard Found!”
[45] http://www.cs.manchester.ac.uk/~daf/i-p-c-s.org/faq/history_12.php. See also Parlett, pp. 44-45.
[46] http://www.cs.manchester.ac.uk/~daf/i-p-c-s.org/faq/history_6.php

Monday, October 12, 2009

Some Website Additions, and a Support Group

First, if you haven't seen it already, do stop by Alianore's blog for The Support Group for People Unfairly Maligned in Historical Fiction. It's hilarious, and, alas, all too true! I was pleased to see that Margaret of Anjou (maligned as an adulteress), Katherine Woodville (maligned as a child molester of the young Harry Buckingham), and William Hastings (maligned as a rapist of a virgin peasant girl) all showed up, as did Richard III (treated as impossibly bad or impossibly good). Do check out Edward II's, Piers Gaveston's, and Hugh le Despenser the younger's comments as well, along with Henry VIII's wives and the unfortunate "Pimp Daddy Boleyn."

Second, I've updated my website to add some pieces on Margaret of Anjou that have already appeared on this blog, plus some further reading on her. I'll be adding more Margaret-related material to my website in the future, as well as a feature called "In Their Own Words," in which I'll reprint various writings found in the public domain, such as letters and wills. I'll keep you posted!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Eleanor le Despenser Gets a New Dress

The other day, I was fooling around on eBay (a place I really have no business being). As is my wont, I did a search for "Despenser" (among other searches) and lo and behold, what appeared but a doll costume entitled "Eleanor le Despenser"! I said to myself, "Self, if there's one person in the world who truly needs this, it is you!" (Talk about niche marketing.) So in the great tradition of consumerism, I pressed the "Bid" button, and in due course, I won the auction and received my item.

Unfortunately, in my excitement that someone would name a doll costume after Eleanor, I failed to note the seller's very plain statement that the doll was not included. As this costume was made for a 17-inch doll, and all of my own fashion dolls are 11-1/2-inch Barbies, this has made for problems in the fitting room, as the folks on "Project Runway" would say. Still, don't you think Eleanor looks nice? (Perhaps Hugh or her uncle Edward II will stop by and pay her a compliment. And there is a scene in The Traitor's Wife where she has to wear a larger woman's clothing, so maybe this might work after all.) There's a mantle that goes with it as well, but since this was a smaller doll, it rather overwhelmed her, so I left it off.



I might not be blogging much in the next week or so, as I'm working on a presentation for the Richard III's Society's upcoming meeting here in the US. My presentation will be on medieval gambling, since the conference is being held in Las Vegas. Getting it ready (including perusing PowerPoint 2007 for Dummies), as well as practicing the secret handshake that we Woodville lovers give each other at Richard III events, will be keeping me busy for a while.

I have a copy of Hilary Mantel's Booker-prize-winning Wolf Hall to take on the plane. I'm looking forward to reading it!

Lastly, but no means leastly, Lisa over at BookBlab is giving away a copy of Hugh and Bess, so stop on by before October 31 and sign up!

Monday, October 05, 2009

What I Read This Summer, and a Couple of Things I'm Looking Forward To

Following are some reviews I did for the August issue of the Historical Novels Reviews. First, though, I'd like to mention that there are some nonfiction books I'm chomping at the bit to read! First is Arlene Okerlund's biography of Elizabeth of York, who to my knowledge has been the subject of only one previous biography, that by Nancy Lenz Harvey. Harvey applied novelistic techniques to her biography, which focused mainly on Elizabeth's life before her marriage to Henry VII, so I'm looking forward to a more scholarly treatment of this queen. It's on its way to me already.

Second, Christopher Wilkins has a biography of Edward Woodville, The Last Knight Errant, coming out in December! That will be on my Christmas list if the cats walking over the keyboard don't accidentally put it in my Amazon shopping cart before that. (Silly cats.)

Not medieval, but as a long-time Dickensian (and here you thought I was only a Despenserian and a Woodvillian), I'm excited about Michael Slater's new biography of Charles Dickens. Oh, and there's also Leandra de Lisle's biography of Lady Jane Grey and her sisters, which I read for the November Historical Novels Review and thought was excellent.

Anyway, now it's review time:

Daughters of the Doge
Edward Charles, Pan, 2008, $13.95, pb, 374pp, 9780230531239

In this novel, the sequel to In the Shadow of Lady Jane, young Richard Stocker is still mourning his friend Lady Jane Grey when he accepts an invitation to accompany Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon, to Venice. A Protestant in a country ruled by the Catholic “Bloody” Mary, Richard is eager to take the excuse to leave England for a time and to consider whether he wants to devote his life to the practice of medicine. Richard soon finds, however, that he has not left intrigue behind in England. And when the vain Courtenay decides that he must have his portrait done at an inexpensive price, Richard’s dogged quests through Venice’s art studios will lead him to convents and courtesans—and to a new love as well.

Earnest and resourceful, Richard, the narrator, is a likeable hero, whose coming-of-age story is all the more appealing for being set in the atmospheric location of sixteenth-century Venice. Charles neatly integrates historical characters, including Courtenay, Francis Walsingham, Titian, and courtesan Veronica Franco, into Richard’s adventures, and he employs a broad variety of Venetian settings, from slums to convents to art studios. The story of an innocent abroad who gains experience and a fresh start, Daughters of the Doge is an engaging tale.

****

Girl in a Blue Dress
Gaynor Arnold, Crown, 2009, $25.95, hb, 432pp, 9780307462268

All of Victorian London is mourning the death of famous author Alfred Gibson, but one woman has not been invited to the funeral: his widow, Dorothea, who has lived in virtual seclusion since being cast out of her husband’s life years before. Shut off from most of her family after the separation, Dorothea has accepted her position with a quiet dignity that borders on passivity, but as she mourns her brilliant husband and reflects on their lives together and apart, she will slowly muster the courage to re-enter the world, to face those from whom she has been long estranged, and even to encounter the woman who Dorothea believes stole her husband from her.

Girl in a Blue Dress is based heavily on the marriage of Charles and Catherine Dickens, but Arnold, by turning Catherine Dickens into Dorothea Gibson, gives herself the freedom to stray from the historical record, though the personalities of the main characters remain very close to their real-life counterparts. Dorothea, the narrator, commands our respect and sympathy but has enough inner strength to avoid being pitiful, and the rest of the characters are vividly drawn as well. In her portrait of Alfred Gibson, Arnold does justice to Dickens’s own charisma and complexity; we deplore his behavior toward Dorothea while feeling the same attraction for him that his wife does. Gibson even gamely tackles the task of supplying Gibson’s literary oeuvre with Dickens-like prose and characters.

First published in the UK in 2008, Girl in a Blue Dress was long-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s easy to see why: this is a richly satisfying debut novel.

***

Emily’s Ghost: A Novel of the Brontë Sisters
Denise Giardina, Norton, 2009, $24.95/C$27.50, hb, 320pp, 9780393069150

William Weightman, the personable young curate who assisted the Reverend Patrick Brontë at Haworth Parsonage for several years, is best known for sending Valentines to the three Brontë sisters and for possibly being the object of Anne Brontë’s affections. In this novel, however, it is the fiercely independent, unconventional Emily Brontë who finds herself falling in love with Weightman, who possesses not only charm and good looks but a social conscience and a kind heart.

Meticulously researched and written in a clean, crisp prose style, Emily’s Ghost encompasses not only the splendor of the Yorkshire moors but the hardships of daily life in the poor parish of Haworth, where, as one character notes forebodingly, few people live past their thirties. The inhabitants of the Bronte parsonage, human and animal alike, each possess distinct personalities. Giardina manages the difficult feat of making Weightman a genuinely good man without making him colorless; Emily is strongly individualistic without becoming tiresomely eccentric; Charlotte exasperates the reader but never entirely forfeits our sympathy; and Branwell’s better qualities are not lost amid his dissipation.

Without departing from known facts or engaging in bodice ripping, Giardina gives us a compelling and moving love story between people we come to care about deeply. Even those who have not read the works of the Brontë sisters should enjoy this novel thoroughly.