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The Sweetbriar’s Thorns: Wars Of The Roses Part II

January 14, 2012

History ReFreshed
Exploring what’s “new” on the historical shelves

The previous column focused on the personages who began the Wars of the Roses, from Henry VI‘s claim for the throne being challenged by his cousin Richard of York until the death of Edward IV.  Now the stage is set for the final decisive struggle between the Plantagenet heirs, represented by Edward IV’s brother Richard, and the Tudors, who trace their claim to the throne to the marriage of the widow of Lancastrian Henry V to Welsh bard Owen Tudor.

As a special treat, this month also features an interview with New York Times bestselling author Philippa Gregory, who wrote several of the novels described in last month’s column, WARS OF THE ROSES PART I. Philippa’s upcoming novel features one of the heroines involved in Richard III’s story, his wife Anne Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick, “the Kingmaker.” (more about her later.)

Edward IV‘s premature death set about a struggle for the throne between the widowed queen’s Woodville relations, the Tudor claimants and the Neville-York side.  Concerned for the safety of his nephews, Edward’s brother Richard, whom the late king had named Lord Protector, moved the boys to the Tower of London while a court of inquiry determined who should succeed Edward.  When that court declared that, because Edward had legally contracted to marry another before his secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, Edward’s sons by her were illegitimate, their uncle Richard, as next surviving Yorkist male, became King Richard III.

Shakespeare, writing in the Tudor (Lancestrian) court generations later, depicted Richard III as a hunchbacked monster who murdered his nephews and usurped the throne.  But was he?  That question has fascinated historians and novelists alike.

A ROSE FOR THE CROWNA ROSE FOR THE CROWN by Anne Easter Smith tells Richard’s story from an unusual viewpoint, that of Kate Haute, Richard’s “tawny-eyed mistress” and mother of his illegitimate children.  A peasant sent as companion to her noble cousin Anne, Kate is married off first to an older merchant, then to a Haute cousin who covets her widow’s fortune but his stable boy’s affections.  In a chance encounter, Kate meets and falls in love with Richard of Gloucestor.  Even after her second husband’s death, their secret passion can never be legitimized, for family ambition weds Richard to Anne Neville, daughter of the powerful “Kingmaker,” the Earl of Warwick.

In THE SUNNE IN SPLENDOR: A NOVEL OF RICHARD III, superstar historical novelist Sharon Kay Penman sets Richard’s tale in a sympathetic light against a rich tapestry of the age.  Beginning with his childhood and his awed friendship with his brother, his respect for the Earl of Warwick and love for Warwick’s daughter Anne, Penman portrays Richard as a good and benevolent man.  Betrayed by former allies like the Duke of Buckingham, who implicate him as the murderer of his disappeared nephews, he is deserted on the field of battle and dies at the hand of Henry Tudor’s forces.  (My first glimpse of a Richard who was not the monster depicted by Shakespeare, this novel remains one of my favorites!)


Another book to break with the Shakespearean mold is TREASON by Meredith Whitford.  This novel, narrated by Richard’s fictional best friend, Martin Robsart, follows Richard and Martin from their young men’s adventures after the death of Richard’s father, through the rise and reign of Richard’s brother Edward, to his role as a reluctant king.

A different but compelling and sympathetic version of Richard’s story is WE SPEAK NO TREASON by Rosemary Hawley Jarmon.

Richard is less the central figure here, the book focusing more on the views of those around him, particularly four fictional characters who include the Man of Keen Sight and the Nun.  Still, the intertwining stories of both fictional and historic characters vividly illuminate the twisted tale of events during the first two years of his reign.

Sandra Worth devotes an entire trilogy to Richard.  THE ROSE OF YORK:  LOVE AND WAR describes Richard as a lonely youth who idolized his cousin, John of Montagu, (whose love story Worth tells in LADY OF THE ROSES, see Part I) and looked to John’s brother, the Earl of Warwick, as a surrogate father.  Worth’s Richard is a kind and honorable man who is pulled in conflicting directions by his loyalties to his brother Edward, his uncle the Earl and his love for the earl’s daughter Anne.

The second volume, THE ROSE OF YORK: CROWN OF DESTINY, takes up the story just before Edward IV’s death.  Although Richard would prefer to remain in the north, well away from royal intrigues, when Edward IV dies, as Lord Protector and guardian of his brother’s young sons, duty requires him to return to court.  Anguished by betrayals and torn by conflicting evidence, Worth’s Richard only reluctantly agrees to set aside his nephew and assume the throne himself.

The final volume, THE ROSE OF YORK:  FALL FROM GRACE, deals with Richard’s kingship and his legacy.  By the time of his coronation, the most pivotal figures of his life (his brother Edward and uncle, the Earl of Warwick) are dead, unable to offer guidance in a court rife with intrigue and betrayal.  Worth’s Richard sets himself apart as a monarch concerned with the rule of law, who bequeathed to England the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” and equality for all under the law, regardless of birth or wealth.  But he was also the man whose character was blackened by accusations that he murdered his nephews and who found himself constantly threatened by the scheming of Henry Tudor, the man who eventually defeated him in battle.


Fans of Richard III fiction (which includes me!) can look forward with anticipation to the fall of 2012 and the release of Philippa Gregory’s next novel.  THE KINGMAKER’S DAUGHTER, featuring Richard’s wife Anne Neville, is sure to add another fascinating chapter to this saga.

How is the conflict finally resolved?  Check back next month for THE SWEETBRIAR’S THORNS: THE WARS OF THE ROSES PART III. And don’t forget to read the interview with Philippa Gregory!

Julia Justiss is the author of several historical romances including her latest, SOCIETY’S MOST DISREPUTABLE GENTLEMAN

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