ISABELLA: SHE-WOLF OF FRANCE, QUEEN OF ENGLAND by Alison Weir (Review)

Let’s start with the title. First, the “of France”: true she was born in France, was “the daughter of the King of France and the Queen of Navarre,” and as such “a great prize in the marriage market: no queen of England before her had boasted such a pedigree.” But after her marriage she was very much the Queen of England, and there no evidence that her loyalties remained to France. On the contrary. Her father, Philip the Fair (IV) was, like the later Henry VIII of England, a brutal megalomaniac who in any other walk of life would have ended up on the scaffold or in the madhouse. Her life from the moment she arrived in England was no longer his to dictate.

And as for the words “She-Wolf”, the phrase “She-Wolf of France” was in fact, Alison Weir tells us, coined by Shakespeare (why am I not surprised?) but he used the words not of Isabella but of Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI; it was not until the eighteenth century that it was first applied, by the poet Thomas Gray, to Isabella. And – very unfairly – it stuck.

Isabella, as Alison Weir makes clear, was not a simple femme fatale, “one of the fairest ladies in the world,” “the fairest of the fair,” but a good queen. If it had not been for her infidelity she would be seen as a great queen, a liberator, for Edward II and his friends the Despensers were, by the time she organised the coup d’état, running what was certainly the worst example of tyranny in the history of England. To see what life was like under Edward and the Despensers, you have only to read one of Michael Jecks’ books such as The Mad Monk of Gidleigh or A Friar’s Bloodfeud. In modern times, that infidelity would not be held against her, especially when we consider that her husband was far more interested in his “friends” (Piers Gaveston, and later Hugh le Despenser) that he was in her.

The other problem is how and why – and if – and on whose orders Edward II was murdered following his deposition. (Also dealt with at length in Paul Doherty’s book, Isabella And The Strange Death Of Edward Ii.) In the present book, “the Fieschi letter” is reproduced in full and the reader, as she considers Weir’s arguments for and against its authenticity and credibility, must make up her own mind whether Edward II in fact escaped and lived on, abroad. Personally, I am convinced that he did, and that it was not in his son’s interest to acknowledge his father’s continued – and shameful – existence when he finally learnt of it. I suspect that he felt only contempt for his father, and admiration for his mother, the lioness who had brought him up and made him king. He had to get rid of Mortimer, his mother’s lover and de facto ruler of England, but he never turned against Isabella.

Another wonderful biography from Alison Weir. I am proposing to read, next, her The Princes in the Tower – Edward IV’s sons Edward and Richard, two more who are said to have been murdered but rumoured to have survived.

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PUNISHMENT (by Seamus Heaney)

Netherlands’ Yde Girl

I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

GALLOWS THIEF by Bernard Cornwell (Review)

Rider Sandman, late Captain of the 52nd Regiment, hero of Waterloo, and also of this book, does not appear in the Prologue. That is a vivid, almost too vivid, description of a hanging at Newgate. The repulsive hangman, the victims, one of them a girl accused of stealing a necklace from her mistress, crying and protesting her innocence till the awful end (rightly, it turns out, the necklace is later found behind a sofa – too late, but nobody seems to care). (Sorry about that “spoiler”, but you just know she is innocent anyway.)

Then we meet Captain Sandman, who is also a cricketing hero – yes, really! – but penniless because his father seems to have lost everything, money, title and all, then died, and Sandman had to sell his army commission to provide his mother and sister with money to live on.

Now he is staying at the cheapest lodgings he can find, sharing it with thieves and prostitutes such as the irrepressible Sally. The contrast between his very proper and correct attitude and her very improper approach to life is perfect, while the difference between her cockney thieves’ slang (the “flash” language) and his posh English is frequently laugh-out-loud funny.

But there is not only Sally, the whore and would-be actress, there is Rider Sandman’s one true love, Sir Henry Forrest’s daughter Eleanor, for whom her mother (for obvious reasons) no longer considers Sandman good enough.

And there is the Countess of Avebury, an ex-dancer who managed to marry one of her admirers, but is murdered while having her portrait painted.

The artist is duly tried, convicted and condemned. But then Sandman is recruited to investigate the case becasue someone in high places has petitioned on the artist’s behalf. Sandman is at first unenthusiastic, believing the artist, Charles Corday, to be guilty of rape and murder. Then he goes to Newgate and meets him, and changes his mind – and has only days to find the true murderer.

I loved it, and love that immediate post-Napoleonic-Wars period. It reminded me of Daughter of the Game, which is brilliant – nothing can compare with the ex-prostitute heroine of that book – but Cornwell is better – he is the best! – at poverty and sleaze, life as it really was.

DAUGHTER OF THE GAME by Tracy Grant (Review)

Daughter of the Game is a sequel to Tracy Grant’s Beneath a Silent Moon and is, in my opinion, even better than the first book, which I read (but never got round to posting a review of) some time ago when I was actually in London – albeit a very different London from that of the early nineteenth century, immediately after the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo, though still often enough dismal and dark and misty and mysterious.

 

In Beneath a Silent Moon, Charles Fraser, scion of an old Scottish family and grandson of the Duke of Rannoch, is settled in London with his wife Mélanie. Both are survivors of the wars in Spain and France (she is actually of half French, half Spanish aristocratic descent), both have been spies, and both prove very capable as well as very sympathetic when their past suddenly catches up with them in London. It is a good story with some great characters and plenty of fascinating period detail. I do suggest you read it first.

 

Then, as I say, go on to Daughter of the Game, which I came across second-hand on a street stall out here, and grabbed. Which game is that, I was wondering as I set out on this new adventure with Mélanie. And I imagine all readers wonder the same thing. Without giving the game away (sorry!), I can tell you that the Great Game (as Kipling puts it in Kim, a book I adore) continues, but Mélanie’s background turns out to be not all she claimed and Sir Charles would certainly not have married her if he had know about it!

The story starts when their six-year-old son, Colin, is kidnapped by Spanish anti-monarchist activists who want a certain gold ring that they believe the Frasers have in their possession. It is an ancient  “ring of power” (to quote another great favourite from my childhood!) that is widely believed to bring victory in battle to whoever is in possession of it. “The ring Princess Aysha had commissioned for her husband or her secret lover. The ring Ramón de Carevalo had taken as plunder or received as a gift of love. The ring that had been the cause of victory and betrayal and murder ...”

Unfortunately, the Frasers do not have it, and they have only one week in which to find it, or Colin dies.

Then one of Colin’s fingers arrives in a small packet, to let them know the kidnappers are serious, and the search through gambling-dens, theatres, brothels and the notorious Marshalsea debtor’s prison for someone who knows of its whereabouts, becomes desperate. And all the time behind them comes another, a silent hunter seemingly intent on killing one or both of them before they succeed.

One of those books where you you become so much a part of their make-belief world that you are reluctant ever to return to reality.

THE CLERKENWELL TALES by Peter Ackroyd (Review)

Medieval Outsiders

>  Sister Clarice, a nun who prophesies: is she possessed, is she a witch, is she a heretic – or are the prophecies genuine?

>  William Exemewe, friar and conspirator

>  Hamo Fulberd, “simple’ or “silent” Hamo, abandoned as a child, brought up in the priory; attaches himself to Exemewe

>  Richard II, deposed king; has lost his wits 

1399 is the year in which Richard II of England was deposed and murdered, and the usurper Henry Bolingbroke, son of John o’ Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, seized the throne as Henry IV – an act which led directly to the Wars of the Roses the following century.

In this fascinating novel, we follow a plot by a group called “Dominus”, whose aim is to stir up unrest in the City of London by means of a series of murders and explosions in churches (things don’t change) and so make it unlikely that the people of London will rise in support of Richard.

The author’s arrangement of chapters, his way of telling the story, is strange and was – to me – a little off-putting, at least at first. Each chapter focuses on a different character – and the characters are nominally those of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, though they are not to be identified with them (as for instance the characters in Doherty’s An Ancient Evil are intended to be). For these are “The Clerkenwell Tales”, not “The Canterbury Tales”, and all the characters are linked by their association with the nunnery known as The House of Mary, in Clerkenwell.

So, each chapter is like a short story, the tale of that character (not, be in noted, a tale told by that character). But it works. The characters interact and chapter by chapter we become familiar with them all. Not only do we see the plot unfold and witness Richard’s downfall, but we are told so much about the lives of the many different people that we come to feel completely at home in the London of the turn of the century.

The main character, though, is the nun, Sister Clarice: Brank Mongorray opened the window of the nun’s chamber to enjoy the air of May. He was on the first floor, above a lead cistern of water which the birds used for their refreshment. John Duckling was crouched silently against it, so that he might hear any words that were spoken.

‘Did you hear the thrush this morning, Brank?’ It was the nun’s clear voice, known now by so many. ‘They say that if a man is sick of the jaundice and sees a yellow thrush, the man shall be cured and the bird shall die. Is that not too cruel?’

‘A man has an immortal soul. A bird does not.’

‘Who can be sure of that? Dieu est nostre chef, il nous garde et guye.’

Duckling had never heard her speak Anglo-Norman before; for some reason this seemed to him to be evidence of her duplicity. There was more conversation but the monk and nun had moved away from the window; Duckling could make out only occasional words until he heard her cry, ‘When will come the day of the Seven Sleepers?’ Then she called out, ‘Deus! cum Merlin dist sovent veritez en ses propheciez!’ These were marvellous strange words from a young nun: Merlin was no more than a devil worshipped by the little folk who lived in the moors and marshes. He could hear Brank Mongorray talking quietly to her. Could they be in league against the world of holiness?

If you enjoy good writing and a wealth of detail, read it.

THE SUN AND THE MOON by Patricia Ryan (Review)

Another by Patricia Ryan, author of Still Life with Murder, which I noted was “one of the best – and best written – historical crime novels I have ever come across”.

When I began The Sun and the Moon, I didn’t know it was a sequel. In fact, I didn’t realise that until I had finished it and found I was being recommended Book 1 – Silken Threads. So don’t let that put you off. It really does “stand alone”.

I also thought it was going to be a medieval spy story, but it turned out to be much more than that. Spy story it certainly was – the hero, Hugh of Wexford, a sort of 12th-century James Bond, working for Henry II – but it is also a medieval love story which occasionally crosses genres yet again to become erotica. The long and detailed description of the gentle deflowering of a virgin is perfect, but there are a couple of other set-pieces – one overt BDSM scene – that strike me as perhaps gratuitous here, in this context. Only having read the one other book by Patricia Ryan before, I am not sure whether this kind of thing is characteristic. Maybe it is. In Still Life with Murder, there are frequent references to Nell’s past life as a prostitute, but no flashbacks; perhaps there should have been. Yes, I believe now, having read this other book and seen how good she is at this kind of thing, that there should have been, that it would have filled out the background. So, on second thoughts, those scenes in this medieval story are not gratuitous after all. I’ve changed my mind.

I’m rambling here, but I am going to leave this as it is. Suffice it to say that while Patricia is not as at home in 12th-century Oxford and Southwark as she is in 19th-century Boston, Mass (“Bloody Hell!” seems hardly medieval – I’m more used to such colourful and authentic sounding phrases as “God’s Bollocks!”) this is another very good story and while Hugh of Wexford is a bit stereotyped (the hard case with a heart of gold) Philippa of Paris, the virginal James Bond girl, is completely original.

CROWN IN DARKNESS by Paul Doherty (Review)

A mystery featuring medieval sleuth Hugh Corbett

Scotland, 1286

The north of England had been a new experience to Corbett who had served in Edward’s armies in France and Wales, but Scotland was something different. Quieter, more lonely, beautiful yet menacing. He had observed it carefully as he travelled into Edinburgh. Vast forests of pine, dark and forbidding, where boar and wolf ruled; wide wastes of lonely, haunting moor, bogs, mountains and lakes covered the land. In England, the old Roman highways, sometimes much broken but their foundations still solid, spread out from London to form the main routes for travel. In Scotland, apart from the King’s Highway. the Via Regis, there were few roads, only beaten tracks. Corbett had found it difficult to reach the royal burgh of Edinburgh and. when he did, bitterly wondered if it had been worth the effort …

I have been looking at some of the early Hugh Corbett mysteries, ones I missed first time round.

Crown In Darkness takes as its historical setting the death of 44-year-old King Alexander III of Scotland as he rode from Edinburgh to his wife at Kinghorn on a wild night in March, 1286. The horse stumbled and fell, the king was killed.

But Was there more to it than that? my favourite medieval-mystery writer, Paul Doherty, wonders – and sends Sir Hugh Corbett to investigate.

Why should there have been more to it than that?

Because both his sons were dead, and his eldest daughter, who was married to King Eric of Norway, had also died, in childbirth, so Alexander’s sole heir was his three-year-old Norwegian granddaughter. An unlikely contender for the throne.

What is  more, Alexander had recently taken a second wife, Yolande, a French princess and it was to her that he was hurrying the night he died (or was murdered).

No, he had to read Kinghorn where Yolande was waiting. He thought of his new French Queen. The beautiful face of a Helen of Troy framed by hair jet-black as the deepest night., olive, perfumed skin and a small curvaceous figure clothed and protected in a profusion of satins, velvets and Bruges lace. He wanted her now; to possess that soft warm body, ripping aside the protests and the pretences. Perhaps she would conceive, bear a son, give Scotland a Prince. A vigorous boy to wear the crown and protect it against the ring of wolves and falcons both at home and abroad. He must reach Kinghorn …

And there on the road he died (orwas murdered).

But cui bono? Who would benefit (a) by the king’s death, and (b) in particular by the king failing to reach his queen before he died?

The man who thought he would step into the gap was Robert Bruce, grandfather of the Robert Bruce who did eventually become king years later. Robert Bruce the elder, who was now nearly eighty years old, was still full of energy and was, after the late king, the most powerful man in Scotland.

The other potential king was John Balliol, who did eventually become the next king. His claim was probably better and he had the support of the man who was de facto if not de jure overlord of them all, Edward I of England.

This is the setting. Hugh Corbett does not want to go to Scotland and does not enjoy his visit. But he does manage to solve the murder – for murder it was – before being declared persona non grata (a lot of Latin today!) in Scotland and deposited unceremoniously on the English side of the border – to his great delight.

A classic.