REVIEW: The Real Falstaff by Stephen Cooper

Anyone who has delved into Shakespearean studies probably learned that Falstaff was originally written as Sir John Oldcastle, Protestant martyr who was burned at the stake in Henry V’s reign. But Oldcastle had descendants who took exception to this unsavory depiction, and the great bard rewrote the part for the fat, cowardly, drunken braggart called Falstaff. Whether he intentionally named his character after the historical knight is up to interpretation, but the author has gone to great length to clear the name of Sir John Fastolf and demonstrate that he, too, has been misrepresented. Although there are similarities between the two:

“They were both captains in the king’s wars, much involved in recruiting and mustering soldiers, including drunken soldiers. They were both associated with a Boar’s Head tavern (though Falstaff’s was at Eastcheap, Fastolf’s in Southwark). They may both have been pages to Thomas Mowbray, Earl (and later Duke) of Norfolk. Each man used forceful and colourful language (Fastolf in writing, Falstaff in speech); and each attracted devoted servants. Most importantly in terms of reputation, Shakespeare portrays both men as cowards. We shall see that, in the case of Fastolf, this was most unjust; but Falstaff does not for a moment hide his cowardice.”

Sounds convincing, doesn’t it? But once the first chapter is finished, the comparisons cease and Shakespeare is not mentioned again. This book is a full-bodied biography of Fastolf, who was a major player in the conquest of Normandy, especially after Henry V’s death. He was an important commander under the Duke of Bedford, regent of France (and brother of Henry V). Not only did he spend much of his life in service during the war, he acquired great wealth which he spent judiciously back in England. After Bedford’s death, his career spiraled downwards, and he was to live the rest of his long life a disappointed man in England. But he continued to serve Henry VI’s interests, though the king’s advisors rarely listened to his advice. He lost many of his French acquisitions during the fiasco under Somerset’s incompetent command. An unfortunate episode during the battle of Patay, where he left the field with his men when all was lost, cast a shadow over his reputation and dogged him until the end. This is undoubtedly one of the main reasons his name has been linked to Falstaff, and the author hopes to give us a more balanced portrayal. Although this is not the most exciting period of history to read about, the book moves right along and gives us a lot of good information.

Review: Agincourt: Henry V, the Man-at-Arms & the Archer

This book is a very solid overview of not only the battle but events leading up to it, from the beginning of Henry V’s reign, the coup attempt at Southampton, the siege of Harfleur, and the long detour the army had to make to find a crossing of the Somme. It’s not until about halfway through that we get to the battle. I’m not complaining, mind you. You can’t tell the story without the background. It’s just that I found the book description a little misleading, as was (in my opinion) the statement on the back cover that we see the battle “through the eyes of key participants”. I’m very deep into my research by now, and I bought this book hoping I would get some really specific stuff, about individual archers, some of Henry’s captains, etc. I should have known better. Agincourt has been gone over meticulously; there’s only so much stuff that’s ever going to come to the surface unless some researcher gets really lucky. With that said, this is a very good book for anyone getting started on their research. The narrative is solid and we get some good historical background. For instance:

His (Henry V) deep piety has been much remarked on and his knowledge of Biblical precedent had featured in the campaign before, such as when he suggested to the townsfolk of Harfleur that he would use the powers allocated by God to a king chastising his subjects as outlined in the Book of Deuteronomy. The whole expedition has been given the impression of something approaching a Crusade by the king, as an act sanctioned and approved by God.

Henry V and his motivations were reasonably discussed, though I really didn’t get the impression I was seeing the battle through his eyes or anyone else’s. But that didn’t matter too much; I came away with a substantial understanding about how the army dealt with their hardships along the way, and even got a good overview of the French side. I thought the Harfleur siege was explained in good detail as well. Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t anything I hadn’t already read before, which made sense once I looked at the bibliography; all the sources used were secondary works. Regardless, the book was interesting, well written, and flowed very smoothly.

Book Review: John of Gaunt by Sydney Armitage-Smith

John of GauntJohn of Gaunt is an enigmatic figure to most of us. You can’t help but remember his famous speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II, using a play of words with his name. But by then he was at death’s door—weak and pitiful. We know he was hated by the city of London and lost his fabulous Savoy Palace, burned to the ground during the Peasants’ Revolt. He has come down to us as an arrogant, unyielding, aristocratic noble, but with the help of this biography we get to see the subtler side of Gaunt. He seems to have started out as all those things we remember, but throughout his career he became a successful and valued statesman, ambassador and—most importantly—protector of the king’s prerogative. Although many assumed that he had designs on the throne for himself, in reality it would have been against his honor to usurp the king, no matter how helpless, deserving, or ungrateful Richard may have seemed. He had his own crown to chase down—Castile—and though his efforts proved useless, he did manage to marry off two of his daughters to Spanish heirs who begat lines of kings that lasted hundreds of years. If he had been as good a general as he was a negotiator, perhaps history would have been kinder to his memory.

Here’s a good representation of Gaunt’s proficiency (during the Peasants’ Revolt while he was in Scotland): “John of Gaunt was a true Plantagenet; no sign of fear betrayed his secret to the Scottish envoys. While his couriers were riding with orders to the constables of his castles in Yorkshire and on the Welsh marches to garrison them for a siege and admit no one without letters under his seal, the Duke quietly went on with the negotiations, and by the offer of liberal terms persuaded the Scots to prolong the truce. Not till the compact was sealed did the Scots learn that they had lost the golden opportunity of attacking England in the hour of weakness.”

Richard, who disliked and feared the power of his uncle, encouraged him to go and claim his crown in Castle—only to discover that once the Duke was gone, he had lost his only protector. The Lords Appellant, intent on removing the king’s advisors, stripped Richard of all his powers while Gaunt was overseas. Richard learned his lesson well, and once he was in control again, recalled his uncle and showered him with favors. By then Gaunt had achieved the height of respectability and for the rest of his life he championed the king and strove to secure the future of his heirs. The author gives us a well-rounded depiction of this oft-maligned Duke, and I came to understand his disappointments as well as his accomplishments. I suspect he would have disapproved of his son’s usurpation of the throne, but of course Richard waited until he died to commence his scheme of depriving Henry of Gaunt’s vast patrimony. This was a well-written biography and quite useful to understanding the period.


Review: The Fall Of The House Of Percy, 1368-1408 by Richard Lomas

This book with the catchy title has actually proved to be very readable and informative. I had hoped it would answer some of my most nagging questions (what exactly was the relationship between Thomas Percy and Prince Henry, and of course, why did he throw everything away to fight at Shrewsbury? And why did Hotspur throw everything away on such a risky venture?) Alas, I can only assume that the answers are lost to history and we are left with plenty of speculation. Nonetheless, this book provided me with many details I didn’t find elsewhere and that helped explain situations.

“The alternative and reasonable explanation is that whatever loyalty to Henry he (Thomas) had was dissipated by the king’s treatment of him. Also, there was family solidarity: he probably felt unable to fight for a king his nephew was seeking to depose. What is unclear is the point or stage at which he was drawn into the plot. His move, however, was militarily significant in that he brought with him eight knights, 96 esquires and 866 archers, most of them staunch Ricardians and/or Cheshire men, that constituted over a quarter of the Prince’s force.”

The same quandary applies to the relationship between Hotspur and Prince Henry. Hotspur was often portrayed as young Henry’s mentor, but anecdotal evidence gives us a small window of opportunity. Even biographies of Henry V yield little information. But enough of what is lacking. The author has given us a solid picture of the Percys starting with family background, leading to Henry Percy’s early career as first Earl of Northumberland. We get a thorough description of the wars and politics of the years between 1368-1389, bringing in the international influences. By chapter four, we explore the last ten years of King Richard’s reign and the revolution of Henry Bolingbroke, which relied heavily on the Percys for its success. They were greatly rewarded, but during the next few years it became evident that Henry IV was not as committed to their cause as they were to his. Using the rival family of the Nevilles as a counter-balance, Henry sought to control the overweening Percys by giving the Nevilles land and offices, just as Richard II had done. Alas, he only succeeded in driving them into the arms of Owain Glyn Dwr, who was more than happy to combine forces in an effort to unseat the usurper king.

Percy captures King Richard, BL Harley 1319 Histoire du Roy d’Angleterre Richard

A major fallout occurred as a result of the battle of Humbleton Hill—a huge success for the English against the Scots, where a large number of aristocrats were captured. “It was the fate of these men that shortly became the occasion of a bitter quarrel between the king and Hotspur. A week after the battle, on receipt of the news of the victory… Henry wrote to the Earl as Warden of the West March, strictly ordering that none of the Scottish prisoners should be ransomed or released, except on his authority. The stated reason for this prohibition was the ‘urgent causes now moving the king’ but without indicating what they were.” Earl Henry duly delivered his hostages to the king at Westminster, but “Hotspur refused to hand over the Earl of Douglas. In doing so, he flouted the rules of war, which accorded the king the right, for obvious political reasons, to captured commanders and prisoners of royal blood, on the understanding (which Henry explicitly gave in his letters) that he would suitable compensate the captor.” So you see, the author gives us a balanced description of events, unclouded by the usual haze of sentiment surrounding the chivalric Hotspur. The disaster at Shrewsbury was followed by two more failed rebellions of Henry Percy—the last when “he was in his early sixties, that is to say, he was a man of very advanced years, whose health may have been poor and faculties impaired. As regards his final throw in 1408, it seems clear that it had virtually no chance of success and that the Earl may well have known this as he set out.” A sad end to a proud and powerful man.

The dynasty did survive after all, but their eventual fate is outside the scope of this volume. Overall, I liked this book very much and find it to be a worthy addition to my library.

Review for HEIR TO A PROPHECY by Mary Anne Yarde, The Coffee Pot Book Club

“I’ve come to help avenge Banquo’s death.”
Malcolm smiled sadly. “Then you shall not leave my side until it is done.”

Walter knew nothing of his ancestry, only that he was illegitimate and his grandfather, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, had cast out his daughter, Walter’s mother, Nesta, and murdered Fleance, Walter’s father. Walter knew nothing of his father’s past until he was visited by three mysterious old women, who spoke of prophecy and destinies and other such dangerous things.

Walter has two choices. He could ignore the old hags and live the life he wanted. Or, he could take heed of their warning and follow the path they laid out before him and become The First Stuart of Scotland.

From a desperate escape from assassins to the crowning of the rightful King of Scotland, Heir to a Prophecy by Mercedes Rochelle is the utterly compelling story of how Banquo’s grandson paved the way for a generation of kings.

Those who have read Shakespeare’s infamous Scottish play will be familiar with brave and valiant Banquo, who like Macbeth failed to understand the cost of the weird women’s prophecy, nor was he prepared for the ugly realisation that if he were indeed the father of kings then Macbeth, his dearest friend, would become a dagger hidden in the shadows of the night. *”Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly,” Banquo cried if you recall, for the instruments of darkness so often tell the truth, and thus Banquo dies. Rochelle has picked up the story from that remarkable play and has taken her readers with good Fleance as he flees for his life. But how did Banquo’s son go on to father the Stuart dynasty? In this remarkable work of Historical Fiction, Rochelle has presented her readers with a plausible answer but without losing the essence, the superstition and the mythical element that is so prevalent in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Rochelle has stuck with tradition and allowed the Three Witches to control the narrative and, of course, toy with the protagonists. By doing this, Rochelle has not only captured the very essence of Shakespeare’s play, but she has given us a story that is rich and vibrant and utterly compelling from start to finish. Heir to a Prophecy is the type of book that one will forego sleep to finish, and it is also one that would be next to impossible to forget.

Book Review: Hotspur by Andrew W. Boardman

This is an extremely well-written book about one of those enigmatic heroes who was so well depicted by Shakespeare that we’ll never entirely shake loose from the vision he gave us. I think the author has done a remarkable job trying to remove fact from fiction, considering that historical Northumberland is pretty much a foreign country to us. We see Hotspur as a personification of the ideal knight as understood by his contemporaries, rather than an anomaly: “Thousands of dead, pillaged lands, war crimes against civilian populations and a number of other ‘unchivalrous’ deeds give us cause to question the medieval knight’s habitual need to prove himself through violent action; but this is exactly what it meant to live and breathe the code in a world where, like today, it was perfectly acceptable to destroy a country’s infrastructure and dismiss civilian deaths as collateral damage. In the medieval world, this WAS chivalry in its purest form…” It was Hotspur’s motivation to be the best, most chivalrous knight in the world and he pushed himself to extremes in order to achieve his goals. Naturally restless, he craved action and preferred dangerous assignments to boring garrison duty. And apparently he was very good at his job, which is why the Scots gave him his nickname.

We get a good feeling for what life was like on the marches between England and Scotland, and how violence and raiding was a part of life they understood all too well. The Percies were a law unto themselves, and ruled the north almost as kings; only a man born and raised in such an environment could control the tempestuous Scots. In this book, plenty of attention was given to Hotspur’s impetuous father, Henry Percy 1st Earl of Northumberland as well as his uncle, Thomas Percy—warrior, diplomat and politician—who served as Richard II’s Steward of the Household before deserting to Bolingbroke. Both men were influential in Hotspur’s life. His father, to all appearances, was autocratic and kept young Hotspur under his thumb for much of his son’s adult life. Chafing under his father’s harsh authority could have been one of the reasons Hotspur broke away on occasion and made his own decisions—often with disastrous results. His uncle Thomas was more puzzling; his decision to rebel against Henry IV at Shrewsbury has never been satisfactorily explained. Even the king was caught by surprise, so successful were his pursuits up to that point. Apparently Thomas was a family man first and foremost and supported Hotspur to the end, even as Earl Henry mysteriously failed to show up at the fatal battle of Shrewsbury. In the end, Hotspur was defined by the predatory age he lived in, “Cradled in war, and trained in all respects to deal with local border raiding, his main obligation was to hold by force that which his ancestors had previously won.” It is a fascinating story about a character out of legend.

Book Review: The House of Beaufort: The Bastard Line that Captured the Crown by Nathen Amin

I always knew of the Beauforts as John of Gaunt’s illegitimate children by Katherine Swynford, and I knew about Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, but everything that happened in between was kind of fuzzy to me. Luckily, Nathen Amin shines a light on this deserving dynasty. This book covers three generations (and a little more) of Beauforts, each with its own superstars to keep the family in the forefront of politics. Much of the action takes place in France during the 100 years’ war, for our Beauforts produce a few spectacular commanders—though a few bumblers also slip through. It seems that each generation gets a little watered down, until by Henry VI’s time they do more harm than good, managing to extinguish themselves in the male line. But for a while, they shine very brightly indeed. They came into their own after Henry IV became king, and throughout the Beauforts knew that their fortune—and future—were linked to the crown:

“By 1403 the Beauforts had unquestionably established themselves as a core part of Henry IV’s inner circle, devoted to his cause as the king struggled to maintain control of his crown. Henry recognized the necessity of ensuring his half-brothers were satisfied in their positions, while the Beauforts acknowledged those same positions were only held courtesy of the king’s good grace. It was to the mutual benefit of both parties that this relationship remained in place for the foreseeable future.”

And indeed it remained in place for decades, notwithstanding a few slip-ups during the complicated Wars of the Roses. Their hold over young Henry VI was absolute for much of his minority, though at the same time it was a Beaufort that nearly lost France for England. They were good at landing on their feet, however. The steadying influence (as well as bountiful financial contributions) of Cardinal Henry Beaufort—from the first generation—kept the family in power and the crown afloat until he died in 1447 (by then, Henry VI was 26 years old). The cardinal wasn’t always appreciated, but his unfailing dedication to the “cause” kept his enemies at bay.

Alas, as usual the Beauforts were not very creative at naming their children, and the plethora of Johns, Henrys, Thomases, and Edmunds were mind-numbing. We were given one very simple family tree at the beginning, but it was not enough—especially since their titles were passed on as well, and not necessarily father to son. And of course, the generations overlapped, so it was hard to remember who was the brother of King Henry and who was the nephew. I made my own cheat sheet but by the Wars of the Roses I gave up trying to keep everyone straight. Also, to keep the page numbers down, the font was incredibly small and it was hard to read for my middle-aged eyes (not the author’s fault, I understand). There was a tremendous amount of information in this book and I tip my hat to Nathen for taking on such a project. I admit I found it a struggle to get through all the way to the end. This is not the kind of book you will read for entertainment, but as a resource it is invaluable.

Review of A KING UNDER SIEGE by Mary Anne Yarde

“With spades and hoes and ploughs, stand up now.

Your houses they pull down, to fright poor men in town,

The gentry must come down and the poor shall wear the crown…”

It was the age-old question, who should sit on the throne of France? Everyone in England knew that the French crown belonged to the English King — Richard II. Unfortunately, the House of Valois did not agree with the English consensus.

The French were a formidable foe. If the House of Plantagenet wanted to win this war, then they desperately needed to find more money. Parliament was called, and on the request of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III and uncle to the young King Richard II, a tax was agreed upon. Regrettably, this Poll tax was a very regressive tax. An unfair burden that the poor simply could not pay. It was really no surprise when the peasants revolted in 1381.

Richard II was only ten years old when he succeeded to the throne. He was too young to rule on his own. But instead of a regent, it was decided that the government should be placed in the hands of a series of councils, but even then, there were those who thought Gaunt had too much power. But it wasn’t Gaunt who rode out to meet with Wat Tyler (the leader of the rebels) at Smithfield. It was the fourteen-year-old King.

A child Richard may still be, but he was the King of England, and he believed in the royal prerogative. He had also had enough of being told what to do by men he no longer respected. Richard was old enough to know his own mind and to choose his own advisors. However, not everyone was happy with the way the monarchy was heading, and the discontent of those who had been influential rumbled around Richard’s realm like a threatening biblical storm from days gone by. It was only a matter of time before men such as Gloucester and Warwick had their retribution…

From small beginnings to disastrous ends, A King Under Siege: Book One of The Plantagenet Legacy by Mercedes Rochelle is the compelling account of the Peasant Revolt of 1381 and the following turbulent years of Richard II’s early reign.

What an utterly enthralling story A King Under Siege: Book One of The Plantagenet Legacy is. This is the story of a very tempestuous time in English history. Rochelle paints a vivid picture, not only of the peasantry and the hardship they faced but also the corruption and the dangers of court life in the reign of Richard II. These were treacherous times, and Rochelle has demonstrated this with her bold and an exceptionally riveting narrative.

The book is split into three parts, which gave the book a firm grounding of time and place. Part 1 explores the first major challenge in Richard II reign, which was the Peasant Revolt. Rochelle gives a scrupulously balanced account about the revolt. The story explores both sides of the argument, which I thought gave this book a wonderful depth and scope. Part 2 is aptly named “Resistance,” and this section was very compelling as Richard tried to take control of his throne. Part 3, was perhaps the most moving and upsetting as those who thought themselves slighted took revenge upon the King. Rochelle has this tremendous eye for writing very emotional scenes that certainly made me shed a few tears. I thought it was masterfully written.

As I have already touched upon, I thought the portrayal of Richard II was a historical triumph. Richard grows from this unsure youth to a man who is facing a war from those who should be on his side. Forget the war with France, it is the war within parliament that Richard has to try to win.

This story is rich in historical detail. It has so obviously been meticulously researched. I cannot but commend Rochelle for this exceptional work of scholarship.

A King Under Siege: Book One of The Plantagenet Legacy is one of those books that once started is impossible to put down. This book is filled with non-stop action. There are enough plots and conspiracies to satisfy any lover of historical fiction. This is storytelling at its very best.

I Highly Recommend.

Review by Mary Anne Yarde.

The Coffee Pot Book Club.

Book Review of RICHARD II AND THE IRISH KINGS by Darren Mcgettigan

This is a book written by an Irish man for the Irish reader. It’s a very interesting angle, because it helps to demonstrate that Richard II’s part of the history is not necessarily at the foremost of everybody’s mind (“In 1397 Roger Mortimer’s uncle, Sir Thomas Mortimer, fell foul of the king in some palace intrigue…”). The contemporary Irish kings are what matter most here, and how they interacted with the intrusive English. This is the best book I’ve found so far that actually gives us a good idea just went on in the Irish campaigns, how Richard caught the famous Art MacMurchadha Caomhanach totally by surprise, and how Art later put his hard-earned lessons to good use. We also see that much of the violence that wracked Ireland after Richard left in 1395 was associated with Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March and lord lieutenant of Ireland: “By 1396 Roger Mortimer was at war with many of the Irish kings of north Leinster and south Ulster. The annals record that in that year he attacked the Clann Sheoain… He also attacked the O Raighilligh kingdom of East Breifne, where he cut passes through two forests and killed the noble Mathghamhain O Raighilligh… In early 1396 Mortimer ‘made a treacherous raid on O Neill before launching a larger assault on Tyrone…’” This sounds quite contrary to Richard’s policy of tolerance, justice and good government. Mortimer may well have done more harm than good, and his death precipitated Richard’s second expedition to Ireland in 1399.

Although I found the Irish names difficult to grasp, the author wisely gave us maps that helped locate the chieftains and kingdoms, as well as all the towns and castles, mountains and forests that Richard had to negotiate. I consulted them regularly! As a reference book, if you are researching the Irish campaigns, this book is invaluable. For light reading, you may get bogged down (pardon the pun!) in a hurry.

Book Review: The Royal Bastards of Medieval England by Chris Given-Wilson & Alice Curteis

I found this book to be surprisingly diverting and helpful. The paper book cover shows that famous romantic painting of the two princes in the Tower by John Everett Millias, so I was half-expecting yet another repetition of arguments pro and con about Richard III’s involvement with their murder. In actuality, the princes are given a nod, but the true subjects of this book are shown sorely-needed attention as they are often glossed over in histories despite the fact that many of them were quite influential. For instance, I knew all about the Beauforts (John of Gaunt’s bastards who were later legitimized), but didn’t really give much credit to Henry VII’s great-grandfather, John Beaufort, as the head of the Tudor dynasty (on the maternal side). Without Beaufort’s royal blood, Henry might not have dared an attempt at the throne. Other royal bastards, such as Geoffrey Plantagenet (son of Henry II), and Robert of Gloucester (son of Henry I), were key actors in major events and given their own chapters.

The structure of this book gives us an explanation of how important (or at times unimportant) legitimacy was viewed throughout the middle ages. An extremely long introduction gives a good overview of marriage, divorce, and the Catholic Church’s views throughout this period, which is more than helpful. Consider this: since the twelfth century, “the church was teaching not only that the consent of the man and the woman was the vital prerequisite for any marriage, but also that that consent of any other person—parent, lord or whatever—was unnecessary. Among the aristocracy and royalty, it is only in modern times that this idea has really gained acceptance: parentally arranged marriages have remained common among the upper classes right through to the twentieth century…Even for the elite, the doctrine of consent did have one crucial result: if a man and a woman did flout the wishes of their parents or guardians and get married, perhaps secretly, and if it was then proven in a church court that they had both consented to the marriage, the marriage remained valid in the eyes of the church…” I can’t help but think of the secret marriage between Joan, the Fair maid of Kent and Thomas Holland which fell into this category.

Especially in the early days after William the Bastard made his mark on history, bastards could fare just as well as their luckier brothers (short of inheritance). Geoffrey Plantagenet is the only son of Henry II that stuck with him all the way to the end, even when all his legitimate brothers rebelled. He ended up as Bishop of Lincoln (hotly contested), archbishop of York (also hotly contested) and chancellor of England, though when Henry II died his career took a downward spiral. He was in constant conflict with his brothers and died in exile, a bitter man. After Edward III’s time, illegitimacy began to take on more political overtones, and accusations got bantered about that could potentially add strength to the opposition party. Even Richard II was accused of being a bastard (because his mother’s secret marriage ruined her reputation). It was thought that Prince Edward, son of the unstable Henry VI, was the illegitimate son of Queen Margaret, which added fuel to the Wars of the Roses fire. George, Duke of Clarence was executed after accusing his brother Edward IV of being a bastard. And of course the Princes in the Tower were removed from the royal inheritance by their uncle Richard III.

On the other hand, by the time of Henry VIII (whose father was stained by the curse of illegitimacy on both sides of his family) it looked like the pendulum might swing the other way; if Henry FitzRoy had lived past his teenaged years, it was commonly thought he might be declared heir. And in 1685, the popular son of Charles II, James Duke of Monmouth, made a serious grab at the crown, only to be defeated in battle at Sedgemoor and beheaded two days later. “He was the last royal bastard in England to entertain such ambitions. It is one of those perverse ironies of our history that neither Henry I, who fathered more bastards than any other English king, nor Charles II, who ran him a close second, was able to pass his crown to a legitimate son.” Nonetheless, it makes for great reading!