Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 31 October 2013

"God hath sent him for the weal of us all..."

I want to try something different, and offer some discussion of Henry VII and Richard III as rulers rather than their qualities (or lack of) as individuals. We could argue until the roses turn brown about the characters of the two men, so will set aside the 'cult of personality' for the moment and focus on what they actually did for the country. It's a big subject, so I'll tackle Richard first. I'm probably going to miss out quite a lot, being very far from an expert, so please feel free to correct me and fill in any gaps.

Ok so he killed a bunch of guys, but check out those statutes

Richard III ruled for just two years, but still managed to pack a lot in. Polydore Vergil claimed that as soon as Richard had taken/usurped the crown (delete according to inclination) he 'began to give the show and countenance of a good man, whereby he might be accounted more righteous, more mild, more better affected by the commonalty' - in other words, Richard pretended to act like a good and just ruler in order to win much-needed public support.

That sounds like a criticism - and it was certainly was, coming from Vergil - but there isn't anything unreasonable about a man doing good in order to win support. Modern politicians are still trying to pull off the same trick now.

So what did Richard do as king that was so wonderful? His main acts can be briefly summarised as follows:

  • Made public his concerns that good order should be kept, ordering his judges and noblemen to 'justlly and duly minister his law without delay or favour'. 
  • Issued a proclamation stating that any man who was wronged by a royal official would have justice of the King, and 'according to Justice and his laws they shall have remedy'. 
  • Behaved with energy and efficiency, travelling swiftly about the realm and rarely keeping to one place, thus making himself visible and accessible to his subjects.
  • Most famously of all, his one and only Parliament of 1484 issued a series of public acts that included six beneficial statutes: this included allowing bail to those suspected of felony (Richard did not invent bail, as Philippa Langley claims); protecting the rights of purchasers to land; making illegal the arbitrary system of taxation known as benevolences; preventing dishonesty in the cloth trade, and promoting English merchants over 'foreigners'.

The latter might seem a tad xenophobic by today's standards, but was a highly sensible populist move for a late medieval king sitting on a rather unsteady throne. 

Apart from his law-making, Richard went to great lengths to secure support by other means, principally by the sprinkling about of large amounts of cash. In the space of a few hectic weeks in 1483 he rewarded the scholars of Oxford with gifts, granted various local petitions, honoured debts and made all sorts of grants and gifts to religious houses, especially in the north. The latter was another shrewd move, since the north was the heartland of his support.

This barrage of schmooze got Richard what he wanted: a euphoric tidal wave of support, culminating in a triumphant entry to York. The Bishop of St David's wrote to a friend:

"He contents the people where he does best that ever did prince; for many a poor man that hath suffered wrong many days have been relieved and helped by him and his commands in the progress. And in many great cities and towns were great sums of money given him which he hath refused. On my truth, I never liked the conditions of any prince as well as his. God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all."

If the opinion of the starry-eyed bishop was reflected by the rest of Richard's subjects, then it must have seemed that Richard was set fair for a long and glorious reign. The dodgy circumstances of his accession would soon be forgotten - or smothered - and he was destined to be remembered as Richard the Brilliant. 

How, then, did it all go so horribly wrong for him? The simplest answer is that pleasing commoners and churchmen is one thing, but pleasing the nobility quite another, especially the four great magnates still standing after thirty years of inter-class genocide: Northumberland, Stanley, Norfolk and Buckingham. Of these, Richard could only truly count on his old mate Norfolk. 

That, however, is for another day and another blog post. Next up, the doings of King Henry the Seventh... 

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Fact vs Fiction

This is a bit late, since The Tudors and The White Queen are no longer on our screens, but today I wanted to talk a bit about these shows (and others like them) and the way they affect our general understanding of the past. Since The White Queen is the more recent, I've chosen to concentrate on that.


I was no great fan of the series, or Philippa Gregory's version of events surrounding the disappearance of Edward V and his brother in 1483. Call me a thumpingly literal-minded traditionalist, but so far as I'm concerned those boys were murdered shortly before the accession of Richard III, and on Richard's orders. There is no evidence for their assassination, of course, and none is likely to come to light, but they vanished from public view while under the care and 'protection' of their uncle. It was Richard who had the means, the motive and the opportunity - something I might devote a future blog post to.

Gregory takes a different view, and has the elder of the boys, Edward, smothered by agents of the Duke of Buckingham, while his brother Richard is smuggled abroad and later regenerates, Doctor Who-style, as Perkin Warbeck, bane of Henry VII. This is by no means the wildest of the many and various alternative theories about the fate of the princes - they range from death by cancer to the INSANE Margaret Beaufort keeping the boys as pets in her own private dungeon - but was depicted on the programme as solemn, unimpeachable fact.*

The entire sequence was irritating, as well as muddled and badly-filmed, but Gregory is a shrewd operator, and well aware that you can't show Richard III doing bad things in the current climate. We're going to get Saint Dickon from now on, come what may.

Far worse was TWQ's other digressions from the official record. Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Elizabeth Woodville's mother, who was indeed accused of witchcraft in her lifetime, is shown as an actual functioning witch, capable of summoning up mists and storms at sea. She passes her powers on to her daughter and grand-daughter, who together use magic to scupper Henry Tudor's invasion of 1483. Elizabeth of York, Henry's future wife, manages to predict the advent of the Virgin Queen and the end of the Tudor dynasty, thus giving those upset by Richard III's death in battle something to cheer. This isn't merely changing history, but asking viewers to believe in magic. Actual magic.

So to Bosworth, the nadir of the series and possibly the all-time worst battle sequence ever filmed: even worse than the ladies of the Women's Institute in Monty Python, who re-enacted historical battles by attacking each other with handbags. To be fair, the BBC clearly lacked the budget to stage the battle properly - that would require a cast of thousands - but in that case it shouldn't have been attempted. The sight of about thirty extras running around a snowy forest (snow, in August) throwing packets of fake blood at each other before Lord Stanley came charging to Tudor's rescue with his mighty retinue of five dudes, set me chuckling and harrumphing for hours.

Turning away from the horrors of The White Queen, we have The Tudors, the most recent attempt to dramatise the life of Henry VIII. Bluff King Hal has appeared many times on screen, perhaps the best being Keith Michell's performance as the aging king through all the stages of his life, back in the 1970s. The '70s was the high point of 'responsible' historical drama, with the fiery Angevins depicted in the 'The Devil's Crown', starring Brian Cox as Henry II, and 'Shadow of the Tower', with an astonishing performance by James Maxwell as Henry VII. Stagey and low-budget these shows may appear now, but the quality of the scripts, acting and research are on a different planet to that served up by modern dramas.

Back to The Tudors, and the central performance by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry. Quite apart from the the factual errors littered throughout the show - Henry's sisters are merged into one for convenience, and Cardinal Wolsey is shown cutting his own throat - Meyers is the big problem. A fine actor in his own right, he neither looks like Henry, and fails to convince as Henry, no matter how loudly or often he storms about, chewing up the scenery. In fact his Henry comes across as a bit of a whining prat, no more so than when he insists on vaulting a river to continue hunting, and ends up face-down in the drink. The best is saved for last, when Meyers deals with Henry's weight and health problems in later life by limping about with a cane and adopting a strange faux-Irish accent. At no point does he lose his sexy six-pack or suffer any loss in looks, besides a touch of Just For Men-style grey at the temples.

Other than venting - hey, this is my blog and I'll vent if I want to - my point is to ask this question: what makes for good, compelling historical drama? One in which events and personages are significantly altered, sometimes beyond recognition, or in which the 'true' story is told with as much accuracy and honesty as possible, known facts permitting?

Perhaps there is no 'right' answer - I have heard it said recently that without conjecture, any historical drama will lack interest - but I know which way I lean...especially if guff like The White Queen is fated to be the norm from now on.

Any thoughts welcome :)

* The portrayal of Margaret Beaufort needs little comment from me. It will surely go down in TV history as one of the most eccentric, crazed depictions of a historical character ever committed to screen.


Monday, 14 October 2013

Myriads of Robin Hoods

Today I've decided to turn away from the blood-soaked doings of the 15th century, and delve into a bit of historical background to the legend of Robin Hood.

Some would have it that there is no 'historical background' to the legend as such, and that the character is really a hybrid of older tales, all mixed together with elements of folklore and mythology. Certainly, the oldest written form of the story as we know it, The Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (first printed in the 1470s), is up to its eyeballs in debt to earlier tales of Fulk Fitwarin, Eustace the Monk and Hereward the Wake. If taken to pieces and carefully analysed, very little of the narrative can be confidently stated as being original.

So does that mean there was no historical Robin, and that all such 'historicist' theories are so much hot air? Possibly, though that would make the character almost unique: very few English medieval ballad heroes are entirely fictional. Surely the most enduring of them all was once flesh and blood, and not merely stitched together from the rags of other stories? A sort of Frankenstein's Outlaw?

The problem with gleaning medieval records looking for evidence of a historical Robin is that there are too many: brigands, outlaws, cut-throats and general ne'er-do-well's named Robert Hood (or variants) abound, and it is next to impossible to pick one out from the crowd and say 'this is the man'.

To give an idea of what I mean, here is a short sampling of the list of historical villains bearing the outlaw's name:

1219: Robert Hod, outlaw: murdered a man named Ralph Pessun in the Abbot of Cirencester's garden and fled, along with two accomplices. Fate unknown.

1225 AD: Robert Hod, fugitive, fled the assize court at York and had his chattels seized by the Sheriff of Yorkshire to the value of 32 shillings and 6 pence. Crime and fate unknown.

1240: Robert Hode, one of a gang that murdered a man in Devon. All of the suspects fled and were outlawed. Fate unknown.

1256: Robert Hode in Thyrune, Northumberland, fled in the company of a murderer named Richard who murdered a man with an arrow. Intriguingly, the clerk of the court changes Richard's name to John in the repeat entry: a clerical error, or did he have Robin Hood and Little John in mind?

1266: Robert Hod, townsman of Cambridge, was among the rebels that infested the Isle of Ely after the defeat and death of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham.

...etc! There are also the later Robert Hoods that appear in The Wakefield Court Rolls, and form the basis for one of the more popular recent theories that Robin was one of the 'Contrariants' i.e. one of those who rebelled against King Edward II.

So who was that hooded man, if anyone? Personally I plump for the Yorkshire fugitive of 1225 as the most intriguing, as well as one of the few to have haunted Robin Hood's traditional stamping ground of Yorkshire (if not Nottinghamshire). On the other hand, 'Hobbehod' may have been completely unremarkable, and just one of the many criminals that plagued Yorkshire in the summer of that year.

Whatever the truth, the mystery behind Robin Hood will probably never be unravelled, and continue to provide great raw material for fiction for centuries to come...

Monday, 7 October 2013

The White Hawk (III): Restoration

Today is release day: the third part of The White Hawk, my series set during the turbulent years of The Wars of the Roses, is now available on Kindle. A paperback option may follow, but not for a while yet. 

Part III is titled Restoration, and deals with the period 1470-71, when the Earl of Warwick attempted to throw his erstwhile friend Edward IV off the throne and restore Henry VI. 

Take it away, Amazon....

 “A Warwick! A Warwick!”

England, 1470. The Earl of Warwick has fled England and the wrath of his former friend, King Edward of York. Barred from entering Calais, he turns to piracy and attacking merchant ships in the Channel.

The surviving members of the Bolton family have also fled their homes in England. Landless and condemned as traitors, they follow Warwick to France and the court of Margaret of Anjou, who has lived in exile since the destruction of the Lancastrian army at Towton. Desperate to regain power, Warwick sends James Bolton with a message to Margaret, his old enemy, offering to forge an alliance with her and overthrow King Edward. Together they plan to restore the mad Henry VI, who has spent the past ten years as a prisoner in the Tower of London.

Warwick gathers a new army from the surviving Lancastrian nobles, and begins to assemble an invasion fleet. King Edward must keep one eye on this threat, while also coping with fresh rumours of conspiracy and rebellion in the north. The peace in England is once again shattered as the war-drums beat and the banners unfurl for the final death-struggle between the rival Houses of Lancaster and York.

Part III of The White Hawk chronicles the further adventures of the Boltons, caught up in a conflict not of their own making, and forced to play their part by powers beyond their control."