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Continuing to read books that deal with the fates of the princes in the tower, I turned to another book on my TBR shelf, Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman - a complex novel based in part on the theories of amateur art historian Jack Leslau [1] about hidden meanings in a portrait of the family of Thomas More, painted by Hans Holbein (who was known for the use of multiple levels of symbolism in his mature work).

The theory here is that the two young princes were taken from the Tower, raised for some years by Sir Tyrell, and then given new names and identities through the intervention of Bishop John Morton - in whose household the young Thomas More served as a page. The elder prince, Edward V, is alleged to have been adopted into the noble Guildford family and to have quietly accepted his fate, perhaps due to a belief that the charge of illegitimacy made against him and his siblings was true. (In this context, it's interesting to note that one of his grandsons, Guildford Dudley, was married to Lady Jane Grey in a plot to usurp the throne of Mary Tudor, and another grandson, Robert Dudley, was the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and is believed to have hoped to marry her.) This novel, however, focuses on the younger prince, Richard, who is sent to the mainland to become a scholar under the protection of his aunt, Margaret of Burgundy. Given the name John Clement, he eventually becomes part of the loose circle of humanists that included Erasmus and Thomas More, and on his return to England becomes part of More's large, loosely connected household, and later still, marries More's ward and relative Margaret Giggs.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman, told largely from the perspective of Margaret Giggs Clement, with some sections from the viewpoint of Hans Holbein, is largely the story of Margaret's relationships with three men: her adoptive father Thomas More, as he becomes less the humanist and more the defender of Catholicism against heresy in the face of the growing power of the reformist-minded Boleyns at court; painter Hans Holbein who comes to England with the support of More's friend Erasmus, seeking help from More in finding patrons at the English court; and her husband, John Clement, scholar and physician, a protégé of her father's despite being of an age with him, and secretly the lost prince of York.

Now it's important to note that all these people - not just Thomas More, Erasmus and Hans Holbein, but also Edward Guildford, John Clement and Margaret Giggs, were real people who, insofar as the historical record survives, did the things that they are shown as doing in this novel. The invention lies in the attribution of a secret identity to Clement and the knowledge of it to various of the characters, including More, Erasmus, and eventually Margaret.

Even without the lost princes theme, Portrait of an Unknown Woman works well both as a portrait of the family and inner circle of Thomas More, and, in later chapters, as an introduction to the symbolic complexities scholars have found in Holbein's art - though it must be pointed out that there is little support for Leslau's specific interpretation of the More family portrait. Bennett's portrayal of More as a man driven by deep inner conflicts between secular and spiritual desires, drawn into an almost fanatical persecution of heretics, and an ultimate longing for martyrdom, is a complex and fascinating one, and yet it never overshadows the voice of his adopted daughter Margaret Giggs, whose story of love, faith and the middle road between devout Catholicism and a healer's compassion is compelling.

The load of imagined secrets gives the later chapters of the book a tinge of melodrama that weakens the otherwise strong narrative, but overall, it's quite a good read.

[1] For more on Leslau's theories, this is a solid but not too exhaustively detailed overview:

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Being violently sick with a vicious cold, I decided to to binge-watch some British historical dramas, which led to a rewatch of The White Queen, an account of the Cousins' War based on Philippa Gregory's novels, which sort of nudged me into re-reading an old favourite, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. Which then started me off looking for other books - fictional or not - that dealt with the question of Richard III's claiming of his brother's throne and the fate of the young heirs, the Princes in the Tower.

I'm particularly fond of Tey's book partly because of the framing narrative she uses to explore the historical evidence pertinent to the matter of the deaths of the young Yorkist heirs in the tower - police detective with a broken leg going crazy from boredom takes on a historical mystery - and partly because her interpretation of the evidence cited supports my own totally unresearched belief that Richard III did not do the vile deed, or order it done. (By unresearched, I mean that I've read a number of books arguing the case this way or that but never sat down to look at all the existing evidence one way or the other and make an unbiased assessment for myself.)

Tey's theory settles on Henry Tudor, the victorious conqueror of Bosworth, as the author of the crime. Tey finds no credible evidence that Richard III had any need of killing the princes. They had been declared bastards once evidence of a pre-contract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler, made prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, was made public. Henry, on the other hand, needed the York children to be legitimate so that his marriage to Elizabeth of York would strengthen his claim to the throne, but he could not claim the throne if the princes lived. Tey argues that the princes were not killed but simply kept closely in the Tower until Henry took power and had them killed.

It's a very enjoyable - and quick - read, and much to be recommended to anyone interested in the mystery of the princes in the Tower, though
I must say that I'm not convinced of the whole of her argument. I find the reasons for holding Richard III convincing, but doubt that the princes could have remained alive in the Tower for the two years of Richard's reign without some indication of their presence. Guards talk. Records have to account for food, clothes, linens. And so on.

Robin Maxwell's To the Tower Born is another enjoyable novel that presents a theory about the fate of the young princes. Maxwell chooses a minor, and mostly unknown, character - Nell Caxton, daughter of printer William Caxton, who was the recipient of royal patronage. Maxwell imagines a close friendship between Nell and the young Princess Elizabeth, which allows her to be present for many of the crucial events surrounding the death of Edward IV, the power struggle between Richard and the Woodville clan, and the time during which the princes are known to have been in the tower. Maxwell suggests that the culprit was the ambitious Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor's mother, with the aid of The Duke of Buckingham, her nephew and the Constable of England - and hence the master of the Tower.

This theory fits the timeline better, as it has the princes disappearing from the Tower early in Richard's reign - though, in order to give the story a happy ending, Maxwell has the young princes rescued from Margaret and sent abroad to live as ordinary men, lost to history.

Maxwell's novel is also interesting reading for its sympathetic portrayal of Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, the older half-brother of the princes, and for its account of the impact of Caxton's press on English society.

While I started reading Vanora Bennett's Figures in Silk because of the Ricardian aspect of the plot, I actually found that part of the narrative rather thin compared to the rich and detailed story of life in the London silk trade which is the primary focus of the novel. Bennett's protagonist Isabel Claver is a young widow who becomes an apprentice to her successful mother-in-law Alice Claver, one of the foremost silk merchants in London. She learns the trade well and, in partnership with Claver and an Italian silk merchant, embarks on a crown-supported endeavour to bring the secrets of the Italian silk weavers to England.

Isabel's access to the court - and to royal patronage and significant commissions - is due to two things. First, her sister is Jane Shore, the mistress of Edward IV. Second, an accidental meeting with an intense young man in a church where both have gone to seek consolation turns ultimately into a secret royal liaison when Isabel discovers that the young man is Richard of Gloucester.

I have to admit that I didn't really buy Bennett's characterisation of Richard III, or the love affair between him and Isabel. Even Richard's contemporary enemies acknowledged that he seemed not only much attached to his wife, Anne Neville, at least up to the point where he became King, but also unusually faithful to her. The infrequent and furtive meetings between the two give us no sense of who Richard is as a man, and thus we have no background for the things that Richard does once his brother is dead.

Bennett presents Richard as laving been loyal to Edward until his death, but then forming an almost immediate plan to seize the throne from his nephew. She does not, however, go so far as to make him the murderer of the young princes. Rather, she has them spirited out of London at his design by the knight Tyrell - who in real life was later executed as the princes' killer - and raised in secret.

Because Isabel learns of most of the major events of the coup through rumour and the accounts of others, the story of Richard and the princes has no strong dramatic impact - we are caught up more in her confusion and growing shame at having taken as a lover a man who she comes to see as capable of disloyalty and cruelty.

While the greater political matters of the time are given a less than satisfactory treatment, it is as an account of life among the merchant class of London, and of the spirit and determination of a young woman to succeed in her craft despite many personal and professional setbacks that Bennett finds her voice and makes the book worth reading.

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I read quite a few historical novels last year, most of them set during the Wars of the Roses or the Tudor dynasty. A few were by authors I've read before, but most were by writers new to me, and thanks to judicious reading of reviews prior to acquisition, they were all good reads - and a few of them were excellent.

One of the most delightful discoveries in terms of new-found authors in the genre was Margaret Campbell Barnes. Born in 1891, most of her historical novels were published in the 40s ans 50s. After her death in 1962, most of her books went out of print, but she has been "rediscovered" and a number of her books have been recently republished. Barnes' novels are well-researched, detailed, and have a realatively "modern" feel to them, which should make her as popular today as she was 60 years ago. I've certainly found the books I've read to be just as entertaining as anything by Philippa Gregory, or any of Alison Weir's historical novels. So far, I have been able to obtain and read:

Margaret Barnes Campbell, The Passionate Brood. Originally published as Like Us, They Lived, this is a novel of the fractious Angevin Plantagenets - Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their children - focusing primarily on Richard (later called Lionheart), his younger siblings Joan and John, and his wife Berengaria. Barnes also brings into her tale a decidedly ahistorical relationship between Richard and the legendary Robin Hood.

Margaret Campbell Barnes, The Tudor Rose. The story of Elizabeth of York, daughter and niece of the last Yorkist kinss Edward IV and Richard III, wife of the first Tudor king Henry VII.

Margaret Campbell Barnes, King's Fool. A portrait of Henry VIII through the eyes of his fool, Will Somers.

Margaret Campbell Barnes, Brief Gaudy Hour. The story of Anne Boleyn's marriage to Henry VIII.

Other historical novels read and enjoyed during 2013 included:

Vanora Bennett, The People's Queen. A fascinating take on Alice Perrers, businesswoman, mistress of Edward III, and friend (if not more) to poet and merchant Geoffrey Chaucer, who is thought to have used her as the inspiration for the Wife of Bath.

Vanora Bennett, Blood Royal (published in the US as The Queen's Lover). Catherine of Valois. Daughter of the mad king Charles VI of France, wife of Henry V, mother to the infant king Henry VI who would be the last Lancastrian king, lover and probably wife to Owen Tudor (a descendant of Welsh princes), ancestor of the Tudor dynasty. 

Joanna Hickson, The Agincourt Bride. Another perspective on Catherine of Valois, this first volume of a duology covers Catherine's early life, marriage to Henry V, and early widowhood. The second volune, which I am eagerly awaiting, will cover her relationship with Owen Tudor.

Philippa Gregory, The White Queen. A sympathetic view of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Yorkist king Edward IV and mother of the princes in the tower and Elizabeth of York.

Anne O'Brien, The Virgin Widow. An engaging portrait of Anne Neville, daughter of Warrick the Kingmaker, wife to the last Lancastrian heir (Edward of Lancaster) and the last Yorkist king, Richard III.

Alison Weir, A Dangerous Inheritance. Weir does something quite interesting in this novel, which tells the story of two women, both close to the throne but on the losing side of dynastic struggles - Katherine Plantagenet, illigitimate daughter of Richard III, and Katherine Grey, younger sister of Lady Jane Grey, focus of a plot to set aside the succession of Mary Tudor. Weir links them togethet, despite the 100 years that separate them, through the device of secret papers exploring the fate of the Princes in the tower - young royals who lost, like the two Katherines, status and liberty, but unlike them, also lost their lives. 

Susan Higginbotham, Queen of Last Hopes. The story of Margaret d'Anjou, wife of the last Lancastrian king, Edward VI, and her long and ultimately unsuccessful struggle to first regain her husband's throne, and later to win the throne for her son, after the victory of the house of York.

Karen Harper, The Queen's Governess. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I through the eyes of her governes and later personal confidante, Kat Astley.

Margaret George, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. Novel of the tempestuous life of Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scots.

Stephanie Dray, Lily of the Nile and Song of the Nile. First two novels of a trilogy based on the life of Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra of Egypt and Mark Anthony.

Michelle Moran, Cleopatra's Daughter. Another portrait of Cleopatra Selene.


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