New arrivals

Some books that I had on pre-order & standing order have arrived over the last week or so & a few impulse buys as well.
At the top & bottom of this pile are the latest books from Slightly Foxed. The latest SF edition is I Was A Stranger by John Haskett, the WWII memoir of a soldier hiding from the Germans in Holland after the Battle of Arnhem in 1944. I’m also collecting the SF Cubs, Ronald Welch’s series of historical novels for children. The latest is Captain of Foot, set during the Napoleonic Wars.

These lovely Crime Classics from the British Library seduced me with their covers taken from railway posters of the 1930s. I’d never heard of John Bude but I love English mysteries set between the wars & these have Introductions by Martin Edwards, one of my favourite writers of mystery fiction.
Death goes Dancing by Mabel Esther Allan is the latest from Greyladies, a mystery set in the world of ballet.

I must have seen a mention of Willa Cather’s One of Ours on the blog of someone taking up the LibraryThing Virago WWI challenge but I’d forgotten that when I ordered it. I only remembered when I read Heavenali’s review of it this week. The Virago edition is no longer in print, unfortunately, but I love Vintage UK & US editions. This isn’t the cover I thought I would receive but I love it even more.

Two Penguins next. I read this review of Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia, Tales of Angria, by Kate at Vulpes Libres.

Even though I already had this 1980s Penguin edition of the juvenilia of Charlotte & Jane Austen, I had to have this new edition. There are a couple of stories in this edition that aren’t in the older one & the Introduction is extensive. It’s been too long since I read about Angria.

The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs edited by Steve Roud & Julia Bishop was another impulse based on the beautiful woodcut on the cover. I am interested in folk songs, especially the lovely arrangements of many of them that were composed in the early 20th century by Ralph Vaughan Williams & Gerald Finzi, among others. Especially when they’re sung by Bryn Terfel.

Finally, some history. I heard a podcast with Helen Castor recently & was reminded that I’d enjoyed her TV series about the She-Wolves of English history (Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France & Margaret of Anjou) but hadn’t read the book. The Third Plantagenet is John Ashdown-Hill’s latest book about George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV & Richard III. Was he really drowned in a butt of malmsey in the Tower? Was he really as unpleasant as I’ve always thought him? I’m afraid I always think of him as “the ineffable George” as Josephine Tey describes him in The Daughter of Time. Alan Grant also says, “George could obviously be talked into anything. He was the born missionee.” I’ll be interested to discover if there was more to him.

The Last Days of Richard III – John Ashdown-Hill

The excitement about the discovery of the remains of Richard III in Leicester has sent me back to my books about this most enigmatic of men. I’ve recently reread Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, a book that often inspires Ricardian worship in those who read it at an impressionable age. I then read David Baldwin’s biography of Richard which is about to be reissued as a paperback with an additional chapter on the discovery. Then, I was fortunate enough to be able to see the documentary, The King in the Car Park, as someone had loaded it onto YouTube. John Ashdown-Hill, a historian, genealogist & member of the Richard III Society, featured in the program & I remembered that I had his book, The Last Days of Richard III, on the tbr shelves.

It was John Ashdown-Hill’s research into the mitochondrial DNA of Richard’s family that led to the discovery of a direct descendant of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. It was this man, Michael Ibsen, who provided a DNA sample to be compared with the DNA retrieved from the remains found on the site of the Greyfriars church. There’s a fascinating chapter in this book that explains the significance of mitochondrial DNA (DNA that is in the female line) & outlines the genealogical research that was undertaken to track down the female descendents of the Yorkist family to the present day.

The Last Days of Richard III is also different from other biographies of Richard III because Ashdown-Hill looks primarily at the last 100 days of Richard’s life, from the death of his wife, Anne Neville, to the Battle of Bosworth & the aftermath. Most accounts of Richard’s reign are written with hindsight & imagine that Richard was full of foreboding as the invasion of Henry Tudor drew nearer. Shakespeare’s play, which dwells on the King’s growing paranoia & suspicion, has a lot to do with this. The final scenes before Bosworth with Richard tossing restlessly in sleep, tormented by the ghosts of his victims telling him to Despair & Die are intensely dramatic but they have little basis in fact. But, of course, Richard had no knowledge of the outcome of Tudor’s bid for the throne. He was King of England & had every reason to believe that he had a long reign ahead of him. Henry Tudor had attempted an invasion before & had failed. Richard was looking forward to Tudor’s next attempt so that he could defeat him & end the Wars of the Roses once & for all.

Far from dreading the future, Richard was making plans for the continuation of his family line. The death of his son, Edward, & his wife, distressed him but he was all too aware of the perils of an uncertain succession to the throne & he was making plans for a second marriage in these months before Bosworth. Richard was proposing a marriage with a Portuguese or Spanish princess as both royal houses were descended from the marriage of John of Gaunt (son of Edward III) with Constance of Castile. Richard was therefore hoping to unite this Lancastrian family line with his own Yorkist line to reconcile the competing factions. He was also proposing a Portuguese marriage for his niece, Elizabeth of York, who with her mother, Elizabeth Woodville & her sisters, had emerged from sanctuary. Richard had promised publicly to look after the girls, who were now seen as the illegitimate daughters of Edward IV, & arrange suitable marriages for them.

Richard had every reason to be confident of the outcome when Tudor’s invasion finally came. He was the King, he had twice the number of troops at his disposal, he was a renowned soldier. Who was this unknown adventurer with a flimsy claim to the throne based on illegitimacy & wishful thinking? Unfortunately we know the outcome. Treachery by the Stanleys & bad luck led to Richard’s defeat & death at Bosworth. Ashdown-Hill’s description of the aftermath of the battle is intensely interesting in the light of the discoveries made recently. His research was a key part of the submission by Philippa Langley to the University of Leicester & he has been proved right. His description of Richard’s death, the treatment of his body after the battle & his burial in the Greyfriars church has been confirmed by the archaeological evidence. He dismisses the rumours that Richard was buried without proper religious ceremony, that his remains were thrown into the river at the Dissolution, that he was buried in a stone coffin that subsequently became a horse trough at a pub in Leicester. Ashdown-Hill even predicts (in 2010) what the recent investigation discovered,

Part of Robert Herrick’s former garden now comprises a Leicester car park, and probably Richard’s bones still lie in this vicinity, just where they were buried in August 1485, perhaps concealed beneath the modern tarmac.

Well, he was right! Thanks to the careful research & persistence of Ashdown-Hill & Philippa Langley, Richard’s remains have been discovered & I look forward to the many books & articles that will result from the ongoing investigation.

Eleanor, the secret queen – John Ashdown-Hill


Eleanor Talbot’s name is really only known to students of the controversy over Richard III’s accession to the throne in 1483. Richard claimed the throne on the death of his brother, Edward IV, on the grounds that Edward had been married to Lady Eleanor Talbot before he contracted a clandestine, bigamous marriage with Elizabeth Woodville, the woman who had been acknowledged as his queen. This meant that their children, including the boys Edward V & Richard, Duke of York, were illegitimate & could not succeed to the throne. Eleanor had died years earlier & the only surviving witness was Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath & Wells, who had come forward after Edward IV’s death & told Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, this stunning news.

Ever since, & especially after the disappearance of young Edward & Richard, the Princes in the Tower, debate has raged as to the truth of the story of the marriage of Eleanor & Edward. Pro-Ricardians have accepted the story as true as it justified & explained what was otherwise seen as Richard’s usurpation of the throne. Anti-Ricardians see it as a fabrication which allowed Richard to do what he was planning to do anyway. Usurp the throne & murder his nephews. I’m a member of the Richard III Society, & I’ve been reading John Ashdown-Hill’s articles on this subject for some years. Now, he has consolidated his research into this fascinating book, which seeks to illuminate the shadowy figure of Eleanor & bring together the evidence for the marriage.

Lady Eleanor Talbot was the daughter of John Talbot, first Earl of Shrewsbury, one of the great heroes of the Hundred Years War against France. To get some idea of his celebrity in the medieval world, Ashdown-Hill compares him to Churchill during WWII. Ashdown-Hill spends the first half of the book setting the scene of Eleanor’s life. He introduces us to her family & her place in the wider sphere of the nobility. Eleanor was related to the Earls of Warwick. She was the niece of the Kingmaker & first cousin to Isabel & Anne Neville who married George & Richard, brothers of Edward IV. All this genealogical detail can be confusing (especially when there are so many Johns, Edwards & Thomases) & dull but I found this part of the book fascinating. I had never before realised just how well-connected Eleanor Talbot was. She & Edward IV were related through their descent from the Mortimer family, Earls of March. If Edward had decided to acknowledge his relationship with her, she was not an unworthy match for the King of England. Certainly she was no less well-born than Elizabeth Woodville.

Ashdown-Hill is also successful in giving an idea of Eleanor’s character, mostly through her later life as a patroness of the Carmelite Friars of Norwich. It can be very difficult to describe the life of an individual medieval woman because they had so little to do with public life. Unless they were queens or religious mystics, their voices were rarely heard. Eleanor lived a quiet life with her family until her marriage at the age of 13 to Thomas Butler, son of the Earl of Sudeley. Thomas was 28 but the age difference wasn’t unusual for the period. Eleanor went to live with her husband’s family but the marriage wasn’t consummated until she came of age. Eleanor’s life with her husband was short as he died only a few years after they started living together & she was a widow at 23.

It’s not known exactly when or where Eleanor & Edward met, but their relationship followed a pattern familiar from his later relationship with Elizabeth Woodville. Eleanor was an attractive young widow, a few years older than Edward. He fell in love with her but she refused to become his mistress. They went through a form of marriage in the presence of Stillington (usually called a pre-contract but the author dismisses this as incorrect. It was a marriage). Edward moved on to another woman very quickly & Eleanor went on living with her sister Elizabeth, Duchess of Norfolk, & becoming involved as a benefactress & eventually as a tertiary member of the congregation. She was not a nun but took some vows & was buried in the priory after her death at the age of 32. Eleanor comes across as a modest, reserved, devout woman who may have been upset & dismayed by the end of her relationship with Edward but too proud to assert her rights when he subsequently married Elizabeth Woodville. Ashdown-Hill speculates that Stillington may have told George, Duke of Clarence about Edward’s marriage to Eleanor & this may have influenced his erratic behaviour which ended with him convicted of treason & being executed (traditionally drowned in a butt of malmsey). Stillington’s career is also hard to understand unless he had some knowledge that Edward wanted to suppress.

There’s so much more in this book which sheds light on the actions & motivations of many of the people involved in the events of 1483 & after. Ashdown-Hill was able to arrange the examination of a skeleton recovered from archaeological excavations of the Carmelite Priory to see if it could be Eleanor. He also looks at Eleanor’s reputation in the centuries since her death & how she has been portrayed by historians & novelists. This book, about “the woman who put Richard III on the throne” as the subtitle puts it, reclaims a forgotten but vitally important figure from medieval history.