A Dangerous Inheritance – Alison Weir

A Dangerous Inheritance - Alison Weir

Published: 2013 (paperback), Arrow Books, 509 pages
Historical fiction

Setting the scene

Edward IV’s two young princes are in line for his throne. Yet, following the King’s sudden death in 1483, it is his brother, Richard, who is crowned King.

Did Richard III conspire to usurp the throne from his nephews the princes? What happened to the princes who, lodged in the Tower of London, were then never to be seen again?

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Richard III’s illegitimate daughter, Katherine Plantagenet, is disturbed by rumours of her father’s involvement in the disappearance of the princes. Eighty years later, their fate also haunts Lady Katherine Grey who feels compelled to investigate the mystery for her own reasons.

Through perilous investigations, can either of these young women come close to revealing the truth behind the mystery of the ‘Princes in the Tower’?

Review

Living decades apart, the lives of Katherine ‘Kate’ Plantagenet and Katherine Grey share several tragic similarities. Both young women experience the danger that comes with being royal and both are driven by an instinctual yearning to uncover the truth behind the mystery of the princes.

Kate Plantagenet’s experiences are recounted in third-person beginning in 1483 with news of King Edward IV’s death. She finds herself swept up in political turmoil when her father – the late king’s brother and Lord Protector to his sons and heirs – is controversially proclaimed king, after which no one sees the princes again.

Speculation mounts around whether King Richard, considered by many a usurper, had his nephews ‘done away with’ in order to secure his throne. Kate is naturally drawn to support her father whom she loves dearly, though gradually even she finds doubts creeping into her thoughts.

Whilst the mystery has a more immediate bearing on Kate, decades later, Katherine Grey is equally compelled by it. Initially examining the mystery because of an affinity she feels for Kate after seeing her portrait, she later has a child and finds her motherly instinct absorbs her further into it.

Katherine Grey’s tale, narrated in first-person, begins in 1553 when her sister, Jane, is declared Queen. Jane, a devoted Protestant, is a reluctant Queen who rules for only nine days before support for the Catholic Mary Tudor challenges her rule. Jane is overthrown, imprisoned and later executed for treason. So, before Katherine is yet thirteen, she has tragic experience of the complexity of having royal blood, and unfortunately for Katherine this is only the beginning. Whilst naïve and impulsive, she is a character we sympathise with throughout her turmoil.

A Dangerous Inheritance - Alison Weir

Both young women are rendered pawns in a game of ambition and alliances. They and their kin suffer tragedy at the hands of those who oppose them and the threat posed by their dangerous inheritance: their royal blood.

However, the novel seems as much an examination of the heroine’s love lives as it is the mystery of the princes. Given their royal blood and import in making alliances, both Katherines find themselves prohibited from having that which they truly desire- the man they love, rather than a man who would be an advantageous match. This is hardly surprising for the time, though Kate is particularly harshly used to make a good alliance and Katherine is cruelly denied marriage, despite their – somewhat dangerously – clear feelings for the men they love.

The tales of Kate and Katherine could easily have been split into two separate books. The interweaving of their stories seems to be reliant on a ‘supernatural’ element which is a little tenuous (Katherine feels drawn to a portrait of Kate, experiences dreams of her and strange moments of terror when wearing Kate’s old pendant). The stories of Kate and Katherine are also interesting enough as they are, they do not need an added supernatural element.

Overall

Would I recommend this book? Yes, to anyone with an interest in this era.
★★★☆☆

The novel is very well-written, presenting the intricacies of court life with historical authenticity and induced me to shed a tear at one heart-breaking moment. It will excite the curiosity of anyone interested in this era as Katherine Plantagenet, a figure we know so little about, is rarely presented as vividly as Weir brings her to life.

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The Master of Bruges – Terence Morgan

The Master of Bruges - Terence Morgan

Published: 2010 (hardback), Macmillan New Writing, 313 pages
Historical fiction

Setting the scene

The fortunes of journeyman painter, Hans Memling, change entirely when a humble sketch provides him with an unforeseen lifeline.

The small sketch, an un-commissioned likeness of the Princess of Burgundy, serves a part in sparing Memling’s life at war and salvaging him from impoverishment.

Newfound prosperity is accompanied by striking connections with powerful political figures. But Memling’s connections lead him far beyond Belgium and right into the very heart of civil-war wounded England.

Here, in Plantagenet England, Memling’s life takes a turn for the even more unexpected. Entangled in the final stages of the Wars of the Roses, tragedy and political turmoil surrounding him, Memling plays a surprising role in one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

Review

‘Not all of the painting needs to be confined to the frame.
The truth sometimes lies outside’. 

This is a multi-themed novel about love, art and the tumultuous politics of the Wars of the Roses, all with an underlying emphasis on truth.

Written in the first-person retrospective narrative of Hans Memling, fifteenth century painter, we are treated to a story of ambiguous romance juxtaposed with a fresh, original outlook on over three decades worth of historical events and figures from the late middle ages (spanning 1460 to 1494).

The novel is split into two main parts. The first part of the novel begins in 1460 and centres around the Burgundian court and Memling’s burgeoning career as a painter in Bruges. Memling tells of his acquaintance with Charles, Duke of Burgundy, having sketched his beautiful daughter some years earlier, a sketch most precious to Charles. We read of the prospects this association provides Memling and of his equivocal relationship with the Duke’s daughter, Princess Marie.

The second part of the novel contrasts significantly to the first. Memling is invited to England by Sir John Donne (who in reality commissioned Memling to paint a triptych for him) and in 1482 we are transported from Bruges into the midst of Plantagenet England. Here, Memling’s eyes provide the reader with remarkable access to the English royal court. We closely witness the personal and political motivations behind the reigns of three English monarchs: Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III and hear of Henry Tudor’s endeavour to claim the thrown.

The Master of Bruges - Terence Morgan

Interspersed throughout the novel and detached from the narrative of events, are short chapters in which Memling contemplates the craftsmanship of painting. These thoughtful chapters show the author’s passion for Memling’s work and provide a continuous theme from start to end. They consequently ensure that the second part of the novel – where Memling, ‘artist to the great’, seems to become Memling, ‘confidant to the great’ – isn’t too far removed from the first part.

Some scenes are very well handled, such as the search for a particular casualty in the aftermath of the Battle of Nancy (France, 1477). A later death in the novel is also noticeably beautifully handled and is a highlight of the book- though it would spoil the plot and interesting twist to mention more. The novel would perhaps have benefited from more description, for example in the battle scene there is room for a bit more ‘gruesomeness’, though being written almost in diary form it is understandable that this is not the case.

It is also interesting to note that the novel is very sympathetic to Richard III. Richard III has traditionally been villainised through history, being accused of infanticide and considered essentially a throne-snatcher. Morgan uses the artistic license that comes with historical fiction to offer an absorbing, alternative theory of events surrounding Richard’s route to kingship.

Overall 

Would I recommend this book? Yes
★★★☆☆

Morgan’s debut novel is a smart, interesting read with a good pace. It is well written, presenting a convincing narrative voice which is at times comedic. It is also pleasingly well-researched, incorporating many of the key events of the time, including the introduction of printing set up by William Caxton, a character Morgan weaves imaginatively into the novel.

If approaching this book without prior knowledge of Memling and his artwork, you will finish with an instilled interest in his work and an understanding of the context that goes with it.

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