Old rivalries

As a librarian I'm used to meeting writers who are working on biographies - it's delightful to see how absorbed they become in the lives of those they document. I'm familiar with this on the other side too, both as an archivist of other lives, and also through having co-written the biography of an ancestor (a playwright at the court of the Sun King, no less), who led a fascinating life; Samuel Chappuzeau became every bit as real to me as my living family, indeed he reminded me quite a bit of my father, but that's another story. It's both enchanting, and sometimes alarming, to realise how much history can move people, both for good and ill. Memories of difficult times can bring people together, famous lives can be an inspiration, but sometimes old grudges remain and work evil right up to the present day.

Richard, Duke of York
I was reminded of this (though thankfully, any grudges have long been swept away, except possibly in County Cricket) when reading Stormbird, the first novel in Conn Iggulden's series about the Wars of the Roses. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles' series about the Morland family opens at the time of the Wars of the Roses. Harrod-Eagles is very clearly on the Yorkist side, but (as would be expected with the nature of this series), it is a very gentle, all-be-it loyal touch. Iggulden's flag is nailed much more firmly to the Lancastrian mast. Richard III's father is portrayed as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, while Cecily Neville, "the rose of Raby" is less flower, more thorn. I'm a bit divided over the Roses personally - I've always had a soft spot for Richard III (even before his car park experience, which struck me as a wonderful unintended example of British eccentricity), but Elizabeth I is one of my great heroines. Iggulden is very firmly on the Lancastrian side, and has no affection for the "usurper" Yorkists.

Perhaps it is because of this passion though that Stormbird works so well. It is an exhilarating read with lots of detail about the roots of the discontent in England that fed into the Wars of the Roses. The novel opens with the death of Edward III, a death that left (perhaps unusually for medieval times) enough sons to end with their families fighting over the inheritance of England. Social discontent, a relic of the Great Plague, brews up again as England's French inheritance is lost by a marriage truce that brings a level of peace, but also results in English refugees fleeing their homes in France. This refugee crisis and the disruption it caused at home and abroad was something I knew nothing about, and it was fascinating. It was also oddly contemporary, mirroring the insanity that befalls many countries in the shadow of war today.

With a weak, sick King, a strong but young Queen, and no heir, a power-vacuum quickly developed in which noblemen were quick to try to take advantage. Stormbird is well researched (as you would expect from Conn Iggulden who has also written series about Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar). There's the odd anachronism, but Stormbird is a wonderfully "alive" historical novel. The last time I'd read anything as exciting about the Battle of Agincourt, and the daily life of an English (usually at this period Welsh) archer was in Shakespeare's Henry V. It's a crackingly compelling tale, lots of meat for the history fan, and brings the period dazzlingly to life. What a fantastic start to the series.


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