Ricardian Tropes 1: ‘The only true Lancastrians’ (or a Tale of Two Ladies named Blanche…..

I’ve been having some – interesting debates with Ricardians recently on social media and blogs. Bless them, they’re so dogmatic, and so utterly convinced that everything they say is correct. Beyond that though, there are certain common ‘facts’ that I keep hearing from them in diverse places. When one hears the same thing repeated over and over again by people who are not connected to each other, one gets the impression that there is something fishy going on. Either they’re copying each other, or they’re all getting it from the same source, and repeating what they have read or heard elsewhere.

One of these claims is that Henry Tudor was not a ‘true Lancastrian’, because the term can only be applied to the descendants of one particular individual. Not John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, but his wife, Blanche.  Apparently, the only ‘true Lancastrians’ are  those descended in this approved bloodline. What qualifies certain persons to determine the ancestral ‘right’ of distant Plantagenets is not certain.

Why the emphasis on the Great Lady? Allegedly because  after 1471 there was only one specific line of ‘true Lancastrians’ left, which was conveniently represented in Juana, a Portuguese Princess distantly descended from Blanche who was ‘going to marry’ Richard III.  Even though they weren’t formally betrothed, and the plans for marriage don’t seem to have got beyond the negotiation stage, Ricardians speak about Juana as if she and Richard were already husband and wife.

This selective cherry-picking of ancestry is problematic for two reasons. The first being that it is just plan wrong. Juana was not the last descendant of Blanche of Lancaster left alive after 1471. The sons and King Henry IV,  and his grandson Henry VI were all gone, but Henry IV had a full-sister named Elizabeth, and she had descendants who were very much alive after that date. The most prominent of them were the Holland Dukes of Exeter, of which the male line died out with Henry Holland the 2nd Duke in 1475. However, the descendants of Elizabeth’s other children and grand-children lived well into the sixteenth century and beyond. They included  the Grey Earls of Kent, and a junior branch of the famous Neville family who sprang from her daughter’s marriage to John, 1st Lord Neville. So there were actually a lot of Lancastrian descendants around in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century.

More troublesome, however, is the insistence that only descendants of Duchess Blanche ‘count’. Why? The estates, title and royal blood of the Earls and later Dukes of Lancaster did not originate with her. They actually came from her great-grandfather  Edmund ‘Crouchback’ first Earl of Lancaster, younger brother of Edward I. Earl Edmund was married to another Blanche, Blanche of Artois, the first Blanche of Lancaster. Their other descendants were many and, as we shall see, attained high rank and prominence.

 Lancaster Family Tree

Their grandson, Henry de Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster passed on his title to his son-in-law John of Gaunt, but Henry had six sisters. One was Eleanor, born in 1318, and married to one of the many Fitzalan Earls of Arundel. She had seven children with him, including two daughters called Joan and Alice. Joan, the elder, married Humphrey de Bohun 7th Earl of Hereford, and their daughter was none other than Mary be Bohun, the mother of King Henry V and his brothers. The redoubtable Lady Joan outlived her daughter by many years surviving until 1419, the sixth year of the reign of her grandson.

Joan’s younger sister Alice FitzAlan also made a good marriage, to Thomas Holland the half-brother of King Richard II. One of her daughters, Margaret Holland married John Beaufort. Yes Beaufort, as in the son of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. John and Margaret’s grand-daughter was one other than Margaret Beaufort the mother of Henry Tudor. So Henry Tudor was in fact a descendant of the original Earls of Lancaster, just not in senior male line. Yet this ancestry still made him a descendant of Henry III. His aforementioned great-grandmother Margaret Holland was also a descendant of Joan of Kent, the daughter of Edward I’s younger son, Thomas of Woodstock. So it turns out that Tudor was so much more than ‘just a Beaufort’ or ‘the son of a servant’. He was actually descended from no fewer then three Plantagenet Kings.

Is a pity this branch of his family line is not well-known or publicized. Some of course will still assert that it ‘does not count’. Yet it does reveal how a little digging can sink the assumptions of popular wisdom favoured by certain interest groups.


All geneaological information from http://www.thepeerage.com which uses various respected and recognized geneological sources, including Burke’s Peerage and the Royal Geneaologies Website.


The Return of ‘The Hollow Crown’- Henry VI Part 1(and a bit)

Ever since the original BBC adaptation the first four in Shakespeare’s series of eight Plantagenet History plays, I have been hoping that one day they might move onto the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. His aptly known ‘Wars of the Roses’ sequence. Yeah, I confess, these little known works of the bard are among my favourites, even though at more than 6 hours in length making it through all three parts of Henry VI requires some concentration and commitment.

In a way I was delighted to see that this series was finally on the way, although I had reservations when I heard about casting choices and the content. I still don’t think they should have cut the three parts of Henry VI down to only two. I watched the premiere of the much-anticipated new series last night (yeah we know, cashing in the massive resurgence of interest in the Wars of the Roses and all that)- and all in all, I was left rather disappointed. 

To me the whole thing seemed disjointed,hollow-crown-large_trans++pVlberWd9EgFPZtcLiMQf98oAmGZYX8Vqbq2hlobTFc rather rushed and just not put together well. Cutting out over a third of the material from the original plays is pretty savage, and I think a lot has been ‘lost in translation’ so to speak. Take the curious decision to start the second scene with Richard of York visiting his dying Uncle Edmund Mortimer- who lays out his claim to the throne with a family tree ready to hand and then York hastily explaining it to Warwick and Salisbury. They basically spliced together two scenes from two separate parts of the plays, and put them right at the beginning. 

Okay, so it might be argued this scene was necessary to put York’s later actions and the Wars into context. Yes, but here’s the thing.  It misses out the background and context of these scenes themselves which was important in itself. The thing about York in the plays is that he does not show his hand hand and openly claim the throne until the very last-minute, when things are getting heated and he’s sure of the loyalty and support  of his comrades. Which pretty much follows the historical reality that York did not press his claim until the year of his death.

...and that scene with Mortimer in the Tower. Well its all about context too. It from Act II Scene V of Henry VI Part One, following the famous garden scene when the characters pluck white and red roses from the bush. In the original play it has nothing to do with claims to the throne. Rather if follows Somerset and York who had been embroiled in a legal dispute, and ask their fellows to decide between them. It was an argument that got out of hand because Somerset called Richard of York a ‘yeoman’. Basically, saying that because his father was executed for treason, his blood was corrupted and he was no better than a commoner. York got a bit upset, the swords came out, and the others had to intervene to prevent things getting really nasty. 

Its only after that York goes to see Uncle Mortimer- and then asks him about the events surrounding his father’s execution. Yeah, fair enough people are throwing it in his face and he wanted to know- and that’s when the whole matter starts to come out. From that point on, pretty much, York thinks himself wronged, has it in for the House of Lancaster, and comes to fancy himself as the heir to the throne.  Now this is all very much after all the action in France, and the rise of Joan of Arc- not before. In fact, in this version the war in France is relegated to little more than a few minutes Joan of Arc, Margaret of Anjou- Talbot gets killed- and then its back to England. John Duke of Bedford is not even in it. That is what I call a travesty. Totally ignoring the role and career of Henry V’s other brother. 

But that was not my only problem.  It’s not just context and basis of the character’s actions that is lost with the BBC’s editing. It’s also much of the sense, tension, conflict and interactions between characters of the original play. The bitter rivalry between the

Good Duke Humphrey of Gloucester

Bishop of Winchester and Gloucester is not there. Nor is much of the early action with Suffolk. Suffolk is present, but he does not do much. Instead his character is curiously amalgamated with that of Somerset to the point that in one place Somerset was called William. Yeah, that might sound pedantic, making a big deal about getting a name wrong but it shows how the two characters are confused. Suffolk’s name was William de la Pole- Somerset was Edmund Beaufort. Two very different characters who have very different roles. Somerset was really just York’s foil in the original play, but it was Suffolk that stole much of the show, and drove on most of the action.

Then there was the downfall of Gloucester. That’s all from Part II and its depicted as a pretty complicated affair involving all the major characters scheming and conniving to bring about Good Duke Humphrey’s demise. Suffolk is the main player, the one who actually has him ‘bumped off’, not Somerset and he’s not in bed with Margaret of Anjou in the meantime. Yeah, that totally unnecessary bedroom scene was not in the original play. It was thrown in for er,  ‘good measure’ by the Beeb to show how ‘corrupt’ Somerset and Margaret supposedly were. Not that there’s a shred of evidence Margaret ever had an affair with Somerset, or anyone for that matter. That was Yorkist gossip from much later spread to destroy her reputation.

Which brings us to the final point. For some undiscernible reason York is removed from
much of the intrigue and scheming in the BBC adaptation. He is not involved in Gloucester’s demise, and is positively horrified by the whole thing. Not so in the original play.  There he’s very much in the centre. He’s every inch the Machiavellian schemer,  pretending loyalty whilst planning to bring down the whole regime and conniving with the others against Gloucester.  His ambitions and intents are spelled out in masterful soliloquies. None of that is present in this version. I for one have a nasty feeling that this is all done with the intention of exonerating York- making him out to be a sort of righteous and moral hero in the making. He is almost the innocent on the sidelines, who is driven to rebellion only by the injustice and corruption around him.

York the Innocent? Second from Right

Its seems too much like the overly simplified ‘Yorkists good, Lancastrians bad’ idea which is becoming rather too prevalent in the popular view of the Wars of the Roses. That is not something this historian is comfortable with because the whole thing was a lot more complicated and messy then that. There was greed, ambition, selfish intentions, bad blood and violent misdeeds on both sides. Neither was Lily white but neither was entirely evil either….and that was part of the genius of Shakespeare. He often did a great job of portraying the complexity of history, and the subtleties of its human agents.

All the characters have their own intentions,  motivations and ambitions. They weren’t cardboard but outs who went around doing this that and the other simply because they were bad (unless one counts Richard III in the later parts but that’s a different story). One could feel sympathy even for the antagonists like York. Sadly, the makers of the latest version have lost sight of this, at the expense of audiences unfamiliar with the original plays.



The Anglo-Saxon Age- Martin Wall

Amberley, September 2015

272 Pages, Hardback and Ebook


26038836The discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard in 2009 has captured the imagination and stimulated renewed interest in the history and culture of the Anglo-Saxons. The discovery poses some interesting questions. Who owned the treasure and how did they acquire it? Was it made locally or did it originate elsewhere? Why was it buried in an obscure field in the Staffordshire countryside?

To answer these questions, Martin Wall takes us on a journey into a period that still remains mysterious, into regions and countries long forgotten, such as Mercia and Northumbria. This is a story of the ‘Dark Ages’ and the people who lived in them, but darkness is in the eye of the beholder. This book challenges our notions of these times as barbaric and backward to reveal a civilization as complex, sophisticated and diverse as our own.

Martin Wall’s nonfiction debut is a great introduction to- well- the Anglo-Saxon age and its leading figures, events and developments. I greatly appreciated the chapter on Ethelfleada of Mercia, the daughter of Alfred. The early chapters were also interesting and useful, even if they stray from the current, fashionable notion of a gradual, small scale invasion. Personally, I could not help agree with the author’s take on Gildas and Bede.
Both appear to have been men of great learning (we know Bede was) who were eyewitnesses, or had access to first-hand accounts and good sources of their own. What reason did they have to lie, or to make up everything? Why, then, should be dismiss their accounts of the Adventus Saxonum out of hand? As for bias, if we admit it, we all biased sometimes, but we don’t reject everything our fellows tell us on this basis.

Not that I agree with everything the author says- like the assumption that Oswald of Northumbria had the last surviving son of Edwin killed. Not much evidence seemed to be given to back up this claim, and it doesn’t fit what I know of Oswald. Nor did I appreciate the assertion that Edward the Confessor must have been homosexual or impotent because he did not have any children. It really gets on my nerves when people automatically jump to such conclusions about historical figures on this basis.
There are, sadly, biological and gynaecological reasons why some people cannot have children today- so why can be not give people in the past the benefit of the doubt? The attempts to link the Robin Hood stories to ancient paganism at the end just struck me as odd, unnecessary and rather tenuous. I understand the author is something of an expert on myth and folklore, but in the last chapter it comes across as- dare I say it- something of a fixation?

Aside from the complaints detailed above, I did enjoy the book and would recommend for it for general readers interested in the period. I would certainly be interested in Mr Wall’s next book The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts that is due for release in a few months.

I received a PDF copy of this book from Amberley Publishers for review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

Ivory Vikings- Nancy Marie Brown

Ivory Vikings: The King, the Walrus, the Artist and the Empire That Created the World’s Most Famous Chessmen

September 2015, 256 Pages, Palgrave MacMillan


In the early 1800’s, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard’s Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects.Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown’s Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games.

In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.

I listened to the audio book of a previous title by this author, and the synopsis and reviews piqued my interest in her new book.

In some ways, I was a little disappointed. There wasn’t a great deal of information about the wider world and Viking relations to it. I also didn’t much appreciate the fashionable revisionist approach of trying to downplay the violent aspects of Viking culture, and making them out to have been peaceful traders.
Its even implied that Charlemagne caused the Viking raids by attacking the Saxons, and the claim that they weren’t so bad because everyone attacked and raided churches at that time seemed like a pretty lame excuse.

Why did the Norsemen attack England if it was all Charlemagne’s fault, and why did Lindisfarne last until that time if everyone attacked churches? There were also some assumptions and historical generalisations. For instance, its claimed (with perhaps a palpable hint of wide-eyed admiration) that Viking women had more freedom than virtually all other European women, as they could inherit land, and were entitled to certain rights in marriage as well as divorce, run households and hold notable positions, and even fight.

Yet this was not so unique. Women in England even under primogeniture could and did I inherit land- and they were alsdo entitled to one third of their husband’s property when he died. In England and many other states, women ran businesses and their households. There are even illustrations apparently showing female stonemasons etc. Furthermore, Alfred the Great’s daughter led armies and defended her kingdom against the Danes, and she was admired. So what was so special about Viking women?

There were some good points. For instance the book made some fascinating points about the sagas which make me want to dig into them, and the parts covering Norwegian history in the 11 th to 13th centuries.
Worth a read, but one to take with a pinch of salt.

I received an eBook edition of this title from Netgalley for review. I was not required to write a positive one, and all opinions expressed are my own.

In The Land of the Giants- Max Adams

Head of Zeus, 416 Pages

10th September 2015, Print, e-book and audiobook

25333057The five centuries between the end of Roman Britain (410) and the death of Alfred the Great (899) have left few voices save a handful of chroniclers, but Britain’s ‘Dark Ages’ can still be explored through their material remnants: buildings, books, metalwork, and, above all, landscapes. Max Adams explores Britain’s lost early medieval past by walking its paths and exploring its lasting imprint on valley, hill and field. From York to Whitby, from London to

Sutton Hoo, from Edinburgh to Anglesey and from Hadrian’s Wall to Loch Tay, each of his ten walk narratives form both free-standing chapters and parts of a wider portrait of a Britain of fort and fyrd, crypt and crannog, church and causeway, holy well and memorial stone.

Part travelogue, part expert reconstruction, In the Land of the the Giants offers a beautifully written insight into the lives of peasants, drengs, ceorls, thanes, monks and kings during an enigmatic but richly exciting period of our island’s history.”

I knew that this was part travelogue part history book when I requested it, and was exited as the theme and subject seemed to relate to that of The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria.

It is certainly a fascinating and lively account, in which the two genres mixed together mostly very well. Almost like Bill Bryson ‘going history’. It certainly gives the reader and appreciation for the heritage and priceless relics from the past that survive to this day- many of right under our proverbial noses- and yet largely ignored.

It certainly made this historian want to visit more of the sites in question and helped me to understand and appreciate some of the social and economic circumstances of the pre-conquest era. (How people might have responded to strangers, social and diplomatic etiquette and acceptable conduct etc- which might help explain certain events).
The purpose of bringing the past to life, and exploring the legacy of the period dubbed the ‘Dark Ages’ (often with unfortunately and unjustly derogatory overtones) was met well with this book. For the general reader, the tone and style was suitably engaging and uncomplicated. Yes, there were some details on archaeological digs- but little of the minute discussion of minor details that might put people off a more academic tome.

My complaints were few. Firstly, the book did seem to be largely focused on the North Country and Scotland. I don’t know if that was because the Kingdoms and tribal divisions of that region were more politically significant at certain times- but I would really have liked to see more on the South. A bit on London and Essex, some Dorset and West Country and Sutton Hoo, and that was about it. Whereas the former Kingdom of Northumbria seemed to get chapter after chapter. Seriously, do places like the ‘Home counties’ or places like Sussex, and Midlands not have any Dark Age history or remains to speak of? I’m sure they do! What about the heartlands of what was once the Kingdom of Mercia. Tamworth etc?

Also, the asides into modern politics (or fairly modern politics) and current affairs might not have been entirely necessary. Nor indeed the designations applied to some persons and groups both historical and modern. Judging the past by the standards of the present is not generally considered good practice, and I suppose some passages just came across as obsessive and judgemental in some parts. Was this a, perhaps slightly self-conscious attempt to be ‘relevant’- or part of the over-arching narrative to make a point about the world not having changed greatly and there being many parallels between ‘then and now’? I suppose the latter, but I don’t think it always worked well.

I received an e-book edition of this title free from Netgalley for the purposes of reviewing. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own