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20 May 2016updated 12 Oct 2023 10:44am

The novels that taught me what to think about royals

Richard III was innocent, Mary I was hard done by, and it really wasn't fair that they shot Anastasia.

By Barbara Speed

First, some background. I went to primary school in the US, where teachers were understandably much more interested in teaching us about the pilgrims than the European monarchs they literally sailed across the ocean to shake off.

As a result, my macro knowledge of European history has always been a filled with holes – apart from what I gleaned from YA books about royalty, and, later, what an intellectual snob might call “trashy historical fiction”. These books were more informative than you might think, and their tendency to come from the wrong side of history, or elevate a snubbed or historically invisible figure, gave me a long-lasting and often counter-intuitive impression of the figures involved. Here are some highlights.

The one where Mary I is actually the wronged one

Mary Bloody Mary, by Carolyn Meyer

Meyer’s fictionalised, sympathetic retelling of Mary’s childhood, aimed at the pre-teen age group, is primed to wrench sympathy out of any child raised on fairytales. Mary is part of a charmed nuclear family, until her dad ditches her mum in favour of an evil seductress witch. Sound familiar?  

Mary, meanwhile, is forced to become a serva- I mean, live in a less illustrious castle in the English countryside, while her stepmother cooks up a horrid half sister who proceeds to hog all the attention. Oh, and Mary’s dad tells her she has to marry a French king when she’s only ten. She has my sympathies to this day.

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The one where Anastasia dies at the end

Anastasia: The last grand duchess, by Carolyn Meyer

The Royal Diaries is a series of books which seems custom-designed to drum up support for the concept of monarchy in little girls. Each is gilt-edged, and features a beautiful oil portrait of a queen or princess in her early teens.

This volume (also by Carolyn Meyer) tells the story of Anastasia’s life in the Russian court before, and at the beginning of, the First World War. You see the outlandish opulence of the Tsar’s family’s life, but Meyer manages to make Anastasia and her siblings very relatable, especially her ailing haemophiliac brother.

The diary is followed by a short epilogue that explains that Anastasia, plus the family you’ve grown to love over the past 200 pages, was shortly rounded up into a cellar and shot. Worth giving to any little girls who need convincing that being a princess may not be as enjoyable as it seems. (See also: Frozen.)

The one where a king’s mistress comes to a good end 

Katherine, by Anya Seton 

Katherine is known among those who’ve read it as one of the most enjoyable historical novels of the last century. It’s also, for the genre, meticulously researched – in the introduction, Seton assures us that, “I have not invented Katherine’s beauty for fictional purposes”, but that it is borne out by contemporary chronicles.

The novel follows the life of Katherine de Roet, who travels to the court of Edward III aged 15 and falls in love with his third son, John of Gaunt. She becomes his mistress after his nice but dull first wife Blanche dies in the plague.

This all ends much more happily than you might assume: John then marries Constance of Castile in order to claim the throne there, she eventually dies too, and Katherine marries him two years later, and their four children born out of wedlock (the Beauforts) are legitimised. Henry VII’s mother was the great-granddaughter of the couple, and went on to win the Wars of the Roses and found the Tudor dynasty. Happy endings all round.

The one where Richard III is obviously innocent

The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey 

A detective sees a picture of Richard III, known as the hunchbacked ur-villain of British history, and is confused: he is usually skilled at judging people’s characters by their faces, and doesn’t see the evil man he’s been taught to expect. Tey’s novel follows Inspector Alan Grant as he investigates Richard’s history and eventually decides that the story of Richard isn’t much more than Tudor propaganda. Shakespeare, of course, is also complicit. 

By the time I read Daughter of Time, I was studying European history at A level, and brought some of this into an essay on Richard III with rather disastrous consequences. Amazingly, “judging people based on their portraits” is not a widely recognised technique in historical analysis. 

The one where the other Boleyn sister is much more interesting, and nicer

The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory

Gregory has a knack for looking at historical periods we know almost too well and coming at them from an unexpected angle. This book centres on the affair between Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn, sister to Anne, and who, according to the novel, was the one he really loved. She’s much more normal than anyone else at court, and eventually falls in love with someone else and pursues a nice quiet life in the countryside. 

The book’s historical accuracy is sketchy at best – it’s important to remember that Anne probably did not engage in an incestuous relationship with her brother during her marriage to Henry  but it’s great fun all the same.

The ones where Cromwell orchestrates everything

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall may be much more highly regarded than some of the books above, but it still takes an ultimately person-centric view of history. Mantel paints Cromwell as the key player throughout the latter half of Henry’s reign, and also as the kind of history-keeper: while we, the reader, are baffled as to which Thomas is being spoken of at any one time, Cromwell has a razor-sharp memory for people and places. It’s through Cromwell that Mantel draws sweeping connections between a smack across a cobbled yard in a provincial town and the English Reformation, or small court slip-ups and eventual downfalls.

There’s a moment in Bring Up the Bodies where Cromwell confronts William Brereton, who has been imprisoned under suspicion of sleeping with Anne Boleyn. It’s a moment that Mantel has said is one of her favourite parts of the book’s later theatrical adapation, because it throws light on why we write historical fiction, and how it differs from the received narrative of history.

Cromwell asks Brereton if he remembers someone called John ap Eyton, a gentleman who was tried for a murder which took place in Brereton’s house but then acquitted. Brereton says he was a man of “no consequence”. Cromwell reminds Brereton that he abducted the man despite his proven innocence and had his servants hang him, and says:

“You think this is only one man, and he doesn’t matter. He does matter. No one remembers him? I remember him. You believe the law should be what you would like it to be, so you bring the King’s justice, and the King’s name into contempt.”

(Quoted from the play, not the book.) 

In a way, it’s Mantel saying these words: “No one remembers him? I remember him.” Historical fiction can colour in the lines and remember the unremembered, and its excavation of forgotten details or people can change our view of the stories it retells. 

This article is part of the New Statesman’s Monarchy Week. Find more here.

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