Why I Love Writing about England in the Fifteenth Century

The fifteenth century is a dream period for the historical novelist. When the century begins England is a country struggling to come to terms with what has been hurled at it in the past fifty years. The greatest plague Europe has ever seen, the Black Death, has torn a gaping wound in the body of the English nation. Rich and poor alike have died on an unimaginable scale – how can men and women ever make sense of their lives again? Such a phenomenon asks searching questions not only of people’s faith but of their place in the very fabric of society. England’s people are battered and bruised not only by the plague but by famine, war and relentless taxation. The body politic too is in turmoil and wracked by faction which leads to usurpation and rebellion.

So, in 1400, the nation holds its breath and in 1403 when the dust settles on the battlefield of Shrewsbury, the House of Lancaster has established control over England. But Henry IV, the first king of the new century, has little joy from his throne. Forced to defend it against rebellions and foreign incursions, he spends his last years in illness and anxiety.

Then, for a time, it seems that there is hope: the young warrior king, Henry V, carves a swathe through France and somehow, impossibly, revives English fortunes there. He lights up the firmament like a fiery comet and inspires many a writer with his deeds but when he passes on the darkness returns. He gives the nation the glorious victory of Agincourt but sadly he also leaves it an heir who is wholly unfit for the task of kingship. It isn’t anyone’s fault that Henry VI is barely 9 months old when he inherits the throne but it doesn’t help.

Henry VI’s minority sets the tone for the political intrigue which will dominate his long reign. At the centre of it all is a weak king and thus a power vacuum. Henry has the charisma of a sponge and the judgement of a lemming but around him cluster the purveyors of power and intrigue. These are the leading members of the great noble houses of Plantagenet (both York and Lancaster), Beaufort, Neville, Percy, Stafford, Woodville and so on. There are few novels written about the period that do not rely on the activities of one or other of these families. These prominent men and women exist against a colourful tapestry of ambition, betrayal and violence – perfect for the novelist.

The French war now goes badly; law and order breaks down and eventually factions decide to settle their political differences on the battlefields of the Wars of the Roses. If you are looking for dodgy characters and double-cross, the Wars of the Roses are for you. Who could have imagined that Warwick would abandon Edward IV and make an alliance with Margaret of Anjou? Or that Clarence, having deserted Edward, would in turn desert Warwick and then rejoin Edward? Or that Richard of Gloucester – he of the motto ‘loyalty binds me’ – would disinherit his nephews and seize the throne? It has more twists and turns than an electric eel!

Though the Wars of the Roses are the most memorable feature of the fifteenth century, they are not, of course, one war but several and whilst they share some core elements each phase is really triggered off by a different set of circumstances. Again, for the novelist, this is a godsend: not just one storyline but a whole plethora of them and each one involving a political crisis that seems impossible to resolve except by violent means.

As some historians have been at pains to point out, the fighting in the fifteenth century is far from continuous. But though it may be sporadic it is nevertheless explosive and the battles are frequently quite bloody. The way men fight has evolved by the late fifteenth century into a blood and guts contest: two opposing ranks of well armoured men at arms wielding heavy swords, axes and maces. They hack away at each other until physical – or metal – fatigue decides the outcome. Archers are still a lethal ingredient and to add an extra bit of spice we have the first use of handguns and cannon. These are almost equally dangerous to both victim and user but they are there to stay.

To bring even more chaos to the battlefield there is the unpredictable English weather which manages to extract a few startled rabbits from hats. Before Mortimer’s Cross there is a remarkable parhelion – that doesn’t happen every day! Towton begins in a snow blizzard and Barnet is fought in a fog. Both battles are pivotal to the outcome of the wars and in both the weather plays a significant part.

It is not simply the means of warfare and the vagaries of the weather that leads to so many casualties, it is also the mind-set of the participants – the cry of ‘no quarter’ is heard on a number of fields, notably Towton. This is partly a consequence of earlier battles: for example, in the first Battle of St Albans in 1455 the deaths of key nobles cause personal feuds that will continue for at least another generation as sons vow to avenge their fathers. At Wakefield the removal of York and Salisbury clears the way for their sons, the Earls of March and Warwick, to ratchet up the tension a notch or two and go for the throne itself. What drama! Shakespeare knew a good story when he found one and six of his history plays span virtually the whole century.

In recent years much has been written about some of the century’s more prominent women. This is true not only in historical fiction but also in the focus of academic historians themselves. We now know a lot more about these women and the part they played in the politics of the period and the more we know, the more we realise how much we don’t know! This has led some writers – myself included – to explore the role that strong female characters can play in the fifteenth century.

I cannot leave the century without at least mentioning its most controversial figure: the last Plantagenet, Richard III. The untimely death of Edward IV leaves two young male heirs, the so-called ‘princes in the tower,’ and provokes a power struggle between Richard of Gloucester and the Queen’s Woodville clan. One thing leads to another and Richard is indelibly cast as the villain but for generations the charges have been disputed. Did he kill his wife? Did he kill his nephews? Did he kill his brother Clarence? Is there anyone he didn’t kill? Did he kill anyone at all? Was he not just an earnest plodder who was a bit unlucky? Either way, it has always seemed to me that if he is a villain then he is really not very good at it. He has all the subtlety of the proverbial flying mallet, as is shown by his summary execution of Lord Hastings in 1483.

You would think that after over 500 years the world would have had its fill of Richard III but no, excavate a car park in Leicester and up he pops – all over the internet. People are immediately drawn to him and the public interest seems unlikely to wane any time soon. It is a fascination with interesting people and what they do in difficult circumstances – it is therefore timeless.

At each stage of the fifteenth century story, just when it appears that peace has broken out, another crisis comes along and all the old rivalries as well as a few new ones rise to the surface. By the end of the century after so many violent deaths many of the noble houses are populated largely by women and children. But when Henry Tudor becomes king he is still not safe because although most of the real heirs appear to be dead, a few imposters turn up – or are they imposters?

There are just so many angles for the writer to come from, it’s dizzying! Though I have focused in my writing so far on the few years from 1459 to 1464, I am excited at the possibility of exploring both the years before and after that narrow band.

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2 Responses to Why I Love Writing about England in the Fifteenth Century

  1. Jon Delorme says:

    Reblogged this on Jon Delorme and commented:
    Fascinating Blog Derek, good luck with the books. When budget and TBR allows, they are on our list to buy.

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