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The Stolen Crown

My Review of: The Stolen Crown

A novel written by Susan Higginbotham, published by Sourcebooks, Inc., 2010

This novel meets my first criteria for excellent historical fiction:  it is well-researched and true to the contemporary sources.

The two protagonists are Katherine “Kate” Woodville, youngest sister of Queen Elizabeth, consort to King Edward IV of England, and Henry “Harry” Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham.  In turn, they describe their lives and the effect the political and personal events of their time has upon their marriage.

Harry and Kate:  The Arranged Marriage
The book begins in 1464, when Kate and Harry are children, with the courtship and marriage of Kate’s eldest sister Elizabeth Woodville to young and handsome King Edward IV of England.  The Woodvilles are a large and close-knit family whose father Richard is a member of the English gentry and whose mother Jacquetta is a kinswoman of the royal House of Luxembourg.  Well-born enough though they are, the Woodvilles are considered upstarts, and Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth, a mere subject, is considered inappropriate by many.  To make matters more unbearable to Edward’s and Elizabeth’s enemies, Elizabeth’s numerous sisters are given good marriages, and none is grander than the arranged marriage of Kate Woodville to the fatherless young Duke of Buckingham.  Harry is the ward of the Yorkist King and Queen and so has no say in the matter, despite the wealth of his inheritance and his royal bloodline.

In Higginbotham’s novel, Kate Woodville is spirited, passionate, spontaneous, intelligent, and thoroughly likable.  Harry is a far more complex personality, mostly because divided loyalties haunt his youth, as he attempts to reconcile his Lancastrian family ties with his Yorkist upbringing, and his manhood, as he wrestles with his love for Richard of Gloucester, his affection for his wife Kate, and his desire to do the right thing.  That he fails to do the right thing and regrets it too late to make amends is the tragedy of his brief life, and his fatal flaw is a love for Richard that blinds him to Richard’s amorality, greed, and opportunism.

Thanks mainly to the influence of Paul Murray Kendall’s biography Richard III, historical novelists have often portrayed Richard as captivated by Buckingham, in whom he sees the charm of his dead brother George.  In Higginbotham’s novel, however, it is Harry who is enthralled by Richard, whom the younger man has hero-worshipped since childhood.  Buckingham’s love for Richard is much more potent than his affection for Kate, and leads him to give Richard the weapon he needs to dethrone Edward IV’s young son and heir Edward V.  It is only when Harry learns of the deaths of Edward V and his little brother that his eyes are opened to Richard.  By that time, it is too late.  Too late, also, he understands his depth of love for Kate.  To make amends, Harry throws his lot with Richard’s opposition, who turn to Henry Tudor upon learning of the deaths of Edward IV’s sons.  The rebellion fails, however, and Harry is taken to Salisbury and executed on Sunday, November 2, 1483.

Higginbotham is one of the few to appreciate the irony of this date.  Buckingham, who, with Richard, betrayed Edward V, is executed on the date that would have been Edward V’s 13th birthday.  Moreover, it is All Souls’ Day, the day on which it was thought that the dead could communicate with the living.

Shakespeare, in his play Richard III, has Buckingham say before his execution:

Hastings, and Edward’s children, Rivers, Grey,
Holy King Henry, and thy fair son Edward,
Vaughan, and all that have miscarried
By underhand corrupted foul injustice,
If that your moody discontented souls
Do through the clouds behold this present hour,
Even for revenge mock my destruction!
This is All-Souls’ Day, fellows, is it not?

(The Sheriff replies that it is.)

Buck:  Why, then, All-Souls’ Day is my body’s doomsday.

This is the day that, in King Edward’s time,
I wish’d might fall on me, when I was found
False to his children or his wife’s allies;
This is the day wherein I wish’d to fall
By the false faith of him I trusted most;
This, this All-Soul’s Day to my fearful soul
Is the determined respite of my wrongs:
That high All-Seer that I dallied with
Hath turn’d my feigned prayer on my head
And given in earnest what I begg’d in jest.
Thus doth he force the swords of wicked men
To turn their own points on their master’s bosoms.…..
Come, sirs, convey me to the block of shame;
Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.

At a time in which Ricardian historical novels flood the market, often painting Richard as a hero or some 15th century saint and his opponents as evil degenerates, Higginbotham’s novel is refreshing.  She should be given much credit for coming to her own conclusions instead of attempting to ingratiate herself to a Ricardian audience.

I was very impressed by her depth of knowledge, and how she weaves details into the story that only a student of the period would catch — such as the infuriating succinctness of John Russell, the Bishop of Lincoln, who later might have been the anonymous chronicler who wrote the “Continuation” to the Croyland Chronicles, a primary source of the Yorkist period.  I likewise was impressed by the glimpses into the personalities of the minor characters that bring this book and these people to life.

Higginbotham’s Richard
Despite what I said about superlatives in my thoughts “On Hating Shakespeare’s Richard III,” Higginbotham’s Richard is hard to describe any other way.  This is not a Shakespearean portrait, by any means, but a very human portrait.

It is difficult to discuss The Stolen Crown without dealing at some length with Richard, because he has such a force on Harry’s life and actions, and such an impact on Harry’s and Kate’s marriage.  Higginbotham’s Richard is fascinating — a truly Machiavellian creature.  Superficially charming, courageous, honorable and amiable, he is ambitious, grasping, opportunistic, devoid of conscience, and egotistical.  Convinced that the good he will do as King will outweigh the bad he does to become King, he has no compunction about removing those who might impede him.  Harry, however, finds him irresistible, and that is his greatest failing.

A clue to Richard’s dark nature surfaces when he finds humor in his bullying of the Countess of Oxford, but Harry fails to comprehend it.  Harry isn’t the only one who can’t see through Richard; in Harry’s and Kate’s dealings with Richard’s men later, they meet the same blind loyalty.  As a prince, Richard is already well-positioned for leadership and power, so his amorality, irresistibility, and lack of conscience make him a very dangerous man.

Indeed, Harry is a willing participant in the arrest of Edward V’s household officers at Northampton and Stony Stratford, and in the execution of William Hastings and the arrest of Edward V’s friends in the Tower, taking Richard’s word for it that they are guilty.  He does even more, relating to Richard a casual conversation touching upon Edward IV’s dalliance and promise of marriage to Eleanor Butler that Richard immediately seizes as a pretext for claiming the throne himself.  Harry then does everything he can to make it happen.  He is so totally Richard’s that his wife Kate becomes just another Woodville to him, and therefore an object of contempt.

One chilling characteristic of Richard is his superficial aim to please his victims, even as he considers how to exploit them for his own self-interest.  Although he makes an effort to please young King Edward V through gestures that mean little to him and cost him little personally (such as bowing lowly and rewarding Edward’s favorite chaplain), Richard’s motivation is to hide his true intent under outward affectations of agreeableness.  This is no better illustrated than by Richard’s description to Harry of the deaths of Edward V and his brother.  Richard seems to be self-congratulatory when he tells Harry how happy he had made the boys beforehand (with a promise of a trip to the North and the serving of their favorite meal) and what means he took to ensure that their deaths were painless.  This becomes the point at which Harry breaks with Richard, although Richard does not know this at the time.

Believable, Warm, Human Characters
If Harry has overlooked Richard’s faults, he has no trouble seeing Edward IV’s, and his youthful, impudent, and infuriating questioning of Edward’s policies earn him Edward’s anger more than once.  This is curious, because the humanity of Edward, and of Hastings, as well, is evident to Kate, who is a finer judge of character than her husband, and who defends both of them (despite their sexual promiscuity), recognizing their better natures.

I was particularly moved by Higginbotham’s description of the arrest of Anthony Woodville at Northampton.  His desperate protestations of innocence have the ring of sincerity, and one can’t help but feel pain over his wrongful imprisonment.  One is equally moved by her description of Harry’s visit to the imprisoned Edward V and young Richard.  We experience the frustration and anger of both boys as they confront one of the men responsible for their fallen fortunes.  Edward’s bitter and sarcastic comments and young Richard’s accusations stir us as they stirred Harry, who can’t help but feel guilty for his contribution to their misery.  This eventually moves him to approach Richard with the suggestion that the boys be sent to his estates in Brecon, where there will be less restrictions upon them.  This is when he discovers that he is too late, that both boys have been killed on Richard’s orders.

Higginbotham is to be congratulated for writing historical fiction that is scrupulously true to the contemporary sources.  Of special interest is her postscript, in which she defers to the complexity of the issues surrounding the Yorkist period and explains why she has taken the perspective that she has in her novel.  It is refreshing to see such honesty from a writer of a novel set in a period that is often misconstrued by authors who wish to use fiction as a means to rewrite history.

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