Winston Churchill should know. He was, at times in his life, all those things—historian, politician, writer, and victor.
William Shakespeare knew it too, especially when choosing what to write and perform before the city and court of Queen Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Elizabeth of York. So when Shakespeare (probably a lifelong Catholic and certainly supported by his Catholic patrons, the Earls of Essex and Southampton) reinvented his Richard III as a withered-arm hunchback—his audience would immediately connect his character with Elizabeth’s advisor Robert Cecil, a hunchback who was promoting the protestant James Stuart (King James VI of Scotland) as her heir. And even though Robert Cecil’s plan was ultimately victorious—not to mention that the Earl of Essex was executed and Southampton was imprisoned—it’s the Shakespearean version of Richard III—a scheming, evil, child-murdering hunchback with a withered arm—which has come down through history.
Most of history’s subverted truths are never revealed, but Richard III’s story does have a new ending. When digging up a carpark in Leicester in 2012, Richard’s remains were discovered. Analysis reveals him to have been normally tall for his time, a handsome man whose childhood scoliosis would have been only slightly apparent.
That challenge between what everybody “knows” about a historical figure and what actual truths might have been was taken up by Catherine Hokin in her first novel, Blood and Roses, her fictionalized account of the life of Margaret of Anjou.
Blood and Roses by Catherine Hokin (coming Wednesday, 13 January 2016 from Yolk Publishing):
The English Crown – a bloodied, restless prize.
The one contender strong enough to hold it? A woman. Margaret of Anjou: a French Queen in a hostile country, born to rule but refused the right, shackled to a King lost in a shadow-land.
When a craving for power becomes a crusade, when two rival dynasties rip the country apart in their desire to rule it and thrones are the spoils of a battlefield, the stakes can only rise. And if the highest stake you have is your son?
You play it.
There are two problems with history. First of all, it’s boring. And second, it’s wrong. In her debut novel, Blood and Roses, author Catherine Hokin brilliantly solves both of those problems as she invites us to reconsider what history “tells” us about Margaret of Anjou, the English Queen who led Lancastrian forces in the Wars of the Roses.
So…Margaret of Anjou. Isn’t she the French princess who married Henry VI of England, had an affair with the Duke of Suffolk and bore him an illegitimate son before wandering around carrying his severed head? Wasn’t she Shakespeare’s “she-wolf of France” who led the army of rapists and murderers bent on sacking Ludlow until confronted by heroic Cecily of York? And when Margaret triumphed over her great enemy, the Duke of York, didn’t she wipe his brow with a handkerchief soaked in the blood of his child, before putting a paper crown on his head, stabbing him, and putting his severed head on a pike? Wasn’t she just the mother-in-law from hell to her son’s wife, Anne of York? That Margaret of Anjou?
Um…no. Sometimes, when “history” has passed judgement on the losing side, we can turn to fiction for a closer reality. Catherine Hokin starts with what we do know.
Marguerite’s life is introduced by the older version of herself, a woman desperately trying to stave off the judgement of history by writing her own truth—a desire she knows is almost certainly doomed. “She wants, well it is simple really, she wants to be remembered as more than the monster she feels sure history will paint her. A simple wish but it is out of her hands.”
The child Marguerite was raised by two of the strongest women in medieval Europe, her mother Isabelle and grandmother Yolande, famously known for being strong leaders in the place of their weak husbands. “My childhood was shaped by women, women so strong they made the men around them fade to shadows.”
With introductory comments and remarks from her future self, we meet Marguerite as a young girl, excited with the prospect of marrying a handsome young king and becoming his queen. Throughout her proxy marriage and journey to finally meet her husband, the truth of her marriage is kept secret from her—that Henry VI is obsessed with religion, his hold on reality tenuous at best.
When they finally meet, Henry makes it clear that he sees himself as a man of God, devout and above all celibate. After years of frustration, in fact, he tells her:
“I have my God, Margaret, and I will turn to him when the demands around me become too great. I will find solace. You will have nothing.’ It was not a curse, it was not a threat; he said the words as though they were a simple truth and then he left her, bruised and shaking as though from a blow.”
Alone in a foreign court, with even her name changed from Marguerite to Margaret, the young queen realizes that the slightest misstep could be fatal. But she also realizes something else. As the daughter and granddaughter of strong women, she recognizes the uses and seduction of power.
Thus she charts a path over the next ten years designed to solidify her power. At the same time, she hides her secret—her virginity in an era where a woman’s greatest value lies in her ability to produce sons. And when at last, her ultimate dream and triumph is achieved and she does have a son, everything she has is devoted to the single-minded determination to see him crowned king.
Catherine Hokin has imagined many insightful explanations for the events of Margaret’s life. Most spectacular and surprising are the machinations leading to the conception and birth of her son Edward—in a brilliant development that I didn’t see coming. (Of course, neither did Shakespeare, Margaret’s contemporaries, or future historians!)
We watch as Margaret becomes not just a woman, but a queen who walks a minefield where any misstep means death. She uses friends, forces opponents to serve her demands, and ruthlessly eliminates enemies. She tells herself that every action is justified by her concerns for her son and her crown.
But as an old woman, alone and (relatively) poor, Margaret acknowledges the real truth.
“She has endured pain and loss that would have broken many but she still survives. She has enjoyed power and knows what a strange thing it is: she has learned how, once tasted, it is very hard to lose the love of it and, too often, the pursuit of it becomes more than the getting. She has had it and she has lost it; she has never learned not to want it.”
Blood and Roses is a big story, played out on epic battlefields, with the fate of a nation as the stakes, her son’s life as the entry fee, and a crown as the prize. Catherine Hokin’s meticulous research into the historical elements, her obvious empathy for the decisions Margaret makes, and her ability to weave Margaret’s story as woman, mother, and queen are remarkable.
Being greedy, I could have wished for just a bit more. The book is already huge, but I’d have liked to see more description of the settings, a sense of what Margaret sees, smells, touches, tastes, and surrounds herself with. Dialog is always going to be a problem, and certainly I don’t expect the book to read like lines from Shakespeare’s plays. But it would have been fun to get a little more sense of the time and place in history. As a woman and even as a queen—especially a queen—Margaret of Anjou had to maintain the fiction that she was what her grandmother advised all those years ago.
‘Because people believe that power rests with kings and with men and they believe that a woman’s greatest strength lies in her virtue and her meekness. They like their queens to smile and obey their husbands like all women are expected to do. You may not like that, you may not find such a part an easy one to play but it is what the world expects and you have to learn it.’
You will struggle with it as we all struggle, that is the real truth you need to learn.
And even more, I would have liked to see or hear about the passion that clearly lives within the quiet face Margaret guarded so carefully. But overall, Blood and Roses is a huge achievement. By reimagining the life of a woman history labelled a villain, Catherine Hokin reminds us to look carefully at the things we think we know about history that just aren’t so. I would give it four stars for a spectacular debut effort, and certainly look for more from this very talented writer.
***I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.***
Book Title: Blood and Roses
Author: Catherine Hokin
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Yolk Publishing
Length: 372 pages
Release Date: 13 January, 2016
Contact and Buy Links:
Amazon (US) | Amazon (UK) | Goodreads | Blog
About the author
Catherine lives in Glasgow and has had a varied career in marketing, education and politics which has mostly interfered with her writing. She has a History degree with a medieval specialism and wrote a thesis on politics, women and witchcraft in Medieval England – this kick-started her interest in many of the themes which have finally come to fruition in Blood and Roses, the story of Margaret of Anjou and her role as a key protagonist in the Wars of the Roses.
Catherine also writes short stories, again about strong women but with a contemporary theme, and has had a number of competition successes, most recently as a finalist in the 2015 Scottish arts Club Short Story Competition. She regularly blogs as Heroine Chic, casting a historical, and sometimes hysterical, eye over women in popular culture and life in general. In her spare time she loves films, listens to loud music and tries to remember to talk to her husband and children.