I’ve always thought it a great paradox that there’s no better way of relaxing than with a good crime novel. I don’t know why this should be; it is perhaps because reading about murder and mayhem, trickery and treachery helps you to appreciate the safety and security of your own world and to put all the people who’ve annoyed you during the course of the working day into perspective: a perspective reinforced also by all the ones who’ve been especially helpful or kind (as there are many more lovely people in the world than crime writers acknowledge).
I read voraciously all the time and I like to alternate reading fiction with non-fiction, sometimes having two novels and two non-fiction books simultaneously on the go. My preferred non-fiction subject categories are biography, memoirs, natural history, (more selectively) geography, particularly of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, archaeology and history. Especially history. I love local history (again, particularly of ‘my’ two counties, as I’ve mentioned before), but I read history books about all periods and places, all of the time. Coming back to what is most relaxing, I think that nothing can beat history books about the high middle ages – perhaps because, just like crime novels, they tell of appalling acts that are remote enough to reassure the reader that he or she is unlikely to experience them first-hand, whilst offering the opportunity to drink up the excitement that they offer.
I’ve read many more books about the Wars of the Roses than any other mediaeval period, so in my most recent expedition to a bookshop (it was Waterstones in Leeds) I decided to buy Dan Jones’ The Plantagenets: the kings who made England. I have read accounts of individual reigns in the Plantagenet period, but until now I’ve had no broad overview of it. Jones’ book turned out to be the ideal choice for this purpose. He succeeds superbly well at explaining how each Plantagenet king built on the heritage of his predecessor to make England a strong, united country (they also enjoyed modest successes in Wales, made almost no headway in Scotland and none at all in Ireland) with well-defined laws. Despite the fact that, at the beginning of the Plantagenet period, in the mid-twelfth century, the English king and nobles also held vast swathes of land in France and by the end of it, two and a half centuries later, almost all of these had been lost, the Plantagenets also transformed England from being an impoverished country largely ignored by its European counterparts to a prosperous land and international force to be reckoned with, whether for peaceful trading or highly aggressive warfare.
As with all dynasties that span long periods of time, the Plantagenets had their failures as well as their successes. The greatest Plantagenet kings were Henry III and Edward III; the weakest were Edward II (who was spectacularly incompetent) and Richard II (who was less so, but like Edward II failed to understand the dangers of empowering his favourites). It was directly owing to Richard II’s shortcomings that the great Plantagenet dynasty fell. No less fascinating are the Plantagenet queens: they may have been consorts rather than rulers in their own right, but such royal wives as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Castile and Isabella of France were every bit as colourful, determined – and fierce – as their husbands; in each case, they were the de facto monarchs of England for significant periods of their husbands’ reigns; and in each case they defied their husbands at crucial junctures, often changing the course of history in the process: for example, Isabella of France was directly responsible for deposing the insipid and unkingly Edward II and placing Edward III on the throne instead. She and her lover Roger Mortimer then tried to manipulate the new king, a ploy that failed because Edward reasserted the power and pride of the Plantagenet line in all its pomp and glory. Mortimer was executed; but Isabella carried on enjoying full regal honours as the king’s esteemed mother. One queen for whom I did feel pity as I was reading was Berengaria of Navarre, Richard I’s plain and neglected wife. He seems to have married her simply because he was determined not to marry Alice of France, to whom he had been betrothed as a child but who had probably been seduced by his father, Henry II. They had no children: there is some evidence that Richard was a latent homosexual (though Jones does not subscribe to this theory).
I enjoyed this long book hugely. I have a few reservations about it: one is the portrayal of Richard I himself. Jones seems to have accepted the version of him traditionally peddled to primary school children, of a brave and warlike king who brought honour and renown on his country by fighting against Saladin in the crusades. Most works of scholarship now concur that it was irresponsible of Richard to abandon his country and run up huge debts, especially as he knew that his brother John would make a weak, self-interested king. Jones also uses certain phrases irritatingly frequently: the one that grated on me the most was ‘smacks of’, which he uses in the sense of ‘seems to be’. This is not how I would use this phrase myself, but, even if I agreed with Jones’ usage, I’d still like to see this figure of speech appear less frequently.
But these are minor quibbles. The dark, cold winter nights are upon us now. If you want to take a break from crime, but still want something thrilling to read that will absorb you totally in adventure and happenings stranger than fiction, this book is for you.
There is a shop in Wakefield that sells party dresses for little girls. The name over the door is ‘Little Princess’ and its stock is overwhelmingly pink. As well as dresses, it sells shoes, capes, handbags, party bags, toys, napery and little crowns – almost all in pink.
To the girls of my generation, frilly party dresses were a cause for rebellion. I and my contemporaries fought hard to be allowed to wear trousers (‘trews’, as they were called by shop assistants, to make them respectable and distinguish them from what boys wore; I remember that my grandmother almost fainted the first time I appeared in a pair of trousers with flies) and later jeans. When we were a little older, we wanted to be different (like everyone else) by dressing entirely in black. We recognised that, although these battles were trivial in themselves, they were necessary to give us identity, to reject the ideas that we existed to be sweetly dressed up and that we were correspondingly feeble-minded, not to be taken seriously. I think that it is a great shame, therefore, that the current generation of little girls has taken what to me seems to be the retrograde step of favouring the types of apparel that my mother’s generation was all too keen on thrusting upon its daughters.
In case you are wondering, this post is not shaping up to be a feminist piece, however. What I should like to focus on is what is apparently a prevalent ambition amongst today’s little girls: to become a princess.
I have no illusions about my ancestors. I am quite certain that every one of them toiled at some menial occupation. Their very names suggest that they were shepherds, hewers of wood and farm labourers. The ones that I know about were domestic servants and small shopkeepers. I know that their womenfolk led drab work-filled lives which were unfairly skewed towards the service of their men: my paternal grandmother had four brothers and each Saturday night was made to polish the shoes and press the suits of them all, so that they would look smart for church on Sunday. Yet at least it is unlikely that any of my female ancestors suffered the worst possible of fates: I’m pretty certain that none of them was a princess.
I’ve been prompted to think about this by reading history books for most of the weekend. Princesses were powerless pawns, to be manipulated by their powerful fathers and brothers. Brought up to believe that the men in their families were infallible and that therefore all the wars that they engaged in were just, they were then obliged to perform complete about-turns as these same men married them off to sworn enemies for dynastic advantage or to fulfil the terms of a treaty. Henry VIII repeatedly betrothed his daughter Mary to various crowned heads of Europe during her childhood, then changed his mind as he fell out with them and finally rendered her prospects hopeless when she was of marriageable age by repudiating her mother and denouncing her as a bastard.
Girls whose betrothals culminated in marriage were sent far away from home. Many never saw their families again. They arrived in a strange, hostile country, often unable to speak the language, usually able to keep their accompanying entourage only for a short time, sometimes to be married to a man three times their age, or, conversely, to a boy ten years their junior. Death in childbirth was common and likelier for a royal wife than for a peasant woman, subject as she was to the barbaric quackeries of doctors of any period before the mid-nineteenth century. It was a very exceptional royal husband who was faithful to his wife. He was likely to regard her as a baby-producing machine and reserve his affections for his mistresses. The wife would suffer even greater ignominy if she failed to produce an heir. If she had no children, or all her children were daughters, it was always her fault. Although her father and her brothers may have taken elaborate steps to hedge about her dowry with conditions, captive as she was in a foreign country, she had no wealth that she could call her own and faced destitution if she displeased her husband or he died (like Henry VIII’s elder brother Arthur) and her father-in-law was dubious about her continued usefulness. Discarded or disgraced princesses could hope, at best, to be exiled to a nunnery; more commonly they were executed or died in mysterious circumstances.
Curiously, although widows were often regarded as a nuisance and marginalised, some royal widows managed to become extremely powerful. Isabella of France, Edward II’s wife, was one of these. She almost certainly engineered her own widowhood by arranging to have her royal husband killed and then ruled in his place during her son’s minority. Posterity has denounced her as a wicked murderess, unmindful of the fact that killing was the business of kings. Her son, Edward III, eventually murdered her lover, but he spared his mother and allowed her to continue maintain the lifestyle of a great lady after he took control of his throne.
But Isabellas were few and far between. Most princesses were faceless, downtrodden and decorative: if not dressed in pink (as far as I know never considered to be a regal colour), their other purpose, besides child-bearing, was to look the part.
And that is why I think it is sad that little girls aspire to this ‘ideal’. They want to look the part. They have yet to understand that this particular look, if they don’t grow out of it, may condemn them to life in a gilded cage. As for many footballers’ wives, their idyll may end in divorce – which is a risky way of gaining independence – or it may eventually goad them into committing a crime that removes their freedom forever. Isabella was a fairytale princess who got away with murder. But she lived in the fourteenth century. It is a harder feat to accomplish today.