Book review: Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims by Toby Clements

The Wars of the Roses were essentially a bitter feud which tore apart the royal Plantagenet family… but what of the ordinary folk caught up in decades of savage dynastic fighting?

Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims by Toby Clements
Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims by Toby Clements

Brother was forced to face brother as the Houses of Lancaster and York battled for monarchical supremacy in one of the most turbulent periods in British history.

At the Battle of Towton in North Yorkshire in 1461, around 28,000 soldiers were killed, making it the biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, while in homes across the land, families struggled to eke out a living and just stay alive.

In the first of what promises to be one of the best historical adventure series to hit the shelves this year, debut novelist Toby Clements takes us on a journey through this epic war, not with the highborn faction leaders but with those whose orders were to ‘do and die.’

Clements’ research revealed that the common folk of the 15th Century were tough, resourceful, resilient and clever, and he set out to write a novel that explored how they lived, loved, fought and died.

And in the company of an author born to be a storyteller and who spent months at battle re-enactment fairs learning to use the longbow and fight with the poll axe, Kingmaker proves to be a thrilling, stomach-churning odyssey into the grime, gore and guts of the brutal medieval world.

When Father Thomas Everingham ventures outside the walls of St Mary’s Priory in Lincolnshire one freezing February morning in 1460, he witnesses a young knight and his vicious retinue of men preparing to attack a nun.

She is Sister Katherine, a young woman abandoned at the priory when she was an infant and thus sentenced to an unchosen everyday existence of drudgery and religious servitude.

There is a scuffle and Thomas seriously injures the lawless knight but the consequences are far-reaching because the victim is the son of Sir Giles Riven, a ruthless nobleman on whom the priory depends for its much-needed security.


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With a powerful enemy pledging to track them down, Thomas and Katherine are expelled from their orders and forced to flee but what they don’t know is that England is in the throes of one of the most savage civil wars in history.

With the help of pardoner Robert Daud, who is seeking the touch of the French king to cure his scrofula, they set sail across the Narrow Sea to Calais with Katherine now disguised as a boy called Kit.

There they join Sir John Fakenham and his son Richard, forces loyal to the Duke of York and the revered Earl of Warwick, the man destined to become known as Kingmaker, who are waiting to return home to seize the throne from the feeble Lancastrian King Henry VI.

enry VI.


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Thomas becomes a skilled archer, determined to wreak vengeance on Riven, while Katherine hones her talents for observation and physical healing, skills she will use both on and off the battlefields of Northampton, Mortimer’s Cross and finally the great slaughter at Towton…

Written in the present tense to give added impetus and immediacy to a vivid, fast-moving, all-action narrative, Kingmaker takes us from the cloisters of a Lincolnshire priory, across the sea to France and back to the killing fields of blood-soaked England.

There is an addictive, raw excitement to Clements’ writing which opens a window onto a vibrant cast of assorted characters playing out their parts not in castles and gilded courts but in the meagre homes, rough dwellings and makeshift army camps of the common people.

Their hardships are cruel, the battles that they endure are vast and vicious, old scores are settled on both the big and small stage, battles are fought and lost, lives are destroyed and love is born. This is medieval life far removed from the sanitised accounts in many history books.


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Prepare to be shocked, amazed… and thoroughly entertained.

(Century, hardback, £16.99)