Book review: Queen of the North by Anne O'Brien
'˜This is no world to play with mammets and to tilt the lips: We must have bloody noses and crack'd crowns.'
These striking words from legendary warrior Henry ‘Hotspur’ to his long-suffering wife in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One provide only a fleeting glimpse of Elizabeth Mortimer, the woman who became caught up in a 15th century battle royal for the throne of England… and paid a terrible price.
Once more unto the breach steps consummate historical novelist Anne O’Brien, a writer who has dusted down the dry bones of history’s long-forgotten royal women and turned their turbulent lives into thrilling tales of passion, politics, intrigue and tragedy.
In the medieval period, to be a royal woman was to be a political pawn, a marriageable asset that could be traded for influence or power but, against all the odds, there were those brave souls who dared to challenge the male-dominated status quo, and O’Brien has become adept at digging out their stories and transforming them into gripping page-turners.
In Queen of the North, she turns her authorial skills and keen eye on Elizabeth Mortimer, a member of an influential English family with links back to the Plantagenet King Edward III and a significant claim to the throne.
At the tender age of eight, Elizabeth was married off to Sir Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland and the unofficial ‘King of the North,’ and it was this union to a tough warrior who earned the titled ‘Hotspur’ for his heroics on the battlefield that led to her role in an infamous rebellion.
In 1399, England’s crown is under threat as the weak and vengeful King Richard II holds on to his throne by an ever-weakening thread and his exiled Lancastrian cousin Henry Bolingbroke returns with a small army, ostensibly to reclaim his lost lands and inheritance.
For twenty years Elizabeth has been married to Sir Henry ‘Harry’ Percy and is mother to their two young children. Their home is Alnwick Castle, the chilly northern seat of the Percys, a family of soldiers all blessed ‘or cursed’ with a driving ambition for power.
For years, the Percys have been the proud guardians of the northern territories, protecting the English kings from the marauding Scots. Elizabeth’s marriage might have been arranged but it is a strong union. Her husband Harry is the feared Hotspur of the battlefield but to her he is the man she loves ‘more than the sum of all the Percy acres and Percy jewels.’
When Henry Bolingbroke takes aim at stealing the throne from his cousin Richard, the Percy family change their allegiance and join forces with the Lancastrians. For Elizabeth, her family loyalties are paramount and there is only one rightful new king – her eight-year-old nephew, Edmund Mortimer.
But many, including Elizabeth’s husband, do not want another child-king so she must hide her true ambitions and go against her husband’s wishes. She might have no part in public politicking but behind the scenes Elizabeth has a network of female and family gossip, and ‘knowledge was power.’
By questioning her loyalty to Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, Elizabeth places herself in the shadow of the axe but to concede would curdle her Plantagenet blood. Can one woman turn history on its head?
Queen of the North is another triumph for O’Brien as she seamlessly blends the slim, known threads of Elizabeth’s life with the undisputed facts of a dangerous insurrection that ended in disaster and tragedy.
In an epic story brimming with political tensions, thrilling action and emotional intensity, O’Brien paints a compelling portrait of Elizabeth Mortimer, a skilled diplomat, a loving wife and a determined woman, moulded and motivated by her family’s ambitions and their deep-rooted sense of betrayal.
Elizabeth was undoubtedly a victim of her times but, as O’Brien points out, she was also a Mortimer, a woman of substance and influence, and certainly not likely to have been ‘a silent presence in those days of insurrection.’
Her passion for her famed soldier husband shines through in this vivid, visceral and utterly enthralling story which brings us the facts of real history… but a past peopled by flesh-and-blood characters whose actions and thoughts propel them into some of England’s most tumultuous and dramatic events.
Imaginative, rich in detail and immaculately researched, Queen of the North confirms Anne O’Brien as one of our most accomplished and exciting historical novelists.
(HQ, hardback, £14.99)