Book review: The King’s Sister by Anne O’Brien
History is littered with the names of royal women who fell spectacularly foul of male ambition, and none more so than Elizabeth of Lancaster, daughter of the mighty John of Gaunt and sister of King Henry IV.
The turbulent life of the Plantagenet princess, who scandalously rejected her arranged marriage for the charms of a dangerous seducer, has been overshadowed by her famous, throne-grabbing brother.
But headstrong Elizabeth steals the limelight in a spellbinding new story from Anne O’Brien, a historical novelist who has made it her mission to give forgotten medieval women their long-overdue day in the sun.
O’Brien, who excels at putting passion and people into the dry bones of history, likes nothing better than giving a voice to the influential women whose stories have been mothballed by the history books and shining a new and fascinating light on the events and attitudes that underpinned society in the Middle Ages.
Vain, cosseted and proud, Elizabeth of Lancaster, teenage daughter of John of Gaunt and cousin to the young King Richard II, has always known that her future marriage would be a political alliance forged by her father and that love would play no part in the match.
However, nothing has prepared her for the shock of being married off to John Hastings, Earl of Pembroke, a boy of just eight years old. Fully aware that for the Plantagenets, ‘family was power. Family was everything,’ Elizabeth reluctantly but dutifully weds the child earl.
But Elizabeth is attracted to powerful men and soon her gaze wanders to the dangerously charming Sir John Holland, the 30-year-old Duke of Exeter and half-brother to King Richard. He’s handsome, polished and devilishly witty but he’s also an adventurer known for his irresponsible behaviour.
When she falls pregnant, Elizabeth is determined to defy her father, have her marriage to the Earl of Pembroke annulled and wed the man who loves and desires her even though Holland’s affections might be driven by his overwhelming ambition.
Despite her father’s misgivings, Elizabeth is allowed to marry Holland but her happiness cannot last as she and her family are drawn into the political unrest at court. When the increasingly tyrannical Richard is overthrown by her brother Henry, Elizabeth is forced to choose between her husband and her family.
With the ruthless John Holland determined to challenge the new king and restore his half-brother to the throne, Elizabeth must decide where her loyalties lie… even if means making a terrible betrayal.
O’Brien has made a great job of lifting mysterious, misbehaving Elizabeth out of the shadows and allowing her to take her rightful place in one of the most tumultuous periods of English history.
This is a tale steeped in romance, drama and tragedy as the dangerous politicking, power play and treacherous betrayals of the volatile Plantagenet court sow the seeds of the bitter Wars of the Roses.
Blending fact and fiction with some heart-fluttering artistic licence, The King’s Sister is a fast-moving, compelling account of one wilful royal woman’s determination to defy powerful dynastic expectations and marry the man she loves.
Blissful reading for all fans of history and romance…
(Mira, hardback, £12.99)