Friday, August 11, 2006

Those Wacky, Witchy, Plantagenets

As promised (c'mon, I know you've been tapping your fingers in anticipation), here's my review of My Philippa by Maureen Peters. My copy came all the way from Tasmania, and judging from its almost pristine condition except for sundry library markings, it'd been sitting quietly on the shelves of the library there for some time before being withdrawn and finding its way to eBay.

My Philippa, of course, is about Edward III's queen, Philippa of Hainault, who's probably best known for pleading with her husband to spare the lives of the Burghers of Calais. It's typical of the oddity of this book that this famous incident is mentioned only in passing here.

Narrated by Philippa herself, this book covers Philippa's life from her marriage to Edward III to the beginning of his affair with Alice Perrers. The book has a very domestic quality about it; for the most part, the plot just revolves around Philippa's sometimes frustrating marriage (Edward III is a skirt-chaser) and her growing family. Despite Philippa's being relegated to the background, I found the book agreeable enough to read; Philippa's narrative voice has a refreshingly tart tone, and the narrative moves forward at a brisk pace.

There are a couple of odd features to this book. Peters ties together several characters by their adherence to the Old Religion--Roger Mortimer, Queen Isabella (slightly), Joan of Kent, and Edward III himself. Thus, Joan's famous garter is the Badge of the Snake Priestess, as Queen Isabella helpfully points out, and the Order of the Garter is equivalent to two covens. I'm not sure of the source of this link between the Order of the Garter and witchcraft, but it's not original to Peters; Evelyn Eaton in The King Is a Witch used the witchcraft theory on a much more elaborate scale, forcing Edward III to periodically look about for a Substitute Victim to keep him safely above ground. In Peters's case, what could be an interesting, albeit historically dubious, angle fizzles out, for Peters doesn't develop the witchcraft plot line much, but contents herself with having Bad Things happen whenever Joan of Kent appears on the scene.

The other peculiar aspect of the book is its portrayal of Edward III's son Lionel, Duke of Clarence, as being feeble-minded, albeit in a very charming manner. (Speaking of his desire to marry his sweetheart, Elizabeth de Burgh, the adult Lionel explains, "She is very clever and will read aloud to me in the evenings and I will give her rides on my horse.") I don't know of anything that supports this depiction of Lionel; it certainly seems inconsistent with his later career as royal lieutenant in Ireland. (And Lionel as an adult hardly had to ask permission to marry Elizabeth de Burgh, having been betrothed to her since childhood.)

All in all, I found this a peculiar little book, eccentric yet strangely likable. Its main appeal, though, will be to those who read all things Plantagenet.

4 comments:

Carla said...

The Old Religion in elite society in medieval England always makes me go Hmmm, or even Yeah, right. Is there any evidence for it at all, do you know? It can be very effective in the right hands; I remember hearing a radio play that portrayed Piers Gaveston as the Substitute Sacrifice and had Robin Hood aka the Green Man do the deed. I have forgotten the title, author, etc, but that scene's stayed with me for over a decade.

Sarah said...

Many of Peters's books have been like that for me - interesting Old Religion/supernatural content (which I don't really buy into), but strangely likable and very readable.

That is a very odd portrayal of Lionel of Clarence.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Carla, I don't know of any evidence personally, but it's not anything I've researched more than superficially. The Gaveston play sounds as if it would have been interesting, though!

Sarah, I'd love to know where Peters got her idea about Lionel from. I found a 1912 article today about his last months that goes into the details of his second wedding--nothing there or anyplace else I've read suggests that he was not of normal intelligence.

Sarah said...

I'm guessing that she made Lionel's character up completely!