There are heroes and villains but only one king…
John, Duke of Bedford, grew to manhood fighting for his father, King Henry IV of England, on the wild and lawless Northern Marches. He was a prince of the royal blood, loyal, strong, and the greatest ally that his brother—the future Henry V—was to have. Filled with the clash of bitter rivalries and deadly power struggles, this is Georgette Heyer’s last and most ambitious novel, bringing to life a character and a period she found irresistibly attractive.
I’m not normally a Georgette Heyer fan, but I was specifically looking for any book about John of Lancaster (younger brother of Henry V) and this one popped up. It turns out that Georgette Heyer loved medieval history; her husband tells us in the Preface that this was her favorite period. Interestingly, this is the last book she wrote, and it was originally intended to be book one of a trilogy. But she died even before finishing this volume (though we have a hefty 400+ pages). Is this a first draft? I don’t know enough about her style to speculate. It seems very polished, but she has done more telling rather than showing, so I don’t know. Historically, she is mostly right on target (her passages on the Percy-led rebellion and capture of Archbishop Scrope seem to be under-researched). Because of my own work, I’m familiar with all these characters, but so much history has been stuffed into volume one that I would suspect the average reader could easily get lost. She used lots and lots of “medieval” words in conversations that I didn’t know, which tripped me up regularly:
“Loth, and yet life. God give you strength to prosper in your beginnings, my liege!”
Harry laughed, and let him go. “Gramercy! Keep the North quiet for me, my Lord Warden!”
“I shall do my power. But while Northumberland is on life that is little! Father should make an end.”
“Sturdy words! I remember now that Bishop Henry told me you were very stark!”
“Well, Thomas says the like of you!” retorted John.
“Does he? But I would not be so blithe to head my own friends, brother!”
“When were the Hollands and the Despensers friends to Lancaster? Traitorous thatchgallows, every one, and Father enlarged them, as he will Northumberland!”
Well, I can guess most of these words through context, but it certainly slowed me down. Nonetheless, we get a lively narrative which gives us an agreeable picture of the four sons of Henry IV, though again, based on my own research, the reality was much more caustic—at least between young Harry and Thomas. However, I’m happy to go along; things didn’t get really uncomfortable until they were older (past the end of this book). John, the third son, comes across as the most level-headed, with an infallible memory and an innate ability to take charge. Still just into his teens, he is created Warden of the East Marches of Scotland under the tutelage of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland (and natural enemy of Henry Percy). A lesser soul would have wilted under these rough and disorderly conditions, but John shows great courage and soon finds himself at home.