When I took up archery it was a relatively niche sport. Then Game of Thrones came along, and everyone wanted a longbow. Since the HBO series put the Wars of the Roses back on the map, we have had novels by Philippa Gregory and Conn Iggulden, and this autumn there will be a history of the wars by Dan Jones. Now comes the first of Toby Clements’s Kingmaker stories, set in the febrile age of mad King Henry VI of the House of Lancaster.
Winter Pilgrims takes us to Lincoln, where Thomas, a 20-year-old monk and book illuminator, and Katherine, a young nun who has had enough of emptying her prioress’s chamber-pot, find themselves discharged from their respective cloisters and their duties to God. But they have no idea that war is raging until they chance upon a sickly old pardoner in a wood, who provides a rather heavy-handed explanation of the history of the conflict to date.
‘These are unquiet and scrambled times’, the pardoner says. The army of Margaret of Anjou, queen consort and veritable ‘she-wolf’, has just routed her husband’s cousin, the Duke of York, at the gates of Ludlow. The duke has retired to Ireland to await help from the Earl of Warwick (historically known as ‘the Kingmaker’), who lives in Calais.
King Henry himself remains much as we remember him from history books, ‘as mute as a crowned calf’. The narrative, quick-paced, direct and written in the vivid present, centres on the monk and nun as they are swept up in the Yorkists’ journey across England and the ‘Narrow Sea’ to Calais, where the Kingmaker’s men come firmly into focus.
Clements provides a clever montage of Shakespearian motifs, including disguise and Latin adage. His challenge has been to connect a 21st-century reader to his religious 15th-century protagonists, and he succeeds, principally through the dialogue. Thomas soon gains our sympathy. We are told that ‘he’d always liked his brother, but his brother’s wife had come between them, and all three knew his future was not there.’ His history seeps in like memories. Even when he discovers that he has a gift for archery, he remains more human than hero — or monk.
The plot may not be entirely credible, but the repression, anger and bloodshed of the Wars of the Roses was itself frequently beyond belief. Clements’s pages are aflutter with that conflict’s every emotion.