Harper Collins|9 January 2020|400 pages|e-book via NetGalley|Review copy|5*
Elizabeth of York, her life already tainted by dishonour and tragedy, now queen to the first Tudor king, Henry the VII.
Joan Vaux, servant of the court, straining against marriage and motherhood and privy to the deepest and darkest secrets of her queen. Like the ravens, Joan must use her eyes and her senses, as conspiracy whispers through the dark corridors of the Tower.
Through Joan’s eyes, The Lady of the Ravens inhabits the squalid streets of Tudor London, the imposing walls of its most fearsome fortress and the glamorous court of a kingdom in crisis.
The Lady of the Ravens opens in 1485 just weeks after Henry Tudor had taken the throne to become King Henry VII of England and Lord of Ireland. This is historical fiction about the early years of Henry’s reign as seen through the eyes of Joan Vaux, a lady in waiting to Elizabeth of York, whose marriage in 1486 to Henry united the Houses of Lancaster and York after the end of the Wars of the Roses.
Henry comes across as a competent king, which is really all I knew of his reign before reading this book. I’ve read Joanna Hickson’s earlier book about him, The Tudor Crown, which is about his early life and how he gained the English throne. Joan Vaux also features in a small way in this book. In The Lady of the Ravens he is shown to be determined to hold on to his throne, dealing with several Yorkists’ claims to the throne, in particular those of Lambert Simnel, who claimed to be Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick, Elizabeth’s cousin, and Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, who was the second son of Edward IV, Elizabeth’s brother, one of the so-called Princes in the Tower. It is also about his family life – his marriage to Elizabeth,,the births of their children (three of them died in childhood), and his concern for his subjects – for example both he and Elizabeth were present at Joan’s wedding and we also see him enjoying dancing at court.
Joan Vaux is also a real historical character – her mother, Katherine was French and had been a lady-in-waiting to the former queen Margaret of Anjou (the wife of Henry VI).. Joan had served Elizabeth as a woman of her bedchamber before Elizabeth’s marriage to Henry and, after her own marriage to Sir Richard Guildford, as a lady-in-waiting. And before that she had been brought up in the household of Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother. Joan became a good friend and confidante of Elizabeth, even after her marriage and the birth of her son Henry, known as Hal, who also became a good friend to the young Prince Henry.
The fictional element is in the story of Joan’s fascination for and care of the ravens of the Tower of London firmly believing in the legend that should the ravens leave the Tower for good then the crown will fall and ruin will return to the nation. I came to really like Joan, a warm and caring woman. Joanna Hickson goes into detail describing the traumatic birth of her son and the lives of ordinary people outside the royal court. It is a rich and vibrant novel, full of action and political unrest.
I particularly like the glimpses we see of the ill-fated Prince Arthur and his bride, Katherine of Aragon. And I was especially delighted by the portrait of Prince Henry (who later became Henry VIII) as a young charismatic child of nearly three. His father was furious about the imposters’ claims to the throne and had decided the best response was to invest his younger son as the trueborn and genuine Duke of York. Little Henry, with his bright red Tudor hair, was mounted on a gleaming black warhorse strapped into a specially made high-backed jousting saddle and escorted by his great-uncles, the Yeoman of the Guard and the King’s Archers as they processed around the streets of London to Westminster. He was in his element, waving to the crowd who cheered and threw flowers as he went by.
This novel is beautifully written, grounded in its historical context, full of colour and life. I loved all the descriptions of the various settings, especially the Tower of London, and the ravens. My grasp of English history in this period was very hazy and I learned a lot reading this book, especially as the characters came to life on the pages, but most of all I loved the portrayal of Joan Vaux, Lady Guildford. And I see from the Author’s Note at the end of the book that there is more to come about her, including a mystery, her second marriage and her close relationship with Katherine of Aragon and the early years of Henry VIII’s reign. I’m looking forward to reading that!
Joanna Hickson became fascinated with history when she studied Shakespeare’s history plays at school. However, having taken a degree in Politics and English she took up a career in broadcast journalism with the BBC, presenting and producing news, current affairs and arts programmes on both television and radio. Now she writes full time. The Lady of the Ravens is her sixth novel.
My thanks to the publishers for my review copy via NetGalley.