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"A field where the past had just received another mortal blow ...",
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This review is from: A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury (Paperback)
"A field where the past had just received another mortal blow in its drawn-out death, and the future had cast its forward shadow long and stark, the chilling image of battle after battle, treason after treason, change piled upon change, interminably reeling to and for across the ruined crops and desolated hopes of peasant cultivators and tenant farmers ..."
This is a passage from the chapter that deal with the `bloody field' just outside Shrewsbury where a battle was fought for control of England. Ellis Peters is most famous, of course, for her series of Cadfael novels set in twelfth-century Shrewsbury Abbey. This book, `A Bloody Field By Shrewsbury', is set two hundred and fifty years later, but - as the title suggests - uses Shrewsbury (in particular the 1403 Battle of Shrewsbury) as the core of the story. But its scene of action is nationwide, for we also go into the Welsh mountains, to the royal court in London, and to the Scottish borders.
This historical novel is roughly twice the length of a Cadfael whodunit and was published about five years before Cadfael ever saw the light of day. It seeks to be based as much as possible on actual events. Unfortunately no additional commentary is provided by the author about her approach to the story or to say how much of the contents, for example, of the letters between the major parties are true. The book opens as the twelve-year-old Prince Harry (the future Henry V) lands at Chester from Ireland in the autumn of 1399. But the future fifth Henry is largely an observer, albeit an active one, of his father's actions in this story.
The prologue did not grip me, but the appearance of the famous Hotspur in the king's retinue and the added intrigue in the proceedings of court soon drew me into the story of Anglo-Welsh enmity and the means sought to prevent it. Hotspur has just beaten the Scots and the friendship between Henry IV and this former comrade-in-arms is being tested by Henry's envy of Hotspur's martial achievements. The king remarks, Hotspur "shall not, he shall not, walk onward like this over my discomfiture [in Wales], secure that his foot cannot slip. He shall feel the ground give under him, if only once, he shall fall, and men shall see him fall, and know him for a man like other men ..."
The turning-point in the book is when Henry IV and Hotspur seal their division during a single interview. The king has grown paranoid and resentful and his attempt to humiliate Hotspur for his own aggrandisement fails: the two former friends from youth are now enemies: "Henry knew that something had happened, that something unidentifiable was lost to him; and he was the more desperately sad because he did not know what it was, but only felt its loss. Something they had possessed between them, trust, respect, the confidence that was better than understanding, had suddenly flowed away like water between his fingers ..." One wonders if the author can really enter the minds of kings, but her words are convincing nevertheless.
A plan of medieval Shrewsbury would have been helpful. The battle itself does not take place until four-fifths into the book. The cause is Henry IV's lack of chivalry to Hotspur over the latter's Mortimer relations, whose base is on the Welsh border. The Mortimers had arguably a greater claim to the crown of England than the usurping Henry feared that he too might be usurped. (By the way, I failed to spot any references to the supposed deal to split the kingdom up in three by Hotspur, Mortimer, and Glendower.) The battle itself is told in essentially one chapter. The sequences are well-handled and are easy to follow. Does she romanticise the action where Hotspur almost kills Henry IV but for the actions of Prince Harry? Well, she would probably plead guilty (although the Dieulacres Chronicle says Henry offered to meet Hotspur iin single combat).
The book is very well-written and would make the basis of a great screenplay.
Ellis Peters's insight into character is shrewd, for - unlike, say, Dickens - there are no goodies and baddies in the drama. That's not to say that the book does not have problems. There seems to me an issue with some of its time-structure. For instance, in the short period after Hotspur has stormed out of the king's presence and Prince Harry has had his brief chat with his father about reconciling them, Hotspur has gone to his London residence; has had along discussion with his father and uncle; and ridden off thirty minutes before Hal turns up to see him. There are also unanswered questions: for instance, when Worcester withdrew the army from Shrewsbury, why did he not also take Prince Harry captive? And the mob's withdrawal after the murder of Rhodri parry is not really believable.
Having finished the novel, I couldn't help feeling that the book is best read aloud, to oneself or to others. It seems to be following the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary tradition of the novel such as Walter Scott's, where in an age without radio and television, great stories were told through the medium of the printed word spoken to family and wider groups. Sure, there is no sex in this novel, but there is an element of romance, even though this is very much subservient to the main story of honour and battle. And that story is well told.