In this historical fiction novel by Dame Edith Pargeter, the title was what drew me to it in the beginning. Shrewsbury is a setting I feel I know well from the Brother Cadfael novels written by Pageter under the pseudonym Ellis Peters, so it was also a setting very familiar to her. The title, is a line from Shakespeare’s Prologue, Henry IV Part 2. The novel’s subtitle, “A King, A Prince, and the Knight who betrayed their Dynasty” tells the gist of the story: the King is Henry IV, Henry Bolingbroke, who returns from exile to reclaim his lands confiscated by King Richard II; the Prince, his son (Prince Hal), has been in Richard’s care (or custody, depending on the point of view) and has great affection for him but must be returned to his father, and be the dutiful son and future king; the Knight, is Henry Percy, (surnamed Hotspur) two years older than Henry and a comrade at arms who has helped to seat him on the throne of England, deposing Richard.
Not constricted by time and place, as playwrights such as Shakespeare are, Pargeter has accurately introduced us to Prince Hal at age 11, when the story of his father’s usurpation of the throne begins. It is him we meet first, and find him, not to be the dissolute wastrel his father fears will never rise to the challenge of the throne, as Shakespeare painted him, but a quiet, introspective lad, already fully aware of the need to keep his own thoughts private from others, and have mastery of his face that his thoughts do not betray him. Throughout, he treats his father with respect, but it is Richard he loves and at Richard’s death, he has difficulty believing his father has had no involvement in it. He has a deep and abiding love and respect for Hotspur (who returns both in kind), and it is to Hal’s delight that Henry places Hotspur in governorship over his eldest son, although he will not show it, except in private. He takes his role as Prince of Wales seriously and spends most of his time in Chester where he hears petitions from his subjects. We are shown Hal’s character when he looks at Hotspur:
He watched Hotspur, and his heart fixed on him and coveted him. He was mistrustful of the obsequious, the thrusting, the ambitious, he did not want to be courted, protected, and flattered, hedged about with ceremony. . . It might well be possible to turn the king’s mind to so close and congenial an ally as the guardian of his heir. Only he must refrain from any open asking, for what he begged for, must surely be suspect, and probably denied him. It was for him to conduct himself in such a way that it should end by his having Hotspur imposed, and dutifully, but without open gladness accepting his father’s fiat. He did not even understand or question how he knew so much; it came to him as inevitable knowledge that princes, especially heirs apparent, must get their way of kings by roundabout means, and by seeming not to get it.
It is Henry himself, who causes the rift between himself and the Percies: Hotspur, his father the earl of Northumberland, and his uncle the earl of Worcester. They ran to his support when he wanted his confiscated lands back, but he had promised he had no interest in the crown. He took it anyway, and, by doing so, has beset himself with fears and ghosts. The people had loved Richard and rumours abounded that he was not dead but hidden away. The man the Welsh looked to as prince, the Lord Owen Glendower, has a dispute with the English lord, Grey, and Henry turns him away without a hearing. The Scots are restless on the border and Henry accepts a traitor to the Scottish king into his own council. When Hotspur’s brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer, is captured by the Lord Owen, Henry refuses to ransom him back, as Mortimer’s claim to the throne is nearer than Henry’s own. He cannot get money from his parliament, and he now looks haggard and stooped, suspicious of treachery everywhere.
Throughout the tale runs the thread of a Welsh girl, Julian, living in Shrewsbury, a widow who receives fair judgement from Prince Hal, and like him, learns to place great trust in Hotspur. Julian introduces Hotspur to a Welsh courier in order to have approaches of peace made on behalf of the young prince. She is prepared to risk all she has to aid such a cause and restore some meaning to her life.
The relationship between Hal and Hotspur that Pargeter develops is almost tangible. As the war is about to begin between Percies and Lancasters, Hotspur is determined to remove Hal from the fray before it even begins. He wants his young friend (now almost 16) protected at all costs but also to keep Hal from being caught between his duty to his father, and his loyalty to his friend. He is not a man seeking the crown for himself or for any other; he is simply striving to set a record straight and show Henry for the murderer of King Richard that he is. Hotspur is an honourable, chivalrous knight who shines brightly throughout the story.
Pargeter’s descriptions are thrilling, whether she’s conveying a psychological sketch, the pageantry of ceremony, or the excitement of the battlefield. I’ve seen many battles from different time periods in movies but have seldom, if ever, read descriptions of medieval combat. Generally, my reading runs more to mysteries. But the battle scenes depicted here are full of the intensity of the waiting, the confusion amid the fallen, and the unrelenting press of hand-to-hand combat.
Hotspur in mid-career checked abruptly, and leaning hard back, wheeled aside from the meeting, dropping his sword-arm so suddenly and resolutely that it was like a salute in passing. He had swung left, and for that one moment there was no obstacle between him and the archer among the thorn trees, who had followed his progress with so much patience and persistence.
I’d say it is almost impossible to read this book in one sitting, but it is also hardly possible to put it down. It is a compelling read, for the history, for the detail, for the action, far more than for the romance, yet the romance is there. I’m going backwards. I’m going to buy and read The Brothers of Gwynedd which, chronologically, precedes this book. You might want to start with it. Bloody Field By Shrewsbury will draw you from beginning to end with its story and its prose, which is almost poetry. * * * * *