Sunday, 14 February 2016

Royal Women - Anne O'Brien Casts Light

Today I am delighted to welcome my guest, author Anne O'Brien
Having just published a book which features a woman who has to leave her children behind when she remarries, I had to begin my questions with this one:~
Your latest book is entitled The Queen's Choice. The tagline is 'her children or her crown': How much of a game of politics do you think women of this period had to play in order to survive?

In the marriage stakes, very few women of Joanna's social status had to make a choice of any kind.  A royal or noble woman would marry a man of power and influence to further a dynastic alliance with her family.  She would be affianced into that marriage by father or brother, as with Joanna's first marriage to the Duke of Brittany.  Not many women of royal blood, even within a second marriage, had the opportunity to choose a husband against all good political sense and family approval.
Because of that, I think that Joanna was a rare creature.  It was her choice to wed Henry, she pursed it with remarkable independence, and therefore she must accept the political consequences of family division and hearty disapproval.
Within a marriage, I am sure that many wives had to keep quiet about their personal inclinations when families were at war with each other, but for very few was there such a painful choice to make as there was in Joanna's case.
The book begins with a wedding, which is obviously pivotal - can you fill in the background to this event for us?
Richard II's first wife, Anne of Bohemia, had died of the plague.  Richard had no heir so a new wife was crucial.  His choice was Isabelle of Valois, the six year old eldest daughter of King Charles VI of France, although given her age, Richard was in no hurry to get an heir.  A French marriage was unpopular in England because of past enmities, but Richard was determined to show himself as a formidable monarch capable of making his own decisions. A large retinue accompanied him to France to meet the bride, including the Lancaster contingent.  Earl Henry was certainly there with his father John of Gaunt.

John, Duke of Brittany and his wife Joanna would have been important guests on the bridal side since Joanna was cousin of the French king.   Therefore we can be sure that Henry and Joanna would have met on this occasion in 1386 since there was already a ling-standing friendship between the Dukes of Lancaster and Brittany.  It may have been the first time - and from here the story develops.
What can you tell us about Henry IV: usurper, or misjudged by history and/or Shakespeare?

Henry was a complex character and had a complex reign.  Without doubt Richard was the rightful God-Anointed King of England.  Therefore Henry was certainly a usurper, taking a crown that was not his.  Banished for life and disinherited from the Lancaster lands of his father John of Gaunt, for a treason for which he appears to have been innocent, Henry returned on his father's death to right a wrong, deposed Richard and had him incarcerated in Pontefract Castle.  Henry reclaimed the Lancaster inheritance, but then was proclaimed King by a council of lords at Westminster.
Meanwhile Richard died, it was said from self-inflicted starvation, but without doubt Henry had a hand in his death.  So political murderer can be added to the list.  A living ex-monarch was too dangerous to be tolerated as Henry fast discovered when rebellions arose to the cry of 'King Richard is Alive.' 
So Henry has not been misjudged by history but it was a vicious and bloody time in which to live, and Henry was nothing if not pragmatic in his decisions.  He also suffered from guilt, as Shakespeare suggests, believing that his ill-health was God's judgement on him. 
In his favour, it has to be said that Henry left England in a sound state for his son Henry V to build on, keeping the state together through insurrection and the real threat of civil war.  Henry had better qualities for kingship than the ill-fated Richard who had driven many of his subjects into the arms of Henry when he returned to claim his lands and title.
You've written a great number of novels. Do you seek out your characters, or do they tend to find you?
Something of both, I think.  The forgotten women of medieval England must have a story behind them to make them suitable as a heroine of a novel. There must be drama, or tension, something to carry the plot forward. Or she must have a dynamic husband with whom she interacts.  Or perhaps a series of important historical events to live through.  She must be neither complacent nor simply a pawn in the political games.  She must be able to speak out and show some initiative.  Without these elements she becomes merely passive, which does not make exciting, dramatic writing.  
Philippa of Lancaster, sister of Elizabeth (The King's Sister) was too good to be true: an obedient daughter, a loyal wife, a caring mother to a large family. There is no tension in her life, so I had to abandon Philippa as a possibility. My characters must be royal or attached to the court, to allow me to develop the political events of the day. They need to have some involvement in the drama of history. But sometimes my characters choose me. They leap from the page when I am starting research, or even when I am researching someone else. Look at the last point here!
Your books feature a lot of strong and charismatic women. Do you have a favourite?
My favourite tends to be the one I am writing about at the time.  I have loved investigating the difficult marriage of Joanna of Navarre.  But the woman I have to admire most is Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III.  A woman of black reputation and uncomfortable ambitions, no contemporary had a good word to say for her, portraying her as a vicious, self-seeking woman who dominated a king who was sinking into dotage, taking advantage of him after the death of his wife.
I think there was much more to Alice than that. What a remarkable businesswoman she was. And to drag herself from her lowly beginning - we know so little about her, not even her own name since Perrers came from her first marriage - so that she became the most wealthy untitled woman in England. Some of her estates were gifts from the King, of course, but far more were gained by her own abilities to see and acquire a good bargain. I have to admire her. Somewhere she acquired an education and a solid working knowledge of the law. Even after her fall from power she continued to fight to keep hold of what was hers - for herself and for her daughters.
She made an admirable heroine, if an unconventional one.
What's next?
I am writing about Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent.  As cousin to King Edward III, Joan was living in the same court circles with so many of my characters and she was such a major player in the fourteenth century.  As well as being wife to Prince Edward (known by history as the Black Prince) and mother of King Richard II, Joan was notorious for the clandestine and bigamous marriages that ruined her reputation, earning her the derisory 'Whore of Kent' epithet.
She has been hovering on my radar for some years.  This time she insisted that I write about her.  I am not finding her to be an easy heroine, nor always a particularly likeable one, but she is a woman of strong character and determination.  The more I write about her, the more I can understand her motivation and so the more I admire her.

Thank you so much for telling us about your writing, Anne.
Go to Anne's website
Find Anne on Facebook
Get The Queen's Choice Here and at WHSmith and Waterstone's
Twitter: @anne_Obrien


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks so much - glad you enjoyed it :)

  2. A great body of work. The new books sounds particularly interesting :-)

  3. It does, doesn't it? It's on my wishlist! Thanks for reading and commenting :)