Over the last couple of years, Anne O’Brien has become my go-to-author when I want my historical fix, with her wonderfully researched novels told from the perspective of the powerful, often overlooked, women of history. Queen of the North is the fourth novel of Anne O’Brien’s I’ve read, which was published just last year.
In Queen of the North, O’Brien sweeps us back to the great upheaval of 1399 and introduces us to a little remembered key-player, Elizabeth Mortimer. Elizabeth was the wife of the tempestuous Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy; great-granddaughter of Edward III; and cousin to both Richard II and Henry IV. With her royal blood and advantageous marriage, Elizabeth was a woman of power, wealth and influence, who played an almost forgotten, but key role in the ensuing turmoil for the throne. And the only literary reference to this is her, incorrect, portrayal as Lady Kate Percy in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV.
It was for this reason that O’Brien was so keen to write Elizabeth’s story. O’Brien portrays Elizabeth as a proud, clever and ambitious woman, who has a great love for her children and shares a passionate love with her first husband, Henry. When her cousin, Henry Bolingbroke landed in England, in 1399, with an army to bring their cousin Richard II to heel, he has the full support of Elizabeth’s powerful father-in-law, Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland and his eldest son, her husband. However Elizabeth very much has her own mind and that is if anyone else is to sit upon the throne, it should be her nephew, Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March.
And for this belief she is willing to risk everything in dangerous scheming and eventually outright treason – more than once! I didn’t particularly ‘like’ Elizabeth, but I did find her fascinating and her story truly moved me. I was heartbroken with Elizabeth, as Henry is brutally slain at the disastrous Battle of Shrewsbury; as she rides under his severed head on the gates of York; as she begs for his despoiled body to be returned; as she is separated from her children; and as she forced into a second marriage. So much sorrow, so much suffering, and yet it is worse because I knew, as much as she does but doesn’t want to admit, that she brought a lot of it upon herself.
Previously, I have not read anything about Elizabeth, so this was as much a history lesson as it was an entertaining read. A history lesson that O’Brien has again brought to life in glorious detail – from the sumptuous dress and life of court, to the daily life of a medieval woman writing her letters, using her still room and hosting guests; to the bloody battlefield. Something else I love about her writing is how characters overlap in her books, which makes it possible for us as readers to see the bigger picture of the time period. In this case, Henry IV and Thomas de Camoys were both in previous novels, The King’s Sister and The Queen’s Choice.
Overall, I thought Queen of the North was an evocative tragedy of love, loss, loyalty and betrayal, through the eyes of the fascinating Elizabeth Mortimer – she certainly wasn’t your dull, dutiful wife! Tantalisingly, in this book, we also met Constance of York, Lady Despenser, who is the protagonist of O’Brien’s newest novel, A Tapestry of Treason; which I’m excited to read. Great read.
Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.
I’d love to hear your thoughts: Have you read this? Have you read any of Anne O’Brien’s other novels?
This was book 5/10 for my 10 Books of Summer 2019.