Within the Hollow Crown by Margaret Campbell Barnes
MacRae-Smith Company, 2nd printing, 1947
Genre: historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: After the death of the Black Prince in 1376, Edward III’s heir was Richard of Bordeaux, and as the oft-repeated adage “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child” goes, his reign was a much-troubled one. Due to his young age, Richard II was initially ruled by his Plantagenet uncles, especially John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. As he neared his majority Richard initially distrusted John of Gaunt–as did most of England–but his loathing was reserved for Gloucester and his party. Control of the government remained in the hands of a series of councils as prominent men struggled for supremacy, a condition offensive to the young Richard, who longed to restore England to a peace and prosperity unknown in England for decades. While the great tussled over influence, England strove to surmount the devastation of years of foreign campaigns and plague, a situation that came to a head in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The Revolt provoked the first independent moment of Richard’s sovereignty, but control of the government was soon back in the hands of other men.
After his marriage to Anne of Bohemia, however, Richard would assert himself more strongly, but the depredations of his minority inspired another rebellion, and his chancellor and household members were dismissed, and some executed. The crisis ended only upon Richard’s assumption of control at his majority and the return of John of Gaunt to England. Together the two worked to restore peace and stability, and Richard finally ended wars with France and began establishing a culture of the arts in England. But the death of his beloved Good Queen Anne devastated Richard, and the period of his “tyranny” began, a time that ended only with the usurpation of his throne by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and Richard’s subsequent imprisonment and murder.
For centuries Richard II would be remembered as extravagant, incompetent, weak, even mad, a ruthless tyrant unable to even provide an heir, a man from whom England had to be saved. But was the story so simple, or something far more complex? Richard’s contemporaries also record the havoc inflicted on England by ruthless barons, endless foreign campaigns, plague, and social unrest. In his reign developed a strong court culture, and he was a noted proponent for peace and a patron of the arts. Also intriguing was his loyalty to his queen, Anne of Bohemia, to whom he was devoted despite their barrenness.
Margaret Campbell Barnes here applies her skills to reinterpreting history, re-examining Richard II’s legacy outside of Lancastrian propaganda, as historians would during the latter half of the twentieth century. Her Richard is complex and sophisticated, a civilized idealist driven to save England from a legacy of unending warfare. He’s also a romantic, longing for the perfection of romantic love, and absolutely once he found it in Anne of Bohemia. He’s affectionate with his beloved nurse Mundina, his friends, even his dog Mathe, and sweet to the eight-year-old Isobelle de Valois he later married.
Barnes’ strongest points are the detailed and colorful settings she creates and the development of fully formed, realistic personalities from minutiae in the historical record. She is a revisionist, but one who paints a plausible portrait of Richard, and provides convincing and insightful explanations for the hows and whys of his actions. Her characters live and breathe, though Richard just did not interest me the way I wanted him to, and his romance with Anne seemed forced, despite the many reports of their devotion. I did love his interactions with little Isabelle of Valois and Mathe, however, which seemed far more genuine than any relationship after those with de Vere and Burley.
My only real beef with the novel is its decidedly leisurely pace; it dawdles along exasperatingly once past Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt, and then the V-TEC kicks in again when Henry Bolingbroke invades England, lasting scarcely twenty-six pages past. This slowness left me discontented with the novel, and it was difficult for me to pick up sometimes. Barnes’ habit of producing a secondary character seemingly made up of whole cloth, such as Jocunda Boleyn in Brief Gaudy Hour and Mundina Danos in this novel, was another problem. I find those characters distracting and unnecessary, but I suppose Barnes had her reasons, unfathomable though they might be.
Overall, Within the Hollow Crown is well-written and colorful, and a fascinating entry into an era that attracts considerably fewer writers than say, Tudor England. Though no substitute for History, her novels do provide an interesting introduction to their subjects. A bit of a disappointment after the singularly lovely Brief Gaudy Hour, Within the Hollow Crown is still head and shoulders above The King’s Bed (for which I may never forgive Barnes). Good, but not great.
See also: Katherine by Anya Seton, In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse
Cover: This was a rebound library copy, but I found the original on the Internets. I like the vintage paintings on older historical fiction, and this one has some lovely, rich greens. I like how solitary Richard seems, despite Anne (?) being there, and the horses of war bursting out on the right.
With a life so set apart from other men’s, it was largely through the strength of his affections that Richard had touched reality. And because all that inner gallantry that he had taken for granted had been proved an illusion, a sense of futile unreality gripped him too. Even the everyday furnishings about him seemed momentarily unreal, so that he found a voice in his consciousness affirming desperately, “It is I who am here, touching this table, enduring this hell. I really am I–here, now–and nothing can stop it.” The very realization of his own present existence in the midst of all that seemed unreal beat upon his brain until his heart quickened suffocatingly in fear of he knew not what. And then the low arched door opened and Anne came into the room, and everything became real and normal again.
26 July – 29 August