Book Review: The Stolen Crown

On May Day, 1464, six-year-old Katherine Woodville, daughter of a duchess who has married a knight of modest means, awakes to find her gorgeous older sister, Elizabeth, in the midst of a secret marriage to King Edward IV. It changes everything-for Kate and for England. Then King Edward dies unexpectedly. Richard III, Duke of Gloucester, is named protector of Edward and Elizabeth’s two young princes, but Richard’s own ambitions for the crown interfere with his duties … Lancastrians against Yorkists: greed, power, murder, and war. As the story unfolds through the unique perspective of Kate Woodville, it soon becomes apparent that not everyone is wholly evil-or wholly good. Award-winning author Susan Higginbotham’s The Stolen Crown is a compelling tale of one marriage that changed the fate of England forever.

The Stolen Crown, by Susan Higginbotham, is a very well-written fictionalized account overlaid on a very accurate timeline of historical events. The main protagonists are Catherine/Katherine Woodville Stafford (Kate) and Henry Stafford (Harry), 2nd Duke of Buckingham. Kate is the youngest sister of Henry IV’s wife Elizabeth Woodville and thus aunt to the Princes in the Tower. Harry is a good friend and ardent supporter of Richard III,  and was a “kingmaker” during Richard’s rise to power. However, Harry mysteriously left Richard after he became king and made an unsuccessful attempt to help Henry Tudor invade England to uncrown the monarch whom he had once backed to the hilt. Harry was executed, but a little less than two years later Henry Tudor invaded England again in the summer of 1485 and defeated Richard III to become Henry VII and the founder of the Tudor Dynasty.  Kate then married Henry VII’s uncle, Jasper Tudor.

Y’all, I am in grave danger of turning this blog into the Susan Higginbotham fan club! Once again she took historical facts (which she was hella accurate about, unlike some) and grafted a plausible tale of the motivations, personalities, and feelings behind those events. Seriously, she rocks.

Although the book is focused on Harry and Kate and their relationship and lives, the rise and fall of Richard III had such a starring role in their personal play that the book is also about that monarch. Harry loves Richard for these good qualities. Kate hates Richard as a long-standing enemy of her sister. Higginbotham is such a good writer and made me so attached to Harry and Kate that about half way through the book I was dreading the ending, because happy it could not be. Nonetheless, it is her exploration of Richard III that made the strongest impression.

I think part of the reason I like her books so much is that she draws the progression of motivations in the same manner I like to do. She makes humans complex, with irrational rationalizations as well as the superstitions and beliefs common to their era. She understands that no one is either pure villain or pure saint. Good men can commit foul acts because they honestly think it is the right thing to do for the “greater good”. Bad men can do good things for the people they love. Loyalty, love, hope, hate … all of these emotions can be felt simultaneously about the same thing or the same person. Humans are odd that way.

Hitler is synonymous with evil, but he was good to his dogs. Gandhi is synonymous with peace, but he slept naked with his grandniece to test his celibacy, and even though he didn’t molest her I think we can admit that it was creepy and the wrong thing to do to a young woman who idolized him. Andrew Jackson displaced and murdered the Cherokee as part of an attempt to destroy all Native American peoples, but he loved his wife. Charles Dickinson was one of the greatest social reformers ever, but he treated his wife and kids like crap.

Higginbotham highlights the inherent contradictions of the human soul in her narratives. She knows there are very few humans who can resist “the ends justify the means” rationalizations so she utilizes that trait to present three dimensional characters of historical figures, not characterizations of paragons or devils. She does this particularly well with Richard III, who should have won an Oscar for “Best Supporting Actor” in this novel. Members of the Richard III Society and other fans of this king argue that because his laws were just and he was an excellent ruler and a man of good works then QED he could NOT have orchestrated the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Higginbotham’s novel elucidates how this opinion ignores the fact that Richard ordered the surreptitious judicial murders  of Anthony Woodville and Richard Grey, the uncle and older half-brother of Edward V, on trumped up charges. Neither does she gloss over the fact that the loyal friend and ardent defender of Edward IV and his son Edward V, Baron Hastings, was not even given a trial by the Richard (who was then the Lord Protector of the Edward V and his little brother) before he was beheaded. Why such haste to behead Hastings and why do it so close to the date when Richard would find “evidence” that the boys were illegitimate? And why, when faced with rebellion and dissatisfaction from his subjects, did Richard III not bring the now-bastardized Princes out in public to prove he hadn’t murdered them?

Richard had many good points as a king, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t in the “to make an omelet you gotta break some eggs” school of statecraft.

As another modern example, I am a big fan of Franklin D. Roosevelt. I think FDR was one of the best presidents America has ever had. Nevertheless, FDR authorized the despicable “War Relocation Camps” where more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned after Pearl Harbor, and that can never be excused. Those who make omelets often wind up with historical egg on their faces.

Higginbotham also avoids the demonization of Richard III, which Henry Tudor instigated after his triumph on Bosworth Field. Higginbotham portrays Richard as a noble idealist, but one who despised the Woodville family as upstarts (which they were) and  felt that no one would do as good a job at ruling England as himself. You actively felt sorry for him in some chapters, and despised him in others. That’s why the book feels so real; it has real people in it as opposed to stick figures with real names.

The book was so well-written that could simultaneously sympathize with Harry for loving Richard, and with Kate for hating him. That is one of the best forms of story-telling, in my opinion.

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