I’ve found a new author – well, she might not be new but she’s new to me- Anne O Brien. I’ve just guzzled ‘The King’s Sister’ a novel about Elizabeth of Lancaster, the third child of Blanche of Lancaster and John of Gaunt.
Her story is an everyday tale of the Plantagenets – so there’re two arranged marriages, treachery and a spot of skulduggery for starters.
John of Gaunt arranged a marriage between Elizabeth and John Hasting’s the third Earl of Pembroke in 1380. She was seventeen, he was eight and got on, in the novel at least, very well with Elizabeth’s little brother Henry of whom more anon. It isn’t perhaps surprising that she was more attracted to John Holland a son of Princess Joan and her first husband (the one she married when she was twelve before her family married her off to a second more important husband but that’s a different story) who had been married for a third time to the Black Prince and was mother to King Richard II. John Holland had a reputation as a ladies man and a champion jouster – or in other words a knight errant- as well as gaining a reputation as a soldier in the field in both Scotland and Spain. Apparently, according to the records of the time, he was smitten with Elizabeth of Lancaster’s great beauty. He followed her day and night…so what would you do if you were a hormone ridden teenager – remain loyal to the child to whom your father has married you off to or run away with the handsome half brother of the king? Elizabeth’s marriage to the young Earl of Pembroke was annulled.
The relationship between Elizabeth and John Holland is a tempestuous one in Anne O’Brien’s novel but the historical reality is not without its ironies. John’s half brother was Richard II. Elizabeth’s brother was Henry Bolingbroke a.k.a. Henry IV. I should imagine that the family get together after Henry deposed and imprisoned Elizabeth’s brother-in-law was a tense one. Although John gave his fealty to the new king he remained loyal to Richard in Pontefract – and despite Richard’s notorious temperamental streak – he’d been good to his half-brother and wife. John Holland had been created First Duke of Exeter and been rewarded with other posts and estates.
In 1400 he was involved in the so-called ‘Epiphany Plot,’ also known as ‘the Three Earls Plot’ which sought to overthrow Henry, kill him and his sons, and return Richard II to the throne. The plot was betrayed and John fled but was captured at Pleshy Castle in Essex. He was fortunate to get so far. Twenty-nine of the conspirators were executed at Oxford. John was was executed by Joan Fitzallan, the Countess of Hereford who had a grudge against Elizabeth’s husband. Holland had executed her brother (the Earl of Arundel) several years before without going through the niceties of an entirely fair trial.
Henry IV used attainder to impoverish his sister and his nieces and nephews in the short term. So not what you might call a terribly happy-ever-after for the couple although there is more to Elizabeth’s story and her children because they remained close to the crown and eventually regained their titles if not all of their estates. As for Richard II, well he apparently starved himself to death very soon after the failed uprising in January 1400. The chroniclers didn’t believe it either!
As for me I’m pleased to report that there are five other novels by Anne O Brien…as well as a list of places for me to visit that are associated with the Plantagenet princess who broke the rules and ran off with her handsome knight only to find herself embroiled in deadly family politics.