A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien: Brimming with plots, politics, passion and perfidy, this is historical fiction at its best - book review -

A Tapestry of Treason
A Tapestry of Treason

When Shakespeare wrote of Macbeth’s ‘vaulting ambition,’ he could well have been describing the medieval Despenser family… a Yorkist clan steeped to their necks in treason and betrayal.

When Shakespeare wrote of Macbeth’s ‘vaulting ambition,’ he could well have been describing the medieval Despenser family… a Yorkist clan steeped to their necks in treason and betrayal.

At the heart of their scheming to steal back the throne from the Lancastrian King Henry IV was Constance, Lady Despenser, a granddaughter of Plantagenet King Edward III, and wife of the self-seeking Thomas Despenser, Earl of Gloucester, a man who hailed from a family already tainted by scandals of treason and corruption.

The Despensers’ treachery, their battle to survive, their perilous politicking, and the daring woman willingly caught up in their power struggle, spring to vivid life from the pages of history in a dazzling new novel from the queen of medieval fiction, Anne O’Brien.

Using her impressive imaginative powers and vast historical research, O’Brien has given a voice and a leading role to some of history’s most fascinating but forgotten women, placing their struggles at the centre of riveting stories filled with political intrigue, romance and tragedy.

But in the cold and calculating Constance of York, O’Brien has given the spotlight to one of her most charismatic medieval stars yet… a complex, compelling woman far ahead of her time, a woman prepared to risk losing life, limb and her love for the only man who had ever won her heart, and all in pursuit of her family’s ambitions.

It’s a thrilling story, based on fact, filled with the kind of rich drama that should really only belong in pure fiction, and made viscerally authentic by the hand of a writer who knows how to make history a living, breathing, vibrant canvas.

In 1399, Constance, Lady Despenser, is more than a mere observer in the devious intrigues of her magnificently dysfunctional family, the House of York, which has prospered under the reign of Richard II and formed ‘the bedrock on which the king’s power rested.’

Surrounded by power-hungry men, including her aggressively egotistical husband Thomas Despenser, and ruthless brothers, Edward, heir to the Duke of York, and Richard of Conisborough, Constance freely admits that her family is driven by a ‘naked desire to match our influence to our royal blood.’

But on a visit to Ireland, Richard’s throne is snatched by his Lancastrian cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who is quickly crowned Henry IV… and now the Despenser family’s power seems ‘to hang as insecurely as a bees’ nest in a wind-tossed sapling.’

Unconvinced that the imprisoned Richard’s crown is lost forever, Constance and her cunning family decide to keep a foot in the camp of both royal houses, but restless as ever, Constance is soon placing herself at the heart of two treasonous and deadly plots against King Henry IV.

Although carrying out these conspiracies will place them all in jeopardy, Constance is not deterred, even when the cost of her ambition threatens to overwhelm her. Because, for the first time in her life, Constance has fallen in love… with the charming Edmund Holland, a man from a family as ambitious as her own.

It’s a love that brings her a previously unknown brand of happiness, one ‘with the purity of new honey dripping from a spoon,’ but even though her eyes might appear to be closed to the machinations of Henry’s court, ambition is still ‘too deeply ingrained in all of us, to be wilfully cast aside.’

Will Constance be tempted to hatch another daring and perilous Yorkist plot, even if it endangers her new-found contentment?

O’Brien is in her element in this gripping historical portrait, playing her own addictive Game of Thrones with the life of the intriguing Constance Despenser, a woman as much sinned against as sinning. Vilified by history but now recognised as a feisty, forthright woman fighting her corner in a man’s world, Constance was a remarkable if ruthless woman.

Unafraid to play a leading role in several treasonous plots against the Lancastrian usurper Henry, Constance’s veneer of cold pragmatism is finally pierced by her love for Edmund Holland in a warm and sexually potent relationship which smooths her sharp edges and exposes a vulnerability she has carefully hidden since her arranged marriage to Thomas at the age of just four.

Constance’s transforming affair with the handsome and beguiling Edmund is one of the most moving and captivating drivers of a story firmly rooted in the power struggles between the Houses of Lancaster and York, which were just the precursor to the bitter Wars of the Roses which would tear England apart.

O’Brien’s entertaining novel charts a course through rebellion, insurrection and the notorious Epiphany Rising as Constance, her husband and double-dealing brother Edward try desperately to assassinate the cousin who stole the Yorkist crown.

Brimming with plots, politics, passion and perfidy, this is historical fiction at its best as O’Brien allows the determined, fearless and flawed Constance of York to finally step out of the shadows and into the light.

And as the author tells us in her final note, ‘How could I possibly resist writing about her, bringing her to life? Constance is not an easy heroine, but she makes for a formidable protagonist.’

(HQ, hardback, £14.99)