The more I read of Mary Hocking’s novels, the less I seem able to define her as a writer – there are depths to her writing that go beyond some of her more popular, best known works.
He Who Plays the King was apparently Mary Hocking’s favourite novel, it is also her only fully historical novel. The novel is really rather different from other works, although I could see several familiar themes threaded through her take on the Henry Tudor/Richard III story. Heavily rooted – as Hocking’s novels so often are – in the British countryside, she also explores the psychology of these fascinating historical characters. It has been a while since I read what I think of as a ‘kings and queens novel’ – as this one is quite brilliant, utterly absorbing, it is a historically detailed page turner. It is also beautifully written; the writing could well be amongst Mary Hocking’s best. The opening sentences captivated me immediately.
“A formation of starlings; the first squadron of the evening. Bats flicker under huge elms. The long line of hills, veined with gullies where dark rivers foam, is now reduced to uniform blackness, and the valley is a desolate sea of grass in which there are strange flickerings of light where water lies in patches of bog. A landscape difficult to set in time; this scene can have changed little in hundreds of years: England on a peaceful autumn night.”
The novel opens with the future Richard lll as a young boy, seven years old in a room above the great hall in Ludlow castle, listening to the voices of adults below. Later peering out a window in the company of his brother George (the later Duke of Clarence). Richard witnesses a younger child – little more than a toddler knocked down in the yard by one of the boarhounds, the other child is Henry Tudor. The young Richard has no idea that, that small child will one day seek to take the throne from him in battle.
If you know your English history (as I already did), you will pretty much know what comes next. Knowing the story doesn’t spoil the compelling nature of it, I found myself thinking ‘ooh this is where Henry Vl’… or ‘this is where Clarence…’ etc. I flew through the whole thing. Mary Hocking paints an exquisite portrait of England in the fifteenth century, as well as bringing her gift of superb characterisation and storytelling to a great historical legend.
“To those who worked long hours on their lord’s fields, the idea that a change of king should bring any change in their lives would have been greeted with scorn, had any such idea reached them. But they had no time for ideas. They worked, bore children who, it seemed, one day cried on their mothers’ laps and the next were working beside them in the fields. They worked during the hours of light, in all weathers, were aware of changes of season and little else. Of the world beyond their fields, drifted away from the land and took service with one of the great lords. His world became their world, his writ was law. What the king wished or did not wish was of no account. And so it was over most of the country.”
I am not going to rehash the whole story it’s quite long, involved and complicated. Many of you may already know the story in some form – though if you don’t, read this novel which brilliantly re-tells one of the most jaw-dropping periods in English history. It concerns a king declared mad, royal protectors a kingmaker and the machinations which follow to put Richard and George’s elder brother Edward on the throne. That of course is just the beginning – Edward becomes kind right enough and marries the young widow Elizabeth Woodville, (though the question of a pre-contract will rear its ugly head years later). Edward lV and Elizabeth become the parents of Elizabeth of York, and of course Edward V and the young duke of York, commonly called the princes in the tower. George Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of York, the young King’s brothers are deeply ambitious and manipulative, their plots are breath-takingly audacious, there is always the breath of treason and betrayal on the air, family really counted for very little.
Interspersed with the story of Richard, is the story of Henry Tudor – who became Henry Vll – father to Henry Vlll. Henry was taken into the care of his uncle Jasper Tudor. He was of Welsh heritage, and his claim to the English throne was tenuous at best – coming through his mother – great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt. We meet him as a young boy, on a gruelling journey back to Wales, the men who have responsibility for conducting him to Pembroke Castle care little for him.
“He set out in the morning with a few trusted retainers. The Yorkist army was known to be not many miles away, so the small fugitive band kept to the hills. There was little to distinguish the four men and the child from others who straggled along the hill tracks, seeking shelter in that part of the country still held by Lancastrians. The ground was rough and at times they had to dismount and lead their horses. It was a hard journey for a grown man, severe for a child of four. He got very dirty and wet, was often hungry and always uncomfortable; but he accepted this without making undue fuss. Henry Tydder had already learnt to expect little of life.”
He meets a stranger who gives him a small stone as a gift. Henry carries it with him for many years, a kind of good luck charm. Henry spent years in exile in Brittany – before returning to England, where eventually, with conspirators to the right and the left of him, he sought to take the throne from Richard.
As for Richard and the princes in the tower (one of them was actually king though), who was it that did the dastardly deed? A novelist telling this story naturally has to come down on one side or the other, was it Richard lll? The Duke of Buckingham? Or someone else? I won’t spoil it, by telling you which theory Mary Hocking comes down on the side of, but it makes for a wonderfully tense piece of storytelling. Naturally almost everyone interested in this story has their own opinion, so you will either like Hocking’s fictional account of the murder of the Royal brothers or you won’t.
I really think this is one of Mary Hocking’s best novels. On the face of it, He Who Plays the King does seem very different to many of her novels, and yet here too she examines human behaviour, the lies we tell our self and the motivations which drive people to act as they do.