Alex Marchant writes historical fiction set against the background of the Wars of the Roses. The Order of the White Boar and The Kings Man use the life of Richard III to weave stories that are ideal for readers from Key Stage 2 upwards. In this interview Alex outlines uses of the books in several Primary Schools, the research that goes into her books and offers insights into the way in which historical fiction is written.
The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man
Your books are set against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses and the life of Richard III. What was it that caught your attention about this period and your particular interest in Richard?
My first real encounter with King Richard III was in the school library when I was about 14 or 15 – browsing the shelves for my next read, I came across a book with the intriguing title The Daughter of Time by an author called Josephine Tey. I’d always been fascinated by history, particularly the medieval period, and often read historical fiction (Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece among others), but this turned out to be something quite different.
It’s a contemporary (1950s) detective story, in which a bedridden policeman ferrets out the truth about this long-dead king through various twists and turns of research. Through the book I discovered that the famous play by William Shakespeare wasn’t anything like a real history of Richard III after all, but rather a weaving together of rumours and lies into a monstrous portrait of him, created to please Queen Elizabeth I, the grand-daughter of the man who stole his throne. It seemed a terrible injustice, that anyone should have their reputation destroyed in such a way – and have no means to answer back. I’ve been doing my best to answer back for him ever since.
Ricardians are extremely knowledgeable lovers of the period. What lengths do you have to go to to make sure that the historical aspects of your work are accurate? How do you balance the fiction and the fact?
In the books I’ve written to tell King Richard’s story for younger readers, The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man, it’s been vitally important to stick as closely as possible to the facts that we do know about him and his time, because my aim has been to paint as accurate a picture of the man as possible, drawing on the relatively few contemporary sources that still exist. Some of these are records written by people who met him, spoke with him, or had dealings with him in one way or another. Such as the Scottish ambassador who said of him, ‘Never has so much spirit or greater virtue reigned in such a small body’ (quite some praise, given it was said only a couple of years after Richard had led a successful war against his country), or an Italian doctor who reported back to his French master that ‘The good reputation of his private life and his public activities powerfully attracted the esteem of strangers.’ Or indeed the members of the council of York who, at great risk to themselves after his death in battle against Henry Tudor, wrote in their city records that ‘King Richard, late mercifully reigning over us, was through great treason piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city,’ only days after Tudor himself became their king.
I don’t believe these words would have been spoken or written about the evil murderer that Shakespeare portrays. All history is of course based on interpretation, and as they say, it’s usually written by the victors. I prefer to dig deep into the earliest records, rather than accept the interpretations of later historians who may themselves add an extra layer of interpretation, or even perhaps inaccurate embellishment, on top of stories told by people with their own agendas. And pleasing a king who may perhaps feel insecure in his right to sit on a throne is certainly one possible agenda!
At the same time, my books are written primarily for children (age 10+), so the story is told from the point of view of a fictional 12-year-old boy, Matthew, son of a merchant from York, and his friends, Alys, Roger, and little Edward, Richard’s own son. Matthew arrives, alone and afraid, at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, to learn to be a page in Richard’s household. As he gets to know his new friends, through the various adventures they have together – a desperate chase involving a half-wild stallion, a near-tragedy during a snowy boar hunt – he incidentally learns about his new master, and gradually Richard’s and Matthew’s lives become entwined. Through Matthew’s fictional life, the reader discovers the story of Richard’s real life.
What is your planning process?
The basic structure of these two books was dictated by the timeline of Richard’s own life – or at least, the last three years of it. That meant that, unlike my previous books which evolved as I wrote them, I had to draw up and stick fairly close to a chapter plan. Matthew and his friends’ adventures wove about that, and I’m pleased to say it proved to be a much more straightforward process! For the third book, I’ve followed the same type of plan – and I’ve been gradually undertaking the location and other detailed research that’s needed as I go along.
We’ve seen that you have visited schools to talk about your books. How were the books being used in school? Were teachers focussing on the story (ie English) or the History?
Most of my visits so far have been to primary schools, and so the books have, I guess, been used in a fairly cross-disciplinary way – both for literacy and perhaps topic work. I’ve been asked to speak about life in a castle, knights, and generally medieval life – and the books (particularly the first) are a good way in to that for children in Key Stage 2, particularly. I discovered through my own daughter’s lessons that Year 7 history tackles the use and interpretation of sources, and the contradictions that they can hold – which means my portrayal of a King Richard very different from that found in the later Tudor ‘histories’ is an ideal example to use.
One of my next visits is to several classes of Year 7s at a school in Leyburn, very close to Middleham itself – it will be great to explore the books through their eyes, very familiar with the landscape in which it is set. The visit has been arranged by the English teacher (who herself enjoyed the books), but with the collaboration of the history department. I think the cross-over should be valuable – if my books can fire the imagination of the students to learn more about the historical times in which they’re set and the lives of people who lived then, I will feel my job well done.
As suggested, lots of schools do make use of historical fiction in lessons, at both Primary and Secondary levels, what advice would you offer to any pupils (or teachers) who are accessing historical fiction (in History lessons)?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to offer any advice to teachers! Generally, though, I think historical fiction can be an exciting way to introduce children to particular periods in history – but always with the warning that it is fiction first and foremost. Some authors are sticklers for research, others less so – and some will play fast and loose even with the facts that we do know. Where that occurs, it’s likely to be mentioned in an author’s note, but not everyone will read such a note. As a Ricardian, I’m particularly aware of the way in which such alterations can become believed as ‘real’ history. For example, Shakespeare has King Richard fighting alongside his father, the Duke of York, at the battle of St Albans in 1455. Richard would have been all of two years old at the time – and his father was killed when he was just eight, so they never fought alongside each other. Many people also believe that young Edward of Lancaster was killed in cold blood by Richard after the battle of Tewkesbury, but all the contemporary accounts state that he was killed in the battle itself.
Author visits to schools
While I may not be able to offer advice to teachers, I can offer author visits (and discounts on my books!) This summer, I’ll be attending the UK Indie Lit Festival in Bradford (27th July – with an online session in advance on Sunday 26th May at 7 pm on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/ukindielitfest/) as well as various medieval festivals, such as those at Bosworth and Tewkesbury: I’d love it if teachers would come along and say hello – and perhaps ask about possible visits.
Who are your favourite authors (or historians)? How have they influenced your own work?
The historians whose work has most influenced The Order of the White Boar books are Dr John Ashdown-Hill and Matthew Lewis. John was a member of the Looking for Richard Project, the team responsible for discovering King Richard’s grave under the car park in Leicester in 2012. John not only undertook the research that pinpointed where the grave would be found, he also traced the family line from King Richard’s sister that led to the DNA analysis which proved the grave was Richard’s ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. John spent a great deal of his academic life delving into the earliest records to dispel many of the myths about King Richard. Matthew Lewis has picked up his mantle recently, publishing the first new biography of King Richard for many years based on the earliest, non-Tudor sources. Following his blog and chatting with him over the past few years has clarified a lot of my thinking about aspects of King Richard’s life.
In terms of fiction, Hilary Mantel and Mary Renault are among my recent favourites – but I suspect the timeslip/historical/fantasy books of Susan Cooper and the aforementioned Rosemary Sutcliff have been more directly influential on my own writing. Oh, and there’s probably no getting away from the fact that the Order in my books is essentially a children’s ‘gang’ like Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club, Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, or Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. I love a good secret code, oaths of loyalty and arcane rituals!
What plans have you for your writing? Will it continue to be set in this period or do you see yourself writing in different genres, or historical periods? (What happens, for argument’s sake, when you hit Bosworth in the historical narrative? Will you take it to Stoke Field and the pretenders to the throne?)
I think there may be some risk of spoilers if I answer your question too fully! The two books so far published, The Order and The King’s Man, follow Matthew (and Richard) for the three years from the summer of 1482 to a certain battle (Bosworth – ed) in August 1485 – and beyond… I’m currently working on a third book that picks up Matt’s story after an interval, and can be seen as continuing King Richard’s story – in a way.
At the same time I’m also editing a second anthology of short fiction (and this time poetry) by other authors inspired by King Richard, which will be sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). SAUK is a charity that helps people with the same spinal condition Richard had – which was only discovered when his grave was found. The first collection, Grant Me the Carving of My Name, was published late last year and has proved so popular that many other writers, both published and previously unpublished, asked to be included in a second one. Right Trusty and Well Beloved … will be out in time for Christmas this year.
Once these two books are out of the way, I’m planning to return to two previous projects – both historical timeslip/ghost stories – which were put on the back-burner when the discovery of Richard’s grave finally pushed me to write about him – after years of thinking about it. One moves between the seventeenth, the nineteenth and the late twentieth century in southern England, while the other focuses on late eighteenth-century Scotland. But I imagine Matthew and his friends may call me back into the fifteenth century – or will it be the sixteenth by then?
What tips do you have for an aspiring writers, of any age?
I think perhaps the most important things are simply to read as much as you can, keep writing what you enjoy – and don’t give up!
Blurb for The Order of the White Boar
Twelve-year-old Matthew Wansford has always longed to be a knight. And his chance comes in the golden summer of 1482 when he arrives at Middleham Castle, to serve the King’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
Soon he encounters a dangerous enemy. Hugh, a fellow page, is a better swordsman, horseman, more skilled in all the knightly arts – and the son of an executed traitor. Now he aims to make Matt’s life hell.
Yet Matt also finds the most steadfast of friends – Alys, Roger and Edward, the Duke’s only son. Together they forge a secret knightly fellowship, the Order of the White Boar, and swear an oath of lifelong loyalty – to each other and to their good lord, Duke Richard.
But these are not times to play at war. Soon Matt and his friends will be plunged into the deadly games of the Wars of the Roses. Will their loyalty be tested as the storm looms on the horizon?
For readers of 10 and above, ‘The Order of the White Boar’ tells the exciting adventures of Matt and his friends in the months leading up to the momentous events of 1483, the ‘Year of the Three Kings’.
Blurb for The King’s Man
‘These are dangerous days, Master Wansford, dangerous days.’
The death of his brother King Edward IV turns the life of Richard, Duke of Gloucester upside down, and with it that of his 13-year-old page Matthew Wansford.
Banished from Middleham Castle and his friends, Matt must make a new life for himself alone in London. But danger and intrigue lie in wait on the road as he rides south with Duke Richard to meet the new boy king, Edward V – and new challenges and old enemies confront them in the city.
As the Year of the Three Kings unfolds – and plots, rebellions, rumours, death and battles come fast one upon the other – Matt must decide where his loyalties lie.
What will the future bring for him, his friends and his much-loved master? And can Matt and the Order of the White Boar heed their King’s call on the day of his greatest need?
and through Waterstone’s, the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre and the King Richard III Visitor Centre, Leicester, or via Alex.
The Ricardian charity anthology Grant Me the Carving of My Name can be bought through Amazon at mybook.to/GrantMetheCarving or via Alex, with all proceeds going to Scoliosis Association UK.
Blurb for Grant Me the Carving
A boyhood mishap in York. A ghostly walking tour of Leicester. A deadly snowstorm on the moors above Middleham. Alien abduction in the very heart of the city of London. Loss of a beloved brother, death of an untrue cousin.
Just some of the events recounted in these tales by authors inspired by King Richard III.
Much-maligned since his death, the real man has often been lost in the shadow of the scheming villain of Shakespeare’s famous play. Following the rediscovery of his centuries-lost grave in 2012, many people have come to question this evil reputation, and King Richard’s supporters (known as Ricardians) are seizing the chance to bring his real history to a wider audience. The authors collected here have all, in their different ways, sought to cast a light on that story.
Elegiac, mystical, brutal, light-hearted, uplifting. Will you find your new favourite author within the pages of this anthology?
Sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK) with a Foreword by Philippa Gregory (author of The White Queen) and edited by Alex Marchant
With contributions from:
Narrelle M. Harris
Joanne R. Larner
J. P. Reedman
Jennifer C. Wilson
Cover illustration by Riikka Katajisto
Alex’s blog can be found at https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com
And Matthew Wansford can be followed at @WhiteBoarOrder