Boyd Tonkin: The ladies of the Wars of the Roses didn't just rule – they read (and proofread)

The Week in Books

The numbers alone beggar belief. Informants agreed that 28,000 soldiers died on a single day - a blizzard-scoured Palm Sunday - in the worst battle of a barbarous civil war. Many, we now know, were massacred in cold blood by the victorious army.

Where was this giant slaughterhouse, whose site you can still plainly see? Not in the Balkans, not the Middle East, not Africa, but in Yorkshire - Towton, just south of Tadcaster - in 1461. Tweak the reported casualties, adjust for the size of the English population then and now, and you might plausibly estimate that the Yorkists (who won) and the Lancastrians (who lost) killed the equivalent of 300,000 on that freezing field.

Towton embodies the sobering reality behind The White Queen, the BBC's summer blockbuster. Much as I relished Rebecca Ferguson (as Elizabeth Woodville, who married the victor, Edward IV) channelling a young Ingrid Bergman, and James Frain (as duped, furious Warwick the Kingmaker) mimicking Rowan Atkinson in full-on, hissy-fit Blackadder mode, I'm not sure that this heavy-breathing and insult-flinging romance has yet got the measure of the muddy misery of civil war. Philippa Gregory, historian-author of the original Cousins War novels (the fifth, The White Princess, is due in August), knows the lie of this corpse-strewn land.

She seldom sentimentalises. But a prime-time co-production will have its own axes to grind - if not to embed in a passing skull. In any case, this starry serial should send us on a reading trail back beyond the Tudors - to Gregory's novels, or to George Goodwin's chilling account of the Towton carnage, Fatal Colours (Phoenix).

With their female principals - feisty young widow, manipulative mother, scheming noble matriarch - Gregory's tales belong to the Strong Women strain that now governs the terrain of popular history and period fiction. Elizabeth I, who ruled in her own right, used to take pride of place among mass-market heroines. Now Gloriana has ceded ground to the duchesses and dowagers, the consorts and mistresses, of earlier epochs. Beyond the perennial allure of smart and resourceful women who rise in a macho world (Mad Men with visors and wimples), the popularity of these powers-behind-the-throne perhaps attests to bitter experience of glass ceilings still intact.

For viewers who plan to settle in with The White Queen, one recent work of history will guide them through the distaff maze of the Wars of the Roses: Blood Sisters by Sarah Gristwood (HarperPress). Sensibly, she notes that "To insist that the women were equal players with the men, on the same stage, is to run the risk of claiming more than the known facts can support".

All the same, her seven heroines' sensation-studded lives still astonish, from Margaret of Anjou (wife of ill-fated Henry VI) and Cecily Neville (mother-in-law from hell in The White Queen) to Elizabeth of York, who in 1491 gave birth to the future Henry VIII and so kicked off another dynastic melodrama. As Gristwood shows, these women did make history - but not always as they chose. Often curbed or checked as political actors, they had far more direct authority when it came to cultural patronage and educational endowments.

Long ago I learned from its resident pedants that Queens' College in Cambridge owes that terminal apostrophe to its joint foundation by Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville. More to the point, for popular fiction, Margaret of Burgundy - sister of the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III - employed in her household a certain William Caxton.

In 1473, he produced the first printed book in English: the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, his own translation of a French potboiler. Gristwood records that Margaret herself had helped to correct Caxton's English. So the epic saga of English publishing begins under the watchful eye of one of these "blood sisters" - and in the very same city the BBC chose as chief location for The White Queen: Bruges.

From harbour to Borders: the Garden blooms

First reviewed in these pages, Tan Twan Eng's second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, continues to flourish in the book-award beds. After his triumph in Hong Kong at the Man Asian prize, Tan has taken the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, ahead of the shortlisted Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain and Pat Barker. The prize is given at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, not only close to Scott's home but not that far from the small, bold house that first brought Tan to a UK audience: Myrmidon Books in Newcastle.

Small voices and big battalions

Already honoured with the 2012 Costa children's book award, Sally Gardner has deservedly won the CILIP Carnegie Medal for the dystopian teenage novel Maggot Moon - her Nineteen-Eighty Four-ish tale of one boy's stand against a ruthless, all-powerful regime. The Greenaway Medal for an illustrated book went to Levi Pinfold's Black Dog - in its way, also a story about being brave in the face of fear and force.

But the corporate mind doesn't get these things. A somewhat hubristic announcement from Bonnier Publishing - the UK children's book branch of an expansionary Swedish multinational - crows that its imprints have taken both awards. Bonnier's size-fixated website blithely proclaims that "We are a $100 million group, part of Bonnier Sweden, which is a $5 billion media organisation." Sounds pretty dystopian to me.

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game