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
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine