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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn