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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.