A Song of Sixpence
The Story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck
By Judith Arnopp
In the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth, a small boy is ripped from his rightful place as future king of England. His Sister Elizabeth marries the invading King, Henry Tudor.
Years later when the boy returns to claim is throne, Elizabeth is torn between love for her brother and duty to her husband.
As the final struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster is played out, Elizabeth is torn by conflicting loyalty, terror and unexpected love.
Set at the court of Henry VII, A Song of Sixpence offers a new perspective on the early years of Tudor rule. Elizabeth of York, often viewed as a meek and uninspiring queen, emerges as a resilient woman whose strengths lie in endurance rather than resistance.
“In the early days of our marriage I secretly rooted for York, but now I carry the heir in my womb, my allegiance is shifting. I am neither one thing nor the other.”
It began with a song, and it would end in one too for that was the way things were. But Elizabeth of York, daughter to Edward IV of England and Elizabeth Woodville, had no notion as she sang for her father as to the direction her life would take. She had carried a hopeful song in her heart and a secret longing for a man she could never have.
It wasn’t meant to end like this — first her father, then her brothers and now Uncle Richard. Richard was supposed to win. York was supposed to win. However, God is ever fickle with his favours, and now a Lancastrian is sat upon the throne of England.
Elizabeth has no choice. She must marry Henry Tudor and unite Lancaster and York. If she does not, then her family has nothing. Elizabeth had already lost two brothers. She would not lose her sisters and her mother, as well.
However, unity is such a fragile thing. As Henry and his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, set about ensuring that the House of York will never threaten Lancaster’s hold on the throne again, a rumour comes from across the sea. There is a man who is calling himself the rightful King of England, and that man is gathering an army to take back what is rightfully his.
“The day he left sanctuary was the day his life changed forever...”
Everyone thought he was dead, and some even went as far as saying his uncle had killed him. But that was not what had happened. That was not what had happened at all. Away from everything familiar, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York forged a new identity, but he never forgot who he was. Henry Tudor has no claim to the throne of England. It is Richard’s by right. And he will raise an army, and he will take back the throne that his father once ruled from.
Torn between her husband and her family, Elizabeth must make a choice. Does she stay loyal to her husband, or will the call of her blood see her once again stand with the House of York?
It is not often that a book renders me speechless, but A Song of Sixpence: The Story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck by Judith Arnopp, has done just that. From the opening sentence, I was enchanted, and by the end of the novel, even though I knew what was coming, I found myself reaching for the Kleenex as I had become so enthralled in Elizabeth and Perkin’s story.
Like any young woman, Elizabeth foolishly dreamt of falling in love. Instead, she is married to a man who is unsure of his position and is drowning in paranoia. Elizabeth can say nothing as she watches Henry strengthen his hold on his throne by destroying those who were loyal to her father and King Richard. Elizabeth is acutely aware that she is useful only because of who her father was. She can bring legitimacy to Henry’s claim to the throne. However, she is not allowed to be the queen that her mother was, and at all times, Elizabeth is eclipsed by her mother-in-law. Her relationship with Lady Margaret Beaufort “My Lady the King’s Mother” is as complicated as any woven tapestry. Elizabeth is very careful in what she says and how she acts around her mother-in-law. Elizabeth is always conscious of the fact that one wrong word could be interpreted as treason. I thought Arnopp nailed this underlying fear that Elizabeth has. Elizabeth is acutely aware that she will always be considered if not quite an enemy, something rather close to it.
The torment Elizabeth faces when she realises that she has to choose a side is utterly heartbreaking. Her motherly instinct is to protect her children at all costs, but she is also Richard’s sister, and she loves him. Arnopp demonstrates the vulnerability of Elizabeth’s situation. She may be a queen, and yet, she is a queen in name only. Her marriage, although for a time she does find a certain level of contentment, is not the marriage that her father and mother had. Elizabeth is passionate, whereas Henry is reserved. Elizabeth wants love. Henry wants an heir. Elizabeth must rely upon her Plantagenet inner strength to survive the Tudor Court. Arnopp has portrayed Elizabeth’s life as one of stifled obedience. However, what Elizabeth shows the world is not who she is or what she thinks. Her courage and her determination not to appear cowed made her utterly irresistible.
I thought Arnopp brought something new to the interpretation of Henry while staying very close to the documented history. Having spent most of his life in exile, Arnopp gives us a man who is almost afraid to allow himself to be happy and to live in the moment. Henry is always looking out for the next threat. The next danger. He is also, on the face of it, a bit of a contradiction. Henry has moments of violent ruthlessness, but then when it is least expected, his actions portray him as a merciful king. However, during these apparent acts of mercy, Arnopp has depicted Henry as being very calculated. He knows exactly what he is doing at all times. It isn’t mercy. It is politics. It is survival. His treatment of Perkin Warbeck is an excellent example of his ability to get what he wants while making himself look like a god-fearing and merciful man. I thought Arnopp did a marvellous job in her portrayal of Henry VII. He is very shrewd, very determined and yet, incredibly insecure, which makes him a dangerous man to cross.
All the books I have read in this period mention the pretender, Perkin Warbeck, and although some have hinted that Perkin was indeed Richard, Duke of York, none of them have actually portrayed Perkin as Richard. I have to commend Arnopp for her brilliant depiction of Richard. Arnopp has gathered the available sources and created an immensely appealing character and one whose story seemed so plausible that I want it to be true. We watch Richard grow from a young, frightened boy to a man who feels the call of his York blood, but at the same time, he would be quite content not to go to war and to remain forever anonymous. He is a man that loves deeply and is incredibly compassionate. At times Richard is innocently naïve, but he soon realises that not everything that shines is made of gold and that promises are nothing more than empty words.
There is one more character that deserves a mention, and that is young Henry, who would grow up to be Henry VIII. Arnopp portrayed Henry as this adorable little boy who is the apple of his mother’s eye. He is such a charismatic young man with a hint of mischief in his eyes. He loses so many people that he loves at such a young age that my heart wept for him. I loved Arnopp’s portrayal of Henry. He was a little boy who loved his mother with all his heart. His capacity for love tempered with the loss and his upbringing may go some way to explain how he became the king he was.
As I lost myself in the wonders of this book, I found myself catching my breath as I witnessed the political intrigue, the scheming, and the power struggles. All of which were told from the viewpoint of a young woman and a boy who should have been king.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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A Song of Sixpence