Thursday, 16 July 2015

Lara's Library: A Song of Sixpence

A Song of Sixpence: The Story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck
by Judith Arnopp

Review by Lara

Author Judith Arnopp has so generously offered a FREE PAPERBACK COPY of A Song of Sixpence for one lucky winner. Please see below for details
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In the years after Bosworth, a small boy is ripped from his rightful place as future king of England. Years later when he reappears to take back his throne, his sister Elizabeth, now queen to the invading king, Henry Tudor, is torn between family loyalty and duty. Besieged by conflicting loyalties, Elizabeth experiences fear, oppression and unexpected love as the final struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster is played out.

Set against the court of Henry VII, A Song of Sixpence is a unique perspective on the early years of Tudor rule. Elizabeth, often viewed as meek and uninteresting, emerges as a resilient woman, proving that as much strength lies in endurance as in resilience.

Throughout history there are stories and legends that entice our imaginations. The tale of the two princes in the Tower is one of those. Another is the account of Perkin Warbeck. Even if you do not know the true facts or complete history of this time, nor the story of Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne, A Song of Sixpence is an extraordinary book that will entice you to read further and set you on a road of discovery. 

This book is a wonderful journey through a most precarious and perilous chapter in the very beginnings of Tudor history. The format and characters, along with the storyline, are the result and testament of  penmanship and of great story-telling. I felt I was right there, in the presence and minds of the characters and time, more than just a voyeur looking in. In A Song of Sixpence the author does not attempt to prove that Warbeck is Richard, Duke of York, but has created a narrative based on a probability that he was.

The story begins with a chapter titled ‘The Boy’ in the autumn of 1483, London. It does not take too long for the reader to grasp what is happening, and to whom:

The Princes in the Tower

With a muffled curse, the man throws back his head but, keeping hold of his prisoner, he hurries onward down narrow, dark steps, turning one corner then another before halting abruptly. The boy hears his assailant’s breath coming short and sharp and knows he too is afraid.

The boy is Richard. His introduction begins as a prisoner in the Tower of London, taken in the night by a stranger, and then later treated as a slave: "'I hate being your servant,' he spits but he keeps his voice lowered… He owes his life to the man. His captor assures him that he is ' one, nothing…until I say you are.'"

The author’s treatment of Richard is convincing. It makes me wonder, if he had succeeded in taking the throne, the Tudors would have ceased to exist and the lives of Elizabeth’s children would have come under threat, perhaps suffering the same fate as he. Through years of training and grooming in exile, he returns to claim his throne. One can only wonder, if this was Richard, how the trauma of his childhood, with all its losses, could ever make this broken boy into a king one day. Does he have his father’s qualities to be king? He has not yet been tested on the battlefield. Richard even doubts himself at times as the narrator suggests, when his chance to seize the throne arrives: "He had imagined that when the time came he would be brave, invincible, but now the moment is here, his overriding emotion is one of fear" and “I don’t even know how to be a king.” 

Richard is an endearing but sad figure who was accepted and celebrated in the houses and great courts throughout Europe, only to be ridiculed and humiliated before his demise at the hands of Henry Tudor. Richard at one stage laments about his role and wonders if his quest is worth the price. 

As a silent backdrop, the memories of Richard III and Elizabeth’s father, Edward IV, are interwoven between these two main characters, and adds to the validity of Warbeck’s assertion that he is the rightful king. Within the book's narrative Richard III, despite all he did to secure his own claim to the throne, is not portrayed as a monster, as most historical novels do. Although it was Richard who took the princes into the Tower, there is great disbelief in the characters that it was Richard who had killed or disposed of them. (The question of who killed the princes, if indeed they were murdered, remains one of history’s greatest mysteries.)                 

Henry VII & Elizabeth of York
The author presents Henry VII as a man whose claim to the throne was precarious. Arnopp’s Henry is wary of the successive pretenders to his reign, as he spends much time and effort in tracing the identity of each of these pretenders, especially Perkin Warbeck. This puts a considerable strain on the marriage of Elizabeth and Henry. The first Tudor king, Henry knows there are those who have a much better claim to the throne than he did.
Elizabeth had a greater claim to the throne than Henry Tudor. She knew her place, and her time as queen would come one day, even as the Battle of Bosworth was to decide the victor. "It is I, the eldest of my father’s daughters, who will be served like a pig on a platter to the triumphant king.” 

Henry Tudor eventually crowns Elizabeth Queen of England fourteen months after the birth of their first son, Arthur. Elizabeth has finally achieved her ambition to become queen. Elizabeth is often portrayed in history as a woman of no great strengths, other than her devotion to her family, and her inner relationships with her sisters and mother. Added to this, she has been contemporarily recorded as being “kept in subjection by the mother of the king” and by the king himself. Although Elizabeth is restrained in her role as queen, especially with Henry, it is only for fear for her children: "I watch him quietly. There is no point in interfering. He will not listen. He will go his own way, and if that entails the destruction of my entire family, it will not deter him."

As the tale unfolds Elizabeth is torn between her conscience and duty. She thinks to herself: "How can I trust him? How can I ever have faith in him when his duplicity is so transparent? I have an overwhelming urge to run away, but queens do not run away, and besides, there is nowhere for me to run."  Her courage shines through in her decisions to support her husband and king, and to protect her children from what she herself admits, that "her family had suffered." Elizabeth however, maintains hopes of romance with the harsh man she married: "Henry and I may have our differences but we share a deep love and joy for our children." I believe, as Arnopp states in her afterward, that "Elizabeth deserves more credit. There is as much strength in resilience as in resistance."

The relevancy, which Elizabeth faced in the Tudor times to today, in respect to being "bound to duty" and how a woman’s strength is measured, has not changed that much, even for a mere mortal woman like me. I loved Arnopp’s portrayal of Elizabeth, and although it seemed she was not a strong woman, I felt that she was. Elizabeth left a legacy: she had fulfilled her duty by filling the royal Tudor nursery with children, combining the houses of Lancaster and York, and as a result, creating the Tudor dynasty. I cried when she died in the end, even though I knew it was to be. Elizabeth of York will always be a heroine in my eyes.

Perkin Warbeck greeted by loyal subjects of 
Edward IV
Written with passion and empathy, Arnopp’s insight and extensive and faultless research shines throughout A Song of Sixpence. Arnopp has brilliantly mastered combining the story of Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydville, with the story of Perkin Warbeck, the most famous pretender to the throne. She cleverly uses alternating chapters between the points of view of Elizabeth and Richard (or ‘The Boy’ as the chapters are titled).  I enjoyed this refreshing format and Arnopp’s writing style. Using this layout, the author brings a voice and insight to the characters.

This is not just a novel of interpretation, but one of substance, with all that is known of Elizabeth and her new husband Henry Tudor, to the possibility of Perkin Warbeck being one of the princes taken from the Tower. A genuine page turner, A Song of Sixpence is brilliant in drawing the reader into the delicious historical detail and story, and as the author breathes life to the characters with her use of words, which are like vibrant colours on a canvas, she enables the reader to visualize the characters and ambience clearly. With empathic portrayals,  the reader experiences the intimate feelings of the characters, from their fears to their innermost thoughts and desires.

A Song of Sixpence is a stand-alone book in itself. One does not have to be an avid Tudor fan, historian, or enthusiast to enjoy this outstanding novel, which I would highly recommend to  readers of all ages and inclinations. I look forward to reading more of Arnopp’s novels and, having had the opportunity to review this masterly tome, Judith Arnopp is now on my list of favourite authors. I loved the book!

For your chance to win a FREE PAPERBACK COPY of A Song of Sixpence, simply comment below OR at this review's Facebook thread, located here

About the Author:

Judith Arnopp is the author of seven historical novels. The first three are set early in the historical calendar in Anglo-Saxon and Norman Britain; the latter books take place in Tudor England. She is currently working on a trilogy, The Beaufort Chronicles, which tells the story of Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. Arnopp's books include:

Peaceweaver: Set during the run up to the Battle of Hastings
The Forest Dwellers: Set after the Battle of Hastings
The Song of Heledd: set in 7th century Powys
The Winchester  Goose: At the Court of Henry VIII
The Kiss of the Concubine: A Story of Anne Boleyn
Intractable Heart: The Story of Katheryn Parr
A Song of Sixpence: The Story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck

You can find out more about Judith and her work on her webpage or blog. Her books are available at Amazon.


Lara is a new addition to The Review and currently working on a family memoir set in Ukraine and Australia. She enjoys gardening and reading Tudor history in her spare time, and lives with two crazy cats.


  1. brilliant review, thanks for sharing your thoughts

  2. Great review. I always felt a bit sorry for Perkin Warbeck. Sounds like it will be a wonderful book, one to go on the wish list :) (p.s. love the purple dress)

  3. Sharon Bennett Connolly16 July 2015 at 12:20

    Fabulous review.

  4. The review makes me want to read the book and, perhaps, delve deeper into the subject. Thank you!

  5. Brilliant title! I would love to win a copy :)

  6. An interesting and detailed review which encourages me to read the book. Now on my to read list. Also looking forward to the Beaufort Trilogy. I enjoy Judith's writing having recently read The Winchester Goose. Thanks

    1. Yes, I am looking forward to reading Kiss of the Concubine... as well as the many you mentioned!

  7. Fantastic review. Sounds like a fabulous read.

  8. Thanks for your lovely comments and thank you to Lara for the wonderful review. I have been walking on air all day :)

  9. Ooooh lovely review! On the TBR pile for sure

  10. Great review,. It's going on my books to get list.

  11. (Patricia Bartch ) I find King Richard III and Elizabeth of York fascinating and this book will be on my reading list

  12. The Giveaway is coming to an end now. Thank you all for entering. Good Luck everyone!

  13. Good review.I shall have to look further into this author's other works and have added this one to my TBR list.

  14. This novel sounds very interesting. The question of what happened to the "princes in the Tower" and whether "Perkin Warbeck" was really Edward IV's son Richard are among the most intriguing historical mysteries, but the personality of Elizabeth of York, her relationship with her husband and her attitude to the man claiming to be her brother have also been the subject of as much speculation. Fictional portrayals of her, to me, mostly tend to be lacking, and novelists tend to go into extremes of rosy or blackened portrayal when it comes to her marriage. It is a welcome change if this novel has a more balanced and psychologically realistic portrayal.

    Just one nitpick regarding the review - one can hardly say that Richard III is portrayed as a monster in most historical novels. As a matter of fact, sympathetic portrayals of Richard III are far more common in modern historical fiction. But Shakespeare's play is still what most people first think of when they hear of him.