Toby Clements’ “Winter Pilgrims”: identity, love and the War of the Roses

kingmaker_2895698aThere are plenty of historical novels about that are dealing with the War of the Roses (let’s face it, the story sort of writes itself), but Toby Clements’ King Maker: Winter Pilgrims nevertheless stands out. Winter Pilgrims is the first part of a series ostensibly centring on Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (1428-71), but in contrast to Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses series, it’s not the Earl of Warwick, or the Duke of York, or indeed any other noble who takes centre stage. Clements’s Kingmaker is of a different class, and has quite a distinctive, collective, everyman identity. In fact, if there is a theme to Winter Pilgrims beyond the obvious narrative of two unlikely protagonists falling in love while stumbling from battle to battle, it’s identity and belonging.

Step forward Thomas and Katherine, the central characters of Winter Pilgrims. Both Tom and Katherine are Gilbertines, and in holy orders in the Gilbertines’ motherhouse at Sempringham in Lincolnshire (how Katherine in particular got there remains an unsolved question that runs through the book and suggests resolution only in future parts of this series), but one morning the peaceful, secluded world of monastery and convent collide with the lawlessness of Henry VI’s England. The year is 1460, and one morning, Katherine and a fellow nun are attacked by a brutal local noble just outside the convent’s walls;  Thomas assists them, and their resistance becomes an excuse for the noble to violate the sanctuary of the convent and monastery. It’s a fabulous set piece opening that dislocates and alienates our protagonists from their secluded religious homes, and throws them, literally, outside into a no-man’s land and into a world whose laws and conventions they don’t recognise. Thomas and Katherine are the Innocents who wander, and who have neither family ties nor political loyalties that connect them to any of the political factions of the War of the Roses. These two innocent and  alomst otherworldly wanderers need to find their place soon, or they will perish. Trouble is, this may be easier said than done in the lawlessness of the early 1460s. …

The concept of medieval kingship centred on the person of the king whose physical and mental capacity to rule was paramount to the stability of his kingdom. Henry VI was a weak and incapacitated ruler, so a failure as a king, and therefore the long struggle between the various Plantagenet lines of the Yorkists and Lancastrians was a necessary process for the true king to establish himself. Of course, that process meant lawlessness and civil war until the resolution of this crisis ( arguably, this occurred after the Battle of Towton when Edward, Earl of March, assumed the throne of England as Edward IV), so when Katherine and Thomas emerge from their religious communities to seek justice and to build new lives, with new identities, there is no such place for them. There is no such place anywhere in England while the throne of the Kingdom remains in effect empty. Clements, by setting Winter Pilgrims in the months leading up to Towton, signals to his readers that Katherine and Thomas remain pilgrims and wanderers until such a time as law and authority have been re-established.

Throughout  Winter Pilgrims, Clements establishes parallel storylines, with the fortunes of Katherine and Thomas mirroring the political situation, with its continually shifting and evolving groups of loyalties and lack of stability. Banditry and piracy abound, and safety eludes the pair whose only viable course of acton is to run and find new identities for themselves. Thomas the monastic scribe takes up arms and becomes servant to a pardoner while Katherine the nun becomes Kit the junior servant. Now this assertion of a different gender in Katherine’s case is one of the themes that is of most interest to me as a Renaissance art historian here; I teach a module on Renaissance gender where we spend a lot of time in class thinking about gender as a necessary category for asserting and maintaining social order. Gender and class determine what opportunities are possible for a person, so Katherine for example moves from the more domestic and private sphere of a woman to the more public sphere of a man, especially when Katherine/Kit proves to be in possession of considerable medical skills. In Winter Pilgrims, Katherine has to change gender and class, while Thomas the man of God has to carry weapons and kill, so for both of the protagonists, their survival depends on their fashioning new identities for themselves. It’s a masterly plot device as it allows Clements to move his key characters from scenario to scenario and certainly explains how a monk and a nun end up with the forces of Lord Fauconberg at Calais and even at Towton!

Winter Pilgrims is a hugely enjoyable book densely plotted and beautifully written, and certainly an impressive opening in what will eventually be a trilogy of books. As a story, it is self-contained, but also manages to have enough cliff hangers to make you want to read the next volume, so, bring on Broken Faith …. What I am looking orward to in the second book of this series is how Clements will deal with the need to crerate two narrative perspectives. Throughout the first instalment, Katherine and Thomas worked together, looked after each other, supported each other and shared the same experiences. Broken Faith will see them need to go their separate ways, so how will Clements make their story lines intersect again? Well, let’s find out!


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