A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury
by Edith Pargeter
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury is about Prince Hal (later Henry V), the son of Henry of Bolingbroke who in 1399 led an uprising against Richard II with support from young Harry "Hotspur" Percy and his father. The revolt succeeded, and Henry IV was crowned king. Shortly afterward Richard died in Henry's custody, evidently of starvation, possibly of murder. Within a few years, Hotspur regretted supporting Henry and joined Owain Glyndwr's Welsh revolt against the English Crown. The bloody field of the novel's title is the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, when Hotspur's forces and the king's clashed in a decisive, calamitous battle.
The novel hews closer to history than Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I, while inventing motives and circumstances which fill out the scanty historical record so well they feel almost irresistibly correct. Henry finds his reign tainted by the dishonorable choices he has made to gain and keep power; Hal is torn between his responsibilities as heir and his love for the valiant, guileless Hotspur, "a plain man lost in a world where most other men had grown strange - collecting superlatives to himself as Saint Sebastian collected arrows in the wall-paintings." Admiring Hotspur's transparent honesty, Hal dares not emulate it. A fictional Welsh woman, poignantly, chastely in love with Hotspur, is also a central character.
Pargeter's language belongs to an earlier style of historical novel, borrowing literary cadences and vocabulary from the past to immerse the reader in its medieval setting. Initially, the story may feel labored as readers of the internet age adjust to a literary style paced to encourage the appreciation of subtleties. Their patience is soon rewarded. A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury offers a tale of heart-wrenching dilemmas, greatness of soul, and one of the best battle scenes in literature, flinching from neither the joy of battle nor its horror from the moment the two armies deploy in their "courtly, methodical, formalized preparation for execution ... more wonderful and terrible than any surprise assault." (1972, new Sourcebooks edition 2010; 365 pages)
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Other novels about Prince Hal, later King Henry V:
Good King Harry by Denise Giardina (1984), written in the form of Henry V's autobiography. More info
Falstaff by Robert Nye (2001), a bawdy novel narrated by the Shakespearean character Falstaff, the young Prince Hal's roistering companion in Henry IV. More info
Fortune Made His Sword by Martha Rofheart (1972; titled Cry "God for Harry" in the U.K.), about Henry V. More info
Nonfiction about Hotspur and Henrys IV and V:
Kings in the North by Alexander Rose (2002), about Hotspur's family, the Percys of Northumberland. More info
The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King by Ian Mortimer (2007). More info
Henry V by Keith Dockray (2001).More info
At the Movies:
Shakespeare's An Age of Kings, a boxed set of a 15-part BBC television series based on Shakespeare's plays Richard II, Henry IV (parts I and II), Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III, produced in 1960 and starring Sean Connery as Hotspur and Robert Hardy as Prince Hal (later Henry V).
Henry V, King of England at the Luminarium Encyclopedia website
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