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Mar 29, 2010

Book Review: Within the Hollow Crown: A Valiant King's Struggle to Save His Country, His Dynasty, and His Love by Margaret Cambell Barnes

Within the Hollow Crown by Margaret Campbell Barnes
also sometimes called Within the Hollow Crown: A Valiant King's Struggle to Save His Country, His Dynasty, and His Love
April 1st 2010 by Sourcebooks Landmark (first published 1947)
Paperback, 368 pages
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating:

Set against the backdrop of a country racked by revolt and class warfare, Within the Hollow Crown showcases the true spirit of a king at the end of one of the most glorious dynasties, who wants both England's heart and crown. Perhaps one of the most misunderstood of all English monarchs, the son of the Black Prince and grandson of Edward III has been portrayed in a dim light by history. But Margaret Campbell Barnes gives readers a different portrait of Richard II. Although his peace-loving ways set him apart from the war-mongering medieval world around him, Richard proved himself a true king by standing down a peasant revolt and outwitting the political schemes of his enemies. Struggling to uphold the valiant Plantagenet dynasty, Richard and his queen, Anne of Bohemia, nonetheless manage to create an exquisite partnership, described as "one of the tenderest idylls of romance ever written."

Margaret Campbell Barnes was a popular historical writer of her day, which was fifty years ago. She doesn't write as dramatically as popular historical fiction writers of today, but she weaves us through the story as deftly as possible. Within The Hollow Crown features the young king, Richard II who 'ruled' from 1377 (at age ten) to 1399. Barnes attempts to recreate this tumultuous rule as he grows a bit older, marries Anne of Bohemia and ultimately loses control of his noblemen. It is interesting to watch the behind the scenes events along with more differences between Lancaster versus York factions in their beginnings towards the Wars of the Roses.

The characterizations are what sets Barnes apart, and are the highlight of this novel. The uncles who are vying for power such as Thomas of Gloucester who is portrayed as one to be wary of. Yet as history tells us, it is Lancaster's son Henry Bolingbroke who becomes the next king of England although John Gaunt of Lancaster was not as much of a significant threat to Richard as Thomas was throughout the novel. It is these uncles and their peers whom Richard has let take control of Parliament and the kingdom, and Richard has had little say in most matters until he finally decides to take the reins after watching the others rule for him.

There are many historical details that Barnes leaves out in the novel, which is quite understandable since this is a novel focused mostly on Richard and his character, perhaps in efforts by the author to bring a maligned king to justice. His spirit is captured in an amazing way that I have not seen before. The historical backdrop of the Peasant Revolt lasted at least 100 pages as Richard dealt with the peasants and the nobles and the grievances. Richard was attempting to prove himself worthy of the status of a king, even though he really didn't seem to want the title. He did handle the peasant revolt without the guidance of the council, as they seemed wholly inept at the art of dealing with the commoners. After the revolt was suppressed, something happened where the council members turned on him and forced Richard to seek sanctuary in the tower. The novel jumped from the one thing to the next and I could not even fathom why this was occurring, except for the fact that he had some greedy council members. This part is where Barnes lost me. The chronology and minor historical details are slanted to fit the continuity of the story, so those who prefer pure historical accuracy may be a little turned off.

An absolutely splendid scene occurs a little more than halfway through the book, where Richard stands up to his uncles and members of the council and asks them how old that he is. He is twenty-two, and fully ready to take charge of the kingdom, and for once, be a King. He takes the chancellor's seal from him, and he will choose a new chancellor, the point being that it is he who will choose. The council is stunned speechless. Throughout the novel Henry Bolingbroke is referenced, but he is not portrayed as an evil usurper as one would expect. If one hadn't known the true history of the situation, a novice would never have thought that this Henry would take the crown from Richard, which happened somewhat easily towards the end of the novel.

One of the best aspects of the novel was the relationship between Richard and his wife, Anne of Bohemia. It was charming and pleasant to watch them grow to love each other and support one another. Ultimately Richard is forced to take another wife, and that marriage is also portrayed as sweet and tender as possible. Richard's mother, Joan of Kent, was also a major figure in the beginning of the novel as Richard is shown to have relied on her presence and enjoyed having her with him. On the other hand, Uncle Tom of Gloucester and his sidekick Arundel, and the other major historical figures of the time were part of the story as Barnes sets up the surroundings of Richard II and makes us love him.

Those readers who are new to this specific period in the medieval era have a chance of  being bored off their rocker with this read. This is not a good starting point due to the lack of dramatization in the beginning of the novel. Those who do have a specific interest in Richard II and the political machinations of the time should enjoy this read, although I had lost track of the historic timeline when I think years had passed at times and I didn't really know it. Some of the importance of historical events were downplayed or just hinted at, so that those who have no idea of the period would not have recognized the implications of certain details that were imparted. I really did enjoy the prose of Margaret Campbell Barnes, but I was beginning to have the feeling of having missed out on something tangible until I reached the last half and I was utterly beholden to Richard as Barnes had achieved her goal of portraying Richard as a great person, but perhaps not a wonderful king.

History tells us more details of what happened to Richard and around his reign, but Barnes focuses on the human side of Richard which really made this story magnificent. I hold a large appreciation for what Barnes has done to rectify the sullied reputation of Richard II. I can say that I feel that I've gained an accurate feel for the sensitive character of Richard II that I otherwise would not have achieved without this read. I would recommend this for those who would like to gain that same sense of characterization and a glimpse into the reign of Richard II, the second son of the infamous Edward the Black Prince.

Sourcebooks has republished Barnes' novels in recent years:
The Tudor Rose: The Story of the Queen Who United a Kingdom and Birthed a Dynasty (10-2009)
King's Fool: A Notorious King, His Six Wives, and the One Man Who Knew All Their Secrets (2009-04-07)
My Lady of Cleves: A Novel of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves (2008-09-01)
Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn  (03-2008)
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