Timothy Venning, Royal Mysteries: The Medieval Period (Pen & Sword, 2021)
Who doesn’t love a mystery? Especially where a suspicious death is involved. Throw in our seemingly endless fascination with all things Royal, and you have the recipe for an absorbing book, perfect for those dark and stormy nights of Winter. Timothy Venning dips into the medieval era to tease readers with five enduring mysteries; most of them you will have heard of, but there are always new things to learn.
The mysteries begin with the accidental death of William II in August 1100, or was it? Did his brother Henry have him bumped off for the throne? Venning analyses motive, means, and opportunity – the classic trifecta for murder – using a series of sub-topic questions to drive the investigation. That creates a rather fractured structure, which isn’t helped by a cramped writing style that feels as if Venning is rushing through the story. The mystery of Edward II’s perhaps brutal demise follows. Venning takes more space to narrate Edward’s disastrous reign, leading to his overthrow, by his queen Isabella and her lover Mortimer, and subsequent death in September 1321. But did Edward cheat death and escape to a hermit’s life on the continent? Venning quite adroitly picks his way through the evidence, but as with all mysteries, we still don’t truly know what happened.
The reign of Richard II echoed that of Edward II I some respects, but we (almost) certainly know that the former died in January 1400. But how he died is the mystery: by his own hand or was he murdered? Again, Venning covers the background leading to Richard’s overthrow and picks his way through the resultant shenanigans, but this mystery somewhat peters out. Arguably the most famous medieval mystery is up next: the Princes in the Tower. Did Richard III have these two boys, his nephews, murdered in 1483, or did they survive? Modern day Richard supporters, Ricardians, argue for his innocence, but they swim against the tide of most contemporary and modern reporting. Venning’s final medieval mystery is the alleged bigamy of Edward IV. Why did he marry a woman of no political value away from prying eyes in 1464? This anticlimactic mystery is accorded the same treatment as the more violent and dramatic affairs but with the same outcome: we don’t really know but the search for answers continues.
Venning clearly knows his material when it comes to medieval royal mysteries, and despite some avoidable editing and proofreading errors, his text is engaging and informative. I suspect most medieval readers will be familiar with these mysteries, but they will probably come away knowing more than they did. Those not conversant, however, would probably appreciate more general background information to help follow the evidence Venning lays down. He also helpfully points readers in the right direction to dig more deeply into these condensed case studies. This is, therefore, a very good gateway book for the period that requires a little bit of effort by the reader.