by Ben Soton
Feud by Derek Birks, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform,2015, 556 pp
I picked up this novel, first published in 2015, at the Chalke Valley History Festival in July this year. For those unaware of this event, the festival is a kind of right-wing Tolpuddle; this year’s star attraction was Jacob Rees Mogg.
The author Derek Birks is a retired history teacher with an interest the late medieval period. Feud, the first book in his Rebels and Traitors Trilogy is set during the Wars of the Roses (1455 – 1487).
The conflict was a feud between two branches of the Plantagenet family – the Houses of York and Lancaster each represented by a rose, white and red respectively. The novel features a parallel rivalry between two Yorkshire families, the Elders and the Radcliffes; each aligned to one of the main royal houses. The hero of the story is Ned Elder a nice feudal lord who has his lands taken from him by the nastier Edmond Radcliffe.
This is very much the Sir Walter Scott model of historical novel in which there are good and bad kings and barons – a notion that lies at the heart of his famous novel Ivanhoe, in which England’s problems are resolved when Richard the Lion Heart returns from the Crusades.
Like Scott’s romances, this story is historically inaccurate and un-Marxist. It is not Marxist historical fiction; the best examples of which are the works Geoffrey Trease (1909-1998).
The author does occasionally pose the question of why so many of the lower orders followed their baronial masters so loyally. According to Birks this was out of genuine loyalty. In the story a young peasant boy addresses an associate of the now dispossessed Elder family as my lady, even though she actually has no more wealth than he does. The boy essentially wants to hold an inferior social position and knows no other place. We all knew our place back then – shame the Middle Ages came to an end.
Although Marxists view history very differently, the brutal way in which the Peasants’ Revolt was suppressed, just under a century before, may have put the lower orders in their place. The fact that the English nobility were able to recklessly fight each other to the death indicates little fear of lower orders.
The masses feature little more than extras during the Middle Ages and the Wars of the Roses in particular; it is subsequently an ideal period of interest for the conservative historical novelist. The same cannot be said of the sixteen and seventeenth centuries with the Reformation and the English Civil War.
Meanwhile Feud contains a degree of historical intrigue around Margaret of Anjou, wife Henry VI. It contains easy to follow and convincing fight scenes, killer nuns, romances, Flemish mercenaries, and loyal retainers. As a result, it is readable and Birks has carried out plenty of research. As someone wishing to embark on a second career as a historical writer, I wish him the best of luck.