Author Interview with
Matthew Lewis is the author of Medieval Britain in 100 Facts, two novels, Loyalty and Honour and four non-fiction books about the Wars of the roses, A Glimpse of King Richard III, A Glimpse of The Wars of the Roses, The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy and his latest book, a biography, is called Richard Duke of York: King by Right and has just been released.
I am delighted to have been able to interview Matthew and thank him for his time to answer my questions.
Could you share with us a little about the process of writing your latest book about Richard Duke of York?
This was the one book that I asked the publisher to let me write. I have wanted to investigate and tell Richard’s story for years and it was exciting when they agreed to let me loose on him.
When starting to research I greedily accumulate any information I can find, devour it and then try to turn it into a coherent story of real people. In Richard’s case, I knew about his life from 1450 onwards in detail having researched it for the Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy so it was a case of working backwards from there to try and better understand how he arrived on those battlefields, opposed to his king. Everyone is a result of their accumulated experiences and is shaped by the world around them as much as they shape it.
My ultimate intention was always to try and make Richard a three-dimensional man rather than a one dimensional character. That meant trying to understand him, his place in the realm and the influence on him of the world around him.
What was the most difficult challenge in writing this books?
Richard’s childhood is fairly obscure. Until his uncle Edward died at the Battle of Agincourt when Richard was 4, he was likely to be a bit of a nobody and didn’t seem to feature in his uncles plans, even though Edward had no children of his own. He was an orphan by then too so was still difficult to see in the care of Robert Waterton and then Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland.
The other big problem is that the Wars of the Roses seems to divide people even today between Lancaster and York. So many of the events are wide open to interpretation and there are few moments when a clear, unambiguous motive can be identified with certainty. The book is unashamedly sympathetic to Richard’s story, though I’ve tried to offer a balanced examination. That means there are interpretations that some will, entirely justifiably, disagree with.
Have you travelled to research your books? If so, which places did you visit?
I never manage to get to all of the places I want to visit, otherwise I wouldn’t get anything written! I’m fortunate to live near to Ludlow, a town and castle central to Richard’s story. It’s somewhere I’ve always loved and never get tired of returning to.
When I needed a bit of inspiration, a stroll around Ludlow Castle and St Laurence’s Church was like a shot in the arm. In 1459, Richard, his wife Cecily, the future Edward IV, Edmund, Earl of Rutland, George, later Duke of Clarence, the future Richard III, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury and his famous son the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick were all within those walls. It’s not hard to imagine them walking to grounds and making their plans.
Who is your favourite person of the 15th Century and why?
I guess the obvious answer is Richard III, but the century is full of huge characters who demand to be heard above each other. Henry V fascinates me as a pious warrior. How much of what he did was genuine? How did he reconcile some of his military decisions to his apparently genuine piety?
Cardinal Henry Beaufort tends to slip under the radar, not least because he passed away just before the Wars of the Roses began, but he was a grandson of Edward III, a son of John of Gaunt who lived until 1447, was massively wealthy, hugely influential and almost single-handedly funded the government of England for years.
Warwick the Kingmaker is an attractive character too. The public obviously loved him and it’s hard to be certain whether he fell out with Edward IV or Edward fell out with him. Either way, he orchestrated a singular event in English history so new it had to have a name invented for it – the readeption of Henry VI.
It is the tendency to paint historical figures in black and white that attracts my attention and makes me want to learn more. Few real people are all good or all evil and anyone presented in such simple terms calls out to be looked at more closely.
What sparked your interest in the 15th Century and the Wars of the Roses in particular?
My A-level History teacher. When we did the Wars of the Roses she encouraged us to think beyond the text books and to question received wisdom, not least about Richard III’s reputation. The more I read, the more little stories I came across that had far more to them than at first appeared. Each story then led to several more and it spiraled from an interest to a fascination and then an obsession. My bookcase will testify that I’m still in the grip of that fixation and still finding new stories.
If you had the power to change the past and re-write anything that happened during the Wars of the Roses, which event would you choose to change?
I think perhaps I would send Edward IV some antibiotics and have him live beyond 1483, long enough for his son to become his own man. The spring and summer of 1483 left Edward IV’s reputation tarnished, the fate of his sons uncertain, Richard III’s character destroyed and lay the country open to civil war. Edward was something of a renaissance prince before the Renaissance really began and it would be fascinating to see what England would have looked like in his hands for another decade. His brother, remaining as Duke of Gloucester, would surely then be remembered as one of the greatest nobles in medieval English history instead of a monster.
If you could ask any historical person a question, what would it be and who would you ask?
The only question would be the most obvious – I’d ask Richard III where his nephews ended up.
Aside from that I’d love to ask Richard II what he really made of the Peasants’ Revolt and I’d love to know what Henry V was thinking as he lined up his men for Agincourt. Did his conviction leave no room for doubt or was he resigned to losing?
Right now, I’d probably like to ask Richard, Duke of York whether he thought I had understood him and done his story justice.
Do you have a favourite ‘Wars of the Roses’ related place?
I’d have to return to Ludlow for this one. The town is steeped in and proud of its history and had such an impact on the whole Wars of the Roses era, from providing York with a strong base to acting as a training ground for Edward IV’s son and then Henry VII’s son. A walk round the castle, church and town is the closest I can think of to travelling back to the Wars of the Roses.
What was the last book you read?
Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses: Bloodline. I’m really enjoying the series, of which this is the third book. The first book, Stormbird, is incredible and whilst I might take issue with a few interpretations, I can see them for being just that; interpretations. There are few right and wrong answers and Conn Iggulden does a masterful job of weaving his story into the fabric of the Wars of the Roses.
What is your favourite book?
The Lord of the Rings. It’s massive and Middle Earth is so deeply crafted. It has religious elements of temptation, trial and redemption as well as social commentary on man’s treatment of nature and the earth’s potential for vengeance that climate change campaigners might identify with. I love the way Tolkien wove the real world into an imagined one so that his story was almost tangible. Gondor is filled with medieval knights in white towers, Rohan has elements of Norse that make you feel as though you know the place, even though you can’t possibly. It’s the same trick that makes Game of Thrones so captivating; it has just enough of what we know to drag us in deeper and deeper.
What three new skills would you like to learn?
I wish I could read faster. My daughter devours books but I’m a slow reader and when I have loads of research to get through I could really use that particular super power.
My second choice would be reading medieval Latin. There are some sources that haven’t been translated and sometimes I’d love to be able to read them.
Finally, I’d go for being able to draw. I really can’t. People ask what my stick men are supposed to be.
What do you like to do outside writing?
Spending time with my amazing wife and children is what I enjoy the most. It’s hard to shut myself away when I could be spending time with them.
Photography is something I really enjoy and which fortunately fits well with visiting historical sites and with walking.
I play hockey (badly) and love technology. My day job is as an IT Manager so I’m fortunate to spend that time doing something I enjoy too.
Describe for us a day in your life when you are writing?
I try to spend weeknights reading and straightening out the next portion of what I’m writing, then spend the weekends trying to fashion it all into a bit of the story. I find it hard to write in short bursts and would rather spend the whole day writing up what I’ve researched. Once I get writing it runs away with itself and I can spend hours in my office with a film I’ve seen a hundred times on for background noise pouring words onto a page.
What does your writing space look like?
It lurches from a mess to immaculately tidy as I spread out my research, get frustrated with the mess and organise myself, at least for a little while. Mess, tidy, repeat – and try to write in between. I’ve got my pc on the desk, my bookcases creaking under the weight and a tv in the corner. I need noise while I work so I either put a film on or some music while I write.
Are you presently working on a new project?
I’m currently writing a biography of Henry III, which is challenging on many levels. It’s outside of my historical comfort zone so I’m having to do a lot more research into aspects of the politics and people that I’ve acquired a background knowledge of for the fourteenth and early fifteenth century. Henry was king for 56 years, the longest reign until Victoria over 600 year later, yet Henry is almost forgotten. That doesn’t make for an inspiring subject for a biography, yet his reign was filled with some of the most important moments in English history and I’m convinced that there was more to this man than we think.
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