What happens when you discover that an ancestor of yours was involved in the great moments of history which you’re writing about? It makes these events feel closer to you, but also it makes you think again about loyalties, as Nicola Cornick, the bestselling and award-winning historical novelist, tells Historia.
In 2019 when I started to write my latest dual-time novel, The Last Daughter, I had no idea that the events I was fictionalising would become entangled with my own family history research.
If, like me, you are drawn to historical mysteries, you will know that they don’t come much bigger than the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower in 1483. As far as true crime stories are concerned, this one has run for over 500 years and, barring some astounding discovery, will probably continue to be debated for centuries to come. (I have a theory that most people don’t actually want the mystery of the Princes’ fate to be solved, but that’s another article entirely.)
Like many other people, I was first introduced to this story as a whodunnit by Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time. In this hugely influential book, an examination of the evidence around the disappearance of Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, by a fictional detective, Tey weighs up whether the Princes were murdered and, if so, by whom. (Spoiler: she exonerates King Richard III.)
The Daughter of Time had the predictable effect on me of turning me into a rampant Ricardian. Fast forward ten years, and I was studying England in the 15th century as part of my undergraduate history degree at London.
Another 30 years on, I was writing about Richard III as part of my Masters thesis on hero myths. Then I decided to embrace the topic in one of my dual-time novels and wrote The Last Daughter, which is narrated through the eyes of Anne Lovell, wife of Richard’s closest ally Francis Lovell.
There is a tension in being a historian and a historical novelist, not just around historical authenticity in fiction and the extent to which novelists use imagination to fill the gaps between ‘facts’, but also between the objectivity required of a historian and the emotional engagement that I would say is essential for a writer. I was aware that I am in no way unbiased in my judgement of Richard III but I felt that to call myself a historian, I should be. This hampered my storytelling.
Then things became even more complicated.
I had recently started to trace my family tree, joining the hundreds of thousands of people for whom genealogy is such a popular and engaging pastime. Like many of those I had wanted to find something exciting lurking in the past; a pirate, smuggler, criminal, abolitionist or feminist writer perhaps.
Instead I came to value the endless stories of agricultural labourers and miners – all with fascinating personal histories which, as a public historian, I knew were important. These were people whose voices weren’t normally heard in the official historical record, but they had plenty to tell.
It was quite a shock when one small genealogy thread I was following led to the Harley family of Brampton Bryan Castle in Shropshire. I checked and re-checked the connection in order to be absolutely certain. This family tree discovery opened up many others, enabling me to trace my ancestry back further than I could have imagined since the records of the gentry and aristocracy were preserved so much better than those of other ranks of society.
Then I came across a family called Croft, of Croft Castle in Herefordshire, and with it a tangled web of loyalties and betrayals in the Wars of the Roses, the very period I was writing about. Sir Richard Croft, born in 1429, was my 14-times great-grandfather.
Sir Richard was an adherent of Richard, Duke of York. He fought with him at Ludford Bridge in 1459, was pardoned for that ‘mistake’ when the Lancastrians won, and was even appointed to administer York’s forfeited estates. He was quick enough to rejoin York’s cause after the battle of Northampton in 1460, however, and fought for York’s son Edward at Mortimer’s Cross in 1461.
From that point on, he remained largely loyal to the Yorkist cause, fighting for Edward again at Tewkesbury in 1471, where Tudor sources credit him with the capture of the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, though they exonerate him from responsibility for the prince’s death.
Sir Richard did very well out of this loyalty during Edward IV’s reign, accumulating lucrative and important roles both regionally and at court. He was treasurer to the household of Edward Prince of Wales, later Edward V, at Ludlow and his wife was for a time, governess to the young prince.
On the accession of Richard III, Sir Richard Croft was initially appointed as treasurer to Richard’s household, but only a month later this appointment was rescinded. Reading between the lines of the historical record, it feels as though his loyalty was already suspect. His brother Thomas disappeared abroad in 1484 and was thought to have joined Henry Tudor in France, providing finance for his campaign.
There is no record of Sir Richard fighting at Bosworth although both his illegitimate son and his step-son fought for Henry. However, immediately after Bosworth, Sir Richard was reappointed as treasurer of the new king’s household and he was present at the battle of Stoke Field, which features in The Last Daughter, and was made a knight banneret after Henry’s victory there.
It’s curious how the discovery of a personal genealogical connection to these events of 500-plus years ago made them feel so much more immediate and real to me, and fed into the writing process for my novel. I felt I had a connection, that I had been given a glimpse inside my ancestors’ minds as they weighed their options and adjusted their loyalties.
The fact that those loyalties eventually ran counter to the ones that I hold troubled me and made me curious. Did he support Henry Tudor out of pragmatism and the complex web of local relationship and affinities in the Welsh borderlands? How did Sir Richard, one time treasurer to Edward V, feel when the young king was deposed? Was that the point at which his loyalty changed? Did he know the truth of the ultimate fate of Edward and his brother Richard of York?
I’ll never know, of course, but it added another personal emotional dimension to a tumultuous period of history that has always fascinated me and to a novel that made me question my own historical judgement. And of course if my ancestors hadn’t made the choices that they did in 1485, I probably wouldn’t be here to write about it.
Nicola Cornick is an author and historian who writes dual-time set mysteries. She is a trustee for the Friends of Lydiard Park and specialises in public history.
Read Nicola’s interview with Historia.
Tomb of Sir Richard Lovell and his wife Eleanor at St Michael’s Church, Croft Castle: courtesy of the Worcestershire branch of the Richard III Society
The Princes in the Tower by John Everett Millais: Wikipedia
Portrait of Richard III, c1520: Royal Collection Trust via Wikimedia
Croft Castle, Herefordshire, photo by Nathan Reading: Flickr
Tomb of Sir Richard Lovell and his wife Eleanor at St Michael’s Church, Croft Castle, photo by Richard Croft (CC BY-SA 2.0): Geograph