David Saunders’ debut novel explores bloody history

A band of horsemen gallops up to the manor house. The riders are met outside by two trusty, wrinkled old retainers just about able to lift their rusty swords.

The leader of the posse dismounts and within seconds has sliced them open ‘from crotch to chin’ neatly disembowelling them. Next come the women of the house...

It is May 1455, the start of the Wars of the Roses, and this is the bloodthirsty opening first page of David Saunders’ first foray into authorship.

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It ends 150,000 words and 486 pages later with England still convulsed by the civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster.

It is a rivalry that continues to this day whenever a red-rosed son of Lancashire comes up against the white rose of Yorkshire. But without the bloodlust. Usually.

As you might imagine from that scene-setter, this is no academic treatise on the dynastic wars for the throne of England.

It is more a ripping yarn which places in historical context the bloody, macho times of the Plantagenet line which eventually closed the period in our history known as the Middle Ages.

It’s an era which concludes with the death of Richard III, hacked to death on Bosworth’s battlefield.

But in David’s life, Richard’s demise – our last monarch to die in battle – is a world of late-night and weekend typing away.

That pivotal moment in our history will not come until the third and final part in the trilogy which has consumed most of his waking, non-working, hours.

The Dreams of Kings might be described by David as an entirely self-contained historical novel, but what his intricately-researched book does is explain neatly one of the most confusing periods of our history and one of which many readers might not be aware, or have forgotten about completely.

The extensive cast of key characters, all real, were fighting to get their man, or woman in the case of Margaret of Anjou, the top job in England – running the country from the throne. In their naked ambition to be on the winning side they were out for everything they could get – land, castles, surfs and servants, titles.

There are countless twists and turns and it is gripping. Imagine a cross between Dallas and Twin Peaks and you are half-way there.

And David, 64, paints it all graphically.

Which, in itself, is appropriate. For by day David runs his own painting and decorating business in Portsmouth, while at night he brushes away painstakingly at the intricacies of 15th century political and regal life in England.

Born and bred in Portsmouth (he went to the Southern Grammar School on the corner of Eastern and Tangier roads) he had no special love of history until his mother asked he and his four siblings if one of them would accompany her to the cinema.

He recalls: ‘She loved history and the Laurence Olivier films of Henry V and Richard III had just been re-released.

‘She wanted to see Henry V. None of us wanted to spend an afternoon watching Shakespeare, but I ended up being the one who agreed to keep mum company and towed along.

‘I was 13 or 14 and thought I was in for a really boring time. I’d done bits of Shakespeare at school and found it all rather dry.

‘But as soon as it started I fell in love with the language, the history, the story and then when we went back to see Richard III that just cemented it all for me. I was enthralled and I’ve been in love with our history ever since.’

That image of Olivier playing the evil, hunched Richard – remember, he’s the one who killed the princes, his nephews, in the Tower of London, allegedly – started a lifelong fascination with that king who ruled for just over two years (1483-1485).

‘I read as much as I could about him,’ David continues, ‘but to put him in any sort of context you have to go back to the Wars of the Roses.

‘When I started reading about that period and researching it all, I knew there was a book in it. There were bits missing, bits which historians know nothing about to this day.

‘So I decided to fill them in with what I surmised might have happened.’

So around all the historically accurate parts of the novel are fictitious characters and events which may or may not have happened.’

Portchester Castle, Titchfield Abbey and Spice Island feature in the book. David, of Stubbington Avenue, North End, Portsmouth, explains: ‘Margaret of Anjou arrived at Portchester Castle when she came over from France to marry Henry VI at Titchfield Abbey and Spice Island crops up when young Richard sails from there for France to find a wife for his brother, Edward IV. I thought it would be nice to paint Spice Island as it must have been then with all the sailors and harlots.’

The Dreams of Kings begins with Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, as an 11-year-old boy and the brother of Edward IV.

‘I’ve become totally absorbed by him,’ admits David, who is fully aware that emotions about the last king from the House of York still run high.

‘There are two camps: people who believe he was a white knight, saint and a wonderful fellow who could do no wrong, and the other side who depict him as a black knight who murdered his way to the throne, killed his nephews in the tower and was evil, as in Shakespeare’s depiction.’

And which camp does David fall into?

‘I think he was somewhere in the middle, a man of his time. People forget that those times were totally different to today, very brutal.

‘Remember, Richard had the power of life and death over people. People would not look him in the eye for fear of upsetting him and being summarily executed.

‘He certainly had a temper and I tend to think of him as being like a member of the Mafia, which I think is exactly what the Plantagenets were.

‘He was shaped by the circumstances he was in – not necessarily an evil man, but he certainly was no saint.’

David is revelling in the resurgence of interest in Richard III after a skeleton unearthed in a Leicester car park was, last year, identified as that of the battle-slain monarch.

‘The book has taken me five years to research and then write and I’ve enjoyed it all immensely

‘I loved the process and discipline of writing. It’s something you never get the chance to do when you’re young, no matter how much you have the urge. Work and family get in the way. But now I’ve got the time in the evenings and at weekends to sit down quietly and take myself back to the 15th century and become immersed in a world we can only imagine.’

The Dreams of Kings is published by Shadenet Publishing and is available from Amazon at £11.41 or as an e-book for £2.99.