Ronald Welch (1909-82) was a prolific author of historical fiction for children and young adults. I discovered his work as a thirteen-year-old, when I picked up one of his novels in the school library. As I was already a budding writer and historian, I quickly went on to read several more. However, much as I enjoyed his other books, my first encounter with Welch, Sun of York, remained a steadfast favourite. It was out of print for many years, and for a long time I despaired of ever finding an affordable copy, so I was delighted when it was finally reissued in a beautiful edition from Slightly Foxed.
Sun of York was first published in 1970 (so this was one of Welch’s later books). It tells the story of Owen Lloyd, a young Welshman who takes part in the Wars of the Roses. Following a well-established tradition for historical novels, Owen is a solid, but intelligent protagonist who finds himself involved with much grander personalities. Owen himself is a fictional character (albeit of a type that would have been easily recognised at the time), but the novel also features a large cast of real people – perhaps most notably Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III.
The narrative begins in the late 1460s, when the relationship began to break down between Edward IV and the Earl of Warwick. Owen’s family are from the minor aristocracy, but the family’s fortunes have waned. Owen’s father, Sir Thomas, earned a reputation as a soldier in France – but as he was too young to have taken part in the glorious victories of Henry V and the Duke of Bedford, this brought him little power or wealth. At the beginning of the book Sir Thomas comes across as a disappointed man, a little dishevelled and too fond of wine, and Owen sometimes feels embarrassed by his father. There is also an increasing threat from the Turbervilles, their arrogant neighbours, who aim to supplant the Lloyds and even take their lands.
The Lloyds recognise they need a ‘good lord’ to protect their interests, so the upcoming renewal of civil war provides an opportunity – assuming of course, they choose the right side! At first, they decide to attach themselves to the Earl of Pembroke and his brother, alongside whom they fight at the Battle of Edgecote. Later, however, Owen earns the respect and lordship of the Duke of Gloucester – who is depicted here as a very complex young man. Ultimately, the book ends well for Owen, but there are plenty of ups and downs – and he learns some hard lessons along the way.
Re-reading this book after years of studying the Wars of the Roses, it struck me that Welch was an excellent researcher. He did occasionally change historical details to suit his narrative – to give one example, he altered the timing of the death of Henry VI – but this is scrupulously acknowledged in an author’s note at the end. He evidently did think details matter: not just in terms of the course of political events, but also in terms of the type of armour worn, for example, or what people ate. There is one amusing scene, for instance, when Owen struggles to cope with the rich fare at a royal banquet in London:
Owen did not particularly enjoy the meal […] No cook would deign to serve any food in its natural state, neither fish nor meat, not even such a simple dish as fruit. They were all drowned with spices, and then mashed, minced and pounded with pestle and mortar into a mess until every course tasted much the same. […] But the wine was excellent, and by the end of the meal his head was spinning and his stomach queasy.
At times there is a slightly didactic note to Welch’s writing (this is understandable, as he was a teacher for his ‘day job’), but most of the time he wears his knowledge lightly. There are a few occasions where he might have benefited from new research – we now know, for instance, that gunpowder weapons were used more extensively than was previously thought – but on the whole the book gives an impressive sense of medieval life.
Where the book really shines is in Welch’s depiction of battles – which are fast-paced and engaging, with a convincing description of the tactics and techniques employed at the time. Given this is ostensibly a children’s book, however, the combat scenes are also surprisingly brutal, and Welch gives a sense of the emotions felt on the battlefield. Owen is a courageous soldier, and a complex range of motivations – anger, pride and loyalty – drive him to excel. But Welch also tells us about the fear that men could feel – and, sometimes, the hysterical sense of relief afterwards. To some extent Welch was able to draw upon his own experience, as he had been a soldier himself during the Second World War.
One episode from the book that has always stayed with me is Owen’s first experience of combat. It is no more than a skirmish, but obviously this would have been a key moment in the young Welshman’s life. It all happens very fast – he compares it to the time his father threw him into a pond, to make him swim. And then, suddenly, Owen finds himself in the thick of the action:
He groped for his mace and in front was another horseman, swinging his horse round, sword raised. The blade hissed down, but the Lancastrian was out of reach, hacking wildly, as tense and as wild with excitement as Owen himself.
Our hero will later be marked out as a leader of men, but at this point his inexperience shows – and he is very lucky to survive. Fortunately, however, his father is soon by his side. The two Lloyds fight together for the first time, and Owen grudgingly acknowledges his father’s superior skill. The relationship between the two Lloyds is a key aspect of the book, as Owen comes to understand Sir Thomas better.
Given the emphasis on battles and warfare, Owen’s world is a very masculine one, and for a young man – leaving aside one briefly disconcerting encounter with the ladies of the royal court – he shows a surprising lack of interest in the opposite sex. Doubtless this was a conscious choice on Welch’s part (Owen’s betrothal to a child delays any prospect of marriage), but leaving aside the question of sexual relations, I suspect that most writers today would find more space for the women who cross Owen’s path. Having said that, Welch was concerned to present a somewhat wider view of society, and one of the most interesting characters is a rising merchant whose fortunes become bound up with Owen’s.
For me, re-reading this novel was a nostalgic pleasure – but it has also given me a renewed appreciation for Welch’s deep historical knowledge, as well as the skilful clarity of his writing. I am therefore very confident that Sun of York will still appeal to younger readers who enjoy history – and perhaps also their parents and grandparents too!
Sun of York is available from Slightly Foxed