The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Knights of the White Rose (1897)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Knights of the White Rose was written by “George Griffith.” “Griffith” was the pseudonym of George Chetwynd Griffith Jones (1857-1906), a British journalist and prolific writer of adventure fiction, historical novels, and science fiction. Although not a good writer, he was extremely popular—for a time he was more popular and successful than H.G. Wells, who thought little of Griffith—and embodied many of the worst aspects of the imperial British worldview.

The Knights of the White Rose is set in the late seventeenth century. Eustace Ferrers is a young English noble who at age sixteen marries his twelve-year-old sweetheart Muriel, kisses her farewell, and leaves for the Continent to learn the noble arts of war. Eustace’s highest dream is to return to England an accomplished soldier and respectable man, reunite with Muriel, and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, while Eustace is in France, King James the Second is deposed by William of Orange, and the legal guardian of Eustace’s estate, Lord Colchester, summons Eustace back to England to swear allegiance to the new King, William the First. Eustace considers his loyalty to lie with King James and defies Lord Colchester. Eustace flees to the court of St. Germain along with many other Jacobites, and Eustace and his two best friends swear an oath to be the “Knights of the White Rose,” faithful to their true king and their lady loves. Lord Colchester takes away Eustace’s estates, as Eustace expected, but also cuts him off from Muriel (who is still only sixteen). The Knights fight in Germany, and disgrace themselves in their own eyes by participating in the razing of the country. Then they take part in King James’ invasion of Ireland. They find it a howling wasteland, destroyed by Orangemen in advance of their landing. Eustace and the other Knights save a group of villagers from a band of attacking, rapacious Enniskilleners and save the life of Nora, the sweetheart of Maurice, Eustace’s comrade. The Knights lay siege to Londonderry, but King James’ vacillating leads to much needless bloodshed and prevents the Knights from taking the city. They lay siege to it in a desultory fashion (they are badly lacking supplies) for months until their commander, De Rosens, threatens to slaughter the civilians in the area unless they surrender. This drives Eustace and the Knights to threaten to rebel unless the order is countermanded, which it is. The siege drags on. Eustace and Maurice decide to sally inside Londonderry and kidnap Jessie, the love of Kenneth, Eustace and Maurice’s comrade in arms. The capture Adam Murray, one of the leaders of the Derry forces and an enemy honorable and valiant enough that Eustace sincerely wishes they could have been friends, and try to exchange Adam for Jessie, his sister. The attempt fails, however, and the ships which have been bombarding Derry from the harbor are withdrawn, which is a major defeat for James’ troops. James withdraws his men from Derry, giving up the siege, and the Knights are forced to withdraw across Ireland to Dublin. William the Orange lands with his army, and when James brings his armies to fight William, the ensuing Battle of the Boyne goes badly for James and the Knights. Kenneth is killed in the fight, Maurice is wounded, and James’ forces are routed.

As Eustace and the Knights are retreating Eustace sees his cousin Markham, who had feelings for Muriel and who Eustace suspected of having made advances to Muriel while Eustace was outlawed. Eustace and Markham fight, and Eustace chops off Markham’s ear and scars his face. Eustace is unable to kill him, however, and is forced to retreat with the Knights. James retreats to Dublin and then flees to France. Disgusted with James, Eustace dissolves the Knights and departs to France to resume service under King Louis. William of Orange takes power and becomes King William III. He issues lists of traitors, those who fought against him and for James, and one of those is Eustace. After several months of war Eustace distinguishes himself in battle at Namur, enough for Louis to grant Eustace a personal audience. Eustace explains his situation and tells Louis about Muriel, and Louis gives Eustace a thousand louis and his blessing to go to England. Eustace rides to the coast, but when he looks for transportation to England he falls among bad companions who are plotting to kill King William. Eustace overhears their plotting and steals an incriminating letter. Once he arrives in England he turns the letter over to a honorable noble and goes with the man to see King William. William is cold toward Eustace, but Eustace knows that William is honorable and trusts him enough to surrender himself to William. After several weeks, William releases Eustace and pardons him, telling him that King Louis of France wrote to William explaining what had happened. Eustace is reunited with Muriel, and they live happily ever after.

The Knights of the White Rose is an above-average historical romance. Griffith is best-known now for his science fiction, especially the Angel of the Revolution/Olga Romanoff pair, but he also wrote several historical romances, such as Valdar the Oft-Born. Valdar suffered because of a few bad authorial choices, but thankfully Knights is much better. Griffith’s flaws as a writer are kept to a minimum. The characterization in Knights is acceptable, if facile and shallow, and with the exception of the section in which Eustace and the Knights save Nora, Griffith keeps the plot pointed in the right direction and maintains an even pace. Griffith sticks closely to the historical record, and the story is generally slickly and professionally told. If the reader is not emotionally involved with any of the characters, they will not be repelled by them either, and the good feelings generated during the final encounter between Eustace and King William, who is the most memorable character of the novel, are honestly come by on Griffith’s part.

The history-conscious modern reader is likely to find one aspect of Knights to be slightly bothersome. Griffith is historically accurate in Knights, and that extends to describing, repeatedly, the horrific effects of the war on the Irish people and landscape. Griffith seems to make a good faith effort to disabuse both Eustace and the reader of the idea that war is just one big chivalric game. But despite Griffith’s numerous descriptions of the destruction wrought on Ireland and its peasantry by the passing armies, of both sides, Griffith’s heart never seems to be in it. Knights is a high historical romance, essentially concerned with the doings of the nobility and the fates of countries, and high historical romances place less value on the common people and implicitly count their suffering as less than that of the nobility. Even though Griffith does try to emphasize what James’ and Eustace’s war did to the peasantry, and even though Griffith follows the historical record and puts the most savage acts of the war on James’ side, the final impression the reader gets is that war, for Eustace and for Griffith, is more an enjoyable profession than anything else.

Recommended Edition

Print: George Griffith, The Knights of the White Rose. London: F.V. White, 1897.