Why are some reviews so much easier to write than others? This one has been sitting half-finished in my drafts folder since the end of July, waiting for inspiration which has never really arrived. This is no reflection on the quality of the book, which I enjoyed as much as all the other Elizabeth Chadwick books I’ve read, but for some reason I’ve had trouble thinking of what I want to say about it.
Anyway, To Defy a King is the story of Mahelt Marshal, the daughter of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and hero of two of Chadwick’s previous novels, The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion. At the age of fourteen Mahelt is married to Hugh Bigod, the son of the Earl of Norfolk, and goes to live with her new family at Framlingham Castle. The Bigods have connections with King John through Hugh’s half-brother, William Longespée, who is also a half-brother of the King. As King John’s relationship with his noblemen slowly worsens and the country descends into war and political turmoil, the Bigod and Marshal families find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Mahelt must try to decide where her allegiances lie – with the family she was born into or with the Bigods and the husband she loves?
A few weeks before reading this book, I had read Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman which covers much of the same period and this was useful as it meant I already had an understanding of some of the history. But where Here Be Dragons gives us a more balanced view of King John, seen through the eyes of his daughter Joanna as well as from the perspective of his many enemies, with this book we are given a very negative portrayal of the King. Anyone who tries to defy him, as Mahelt Marshal does, could be putting themselves and their family in serious danger.
Mahelt is a strong and independent person, who sometimes refuses to behave in the way a woman might be expected to behave during this period, yet she doesn’t feel too ‘modern’ or out of place in her medieval setting. Longespée is another great character and one of my favourites. He is in a difficult position, torn between his loyalty to the King and his relationship with his Bigod family. His rivalry with his half-brother Hugh leads him to do some cruel and insensitive things, but by the end of the book we see that he is not completely beyond redemption and I was happy with the way his character developed.
Although this book is set after The Greatest Knight (which I read last year and can recommend) I don’t think it’s necessary to have read that one first. I haven’t read the sequel to The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion, yet but didn’t feel I had missed anything that was essential to my understanding of this book. There are also two other books I haven’t read, The Time of Singing, which tells the story of Roger Bigod, Hugh’s father, and A Place Beyond Courage, the story of William Marshal’s father, John. While reading the previous novels would help you become more familiar with the backgrounds of some of the characters, To Defy a King is easy enough to follow as a stand-alone novel and is one of my favourite Elizabeth Chadwick books so far.