Despite my love of historical fiction and interest in medieval history, I only discovered that I liked Elizabeth Chadwick’s books relatively recently. I had previously tried one of her books and couldn’t get into it, so had dismissed her as not for me, but decided to give her another chance a couple of years ago and am glad I did as I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her since then. When it comes to the medieval period, she and Sharon Penman are two of the best authors I’ve found.
Lady of the English is the story of two women: Empress Matilda, the daughter and heir of King Henry I, and her stepmother, Queen Adeliza of Louvain. In 1125, following the death of her husband, the German Emperor, Matilda returns to England where she sees her father again after an absence of many years and meets his second wife, Adeliza, for the first time. Adeliza is about the same age as Matilda and the two soon become close friends despite their very different characters – Matilda is a strong, proud woman while Adeliza has a warmer, gentler personality.
Then Matilda’s father arranges for her to marry Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and she has to leave England behind again. It’s not a happy marriage – with Matilda being more than ten years older than the fourteen year old Geoffrey, they have little in common and Geoffrey is resentful and violent – but they do have three sons together. When Henry I dies with no other heirs (his only legitimate son had died in the sinking of the White Ship in 1120), his nephew Stephen of Blois claims the throne, ignoring the fact that before his death the King had made his barons swear to support Matilda as their queen. With Matilda and Geoffrey vowing to win back both England and Normandy for their eldest son, the future Henry II, civil war breaks out – and for Adeliza, whose second husband William d’Albini, 1st Earl of Arundel, is a loyal supporter of Stephen’s, life is about to become very complicated.
Lady of the English is possibly my favourite Elizabeth Chadwick novel so far. I was already familiar with some of the basic facts surrounding Matilda, Stephen and this period of history, but most of the story was new to me. Chadwick includes enough information on politics and battles to give you a good understanding of what’s going on, but the focus is always on the characters and the complex relationships between them. I’ve never read about Adeliza before and I thought it was a good idea to tell part of the story from her perspective as well as from Matilda’s, particularly as the two women were so different.
I really liked Adeliza and could sympathise with her position, torn between love for her second husband and loyalty to her stepdaughter, who she believes to be the rightful ruler of England. Chadwick also does a good job of showing how Adeliza becomes frustrated and heartbroken at her inability to have children with the King and her failure to fulfil what she sees as her duty to provide him with a male heir. I imagine there probably isn’t as much factual information available on Adeliza’s life as there is on Matilda’s, so I think Chadwick has done well to fill in the gaps and create such a believable, well-developed character. Matilda was not as easy to like, though I think that was probably the point, and despite her sharp tongue and often hard exterior, there was something about Matilda’s personality that inspired loyalty and made powerful men (not only her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester but also men such as Brian Fitzcount of Wallingford) decide to support her claim rather than Stephen’s.
I loved this book and enjoyed getting to know both of these fascinating ‘ladies of the English’! This is only the fourth Elizabeth Chadwick book I’ve read and I’m pleased I still have lots of her older books to explore as well as looking forward to her forthcoming trilogy on Eleanor of Aquitaine.