Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick

Lady of the English 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.

15 thoughts on “Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick

  1. TipiTopi says:

    I like your entries, and the books that you write about. Despite the fact, that I have a couple of her books, I have not read any of them yet. The Wild Hunt, The Marsh King’s Daughter, Lords of the White Castle and The Greatest Knight – do you know them? What do you think which one to read first? I am not familiar with the books of Sharon Penman.

    • Helen says:

      Lords of the White Castle is the one I tried to read a few years ago and couldn’t get into, but I want to try it again soon as I think I was probably just in the wrong mood for it. I loved The Greatest Knight but haven’t read the other two you’ve listed. I hope you enjoy them!

      I’ve only read a few of Penman’s historical fiction novels but they are also very well-researched and well-written. I highly recommend her book about Richard III, The Sunne in Splendour!

  2. Fleur in her World says:

    This was the first of Elizabeth Chadwick’s book that worked for me, and I think I prefer her writing about real historical figures rather than fictional characters placed close to real history.

    I’m looking forward to the Eleanor of Aquitaine books too.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve enjoyed four of her books now so maybe I’ve been lucky in the ones that I’ve chosen to read.

      I’ve read about Eleanor of Aquitaine before but am happy to read her story again!

  3. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    Oh wow this does sound fascinating! Chadwick’s books are quite popular in my library system and hard to get, but I will make a point of getting on the waiting list. I think the plot has intrigued me more than other Chadwick’s I’ve read about.

  4. jessicabookworm says:

    These sound like two fascinating ladies to read about! I’ve heard of Elizabeth Chadwick but haven’t considered reading her work before. Sounds like someone I should be considering though.

  5. Charlie says:

    I’ve a way to go before reading this book (lots on my Chadwick TBR first) but you saying it’s one of your favourites, maybe I ought to move it up the list. I like the way the focus is on the characters. Now you’ve said it I can see the same in the rest of her books. The history itself is important, but the books are character-driven.

  6. Audra (Unabridged Chick) says:

    I’ve never read any Chadwick despite being an avid HF fan — I really need to — I own many of her books and haven’t had a chance yet — perhaps I’ll start this winter! here’s another book I’m adding to the TBR!

    • Helen says:

      I hope you have a chance to try one of her books soon! This might be a good one to start with but I can also recommend any of the other three I’ve read (The Greatest Knight, The Champion and To Defy a King).

  7. Alex from Carlisle says:

    Empress Matilda’s camp versus King Stephen’s camp – one bunch of foreign usurpers squabbling with another bunch of foreign usurpers over who gets to exploit the land the most, with more misery piled on to the English folk. Lady of the English, my arse.

    I’ve only found a handful of novels set before or roundabout the time of the Conquest. One, Aefled and Eleanor, by Val Morgan is set 15-16 years after Hastings and looks at life under Norman rule through the eyes of a village girl. Theresa Tomlinson has written several books set in 7th c. Deira that I enjoyed. I imagine you’ve already read Helen Hollick’s Harold the King.

    You might want to check out Kathleen Herbert too. Her English Heroic Legends, Peace-Weavers & Shield Maidens and Looking for the Lost Gods of England are all fascinating.

    • Helen says:

      Since reading this book I have read a few others set around the time of the Conquest and my favourite so far is Gildenford by Valerie Anand. I’ll look out for the Val Morgan and Theresa Tomlinson books you’ve mentioned. Thanks for the recommendations! The 7th century was a fascinating period – I loved Hild by Nicola Griffith and also the first two books in Edoardo Albert’s new Northumbrian Thrones trilogy.

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