This is the second of Elizabeth Chadwick’s two novels covering the life of William Marshal, knight, soldier, statesman and adviser to four kings of England. I read the first book, The Greatest Knight, seven years ago but it was only when I discovered that Chadwick’s newest book, Templar Silks, was also about William Marshal that I remembered I still needed to read this one. Despite leaving such a long gap between the two novels, I was pleased to find that, as soon as I opened The Scarlet Lion, I was able to get straight into the story – in fact, if you wanted to read this book without having read the first it wouldn’t be a problem at all, although I would still recommend reading both.
The Scarlet Lion, which is as much the story of William’s wife, Isabelle de Clare, as it is of William himself, covers the period between 1197 and 1219. Early in the novel, King Richard I dies with no legitimate children of his own, leaving the succession to the throne of England in doubt. William supports the claim of Richard’s only surviving brother, John, ahead of Richard’s nephew, Arthur of Brittany, but as soon as John becomes king he begins to repay William’s loyalty with hostility and cruelty.
Tensions increase following negotiations over William’s lands in Normandy, for which he has to pay homage to the King of France. No longer as welcome at court as they once were, William and Isabelle retreat to Leinster in Ireland, only to find that John’s justiciar, Meilyr FitzHenry, has been sent to invade their Irish lands. John also asks for their two eldest sons as hostages and Isabelle is devastated when William agrees, putting their marriage under real strain for the first time.
I enjoyed this book as much as I remembered enjoying the first one and it was nice to finish William’s story at last! Having recently read The Autumn Throne, the third of Chadwick’s Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy which covers roughly the same period and in which William appears as a secondary character, it was interesting to read about some of the same events again, this time with a focus on William’s family rather than Eleanor’s. The different perspective means that John, who was given a more balanced portrayal in The Autumn Throne, is very much the villain in this book and it’s easy to see why Isabelle is so worried about her sons being sent into his care. The fact that William is willing to let them go provides the first real test for their otherwise happy marriage.
William is a great character, but I already knew that from The Greatest Knight, so I particularly enjoyed getting to know Isabelle in this book. Being much younger than her husband, a lot of her time is taken up with giving birth to their ten children, but we also see her develop into a strong, independent woman who, during William’s absences, is able to make decisions and defend their Irish lands. Despite their disagreement over the hostage situation they have a wonderful partnership and a deep understanding of each other.
The Scarlet Lion takes us right up to final hours of William’s life, which as you can imagine, is a sad and poignant conclusion to the novel, but nobody could say that he hadn’t had an eventful and fulfilling life! I have just started Templar Silks and am looking forward to learning more about William’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1183.