In her latest novel, Templar Silks, Elizabeth Chadwick returns to the hero of her earlier books The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion: William Marshal, knight, soldier, statesman and adviser to kings of England. Unlike those other two books, which took us right through William’s life and career, from youth to death, Templar Silks concentrates on one specific episode – William’s journey to the Holy Land – which was mentioned only briefly in The Greatest Knight.
The novel opens in April 1219 with William on his deathbed, surrounded by family and friends at his home in England, Caversham Manor. Before he dies, he asks his squire to bring him the silk burial shrouds he was given by the Templars in the Holy Land thirty years ago. As he waits the arrival of the silks, he looks back on the long-ago adventure that shaped the rest of his life.
In 1183, William was in the service of Henry II’s eldest son, known as the Young King. In need of money to pay his soldiers, the Young King gives orders to raid the shrine of Rocamadour, but falls ill with dysentery shortly afterwards. Aware of the sacrilege he has committed, his dying wish is for William to atone for his sins by taking his cloak to Jerusalem and placing it on Christ’s tomb. Still unmarried at this point and free from the greater responsibilities he will hold in later life, William is happy to undertake the pilgrimage, but the journey proves to be even more eventful and dramatic than he had expected.
William spent three years on his pilgrimage but historians know very little about what actually happened during this period of his life. This allows Elizabeth Chadwick to use her imagination to create William’s story – and with her own knowledge of the medieval world and the political situation in 12th century Jerusalem, she is able to make his actions feel plausible and realistic.
William is accompanied on his journey by a small party of fellow knights and squires, two Templar Knights who act as guides, and his younger brother Ancel. There is no historical evidence that Ancel took part in the pilgrimage – in fact, he is barely mentioned in historical records at all – but the relationship between the brothers was one of my favourite aspects of the book. Ancel and William are very different people, with Ancel depicted as more sensitive, more cautious, and not as quick to learn when it comes to fighting, jousting and other knightly pursuits. There are times when they become frustrated with each other, but the love and loyalty between them is always plain to see.
And William needs all the loyal friends he can find if he is going to survive this difficult mission. After a traumatic experience in Constantinople, he and his men arrive in Jerusalem to find this most holy of cities approaching a moment of crisis. King Baldwin is dying of leprosy and his nephew, his only heir, is too young to rule. Baldwin’s brother-in-law, Guy de Lusignan, is the next most logical contender, but Guy has many rivals and Jerusalem desperately needs strong, united leadership to deal with the threat of Saladin. William has more reason than most to dislike Guy, who was responsible for his uncle’s death several years earlier, but choosing to support another claimant could lead him into even more danger.
Due to the nature of the story, the setting and the focus on politics and the military, most of the main characters in this particular novel are male, but there is one female character who has a large role to play during William’s time in Jerusalem. She is Paschia de Riveri, the beautiful concubine of the Patriarch Heraclius. It is never very clear what Paschia’s motives are or how she truly feels, but as William became more entangled in her schemes, I couldn’t help thinking that it would all end unhappily for him – while hoping, for his sake, that I was wrong.
I enjoyed Templar Silks, with all of its adventure and intrigue, but it does feel a bit different from Elizabeth Chadwick’s other recent novels such as her Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy and Lady of the English, which are more biographical and cover much longer time periods. It seems that Chadwick is not ready to leave the Marshals behind just yet; her next novel, The Irish Princess, is going to be about the parents of William’s wife, Isabelle de Clare.
Thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.