The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick

I love Elizabeth Chadwick’s books and some of her very best, in my opinion, are the ones she has written about William Marshal – described as ‘the greatest knight that ever lived’ – and his family. In The Scarlet Lion we met William’s wife, Isabelle de Clare; now The Irish Princess tells the story of Isabelle’s parents, Richard de Clare and Aoife MacMurchada. There’s not really a lot of historical information available on Aoife (even how and when she died is unknown) but I know that Elizabeth Chadwick is an author who does her research and I’m sure this novel is as accurate as she could possibly make it.

Born in Ireland in the middle of the 12th century, Aoife is the daughter of Diarmait MacMurchada, King of Leinster. Growing up during a turbulent period of Irish history, Aoife is loved by her father but also valuable to him as a way of forming alliances with those who may be able to help him gain power. When his lands are invaded by a rival and he loses his kingdom of Leinster, Diarmait is forced to flee to Wales and then to England, where he seeks the help of King Henry II. Henry gives him permission to recruit men to try to reclaim his lands – and one of those who agrees to join him is Richard de Clare, lord of Striguil.

Richard had fought on the ‘wrong side’ in the recent civil war between Henry II’s mother, Empress Matilda, and her cousin, King Stephen. Now that Henry has come to the throne of England, Richard, who had been one of Stephen’s supporters, has found himself disinherited and out of favour with the new king. When Diarmait offers him Aoife as a wife in return for his assistance in Ireland, Richard sees this as an opportunity to regain power and influence. But this is no unhappy, forced marriage; when Aoife meets the man who is to become her new husband, she finds that he is a man she is able to love and trust.

I liked Aoife and thought she was a great subject for historical fiction, particularly as she’s somebody who isn’t written about very often. Although it may seem at first that she is little more than a pawn to be used in the schemes of men, it quickly becomes clear that Aoife has a mind of her own and is quite capable of coming up with her own plans and schemes, especially in her dealings with Henry II, in order to get what she wants from life. Richard proves to be the perfect partner for her; although they don’t always see eye to eye they treat each other with respect and I loved watching them settle into their marriage over the course of the novel. Richard, nicknamed Strongbow (thought to be derived from the word ‘Striguil’ rather than a reference to his skill with a bow), is also an interesting character in his own right and I enjoyed getting to know him as well as Aoife.

Although the relationship between Aoife and Richard is at the heart of the novel – there is a stronger romantic element here than in Chadwick’s last few books, I think – their personal stories fit seamlessly into the history of the period and the events of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland are clearly described so you should find it all easy enough to follow even if, like me, you start the novel with little or no knowledge. I don’t think I would rank this book amongst my favourites by Elizabeth Chadwick as I found it a bit too long for the story being told and slightly repetitive at times, but it’s still a very enjoyable read and a good opportunity to meet two historical characters who are rarely given much attention.

Thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Love Without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard by Melvyn Bragg

I’ve never read anything by Melvyn Bragg before, although he has been writing since the 1960s and most of his novels fall into my favourite genre, historical fiction. His new book, Love Without End, a retelling of the story of Abelard and Heloise – often described as one of the greatest love stories of all time – sounded appealing to me, so I thought I would give it a try.

The novel opens in 12th century Paris, where Heloise is living with her uncle, the canon Fulbert. She is intelligent, resourceful and exceptionally well educated for a woman of her time, particularly in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. When the renowned philosopher and scholar Peter Abelard returns to Paris after an absence of a few years, Heloise longs to go and sit with the male students listening to his lectures, but she is aware that this is an opportunity open only to men. A solution is found when Canon Fulbert allows Abelard to join his household as private tutor to Heloise, but he quickly comes to regret this decision when he discovers that his niece and her tutor have fallen in love.

I’m not going to say any more about the legend of Heloise and Abelard – if you don’t already know the story you probably don’t want me to spoil it for you, and it’s so well documented the details can easily be looked up online anyway. All I will say is that, like Romeo and Juliet and other legendary lovers, their romance is dramatic and tragic. Melvyn Bragg’s account follows the usual, accepted outline of the story, using sources such as the Penguin Classics collection of the translated letters of Abelard and Heloise, although he also uses his imagination to fill in some of the gaps and mixes some fictional characters in with the real historical ones.

Despite all the drama and tragedy, however, I found this novel strangely flat and emotionless. There seemed to be no real chemistry between Heloise and Abelard; although Bragg tells us that they are passionately in love, I never really felt that for myself. Even the setting never came to life; I wanted to know what it felt like to live in 12th century Paris, what it looked like, sounded like, smelled like…but instead I came away with the feeling that the story might as well have been taking place in any city and at any time.

Even so, I might have still enjoyed this book if it had just concentrated solely on the story of Abelard and Heloise. Recently, though, I’m finding that authors rarely seem to write books set entirely in the past anymore. Instead we get two alternating storylines – one set in the past and one in the present. In this case, the present day story follows an author, Arthur, who is visiting Paris with his daughter, Julia, to finish researching and writing a novel about Abelard and Heloise. It is supposedly Arthur’s novel that we are reading in the historical chapters, while in the modern day chapters he and Julia talk about his work and how he has interpreted various parts of the Abelard and Heloise legend.

The Arthur and Julia storyline appears to exist purely as a way for Bragg to discuss and comment on various aspects of the relationship between Heloise and Abelard or to explain things for the benefit of the modern reader, rather than leaving us to reach our own conclusions. Most of the discussions involve Julia questioning Abelard’s behaviour and Arthur trying to defend him by pointing out that she needs to put things into historical context and judge Abelard by the standards of the 12th century instead of the 21st. I found both Arthur and Julia very irritating; their dialogue seemed unnatural and not the way two people would speak to each other in real life. They just didn’t feel like real human beings at all and were a distraction from the Heloise and Abelard story rather than an interesting addition to it.

This was disappointing, but if you’ve enjoyed any of Melvyn Bragg’s other books maybe you can convince me to give him another chance? Also, if anyone has read anything else about Abelard and Heloise – or even some of the original letters and writings – please let me know what you would recommend.

Thanks to Skyhorse Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Drowned Court by Tracey Warr

This is the second of a trilogy of novels telling the story of the Welsh princess Nest ferch Rhys. I read the first book, Daughter of the Last King, in 2017 and enjoyed learning about this little-known historical figure, so a few weeks ago I decided it was time I picked up the next volume and continued Nest’s story.

In Daughter of the Last King, Nest’s father – the king of Deheubarth – is killed in battle and the twelve-year-old Nest is taken captive. The novel goes on to describe her years of captivity in the household of the powerful Montgommery family and the eventual downfall of that family, her time as mistress to King Henry I and her marriage to Gerald Fitzwalter, the Norman castellan of Pembroke Castle.

Book two, The Drowned Court, begins in the year 1107 and we see that Nest has been settling into married life with Gerald. Although he is not the husband she would have chosen, Nest is growing fond of Gerald and the couple already have several half-Norman/half-Welsh children. However, Nest still can’t stop thinking about Owain ap Cadwgan, the Welsh prince of Powys to whom she had once been betrothed. It seems that Owain has not forgotten her either, but the time for him to come to her rescue has long passed; if he enters her life again now it can only cause trouble for Nest and her family. Meanwhile, her brother Gruffudd ap Rhys, is gathering support in an attempt to reclaim his kingdom, putting further strain on Nest’s loyalties as she becomes torn between her Welsh past and her Norman present.

As in the first book, Nest’s story alternates with the story of Sister Benedicta, a nun at Almenêches in Normandy whose brother, the Flemish knight Haith, is in the service of Nest and Gerald. Benedicta is a fictitious character and played a fairly minor role in the previous book; she is much more prominent in this one as her skills as a scribe earn her a place in a network of spies run by Henry I’s sister, Adela of Blois. Writing part of the novel from Benedicta’s point of view allows Tracey Warr to explore some of the political developments taking place in Europe which would have been out of the range of Nest’s own experience, but I have to admit that I never felt fully engaged with these sections of the book and was always glad to get back to Nest’s more personal story.

I knew nothing at all about Nest ferch Rhys before reading these books and I have resisted looking up the details of her life, so I never had any idea what was going to happen next and could just enjoy watching her story unfold and knowing that I was learning something new along the way. However, this also means that I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy. All I can say is that the book does feel as though it has been well researched, but as very little is known about Nest anyway, a lot of imagination has obviously had to be used to fill in the gaps between the historical facts.

The final book in the trilogy is not available yet but it will be called The Anarchy. I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing how Nest’s story concludes.

The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin

This is the second novel in Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar mystery series, set in the 12th century. My feelings about the first book – Mistress of the Art of Death – were quite mixed (I liked the medieval setting but found the dialogue and the main character too modern), but I wanted to try at least one more in the series and came across this one in the library a few weeks ago.

If you’re new to these books, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the previous one before reading this one. The Death Maze, which has also been published under the title The Serpent’s Tale, begins with the poisoning of Rosamund Clifford, Henry II’s mistress. Henry’s estranged queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is immediately suspected, being the person with the most obvious motive for wanting The Fair Rosamund dead. If this is true, the repercussions could be huge and could lead the country into civil war. The king needs someone to investigate on his behalf – and so he summons Adelia Aguilar, his ‘mistress of the art of death’.

Adelia, before coming to England, had studied medicine at the famous medical school in Salerno which accepted female students as well as men. Since solving her first case for Henry II (a series of child murders which formed the basis of the previous novel), she has been living a quiet life in the countryside with her baby daughter, Allie, and it is with some reluctance that she agrees to undertake this new task. The king cannot be refused, of course, so Adelia soon finds herself setting off for Rosamund’s castle, escorted by Rowley Picot, her former lover, now the Bishop of St Albans. During their investigations, they are taken captive by Eleanor and her supporters, but when snow begins to fall the whole party become trapped for the winter at the nunnery in Godstow, where the mystery deepens as more murders take place.

In some ways, I enjoyed this book more than the first one. I thought the mystery was more complex – and certainly not as dark and disturbing as the previous one. I didn’t guess who the murderer was, although I had my suspicions, but I think we were given enough clues to work it out with no unfair surprises or information being withheld.

This is a period of history I always find interesting to read about and I felt that the portrayals of real historical figures in this book, such as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, were very different from the way they have been depicted in other novels I’ve read. Eleanor is certainly not the sympathetic, admirable character she is in Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Summer Queen trilogy, for example – she comes across as quite selfish and petulant. Most of the other characters, though, are fictional – as is most of the plot, including many of the details of Rosamund Clifford’s story. I did like the descriptions of the maze of hedges surrounding Rosamund’s tower; the scene where Adelia and her friends try to find their way through it reminded me of the famous Hampton Court Maze episode in Three Men in a Boat.

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ Adelia shouted. She faced Rowley. ‘Don’t you see, if a maze is continuous, if there aren’t any breaks, and if all the hedges are connected to each other and you follow one of them and stick rigidly to it wherever it goes, you’ll traverse it eventually, you must, it’s inevitable, only…’ Her voice diminished in misery, ‘I chose the left-hand hedge. It was the wrong one.’

As for Adelia herself, I can’t make up my mind about her. I do like her as a character because she has all the qualities I admire in a heroine – intelligence, courage and independence, as well as a passion for her career which made her turn down the chance of marriage to Rowley as she knew that would bring her medical work to an end. However, she is the sort of heroine I would expect to find in a much more modern setting; her behaviour and attitudes make her very unconvincing as a medieval woman. I could say the same about the language Ariana Franklin uses, which I think also often feels far too modern for the time period. I suppose whether or not you will enjoy these books depends on how important those things are to you, but I always struggle to overlook them.

I’m not sure if I will read any more of the Adelia Aguilar books, but I might try one of Ariana Franklin’s earlier novels published under her real name, Diana Norman.

Cruel as the Grave by Sharon Penman

This is the second book in Sharon Penman’s Justin de Quincy mystery series set in medieval England. I liked but didn’t love the first one, The Queen’s Man, which is why it has taken me a while to get round to continuing, but I’m pleased to report that I found Cruel as the Grave a stronger and more enjoyable book. You could start with this one if you wanted to – there are some recurring characters but it works perfectly well as a standalone mystery.

In this book, set in 1193, Justin de Quincy, illegitimate son of the Bishop of Chester, is investigating the murder of Melangell, a young Welsh girl found dead in a London churchyard. The main suspects are the two sons of a wealthy merchant – the handsome, favoured eldest son, Geoffrey Aston, and his bitter, envious, younger brother Daniel. The Aston family are expecting Justin to clear the boys’ names, but as he delves deeper into the circumstances surrounding Melangell’s death, he is not sure he will be able to do that. The more he learns about the girl, a poor pedlar’s daughter, the more he begins to feel an affinity with her and he becomes determined to bring her killer to justice no matter what.

Meanwhile, two other brothers are also causing problems for Justin. The King of England, Richard I – the Lionheart – has been captured by the Duke of Austria and handed over as a prisoner to the Holy Roman Emperor. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is looking for a way to free him from captivity. In Richard’s absence, his younger brother John is plotting to take the crown for himself and has seized control of Windsor Castle. As Justin has assisted Eleanor in the past, she turns to him again for help.

Justin’s two missions are quite separate – one having implications for the whole country and the other much more intimate, affecting only a small number of people – but there are some parallels, such as the relationship between Geoffrey and Daniel resembling the one between Richard and John. The two storylines alternate throughout the book, but plenty of time is devoted to each one and I found them both interesting. As a murder mystery it is more tightly plotted than the first book in the series and although the culprit turned out to be the person I had suspected almost from the beginning, I still enjoyed watching the truth unfold.

Penman is better known for her long, sweeping historical novels such as Here Be Dragons and The Sunne in Splendour. Her mystery novels are much shorter, quicker reads but they still immerse the reader in the medieval period, giving us enough information to set the story in its historical context without going into a huge amount of detail. Justin himself, although perfectly likeable, continues to be slightly bland and forgettable, but the characters around him are strong and vibrant; his relationship with the queen’s lady, Claudine, is particularly intriguing and develops further in this book. I also loved Penman’s portrayal of the future King John – charismatic, complex and unpredictable:

Unlike Durand, John was not hostile. He seemed curious, almost friendly, as if welcoming a distraction midst the monotony of the siege. The Prince of Darkness. Justin wondered suddenly if John knew about Claudine’s private jest. He suspected that John would have been flattered, not offended. He must not let down his guard with this man. John could as easily doom him with a smile as with a curse.

I’ll think about reading the other two books in the series next time I’m in the mood for a medieval murder mystery, but first I really need to read The Reckoning, the final book in her Welsh Princes Trilogy, which I’ve had on my shelf since finishing the previous one, Falls the Shadow!

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: mystery).

Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick

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.

A Morbid Taste For Bones by Ellis Peters #1977club

This week, Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their clubs where bloggers read and write about books published in one particular year. The chosen year this time is 1977 and although at first I thought I might have problems finding anything I wanted to read from that year, it turned out I had two suitable books already. One of them was A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first book in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mystery series. I’ve been meaning to read this series for years, so 1977 Club seemed like the perfect opportunity to begin!

A Morbid Taste for Bones is set in the spring of 1137 and we first meet Brother Cadfael in the gardens of Shrewsbury Abbey tending the herbs with the assistance of two younger monks, John and Columbanus. John is a down-to-earth, practical young man, although Cadfael doubts whether he has a true vocation for the religious life, while Columbanus is starting to make a name for himself with his visions and dramatic ‘falling fits’. Returning from a trip to St Winifred’s Well in Gwytherin, North Wales, Columbanus claims that the saint has appeared to him, saying that her bones are being neglected by the people of Gwytherin and that she would like to be moved to Shrewsbury Abbey where more pilgrims will be able to visit her. Cadfael can’t help thinking that this seems very convenient, as Prior Robert has been considering ways to attract pilgrims to the Abbey and obtaining the bones of a saint would be the perfect solution!

As a Welshman, Cadfael is chosen as one of a small party of monks to travel into Wales and bring the saint’s relics back to Shrewsbury. However, when they reach Gwytherin they are met with resistance from the local people who don’t want to lose Winifred, especially not to England. Tensions rise and when a murder takes place in the woods, Cadfael works with the victim’s daughter to try to find the killer before an innocent man is accused.

I enjoyed my first Cadfael novel and part of the reason for that was because I really liked the character of Cadfael himself, with his mixture of warmth and intelligence, tolerance and imagination. Having entered the monastery later in life, he has a sort of worldliness that helps him to understand the feelings and motivations of people in the ‘outside world’. This allows him to have some sympathy for Brother John, who is struggling to reconcile his faith with other temptations, and also for Sioned, the young woman from Gwytherin whose father’s murder forms the mystery aspect of the novel.

I loved the way Peters portrays life in a small Welsh community: the village hierarchy, the farming of the land, what people did for entertainment, and most of all, how they felt about monks from England coming to take away the remains of a Welsh saint against their will. I was interested to learn, after finishing the book, that this was based on historical fact and Winifred’s relics really were taken from Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey where they remained until the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a heavy or dry historical novel, though, because it isn’t – I found it entertaining and very readable. I already knew I liked Ellis Peters’ writing because I read one of her Cadfael short stories in a Christmas anthology last year, but I think her style is better suited to a full-length novel than it is to the shorter form and I enjoyed this much more. It’s also a good example of how to write a murder mystery without including an excessive amount of violence or unnecessarily graphic descriptions. A good choice for 1977 Club and a promising start to a new series for me!

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I should have another 1977 book to tell you about later in the week, but for now here are a few older reviews I have posted of books published in that year:

The Brethren by Robert Merle
The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian
Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell
Gildenford by Valerie Anand