The Scarlet Lion by Elizabeth Chadwick

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.

The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick

This is the third part of Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy telling the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine in fictional form. I love Chadwick’s portrayal of Eleanor (or Alienor, as her name is spelled throughout the trilogy) and having enjoyed both The Summer Queen and The Winter Crown, I was hoping that The Autumn Throne would be just as good. As the title suggests, she is entering the ‘autumn’ of her life in this final novel but remains close to the throne in one way or another.

As well as being Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, Alienor was also Queen of France through her first marriage to Louis VII and then Queen of England as the wife of Henry II. Following Henry’s death, she would also be mother to two more kings of England: Richard I (the Lionheart) and John. The Autumn Throne, though, begins while Henry is still very much alive and has had Alienor imprisoned at Sarum in Wiltshire as punishment for supporting their sons in a rebellion against him. It’s 1176 and Alienor will remain in captivity for another thirteen years.

I was surprised to find that during the long years of her imprisonment, Alienor actually spends quite a lot of time visiting various castles and palaces, being brought out of confinement whenever it suits Henry to have her present at court celebrations and rituals. She also manages to have some contact with her sons and daughters and with her good friend, Isabel de Warenne, who is married to Henry’s half-brother Hamelin. This means that Alienor is not as cut off from the world as you might imagine and that, as the years go by, she (and through her, the reader) is kept informed of her children’s marriages, Henry’s plans for his kingdom, and important events taking place in Europe and beyond.

Alienor’s feelings towards Henry are portrayed in a way that feels plausible and realistic. There are times when she hates him for what he has done to her and the way he is treating their sons, but also times when she feels sorrow for the husband she once loved and regret that things have turned out this way. Still, it’s hard not to be relieved for Alienor’s sake when Henry finally dies and she is set free at last. After this, Alienor’s relationships with her two surviving sons, Richard and John, come to the forefront of the novel. I have to say, as far as kings of England go, Richard I has never been one of my favourites, partly due to the fact that he spent very little time actually in England. Alienor, though, makes no secret of the fact that he is the son she loves most. She is shown here to have at least some influence over his decision-making and to be trusted with playing a role in the running of the country while Richard is away taking part in the Third Crusade.

The most interesting character in the novel, apart from Alienor herself, is probably John. I have read several fictional portrayals of John, some which cast him as a villain and others which give a more balanced view – this one falls into the second category. He begins the book as an ambitious, calculating boy who does as he pleases without thinking of the consequences; he is much the same as he grows into a man, but his relationships with Alienor and his illegitimate son Richard show he is more complex than that and has enough good qualities to make people care about him.

I have had a lot of sympathy for Alienor throughout this series, but more than ever in this final book as she suffers the loss of one adult son or daughter after another. Of the eight children Alienor has with Henry, only two are still alive by the time of her death. Alienor herself lives into her eighties and it’s sad that she doesn’t have much time to relax in her old age. She is in her seventies when John sends her on the long journey to Castile to select one of his nieces as a bride for the King of France’s heir – and just two or three years before her death, she is being besieged in her castle of Mirebeau by one of her own grandsons!

With this novel covering the last thirty years of Alienor’s life, ending with her death at Fontevraud in April 1204, it does feel very long and drawn out at times. I kept wondering whether there were things that could have been left out to make it a bit shorter, though it’s hard to say which scenes could be omitted without disturbing the course of Alienor’s story. I did enjoy this book just as much as the first two in the trilogy, but I’m glad it’s been a while since I read the last one – I think if I’d read the three books one after the other it would have been too much for me!

In Elizabeth Chadwick’s next book, Templar Silks, she is returning to the story of William Marshal, hero of The Greatest Knight. William made a few appearances in The Autumn Throne where his story overlapped with Alienor’s and I’m looking forward to meeting him again. Templar Silks will be published in 2018, but I also have some of Chadwick’s earlier novels still unread on my TBR.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland

The Raven’s Head is a dark tale of magic and alchemy, murder and blackmail, set in the early thirteenth century. Earlier this year I read my first Karen Maitland novel, The Vanishing Witch, and loved the combination of history, mystery and the supernatural. This book includes the same elements but the supernatural one is particularly strong, making this a darker and more atmospheric read.

The Ravens Head The story revolves around three young people who are drawn into an alchemist’s search for power. Beginning in France in 1224, we meet seventeen-year-old Vincent, apprentice to a scribe in the service of Philippe, the Comte de Lingones. Bored with life in Philippe’s chateau, Vincent tries to blackmail the Comte, but when his attempt fails he finds himself on the run in possession of a silver raven’s head which seems to have a mind of its own.

In England, meanwhile, a young woman called Gisa is working as an assistant to her uncle, an apothecary, when she comes to the attention of the sinister Lord Sylvain who enlists her help with his secret experiments. Nearby, a group of white-robed priests known as the White Canons are running a small and exclusive school for young boys. One of these boys is five-year-old Wilky, taken from his parents as payment of a debt, and renamed Regulus. When Wilky’s friends start disappearing from their beds in the middle of the night never to return, the boys begin to wonder what is really going on.

I loved the first half of this book and was intrigued by the circumstances of each of our three main characters. I found Vincent’s story particularly gripping, possibly because his chapters were narrated in the first person and this made it easier for me to connect with him. The other two storylines were written in third person present tense and although I’m not really sure why this was necessary, it did help to distinguish Gisa’s and Wilky’s sections from Vincent’s. I was curious to see how the story would develop for each character and how their separate threads of the novel would eventually be woven together.

The book failed to hold my interest right to the end, unfortunately. Somewhere in the second half, I thought the plot started to lose its way and descend into a string of action sequences, alchemical experiments and gruesome secret rituals. I’m sure other readers will enjoy all of this more than I did; I do like historical fiction with a touch of the supernatural, but I prefer it to be more subtle than it is here. After so much build-up and so much care taken in setting the scene and introducing the characters, I was left slightly disappointed at the end.

This is a wonderfully atmospheric and eerie novel, though. The parts of the story told from Wilky’s perspective are particularly effective in that respect – seen through the eyes of a little boy who has no idea what is happening, the world of the White Canons is both bewildering and terrifying. The Gisa and Vincent storylines also have undercurrents of darkness and danger – and Lord Sylvain is a great villain!

Having now read Karen Maitland’s two most recent novels I’m looking forward to going back and reading her earlier ones.

I received a copy of this book for review from NetGalley.

Falls the Shadow by Sharon Penman

Falls the Shadow Although I just finished reading this book at the weekend, it was actually one of the first books I started in 2014. While I think Penman’s novels are wonderful, they are not quick reads, for me at least; they’re long, complex and emotionally intense and I like to give them the time and attention they deserve.

Falls the Shadow is the second in the Welsh Princes trilogy which began with Here Be Dragons, the story of King John’s daughter Joanna and her husband Llewellyn Fawr, Prince of Gwynedd. Falls the Shadow begins where Here Be Dragons ended, but while you may prefer to read them in order so that the end of the previous book is not spoiled for you, it’s not essential. This is a complete novel in itself and tells the story of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, the French nobleman who ruled England for more than a year after leading a rebellion against King Henry III in 1264.

The story begins with Simon visiting his cousin, the Earl of Chester, to ask him to restore to him the earldom of Leicester which he believes is rightfully his. The Earl agrees to his request, but Simon’s visit is also successful in another way because it is here that he meets his future wife, Eleanor (known as Nell), the sister of King Henry III. Henry reluctantly agrees to the marriage between Simon and Nell, but a dispute over debts soon leads to Simon being temporarily exiled from England – and this is only the start of the turbulent relationship between the two men.

In contrast to Henry, who is portrayed as a weak, incompetent king, Simon is a great soldier and leader who believes in a more democratic form of government. Simon’s growing disillusionment with Henry, as well as his reluctance to abandon his principles and his hopes for England, leads him into war against his King. As one character comments, “it was not treason, was but a dream bred before its time”.

We are also reacquainted with some of the Welsh characters we first met in Here Be Dragons. After Llewellyn Fawr’s death, we see that the united Wales he had worked so hard to achieve is now at risk of division and disintegration again as his descendants fight amongst themselves. It seems that only his grandson, another Llewellyn, shares his vision of a strong and independent Wales. Llewellyn’s family have some blood ties with the English royal family (Joanna was the half-sister of Henry and Nell) and the events in England also have an impact on the lives of our Welsh characters.

Thanks to Dan Jones’ book on the Plantagenets which I read recently, I was able to begin Falls the Shadow knowing some of the basic facts surrounding the de Montfort rebellion and the reigns of Henry III and his son, Edward I, but this is still a period of history I know very little about. I think this was actually an advantage because it meant the story felt fresh and new to me and I didn’t always know what was going to happen next. I am always amazed by the accuracy of Penman’s novels, right down to the smallest details, and impressed by both the extent of her research and the fact that so much information has survived through so many centuries! The way in which one particular character died, for example, seemed a bit too dramatic to be likely, but when I looked it up, yes, that was how it really happened.

Penman is also one of the few authors who writes battle scenes that I actually enjoy reading. She manages to explain the tactics and strategies in a way that I can understand and follow without becoming bored or confused. There are two main battles in this novel, both part of the Second Barons’ War – the Battle of Lewes and the Battle of Evesham (described by the medieval chronicler Robert of Gloucester as “the murder of Evesham for battle it was none”).

I loved this book, but it did feel slightly unbalanced. In the first half the Welsh story runs parallel with the English one, but in the second half Simon and Nell’s story dominates completely and very little time is spent with the Welsh characters. Having finished the book and read the author’s note, she says this was intentional; there was too much material to fit into one novel, so she made the decision to devote this one to Simon and the next one to the Princes of Wales. At first I was disappointed that the Welsh storyline was virtually abandoned halfway through the book, as I was enjoying following the rivalries between Llewellyn’s sons, Davydd and Gruffydd, and later between his grandson, the younger Llewellyn, and his three brothers, but I didn’t mind too much because Simon’s story was so compelling as well.

I didn’t realise quite how much Penman had made me love Simon until I reached the end of his story. Not knowing much about the real Simon de Montfort, it’s possible that she has romanticised his character, but I do think she did a good job of showing both his good points and his flaws. As with The Sunne in Splendour (Penman’s Richard III novel) where I approached the final chapters with a growing sense of dread, it was the same with this book as I knew there wasn’t going to be a happy ending – and yes, it was as tragic and heartbreaking as I’d expected, and yes, I cried! I’m now looking forward to the final book in the trilogy, The Reckoning, and hoping to enjoy it as much as the previous two.

Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman

Here Be Dragons is the first in Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy and follows the lives of King John’s daughter, Joanna, and her Welsh husband, Llewelyn ab Iorweth (known as Llewelyn the Great).

The book begins in the year 1183 when we meet Llewelyn as a ten-year-old boy, upset at having to leave Wales and move over the border into England following his mother’s marriage to an English border lord. The grandson of Owain the Great, King of Gwynedd, Llewelyn is homesick for Wales and as soon as he is old enough, he returns to Wales to reclaim his crown from his uncles. Llewelyn becomes Prince of Gwynedd and eventually rules most of Wales and devotes his life to securing the stability of his country as he believes that a united Wales will be stronger and better able to defend itself against the English.

Our other main character, Joanna, is the illegitimate daughter of King John. After her mother’s death she goes to join her father at court and when Joanna is fourteen the King arranges to have her married to Llewelyn in the hope that their marriage will help to bring peace between Wales and England. As the years go by Joanna begins to love Llewelyn but finds herself increasingly torn between her father and her husband.

As Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour is one of my favourite historical fiction novels I probably shouldn’t have waited so long to read this one, but I do tend to do that with authors I’ve enjoyed – I can never decide whether I would rather read all their books as quickly as I can or spread them out over as long a period as possible so I still have something to look forward to. I finally picked up Here Be Dragons a few weeks ago and I wasn’t disappointed – I loved it!

Penman does such a good job of making some very complicated periods of history easy to follow and understand. Before I read The Sunne in Splendour I didn’t know much about Richard III or the Wars of the Roses but by the end of the book I really felt I had learned a lot, and I had the same feeling at the end of Here Be Dragons. Of course these novels are fiction and you can’t assume that everything in a historical fiction novel will always be completely accurate, but Penman’s books are obviously very well researched and she does include an author’s note where she explains which parts of the novel are fact and which are fiction.

The relationship between Joanna and Llewellyn forms a big part of the plot, but that’s not all this book is about. As well as romance, the story also includes political intrigue, battles, feuds, rivalry between brothers, betrayal and forgiveness. I didn’t always agree with what Joanna did, but I did like her and had a lot of sympathy for her, being caught between her husband and her father; not a choice that anybody should have to make. Using Joanna, in her unique position, as one of the novel’s main characters meant we could see things from both a Welsh and English perspective and neither were portrayed as the villains. There’s no doubt that King John made a lot of mistakes and errors of judgement, but he is portrayed here as having some good qualities as well as bad ones and is shown in a better light than in other novels I’ve read about him.

Of the two Penman books I’ve read, although I loved them both I did prefer The Sunne in Splendour but that’s probably because I’m more interested in that particular period of history. I will read the other two books in this trilogy, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning and will try not to wait so long this time before I get around to reading them!