The Stone Rose is the final book in Carol McGrath’s She-Wolves Trilogy, but don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two – each one stands alone and tells the story (in fictional form) of a different medieval queen of England. In The Silken Rose we met Eleanor of Provence and in The Damask Rose Eleanor of Castile; now, in this latest novel, it’s the turn of Isabella of France. Isabella was the daughter of Philip IV of France and the wife of Edward II of England, but also a powerful and influential woman in her own right. The Stone Rose explores Isabella’s story both from her own perspective and through the eyes of Agnes, a female stonemason who designs Isabella’s tomb.
Isabella is only fifteen years old when the novel opens in 1311, and much as she tries to love her husband – at least at first – she is already becoming aware that Edward is perhaps not the best person to be ruling the country. He is too easily led by his favourites, particularly the handsome young Piers Gaveston, ignoring the advice of older, more experienced noblemen, and spends his time thatching roofs and digging ditches like a peasant rather than taking part in more courtly pursuits. Worse, he seems determined to send England into a series of battles with the Scots that nobody really has the heart for.
As the years go by, the pleasant and relatively harmless Piers is replaced by a new favourite, the scheming, ambitious Hugh Despenser the Younger, and Isabella begins to fear for her own position, especially when she starts to suspect that Edward loves Despenser more than he loves her. As tensions grow at court and across England, Isabella returns to France to visit her family – and here she meets Roger Mortimer, an English baron who has recently escaped from imprisonment in the Tower of London and shares her hatred of Hugh Despenser.
I won’t say much more about the plot, as if you’re familiar with the history you’ll already know what Isabella does next – and if you’re not, you’ll probably prefer to find out for yourself when you read the book. As far as I could tell, Carol McGrath sticks quite closely to the known facts, except where it’s necessary to use her imagination to help bring the characters to life and fill in gaps in the story or where there is some historical controversy, for example regarding the eventual fate of Edward II.
Despite Isabella’s “she-wolf” nickname (one which has also been applied to several other unpopular queens) I found her a sympathetic character here. It was sad to see her marriage gradually disintegrate as Edward spends more and more time with his favourites, falling completely under their power and refusing to listen to other points of view. I also found it interesting to read about Isabella’s interactions with the other women at court, particularly the three de Clare sisters, one of whom – Eleanor – is the wife of Hugh Despenser. Because of Isabella’s conflict with Eleanor’s husband, the two women can never be friends, but they are forced to spend long periods of time together over the years and their relationship, as you can imagine, is a very uncomfortable one.
The previous two books in this trilogy have each included a second protagonist, whose story unfolds alongside the queen’s and is given almost equal attention. In this third novel, that role falls to Agnes, the stonemason – a real historical figure who really did work on Isabella’s tomb. I was slightly disappointed that we don’t see very much of Agnes; there are only a few sections written from her point of view, with the focus very much on Isabella’s story. I understand, though, that Agnes only entered Isabella’s life in the 1350s and played no part in what came before, so maybe it would have been difficult to weave the two narratives together more closely. Still, The Stone Rose is a fascinating read and I enjoyed adding to my knowledge of Isabella, Edward II and Roger Mortimer. Now that the trilogy has come to an end I will have to try Carol McGrath’s earlier novels, while I’m waiting to see what she writes next!
Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This post is part of the blog tour for The Stone Rose – you can see details of the other stops on the tour in the image below.
This is book 16/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.