A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick

When I read Carol McGrath’s The Silken Rose last year I remarked on the lack of books about Henry III and Eleanor of Provence, so I was pleased to find that they are also major characters in Elizabeth Chadwick’s new novel, A Marriage of Lions. The main focus of the story, however, is Henry’s younger half-brother, William de Valence, and his wife, Joanna de Munchensy of Swanscombe. Those of you who are avid readers of Chadwick’s novels will know that she has a particular interest in William Marshal, hero of The Greatest Knight, and that many of her recent books have featured various members of the Marshal family. This is another, as Joanna de Munchensy is one of William Marshal’s grandchildren.

The novel opens in 1238 with the eight-year-old Joanna serving as a chamber lady at the court of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence (or Alienor as Chadwick spells the name). With several older male relatives, Joanna is seen as an insignificant member of the Marshal family until a sudden change in circumstances leaves her a very wealthy young woman with lands and titles of her own. In 1247, the King’s half-brothers – the sons of his mother Isabella of Angoulême’s second marriage to Hugh of Lusignan – arrive from France to take up positions at Henry’s court. The King becomes particularly fond of his youngest half-brother, William de Valence, and rewards him with marriage to Joanna, now one of the richest heiresses in England.

Although it’s an arranged marriage, it turns out to be a very happy one – but there are many at court who are not at all pleased with the favour being shown to William and his brothers. The powerful Simon de Montfort and his wife, the King’s sister, believe that part of the Marshal inheritance belongs to them and they set out to make life as difficult for William and Joanna as they possibly can. Meanwhile Queen Eleanor becomes resentful of the influence William and the other Lusignans wield over her young son, Prince Edward, and her previously good relationship with Joanna grows tense and strained. As the atmosphere becomes more and more hostile and the King’s power begins to weaken, Simon de Montfort and his barons see their chance to seize control of the throne and suddenly William and Joanna find themselves driven away from court as the country heads towards civil war.

I always enjoy Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels and this is another great one. Although I found it a bit slow to start with – the first half of the book is devoted mainly to the early days of Joanna’s marriage to William and the domestic details of their lives together – once the tension starts to build between the different factions surrounding the throne and the events leading to the Second Barons’ War get underway, it quickly became difficult to put down. I have read about this war before but only from the points of view of de Montfort and the King and Queen, so it was interesting to see things from the Lusignan/Marshal perspective. Simon de Montfort is very much the villain here (the lack of nuance in his characterisation was one of the few things that disappointed me about this book) and there’s a sense that the Lusignans are unfairly targeted because they are ‘foreign newcomers’ and because of the preferential treatment they are believed to receive from Henry. The King himself is caught in the middle and it’s quite sad to see how weak and ineffective he eventually becomes.

I loved Joanna and William and the way their marriage is depicted. Their relationship is a close and affectionate one, based on trust and love, but the sensible, practical Joanna often finds herself frustrated by her husband’s more impulsive nature which leads him to make mistakes and damage both of their reputations at court. There’s not much information available on the real historical figures, particularly Joanna, but Chadwick’s portrayal feels convincing and believable and I enjoyed getting to know them both.

Among the secondary characters in this book, my favourite was Leonora (Eleanor) of Castile, the young wife of the future Edward I. She’s such a strong and vivid character, I wondered whether Elizabeth Chadwick might have her in mind as the subject of a future novel – and it seems that I was right, so that’s something to look forward to!

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

Book 44/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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.

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.

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.

Historical Musings #36: Reading Elizabeth Chadwick

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. After putting thirty-five of these posts together since 2015 I’m starting to struggle for new ideas so while I rebuild my list of potential future topics, I thought I would try something slightly different for a few months: a series of posts on specific historical fiction authors. These should be relatively easy for me to write and will hopefully introduce new readers to some of my favourite authors. I’ve decided to start with Elizabeth Chadwick as I’ve just finished reading one of her books and am about to begin another.

Elizabeth Chadwick has written over twenty books set in the medieval period; her first, The Wild Hunt, was published in 1990 and her latest, Templar Silks, is out this month. Her earlier novels tend to feature fictional characters and storylines, while her more recent ones focus on the lives of real historical figures, particularly members of the Marshal and Bigod families. Let’s start by looking at the books I have already read (there are eight of them):

Lady of the English

Set during the period of civil war known as the Anarchy, this is the story of the Empress Matilda, daughter and heir of Henry I, who faces a battle with her cousin Stephen for the throne of England. Matilda’s son, Henry, will become the first Plantagenet king of England. We also follow the story of Matilda’s stepmother, Adeliza, another fascinating medieval woman.

The Champion

This one is set in France, Wales and England towards the end of the 12th century and follows the story of fictional heroine Monday de Cerizay and knight Alexander de Montroi. I learned a huge amount about jousts, tournaments and other knightly pursuits!

The Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy:

The Summer Queen
The Winter Crown
The Autumn Throne

This trilogy of novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine takes us through Eleanor’s entire life including her troubled marriage to King Louis VII of France, her relationship with her second husband, Henry II of England, her time in captivity following the breakdown of their marriage and the reigns of her sons Richard I and King John.

William Marshal books

The Greatest Knight
The Scarlet Lion – review coming soon

These two novels are based on the life of William Marshal – Earl of Pembroke, knight, statesman and adviser to five kings. I love Chadwick’s depiction of William and if the real man was anything like the fictional one, then he really deserved the title of ‘the greatest knight’.

Her newest novel, Templar Silks, is also part of the Marshal series, although I’m sure you would be able to read it as a standalone. I haven’t read it yet, but it follows William on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1183.

To Defy a King

This one tells the story of Mahelt Marshal, the daughter of William Marshal. As England descends into turmoil during the reign of King John, Mahelt finds herself in a situation where she must choose between her own family, the Marshals, and the family of her husband, Hugh Bigod.

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The books I’ve listed above are the only ones I’ve read so far, but I also have three more Chadwick novels on my shelf which I’ve bought as I’ve come across second-hand copies:

The Love Knot
The Marsh King’s Daughter
Shadows and Strongholds

And here are the titles of her other books:

The Wild Hunt
The Running Vixen
The Leopard Unleashed
Children of Destiny
Shields of Pride
First Knight
The Conquest
Lords of the White Castle
The Winter Mantle
The Falcons of Montabard
A Place Beyond Courage
The Time of Singing

I don’t know much about any of these, apart from Lords of the White Castle which I started to read years ago and abandoned – although I can’t remember why, so I must try it again! I would like to read all of the others, except maybe First Knight which seems to be a novelisation of the 1995 film.

You can find out more about Elizabeth Chadwick by visiting her official website.

Look out for my reviews of The Scarlet Lion and Templar Silks in the next few weeks – and, of course, next month’s Historical Musings post when I will be choosing another author to write about.

Have you read any of Elizabeth Chadwick’s books? Which are your favourites?

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 Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Winter Crown This will be my last post this week, so I’m going to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back before New Year to tell you about a Christmas-themed read and to share my list of favourite books of 2015, but first here are my thoughts on another recent read – no connection with Christmas, but at least it does have ‘winter’ in the title.

The Winter Crown is the second of Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy of novels following the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Chadwick uses the alternate spelling Alienor, as she says this is how the name would have been spelled at the time, so I have done the same throughout the rest of this post. The first book in the trilogy, The Summer Queen, covered Alienor’s early years and her marriage to King Louis VII of France. Now, in The Winter Crown, we move on to the next stage in Alienor’s life.

The novel opens in December 1154 when, having had her first marriage annulled, Alienor is crowned Queen of England alongside her second husband, Henry II. As Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, Alienor has brought Henry wealth, lands and influence – but he has made it clear that he has no plans to allow her to govern her own lands. What Henry wants is a wife who will concentrate on providing and raising children, who will turn a blind eye to his many mistresses and who will keep her opinions to herself. Alienor, though, has other ideas and a marriage that began with so much promise and a certain amount of chemistry, if not love, descends into a series of disappointments and disagreements.

The deterioration of Alienor’s relationship with the king forms a large part of the novel, but so do her relationships with her sons – Henry the ‘Young King’, Geoffrey, Duke of Britanny, and John, the youngest – and her daughters, Matilda, Alie (Alienor) and Joanna. The other son who I haven’t mentioned, of course, is Richard (the future Richard the Lionheart). Alienor makes no secret of the fact that Richard, the heir to her own lands of Aquitaine, is her favourite child, and he is the one whose character is developed most fully in this novel.

For the first half of the novel, Alienor seems to be involved in a constant cycle of pregnancies and births, but that doesn’t mean the story was boring at all. As well as the tensions that are building in Alienor and Henry’s marriage (which get worse when she learns of his new mistress, Rosamund de Clifford), a lot of time is also devoted to Henry’s feud with his chancellor, Thomas Becket. When Henry – against Alienor’s advice – makes Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, he finds that Becket now possesses power which could be used against him instead of for him. The second half of the novel is equally full of conflict, as Henry discovers that his sons are prepared to rise against him in rebellion – and Alienor is forced to take sides.

I have read a few different fictional portrayals of Alienor/Eleanor and I really like the way Elizabeth Chadwick has chosen to portray the character. The Alienor of The Winter Crown is a strong, intelligent woman, keen to play a role in the governance of Aquitaine and England, but restricted due to her gender and the reluctance of her husband to involve her in his decision-making. I was interested to read Chadwick’s author’s note at the end in which she explains why she disagrees with the popular description of Alienor as a powerful medieval woman.

There are plenty of other characters worth mentioning too. Chadwick’s novels often feature a strong female friendship and in this book we meet Isabel de Warenne, wife of William of Blois (son of the late King Stephen of England), who becomes a trusted friend of Alienor’s after being taken into her household. Isabel, and Henry II’s half-brother Hamelin, were two of my favourite characters in the novel: two people who are close to the King and Queen but who don’t always agree with their actions. And readers of Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight will be pleased to know that William Marshal also appears in this novel, as a young man who is brought into Alienor’s service to train her sons in fighting and swordplay. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of William in the next book.

I am thoroughly enjoying this trilogy so far and am looking forward to reading the final Alienor novel, The Autumn Throne, which should be available next year.

Thanks to Sourcebooks for providing a review copy via NetGalley.