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.