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 Silken Rose by Carol McGrath

The Silken Rose is the first in a new trilogy of novels telling the stories of three medieval queens who have been referred to at one time or another as ‘she-wolves’ because of their unpopularity or because they managed to wield power or influence in a period dominated by men. The second and third books in the series are going to focus on Eleanor of Castile and Isabella of France, but this first novel is about Eleanor of Provence. Carol McGrath uses the alternative spelling of Ailenor, so I will do the same throughout the rest of this post.

Ailenor of Provence is not a queen I’ve ever read much about; I think it’s safe to say that she and her husband, King Henry III of England, are not the most popular subjects for historical fiction! They appear in Sharon Penman’s Falls the Shadow, but otherwise I’m struggling to think of other books I’ve read about them and that’s a good thing because it means that the story which unfolds in The Silken Rose feels fresh and different. It begins in 1236 with Ailenor, at the age of only thirteen, arriving in England from France for her wedding to Henry, a man more than twice her age. Although her new husband treats her with kindness and their marriage is not an unhappy one, Ailenor finds it difficult adjusting to life in a strange country and values the friendships she forms with two very different women.

One of these women is Henry’s sister, Eleanor, known as Nell, who has taken a vow of chastity after being widowed. Ailenor quickly discovers that Nell is in love with Simon de Montfort, one of the most powerful noblemen at Henry’s court, and she decides to help her sister-in-law break free from her oath and marry Simon. However, this marriage will eventually have serious repercussions for Henry and for England. The other friend Ailenor makes is Rosalind, a talented embroideress who is brought to court to teach Ailenor and her ladies to embroider intricate new patterns. Unlike most of the other characters in the novel, Rosalind is a fictional character, but she plays an important part in the story, providing a link between the nobility and the merchant classes.

Although Ailenor is the main focus of the novel, there are some sections written from Rosalind’s perspective (and occasionally from Nell’s), which helps to build up a full picture of the events that take place during this period, rather than only being limited to things that Ailenor experiences herself. The story Carol McGrath builds around Rosalind feels believable and fits seamlessly into Ailenor’s story – but despite this, I didn’t find her as interesting or engaging to read about as Ailenor and although I did understand the reasons for her inclusion in the book, I would have preferred it if the novel had stuck solely to the real historical characters. Apart from that, I really enjoyed The Silken Rose; there’s not a huge amount of drama, but I was never bored.

You may be wondering why Ailenor has been described as a ‘she-wolf’; well, it seems that this was partly due to the fact that she brought a large number of her relatives to England with her, where they were given positions of power and were able to influence the king. These included several of her uncles (the ‘Savoyards’), one of whom was made Archbishop of Canterbury, and her sister, Sanchia, who married the king’s younger brother. This and some of the other reasons for Ailenor’s unpopularity are explored in the novel, yet she remains a sympathetic character and one I very much enjoyed getting to know. I am looking forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy.

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

This is book 3/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

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.