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.