The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick


Another superb book from Elizabeth Chadwick.  She’s written several books about William Marshal, but this one’s about his mother-in-law, Aoife MacMurchada – who, in 1171, married William de Clare, (former) Earl of Pembroke, now usually known as Strongbow (and, yes, the cider is named after him!), when he came to Ireland with a military force at the invitation of her father Diarmait, the dispossessed King of Leinster.  Not that much is known about Aoife, and there’s some confusion regarding what is known, but Elizabeth Chadwick’s done a lot of research and written a wonderful book which really brings her to life for the modern reader.

The Middle Ages can be difficult to get into, because most people don’t know them as well as they know the Tudor and Stuart periods, or more modern times.  When I was at school and university, the medieval history teaching wasn’t exactly designed to hold the attention of young girls.  Motte and bailey castles and the lives of medieval monks, anyone?!  It was through Jean Plaidy’s wonderful books about the lives of medieval kings and queens that I first came to appreciate the period, and I’m a great advocate of novels centred on people as a way of teaching and learning about particular times and places in history.

I’m wondering, and hoping, that a sequel to this might be forthcoming, because the book ended shortly after Richard’s death, when Aoife was only in her mid-20s.  Having said which, no-one knows when Aoife died – it may have been in her early 40s, or she may have lived into her late 50s.  What is known is that her father was dispossessed by the High King of Ireland, after abducting another regional king’s wife (albeit possibly at her own request!), and appealed for help from England.  Richard de Clare had had some of his lands confiscated by Henry II due to his support for King Stephen, and, looking for a way to reverse his downturn in fortunes, decided to throw his lot on with Diarmait.  Disappointingly, the nickname “Strongbow” probably wasn’t due to his brilliant archery, but a later corruption of “Striguil”, the then name for Chepstow, where he was based!

Henry didn’t make things easy for Richard, and then, when Richard won a number of victories in Ireland, imposed his own rule there … as a result of which, Diarmait MacMurchada is often seen as the man who brought about English control of Ireland, even though it only really extended to a small area at this point.  I’m saying “English” and “Irish”, but “Anglo-Norman” would probably be more accurate than “English”, Richard was actually based just inside Wales, and Dublin and other Irish cities were at this point Norse-Gaelic.  There was a lot of cultural intermingling going on.

Richard died only five years after marrying Aoife, but Henry II granted Aoife her dower lands, and the earldom of Pembroke passed to Aoife and Richard’s daughter Isabel, who later married William Marshal.   Elizabeth Chadwick’s therefore assumed that Aoife and Henry knew each other well, and were friends (but no more than friends).  Whilst I admire Henry, I don’t usually like him, but he came across very well here.  He could easily have seized all the de Clare lands, or let Richard’s ambitious sister and brother-in-law keep them in return for pledges of loyalty.   I’d like to have seen Eleanor of Aquitaine featured too, but, of course, she and Henry were estranged at this point.

Henry and Eleanor are very familiar figures.  Aoife and Richard aren’t, which is quite strange given that their marriage had such important consequences for the history of the British Isles; and it was wonderful to feel that I was getting to know them.  We don’t know that much about their personalities, and almost nothing about their personal relationship, but Elizabeth Chadwick’s written it as an arranged marriage which became a love match, between two strong and attractive characters.  A host of minor characters – Richard’s sister Basilia, her husband Raymond, and Aoife’s brothers – have also been very well-written, as well as Aoife’s father Diarmait and mother Mor, and her uncle Lorcan, now known as St Laurence O’Toole.

As I’ve said, novels about people can be crucial in teaching and learning about particular times and places in history.  And, as Elizabeth Chadwick and Anne O’Brien and others have shown, that doesn’t necessarily have to be household names like Anne Boleyn or Marie Antoinette, but I think it does work best when it’s someone at the centre of the action.  Yes, of course it’s important to appreciate the role of ordinary people, the vast majority of the population, but I like to see the big events and the big personalities.  This is exactly the sort of book which exemplifies that, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Highly recommended!