The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick

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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!

Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick

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I really need to visit Caversham Park, Pembroke Castle and Chepstow Castle, after reading all Elizabeth Chadwick’s wonderful books about William Marshal.  The only one of his homes/bases I’ve been to is Kilkenny Castle, which is a bit mad considering that that’s the furthest away.  Anyway!  This book’s quite different from the others, being about William’s time in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the mid-1180s, and almost entirely imagined.  Although it’s known that he did spend time there, there don’t seem to be any accounts of what he actually did during that time – leaving Elizabeth Chadwick free to weave him into the court intrigues of a troubled and fascinating time.  Although it’s written in the style of a novel, a lot of it is about high politics.  I love that 🙂 .  OK, not everyone does, but I do.  Reading is learning, and all that.

The book actually starts with William on his deathbed in 1217, thinking about the past, and then moves back to 1183.  It does flash forward and then backwards again several times, which is a bit annoying because it interrupts the flow of the book.  I wish she’d just written it as set in the 1180s, but maybe she thought that’d be strange when she’d already taken his story so long past there.  It’s not a huge problem and won’t stop anyone from enjoying the story, though.

William had been in the service of Henry the Young King, eldest surviving son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and they, along with William’s brother Ancel and various other young men, had been on the tourney circuit.  I love the idea of the tourney circuit.   Maybe a bit like today’s tennis and golf tours 🙂 ?  Knights would travel round to wherever a tournament was being held, and, if they were any good, make a living from defeating rivals at jousts and taking home the prize money.  Word must have spread if a big name was taking part, and big crowds must have turned up!  Well, that’s how I imagine it, anyway!

However, Henry, despite being the crowned heir of the King of England, managed to run out of cash, and decided to rob the shrine at Rocadamour, in the Languedoc.  I always feel sorry for Rocamadour, because these days it very much has to play second fiddle to Lourdes as far as French shrines go, even though it’s the one with centuries of history.  It’s surprising that this incident isn’t better known, really.  OK, there wasn’t exactly a medieval equivalent of the Geneva Convention, but the heir to the English throne stealing from a religious shrine must have been pretty shocking.

Shortly afterwards, Henry died of “the bloody flux”.  It was a common cause of death at the time, but obviously it looked like divine retribution for what he and his men had done.  So the story goes, he asked William to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and lay his cloak on Christ’s tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  William, both to carry out his friend’s wishes and to atone for his own part in the attack on Rocamadour, left for Jerusalem in 1183, and didn’t return until either late 1185 or early 1186.

The Latin Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, set up in 1099, after the First Crusade, was at that time ruled by Baldwin IV, Henry II’s half-cousin on the Angevin side.  Baldwin, who comes across in this book as being brave and able, suffered from leprosy, and was to die, aged only 24, in 1185.  His heir was his young nephew – who became Baldwin V, only to die in 1186.  When William, Ancel and the rest of their gang arrived, in 1883, the kingdom was in turmoil.  Baldwin’s brother-in-law, Guy de Lusignan, stepfather of the heir, was at odds with Baldwin and with pretty much else.  And the Christians’ holdings in the Holy Land were under attack from Saladin.  We associate Saladin so much with Richard the Lionheart (one of the worst kings England ever had, but that’s another story) and the Third Crusade that maybe we sometimes forget just how much military success he achieved before then.  If you look at the history of the 1180s, Aleppo comes under siege, there’s fighting around Mosul, and everyone wants control of Jerusalem.  Plus ca change …

Poor Jerusalem, seemingly forever doomed to be fought over.  There are several comments from characters about how they feel as if things in the Holy Land should be done in a way that’s honest and honourable, and how they’re disappointed to find the same old intrigue and corruption and jostling for power that you get everywhere else, but that’s the way it goes.  A lot of groups of people have dreamt of setting up a New Jerusalem, or some other form of ideal state, whether that’s via religion or communism or anything else, and whether by a change of regime in their home country or by setting up somewhere new.  It always turns out the same way.  Miserable, that, isn’t it?!  But Se A Vida E, that’s the way life is, to quote … er, the Pet Shop Boys, who have nothing to do with the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

I’m sorry that Elizabeth Chadwick didn’t write more about William’s journey to Jerusalem, because she – and this is obviously all her story, because no-one actually knows which route William took, or what happened along the way – mentioned him visiting various holy sites along the way.  We got a bit of time in Rome, and then we got quite a while in Constantinople but, rather than a description of the city and its sights, we got William being kidnapped by someone who wrongly accused him of being a spy.  OK, it was all quite dramatic, but I’d like to’ve heard a bit more about Constantinople –although, only a year after the massacre of Latin Christians in the city, and only 21 years before the Fourth Crusade and the sack of the capital of Eastern Christendom by the crusaders of Western Christendom, it reflected East-West tensions rather well.

We did, however, get a detailed description of their arrival in Jerusalem and their visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and William’s emotions at the fulfilment of his pilgrimage vow.  The power of Jerusalem and all that.  There’s even supposed to be a medical condition associated with it – “Jerusalem Syndrome”, which causes people with no previous history of psychosis or delusions to experience them after visiting the city.  I can’t say that I’ve ever come across it, but, when I was there ten years ago, one woman in the group was so overcome by emotion that she burst into tears.  And, whatever your personal relationship with Christianity or Judaism or Islam, it holds such an important place in the culture of so much of humanity that it should be one of the most visited cities in the world.   Unfortunately, because of the political situation, that isn’t the case.  Maybe one day …

There wasn’t much more about the pilgrimage side of things, though, apart from an interesting account of spending Easter in Jerusalem. On to court politics.   It was quite a contrast to the author’s other William Marshal books, which are largely centred on castles or manor houses in the British Isles, so anyone just hoping for more of that is going to be disappointed … but please enjoy this for what it is, which is a fascinating story of the death throes of the Latin Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Well, technically it lasted until 1291, but really it only lasted until Saladin’s great victory over Guy of Lusignan at the Horns of Hattin in 1187.  The replacement Christian kingdom was based at Acre.  Interesting place – obviously not in the same league as Jerusalem, but worth a visit. Just for the sake of completeness, incidentally, it should be pointed out that the Latin Christians did hold Jerusalem again for a while at various points between 1229 and 1244, under the leadership of Frederick II of Sicily.  (I’m going to Sicily next month, so have been reading up on Frederick!)  And, the throne of Sicily having later passed to the rulers of Aragon, King Felipe of Spain includes “King of Jerusalem” amongst his many titles.  I’m not sure what either the Israelis or the Palestinians make of that.  But, effectively, ongoing Latin Christian rule of Jerusalem ended in 1187.

The book actually misses the really big events, because William had gone home before they happened – he’d left before Hattin, and the famous events of the Third Crusade.  But there was quite a lot going on even so, in terms of court intrigue and in terms of actual fighting.   There was a lot of blood and guts in this, including one scene in which William actually chops someone’s head off.  And some rather detailed descriptions of battle wounds, and a very detailed description of the horrors found in a village destroyed by Saladin’s forces.  All sadly true to life, but not for the squeamish.

Guy of Lusignan, an old enemy of William’s, very much came across as the bad guy in this.  A bit of a 12th century Donald Trump, doing things he thought were a good idea but which actually made everything worse and horrified everyone else, like killing Bedouin tribesmen.  A major part of the storyline was William’s hatred of Guy, and his refusal to support him.

However, a lot of the focus was on a little known character – Paschia de Riveri, mistress of Heraclius, the Patriach of Jerusalem.  And this is going right into the realms of fiction, because the storyline comes to be dominated by a fictitious affair between her and William.  It’s known that William made a secret commitment to join the Templars on his deathbed.  He duly did so, and that’s where the title of the novel comes from.  But no-one knows why.  The story here was that it was closely linked to the need he felt for absolution of his sins after his relationship with Paschia.  I’m not sure how well that argument works, because it was hardly unusual for a couple to have a relationship outside marriage, but the story of the affair does work quite well.  But it’s all fiction – whereas the other William Marshal books by Elizabeth Chadwick have all been grounded in fact.

As ever with her books, there were some wonderfully descriptive passages, evoking a sense of time and place just so well.  OK, maybe some of it lapsed into purple prose, but I rather like purple prose.  And not just of the actual physical places, but of emotions – it’s not always easy to get your head into the medieval sense of religion, but you do get a real sense of it from this book.  And the minor characters, notably William’s brother Ancel and his mistress Asmaria, and William’s friend Aimery, and Paschia’s relations, all played their parts so very well.

It’s a very rich and entertaining and informative book, like all her books are.  I just don’t know if I like the idea that nearly all of it is fictitious, whereas the other books in the William Marshal series have followed, as closely as possible, the real events of the time.  Paschia comes across as a fascinating character with a fascinating history, but almost nothing is known about her: it’s all fictional.  And almost nothing is known about William’s time in the Kingdom of Jerusalem: that’s all fictional.  It doesn’t mean that this isn’t an excellent read, but it does sit oddly with the rest of the series.  But, hey, there’s no law that says that all books in a series have to be similar, and it really is very well-written and very informative.  Well worth a read.