Yet another superb book from Elizabeth Chadwick, this time about Joanna de Munchensy, granddaughter of William Marshal, and her husband William de Valence, half-brother of Henry III. I was recently fortunate enough to visit lovely Pembroke Castle, which was closely associated with them in the time of Edward I, but this book’s set during the previous reign. As I’ve said before, Henry III’s reign tends to be strangely overlooked, and so do the de Valences, although their son Aymer’s name will be well-known to anyone familiar with the reign of Edward II – and anyone who’s read Carol McGrath’s recent The Damask Rose may recognise Joanna’s name from there.
It really is brilliantly written. The characters just jump off the page. It’s packed with history, but never in a didactic way; and it’s a wonderful read.
It starts off with Joanna as a young girl in the household of Eleanor of Provence (not, as the family tree at the start of the book proclaims, Eleanor of Provenance. Very careless proof-reading there!). Not that much is known about Joanna’s early life, but Elizabeth Chadwick explains in the afterword where she’s made assumptions. Following the deaths of all her Marshal uncles without heirs, and then the tragic early death of her brother, Joanna unexpectedly becomes a great heiress, and is married off to William, one of the sons of Isabella of Angouleme’s marriage to Hugh de Lusignan. The book shows the marriage as being very happy, and, as far as we know, it was.
It was one of a series of marriages of Henry’s half-siblings to wealthy heirs and heiresses, and resentment about their influence was one of the reasons why relations between Henry and many of his leading barons, notably his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort, deteriorated, resulting in war. I think de Montfort’s much better-known these days than he used to be, because of Leicester Poly being renamed after him, but it’s still a period of history which doesn’t attract as much attention as it might. Everyone’s heard of the Magna Carta, but how many people have heard of the Provisions of Oxford?
De Montfort’s traditionally had quite a positive press as playing a big role along the road to democracy, but I don’t like him. And Elizabeth Chadwick clearly can’t stand him (or his dad, although de Montfort snr doesn’t appear in this book). So we do get a fairly one-sided view of events – Henry’s mess-ups in France and Sicily are played down, the Lusignans/de Valences are very much presented as the victims of a smear campaign and xenophobia, and de Montfort comes across as a money-mad, power-hungry tyrant. That’s an observation, not a criticism 🙂 – no reason that novels shouldn’t be one-sided, as long as they’re not factually inaccurate! And we see William temporarily forced into exile, and Joanna very resourcefully hiding large amounts of money inside bales of wool as she travelled to join him.
And then, of course, de Montfort gets his come-uppance, and the book ends with the de Valences riding high.
It all comes across so well – the history, the personalities, the personal relationships, the descriptions of court, all of it. Very, very good book. Elizabeth Chadwick’s books never disappoint, and this one certainly doesn’t!