A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick

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 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!

 

 

The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

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This is the second in Carol McGrath’s “She-Wolves” series, with the main character being Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I.  As in her previous book, we also see events through the eyes of another character, and this time that’s a herbalist, Olwen … who sounds as if she should be Welsh but is actually English.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had a negative opinion of Eleanor of Castile, probably because I’ve always found the story about her sucking poison out of Edward’s wound (yes, all right, I know that it probably isn’t true) very romantic, and I’ve always found the story of the Eleanor Crosses very romantic as well.  However, she’s seen by many as greedy/acquisitive and as a neglectful mother, and her reputation also seems to have suffered from the “Black Legend” view of Spain which developed 300 years after her time.

Carol McGrath’s tried very hard to present her positively and provide explanations for some of her less attractive traits, in what’s a very readable and enjoyable book.  She’s also shown worked in the late 13th century obsession with Arthurian legends, which is interesting (I visited Glastonbury Abbey last year, and heard all about Edward and Eleanor attending the reburial of Arthur and Guinevere’s supposed remains!).  And readers in North West England will be interested to “see” the construction of Vale Royal Abbey, which, had Edward not spent the money intended for it on invading Wales, might have been one of the biggest abbeys in the country.

The only problem is that the book’s too short to cover such an eventful life, and it does sometimes feel a bit superficial, as we skim over major events in a few pages and don’t really get into how the characters are feeling about them.  But there are far worse criticisms of a book than wishing it’d been twice the length.

This is Eleanor’s book, not Edward’s.  Having said which, we don’t see anything of Eleanor’s life before the Second Barons’ War, by which time she was in her 20s.  But the point is that we don’t see the war with William Wallace, the expulsion of the Jews, the calling of the Model Parliament or the proclaiming of the future Edward II as Prince of Wales, all of which happened after Eleanor’s death.  Nor do we get the story about the “prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English”, which (obviously) would have happened in Eleanor’s lifetime; but, OK, it probably never happened at all!

We start with the Second Barons’ War, and Carol McGrath’s suggestion is that Eleanor’s later concern for acquiring estates dates from her being imprisoned by Simon de Montfort’s forces and wanting to ensure that she never faced poverty as well … which makes it sound as if she was kneeling in the dirt at Twelve Oaks, crying “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”!  I’m not entirely convinced by that, but it’s a possibility.

Then on to the Ninth Crusade – where we get what’s probably the accurate version of the poison story, i.e. that it was a surgeon who saved Edward’s life and that Eleanor just stood around getting upset.  I like the poison-sucking version better, but never mind!

It’s certainly interesting to see Eleanor and Olwen’s time in the Middle East, and we also see them in Gascony.  And quite a lot of the book covers the wars in Wales.  We also get to see Eleanor and Edward’s close personal relationship, and court life.  And, of course, we see all the tragedies they suffered with their family.  Eleanor’s often criticised for leaving her children behind whilst she was travelling with Edward, and for leaving one of her daughters with her mother in Ponthieu, but Carol McGrath suggests that maybe she was frightened of becoming attached to her children because of all the losses she suffered.

Out of a probable sixteen pregnancies, only six children survived to adulthood.  The future Edward II was born when Eleanor, married at only 12, was 42.  They had a son called Alphonso who died when he was 10, and another son called Henry who died when he was 6, amid a tragically long list of stillbirths, miscarriages and early deaths.  Very sad.  Olwen, meanwhile, is unable to conceive at all with her first husband, but remarries, to an old sweetheart, after being widowed during the Welsh wars, and has a daughter with her second husband.

Damask roses don’t really feature, which is rather a shame because I love damask rose oil!  It smells so nice.  Oh well.

All in all, this is a very good and very well-researched book.  I just wish it’d been longer.