The 1130s mark the twilight years of the long, peaceful reign of King Henry, son of William of Normandy. Yet it seems his legacy will not uphold that peace. For who will succeed him? His daughter Matilda, ex-Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, his nephew Stephen, or even his infant grandson Henry? It's an uneasy time for those vying for position at court. An unease that turns into fear when Henry dies without naming his heir.
For John FitzGilbert, the king's Marshal, the normal jostling for position and favour takes on a new urgency. Along with many other nobles, he swears allegiance to Stephen but he has enemies at court and soon his position becomes untenable and he must either join the Empress Matilda's faction or lose all. He cannot even take succour from his marriage. His wife, the pliant, pious Aline, is no match for a man renowned for his looks, energy and fearlessness and she struggles to cope in the storms unleashed upon them by civil war, especially when John is badly wounded in a fight with opposing forces.
John recovers and realises that to protect his lands and his heirs, his only option is to divorce Aline and take a new wife - Sybilla, sister of his enemy, Patrick of Salisbury. It's a strategic move, but is swiftly becomes something more, for Sybilla is quick, intelligent and possesses all the joy and vibrancy lacking in his first wife.
However, both Sybilla and John are about to be tested to the limit. As the fight for England's crown continues, John's castle at Newbury becomes pivotal, and in order to buy the time that is needed he is forced to make a terrible sacrifice...
Before I read this book, I knew three things about John Marshal. The first was that he was father of William Marshal, a man I had read about, and swooned over, in two earlier Elizabeth Chadwick novels (The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion - reviews to be posted here shortly). The second was that he suffered a terrible injury at Cherwell when he was caught in a burning abbey, and a piece of lead melted onto his face causing permanent disfigurement and the loss of sight in his left eye. The third thing that I knew was that when William was four years, John was forced to give him to King Stephen as a hostage, and John famously said to Stephen that he didn't care if he killed William as he had the anvils and hammer to create more children (roughly paraphrasing of course).
To be honest, because of the third of those things listed above, I was a little surprised to hear that Elizabeth Chadwick had written a book where the main character was John Marshal, because I couldn't really imagine how she would go about making John easy to relate to, when it appeared as though he was quite unfeeling and callous as a man. I am very pleased to say that she succeeded!
This book is predominately set during the very troubled times in the mid 1100s when the war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda caused great upheaval and destruction across England. When Matilda's father, King Henry, died without naming an heir, there were many lords who bridled at the thought of being ruled over by a woman and therefore sided with the dead King's nephew, Stephen. Still others believed that it was King Henry's wish for his daughter to follow in his footsteps, and thus began a twenty year period of war when the countryside was ravaged.
This same period is covered extensively in Sharon Kay Penman's book, When Christ and His Saints Slept, and having that background certainly aided in my enjoyment of this book. Where Penman's focused heavily on what was happening personally with Stephen and Matilda, many of those same events are on the peripherals of the narrative of this book, except where the events directly touched on John Marshal's life.
John was the loyal Marshal of King Henry - the man responsible for making sure that there was order in court, for the procurement of supplies, horses, etc amongst other things - a man with his finger on the pulse of court life. When Henry died, he also filled that role for Stephen as well. However, there were many at court who were not overly fond of John, and his neighbours were also coveting his lands and were determined to take them, whatever the cost.
In order to preserve his life, and his possessions, John has to take the extraordinary step of swapping sides, and becomes part of Matilda's retinue. What follows are a series of skirmishes, battles and sieges, culminating with the siege at Newbury where John so famously denied his feelings for his son.
Lest you think that this is a book just of battles, Chadwick also gives us glimpses into John's two marriages. The first is to Aline, a somewhat timid and pious woman, who wants nothing more than to have John by her side, and to do her duty. She is a woman who is very obviously not up to the job of being wife to the Royal Marshal, with all the entertaining, and responsibilities that go along with that post. I did feel for Aline as she struggled within her marriage and home, but also for John as he realises that this marriage is one that cannot continue for both of their sakes.
Then, we see his marriage to Sybilla, a partnership that started out as a way to stop an escalating enmity with her brother, Patrick of Salisbury, one of John's neighbours. Where Aline was timid, Sybilla is bold and intelligent, with an ability to charm the people around her from the dairy maids, to those from the highest stations in the land.
Chadwick's portrayal of John Marshal is by no means of a saint who has been portrayed unfairly through the ages. There is no doubting his courage, his competence in his role, let alone his ambition and determination. He is a totally three dimensional character - warts and all.
Similarly, the authors skill in conveying the details of life and times of the twelfth century, from the dresses, food, smells and tastes is exceptional.
One thing to be aware of is that the author has to cram twenty years worth of events into just over 500 pages, so it is crucial to keep an eye on the dates at the beginning of each chapter to keep some kind of perspective in terms of time elapsed.
This is the third Elizabeth Chadwick book that I have read and really enjoyed. Now I just need to start working my way through the rest of her back list!
It is a great shame that this author's books are so difficult to get hold of in the US. It is well worth going to the effort of locating them. I highly recommend Book Depository. It is a UK based online bookstore but as you get free postage to many countries around the world it is a very economical way to buy books!