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). 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 was the third Elizabeth Chadwick book that I read and really enjoyed. Since then I have worked my through most of her back list! Still a few to go and I am being very slow, savouring my journey through them knowing that once I get through them all then I will have to wait impatiently for each new release.
Don't forget we are also giving away a copy of A Place Beyond Courage. All the details are here