Wednesday, August 10, 2011
This novel, set in 1125, is the story of two women, one an Empress and one who was Queen of England. Matilda, daughter of Henry I, is married off when little more than a child to Emperor Heinrich of Germany, who is now dead. Even in widowhood and a Dowager Empress, Matilda is not in charge of her own destiny and her father summons her home.
Having lost his beloved son on the tragedy of The White Ship, Matilda is King Henry’s only legitimate heir and he orders her to marry Geoffrey la Bel, Count of Anjou, a boy of fifteen. Despite a rocky and violent beginning, Geoffrey and Matilda produce three sons and look forward to ruling England under the patronage of the English Barons who have sworn allegiance to Matilda.
The second lady of the English is Adeliza of Louvain, King Henry’s second wife and Matilda’s step-mother who is almost her own age. Unable to conceive a much-needed male heir for King Henry, Adelia becomes close to Matilda, but their relationship is tested after the death of the King, and Stephen of Blois is poised to steal Matilda’s crown.
'The old king is dead and the rats are scurrying everywhere.'
The barons are unwilling to accept a female ruler, but aided by her half-brother Robert of Gloucester and Brian Fitzcount, Matilda is ready to fight for her inheritance and embarks on a voyage to England. This begins well, with a victory at The Battle of Lincoln, a march on London and the capture of Stephen, until the London mob rise against her and Matilda has to flee. Queen for only a few months and uncrowned, Matilda managed to secure her inheritance of the Duchy of Normandy through the military prowess of her husband, Geoffrey — and campaigned for her eldest son's inheritance, living to see him ascend the throne of England as Henry II in 1154.
Adeliza marries William d’Aubigny, who is loyal to King Stephen, and while she sympathizes with Matilda’s cause, and does all she can to help her when Matilda is robbed of her rightful crown, her duty and honour to her husband comes first. This is reinforced by the fact Adeliza isn’t barren at all and gives William much wanted children. However, her conflicting loyalties reflects on her closeness to Matilda, and their relationship is principally what this novel is about, along with the impact a long and bloody civil war has on the English people.
For the most part, Elizabeth Chadwick stuck to actual events in this novel, and where she didn’t she explains at the end. She handles the complicated political wrangles and skirmishes beautifully, although knowing the outcome reduces the tension for me a little as I knew poor Matilda was doomed never to be Queen.
However, Matilda’s strong, uncompromising character comes through very well, and I loved the stormy abuse she heaps upon the arrogant Geoffrey at the beginning of their marriage. I especially enjoyed her relationship with her son, whom she takes to ‘invade’ England, which is a lovely portrayal of duty, loyalty and motherly devotion. I did worry for the young Henry on occasion.
Another triumph for Ms Chadwick.
Review by Anita Davison