Saturday, February 4, 2012
Following early beginnings as a knight in the English royal household and a champion of the tourneys, William Marshal's prowess and loyalty have been rewarded by the hand in marriage of Isabelle de Clare, heiress to great estates in England, Normandy and Ireland. Now a powerful magnate, William has weathered the difficult years of King Richard's absence on crusade and is currently serving him on campaign in Normandy while Isabelle governs their estates. All the stability William and Isabelle have enjoyed with their young and growing family comes crashing down as Richard dies and his brother John becomes King. Rebellion is stirring throughout the Angevin domains and although John has created William Earl of Pembroke, the friction between the two men leads William and Isabelle to distance themselves in Ireland. The situation escalates, with John holding their sons as hostages and seizing their English lands. The conflict between remaining loyal and rebelling over injustices committed, threatens to tear apart William and Isabelle's marriage and their family.
Follow up to Chadwick's The Greatest Knight, a book I loved on audio, she continues the story of William Marshal, the greatest knight and probably the most noble man that ever walked the earth. In his later years, married to his wife Isabelle and raising their many children, their marriage is passionate, despite the time he spends away from home. They are depicted as soul mates and equals in each other's eyes. The books spans thirty years of their marriage until William's death. Over this time we experience the trials and tribulations of his family, most of which were brought on by King John of England.
William was adept at keeping a cool head through most of his later years in dealing with King John, although it took a toll on him eventually. John is by far the villain throughout a good part of this book. Always on Marshal's case, he is constantly accusing him of treason and treachery, and it's amazing how William walked a fine line to keep his lands (and head) with John as his jealous king. I was so happy when John finally died, and it's testimony to William's loyalty that on John's death bed he commanded William Marshal to act as regent to John's son, Henry III who was a boy king at the time of John's death. Deep down John knew William was good and would look out for Henry III as no other.
The goriest and most upsetting part of the book for me was the description of the "supposed" events of what happened to Prince Arthur who rivaled King John for the throne. King John had the sixteen year old Arthur imprisoned and William de Braose witnessed a few knights leaving his jail cell late one night. William de Braose goes in to Arthur's cell and sees that he has been horribly maimed, his eyes gouged out. In agony, but not dead, the boy is suffering terribly. He goes to King John who comes back with him to see for himself. As an act of mercy, John kills Arthur himself to put him out of his misery. It is a horrifying scene, and one that will stay in my memory for a long time.
The gist of the story is how William and his family manage to survive the reign of King John intact. It's a miracle he does, for John really had it out for him, demanding his two eldest sons as hostages to insure William's loyalty (a needless and spiteful demand). Some parts were a bit tedious, I grew tired of John, John, John! On audio, Christopher Scott does an excellent job at narration, though his accent for Isabelle was kind of in and out. Sometimes she sounded Irish and other times she didn't. I admit, with all the different names of Lady this and Lord that and the Earl of something it was hard to keep track of who was who in parts. I can see how in print it would be a bit easier.
At the end of the book, when William is preparing to die (which I thought was dragged out a bit too long), I was surprised by his desire to become a Templar Knight at the last. I had no idea that he took his vows on his deathbed. I felt badly for Isabelle, his wife, she truly seemed crushed by the idea. This part of the book was very sad as they said their good-byes and then when he insured that the new young king was in good hands. Faithful to the king to the last. His actual death a few days later seemed slightly anti-climatic.
All in all, this is a fine work of historical fiction, with enough PG-rated romance to add a little zing to the storyline. There are only so many times the reader can endure another one of John's miserable demands on the Marshals, so a little husband and wife connubial bliss is welcome, from time to time, to break up the angst and worry that seems to hover over a great deal of the book. William and Isabelle had a marriage that was unusual and succeeded in a time when marriages were arranged and not often happy. It is to their credit that they successfully raised so many children, although no male descendants to carry on the line after his sons. Sounds like the legendary Marshal curse may have been for real. Who knows?
If the reigns of Richard and John are your thing, I recommend The Scarlet Lion for lovers of this genre and medieval period. It might help to read The Greatest Knight first, which I preferred, but not absolutely necessary. Beautiful cover, btw too!