The early twelfth century is a time for ambitious men to prosper – and royal servant John FitzGilbert is one of them. But when the old king dies and his successor is appointed, John’s position at court is weakened and his wife, the pious, pliant Aline, is hopelessly unequipped to deal with a life lived on the edge.
John knows the only way to protect his lands and his children is to divorce Aline. He meets his match in new wife Sybilla, daughter of his enemy Patrick of Salisbury, as she possesses a strength and courage that equals his own. But when Sybilla’s son, William, is seized by the king, John is forced to make a terrible sacrifice. Sometimes keeping your honour means breaking your word . . .
Heat Level 1
Romantic Historical Fiction
REVIEW RATING: 5 STARS
Review by Caz
I have a confession to make, one of which, as a self-respecting reader of Historical Fiction, I am duly ashamed. This is the first novel by Chadwick that I have read.
I’ve had several of her books on my “must get a copy” list for years now, and have never managed to get around to reading any of them, so when this title appeared on NetGalley, I decided to grab it to provide me with the needed impetus. It’s not a new title in the UK, but I believe this is the first time it’s been published in the US. As I expected, the novel didn’t disappoint. Chadwick’s knowledge of the period is clearly extensive, and her writing, while it is informative and detailed, is never dull or too “scholarly”.
I know of William Marshal, soldier, statesman and one-time regent of England, who is the principal character in two of her other novels – The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion. But I knew nothing of his father, John FitzGilbert, who is the focus of this book. He’s risen to the rank of Marshal to Henry I in his early twenties and is renowned as a warrior, diplomat and strategist. He’s clever and loyal, and intent on further advancement, but not at the expense of his honour as was common among many at the time. This is essentially the story of a principled man who has to make difficult decisions for his monarch and his family in the turbulent times of the twelfth century. The death of King Henry I caused what was essentially a civil war, as both his daughter, Matilda, and his nephew, Stephen, were rival claimants to the throne, Henry having given no definite decision as to his successor on his deathbed.
Having a queen in her own right on the English throne at that time was unthinkable to many, and although Henry had insisted that his men swear fealty to Matilda and therefore signalled his intention that she should succeed him, his failure to secure the succession led to years of rivaly and insurrection – and John FitzGilbert was frequently at the forefront of it.
Feeling that the English will never accept a woman on the throne, John throws in his lot with Stephen, despite having sworn the oath demanded by Henry, and despite the fact that his decision puts him on the opposing side to one of his greatest friends, Robert of Gloucester, Matilda’s half-brother.
Stephen however Is weak and easily swayed and it is not long before he is turned against John, leaving FitzGilbert no alternative but to switch sides.
He is honest and steadfast; an incredible tactician and fighter and a force to be reckoned with. He is able to add to his lands and status, but none of that comes without a cost. His first wife, Aline is completely unsuited to be the wife of a noted courtier and her health – both mental and physical – deteriorates rapidly during the period of her marriage to John. She bears him two sons, but has no real interest in either them, or the events of the day, instead preferring to spend her time in prayer.
John’s second wife, however, is a completely different kettle of fish. Sybilla is extremely capable and has a spirit to match his; and although their marriage was arranged in order to cement an alliance between FitzGilbert and the Earl of Salisbury, in her, John finds a true companion, someone to whom he can talk about politics, and who, on occasion, is able to give him good advice.
But even though John finds happiness with Sybilla, and she bears him several more children, he is still being forced to make harsh choices. When Matilda retires back to Normandy, leaving the field clear for Stephen, John finds himself under siege and in order to buy time, is forced to offer his youngest son William as hostage to Stephen. Knowing that William will grow up to be England’s “Greatest Knight” doesn’t detract from the suspense at all – Chadwick has managed to create a sense of peril and uncertainty around this episode, and the reader agonises with Sybilla as she has to send off her five-year-old to possible death, and with John as he stands his ground with Stephen. It could be easy to dislike John at this point, but he was a man of his time and life was harsh – and Chadwick makes it clear that has he has taken the only path realistically open to him at the time.
This is a superb read about a lesser known historical figure. The pace never lets up, the author’s eye for historical detail and accuracy is immaculate, and in John Marshal, she has fleshed out the character of a truly remarkable man.