Book review: Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick

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Is it worth plunging your country into political chaos when the crown of England is stolen from your grasp?

It certainly was for Matilda, feisty daughter of Henry I, whose throne was usurped by her scheming cousin Stephen despite a pledge from the country’s most influential barons that they would one day make her their queen.

The turbulent Anarchy of 1135 to 1154, once described as a time during which ‘Christ and his saints slept,’ gets a vibrant retelling in award- winning novelist Elizabeth Chadwick’s latest blockbuster.

Chadwick has the enviable knack of selecting some of the medieval age’s most colourful and charismatic figures and using their lives as a template on which to weave her panoramic and yet intensely human historical novels.

From the heroic Knight Templar William Marshal to the battling Empress Matilda, Chadwick latches on to their personal histories and brings fresh impetus and insight to the events and relationships that shaped them.

Matilda’s war with Stephen, whose reign was dogged by unrest, is well documented but Chadwick adds passion, pathos, grit and humour to transform the leading players into more realistic and complex human beings.

Here she uses the parallel life of Adeliza, Matilda’s widowed stepmother, as a foil for Henry’s embittered daughter, showing how their destinies were linked by the struggle for the crown.

Matilda is still young and childless when her ageing husband, the Emperor of Germany, dies and she returns to England for a reunion with her father Henry I.

Matilda is Henry’s only living child and heir unless his young wife Adeliza can become pregnant. Against the odds, the two women become friends but are separated when Matilda is forced into marriage with the hated Geoffrey of Anjou, a man much younger than herself and prone to outbursts of violence.

Matilda bears a son, Henry, and invests all her energies into regaining her throne and ensuring that he will one day be king.

But marriage problems and motherhood are quickly overtaken by politics when her father dies and her cousin Stephen declares himself king before Matilda can get back to England.

Adeliza, meanwhile, is now married to William D’Albini, a nobleman loyal to King Stephen.

Both Adeliza and Matilda are strong and prepared to stand firm for what they know is right but in a world where a man’s word is law, how can Adeliza obey her husband while supporting Matilda, the rightful queen?

And for Matilda pride comes before a fall ...what price for a crown and what does it cost to be ‘Lady of the English’?

The frustrations and despair of Matilda, a forthright woman who knows her constitutional rights but cannot assert them, are skilfully highlighted through her friendship with Adeliza, a woman equally determined to achieve justice but who uses her feminine wiles in a more traditional and passive manner.

The contrast between the two women is one of the most fascinating elements of a story that contains Chadwick’s hallmark historical accuracy, attention to fine detail and powerful storytelling.

Simmering with sensuous romance, intrigue, conflict and thwarted ambition, Lady of the English transforms the pages of history into a living, breathing drama.

(Sphere, hardback, £14.99)