Tuesday, April 5, 2011

To Defy A King

I just finished reading To Defy A King by Elizabeth Chadwick, originally published as The Secret Lion. She has been nominated by the Historical Novel Society as one of the top ten historical writers of the decade; that was in 2003. This book was about Mahelt Marshal, the daughter of England's greatest knight William Marshal. They live in the 1200s under King John. Mahelt is doted on by her father and brothers; she is the only daughter for some time. She is willfull, strong, beautiful and feisty. (my favorite kind of character). These are real people in their time. She grew up very loved, and didn't seem to be reprimanded much. She was betrothed to Hugh Bigod, the son of the Earl of Norfolk. They were betrothed at 14 but could not consummate the marriage until she was 15. She went to live with her in laws at Framlingham Castle.

Her in laws were Ida, a very nice woman who knew her place and loved to sew, and her father in law Ralph who was stern and strict. As Mahelt learned the ways of her new family, she was kept in separate chambers from her future husband. As they spent time together, they fell in love. During this time, the King John took her two oldest brothers ransom. Her brother William wrote her to come to him, and she snuck away in the night. Her maid tattled on her, and in the morning she received a very stern reprimand from her father in law. He kept a close eye on her, her future husband as well. She felt trapped and was unhappy. She feared for her family and was unable to visit them. Her mother in law taught her how to sew and manage a household. At 15 years of age, I'm sure Hugh and Mahelt finally became husband and wife. They had a boy named Ralph a year later.

It was a time of turmoil for both families, who were sworn to serve and protect King John. He demanded their time and money for his troops and wars. They were often gone most of the summer on campaigns while the women stayed home. Mahelt's father William was in Ireland and had a dispute with a FitzHenry. He plundered William's ports and household, and took his two sons as hostages. They were powerless to help, as King John could do as he pleased. Mahelt learned early on to hate her sovereign King and for what he did to families. As time passed, she had another son named Hugo for his dad. She threw herself into being a wife and mother and kept company with her mother in law, and sister in law Ela. Mahelt's mother in law as a young woman at court, had had a liaison with the King and had a baby boy named Longespee. He was the King's half brother and lived at Court. His wife was Ela and also lived at Framlingham Castle with her small children.

There were several tense relationships in the book. Mahelt struggled with how stern her father in law was, and how he didn't seem to pay much attention to her mother in law his wife. Hugh often struggled getting along with his half brother Longespee, because he was often cocky since he was half brother to the King. Mahelt, along with others, were discontented with their King as well. He soon demanded a tax on everyone's goods, and so the Bigods sent away a lot of their treasure and goods to be divided up and hidden in different monasteries. Apparently many people did this to avoid the tax. The King came for a visit at the Castle, and Mahelt presided as her mother in law was sick. He tried making a pass at her, and she attacked him. The King was known to take many men's wives by force; he was a cruel and lecherous man.

The King knew Mahelt had it out for him, so this didn't pose well for the Bigods or Marshals. Mahelt soon had a baby girl, Isabelle named for her mother. On one of their campaigns into France, Longespee was taken hostage along with Ralph, Mahelt's brother. It was a big loss for England, thousands died. Discontent started to fester after the King's hasty behavior, and many started to talk about who could replace the King. He acted too quickly, demanded too much of his men and people, took advantage of women, and even hanged children when they were supposedly attainted with treason. It took over a year to get Ralph back. It took 9 months for Longespee to be ransomed, and his half brother the King made a pass at his wife while he was gone. When he heard about it on his return, he vowed to bring him down as well.

The Bigods were in collusion with other families abroad, about getting rid of King John. They were in contact with Louis of France to be their new King. While the negotiations were under way, the King made taxes higher so that people continued to hide their treasures. He also sent his men to loot and burn, even rape women of houses. Mahelt and Hugh came upon a family of 3 that had been murdered for their home and goods. After seeing this, Hugh decided he needed to leave with the last of their goods and stow them away. Mahelt pleaded for him not to go, but he did with his father. While they were gone, King John and his men came to Framlingham Castle to take it. They had to surrender, and her oldest son Ralph was taken into custody.

Hugh found them, but Mahelt was so mad at him for leaving that they fought for a while. During this sad time, Ida passed away. The country was in turmoil, and lootings and burnings were everywhere. Louis of France had his supporters and was prepared to take over. Her son Ralph was able to come home within the year, and she was so relieved. Her brothers were also finally free. Suddenly, there was news that King John had died of the flux. They were free! His son Henry was named as the King, with William Marshal as regent; Mahelt's father. Now the dilemma was do the men keep their honor and uphold Louis as they had sworn fealty to him, or do they uphold their new King and Mahelt's father as regent? Im sure this wasn't an easy time for their marriage. Mahelt wanted to support her father, and Hugh wanted to uphold Louis as he'd promised. There were several times in the book where Mahelt was torn between loyalty for her in law family, and her real family.

They were able to negotiate and give money to Louis to go back to France. England didn't want a foreigner for a king now, they wanted Henri. Mahelt and Hugh made up, and moved back to Framlingham Castle. Hugh had now taken over most of the earldom as his father was quite sick and old. They had another son and lived well. The book ends there, but the author tells us that in the next while Mahelt's mother dies, then her father, then a few years later her husband Hugh. She remarries an older man and has 2 more children. Mahelt was a weighty matriarch; her children went on to forge heavy links in the thirteenth century and beyond. It is down in Mahelt's geneological line that the Stuart kings of Scotland claim part of their descent.

I liked this book because it was a new character Id never heard of, and she was my favorite kind; feisty, strong and powerful. I also love period pieces and getting to learn more about history and the people that lived and how they made a name for them self.

Rating: PG13 for some love scenes. No swearing. Some scenes of war and bloodshed.

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