I knew the story well before I picked the book up.
In 1069 Henry I died without a legitimate male heir. He named his daughter, Matilda, as his heir, but when he died his nephew, Stephen, took the throne.
Had Henry named a new heir on his deathbed? Was Stephen a usurper? Could a woman rule?
The rival claimants to the throne would wage war for years …
I first read the story in Sharon Penman’s ‘Christ and his Saints Slept’, but reading it again appealed, and I was very curious to see how Elizabeth Chadwick wrote and how she would present the story.
Complex history is made clear, but not over-simplified, by telling the story through a well-chosen cast of characters.
This is a very human take on the story, and it worked so well because as well as being well-chosen the characters were very well drawn.
They were of their time, but I could still understand and believe in them. Real, fallible human beings.
I could see both sides of the argument.
The story moved between two royal ladies: Adeliza, the dowager queen, and Matilda, the claimant to the throne. Step-mother and step-daughter.
They are very different women. Adeliza’s calling is to be a consort, a wife and mother, whereas Matilda’s calling is to reign, and to reclaim the throne that she believes is rightfully hers in an age when many considered women unfit to rule.
The choice of perspective was very well done, and the two Ladies of the English contrasted wonderfully as the story moved between them.
Matilda fought for the throne. And Adeliza was married again, to a nobleman loyal to Stephen. His anointed king.
There were so many wonderful scenes: Matilda fighting for control with her husband, the young and ambitious Geoffrey of Anjou; Matilda escaping a besieged castle in the depths of winter; Matilda struck by the man her son has become.
Matilda brings drama and intrigue, while Adeliza brings heart and soul. Though it’s not quite that simple …
Even though I knew how the story would play out, it held me from the first page to the last.
Because the storytelling, the characters, and a wonderful evocation of time and place came together perfectly.
Lady of the English is not the definitive fictional retelling of this history, but it is a fine historical entertainment.
And sometimes that’s just what I want to read.