Publication Date: March 31, 2023
Length: 276 pages
I have purchased books one, six, and seven in this series as they have gone on sale. They sat in my Kindle for awhile and I decided to read the last book in the series first. This was because it is about Simon de Montfort and there are so few historical fiction books about him.
Simon de Montfort begins his young life watching his parents' quest to conquer the religious Cathars in the Albigensian Crusades in southern France. His father is killed in 1218 while fighting and Simon and his brother Amaury are left as heirs to a family title that must be fought for after it is stolen and given to a distant cousin by a vengeful King John. Amaury agrees to relinquish all rights to the earldom, being the older brother and first in line to inherit any lands, if Simon gives up all rights to the family lands in France. When Simon travels to England to regain his title, Earl of Leicester, he becomes a close ally for a time of King Henry III. He spends countless time and energy proving himself as a military leader and strategist, convincing Henry of his loyalty and rightful place as part of the English nobility.
As a frequent member of the court, Simon witnesses Henry's ability to be swayed by whomever is in his current circle. Henry's wife, Eleanor of Provence and her foreign relatives, often influence him in negative ways, wanting lands, money and titles of their own. Henry's mother, Isabella, who has married into another influential family, the de Lusignans of France, also vie for special privileges and the result is a bitter revolt of the barons and native English nobility who see their rightful inheritances being squandered by those without the authority to do so.
When Simon marries and begins a family with Henry's sister Eleanor, the stakes increase and the couple work to navigate the tricky political world they are thrust into. When the King and Simon have a serious disagreement and falling out over money owed, the de Montforts flee to France, living as exiles. As things become more tense in England between the barons and Henry, Simon is eventually to return, fighting against Henry and his son Edward, with a showdown of epic proportions.
This book stuck to the facts of Simon's life as a history book would, only adding a few fictional characters. It is not a long book but packs a lot into the pages. We witness Simon growing both physically and emotionally as well as spiritually and as he moves from young, idealistic boy to military leader, husband, and father, he gains respect from those around him and devotion from those he has saved from a life of poverty and misery.
Field does a great job of simplifying what is a complicated period, with the Barons' Wars, the foreign influences at court, and the reasons behind the discontent in the nations of England and France. Using a fictional girl, Merle, who is given to Simon as a concubine, whom he never treats as one, the author allows us to glimpse the compassionate part of de Montfort, when he treats her well and cares for her when he doesn't have to.
I have always found this period and subject to be a bit on the dry side, as it is hard to keep up with the political machinations going on but I understood things so much better after reading this book. The significance of de Montfort's attempts at reforms with the provisions of Oxford is not easy for the casual reader and I wish I'd read this one first before Falls the Shadow, by Sharon Penman because I think I might have kept things straight a bit more in her much longer, involved novel.
The only downside I felt was that there was a bit of hero worship regarding de Montfort. I know from researching him that he had his faults, including his treatment of the Jews and history of anti-Semitism. While I can appreciate not dwelling on this for long and focusing on his obvious contributions to English Parliamentarian reforms, I nevertheless like to know all aspects of a historical character's legacy, warts and all. It just informs and makes them all the more human to give the whole story.
Field's goal is to write books that teach English history in an easy, entertaining way, much like Jean Plaidy, but with a more adult style. I intend to read the other books in this series as well as his Tudor and Maritime ones focusing on Sir Francis Drake. If you are looking to better understand the period of the Norman Conquest through the reign of Henry III, I highly recommend these books in the Medieval Saga Series.