This is the second David Field book I've read this year and he is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. His books have that perfect balance I love between straight, dry history facts and overly romantic fiction in too many modern historical fiction books today. And while I am happy his books are so inexpensive to buy and free to read with Kindle Unlimited, I'm starting to think he is selling himself short and needs to charge more!
This is the sixth book in his seven part series about the Norman conquest through the reign of Henry III and his son Prince Edward, who eventually becomes Edward I. I reviewed book seven last month, The Conscience of a King, which was about Simon de Montfort. I decided to back up and read about King John, who I honestly know little about, having run across very few historical fiction books devoted to just him and his reign. The book incorporates a fictional character, Hugh, Earl of Flint, to guide the narrative and shows his service to John along with the real person of Ranulf, Earl of Chester. The two cousins endure many hardships and abuse as they try to carry out King John's demands and also care for their much neglected families, who suffer loneliness and worry for their men who are usually far away from home and involved in the next brutal battle.
When the story begins, Richard the Lionheart is still alive and ruling as well as taking advice from his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine and it seems as if there is no reason to believe this world of strong leadership will not go on for some time. Hugh, having been on crusade with Richard, is happy and content serving his King who he respects deeply and holds in much esteem. When Richard dies young and unexpectedly, Hugh's world drastically changes with the ascension of his younger brother John to the throne of England.
John and Richard are as different as is possible and Hugh learns quickly that taking advice and self-restraint are not qualities the new leader possesses. Seeing everyone as a possible threat, John seems to work overtime to alienate even his most loyal supporters of which Hugh and Ranulf try to be. As the barons of the day are overtaxed, over committed to endless wars across the channel in France, and treated with disdain at every turn, things become perilous for Hugh as he tries to support John, while seeing the writing on the wall of a coming showdown between the King and his subjects.
Throughout the story of the facts of John's reign, the attempts to restore his lands in France, and his interaction with the Welsh and Scots, is the side story of Hugh and his wife Edwina and their children. Geoffrey, Hugh's son, who will also factor in the next book, is anxious to prove himself and learn the art of being a squire, then a knight in the King's service. He is sent at the age of fifteen to train on the Earl of Chester's estate and bears witness to the brutality of the day in situations beyond his control. The personal stories of Hugh's family members serve to keep the story from becoming too dry and give the reader someone to root for.
As I read this book I realized that it is a great place to start if you have very little knowledge of the time period. But it is also a great recap of events that are easily forgotten. I found myself wishing I'd read it before tackling some of Sharon Kay Penman's work because Field's books are much shorter and to the point, at only 250-300 pages each. You will not get the detailed, intricate backgrounds of each character or the exhaustive research in Penman's novels, but you will definitely come away with sound information and understand the why, who, and what behind the chosen subject.
Field has done his homework and he even adds some things I hadn't read about before. His description of the storm which led to the loss of the crown jewels at the end of story was superb and he explains things so effortlessly that even the Great Charter (Magna Carta) was made interesting, something I'd always been a bit bored by. He did a wonderful job of making me understand how John went from being totally in control to being forced to agree, albeit with his fingers crossed, to demands from barons who dared to defy him.
I love that Field didn't start writing and publishing until he retired from his work as a lawyer. I think to become an author in your 70's is amazing! I am pretty sure I read he'd written a lot before then but hadn't published his work until later. He is doing a great service by giving us these books about English and Australian history, written in an entertaining, readable style for all. I will definitely be reading more. I'd like to start the new year with his book about Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, The King's Commoner, because I don't know much about that story.