Book Review: “Lady of the English” by Elizabeth Chadwick

15931913The year 1120 was a horrible year for King Henry I. His only legitimate son William died when his ship, The White Ship, sank in the middle of the night. This tragedy left Henry with one option, his legitimate daughter Matilda, the former Holy Roman Empress, would become Queen of England, and her sons would continue the royal line. Unfortunately, Matilda’s throne was taken by Stephen of Blois, and now Matilda must join forces with her stepmother Her stepmother Adeliza has always stood by Matilda’s side. Still, when she remarries after Henry’s death, Adeliza struggles to support the rightful queen but stays loyal to her new husband, who supports Stephen. Matilda and Adeliza are caught in the middle of the Anarchy in Elizabeth Chadwick’s novel, “Lady of the English.”

We are introduced to Matilda at one of her lowest moments when her first husband, Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, dies, and she must go back to England. Her father, Henry I, has decided that Matilda will be his heiress, and she must marry again to secure his legacy if his current wife, Adeliza, cannot give him another heir. Matilda’s second husband is Geoffrey V Duke of Anjou, a braggart and is abusive towards his wife, even though she outranks him. It is a contentious relationship, but Matilda holds her head up high to try and make this arrangement work for her sons, Geffory, William, and the future Henry II.

Unfortunately for Adeliza, she cannot give her husband the heir he desires, which means that the greatest men in the land must swear oaths to honor Matilda as the next Queen of England. The plan is set, but when Henry I dies, Matilda is in France, so her cousin Stephen of Blois takes the opportunity to become the next King of England. Matilda is furious and decides to fight for her right to the English throne while Geoffrey is in Anjou, but then shifts her position that her eldest son, Henry II, will be the next King of England.

After Henry I’s death, Adeliza decides what is best for her is to live the rest of her life in a nunnery, but that is not her fate. A handsome young man named William D’Albini sweeps her off her feet and gives Adeliza the one thing she long desired, a family. Unfortunately, when Stephen becomes King of England, William D’Albini joins forces with the new king, while Adeliza stays loyal to her step-daughter and friend, Matilda.

This is my first time reading a novel by Elizabeth Chadwick, and I loved it so much. The way Chadwick blended elements of fiction with historical facts was nothing short of astounding. From battles to religious moments, politics to intimate moments, Chadwick brought the story of The Anarchy to life for a modern audience. Reading this novel felt like I was transported to 12th century England and showed where Henry II got his strength and determination to rule England. If you want a vivid and compelling novel about two dynamic women in the 12th century, I highly recommend reading “Lady of the English” by Elizabeth Chadwick.

Book Review: “The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett

91wIRMJzYSLWhen one thinks about epic tales stories of adventures and romance tend to come to mind. One hardly thinks about the construction of a magnificent building as an “epic tale” with monks and builders as the main characters. We see cathedrals as these massive buildings from the past used as churches, but we rarely think about how they were constructed and why. Who were the people who decided to make these spectacular buildings and what might have their lives have been like? These are just some of the questions that Ken Follett wanted to try and answer in his monumental historical fiction masterpiece, “The Pillars of the Earth”.

Ken Follett is known worldwide as an author of spy thrillers, but for decades the story of a 12th-century cathedral in a town called Kingsbridge and the people who helped build it was always in the back of his mind. In 1989, he decided to take a risk and publish his first ever historical fiction novel. To say the book was a sensation would be an understatement. In the 25th anniversary edition of this wonderful novel, Follett explores why he thinks this particular story made such a splash:

Many times in the last twenty-five years, I have been asked why “Pillars” has had such a big impact. There’s no simple answer, because a novel is so complex. But I come back again and again to the people who built the cathedrals. Those men and women were, by modern standards, poor and ignorant. They lived in wooden huts and slept on the floor. Yet they created the most beautiful and awesome buildings the world has ever known. Human beings have the capacity to rise above mundane circumstances and touch the eternal. This is what “Pillars” is about, and, in the end, I think that may be why it has so profoundly touched the hearts of so many readers for so many years. (Follett, xxii).

Follett introduces his readers to the world of 12th-century Kingsbridge, England with the execution of a thief. Compared to the rest of the story this prologue seems a bit odd since it happened over a decade before the actual story begins, but Follett was able to use the details of the prologue throughout the entire novel. Twelve years after the execution, we are introduced to Tom Builder and his family as they struggle to survive after he was fired from a building job for William Hamleigh, who was dumped by Lady Aliena. Tom’s life is turned upside down when his wife Agnes dies giving birth to a son and he falls in love with a woman named Ellen, who is the mother of Jack Jackson. Meanwhile, we are introduced to Prior Philip, a man who wants to reform Kingsbridge Priory. Tom and Philip both have a dream of making a wonderful cathedral in Kingsbridge.

This is the story of the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral, but it is also a story of those who lived in Kingsbridge. It is about their triumphs and tragedies. It is about family and love, revenge and heartache. There were some very dramatic scenes that shocked me, however, I believe Follett used these scenes to grow his characters to be strong; physically, mentally and emotionally. Follett may not be a spiritual man, but he was able to capture the spirituality of the age through Prior Philip and the struggle between the church and the state through the building of the cathedral. The cast of characters, both good and bad, are very well-rounded and complex and you really want to know what will happen to them by the end of the story.

I usually read books about the Wars of the Roses and the Tudor dynasty, but I decided to take a chance and read the Kingsbridge series because I heard amazing things about this series. I did have to remind myself about Queen Maud, King Stephen, King  Henry II, and Thomas Becket since I don’t study this time period often. Follett was able to make the 12th-century to come alive. I did not want to stop reading this book. I absolutely loved the story, the scenery, the amount of details and the colorful cast of characters. This was a huge risk for Follett to jump into the world of historical fiction, but it paid off extremely well. “The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett is a stunning masterpiece and I highly recommend it to anyone who really enjoys a thrilling historical fiction novel.