Nisareen's Reviews > Lady of the English

Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick
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Aug 06, 12

Recommended to Nisareen by: Deborah O'Regan
Read from July 15 to 20, 2012 — I own a copy, read count: 1

‘She has greatness within her.’

Lady of the English is set during the 12th Century and chronicles the epic Civil War between the Empress Matilda and Stephen of Blois. It also tells the story of the poignant friendship between Matilda and her stepmother Adeliza, the former Dowager Queen of England who were both ‘Lady of the English.’

Henry I finds himself in a dilemma when his son and heir William, is killed during the fatal White Ship voyage. His second wife Adeliza’s one sorrow in life has been her inability to conceive a child and give her husband his much needed legitimate heir. As insurance, Henry summons his recently widowed daughter Matilda in an attempt to marry her off and gain a male heir.

As a young girl, Matilda, the only daughter of Henry I is married to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V. Following his death however, she is summoned back from Germany and finds herself being used as a political pawn to further the machinations of her father. Upon her arrival, Henry names her as his successor. In an effort to unite the Angevin empire, Matilda (to her horror and indignation) finds herself betrothed to Geoffrey, the Count of Anjou who happens to be only 14 yrs old in contrast to her 26 years.

Matilda and Adeliza are closer in age and become fast friends despite their differences. Adeliza is sympathetic to Matilda’s plight when her marriage to Geoffrey takes off with a rocky start. Henry is oblivious to Matilda’s protestations and both father and daughter become estranged as a result.

When Henry dies suddenly of food poisoning, Stephen seizes the crown and despite the barons swearing fealty to Matilda thrice under Henry’s reign, they now flock to support Stephen rather than a female heir to the throne. Matilda and Geoffrey must put aside their differences to work together to take back England and Normandy for their young son, Henry.

Meanwhile Adeliza has found new joy in her life after marrying William D’Albini and goes on to bear him six children. Adeliza finds herself torn between her obligation to her husband (who is a staunch Stephen supporter) and her stepdaughter Matilda who she sees as the true heir to the throne.

The rest of the novel chronicles the wars, strategies and game plans of both sides to reclaim the crown and the rule of England. Having read about Matilda in other books by Elizabeth Chadwick, I have always been curious about this complex enigmatic woman and the reasons behind her cold exterior and aloofness. Chadwick's research gives the reader an insightful understanding of this strongly motivated medieval woman who feels trapped by her circumstances. One paragraph in particular remonstrates this:

They saw her as a member of the weaker sex, too soft to rule; yet when she showed a hard face and acted in a stern manner, they muttered that she was going against nature. Whatever she did, she was damned, and it led her to think damn them all too.

One could argue that in a world where her feminine traits may have been used to her advantage (Eleanor of Aquitaine’s charismatic charm comes to mind) Matilda saw her femininity as a weakness and felt she had to be a man in a man’s world to survive. As a result she failed to win the barons over, and made fatal mistakes that eventually cost her the crown. I think both Chadwick and Adeliza summon her up quite well when they describe her as being her own worst enemy.

"She can look after herself," he muttered, remembering her wide grey eyes on him in the moment before she climbed into the wain. The contempt. The pride. The anger. "No," said Adeliza. "You are wrong, my husband. She cannot, because she is her own worst enemy."

The characters of Adeliza and Henry II stood out the most for me. I found myself sobbing at the end at Adeliza’s fate just as she had found contentment in her life. Henry’s boyish charm, shining energy and audacity made for some fun reading particularly when he waltzes into King Stephen’s camp to ask for money to pay his mercenaries after his failed attempt to seize some of Stephen’s border castles.

Once again Chadwick has provided great insight into this time era and the struggles faced by both sides during a tumultuous time in English history. Recommended.
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