My thanks to NetGalley, BooksGoSocial, and Silverwood Books for a review copy of this book.
This is the second in a series of three books centred around Isabella of Angoulême, the ‘tangled queen’. I chose to read this one despite not having read the first as this was about a character and a period of English history that I didn’t know too much about. Isabella of Angoulême was betrothed to Hugh IX of Lusignan but more or less abducted by her father from his custody, and married to King John II (he of the Magna Carta, and Robin Hood stories). Isabella becomes John’s Queen consort but denied many of the privileges she should have as Queen. This book begins in 1217 and covers events up to 1225. John II is dead, and his and Isabella’s son Henry III is on the throne, crowned at only nine, England being ruled effectively by the council of trustworthy people that John had appointed for the purpose. Isabella has returned to Angoulême, bearer of the seal of Queen of England, determined to establish her own power, regain control over the lands that rightfully belonged to her family, the Taillefers, and be a true Queen rather than one in name alone. Her second marriage, happier in a sense than the first, is a step that takes her further in that direction and we see how she and her new husband consolidate their lands and power, adding to them and strengthening their influence with time.
Isabella and John II
Source: By UAltmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons/ By HISTORY OF ENGLAND by SAMUEL R. GARDINER [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But this is not the story only of Isabella—we also see how the boy King Henry (who we follow from age 11 to about 18) and his little brothers and sisters fare back in England. At this time, England is not financially well off, in fact is rather badly off with the extravagances of John II, and struggling to hold on to its territories and the loyalties of its Knights. While political alliances (marriages mostly, for treaties and truces don’t always have the intended outcome) and support from Rome play their part, money is what is needed most, and money is what is extremely hard for them to find. And if that were not enough, power structures are beginning to change in France too, which have their own implications, not necessarily positive for England.
Henry III’s Coronation
Source:By Anonymous (Cotton Vitellius A. XIII) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This was an easy and well-paced read, and as I already mentioned about a time in history that I didn’t know all that much of. I really enjoyed all the various details—of daily life (hunts, feasts, festivals, marriages), of how the exchequer worked, of how the Kings Bench, Chancery, and Common Pleas courts functioned in Westminster, among others. Of course, thirteenth century or any other time, politics itself played out in much the same way–alliances to strengthen power, machinations within court to gain influence (and of course, wealth), and loyalties invariable bending towards those who had the wealth and hence, the power, and mostly likely, as ready to switch back, if and when things change again.
Isabella herself was an interesting character to ‘watch’—she isn’t necessarily unscrupulous, but definitely acts in accordance with self-interest (though she does see her and her second husband’s interests as one), and doesn’t hesitate to act to that end. That it may ‘hurt’ someone (not physically, but emotionally) doesn’t seem to count too much with her, even if her own children are involved. While I didn’t think badly of her (except may be on one or two counts), it wasn’t easy to like her very much either for those reasons, even if to an extent, one could understand her need for power and position of her own. For young Henry, on the other hand, I felt a lot of sympathy. In the period that we see him, initially he is much too young to really take any decisions but it is nice seeing him growing older and beginning to act for himself. But the state in which the Kingdom has been left to him, from taking over the reins of power (which we don’t see in this book, though we know Isabella played a role in seeing this through) to holding on to it, even the need for pomp and ceremony despite scarcely having the means, besides the political games between his courtiers—it is so much for quite literally a child to deal with.
Overall this was a read I liked very much but there were a couple of issues I had with the book. The later part of the book for one I thought began to focus far more on England’s troubles and Louis the VII’s actions in France (at least these aspects stood out more). Not that I didn’t enjoy reading them but since the book is about Isabella, I would have expected things to stand out more from her perspective. Also, I felt the ending came across as a little abrupt. I know the story will continue in the next part, but still I wish it had felt a little more ‘complete’ if that makes sense.
But these were minor complaints, really, and I certainly would like to read more of Isabella’s story so looking forward to Part III to see what lies ahead for her (and indeed for Henry) as well as to reading Part I (on her marriage to John II). Four stars.