While this novel actually covers a shorter time period than its predecessor, Here Be Dragons, this novel feels even more sprawling. I think this is partially due to the number of characters and leaders in Wales. While the English part of this narrative is centered around Simon de Montfort, his wife Nell and King Henry III, in that time, the Welsh have three separate rulers: the final years of Llewellyn the Great’s reign, his son Davydd’s short rule, and finally, Llewellyn, Dafydd’s nephew and Llewellyn the Great’s grandson. Of course it isn’t that simple since Welsh family dynamics lead to some complicated political realities, and much like Davydd and his brother Gruffydd never saw eye to eye, Gruffydd’s son Owain and Llewellyn are constantly at each other’s throats, encouraged by their mother. Llewellyn the Great, Davydd, and Llewellyn all see the necessity for a united Wales against England and have the ability to compromise with England to maintain some independence when necessary. Gruffyd and Owain are hot blooded and both hate England with a passion, not understanding the diplomatic abilities required of a ruler while also being more concerned with taking advantage of internal weaknesses to gain power even when when it exposes them to the English.
However, the novel is most certainly Simon de Montfort’s novel. In fact I was surprised how prominent a role he played in a trilogy about Welsh princes, and from the middle onward, Wales felt pushed to the background. Penman addresses this in her afterward, explaining that Llewellyn and Simon were too big to share a novel, and that Llewellyn would be at the forefront in the final novel of the trilogy.
Henry III, while having the potential to be a nice man, is an incredibly weak and ineffectual king. Moreover, he doesn’t realize this, and given the time period during which this novel takes place, he also believes he is appointed by God and has no one but God and himself to answer to. While his father, King John, showed some concern for the people, Henry does not believe himself accountable to them, and pays very little attention to their well-being. His spending is out of control, he enters into several ill-advised wars and battles, is easily swayed, holds grudges, and cannot read a room, lavishing riches and attentions on family members who are incompetent, thus creating discontent amongst the nobles and the common folk alike.
Married to Henry III’s sister Nell, Simon has a front row seat to all of this, and is often at odds with Henry. While he tries to be loyal, he also feels he has been ill-treated by the king, and that the king has too often broken his word, either due to the advice of bad advisors or Henry’s own lack of spine and follow through. As Simon attempts to find ways to hold the king accountable, it eventually leads to civil war as Henry III refuses to keep the promises he makes and even gets the Church involved to proclaim the Provisions he signed invalid.
Since this is historical fiction, the characters are never perfect and it is both interesting and frustrating to see how characters get in their own way. Simon, while having a noble cause, is too blunt, too much the battle commander and not enough of the diplomat, to keep his allies happy. As can be seen again and again in Penman’s novels, the sons never quite live up to the father’s legacy, and while Simon loves his sons, they are too often too outspoken and arrogant, leading to even more political issues and divisions. Henry’s weakness, on the other hand, inspires the opposite in his son Edward (for non-history buffs, the evil king from Braveheart). While Henry is easily convinced to change his mind and thus go back on his promises, Edward knowingly makes oaths and promises he does not plan to keep if it will help him in a situation. While that may work in the short term, I am curious to see where that leads in the long term when everyone knows his word cannot be trusted.
More so than in her previous novels, Penman shows the importance of religion in medieval life, with Henry and Simon both being extremely devout men. This extreme piety sometimes made it hard for me to relate or even like the characters since medieval Christianity also justified prejudices against Jews, and anyone not considered a true believer. It also explained why Henry and Edward were so reluctant to let go of any power, despite Edward’s knowledge of how incompetent his father was: they believed kings chosen by God, and as a result, no matter how horrible their decisions, did not see themselves as touchable or accountable. While she briefly alluded to the prejudices faced by Jews in her previous novel (when comparing John and Richard’s reigns), it is in this novel that Penman especially attempts to grapple with how men that were otherwise generally good could also be so heartless when it came to the fates of the Jews living in England. While this was one of the things that made Simon a less sympathetic main character for me than Llewellyn the Great of Here be Dragons, I appreciated that she didn’t try to whitewash her characters and presented them with their historical flaws and all, trying to contextualize their beliefs, but not excuse their actions.