Bingo Square: This is the End
As much as I have enjoyed reading Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy, it also took that extra push from CBR10Bingo to finally build up the motivation to dig into the final novel. What can I say? Her books are a commitment, and there is something rather daunting about them because being based on history, there is very little justice or sense of people getting the ending or lives they deserved. The last novel showed how Simon de Montfort, a flawed but honorable man, lost his battle to create a system that would lead to more accountability for the kings of England. This book charts how Wales finally falls completely to English control and demonstrates the extreme hypocrisy and lack of self-reflection one can have when one believes that they are royal by divine right and a great military leader to boot. Henry III was a horrible king, he was easily pushed around, held grudges and didn’t keep his word (because his opinion waivered based on who he most recently spoke to), but his weakness also allowed his lords the occasional lenience even if they were mostly frustrated with his flip-flopping nature.
Edward I, on the other hand, learned the necessity of strength and power from his father’s example. Naturally, I assumed the view of him in the film Braveheart was biased, but the Edward portrayed in the last two books of this series certainly has no problems giving his word and then acting otherwise because he does not believe he is accountable to anyone as king. Fortunately for him, he proved himself as a battle commander when facing Simon and later on during the Crusades, so instead of viewing him as a duplicitous snake, he is hailed as a hero by the English. His enemies, on the other hand, know to distrust his word, and fear his desire for complete control. Even when he thinks he is acting in good faith, he doesn’t follow logic or law, or sends representatives that are more motivated by greed and gain than justice. His punishments are petty, vengeful and he bears grudges not only against those who wronged him, but anyone related to them.
While Edward has a large and looming influence on the events and lives of the people in this book, he is not the main character. The main characters in this novel are Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales and grandson of Llewellyn the Great, Davydd, his charming but plotting brother, and Ellen, daughter of Simon de Montfort. After Simon’s failed rebellion, his surviving family fled to France, including twelve-year-old Ellen, and saw a tremendous fall in their fortunes. Llewellyn broke off his arranged betrothal to Ellen (there is a 30 year age gap which is normal for the time) for the good of Wales to avoid antagonizing the crown. While previously, Ellen would have had her choice of candidates due to her familial connection to the English throne through her mother, now her family is a liability.
The novel begins in 1271, six years after Simon’s death, and spans up through 1283 when Wales loses its last bits of independence from England. Like his grandfather, Llewellyn has to play a balancing act between keeping his independence from England while also appeasing them enough to prevent them from trying to exert excessive force. Unlike his grandfather, Llewellyn is plagued with ambitious brothers. Given the different inheritance rules of Wales, brotherly love is always tinged with rivalry and rebellion, and it is the same with Llewellyn and Davydd. Llewellyn knows that Wales needs one strong leader to stand against England rather than several weaker leaders, but Davydd and other Welsh powers are often too concerned with what they feel is owed to them to worry about a common enemy. In part, this is also because they are playing by an old rule book where Welsh rulers could play English nobles against each other and the king just as the English king could play the Welsh against each other. Edward is not the type of king that forgives mixed loyalties so that strategy will no longer work for disgruntled Welsh nobles. The English are too afraid of consequences to be played against him.
While this part was fascinating, and Penman does a good job of making the reader like Davydd even as he keeps making decisions that are against the interest of his brother and the Welsh, it is through Ellen that Penman truly adds humanity and prevents the novel from being a pure tale of political intrigue and shifting fortunes. She sees her family’s fall, and just as they appear to be rising again, her older brothers commit murder. Still, when Llewellyn decides he does need to secure an heir other than his younger brother, his first thoughts turn to Ellen. He has never forgotten his commitment to her, and given her family’s former connections to Wales, she has never lost interest in that country. Thus, in 1275, ten years after the original terms of the betrothal, Ellen finally embarks on a journey to Wales, only to be caught and held prisoner by her cousin, Edward, and used as a bargaining piece. I checked Wikipedia a few times while reading this one, and while I would like to think that Ellen found moments of happiness with her family, she also very much had her life put on hold at various points, reducing the amount of happiness and comfort she may have found. Elizabeth, Davydd’s English wife, serves as an interesting parallel to her story: her father and first husband both betrayed the king, and based on the king’s wishes, she finds herself attached to another man known for his changing loyalties. While these women are strong-willed, they are also very much at the mercy of the men around them and how their decisions affect their lives.
Though it is called Welsh Princes trilogy, it very much is also the story of England since Wales was so strongly affected by the actions of its larger neighbor. The first book was the parallel stories of King John, his daughter Joanna and Llewellyn the Great, while the second novel shifted focus to Simon de Montfort with Wales taking a bit of a backseat. In this, Wales is back in the foreground. While the trilogy shows the downfall of Wales as a free nation with its own traditions, it also shows the rise of England as a nation, from being simply a minor portion of a larger kingdom spanning large amounts of territory in French to its intent to become one kingdom on a divided island. Through Simon, the novel also addresses the ideas about limits of power on royalty even if it would take years for them to take root and effect.
These novels are a dense read so how much a reader might like them really depends on the type of historical fiction they like. Sometimes I like tighter personal stories, other times I like sprawling epics. These books were perfect for me as a way to get a large amount of information in an approachable way. They were basically like a text book for someone that doesn’t actually want to read historical non-fiction and some liberties regarding people’s thoughts and feelings. But as I said above, they also kind of wrecked me because from a modern perspective especially, the people that I would say are in the right are also the ones who ended up losing so much while the person that was a tyrant simply kept succeeding.
Bingo Square: This is the End