When Empress Matilda returns to England after the death of her husband, she is appalled when she learns her father has arranged a second marriage for her with Geoffrey of Anjou, eleven years her junior. Powerless, Matilda goes through with the marriage but gambles her husband will eventually grow tired of her if she fails to produce a child and proves to be a difficult wife. However, when Matilda’s father dies unexpectedly, the throne of England is usurped by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, and Matilda quickly learns she needs the support of her husband if she is to win the crown that is hers by right.
Adeliza of Louvain has been married to Henry I of England for fifteen years but her failure to conceive a child has dire consequences when Henry suddenly dies in Normandy. With no legitimate male heir, the nobles of England turn their back on Henry’s daughter, Matilda, to whom they had sworn allegiance during her father’s lifetime, and the throne is claimed by Stephen of Blois. With no immediate prospects in sight, Adeliza retires to a convent, however she is shocked when she receives an unexpected proposal of marriage from William d’Aubigny, 1st Earl of Arundel. Adeliza’s prayers are answered when she gives birth to a much-longed for child within months of her marriage but her happiness is strained by the division that is tearing England apart. While Adeliza remains steadfastly loyal to Matilda, she realises her family’s livelihood is dependent on her husband’s allegiance to Stephen.
Lady of the English tells the story of two very different woman: Matilda, the stubborn and strong-willed claimant of the English throne and the sweet-natured Adeliza who is staunchly loyal to those she loves. Matilda has always been a controversial figure in English history and while Chadwick does her best to make her likeable in this story, she completely fails and contrasting her with Adeliza just makes the situation worse. It is Matilda’s pride that makes me dislike her so much, and while I agree she was hard done by in regard to the English throne, she doesn’t help her situation by behaving so arrogantly.
Matilda’s relationship with her husband, Geoffrey, is tempestuous and while Anjou does come across as a dangerous charmer, I never once felt the underlying sexual attraction that Matilda claims to feel for him when they are reunited after a time apart. While their dislike of each other is apparent from the outset, we only know Matilda has a powerful sexual attraction to her husband because Chadwick tells us that is the case when she really should be showing us. Matilda treats her husband with so much contempt, it is hardly surprising their relationship was so stormy. Chadwick makes a comment in the afterword that she believes Matilda suffered from bad pre-menstrual tension which may have made her impatient, however she only alludes to this once in the entire book when Matilda is forced to flee London so this does not make for a convincing argument. It’s also patronising and a little insulting, can you image a male writer trying to get away with that one?
The truth is Matilda put her fight for the English throne above everything else, even her children from whom she is separated from long periods of time, and her selfishness is only highlighted by Adeliza’s constant emphasis on how her own children are better than any throne. Matilda’s friendship with Adeliza is also questionable as she is constantly complaining about how little support she is being given from her stepmother and she feels no qualms about putting Adeliza’s family in danger when she stays with them. I really didn’t know much about the real Adeliza before reading this book but I certainly have gained a lot more respect for her than Matilda and as far as I’m concerned, Adeliza was far more worthy of the title Lady of the English than Matilda. Having said that, Adeliza’s story really doesn’t have much of a dramatic hook and you can see why most authors usually choose to contrast Matilda with Stephen of Blois’s wife, Matilda of Boulogne, who is summarily dismissed in this book as a frumpy hausfrau.
I mainly pick Elizabeth Chadwick when I’m in the mood for a quick historical read because her characters or plots don’t have much depth to them but there is still enough there for a satisfying read. However, a thoroughly unlikeable main character does this book no favours at all, despite the author’s attempts to make her appear more likeable by denigrating the other main protagonists.