Ashe brings her expansive, intricately worked saga on Simon de Montfort to a tragic, juddering close.
His knees, ankles and shins may have been shattered by Henry III’s rack, but Simon’s spirit remains unbroken. Like moth to flame, he is drawn back to the political maelstrom in England. Henry, whom Ashe portrays with consummate skill—describing the “flaccid drapery” of his palsied face and his neurotic breakdown into a haggard, gray cadaver—has turned the barons against Simon but has been unable to quell the populace, who has risen in revolt. To Simon’s utter dismay, the cult of him as the angel of the Lord who will usher in a just new age has taken hold. He protests that he wants only to secure the Provisions of Oxford, not grab England’s crown, but no one believes him. The novel’s arresting central tension emerges from the increasingly poisonous face-off between Simon and Prince Edward, whose treachery and ruthlessness is matched only by his strapping beauty. When jeering Londoners empty their chamber pots onto Queen Eleanor’s head as she travels down the Thames, Edward swears revenge. Camp Simon is initially victorious at Lewes, but in the 1265 Battle of Evesham they are fatally outnumbered. As the archbishop prophesied, Simon and his eldest son are slain on the same day, with Simon’s body being brutally mutilated. Miraculously, from under his headless torso a spring begins to gush, validating the widespread belief that he was indeed a saint. Ashe’s belabored detailing of petty campaigns and aristocratic rivalries can get exhausting—and the detour that leads Simon to meet Robin Hood, while charming, is far too long—but the more worrying concern is the sentimental halo she bequeaths on Simon, one of the most contentious figures in English history. On the whole, however, her polished, taut prose and love of historic detail brings alive the ghosts of history in all their scheming angularity.
A deeply sketched, thoroughly researched, wildly imagined labor of love that is hugely enjoyable.