In this riveting third volume of Ashe’s historical fiction, Simon de Montfort returns to England where he becomes embroiled in revolution against the king.
The deep but ultimately doomed filial love between Simon and Edward, heir to the throne—and, in Ashe’s telling, Simon’s illegitimate son—is poignantly developed. When the beautiful but vicious Edward orders an acolyte to prove his loyalty by gouging out the eyes of a peasant child, the whole kingdom is appalled. But Simon goes to Edward’s aid, admonishes him and then forgives him. England is now completely bankrupt, but Henry egregiously sets out on a Grand Progress through France, accompanied by an entourage swagged with gold and ivory. Ashe’s detailing of the procession is not only a forensic paean to foppery but a schadenfreuden build-up to a bonfire of vanities. Henry feels like a cheap Christmas tree when he is met by King Louis of France, dressed in drab penitential robes with a tiny cross as the only embroidery. Despite their sartorial differences, a personal chemistry kindles between the two monarchs, but Simon, caught between a changeling Henry and an insecure Louis, continues to be a nowhere man. It’s in France that he hears the second prophecy of parliament from an old Dominican monk, that in the New Age “our leaders will be chosen as monks choose their abbots. By election.” As famine and injustice ravage England and Henry foolishly pledges the Crown to the Pope so that he can have Sicily for his hunchback son Edmund, the barons finally revolt with Simon at the helm. Henry is defanged, the Magna Carta re-fanged and the Provisions of Oxford established. But unlike the idealistic Simon, the barons don’t want their unlettered tenants to be empowered. The poor still love St. Simon, but the barons now loathe him. He is arrested and sent to the Tower. As in the last two volumes, Ashe lards her tale with some informed guesswork and some wild speculation. The ghastly torture scene in the Tower with Henry III vomiting at the savagery is perfervid fantasy, but it works because it’s grafted onto a factual skeleton. An expertly told tale in which the star role is played by democracy, a poisoned chalice to be won only at the cost of treason.