A full-blooded second installment of Ashe’s historical fiction, in which the seeds of rebellion against Henry III’s economic tyranny are sown in the mind of Simon de Montfort, the founder of Parliament.
More assuredly ensconced in the saddle than she was in her first volume, a volant Ashe (Montfort the Founder of Parliament: The Early Years, 2010) charges ahead, taking the reader along on a largely gripping ride. This volume opens with dark tidings that Palestine, gloriously secured by Simon in the First Crusade, has fallen. Plunged into an orgy of grief, he lashes himself until he passes out. He wants to immediately jump on his horse and head to the Holy Land, but the king has other plans; Henry sends his finest general to subdue the notoriously rebellious French province of Gascony. Although the fine detailing of the three Gascony campaigns occasionally plods, Ashe does her best to mine it fully to build up the antagonism that will eventually explode into civil war. Pitted against a spiteful, changeling Henry who plies him with favors only to then humiliate him by trusting the word of the Gascon lords over his, Simon is tried for treason but acquitted. The official charge against him is his ruthlessness in Gascony, but the real treason has taken place in the bedroom, with Simon lapsing back into his affair with Queen Eleanor. In the background is a quiet but dangerous campaign launched by Simon’s archbishop-mentor and chancellor of Oxford, Robert Grosseteste, to curb Henry’s arbitrariness by appointing a council. This could be seditious but it has a deep appeal for the barons and clergy bled to death by a king addicted to wars and keeping his foreign in-laws in velvet (literally—the fabric was new to the court, as, incidentally, was Roger Bacon’s rudimentary canon). The sanctimoniously loyal Simon initially dismisses Grosseteste’s talk with “Henry is no Tiberius,” but, in a deftly turned phrase by Ashe, he is soon bitterly aware that trusting Henry is akin to “leaning on Aaron’s staff that would one day turn serpent and sting him.”
Ashe is more flag-bearer of the rampant Montfort lion than objective storyteller, but her sharp eye for human drama and historic detail, together with strong characterization, keep the reader absorbed to the very end.