28 April, 2009

Cadafael, King of Gwynedd

Cadafael son of Cynfeddw was King of Gwynedd (a powerful Brittonic kingdom in what is now north-west Wales) in 655 AD. What do we know about him?


Historia Brittonum

64. Oswy, son of Ethelfrid, reigned twenty-eight years and six months. During his reign, there was a dreadful mortality among his subjects, when Catgualart (Cadwallader) was king among the Britons, succeeding his father, and he himself died amongst the rest. He slew Penda in the field of Gai, and now took place the slaughter of Gai Campi, and the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu, were slain.
65. Then Oswy restored all the wealth, which was with him in the city, to Penda; who distributed it among the kings of the Britons, that is, Atbert Judeu. But Catgabail alone, king of Guenedot, rising up in the night, escaped together with his army, wherefore he was called Catgabail Catguommed.
--Historia Brittonum

The ‘field of Gai’ is the Brittonic name for the battle that Bede calls Winwaed, where Penda was killed by Oswy (Oswiu) of Northumbria on 15 November 655. Guenedot is a variant spelling of Gwynedd. “Catguommed” translates roughly as “Battle Shirker”.

Welsh Triads
Three Kings who were (sprung) from Villeins:
Gwriad son of Gwrian in the North, and Cadafel son of Cynfeddw in Gwynedd, and Hyfaidd son of Bleiddig in Deheubarth.
--Red Book of Hergest


Cadafel, Catgabail and Cadafael are all variant spellings of the same name. Assuming the Cadafel King of Gwynedd in the Triads and the Catgabail King of Gwynedd in Historia Brittonum are the same, what can we say about him?


First, he was not part of the same lineage as the kings of Gwynedd whose genealogy is recorded in the Harleian Manuscript and the Jesus College Manuscript (see earlier post). This may underlie the claim in the Triads that he was “sprung from villeins”. As a villein is an unfree peasant or serf, this is unlikely to be literally true. If Cadafael became King of Gwynedd after 634 when Catwallaun (Cadwallon, Cadwalla) of Gwynedd was killed at Hefenfelth, and was still king in 655 when he departed before the Battle of Winwaed, he must surely have been an effective leader or acceptable to the Gwynedd nobility or both, which is unlikely if he was not of royal or noble stock.

I can think of three explanations for the “villein” claim in the Triads:

  • Baseless invention intended to insult Cadafael. Perhaps coined by the same person or faction as gave him the unflattering nickname Catguommed (“Battle Shirker”) in Historia Brittonum, who evidently had a low opinion of Cadafael.

  • Non-royal descent on his father’s side, exaggerated into the claim in the Triad. If Cadafael’s mother was of the Gwynedd royal family, but married to a non-royal, perhaps minor, noble, Cadafael may have been acceptable as king to at least some of the Gwynedd nobility in the absence of a suitable candidate in the direct line.

  • Low social status on his mother’s side. Perhaps Cadafael was the offspring of a royal male (brother or nephew of one of the kings in the direct line) and a woman of low rank, thus he could have been of “villein” stock on his mother’s side. Later medieval Welsh princes acknowledged and provided for illegitimate offspring, so Cadafael could have been the son of either a wife or a mistress. The latter is perhaps more likely, since a formal marriage contract might be expected to involve a woman who could bring riches or noble birth or both to the union, whereas a love affair might be expected to be subject to fewer controls. (For a later analogy, consider Duke William of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror, who was the illegitimate son of the duke by a woman of comparatively low rank, sometimes described as a tanner’s daughter). Cadafael might thus have had a rival claim to the throne of Gwynedd, which could have made him acceptable to at least some of the nobility in the absence of a suitable candidate from the direct line. It could also explain the hostility recorded in the Triads and Historia Brittonum, if those derive from a rival faction.

I daresay there are others. Insults tend to stick most effectively if there is a grain of truth in them that can be exaggerated, so I personally would favour either the second or third explanation over the first, but this is a matter of opinion.

Since neither Cadafael nor Cynfeddw appear in the genealogy of the Kings of Gwynedd, it is not known how they were related to the direct line, if at all. Clutching at straws, one could note that the Cad- name element in Cadafael’s name is shared with three contemporary kings in the direct line (Cadfan, Cadwallon, Cadwaladr), which may indicate that Cadafael’s family was an offshoot of the ruling dynasty of Gwynedd. On the other hand, it should be noted that the element “cad” means “battle” and might therefore be expected to be a common name element among the warrior class. As a second straw, the Cyn- name element in Cynfeddw is also shared with Cynddylan, hero of the Canu Heledd poetry, and Cynddylan’s father Cyndrwn. According to the poetry, Cynddylan held power in what is now eastern Wales or what is now the West Midlands or both and was roughly contemporary with Penda and Cadafael (more about Cynddylan in a later post). Could Cadafael’s father have had connections with Cynddylan’s family?

Age and career

Second, Cadafael was ruler of Gwynedd in 655, and was of fighting age at the time (since he led his army away from a battle he was supposed to fight in). He was therefore probably born not much before 600 (which would make him 55 at Winwaed), or he would have been too old to fight, and probably not much after 625 (which would make him 30 at Winwaed), or he would have been too young to be the leader.

It is not known when Cadafael became king. Catwallaun of Gwynedd was killed in 633 or 634 according to Bede (631 according to Annales Cambriae), and Catwallaun’s son Cadwaladr lived to 682 and must therefore have been quite young when Catwallaun was killed, perhaps only a child. The death of Gwynedd’s powerful warrior king on a distant battlefield, leaving only a child as heir, would be a plausible context for the reign of a king from a different lineage. This must therefore be a plausible candidate for the beginning of Cadafael’s reign, although he could have emerged at any time between then and 655. If we say that Cadafael became king in 634 or so, this tends to push his birth date back to the earlier end of the range. If he was born in 600, he would have been 34 when he became king, experienced enough to have some chance of restoring Gwynedd’s fortunes after the trauma of Catwallaun’s defeat.

Nor is it known when, or how, Cadwaladr replaced Cadafael as King. If Cadafael’s departure on the eve of Winwaed exposed him to ridicule as a coward, as his nickname in Historia Brittonum suggests, it may have provided Cadwaladr with an opportunity to depose him. Or Cadafael may have voluntarily handed over power, or died of natural causes.

Catguommed “Battle Shirker”

Cadafael’s motivation for – as it turned out – the defining event of his life, his decision to march home the night before the battle of Winwaed, is also unknown. I can think of several motivations:

  • Cowardice and/or incompetence, as implied by the derisory opinion of him in the Triads and Historia Brittonum.

  • Pragmatism. Given that Winwaed was an unmitigated disaster for Penda and his Brittonic allies, among whom Cadafael would presumably have been numbered, perhaps Cadafael recognised that and chose to save his army rather than repeat Catwallaun’s away defeat in the previous generation.

  • Treachery, although if Cadafael was bought off by somebody he doesn’t appear to have profited much from it.

  • Incompatibility. Perhaps Cadafael quarrelled with Penda or one of the other leaders, with our without cause, and left in a huff.

  • Revenge. The previous alliance between Mercia and Gwynedd had resulted in the death of Gwynedd’s King (Catwallaun), far away in Northumbria. Bede does not mention Penda in his account of Catwallaun’s defeat and death (HE Book III, Ch. 1-2), which may indicate that Penda had already gone home and left Catwallaun in possession of Northumbria. Perhaps Cadafael believed, with or without cause, that Penda’s departure had contributed to Catwallaun’s defeat and death, and was meting out similar treatment.

  • Chance and unlucky circumstance. Perhaps the Mercian and Brittonic allied armies were dispersing to their homes at the end of the campaigning season (Bede gives the date as 15 November) and Oswy sprang a surprise attack the day after Cadafael departed.

These aren’t mutually exclusive, and I daresay there are more. You can take your choice, as ever. I personally suspect that there is considerably more to Cadafael’s story than a jumped-up peasant who ran away from a battle; but what it might be is open to interpretation.

Full-text sources available online are linked in the text.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.

Trivia: King Cadafael achieved lasting fame as the origin of the name chosen by novelist Ellis Peters for her sleuthing monk, Brother Cadfael. So his name does live on in popular culture, even if he is no longer attached to it :-)

26 April, 2009

April recipe: Sultana cheesecake

This recipe has a somewhat convoluted provenance. I’ve seen a dish that’s obviously a close relative billed as “Yorkshire Curd Tarts”, but I was first given the recipe by an acquaintance in Bedfordshire, and in any case I’ve modified it myself since then. I suppose I could call it something like “Yorkshire or Bedfordshire Curd Tart, With East Anglian Modifications, And Using Cream Cheese Instead of Curd Cheese Because You Can’t Find Curd Cheese Anywhere These Days…”, but while that might be accurate it could be considered somewhat less than adroit. Sultana Cheesecake is at least short and reasonably descriptive.

I mostly make it in spring, partly because dairy produce traditionally came back into season in spring so it feels right, and partly because it can be served either warm or cold according to the weather.

Here’s the recipe.

Sultana cheesecake

Buttercrust pastry
3 oz (approx 80 g) plain flour
1.5 oz (approx 40 g) butter
Cold water to mix

1 oz (approx 25 g) caster sugar
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter
4 oz (approx 125 g) cream cheese
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) plain flour
1 egg
2 oz (approx 50 g) sultanas

Rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Gradually add a small amount of cold water and mix until it forms a soft dough. If it’s floury and flaky, add a little more water, if it’s sticky you’ve added too much water so add a little more flour.
Or you can buy ready-made pastry if you prefer.
Roll the pastry out to a circle and line a greased tart dish approx 6–7 inches (approx 15–18 cm) diameter.

Cream the caster sugar and butter together until light and fluffy.
Beat in the cream cheese, flour and nutmeg.
Beat in the egg.
Mix in the sultanas.
Pour into the pastry case and level the surface.
Bake in a moderately hot oven at around 180 C for about 25 to 30 minutes until the filling is set and golden brown.
Serve warm or cold, with cream if liked.

I expect to get 6 slices out of this quantity, but it depends how big a slice you like.
Keeps in the fridge for 3–4 days, if it gets the chance.

If you want to add a slightly festive touch, you can soak the sultanas in a tablespoon of rum or brandy for a few hours beforehand.

If you don’t like sultanas, you can use raisins or currants instead.

21 April, 2009

Mistress of the Sun, by Sandra Gulland. Book review

As can be deduced from the title, Mistress of the Sun is set at the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, in seventeenth-century France. It centres on Louise de la Valliere, one of Louis’ early mistresses, telling her story from early childhood to death. All the main characters are historical figures.

In 1650, in a rural backwater in central France, six-year-old Louise de la Valliere is entranced by Diablo, a wild white stallion owned by a group of travelling Roma (gypsies). Desperate to tame him, she resorts to a forbidden magical ritual and pays a heavy price. Years later, as a young lady-in-waiting at the glittering royal court, she falls in love again, this time with the King. But as her love for Louis blossoms, Louise finds herself under threat, both from her own fear of the possible consequences of her long-ago dabbling in magic and from a beautiful rival who is as desperate to claim Louis for herself as Louise once was to tame Diablo.

Mistress of the Sun is written in a leisurely style and portrays an enormous wealth of historical detail about seventeenth-century France in general and the Sun King’s court in particular. It captures both the absurd extravagances of the court (How many servants and ladies-in-waiting can it possibly take to help a princess get dressed in the morning?) and the squalor underlying the luxury. If you love the minutiae of high life in the past, with details of entertainments, dances, music, masques, clothes, buildings, riding, hunting, food, palace hierarchy and the subterfuges and romantic intrigues of the court, this is the book for you. Be warned, the detailed descriptions extend to all aspects of court life, and you may learn rather more about seventeenth-century (in)sanitary arrangements than you really wanted to know.

Beliefs in religion, magic and superstition play important roles in the novel. I am not keen on historical fantasy (as regular readers will know), and the heavy concentration on magic ritual in the first few chapters came close to putting me off. However, there’s no doubt that people at the time did believe in black magic, and the author leaves it open for the reader to decide whether to believe in it along with the characters. Louise’s struggles with her conscience over her illicit love for the King are believable, as is her eventual solution. Louis’ gradual change from an attractive and sympathetic youth into a selfish absolute monarch insensitive to anything but his own desires is also convincingly charted.

All the wars and most of the politics take place off-stage. The focus of the novel is Louise’s emotions and her relationships, with her confessor, her friends, her family, her beloved horse and her rival Athenais (the Marquise de Montespan), as well as with Louis. Indeed, despite the title, the relationship between Louis and Louise doesn’t even make an appearance until a third of the way into the book and even then takes a while to get going. Readers for whom Louise’s role as royal mistress is their primary interest should be prepared for a slow start.

At times I felt Louise was too sweet to be true. Her confessor describes her as having “a purity of soul that cannot be sullied”; I wondered at her naivety. She can also be seen as rather inclined to lie down and let people walk all over her. To be fair, this reflects the reality of her situation and the limited choices open to a woman in her position, as well as her inclination to be kind to others wherever possible, but readers looking for a heroine who controls events may find Louise’s gentle passivity frustrating. I do wish she was not referred to as “Petite” throughout the novel; for all I know it might well be her historically attested nickname but I found it excessively cute. And her first meeting with Louis, riding like a young Diana and mistaking him for a poacher, is so sweetly romantic that I hope it’s historically documented. Nevertheless, Louise rarely whines or descends into self-pity (although she had reason to on occasion), and I can think of more reprehensible goals in life than trying to make the people you love happy. I found myself growing to like her character as the novel progressed.

An epilogue wraps up the fates of most of the major characters, which is nice. I would have liked to know what happened to Clorine, Louise’s sensible and warm-hearted maid. I hope it was something good. A helpful Author’s Note at the end summarises the history underlying the novel, sets out the liberties taken, and explains which characters are real and which composites. Readers may also like to know that a glossary of period terms appears at the end of the book, although most of them can be worked out from context.

Detailed portrait of Louise de la Valliere and the glittering court of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

15 April, 2009

Chronology of the Kings of Gwynedd in the seventh century



[O]uen map [H]iguel map catell map Rotri map mermin map etthil merch cinnan map rotri map Iutguaul map Catgualart map Catgollaun map Catman map Iacob map Beli map Run map Mailcun map Catgolaun Iauhir map Eniaun girt map Cuneda
-- Harleian genealogy

Rodri M Meruyn M Ethellt Merch Cynan tintaeth6y M Rodri mol6yna6c M Idwal I6rch M Kadwaladyr vendigeit M Katwalla6n M Kad6ga6n M Iago M Beli M Run hir M Maelg6n g6yned M Kadwalla6n lla6hir M Einya6n yrth M Kuneda wledic
--Jesus College MS 20

Apart from variations in the spelling, the two geneaologies are identical (the Harleian genealogy has three more generations than the Jesus College manuscript; the two coincide from Rodri back to Cunedda). ‘M’ and ‘map’ mean ‘son of’, ‘merch’ means ‘daughter of’.

Annales Cambriae

547 The great death [plague] in which Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd died.
613 The battle of Caer Legion [Chester]. And there died Selyf son of Cynan. And Iago son of Beli slept [died].
629 The beseiging of king Cadwallon in the island of Glannauc.
631 The battle of Cantscaul in which Cadwallon fell.
656 The slaughter of Campus Gaius.
657 Penda died.
682 A great plague in Britain, in which Cadwaladr son of Cadwallon dies.
--Annales Cambriae

Welsh Triads

Three Fair Princes of the Island of Britain:
Owain son of Urien, Rhun son of Maelgwn, Rhufawn the Radiant son of Dewrarth Wledig.

Three Frivolous Bards of the Island of Britain:
Arthur, and Cadwallawn son of Cadfan, and Rahawd son of Morgant.

And that was one of the Three Hatchet-Blows. The second (was) a woodcutter of Aberffraw who struck Golydan with a hatchet, on the head. And the third, one of his own men struck upon Iago, son of Beli, with a hatchet, on the head.
--Red Book of Hergest Triads

Historia Brittonum
62. The great king, Mailcun, reigned among the Britons, i.e. in the district of Guenedota, because his great-great-grandfather, Cunedda, with his twelve sons, had come before from the left-hand part, i.e. from the country which is called Manau Gustodin, one hundred and forty-six years before Mailcun reigned, and expelled the Scots with much slaughter from those countries, and they never returned again to inhabit them.
64. Oswald son of Ethelfrid, reigned nine years; the same is Oswald Llauiguin; he slew Catgublaun (Cadwalla), king of Guenedot, in the battle of Catscaul, with much loss to his own army. Oswy, son of Ethelfrid, reigned twenty-eight years and six months. During his reign, there was a dreadful mortality among his subjects, when Catgualart (Cadwallader) was king among the Britons, succeeding his father, and he himself died amongst the rest.
--Historia Brittonum

Mailcun is a variant spelling of Maelgwn.


Cadwallon King of Gwynedd was killed by Oswald of Northumbria at the battle of Hefenfelth in 633 or 634 (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III Ch. 1.


Maelgwn is usually considered to be the same as the “Maglocune” who was one of the kings denounced by Gildas in On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, written around 540 AD. Maelgwn/Maglocune was evidently still alive at the time of writing, after a vigorous, colourful and (by Gildas’ lights) not entirely honourable career (ch. 33-36).


“Catamanus rex sapientisimus opinatisimus omnium regum”
--Inscription on a memorial stone at the church of Llangadwaladr in Anglesey

This translates as “King Catman wisest and most renowned of all kings”.


The kings of interest for the purposes of this post are those from Maelgwn Gwynedd to Cadwalader, i.e. the kings who reigned in the seventh century and their immediate ancestors.

The first point to note is that all of them are also mentioned in sources other than the genealogies. Maelgwn Gwynedd is in Gildas, Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae and the Triads. Rhun ap Maelgwn is in the Triads. Beli is given as the patronymic of Iago ap Beli (in the Triads and Annales Cambriae). Iago ap Beli is in the Triads and Annales Cambriae. Cadfan is given as the patronymic of Cadwallon in the Triads, and (uniquely) his name is recorded in a surviving stone inscription. Cadwallon ap Cadfan is in Bede, Historia Brittonum, the Triads and Annales Cambriae. Cadwaladr ap Cadfan is in the Annales Cambriae and Historia Brittonum.

It’s worth remembering the caveat that the geneaologies are late, constructed no earlier than the time of Rhodri King of Gwynedd in the ninth century. The relationships between the seventh-century kings may have been more complex than the unbroken father-to-son succession claimed by the genealogies, or the genealogists may have borrowed unrelated names from earlier sources to construct a suitable pedigree. Historia Brittonum is supposed to have been written in around 829, and the Triads survive in medieval manuscripts. So these are not necessarily independent sources, and it is possible that the agreement between them is because they all copied from each other. Nevertheless, it is impressive to find a near-complete set of corroboration like this, and I would hesitate to dismiss it out of hand.

Annales Cambriae and Bede between them helpfully contribute some dates. Moreover, there are two events dated in both sources:

Cadwallon’s death (633 or 634 in Bede, 631 in Annales Cambriae)
Penda’s death (655 in Bede, 657 in Annales Cambriae)

They agree within 2–3 years, which is easily within the margin of error for a much-copied manuscript. This being so, I would be inclined to take the dates that occur in only one of the two sources seriously too, with the same sort of margin of error.

From Maelgwn’s death in 547 to Iago’s death in 613 is 66 years, give or take a few. As Iago was Maelgwn’s great-grandson according to the genealogy, this spans 3 generations, thus averaging about 22 years per generation.

From Iago’s death in 613 to Cadwaladr’s death in 682 is 69 years. This also spans 3 generations, as Cadwaladr was Iago’s great-grandson, and averages 23 years per generation.

For comparison, Bede tells us that Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria was a grandfather when he was killed at the age of 48 (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. 20), which works out to a maximum of 24 years per generation if the grandson was born in the same year Eadwine died, and possibly rather less if the grandson was a few years old. So this is consistent with the generational span implied by the Gwynedd genealogy.

Dating by counting generations is a highly inexact process in any case, as human males are capable of fathering offspring from puberty to old age. For example, Eadwine of Deira had children by his second marriage who were of comparable age with his grandson from his son by his first marriage, and his great-niece was of comparable age with his sons by his first marriage. This sort of thing is not uncommon, and can make a terrible mix-up of the generations. So the most that can be said is that the number of generations in the Gwynedd genealogy and the dates in Annales Cambriae are not incompatible.

From Iago’s death in 613 to Cadwallon’s death in 631 to 634 is 18–21 years. This is a bit more problematic, as it spans two generations (Cadwallon was Iago’s grandson). However, as argued above, dating by counting generations is far from exact. If Iago lived to a ripe old age (which is consistent with Annales Cambriae’s phrase ‘slept’ to describe his death), his grandson Cadwallon may already have been adult when Iago died. Furthermore, the sources agree that Cadwallon was killed in battle, and therefore he may have been only middle-aged when he died.

Cadwaladr died in 682, according to Annales Cambriae. This is about 50 years after his father Cadwallon was killed in battle, and may indicate that Cadwaladr was quite young, perhaps only a child, when his father was killed. In turn, this would be consistent with the statement in Historia Brittonum that the King of Gwynedd in 655 was a man called Cadafael ap Cynfeddw (more about Cadafael in a separate post), who is not part of the genealogy of the Gwynedd kings. Whether Cadafael was a caretaker or a usurper is not known, but the temporary presence of a king from a different lineage is consistent with Cadwaladr being too young to rule when his father was killed. If he was born in, say, 625, he would have been aged only 5–9 when Cadwallon was killed, and aged 57 at his own death in 682, neither of which is unreasonable.

Conjectural dates for the kings of Gwynedd (bold text indicates documented dates, plain text indicates my conjecture):

  • Maelgwn Gwynedd. Born c. 487, died 547 (aged 60)

  • Rhun ap Maelgwn. Born c. 507, died c. 565

  • Beli ap Rhun. Born c. 527, died c. 585

  • Iago ap Beli. Born c. 547, died 613 (aged 68)

  • Cadfan ap Iago. Born c. 567, died c. 625

  • Cadwallon ap Cadfan. Born c. 587, died in battle 631–634 (aged 44-47)

  • Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon. Born c. 625, died 682 (aged 57)

It should go without saying that these conjectural dates are highly approximate, and several different schemes can be constructed to fit the scanty available evidence. It is also entirely possible that the genealogies contain mistakes, misinterpretations or downright fictions invented to support the claims of an incoming dynasty. However, I think it is fair to say that the genealogy as extant is not incompatible with the other dates and events in the sources.

Full-text sources available online are linked in the text.
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X

12 April, 2009

Cute lambs

It wouldn't be spring without fields of cute lambs. These were playing "I'm the King of the Castle!" on their feed heap and some old concrete fence posts when I cycled past the other day. Awwwwww.

03 April, 2009

The Traitor’s Wife, by Susan Higginbotham. Book review

Sourcebooks, 2009, ISBN 9781402217876, 500 pages.*
First published: iUniverse, 2005, ISBN 0-595-35959-0

Set in England in 1306-1337, The Traitor’s Wife tells the story of Eleanor de Clare, niece of King Edward II and wife to Hugh le Despenser (the Younger), one of the most hated men of Edward’s reign. All the main characters are historical figures.

Eleanor’s formidable grandfather, Edward I, arranges her marriage to young Hugh le Despenser, the son of one of his faithful followers. Eleanor soon falls in love with her clever and witty young husband and the marriage is both happy and fruitful, until the untimely death of Eleanor’s only brother at the Battle of Bannockburn suddenly makes her a great heiress. At first trying to secure Eleanor’s lands and then to add to them, by fair means or – increasingly – foul, Hugh extorts, threatens, blackmails and bribes his way to ever greater riches. When Eleanor’s uncle Edward II becomes besotted with him, there is no check to Hugh’s greed and ambition and soon he rules the country in all but name. Not surprisingly, this earns him powerful enemies. When Queen Isabella, her lover Roger Mortimer and most of the rest of the aristocracy join forces to get rid of Hugh, Eleanor and her beloved uncle King Edward II are caught up in his downfall.

The Traitor’s Wife is very much Eleanor’s story, covering the whole of her eventful life from her marriage to Hugh until her death. Eleanor is an appealing character, sweet, affectionate and straightforward, perhaps a little na├»ve in taking Hugh at his own estimation and managing to remain blind to his faults for so long. Edward II is also well drawn, a kind and attractive man who nevertheless made a hopelessly inept king. Some of the secondary characters are also memorable, such as the charming and irrepressible Piers Gaveston and the honest, decent, pleasant William la Zouche. Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella have a wonderfully snappish relationship towards the end of their period in power, as might be expected of a couple who came together out of a mix of expediency and lust.

I felt I would have liked to understand Hugh le Despenser better. Clearly a very complex man, the reader sees him mainly through Eleanor’s eyes and thus sees mostly his good qualities. I found it hard to grasp quite why he was so detested until very late in the book, when Eleanor has to face the evidence of his misdeeds. I’d have liked to see more of Hugh the villain at the time to understand why the tidal wave of hatred built up against him as it did. Not having seen much of Hugh’s bad side, I wasn’t very clear whether Isabella and Roger Mortimer were acting out of pure spite in their treatment of Hugh’s family, or whether they had some genuine grievance that would explain their behaviour. I also didn’t quite grasp why Isabella’s attitude to Eleanor seemed to change; when Isabella first comes to England she treats Eleanor as something of a confidante, but their relationship cools and Isabella is later Eleanor’s enemy. It seems to happen rather early to be attributable to Hugh’s nefarious activities, so I must have missed something.

The novel shows up the remarkable emotional resilience of medieval women, who have to pick up the pieces when their men end up on the wrong side of a power struggle. How do you explain to children that their father has been executed, and shield them from the worst details of it, when your own heart is breaking for the loss of a beloved husband? Eleanor survives the deaths of her brother, husband, father-in-law and uncle, estrangement from her sisters, her eldest son’s imprisonment, her own imprisonment (twice), and still manages to lead a fulfilling life.

One aspect of the novel that I liked very much is the wry sense of humour. Hugh has a sarcastic wit (On Piers Gaveston being given months to prepare for banishment, “With his wardrobe he’ll need every day of it”), Piers takes nothing seriously, and there are sidelong comments on medieval life, such as the difficulties of being a servant in a castle full of women. There’s a delightful note of comedy when John de Grey and William la Zouche are both wooing the widowed Eleanor, and again when they have to go to court to argue over which one of them married her.

The novel is told in third person from various points of view, so the reader is able to see more than one side to the events and can get to know several people. Although there’s a large cast of characters with a only small range of names between them, the story is clearly told so I had little difficulty in keeping them straight. There’s a helpful list of characters at the front of the book if you do get confused. A useful Afterword also sets out the underlying history, including the aspects that aren’t known and that have to be filled in with speculation, and briefly tells you what happened to the rest of the characters after the story ends.

Detailed and well-researched story that brings the people and events of a complicated period of history to life.

*I reviewed The Traitor's Wife when it was first published, and am re-posting my original review now in honour of the new Sourcebooks edition.

Blog tour

Sourcebooks has organised a blog tour for the publication of The Traitor’s Wife. Here are the other stops (Note that the dates are in US format, month/day):

Readers Respite (4/6)

Passages to the Past (4/6)

Reading Extravaganza (4/7)

S. Krishna’s Books (4/7)

HistoricalNovels.info (4/8)

The Tome Traveller’s Weblog (4/10)

Jennifer’s Random Musings (4/12)

Medieval Bookworm (4/13)

StevenTill.com (4/13)

Peeking Between the Pages (4/14)

A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore… (4/14)

Savvy Verse and Wit (4/15 & 4/16)

Sam’s Book Blog (4/16)

Diary of an Eccentric (4/17 & 4/20)

My Friend Amy (4/17)

Spring flowers

Celandines. I've always thought of celandines as one of the candidates for Tolkien's elanor, the "sun-star" (the little yellow flowers growing in Lothlorien).

Pussy willow. So called because the smooth grey fur is supposed to resemble a cat's fur.


A colourful flowerbed