I just finished reading Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman, a lawyer-historian turned novelist. The book is set during the reign of King Henry III of England, son of the infamous John Lackland. The two most important protagonists are Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, a most unfairly unknown champion of liberty, and Llewellyn Prince of Wales, who is also fighting for his country’s liberty from English domination.
If you have the slightest interest in medieval history, it’s a fantastic book (although definitely not recommended for children). Plus, I love any book that’s more than 600 pages long. Penman has obviously researched the period in depth, and gives a detailed account of the real historical events – battles, councils, courts – as well as developing several well-rounded characters. She uses a little bit of medieval language – a few oaths, “mayhaps,” and so on – but for the most part safely avoids the temptation to add “-eth” to the end of every verb. (Howard Pyle is the only author I’ve ever known who can assume and maintain a medieval style throughout the book. Everyone else seems to think that adding “thee” and “eth” everywhere covers it, not realizing that that ending is just part of the conjugation, and should only be used in the third person.) She does fall a little more into the trap of using modern cliches – eg “is that a choice you can live with?” – but it’s not unbearable.
The story is a captivating one, especially for Americans, whose system of government is rooted in the concessions that men like Simon de Montfort won from the kings of England. The book begins while Henry III is still a young man, and the memory of the Magna Carta is still fresh, a tremendous struggle won by the barons against his father John. As the years pass, Henry develops from an impulsive young man into a completely disastrous ruler, who is swayed by the latest advice, and who cannot be trusted to keep his promises or pay his debts. Simon, married to the leading female figure, the King’s sister Nell, suffers a great deal from this, as he digs himself deeper into debt to fight the King’s wars, never receiving any of the promised reimbursements, and having all his official decisions overturned by the King who empowered him to fight rebels in Gascony.
A parallel story-line is the struggle of Llewellyn, grandson of Llewellyn Fawr [the Great], the first Prince of Wales, as he fights family jealousy and English greed, trying to keep Wales an independent principality. Again and again he is defeated, forced to pay humiliating homage to Henry, and yield more and more land, but he never gives up hope, until the time that an alliance with Simon finally turns his fortunes.
Simon de Montfort was the leader in forcing Henry to agree to the Oxford Provisions, corollaries to the Magna Carta, essentially requiring the King not to turn over lands and positions of influence to foreigners, and to honor his commitment to the Magna Carta. Of course, Henry doesn’t keep these promises, and civil war results. Penman does a good job of showing the other barons