A punchy story of sin and redemption.
Elizabeth Chadwick is a prodigious historical fiction author. She has dozens of books to her name, yet this was the first one of her which I read. It definitely didn’t disappoint, and I would go back for more, but it’s nothing groundbreaking either. It’s a good story told well, and based on sound research. Chadwick hit her stride when it comes to novels possibly even decades ago, so I’m not surprised that the storyline and character arcs are tight if not a touch formulaic.
I’m not sure why I’d never read something by Chadwick before. Possibly it’s because my historical fiction consumption tends to focus on later centuries- Tudor, Victorian. I have nothing against the medieval age but it does tend to be told as epic stories of knights and damsels, which is sort of the case here, but Templar Silks is also not completely typical of the genre. I studied the medieval age a lot at university, so I guess moving on to devouring Tudor fiction has been my way of rebelling since graduation.
I bought the book online, so I first noticed the reviews on the cover when I was about to open it up and start reading. They were certainly disconcerting. I saw the Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. I swallowed, my mouth went dry. Oh dear, I thought to myself, what kind of lens is this story going to be through? Then I read the blurb and realised it was about the Crusading era, and one knight’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. My hands were sweaty and my stomach twisted. I thought I knew why it had gotten such glowing reviews from such demagogic trash newspapers. Was this going to be another story of evil Saracens and turbaned foreigners with dark skin, glinting black eyes and scimitars razing villages of ‘innocent’ European settlers to the ground and eventually being cut down by the ‘worthy’ Crusader knights? Were beautiful blonde princesses going to be stolen away by the swarthy Moslems? Was it going to completely ignore the fact that people had been living in the Middle East for thousands of years before the Europeans rocked up and decided it was theirs?
Needless to say, I was rather anxious as I turned the first few pages. Fortunately, Chadwick does realise that it’s all much more nuanced than that. The book focuses much more on internal conflicts inside the court of Jerusalem, with different warring factions vying for supremacy in the face of a dying king. King Baldwin is slowly succumbing to leprosy in his early twenties. He is level-headed, wise and extremely intelligent, but he cannot help the fact that his body is failing and literally falling apart. The heir to the throne is six years old. Saladin, the bane of the crusader state, is lurking on the sidelines, really to take advantage of Jerusalem’s weakness. Guy de Lusignan, arsehole extraordinaire, is little six-year-old Baldwin’s stepfather and assumes he will be taking over the reins when King Baldwin dies. Leprosy Baldwin would do anything to stop that from happening. The Patriarch Heraclius is playing his own mysterious games, seemingly sitting on the fence and biding his time with his mistress, Paschia de Riveri. Most of the other princes and lords around Jerusalem would rather eat cold vomit than follow Guy de Lusignan. The city is on a knife-edge, it’s a tinder box waiting to explode.
And in walks William Marshal, whom history calls ‘the greatest knight’. His master, the Young King Henry, has died of dysentery, and William promises to take his cloak to Jerusalem and lay it on the altar at the Holy Sepulchre to make amends for their sins- the greatest of which was stealing from a Holy Shrine to the Virgin Mary to pay their mercenaries. Marshal arrives at court and has to play the game, which he accomplishes rather well until he falls into the arms of the mysterious Paschia…
I think Marshal’s character is written brilliantly. As ‘the greatest knight’, it would be extremely easy to make this character one-dimensional, to make him a bland, wholly morally good chivalric hero who saves the city- a Jon Snow-esque trope. However, Chadwick gives him depth and vibrancy. He sins, he makes mistakes, and he proves himself to be an astute political player as well as an outstanding warrior. Knights had to know how to do both – they had to manoeuvre for patronage and favours to survive. It was a delight to read in most places, and, despite it being around 500 pages long, I finished it in a few days. It’s a light read but still maintains beautiful description throughout. Chadwick is a great writer, but her prose is not as dense, complex or loaded as other writers such as Mantel. But that’s absolutely fine. Chadwick is great at world-building, giving us enough detail without the prose becoming bloated. Her development of the brotherhood between William and Ancel is one of the most touching aspects of the book.
So why four stars instead of five? I’m not sure. It was a great book. But it’s not Mantel. The baddies were obvious from the get-go. The affair was also obvious. Nothing came at me like a ton of bricks.