(Published in paperback 2006)
This is the first in a new series of murder mysteries, featuring Mathilde of Westminster, the finest physician in London during the reign of Edward II. Mathilde, escaping the carnage of Philip IV's persecution of the Templars, joins the retinue of Philip's daughter Isabella shortly before Isabella's wedding to Edward II in January 1308. The negotiations over the wedding form an important part of the novel; Mathilde investigates the murder of several of the English envoys. This is fiction, but the novel is firmly based on historical fact.
The novel is narrated by Mathilde, in the first person. It moves much more slowly than other novels I've read by Doherty, and some readers might get impatient, especially as it seems that everything worn or eaten by Isabella and the French court is described in great detail. However, Doherty is skilled at conveying atmosphere, of the dangerous streets of Paris, the corruption of the French court, the menace that surrounds the main characters.
The novel opens with a prologue, where Mathilde, in extreme old age, looks back over her eventful life as friend and confidante of Queen Isabella. I'm afraid the prologue almost made me put the book down, thanks mainly to two lines. One, where Edward is described as "great of body and small of brain". Also, Isabella "tore her husband from his throne. She locked him in Berkeley Castle, sealing him up like some rabid animal".
Doherty, in the prologue, repeats the usual myth that Mortimer was buried at Greyfriars in London and that Isabella asked to be buried there so she could lie next to him: "Bury me...next to Mortimer, like a bride beside her lover". This is simply not true. Mortimer was either buried at Greyfriars in Shrewsbury (according to the Wigmore Chronicle) or, more likely, at the Franciscans in Coventry. They were licensed on 7 November 1331 to deliver the body to Wigmore for burial, after a petition by Joan de Geneville, Mortimer's widow.
When reading the Prologue, I thought the novel would be more of the same old stuff about Edward II, but in fact the Prologue is very different in tone from the rest of the novel, and hardly seems to belong - in the novel proper, both Isabella and Edward are sympathetic and vividly drawn characters. Edward - who only appears on page 199 - is energetic, clever and devious, handsome and strong, about as far from the feeble creature of the Druon novel as you can get. Isabella is a knowing young woman, also cunning and clever, who has been forced to grow up fast at a corrupt and vicious court. She is superb at playing a role, at mimicry, at hiding her true feelings. She is extremely loyal to those whom she loves and has a sense of humour. Piers Gaveston, though only a minor character, is also sympathetic: he is a 'truly beautiful man' who treats Isabella with great respect.
Edward and Isabella get on very well, despite her extreme youth (she's thirteen). This is such a refreshing take on the whole thing that I almost wept with gratitude (yes, I'm a sad tragic person, I know). There's a lovely scene between the couple, where Edward tells her "let me assure you, on my solemn oath, that you are my princess and wife, the only woman in my life, never to be supplanted." Isabella blushes with pleasure. Edward goes on to ask her if she accepts Piers Gaveston, and she says she does. He asks her to pretend to be Gaveston's enemy in public, then explains the game he and Piers are playing: they are deliberately antagonising Philip IV and the French court in order to force Edward's opposition among the English nobility into the open.
He tells her that he will not publicly give her lands, estates and income as is her right, but that in private he will ensure she lacks for nothing. Isabella willingly goes along with the plan, and it is her own idea to let Piers wear her jewellery, to increase her father's anger. Edward and Gaveston deiberately ignore the queen, "though both men sent her secret messages and tokens of their love on an almost daily basis."
This is a really interesting idea, as Edward's behaviour early on in his marriage - insulting Isabella and by extension her family, and openly favouring Gaveston - was pretty bizarre. I'm delighted that Doherty made Edward such a sympathetic, appealing character.
I have some problems with Doherty's Author's Note at the end of the novel. He states that Isabella had a very unhappy relationship with her father and her brothers, never attended any of their funerals, and did terrible damage to her own family.
I can't think what he means here. It's possible that Isabella broke the scandal of the adultery of her sisters-in-law in 1314, but that's hardly terrible damage, as she may have thought she was acting for the best, and it was the adultery itself that did the damage, not her revelation of it.
As for her failure to attend her brothers' funerals: although I haven't checked exactly when their funerals took place, Louis X died in June 1316 when Isabella was pregnant with her son John of Eltham. Philip V died in January 1322, during Edward II's campaign against the Marchers and the earl of Lancaster, which Isabella was involved in. Charles IV died in February 1328, when she and Mortimer were acting as regents and perhaps didn't dare leave the country. As for her father Philip IV - perhaps she didn't go because she'd visited France once that year, 1314, and a Channel crossing was not to be undertaken lightly - it could take days. I really can't see that she was on bad terms with her family and tried to hurt them. There seem to be pretty good reasons why she didn't return to France for their funerals.
Again in the Author's Note: "She was one of the few monarchs before 1603 who realised that any war against Scotland was destructive for both countries and of profit to no one."
I've stated before that I think it's far more likely that Isabella and Mortimer didn't have enough money for a full-length Scottish campaign and made peace for purely pragmatic reasons. It's only from our modern viewpoint that deciding not to fight a long, pointless, unwinnable war seems like a good idea - their negotiation of peace with Robert Bruce lost them a lot of sympathy and was called the 'Shameful Peace'. And how does Doherty know that it was Isabella's realisation that war with Scotland was pointless, and not Roger Mortimer's?
I've reviewed this as an Edward II novel, not as a murder mystery, which is not my favourite genre. However, I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in the early days of Edward and Isabella's marriage, long before it went so tragically wrong, and for anyone who'd like to see a depiction of Edward that's a million miles from the feeble, feckless sybarite he usually is in fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing both Isabella and Edward portrayed as strong, sympathetic characters, and look forward to reading more of the series. Bravo Paul Doherty.