Customer Review

February 16, 2013
Hmmm, I'm really not impressed with this novel, the first in Katherine Ashe's series of four novels about Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester (d. 1265), a French nobleman who married the king of England's sister and played a vital role in the development of the English parliament (thanks for that, Simon!). Ashe's writing is perfectly adequate and the novel is entertaining in parts, but I don't think she has much respect for her readers' intelligence; she claims, for instance, that Henry III's sister and Simon de Montfort's wife Eleanor was a nun, which she wasn't - she took a vow of chastity after the death of her first husband. Ashe has claimed that turning Eleanor into a nun is easier for her readers to grasp than the reality, though I don't see what's difficult to comprehend about 'vow of chastity'. Treating your readers as though they're chumps too thick to understand this probably isn't a great idea.

Ashe's website says "Simon was befriended by King Henry III of England, married the king's sister, who was a nun, and probably was the queen's lover and father of the heir to the throne, Edward I." She also states "For 700 years it was a hanging crime to speak his name." I, and several others, have pressed her to give us the source for this truly astonishing statement, and I've also looked through Statutes of the Realm 1100-1377, but needless to say, such a statute cannot be found and Ashe has never responded to the question. I know this claim is untrue, as in 1323 Henry III's grandson and Edward I's son Edward II paid a group of women in Yorkshire several shillings for singing songs about Simon de Montfort for him. He certainly didn't hang them. Not to mention all the historians who wrote glowingly about Montfort in the 19th century with evidently no awareness that they were risking being hanged for doing so.

Re: her claim that Simon was the real father of Edward I, if Ashe was just writing this in her novel and making no claims to historical veracity, I'd just roll my eyes a lot (I find the 'King X was not really the son of his father, SHOCK HORROR!' trope a tediously overdone cliché in histfict) and let it be, but no, she's been claiming on her website, Amazon, Facebook and numerous guest posts on blogs that her tale has a strong basis in fact. It doesn't. Ashe's assumption that Simon de Montfort was Edward I's father is based on the fact that Henry III and presumably his queen Eleanor of Provence were staying at Kenilworth Castle in September 1238, nine months before Edward I's birth. Ashe calls Kenilworth Simon's home at the time, and states that the royal couple were staying with him. They weren't. Ashe claims to have more than thirty years' experience of reading primary sources relating to the era she writes about, so it's odd that she's never noticed Kenilworth wasn't granted to Montfort until 13 February 1244 (Calendar of Patent Rolls 1232-1247, p. 419), and even then he was only appointed warden of the castle. Henry III did not grant Kenilworth Castle to Simon outright, as his own possession, until 9 November 1253 (Calendar of Patent Rolls 1247-1258, p. 250; Henry had granted Kenilworth to his sister Countess Eleanor in her own right, not to her and Simon, on 9 January 1248: "Grant to her of the castle of Kenillewurth to keep for her life." Patent Rolls 1247-1258, p. 5). An entry on the Fine Roll of February 1241 (membrane 25/802), an order from the king, states that one Philip de Lacelles "is to keep Kenilworth Castle" as its warden, so clearly Kenilworth was still a royal castle then; ditto April 1242, when Gilbert de Segrave replaced Lacelles (Patent Rolls 1232-1247, pp. 280, 284). An entry on the Patent Roll of 7 April 1242 (Ibid., p. 294) is an acknowledgement by Segrave that he "has received from the king the castle of Kenillewuth to keep in his fealty, during pleasure, in this form, to wit, that he will surrender it to none but the king during his life, and in case of the king's death during the said custody to none but Queen Eleanor to the use of the king's heir, and in case she cannot come personally, to none but one of the queen's uncles not of the fealty of the king of France, to the use of the said heir." (That is, the future Edward I, then aged two years and ten months.) This makes it absolutely, completely certain that Kenilworth Castle was still in the possession of King Henry III in 1242 and that at this time he intended it to pass to his son the future Edward I (he changed his mind in 1253), and it definitely did not belong to Montfort.

So for Ashe to claim that the castle was Simon de Montfort's 'home' in September 1238, a massive fifteen years before it actually was, is wildly inaccurate; when the king was there around the time of his eldest son's conception it was still a royal castle. There is absolutely no reason therefore to suppose that Simon de Montfort was anywhere near Queen Eleanor at the time she conceived her eldest child Edward I, and in fact the famous chronicler Matthew Paris states that Simon only returned to England from Italy on 14 October 1238. OK, fine, if Katherine Ashe still wants to make up a fictional tale that her hero was the true father of a king of England, that's her prerogative, but she shouldn't pretend that this story has any basis whatsoever in fact. When one examines the Patent and Fine Rolls of the 1230s and 1240s, any notion that Kenilworth Castle belonged to Simon de Montfort at the time Henry III and presumably Queen Eleanor stayed there in September 1238 simply melts away, taking with it any and all foundation of Ashe's oft-repeated theory that de Montfort fathered Edward I. Let me reiterate that if this theory was to be found solely within the pages of her novels, I wouldn't have dedicated so much space here to demolishing it, but because Ashe has so enthusiastically claimed in so many places online that her theory has historical validity, I felt I had to alert readers who might otherwise believe there is evidence supporting it to its complete lack of foundation.

Ashe also claims that there was much gossip current in the 13th century to the effect that Montfort was Edward I's father. I am unaware of any evidence for this. Ashe thinks that Henry III and Eleanor of Provence's second son Edmund, earl of Lancaster (1245-1296) actually was Henry's son. If Edmund really had been Henry's only true son, this would have given him and his son and heir Thomas (c. 1278-1322) a very strong claim to the English throne. Edmund was totally loyal to his brother Edward I all his life, but his son Thomas of Lancaster was a thorn in the side of his cousin Edward II (Edward I's son) for almost a decade and a half; the two men battled for control of the English government for much of the 1310s, and Edward ended up having Thomas beheaded for treason in 1322. Given the endless hostility between the king and his wealthy, powerful cousin, if Thomas had had even the slightest inkling that his uncle Edward I was not really of royal birth and his father Edmund was, he most certainly would gleefully have used this fact against Edward II as much and as often as he could. As the holder of five earldoms and the richest man in England, Thomas had an enormously strong power base who would most likely have supported him had he decided to make a bid for the throne on the basis that Edward II, grandson of Simon de Montfort and not of Henry III, had no claim to it. The fact that Thomas never did any such thing nor ever even hinted at his uncle's non-royal birth demonstrates that he had simply never heard this supposed gossip about Edward I being fathered by Montfort. Are we supposed to believe that a lot of people knew Edmund of Lancaster was Henry III's only true son, but Edmund's own son didn't know it? Nonsense.

In short, this novel might be worth a read if you like historical fiction, but basically, for all the author's much-vaunted three decades of research, it's set in an alternative universe, and the author's claims to have written a historically accurate account of the lives of Simon de Montfort and his associates should be seen for what they are. Some of the errors in it and the subsequent volumes are frankly bizarre: for example, Ashe calls Henry III 'Henry of Monmouth'. No, that was Henry V, who was born in 1386 (in Monmouth). Henry III was born in 1207 in Winchester and was known in his own lifetime, and sometimes called himself, 'Henry of Winchester'. I have no idea how Ashe with all her many years of research managed to get this simple fact so wrong. Henry III's mother was Isabel(la) of Angoulême, not 'Isabel of Poitou'. His sister did not marry the William Marshal, earl of Pembroke who died in 1219, but his son of the same name, who died in 1231. The mother of Henry III's brother-in-law the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250) was Constance de Hauteville, heiress of Sicily, not 'Queen Blanche of Hainault' as stated by Ashe. Weirdly, Ashe correctly repeats the factual story that Constance gave birth to Frederick in public to avert any possible later suspicions that he was a changeling, given that she was already forty at the time of his birth and he was her first (and only) child; how can Ashe therefore get the lady's name so entirely wrong? Who on earth is 'Queen Blanche of Hainault'? Even the 'Historical Contexts' sections of her novels, which Ashe rather strangely often cites in answer to her critics as though they're primary sources, also contain some extraordinarily basic errors. In the one at the end of her fourth novel about Simon de Montfort, Katherine Ashe claims that Montfort's daughter Eleanor and her husband Llywelyn, prince of Wales, had a daughter 'Gwencillian' born in 1278 'too soon' after their wedding, "with the resultant life-long seclusion of the child in a convent", to cite Ashe. Firstly, the girl's name was Gwenllian not Gwencillian; secondly, she was born in June 1282, almost four years after her parents' wedding; thirdly, her incarceration in a Lincolnshire convent was the decision of Edward I following the capture and death of Gwenllian's father when she was six months old and had nothing whatsoever to do with her being born 'too soon' after Eleanor and Llywelyn's wedding (Ashe also has Simon and Eleanor de Montfort's eldest son Henry born 'too soon' after their wedding, contradicting the testimony of the chronicler Matthew Paris, who says that Henry was born in Advent 1238, well over nine months after Simon and Eleanor's wedding in January that year). In the Historical Contexts of her last novel, Ashe also invents a daughter of Eleanor de Montfort and Prince Llywelyn called Katherine - the author's own name, of course, perhaps not coincidentally - who "eventually wedded the prince of southern Wales, bringing the unification of that country." 'Katherine' is a figment of Katherine Ashe's imagination. She never existed. One could understand Ashe making errors when dealing with Welsh history, with which she is presumably unfamiliar, but here she's talking about the grandchildren (real of otherwise) of her hero Simon de Montfort, whose life she has spent more than three decades researching. How can she get these basic facts so completely wrong? I also feel quite strongly that when we write about people who really lived, however long dead, we owe it to them not to insult and defame their memory by painting them as, for example in Eleanor of Provence's case, an adulteress willing to foist a non-royal child onto her husband's throne; Edward I as a man willing to seduce the young woman who is, in Ashe's weird version of history, his own half-sister; Henry III as a vicious, mentally ill sociopath willing to have his own brother-in-law brutally tortured (another invention of Ashe's); and so on.

EDITED TO ADD, 2 March 2013: Ashe's long Facebook post responding to my review (see comments below this review) claims that the castle of Kenilworth was given by Henry III to his sister Eleanor and her husband Simon de Montfort as a wedding gift in the spring of 1238. She does not cite a source for this statement, which is not surprising, as there isn't one, and it's her own invention. I have recently also looked through the Close Rolls in addition to the Patent, Fine and Charter Rolls, Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous and other thirteenth-century primary sources which I looked at for my review, and they confirm my statement in it that Kenilworth was still a royal castle in 1238 and did *not* belong to Simon de Montfort at that time or until a few years later.

On 4 March 1238 (Calendar of Close Rolls 1237-1242, p. 31), we find an order to the constable of Kenilworth Castle to send some bream "from the king's fishponds at Kenilworth" to the bishop of Worcester. Far more significantly, however, on 22 July and again on 23 September 1238 (Ibid., pp. 78, 103, 105) we find another order from the king to his constable of Kenilworth Castle, ordering him to give one Geoffrey de Langley six, later raised to twenty, oak trees from "the king's enclosure at Kenilworth", 'haya regis de Kenilleworth' in the Latin original, "of the king's gift", 'de dono regis'. The entry of 23 September concludes "Witness the king at Wenlock, 23 September", 'Teste rege apud Wenlok', xxiij. die Septembris.' September 1238 is exactly the month that Ashe continues to claim that the castle of Kenilworth belonged to Montfort and that he was there with Queen Eleanor (of Provence) to father Edward I, but as we see here from the Close Roll, it was a royal castle at the time, in the possession of Henry III. Why and how would the king be ordering his constable of the castle to take oak from the "king's enclosure of Kenilworth" as a gift to someone if it belonged to Montfort? Obviously, he wouldn't. Ashe is wrong to say that Kenilworth Castle was Montfort's in September 1238; primary source evidence issued by Henry III's own government at this time demonstrates conclusively that the castle belonged to the king then and until he granted it to his sister Eleanor de Montfort in 1248 and to her and her husband Simon jointly in 1253, as I wrote above.

Ashe claims in her Facebook post responding to my review that "the 1244 citation of the granting of Kenilworth to Simon de Montfort refers to the return of the castle to him after his return from exile 1239-1244." Nope; the entry on the Patent Roll of 13 February 1244 that I've previously cited states perfectly clearly "The like [the previous entry says 'Appointment during pleasure'] of S. earl of Leicester to the custody of the castle of Kenilleworth, with like mandate to the tenants of the castellany. And G. de Segrave, who had the custody of the said castle, has letters patent testifying that he surrendered the castle to the king at Wudestok on Saturday before Ash Wednesday." This makes it apparent that Kenilworth was a royal castle of which Montfort was being appointed constable, or keeper, or warden, or custodian, however we decide to translate the Latin word 'constabulario'. If the castle was Montfort's own property being returned to him, this would be apparent from the wording of the grant, and it wouldn't state that he had 'custody' of the castle (if that's how this passage is interpreted, then the castle's previous owner would seemingly be the Gilbert de Segrave mentioned here, which of course he wasn't - he was its constable, being replaced by Montfort). If Kenilworth had indeed previously belonged to Montfort as Ashe claims and was now being returned to him following his return to England from exile, this would also be apparent; when the king took (temporary or permanent) custody of someone else's lands, castles and chattels, there were legal procedures which had to be followed and recorded. There would be an order to the king's escheator to take Kenilworth into the king's hands when Montfort left the country, for example, and a corresponding order to return it to him some years later. None of this documentation exists for Kenilworth, for the very simple reason that Simon de Montfort didn't own it until much later. There is therefore absolutely no reason to suppose that Montfort was anywhere near Kenilworth Castle and Queen Eleanor in September 1238, and absolutely no reason to doubt the statement that he was still in Italy at this time which appears in the contemporary chronicle of Matthew Paris, who, as Katherine Ashe herself has pointed out, knew Montfort personally. And, therefore, absolutely no reason whatsoever to suppose that he was Edward I's real father. Can we please, please, put this extraordinarily silly notion to rest now?
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