In the 1170s, Henry II reigns supreme but all is not well. Harried by his son, the Young King, and with Eleanor, his Queen, imprisoned for choosing son above husband, Henry suspects everyone of treachery, testing his nobles, encouraging their squabbles, demanding their utmost commitment in an endless cycle of military campaigns in England and in Normandy. It is Roger Bigod’s lot to suffer the moods and contradictions of his King. When Roger’s father, Earl of Norfolk and a brutish man, died, the title and his estates become the source of a great dispute between Roger, his eldest heir whose mother was discarded, and the sons of his second and bitter wife. The only man who can decide is Henry II and he is in no rush, keeping Roger close to him, demanding years of service and tribute, allowing him to spend years in limbo, living in a castle without walls and defences, waiting for the time when he might be allowed to rebuild it.
Ida de Tosney is a young ward of Henry’s, innocent and beautiful. Unfortunately, she is too beautiful and modest for her own good. Forced to become the King’s mistress, Ida must endure her own feelings of disgrace, abused and near friendless, the eyes of the court on her. She bears Henry a son, William, but even her own son cannot belong to her. Everything belongs to Henry. But as the years go by and Henry’s addiction to her wanes she is given the option to marry the one man she believes might give her happiness – Roger. To marry requires strength and character in both Ida and Roger, boosted by their love and that all-important self-awareness of the dangers of the royal court.
The Time of Singing is a majestic novel, based on a true story which takes us into the heart of Roger and Ida’s home, reminding us that both were people as real as you and me, who made a life together in the most difficult of circumstances, watched carefully from the wings by some of the most extraordinary, charismatic figures of English history, all members of one remarkable family – Henry, Eleanor, Richard and John. The novel follows the couple through to the end of the 12th century, years filled with ambitious and greedy kings, personal dramas, warfare, political machinations, heartache and feuds. The story moves from the royal court and the Bigod main home of Framlingham Castle to other estates across England and Normandy. There’s barely time to settle anywhere. This is a court on the move, urged on by conflict with the French King and with various sons of Henry II.
All of the time Roger has to play a delicate game, proclaiming his loyalty while being aware of how easily it could all collapse around him. All it would take is a misspoken word, whispered into the wrong ear, and everything could be lost. Ida is even more helpless. With Roger is his contemporary and friend William Marshal. It is always such a pleasure to spend time in the company of the Marshal, whose character is evoked by Elizabeth Chadwick in a manner that I doubt can ever be equalled. I can never forget The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion and it is wonderful to meet William again here and to see the links grow between the Marshal and Bigod families.
Elizabeth Chadwick has the fabulous ability of making the reader feel that they have travelled back in time. When I read a Chadwick novel I feel fully immersed, a world away, but, although these characters lived such a long time ago, Elizabeth Chadwick reminds us brilliantly that they were just the same as us in so many ways even though our lives are so different. Roger and Ida are realised so perfectly – Roger with his love of hats and Ida’s fascination for fabrics – and they feel very real. Likewise, Henry II looms large, almost the monster of the piece. What he does to Ida is nothing less than rape and his relationships to her and to almost everyone else are abusive. This is a frightening man, just holding his kingdom together, his family at each other’s throats.
The novel is full of colour and details. This is meticulously researched historical fiction. I could imagine the rooms and the buildings, picture the clothes and the furnishings. The dialogue is superb, the prose is cleverly light, dancing along, pulling the reader with it. There are military skirmishes, sieges, and reminders of the horror of medieval warfare, but this is secondary to the novel’s personal dramas. While William Marshal is the greatest knight, and shown here repeatedly to be an exemplar of chivalry, Roger Bigod’s talents lie elsewhere, in justice and administration. He does his military service and exhibits astonishing bravery but this is not where his heart lies. Ida’s world is more restricted, frequently controlled by childbirth, but she must still play an elaborate game with the powerful ladies of the court. Both Roger and Ida are hugely likeable characters and this contributes enormously to a novel that is so much fun to read.
Every novel by Elizabeth Chadwick I read I adore. She can do no wrong in my eyes and I can’t praise her novels enough. The Winter Crown was my favourite historical novel of 2014. The Time of Singing is every bit as fabulous as I was expecting and I just didn’t want to finish it. Fortunately, there is a follow up – To Defy a King – and I will be reading that very shortly. But I’m being careful – I love these books so much I don’t want them to run out!