Sphere | 2019 (12 September) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1152 when the wife of Diarmait, King of Leinster in Ireland, gives birth to Aiofe. Beautiful and clever, Aiofe will not only be much loved by her father, she will be prized by him as he uses her to help cling on to power in this most tempestuous of places in which to hold a kingdom. He has rivals on every side and his sons have become little more than bargaining pieces, held hostage to guarantee Diarmait’s oaths of loyalty, oaths he will never keep. There is a new powerful king across the water in England, Henry II, and he wants to spread that power westwards.
Henry also wants to control Richard de Clare, the Earl of Striguil (now Chepstow) and once the Earl of Pembroke. Richard had been on the side of the loser in the civil war that preceded Henry’s rise to the throne. Richard’s paying for it now but his influence is still strong. And it gets stronger still when Diarmit marries his young daughter to Richard, creating an alliance that will change the balance of power in this region. But Aiofe is no mere pawn. She owns titles and lands in her own right. She is a formidable woman, with three powerful men in her thrall – father, husband and King Henry. Aiofe is also deeply in love with this remarkable man, Richard, to whom she is so happily wed.
I cannot overstate my love of Elizabeth Chadwick’s writing and her novels. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who can immerse the reader so deeply in the medieval period, bringing to such vivid and colourful life kings and queens but also those other people whose names are known to history but so little else. Elizabeth Chadwick’s great writing love is William Marshal, The Greatest Knight, and here she turns her attention to his mother-in-law Aiofe, a beautiful Irish princess who was so much more than that. I knew nothing about Aiofe before reading The Irish Princess but now I am fascinated by her and feel that I’ve been given a glimpse into her extraordinary life in 12th-century Ireland and England.
It’s an incredible story and it begins in Ireland, a place of war, violence and passion. This is stunning stuff, with battles, feasting, love and hatred, as well as great emotion and trauma. I couldn’t have been more engrossed. And then the novel moves to England as Aiofe marries the love of her life. Life becomes a struggle as her husband Richard de Clare is pitted against Henry II, although between the three of them there is a kind of friendship that absolutely fascinates.
Elizabeth Chadwick knows this period inside out and we reap the rewards of this knowledge with a novel built upon incredible historical details and insight. Objects, clothing, rooms, buildings, places are all described with such richness. You really feel as if you’re in the room with these people, listening to them speak, watching them move. It all feels so real even though this novel is set such a long time ago and these are lives so different from our own. And because it feels so real we care deeply for these people, especially Aiofe and Richard. Expect strong emotion. I cried ugly tears more than once. I was so involved in Aiofe’s story.
This marvellous novel is a fierce contender for my novel of the year. It completely immerses the reader in these lives lived so long ago. It’s an incredible story, extremely well-researched and very, very moving. Elizabeth Chadwick is a master at putting us in the room with people from the past – Diarmait is not a man to forget in a hurry. There is so much vivid colour but it all feels natural and real. I’ve loved so many of Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels and The Irish Princess is right there among the very best, equalling The Greatest Knight, which, considering how breathtakingly good that novel is, is high praise indeed.