"The Winter Mantle" by Elizabeth Chadwick concerns the events immediately after the Norman Conquest of England.
The main characters are:
- Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria.
- Judith, his Countess and niece of William the Conqueror.
- Matilda, their daughter.
- Simon de Senlis, Earl of Huntingdon and Northumbria.
The story picks up a year after the Conquest (1067), William is back in Normandy with his hostages - and it is here that Waltheof and Judith are said to have first met. Although it is "love at first sight", a sense of duty and social position prevents things from going further.
As it turns out, Waltheof has a predisposition for rebelling against the Norman yoke, after after being granted the earldom of Northumbria by William but not the hand of the formidable Judith, Waltheof rebels again. To cut a long story short, Waltheof gains Judith as a bride - but is the marriage to stuff of legends.
Unfortunately, Waltheof, who seems to be a man easily influenced by those around him - though not his wife - rebels again. This time, he forfeits his life (1076). So ends the first half of the book.
Intertwined in Waltheof's story is that of Simon de Senlis, who is a court official under William the Conqueror.
The second half of the book picks up ten year after the death of Waltheof - Dowager Countess Judith has been managing the Earldom of Northumbria, until the re-appearance of Simon de Senlis, who has been given the earldom by the new King of England, William II (Rufus).
Judith, quite naturally, refuses to go gracefully, so Simon take matters into his own hands - he marries her daughter Matilda.
Thereafter "The Winter Mantle" continues with the story of Matilda and Simon, his adventures on the First Crusade, the death of Judith, and Simon's participation in William II's wars. The book end roughly around the year 1097.
So, to the verdict.
Chadwick's portrayal of Waltheof as a weak-willed man and Judith as, well, a hard-nose bitch perturbed me - at first. However, as the story develops you get a sense that this man was indeed, rather weak of character to be so easily misguided - from a Norman point of view. He was an Englishman at the time of the Norman Invasion, and doubtless loyalties were tested quite often. It really was a matter of choosing sides and hoping yours was the winning one. As to Judith, she comes across as a woman of her times - she knows her position and considers duty to her family upper most. Women were not free to make marriages of their own choosing, ultimately it came down to the politics of alliances.
Overall, I enjoyed the book - I was already familiar with the characters and the events, and Chadwick provides an "Author's Note" at the end to help fill in the blanks.