To Defy a King

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Title: To Defy a King

Author: Elizabeth Chadwick

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

Copyright: March 2011



Format: E-Book, 561 Pages

Genres: Historical Fiction, Women’s Historical Fiction, Biographical Historical Fiction, Medieval Historical Fiction

Price: $9.99 [Kindle], $8.99 [Audible],  $12.99 [Nook], $38.21 [Barnes and Noble Audiobook], $9.99 [Google Play], $41.99 [Google Play Audiobook], $16.99 [Apple Books], $34.99 [Apple Books Audiobook]


Spirited daughter. Rebellious wife. Powerful woman.

The adored and spirited daughter of England’s greatest knight, Mahelt Marshal lives a privileged life. But when her beloved father falls foul of the volatile and dangerous King John, her world is shattered. The king takes her brothers hostage and Mahelt’s planned marriage to Hugh Bigod, son of the Earl of Norfolk, takes place sooner than she expected. Mahelt and Hugh come to care for each other deeply, but Hugh’s strict father clashes with the rebellious Mahelt. When more harsh demands from King John threaten to tear the couple’s lives apart, Mahelt finds herself facing her worst fears alone, not knowing if she-or her marriage-will survive.

A brilliant story of a vibrant woman in a tyrant’s world, To Defy a King is another impeccably researched masterpiece from a beloved author.


John featured in Historia Anglorum. Source: The British Library.

It is anno Domini (the year of our Lord) 1204, as they would have said in the Middle Ages.  The High Middle Ages has been in full swing since the the early 11th century and would end by the dawn of the 14th century. King John I of England has been on the throne for only five years and already he is a highly unpopular monarch. John, before his accession to the throne was known by the mocking moniker of “Johan sanz Terre” or “John Lackland,” as he had no actual land to call his own. His predecessor and brother, Richard I was a ruler who was out of touch with the people (and it is said that he didn’t exactly care for England) and his father, Henry II was a controversial figure who married the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine and condemned St. Thomas à Becket to death.

John, unfortunately, was not much of an improvement. Contemporary culture has branded John as the villainous prince from the Robin Hood legends, the one who tries to steal England out from under Richard’s nose. Is John really as much a villain as history has made him out to be? He was seen to be grasping and devious while his brother was away at the Crusades. In dealing with his first wife, Isabel, Countess of Gloucester, he proved himself to be rather cruel and diabolical. He not only had their marriage annulled once he ascended to the throne and left her for a much younger woman, he stole her lands from her.

King John hunting. Source: The British Library.

In regards to Isabella d’Angoulême, his second wife, the way by which he acquired her hand in marriage was devious at best. John saw that Isabella was set to marry Hugh de Lusignan but, unsurprisingly, he stole her from her betrothed (thus sparking an entire uprising of the Lusignan family). Had Isabella wedded Hugh, it is likely that the Lusignan family would have grown in power and they would have presented a threat to him. Intervening and marrying Isabella himself, he obtained the land of Angoumois (a strip of land between the Poitou and Gascony, which England owned) and thus empowered himself. It appears that their marriage was a love match and that John was madly in love with the woman they called “the Helen of Troy of the Middle Ages.”

1204 was a rather busy year in terms of events. It saw the death of the remarkable dowager Queen Eleanor of England (mother of Richard and John); the Fourth Crusade was under way (a nail in the coffin leading to the Schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church); Alexios IV Angelos  the Byzantine Emperor was overthrown by Alexios V Dukas; the Kingdom of Thessalonica was founded by Boniface I, the Marquess of Montferrat; Angers and Normandy were captured by Philip II of France, John I’s enemy; Beaulieu Abbey was founded; Guernsey and Jersey remained under the English Crown after France had retaken Normandy; Valdemar II of Denmark was created king of Norway.


The proud and beautiful young Mahelt Marshal lives with her two indulgent parents, William Marshal, 1st Earl Pembroke and Isabelle de Clare, 4th Countess of Pembroke. She is something of a favored child and the apple of her father’s eye. Throughout the entirety of her childhood, her parents were forbearing and rather easygoing when it came to her.

As is the custom with all young women, Mahelt is officially betrothed to Hugh Bigod, son of the 2nd Earl of Norfolk. At first neither of them are too eager for the idea of marriage. However, when William Marshal attracts King John’s ire and Mahelt’s brothers, William and Richard are taken as hostages, the king pushes for Hugh and Mahelt to marry sooner than was intended.

A woman in the time of Richard I of England. Source: Dion Clayton Calthrop.

Having to bid her family farewell, she moves officially to Framlingham to live with a stranger for a husband and a cold-hearted father-in-law, who is obsessed with running the earldom. It seems that Mahelt’s only consolation is that of her mother-in-law, Ida, Countess of Norfolk, who treats her with loving kindness. Mahelt cannot help but fear for her brothers, who as hostages, can be harmed at any time. At first the situation between husband and wife is rather awkward, as neither seem too fond of each other, but, as times wears on, they fall in love. The Earl and Countess see that this happens, and, eager to ensure that the couple does not consummate the marriage before the appointed time, send Hugh off. Hugh goes to the royal court, to Ireland, to his other estate, anywhere. As long as he stays away from his wife.

Mahelt feels his absence keenly and cannot help but pine sadly for him. She misses his warmth, his kindness, and the intensity of his touch. One day, a passing man delivers a message to her from her brother, William. Mahelt, so strongly imbued with a romantic sense of familial honor, jumps at the chance to go visit him. Seeking to do the correct thing, she approaches her father-in-law, who immediately admonishes her for such a request and states that it is unsafe for her.

When receiving such a response, Mahelt takes matters into her own hands. Confiding in only her serving maid, Edeva, she slips out one night and goes to meet her brother. Meanwhile, Edeva, who is deeply aggrieved by the turn of events, conveys to the Earl the entirety of all that she knows. When he discovers this, he flies immediately into a rage. As Mahelt is visiting with William, he gives her a parchment that is something that he wants her to send to Ireland to their mother. The parchment is a letter from John to his castellans and agents, speaking at length about sending soldiers to Ireland. Mahelt promises to do so.

When she returns home to Thetford, she discovers that Edeva betrayed her to the Earl and Mahelt orders the servant out of her presence permanently. The Earl orders for Mahelt to come to him. Much to her horror, she sees that Tarant, William’s groom who saw her back to safety the night before, is all bloodied and bruised. Her father-in-law conveys to her that she will never do such a thing again and that from thence, he will ensure that she is occupied with “wifely duties,” such as running the manor. Hugh soon returns and discovers that his wife has betrayed the Bigods. His father charges him with keeping Mahelt in line and to rein her in. While Hugh deeply loves his wife and seeks to obey his father to the best of his ability, he has no interest in breaking Mahelt. He knows that he needs to tread a thin line, that everything is at stake. If he cannot convince Mahelt to calm down and to abandon any desire for revenge against the king, the Bigod as well as the Marshal families are in grave danger.

A woman in the time of John I. The fashion has not changed at all whatsoever. Women who are married wear wimples for the sake of modesty and to announce their marital state. Source: Dion Clayton Calthrop.

From start to finish, I thoroughly enjoyed To Defy a King. The heroine, Mahelt is the one that made the story great in my eyes. Some words to describe her are devil-may-care, spitfire, and intense. She saw that her family was being singled out and wronged by the king. Born out of that was a desire to stand up for her father and her brothers, but there was a sense of helplessness. It was heartbreaking to see the situation that her family was in. The cast of characters surrounding her felt very real and they were easy to relate to. Even the difficult and infuriating Earl of Norfolk. Chadwick’s portrayal of King John was masterful. He was diabolical, selfish, hot-tempered, and disturbingly lecherous. It was easy to despise him. Her portrayal of him was very well done. However, I felt that her John was a rather flat character. Perhaps it was because he didn’t really get enough face time in the book.

I am giving this book 4.5 stars. It was a fantastic book, but, I found it to go a little too slow at times. It dragged at other times, and, had a tendency to be a bit dry. Besides that, To Defy a King is a book that I wholeheartedly recommend.



A Caged Lioness

Throughout the story, Mahelt is constantly faced with decisions. She has the heart of a lioness but it appears that she is limited by her being a woman. There is a great deal of conflict between herself and her father-in-law, who is a firm believer in the often-held belief that everything has its place. He was the perfect foil to Mahelt. She was young and vibrant and eager to break free of the mold. Whereas he was older, experienced, and he fit perfectly into the role that he was expected to occupy by society.

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