Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Serpent's Tale

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The Serpent's Tale

by Ariana Franklin

The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin X
The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2009, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kathy Pierson

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Beyond the Book

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The Serpent's Tale is set during a richly interesting time in English history (approximately the same time period as Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth and Ellis Peters's Cadfael novels, which many may know best through the 1990s TV series starring Derek Jacobi). Through Adelia's all-access pass to Henry II, readers hear tell of ongoing political intrigues and scheming power plays. Threads of these histories can become tangled quickly; so, a cursory overview of royal lineage and a simplified path of the English crown may prove helpful in illuminating some the historical events that form the backdrop to The Serpent's Tale.


A Plantagenet Primer
Henry II (1133-1189), the first Plantagenet* king, was born and brought up in France but lived to rule England for 35 years. His name will always be tied obliquely to the murder of Archbishop Thomas à Becket at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, even though he's often lauded as one of the most effective of all England's monarchs. In The Serpent's Tale, Adelia is annoyed by the memory of Becket's murder, which made "a martyred saint out of a brave but stupid and blinkered man" at the expense of a king who wanted to "allow greater justice to his people with laws more fair, and more humane than any in the world." She maintained, "Henry Plantagenet's ferocious blue eyes saw further into the future than any other man's."

The Serpent's Tale begins with references to "Stephen and Matilda's War," a 12th century footnote between two contenders to the English throne - both grandchildren of William I (William The Conqueror) who invaded England in 1066 ("The Norman Conquest"). Stephen was the son of Adela, William's daughter. "Empress Matilda"* was the daughter of King Henry I (the first Norman king to have spent most of his childhood in England and be fluent in English) who was William's youngest son.

Because Henry I's only legitimate son was drowned in 1120, the King's will stipulated that he would be succeeded by his daughter, Matilda, even though there was no precedent for a female monarch in England. However, this intended transition did not occur. Instead, the two decades following Henry's death in 1135 saw a period of civil war and near chaos known as the Anarchy. These nineteen years of contested rule ensued because, even though it could be argued that Matilda had the rightful claim to the throne, she was out of the country at the time of her father's death and, in her absence, Stephen grabbed the throne. The barons, liking what they saw in Stephen (a weak-willed male who could be easily manipulated, as opposed to a strong-willed female) supported Stephen who became Stephen I, the last Norman king of England.

Thus began almost two decades of civil war - a period that contemporaries described as a time when "God and his angels slept." These years of strife were eventually settled when Stephen agreed (via the Treaty of Wallingford) to name Empress Matilda's son, Henry, as his heir. Thus, upon King Stephen's death in 1154, Henry ascended to the throne at the age of 21, becoming Henry II.

Henry II's marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine resulted in 8 children, and he ruled England, by most accounts fairly well, for 35 years. The events and intrigues that history records, including Henry's dalliances with mistresses and his wife's and sons' rebellions against his rule, factor into the storylines told in The Serpent's Tale. Henry II and Eleanor's third son, Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) eventually succeeded his father. Richard was followed by Henry and Eleanor's youngest son John (the much maligned king of Magna Carta fame) who took the English throne after his elder brother's demise. Henry II thus began a royal line, a Plantagenet dynasty, which spanned three centuries and fourteen Kings - fifteen if you count Henry VII, who united the two warring Plantagenet houses (the House of Lancaster and House of York) when he took the throne, becoming the first Tudor King.

*Matilda is often referred to as "Empress" because at the age of 12 she was married to Henry V, King of Germany, who was also the Holy Roman Emperor (the Holy Roman Empire being a union of European medieval states that began with Charlemagne and ended in the Napoleonic era). However, although crowned Queen of Germany, she was never officially crowned Holy Roman Empress by the Pope. So, although during Henry V's reign the title was used as a courtesy, most historians agree that her right to the title died when she was left a childless widow at aged 23.

Plantagenet refers to the sprig of broom blossom (planta genista) that Henry II's father, Geoffrey of Anjou is said to have worn; however, this was not a last name that Henry would have used himself. It is believed that the first descendant of Geoffrey to use the surname was Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, father of Edward IV and Richard III (the last Plantagenet King) who apparently assumed the title around 1448.

Article by Kathy Pierson

This article was originally published in February 2008, and has been updated for the February 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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