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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1375

The title LEOPARDS AND LILIES, somewhat enigmatic as it is, offers a challenge to the reader. Actually, there is nothing mysterious about the title. One who remembers some of the lesser details of the history of the Middle Ages may recall the fact that in the period during which rebel barons forced King John of England to grant them the Magna Carta the leopard was the symbol of the House of Anjou, the side of John and his loyal supporters, while the lilies were the symbol of the rebels who received aid from the Dauphin of France. It is against the background of that confused struggle between Rebels and Loyalists in the years following the granting of the Great Charter in 1215 that this novel is laid.

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The story is always absorbing and depicts the life of a young woman whose adventures begin when her father, a nobleman, marries her out of hand to the scion of the Count of Devon, to give some measure of safety to the girl in the troublous times of civil war. The girl, Margaret fitzGerold, is the daughter of Warin fitzGerold, chamberlain to the king. Lord Warin cannot take the girl to the court with him, for fear her chastity may be molested by the courtiers or by the king himself. Margaret, although less than fourteen years old, is calm and serene about marriage, being a child of her times; the thought of marriage means to her castles, servants, and overlordship, rather than the young lad, barely her senior, to whom she will be wed.

Margaret’s career is a strange one, bound to the events of her age and inextricably tangled with the affairs of the nobility in a period when England was frequently a patchwork hastily thrown together politically as the fortunes of the Rebel barons and their Loyalist opponents ebbed and flowed across the island. Her first marriage to Baldwin de Redvers is somewhat less than satisfactory to Margaret, inasmuch as her husband is a mere child and Count William, her widowed father-in-law, hoping in that way to keep his fiefs and treasures intact and his position secure, tries only to be self-effacing in the struggle between the king and the Rebels.

Although the ruler of a large medieval household for Count William, Margaret soon becomes bored with the isolated life at Plympton Castle. Her only real satisfaction is a pregnancy that results in the birth of a male heir to carry on the Redvers line for Count William. By presenting her husband and his father with a male heir, Margaret has, by the standards of her class and times, made herself a place in the world. Nevertheless, young Margaret, ambitious and restless, felt boredom, knowing that other ladies of her station were busy defending castles, ransoming captive husbands, and riding with the armies, while she remained burdened with her pregnancy and then her child.

The calculating quality in Margaret is swiftly brought to light at the death of her husband barely a year following her marriage. The shrewd fourteen-year-old matron, anxious to preserve her place in the world as the mistress of vast fiefs, persuades her father-in-law to let her and the child seek refuge with the Rebel barons in London, while Count William remains at Plympton to hold the castle for the king. Therefore, no matter who wins the struggle, Loyalists or Rebels, the Redvers have a foot in the winning camp. Margaret hopes that she will have a chance to experience the glitter and gaiety of the court in London, where the Dauphin of France is supporting the Rebels.

By the fortunes of war, Margaret soon finds herself a prisoner of King John, who, as suzerain of her lands, has the disposal of her hand in marriage. As calmly as before, Margaret accepts a husband, a Norman knight named Falkes de Brealte, raised out of obscurity by the king. Although Margaret disdains her second husband’s ancestry, and dislikes him, she still does as she is bid. With the shrewdness of a child and a woman, she plans to have her marriage annulled if the Rebels win. The king’s victory leaves her married to an influential baron.

After eight years, Margaret’s second husband falls into disfavor and himself rebels against the boy king who is John’s successor. When Bedford castle’s defense is overthrown and her husband is deprived of his holdings and sentenced to banishment, Margaret, still scheming, shows her disloyalty by pleading that her marriage to Falkes was made under duress. Margaret, however, overreaches herself. Her disloyalty to a husband, even to one beneath her station, causes her to become a social outcast in medieval society. To her dismay, her husband appeals to the Pope for redress and receives it.

Many aspects of thirteenth century life in England are presented in the novel: political, military, religious, and cultural. Their appearance does not mean, however, that the reader should look for a definitive account of these aspects of medieval life. The background is always present, playing its part in the action, but the realistic detail is given only insofar as it contributes to the story; for Alfred Duggan, in the tradition of the historical romance, is first and foremost a storyteller, the twentieth-century parallel of the trouveres who entertain the gentlefolk in the novel.

At first, the political background to the story may seem to lack clarity. Three reasons may be offered in explanation. First, the author took it for granted that the reader has some notion of the events surrounding the history of the Magna Carta, either from schooldays or, perhaps, familiarity with Shakespeare’s KING JOHN. Second, the fluid political situation, in which medieval barons frequently changed sides, cannot easily be described. Last, the political situation is not the center of interest in the novel; it is simply a backdrop and partial motivation for the characters. Duggan used the medieval struggles much as Cooper used the Anglo-French conflicts in the United States during the eighteenth century in THE DEERSLAYER and THE PATHFINDER.

There is a great amount of detail presented in the military aspects of medieval life. The code of chivalry peculiar to the age and time, the place of knight and mercenary, and the anomalous position of the knight raised from the ranks are all made clear through the participation in the action by representatives of each group. Details of a siege are presented from the viewpoint of the besieged. Of special interest is the surprise of the defenders when confronted with the results of a trebuchet used to batter down their defenses. Their surprise is comparable to the advent of new weapons and the effect on twentieth century people of atomic warfare.

Through every aspect of thirteenth century life, the influence of the Church is made manifest in LEOPARDS AND LILIES. Agents of the Church are prominent; lesser figures, such as bishops, monks, and chaplains, are constantly in view, as they were in the medieval world. The Church’s influence is felt by the characters, even to the king’s granting time for absolution to condemned mercenaries lest their souls be lost, even though their lives were forfeit.

More difficult to assess than the political, military, and religious aspects of medieval life is the attention given by the author to cultural matters. Again, the reader must be aware that details are not given for their own sake. They are written into the novel when they help explain action, characterization, and background. Nevertheless, many items about the routine of women, sources of water and food, table manners, dress, sleeping quarters, falconry, and hunting are presented.

Duggan, however, in his characterizations succeeded most admirably. His people are not twentieth century characters masquerading in the costumes of the thirteenth century against a background of museum bric-a-brac. The characters are all believable medieval folk. The bishops, the knights, the soldiers, the servants, and the rest, including the heroine Margaret, carry an air of authenticity. Readers can believe that they are thinking, speaking, and acting as people really did. In short, Duggan wrote a historical romance in the best tradition, and he re-created an entertaining, vivid part of the past in a manner both believable and intelligible to the modern reader.

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