(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1375 words.)