I like my medieval romances, well, medieval. This seemingly obvious statement reflects the trouble I have with romances presumably set in the middle ages which do not reflect the realities of the era. I want my characters to act like medieval people; I want the story to reflect medieval circumstances; and, yes, I don't even mind if setting describes
medieval life as it was lived. You know, dirty rushes on the floors, dung piles in the bailey, and the like. Anne Avery's Bartered Bride meets all my criteria for a good medieval romance. That it also has one of my favorite plots – ye good olde marriage of convenience – is an added plus.
Lady Alyce Fitzwarren is the daughter of a baron, a man who can trace his position back to the Conqueror, a man who holds his lands directly from the king. He is also a rude and boorish man who has little interest in anything but fighting and who has fallen into debt because he takes no trouble with his lands. His unwillingness or inability to come up with the requisite dowry has left Alyce unmarried at nineteen, long after most of her contemporaries have become wives and mothers. As the story opens, this is about to change for Alyce's bridegroom is approaching Colmaine Castle.
Robert Wardell is not the man of Alyce's dreams, not her knight in shining armor. Indeed, he is not a knight at all. Instead, he is a very wealthy London merchant who is buying a noble bride for the immense sum of 100 silver pennies. (Do not be misled; this was an enormous amount of money in 1263.)
Robert's motives in seeking an alliance with the Fitzwarrens are not what you might think. He is not trying to take a step up socially. Rather, he wants to marry Alyce because her father is an important lord who has pledged himself to the rebel Simon de Montfort. Robert has chosen Alyce for political reasons. While most Londoners have allied themselves with de Montfort, Robert leads a group of merchants who have chosen to throw in their lot with Henry III, or more particularly, his son Lord Edward. But Robert believes that it will not hurt to have a foot in the rebel camp.
Robert approaches this marriage in a completely pragmatic fashion. As a young man, he had married his master's daughter whom he had loved to distraction. Unfortunately, the spoiled young woman had rejected the intimacies of marriage and, when Robert finally forced her to do her wifely duty, had died in childbed. His guilt over his first wife's
death continues to haunt him.
Understandably, Robert approaches his new young wife with some hesitation. He knows that she must feel she is marrying beneath her station and he fears a similar rejection. But Alyce is no timid, pallid blonde like Jocelyn. Rather, she is a passionate redhead. The marriage bed is the one place that the two find instant connection. It is in the other parts of their relationship that there are problems.
The love story between Robert and Alyce is pretty standard "marriage of convenience" fare, although Avery handles this well known plot in a masterly fashion. Neither had thought to fall in love with the other and neither knows quite what to make of their growing feelings. And there are the social differences that also come into play.
What sets Bartered Bride apart from many medieval romances is the excellent portrayal of England in the throes of civil conflict. Robert recognizes that Henry III's actions have often been detrimental to the country's well being, but he also understands that only the king and his rightful heir can provide the legitimacy necessary to maintain the state. So he makes his choice accordingly.
Likewise excellent is the picture Avery paints of the social anomalies of a hierarchical society. The merchants of London, disparaged by the nobility and disdained by Alyce's family, are heads and shoulders above the rude and crude barons who claim to be their betters.
Robert represents this rising class. He is intelligent, canny, brave and proud of his role in creating wealth. He is a natural leader and Alyce comes to value his difference from the men she has known. Alyce is his worthy mate, a woman of intelligence, ability and courage. Frankly, their estrangement, while perhaps necessary for the plot and not improbable, seems a bit forced at times.
Please do not be put off by the above description of Bartered Bride. Avery always keeps the romance in the foreground and the historical material enhances rather than distracts from the love story. Readers who enjoy realistic medieval romances, who remember with fondness the books of Roberta Gellis, who appreciate authors who create
an authentic background, should run and buy this book. Readers who want well-told love stories will likewise not be disappointed with Bartered Bride. This book is a fine medieval romance and I recommend it without reservation.