Elizabeth Ashworth's novel follows William Bradshaw's involvement in the Banastre Rebellion and begins during the disastrously wet summer of 1315, while the country is still suffering the after effects of Bannockburn the year before. William Bradshaw, [or Bradshaigh] went off to fight the `holy wars' and was gone for ten years. In his absence, and not knowing whether he was alive or dead, Lady Mabel married a Welsh knight. William, however returned, hunted down the newcomer, and killed him at Newton Park, where supposedly, a red stone still marks the spot of the murder.
I was only two chapters into this novel when I felt compelled to look up the Mab's Cross connection on which this novel is loosely based. William forgave his wife, but her confessor insisted that as a penance for her unintentional bigamy, she should go bare-footed and bare-legged to a cross near Wigan from her home, the Haigh, once every week, as long as she lived, to weep and pray for pardon.
With crops rotting in the fields and many animals struck down with disease, the country was in the grip of widespread famine, where the price of food was crippling, but the corrupt tax collectors persisted in fleecing the landowners.
Adam Banastre, a minor Lancastrian lord, organises a rebellion against his overlord, Robert Holland, who was secretary to Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. Armed with written approval from their king, Adam and William join this rebellion, which takes the form of a raiding party across Lancashire where they seized food and livestock. Edmund de Neville, the Deputy Sheriff of Lancashire, and Sir Robert de Holland defeated the rebels at Deepdale in Preston. William flees into the hills where he has no choice but to live as an outlaw.
When William's beloved and injured horse finds its way home, Mabel doubts her husband is still alive. No word comes in the days that follow and with her daughters growing weaker every day, she is close to despair. Then King Edward II seizes the lands passed down to her from her father's family for a year and a day. Faced with destitution as well as starvation, Mabel has to make a decision which will either save her and her daughters, or mean possible death for them all.
As her life deteriorates, does Mabel remain romantically loyal to a man she loves but may be dead? Or take the path to preserve her remaining family? Inevitably, whatever choice she makes, Mabel will have to pay the price in the end.
The narrative is well-paced, Lady Mabel's conflict is heartwrenching and the odious Sir Peter Lymsey is a worthy antagonist.
This is not a romantic tale of chivalrous knights and ladies in wimples sewing by a roaring fire. Lady Mabel is vulnerable, powerless, and has to find a way to placate her enemies, keep her tenants from being harassed by a new overlord and her daughters safe and fed. This is about a country in the grip of famine, greed and the ambitions of others in a stark landscape that kept me turning the pages of this well-crafted story.