The Earl

by Cecelia Holland

Reviewed by David Maclaine

The Earl perfectly embodies Cecelia Holland's greatest gift. If you wish to be transported fully into the world, both physical and mental, of another age, Holland is the writer you want. In this case that world is England in the middle of the twelfth century, near the end of the long civil war between the kingdom's designated heir Matilda the Empress and her cousin Stephen of Blois, who adroitly snatched the throne.

By 1153, the struggle for Matilda's English rights have passed to her son Henry, already Duke of Normandy and Anjou and, by marriage right, ruler of Aquitaine. Henry has come to England to succor a town besieged by King Stephen. His arrival offers both promise and challenges to the novel's protagonist, the fictional Earl Fulke of Stafford, a long-time supporter of the Empress. Fulke's own claim to the earldom is challenged by his dispossessed uncle Thierry, who also vies for the loyalty of Fulke's son Rannulf. While they assault strongholds and maneuver their forces, an assortment of great lords jockey fiercely for position and vie for the support of Henry, the young heir who may just be the next king of England. Fulke must find his place in a fragile web of alliances.

The Earl is a riveting read because it drops the reader into a complex situation and makes the array of quick, tough decisions Fulke must make feel like exactly the ones a medieval lord would really face. Natural as well seems the violence and brutality of the age, which always lurks nearby. Holland's mastery of concrete detail makes especially vivid a succession of crucial adventures on horseback, where life and death hang on mastery of the rider's art. The roster of people and titles includes a few minor divergences from history, but there's no disputing the skill with which Holland captures the spirit of an age when a nation ravaged and demoralized was groping back toward unity and peace. (1971; 301 pages)

More about The Earl at

Other novels set during the war between Stephen and Matilda:

Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick (2011), about Matilda and Adeliza, the widow of Henry I, who has married a supporter of Stephen. More info

The Morning Gift by Diana Norman (1985), about a Norman woman during the wars between Stephen and Matilda who struggles to hold her "morning gift," the land her first husband, a Saxon, gave her the day after their marriage. See review or more info at

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman (1995), about Stephen and Maude (Matilda). See review or more info at Powell's Books.

Nonfiction about the war between Stephen and Matilda:

Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War of 1139-53 by Jim Bradbury (1996). More info

The Reign of King Stephen by David Crouch (2000). More info

The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English by Marjorie Chibnall (1992). More info


Stephen and Matilda, a "Where History Happened" feature at

Back to Novels of the Medieval Normans

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