The challenges of writing a medieval biography are obvious. The sources are scant and the mindset of the subject is alien. Ambler succeeds triumphantly, however, by deploying a surprisingly rich variety of records, chronicles and letters – some never used before – to “reveal how Simon conceived of his identity, and his career in England, within the Montfort family tradition”... This is an astonishingly assured debut by an extremely talented young historian. Exhaustively researched and beautifully written, it traces the remarkable life of a military and political giant of the medieval period who has never been more convincingly portrayed.
This is a remarkable book: beautifully presented (with good maps and illustrations), finely written and based on a deep, scholarly knowledge of the sources. It’s rare to find a story and a storyteller so well matched.
If Ambler details the death of chivalry, she also exposes the dark underbelly of that very culture — a culture that feared outsiders and prized violence, while purporting to embody the values of “honour” and bravery. The Song of Simon de Montfort is a well-researched, elegantly written and lively portrait of a problematic figure.
Ambler, who teaches medieval history at Lancaster University, has written one of the finest medieval biographies of recent years. She deals well with the inevitable problems of dozens of people with similar names and a litany of battles, and is largely successful in treading the line between academic rigour and accessibility — although there are a few monumental footnotes. These may be permissible in a research paper, but they should be relegated to the endnotes of a popular work, especially when they begin to take up half or three quarters of the page.