Sir Ethelbert, or The Dissolution of the Monasteries by Catherine Cuthbertson
Plot Summary by Beryl Chaudhuri
This historical gothic romance is set during the reign of Henry VIII, covering several years in the lives of the families depicted. It opens in the year 1516 with a shipwreck on the Welsh coast, caused by lodestones placed under the water to drag the ship onto dangerous rocks. The plot skips back and forth in time following different strands of the story, but I shall present it here in a more linear fashion.
The family concerned in the story is that of Lord St Oswald, a wealthy peer, out of favour with the King. He has a daughter, Adela, who becomes engaged to Sir Ethelbert, son of the Baron de Courland. On the eve of their wedding they find they can never marry because the Baron has been responsible, because of jealousy, for the death of St Oswald’s two sons. Sir Ethelbert flees in despair to become a secret lifelong guardian of Adela and her children.
Adela later marries Villars de Rhone, who becomes Lord St Oswald in his turn. He had fallen in love with her as a young girl, but when they come to marry he has not seen her for several troubled years, and is shocked to find that she has lost some of her looks through sorrow. He is bewitched by Rosamond, the beautiful but corrupt secret daughter of a nun from a nearby convent. Rosamond marries and has a daughter, Rhona, but her husband dies, and Adela disappears, presumed drowned, after giving birth to a daughter, Mary, and a son, Edward. Lord St Oswald then marries Rosamond, who is kind to Edward, but Mary is seen as a rival to Rhona, is portrayed as a wild ugly child, and left to live separately from the rest of the family. She is supported and tutored through the efforts of Sir Ethelbert, and grows to be a beautiful, brave, talented and virtuous young lady, despite Rosamond’s machinations to leave her ignorant of all things important. Mary is also a Lutheran. She falls in love with Sir Algernon Fitzrivers, a protégé of St Oswald, about whose parents nothing is known, but who is a brave and virtuous young man, initially smitten with Rhona, but eventually realising that he loves Mary, and that Rhona is false and worthless.
Through many dangers Algernon and Mary each prove their worth, rescuing each other as well as other people from diverse perils. Eventually Algernon is found to be the son of Sir Ethelbert’s cousin, and the two marry.
Rosamond proves to be profligate and an adulteress, as well as having plotted the deaths of Adela, Mary and Edward for her own advantage. St Oswald regrets his second marriage and is in the process of divorcing Rosamond, when it is found that Adela is still alive, having been held prisoner in a convent in the Netherlands for the past seventeen years, under the pretext of being converted from Lutheranism. Adela is rescued, she and St Oswald are reunited and live happily together, St Oswald now appreciating her loyalty and goodness over the glittering falsity of Rosamond.
Henry VIII plays a part in the novel, as a capricious and greedy monarch, sometimes supporting the St Oswalds, sometimes Rhona and Rosamond, depending on whether golden bribes, the blandishments of one or other of his wives, or righteousness are currently governing his actions.
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