Mark of the Cross, a stand-alone historical novel by Judith Pella, brings medieval Europe to life through an entertaining story. In 1265, Philip de Tollard is a young bastard son of the Lord Hawken, who has provided Philip with education but never acknowledged the illegitimate son as his own. Philip soon meets Beatrice Marlowe, from an estate near Hawken’s lands, and the two fall in love—but Philip will not bring dishonor upon Beatrice and bring another illegitimate child into the world. Without any land holdings, and a low-class job as a groom, Philip has nothing to offer Beatrice anyway. To make matters worse, Lord Hawken’s legitimate son, Gareth, is especially vindictive and cruel, and does everything in his power to keep Philip away; soon Philip is banished from England and becomes a fugitive fighting for his life in France.
The two antagonists, Gareth and his mother, seem a bit exaggerated and unrealistic, more stereotypical than actual people. Some scenes also tend to depict all wealthy people as bad, completely self-centered and scornful of the poor – much like Philip’s brother Gareth. Such characters assist the basic story line, in which Philip becomes hardened and angry at the world. Yet throughout many providential events, Philip survives and finds friends in unlikely people—and thus he grows and learns to trust others. With the few exceptions just noted, though, most of the characters are well-developed.
As always, Judith Pella brings excellent historical research into the story’s background, this time discussing the English rebellion against King Henry III, including the specific battle when the King and then-Prince Edward turned the tide back to their side. The story continues on to the early years of King Edward I, and through the characters we experience all aspects of medieval life – the court in England and the English lords in the countryside, as well as the peasants and thieves of France, and even the Crusades—including the Saracens and several locations in Palestine.
For a book with evangelical Christian emphasis, a story from 13th century Europe obviously does not fit entirely, and so the Catholicism is downplayed – no mention of the many Catholic saints worshipped, purgatory, or sales of indulgences. Yet the story gives the general background and feel (at least those things today’s readers readily associate with medieval Catholicism), complete with monasteries, priests, and devotion to Mary as Jesus’ mother. Mark of the Cross even gives some background details such as what was required to seek asylum in the Church, and the life of monks.
Yet Mark of the Cross excels even more as an entertaining and uplifting story, with likeable characters in great contrast to the two villains. The action moves quickly enough, with plenty of page-turning suspense, as we come to know and love the characters. Through their many experiences and hardships, both Beatrice and Philip grow, and Philip’s friends prove themselves genuine.