If historical novels are not your thing, then maybe stop now. This is about Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one time Queen of France, Queen of England and Duchess of Aquitaine, though not the first two at the same time.
When she was only thirteen, Eleanor was thrust into the thick of the world of power and intrigue, for on the death of her father on his way as a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela (where he is buried) she learned for the first time that she was affianced to Louis, the Dauphin of France and quite suddenly, soon to be King.
The decision was strategic. Eleanor came into her inheritance as a wealthy woman in both lands and money; for her to have married any one of many barons and landowners of Aquitaine would have split the duchy into warring factions, but by leaving her as affianced to Louis in his Will, a negotiation that had clearly taken place in secret, her father avoided such factional and destructive fighting.
The Summer Queen covers Eleanor’s childhood, the death of her only brother in infancy and her close emotional relationship with her sister Petronella, their mother Aenor de Chatelerault having died some time before this novel begins. Eleanor’s childhood ended abruptly on the death of her father and she was moved to France married to Prince Louis. Generally painted as a monkish weakling, in this novel he begins his marriage as a passionate and beautiful youth; a fearful rampage at the siege of Vitry some years later (by which time he was King) during which many women and children were burnt alive in the church where they had sought safety, crushed his spirit – he saw it as punishment for his misdemeanours, that and the fact he was unable to sire boys – the unforgiving will of God.
By the second book, The Winter Crown, Eleanor has begun her robust and turbulent marriage to Henry II. Bearing many children, both male and female – the brood of devils some might say – Eleanor manages her household and tries to influence Henry; she had expected as much when their whirlwind romance began, but more and more she was frustratingly side-lined, eventually matters reach a crisis and even a Queen must face the consequences of treason: she is imprisoned by Henry in squalid and meagre circumstances in Sarum Castle.
This part of the trilogy is full of tragedy: sons die and daughters go off across the continent; marriageable princesses are a token and important part of alliance and support, no matter how suitable or unsuitable the groom. By the end of the book, only her sons Richard and John have survived; her daughters are in Saxony, Castile and Sicily and she is aware that she may never see them again. Henry, meanwhile, has taken on a much younger mistress and is seeking an annulment to their marriage.
The last part, The Autumn Throne, finds Eleanor still mewed up in Sarum Castle refusing to be bullied by her husband even as he divides her from her family and her birthright.
All changes therefore, when Henry II dies and Richard I comes to the throne instead. Eleanor is released, she travels over the Alps to collect Berenguela (also known as Berengaria) as a bride for Richard, who is already on his way to Jerusalem as part of the his Crusade; behind his back his brother John is scheming and plotting and when Richard gets imprisoned on his way back from an unsuccessful campaign, John tries to persuade everyone that he is dead, and he, Philippe of France and Heinrich of Germany try to make sure that Richard disappears without trace – however having escaped their clutches Richard makes a magnificent reappearance only to be killed by a stray arrow at Chalus.
Eleanor’s story is far from over though. She has to master John, who aggravates the barons into rebellion, she has to travel to Castile, aged 80, to collect her niece Blanche for marriage to another French King, Louis VIII; she holds her daughter Joanna in her arms as she dies from childbirth and sees many other followers and friends die in their time.
Retired and quiet at the Abbey of Fontevraud, she commissions the famous effigies of her husband, Henry II, of Richard and of Joanna (now missing) in the abbey church. Until she too, follows them to the grave.
There might be a little too much repetition of hunting expeditions with gyrfalcons and gazehounds; eating of almond pastries and sewing elaborate costumes – but what else was there to do without television, snapchat and the like.
On a happier note we meet William Marshall again, one day to become the most powerful man in England. William’s remarkable story has also been told by Elizabeth Chadwick in her novels, A Place Beyond Courage, The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion, which I also strongly recommend.
This is a glorious pageant full of sound and fury, but not on the whole signifying nothing, since its elaborate weaving of historical fact with imaginative in-filling brings this part of English history abundantly and vividly to life, to the great enhancement of our perception of the Angevin Kings of England.