This will be my last post this week, so I’m going to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back before New Year to tell you about a Christmas-themed read and to share my list of favourite books of 2015, but first here are my thoughts on another recent read – no connection with Christmas, but at least it does have ‘winter’ in the title.
The Winter Crown is the second of Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy of novels following the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Chadwick uses the alternate spelling Alienor, as she says this is how the name would have been spelled at the time, so I have done the same throughout the rest of this post. The first book in the trilogy, The Summer Queen, covered Alienor’s early years and her marriage to King Louis VII of France. Now, in The Winter Crown, we move on to the next stage in Alienor’s life.
The novel opens in December 1154 when, having had her first marriage annulled, Alienor is crowned Queen of England alongside her second husband, Henry II. As Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, Alienor has brought Henry wealth, lands and influence – but he has made it clear that he has no plans to allow her to govern her own lands. What Henry wants is a wife who will concentrate on providing and raising children, who will turn a blind eye to his many mistresses and who will keep her opinions to herself. Alienor, though, has other ideas and a marriage that began with so much promise and a certain amount of chemistry, if not love, descends into a series of disappointments and disagreements.
The deterioration of Alienor’s relationship with the king forms a large part of the novel, but so do her relationships with her sons – Henry the ‘Young King’, Geoffrey, Duke of Britanny, and John, the youngest – and her daughters, Matilda, Alie (Alienor) and Joanna. The other son who I haven’t mentioned, of course, is Richard (the future Richard the Lionheart). Alienor makes no secret of the fact that Richard, the heir to her own lands of Aquitaine, is her favourite child, and he is the one whose character is developed most fully in this novel.
For the first half of the novel, Alienor seems to be involved in a constant cycle of pregnancies and births, but that doesn’t mean the story was boring at all. As well as the tensions that are building in Alienor and Henry’s marriage (which get worse when she learns of his new mistress, Rosamund de Clifford), a lot of time is also devoted to Henry’s feud with his chancellor, Thomas Becket. When Henry – against Alienor’s advice – makes Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, he finds that Becket now possesses power which could be used against him instead of for him. The second half of the novel is equally full of conflict, as Henry discovers that his sons are prepared to rise against him in rebellion – and Alienor is forced to take sides.
I have read a few different fictional portrayals of Alienor/Eleanor and I really like the way Elizabeth Chadwick has chosen to portray the character. The Alienor of The Winter Crown is a strong, intelligent woman, keen to play a role in the governance of Aquitaine and England, but restricted due to her gender and the reluctance of her husband to involve her in his decision-making. I was interested to read Chadwick’s author’s note at the end in which she explains why she disagrees with the popular description of Alienor as a powerful medieval woman.
There are plenty of other characters worth mentioning too. Chadwick’s novels often feature a strong female friendship and in this book we meet Isabel de Warenne, wife of William of Blois (son of the late King Stephen of England), who becomes a trusted friend of Alienor’s after being taken into her household. Isabel, and Henry II’s half-brother Hamelin, were two of my favourite characters in the novel: two people who are close to the King and Queen but who don’t always agree with their actions. And readers of Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight will be pleased to know that William Marshal also appears in this novel, as a young man who is brought into Alienor’s service to train her sons in fighting and swordplay. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of William in the next book.
I am thoroughly enjoying this trilogy so far and am looking forward to reading the final Alienor novel, The Autumn Throne, which should be available next year.
Thanks to Sourcebooks for providing a review copy via NetGalley.