Published in 2014, 483 pp, Sphere
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
The second installment of Elizabeth Chadwick’s Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy, The Winter Crown opens in the winter of 1154. Eleanor is married to the young Henry FitzEmpress, son of Geoffrey of Anjou, the father of the Plantagenet dynasty, and Empress Matilda, heiress of the English throne, and is playing the part of child bearer well. Whilst Chadwick’s first novel, The Summer Queen, focuses on young Eleanor, this one portrays Eleanor the woman. We have seen her overcome many hardships and flee from an unhappy marriage for the love of a young, feisty suitor. However, not long after the honeymoon period wears off, we see that young Henry is a force to be reckoned with. He has the Plantagenet temper and refuses to share power. He is desperate to claim his birth right; the English throne, and will do whatever it takes to get it. This leaves Eleanor alone to raise the children she bears him and to stew over the fact she is no longer in her homeland the Duchy of Aquitaine.
We see a different side to Eleanor in this novel. She grows from being the beautiful object of Henry’s desire to an aging, yet still handsome mother, who no longer has a hold over her husband. Henry begins to resent her input and belittles her when once he valued her knowledge and experience in political affairs, and this leaves her frustrated and side-lined, normally nothing more than a scapegoat for Henry’s bad decisions. This gets worse as Henry wins the land his mother once claimed, gains a young English mistress and befriends a rising man in the English court: Thomas Beckett.
As her sons grow older and begin to fight against their father for land and power, Eleanor is placed in a difficult position. Should she side with her sons, or stand by her husband? A husband who barely sees her or even acknowledges her existence once she is past child-baring age. All she wants is to be able to go back to her homeland and rule over her own people.
This novel is a stunning insight into the world of an under-rated and immensely interesting Queen of England. Beautifully written, the reader really empathises with Eleanor and learns to hate Henry II as much as she must have. There is a strong cast of supporting characters that are all extremely well developed and add to the storyline. In particular, it is engaging to see her portrayal of Thomas Beckett, especially the period before his martyrdom as well as Henry II’s descent from the passionate young man he was when he married Eleanor to the tyrant and power-hungry King he becomes. Their children are also intriguing, it is interesting to see her interpretation of Richard the Lionheart and evil King John as children. There are certainly events and characteristics that foreshadow the men they become. I also particularly enjoyed the introduction of William Marshall, he was welcome relief in a story that largely focuses on the machinations of power-hungry men who show little regard for the female protagonist.
Much like The Summer Queen, my qualm with this novel is the pacing. It is difficult to grasp the sense of time that has passed as there are large portions of the book where nothing much happens to Eleanor. A lot of the time the action between Henry and Thomas Beckett, and then later her sons, happens else where and we are left reading her frustrated thoughts of being ignored. Each chapter contains a date but this can sometimes be many months after the last, and it makes it difficult to understand how the characters have grown. Especially when it feels like nothing has really happened. I feel that as it is a fiction, Chadwick could have been a bit more creative with the downtime in Eleanor’s life. As a historian, I would have hated for her to invent truths and place Eleanor where she was not, I feel it is an author’s duty to create intrigue and interest in the historical past rather than present dull aspects of it for a prolonged period of time.
I do enjoy reading about Eleanor of Aquitaine and that is why I pushed through and finished this novel. After a lengthy break I did finish the remainder quite quickly so it cannot have been too dry. I do feel The Summer Queen was much better but I no doubt will still pick up the final installment, The Autumn Throne, when it is released. Mostly out of obligation to see the trilogy through but also I am intrigued to see where Chadwick will finish the series. She started Eleanor’s story quite early, where most authors begin when she terminated her marriage to Louis, I’m hoping she’ll finish it upon her deathbed. I’d be very interested to see her interpretation of Eleanor’s life after Henry had died.