Although the Medieval era isn’t really my period, I must admit to always having had a more than sneaking fascination with Eleanor of Aquitaine, who acts as such a vibrant antidote to the usual parade of mewling, milquetoast, wimpled Medieval Queens. Like so many other strong willed, dynamic and intelligent women of history, the true Eleanor has been somewhat eclipsed and fudged by the swathe of legends and rumours that surrounded her but I think that in her case at least, the truth is just as fascinating a story as all the lies.
This certainly seems to be the theme of Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy about Alienor (the name she used for herself and the one she has in the book) as she is called in the books), the first superb part of which, The Summer Queenrecently came out to much acclaim. In The Summer Queen we meet not the rambunctious, scandalous, incestuous Alienor of popular imagining but instead an altogether more refined, dignified and nuanced figure – a principled, determined woman of great personal beauty, enormous charm and much intelligence. More to the point she is entirely a woman of her time, concerned with faith and trying her best to be a dutiful wife and a respected Queen. ‘Feisty’ is not a word that you could use to describe this Alienor; she is not a modern woman transported to a Medieval setting but instead entirely of her time which makes for a really immersive and convincing reading experience.
This was actually my first attempt to read an Elizabeth Chadwick novel. I don’t usually stray so far back into the Middle Ages but I absolutely HAD to read this one and I was not at all disappointed. From the moment the book began with Alienor’s final farewell to her father before he went off on his ill fated pilgrimage to Compostela, I was absolutely riveted, seduced both by the character of Alienor herself and also the world that surrounded her, which was described in sumptuous detail, especially when Alienor and her husband Louis go on their own pilgrimage and stay in wonderful palaces in Jerusalem, Antioch and Constantinople.
Alienor of Aquitaine and Henry II side by side for eternity at Fontevraud. Their bodies, however, are lost to us now thanks to the despoiling of the French Revolution.
Most of The Summer Queen concerned Alienor’s ill fated marriage to the handsome but overly pious and rather unpleasant King Louis of France, a match that had been arranged by her father before his untimely demise. Although the marriage started off well enough with both Alienor and Louis feeling at least some affection for each other, it didn’t take all that long before their very different personalities led to everything going completely pear shaped – a scenario that I thought was very well done here and even poignant in places even though, obviously, we’re all cheering Alienor along.
However, for me the book really took off when handsome Geoffrey of Anjou and his son Henry entered the scene. Henry, of course, being destined to be Alienor’s second husband and the future Henry II of England. He’s depicted here as a sort of cross between our own Prince Harry (shush, I think he’s lovely) and a younger version of Peter O’Toole’s Henry in The Lion in Winter, all scruffy clothes, irritation, fiery quick wits and good humour – until he’s crossed. What a great characterisation and I can’t wait to see more of him in the two follow up volumes.
Anyway, in summary this is a superb, occasionally moving and often entrancing novel about one of history’s most notorious, enigmatic and fascinating Queens and definitely recommended reading for the summer holidays. Forget The White Queen, THIS is a series that I’d REALLY love to see being dramatised.
ps. This book also features one of possibly THE greatest names in all history – Dangereuse de Chatellerault, who was Alienor’s grandmother. It wasn’t her real name, perhaps obviously enough but WHAT a corker. If the royal baby had turned out to be a girl then I think William and Kate should have harkened back to this ancestress for some naming inspiration!
Blood Sisters, my novel of posh doom and iniquity during the French Revolution is just a fiver (offer is UK only sorry!) if you order before the end of August! Just use the clicky box on my blog sidebar to order your copy!