There are few female figures from medieval history that retain their charisma and attraction through the centuries quite like Eleanor of Aquitaine. While that may have something to do with chroniclers preferring to push women into the wings of history, it has much more to do with Eleanor herself. Long-lived, she was the wife of two kings, the mother of more, and ruler in her own right of one of the continent’s most powerful duchies. She was also a crusader and a prisoner, a subject of scandal and a muse to poets and knights. But, if you think that Eleanor’s story is one that you know well or one that holds few surprises, then you have yet to read The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick.
The Summer Queen is one of the novels I have been looking forward to the most in 2013. Over the course of the last year, Elizabeth Chadwick has made me fall in love with the 12th century all over again, thanks to her wonderful novels on William Marshal – The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion – and Lady of the English, the story of the Empress Matilda, Henry II’s mother and one half of England’s Anarchy. When I heard that Elizabeth was turning to Eleanor, Henry II’s wife and the mother of Richard the Lionheart, for her next series of novels, a trilogy, I knew that it would be good and that Eleanor, a woman we should all know about, would be in the safest of hands. I was right.
Instantly, you’re aware that The Summer Queen is an original interpretation because Eleanor is given the name that she would have been called to her face during her long lifetime – Alienor.
Beginning in 1137 with the death of her father the Duke of Aquitaine, Alienor, his heir, is immediately thrown out of safety. Aged only 13, her childhood is over. She is now a target for every fortune hunter with a sword and a band of men to follow him. She is married straight away to Prince Louis, himself recently diverted from his intended future as a churchman to his new position of heir to the throne of France following the death of his older brother. In no time at all, the French King is dead and Louis and Alienor, both little more than children by our standard, are King and Queen of one of Christendom’s greatest kingdoms, threatened on almost every side by ambitious neighbours, dangerous advisers and plotting nobles and prelates. All the time, Alienor does not forget that her primary responsibility is to her Duchy of Aquitaine and, in order to fight for its independence, she has to grow up very fast indeed. Her tender years are no impediment to the urgency of the need for her to provide France with sons.
The Summer Queen isn’t just about the political and military struggles of France and Aquitaine, though these are here in fascinating detail. It’s also about the personalities of Alienor, Louis and Petronella (Alienor’s younger sister) as interpreted and brought to life by Elizabeth Chadwick. The strength here is that Elizabeth adds a whole new range of colours to these lives, different from any I’ve read before. The marriage between Alienor and Louis famously ended in a divorce that shocked Christendom but here we are shown one possible path that led to that split. It isn’t just persuasive, it is utterly gripping!
Here, Louis changes through the pages as he seeks to reconcile himself and his marriage to God. It is a thoroughly disturbing portrait of a young man who alters almost entirely, leaving his young wife in a perilous psychological and physical position. How Alienor deals with this quite complex behaviour from a man she once could have loved dearly is powerful stuff. Throw in a whole new interpretation of Petronella, an intriguing character here given her due by Elizabeth Chadwick, and you have a novel that you will not want to put down.
The French court is vividly recreated, in appearance and character, and the same treatment is given to that most famous of events from the marriage of Louis and Alienor – their Holy Crusade to aid Alienor’s uncle Raymond of Antioch against the encroachments of the infidel. The whole matter, including the scandalous rumours surrounding Raymond and his niece, are explored here but what particularly intrigues is how Louis is presented in a whole new light, both for the good and bad. Throughout, Elizabeth Chadwick shows us that there may well have been much more to Louis than one might have supposed.
It is Alienor who shines throughout The Summer Queen. We are left in no doubt that she would have been seen as someone out of the ordinary and the fact that she was both Duchess of Aquitaine and Queen of France can only have added to the allure of her beauty, wit and intelligence. Above all, though, she is determined and in this she contrasts with her sister, Petronella. Alienor is resolute and focused, one eye turned on Aquitaine, the other turned inwards. Alienor is always, though, a woman of her century and so as The Summer Queen ends and The Winter Crown approaches, young Henry of Anjou stands waiting.
Always superbly written and illuminated by its characters and events, The Summer Queen is a fabulous novel based on the most up-to-date and meticulous research. This is historical fiction at its best and I loved every page of it.