It is December 1154 and Eleanor of Aquitaine is crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey alongside her younger husband, the charismatic and ever restless King Henry II. Now Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy and Anjou, once Queen of France and always, in her own right, Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor is now in the realms of making history, becoming arguably the most famous and powerful woman of the Middle Ages. But the legend of Eleanor, the beautiful Duchess, muse of the troubadors, Crusader, Queen and mother to surely one of the most dysfunctional broods in royal history, is one well worth retelling and in no writer’s hands is she safer than in the care of Elizabeth Chadwick. The Winter Crown is the second in a trilogy which will, I have no doubt, become the definitive fictional account of this remarkable woman, who is brought to life on these pages as Alienor.
The Summer Queen, the first of the novels, covers the early years of Alienor’s life in France, culminating in her marriage to Henry, the son of Empress Matilda. In that novel, there are just glimpses of the character Alienor is marrying but, in The Winter Crown, Henry emerges in all his outrageous glory. Never without a mistress, Henry already has an illegitimate son and one of his first acts in The Winter Crown is to introduce the child into Alienor’s household. She can be under no illusion – she has met her match.
The Winter Crown focuses on Alienor’s prime years, the years in which she gave Henry child after child, becoming almost the brood mare she least wanted to be, years in which she lost children and the years that killed the one-time great love between Henry and Alienor. During this time, Henry continues to fight his grudge match against Alienor’s ex-husband, Louis the King of France, a man who featured so strongly in The Summer Queen. Beating Louis is personal and the two men never stop hounding each other across and through the castles, towns and fields of France. The years of campaign add a thrill to The Winter Crown as Henry and Alienor spend most of their time progressing through their lands on both sides of the Channel. Elizabeth Chadwick brings these places to life, most especially during those times when Alienor is able to visit her own duchy in the golden south. Henry and Alienor also spend many months at a time apart – the cost of war.
Alienor has her own battles to fight and most of them, during these years at least, take place on the birthing stool. The danger of childbirth is always apparent as is the fragility of a young life and the losses that Alienor and Henry endure changes them. I wasn’t far in to The Winter Crown before it had me weeping. Elizabeth Chadwick is the most beautiful of writers, conveying so well the timelessness of centuries’ old emotions which can be made so raw all over again.
While Alienor is known to history as a great queen, it is debatable how much actual power she possessed and the extent to which she was controlled by Henry. It is very likely that she felt that she had a battle on her hands and that comes across here. The role of women in medieval society is made painfully clear here in the way that rich heiresses (some of whom were just children) are disposed of to the highest bidder. There are several powerful tales in The Winter Crown, including the strikingly memorable account of an abbess snatched from her convent and forced into a marriage bed with a man she hated for a full ten years of despair.
I’ve read a fair few fictional depictions of Henry II over the years and I must say that his portrait in The Winter Crown has the most authentic feel of them all. Refusing to wear a crown or the trappings of rank, this is a power engine of a man. There is little or no sentimentality in him. Everyone has their use and everyone has a price. His battles with Thomas Becket, a man that Henry made into what he became, forms much of the first half of the book. The remainder raises the curse that was to afflict Henry through the rest of his life – his sons.
Alienor’s role in the feud between her husband and their sons is a fascinating one and it adds a tension to The Winter Crown as we watch Alienor mould her favourite, Richard. The Young King Henry, his father’s eldest legitimate son and heir, is an extraordinary figure in his own right, a light burning too bright, touched by tragedy. With the child John in the wings, difficult from birth, there is a sense that everything is about to collapse around these royal parents at war.
Elizabeth Chadwick is such a fine writer. She brings history to life so vividly it is as if we are witnessing it ourselves and not simply reading it on the page. The prose, including the dialogue, has a lightness to it, nothing is forced, it feels natural and real. The events took place centuries ago but Elizabeth Chadwick makes travelling back through the years seem effortless. The Summer Queen is such a fine novel but I think The Winter Crown even exceeds it which is an enormous achievement and fills me with excitement and anticipation for the conclusion of this wonderful story in The Autumn Throne. Without doubt, The Winter Crown is my historical fiction novel of the year so far.
I must finally mention that the hardback is a thing of beauty.