The Autumn Throne | Elizabeth Chadwick | 2016, Pb 2017 | Sphere | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Autumn Throne completes Elizabeth Chadwick’s superb and, I would argue, definitive trilogy on the life of one of the most (if not THE most) astonishing female figures in medieval history – Eleanor of Aquitaine, given here her original name of Alienor. Although The Autumn Throne can be read as a stand alone novel, I would most certainly recommend that you read The Summer Queen and The Winter Crown first because only then will you appreciate the full wonder of Elizabeth Chadwick’s achievement. Alienor and her times come alive on the page along with some of the most charismatic and infamous figures of the late 12th century – Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John, and a personal favourite (as he will be to many fans of Elizabeth Chadwick’s work), the greatest knight, William Marshal. This review assumes you’ve read the previous two novels.
The year is 1176 and Queen Alienor has been held prisoner by her husband Henry II for two long years in the palace at Sarum in Wiltshire. It’s a forbidding place, its stones heated hot in the summer while retaining no heat through the winter. Alienor is in her fifties, her children all now adult, except for John her youngest and even he is growing too fast. Occasionally, Henry allows Alienor her freedom to spend Christmas and Easter with her family (as well as an ever growing brood of illegitimate children) but his motives are a double-edged sword. There is always something he wants and, after all these years, and knowing each other far too well, Alienor will always fight back with the words she knows will hurt him the most.
As the years pass, Alienor once more finds herself caught up in the highest levels of politics as England and Normandy continue to clash with France and Germany. With Europe’s royal families all entangled and almost all related to Alienor, from her present life as Queen of England as well as her past as Queen of France, she is central to their plotting and it is up to her to try and protect her sons and daughters from a succession of crises, often of their own making, while also arranging suitable alliances. On occasion this means that Alienor herself is put in a position of great danger.
Alienor’s family is the comfort of her life and also her heartbreak and in The Autumn Throne it is her relationship with her children and grandchildren that forms its heart. There are moments of great tragedy and waste and I cried and cried while reading this wonderful book. Nobody makes me care for historical figures as Elizabeth Chadwick does. She keeps her characters in their own time – it’s us, her readers, she carries through time. It doesn’t matter how well you know the history of these events, and I think I know them pretty well, but Chadwick makes us care deeply and when the inevitable comes it hurts all the more because we know it’s coming and we know how it will devastate this extraordinary woman, Alienor. If you’re not familiar with events then this trilogy is a fantastic introduction and guide to them.
The Autumn Throne takes us across western Europe, demonstrating the extent of the throne’s power at this time, the great journeys that were regularly demanded of its rulers. And by this time Alienor is not a young woman. Her fortitude, determination and wisdom are brilliantly drawn, even as her physical body begins to let her down.
The novel is full of characters, each of whom is so famous to history in his or her own right, and they are all drawn beautifully. The dialogue is naturally written and the prose is so wonderfully light and perceptive. I’ve always said that reading an Elizabeth Chadwick novel is not like reading history at all, it’s experiencing it. The colours, smells, foods, drinks, the clothes, love, death, the locations and everything else that builds up the layers of this late 12th-century world are perfectly laid out before our eyes. I loved the little details about fashion, I also loved the interaction of little children with the main characters. These people are all seen as rounded individuals living their own lives beyond their political business. Children regularly died in infancy but this doesn’t mean that children were less well loved for being so precariously held on to. These close relationships are such an integral part of this novel.
This was a military age, also an age of crusade, and although these events are described only rarely in the book, with one notable exception, they are constantly in the background, driving on events. No character bridges the domestic and the military like William Marshal and he is such a glorious presence in the novel, lighting up the pages when he appears just as he lights up Alienor’s eyes. Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels about William – The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion – remain among my most very favourite novels of all time. Other character portraits I particularly enjoyed here were John – always a scene stealer – and also Alienor’s grandson Richard. Alienor’s other grandson Arthur also receives original treatment and his role a fresh interpretation. But, really, I enjoyed everyone in this novel. How could I not? It’s all so richly done.
My one question about the trilogy is with the order of the titles – The Summer Queen, the Winter Crown and The Autumn Throne. I’ve wondered for a long time why the seasons are ordered here as they are. Not that it matters.
This trilogy has been an absolute delight and I have savoured it. Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of my favourite figures from history. Over the years I’ve read everything about her that I can but it’s only now, with Elizabeth Chadwick’s utterly fabulous trilogy, that I feel that I’ve been allowed into Eleanor’s thoughts and given a chance to see and know her as I imagine she may well have been. Eleanor was a truly remarkable woman, her story is the stuff of legend, and Elizabeth Chadwick has done her justice.