Book review: The Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick

It may not have been a marriage made in heaven, but it was certainly fruitful...

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 25th September 2014, 10:00 am
The Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick
The Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick

Twelfth century King of England Henry II and his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine produced eight children, including four surviving sons, a pride of rampant royal cubs who spent their lives jockeying for power and whose bitter rivalry split the family apart.

The Winter Crown is the second book in Elizabeth Chadwick’s magnificent Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy which is shaping up to be one of this popular and prize-winning author’s best ever series.

Eleanor’s life story has been told many times over in historical novels but rarely with such insight, emotional intensity and page-turning readability.

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This is a thrilling and breathtakingly credible version that encompasses the many personal tragedies, political storms and cruel betrayals which beset Medieval Europe’s golden but fatally flawed couple.

Chadwick uses painstaking research, imaginative flair and her trademark empathy to bring us history in all its rich, vivid colour whilst breathing new life and vigour into an iconic queen.

The Summer Queen, the first book in the trilogy, introduced us not to Eleanor but Alienor, the name the Duchess of Aquitaine would have recognised and the name which appears in her charters and Anglo-Norman texts.

At her glorious coronation as Queen of England in 1154, Alienor is proudly aware that with one son in the cradle and another baby waiting to be born, she is already fulfilling the most essential role of queenship.

But despite the shared passion of their marriage, there is also wariness, rivalry and distrust, a relationship of lust without trust. Henry is nearly ten years younger than Alienor, notoriously restless and has openly declared that he will ‘not be dictated to or ruled by a woman’s womb.’

As the years pass and Alienor gives birth to her royal brood of children, she faces personal loss, the turmoil of Thomas Becket’s feud with Henry and the hurt and disappointment of being politically sidelined.

Marginalised and feeling like the ‘brood mare’ her husband desired, Alienor discovers that Henry has a new mistress, an aristocratic girl young enough to be his daughter and now the love of his life.

But Alienor has a secret weapon in her armoury...her headstrong sons. A woman can wield power through her children and like a patient general, she will bide her time. The king and queen are now partners in a dance, ‘opponents stepping purposefully in a sword fight.’

As her sons grow into ambitious, dissatisfied young men and become frustrated at Henry’s refusal to share power, Alienor is forced into a rebellion with devastating consequences.

Captured and imprisoned, Alienor is warned by a now merciless Henry that he has the means to crush her as he would crush a wasp. ‘It might sting me as it dies,’ he tells her, ‘but it will soon be dead…’

Chadwick is a consummate historical novelist...she revels in factual accuracy as much as in sheer joy of getting to the heart and soul of her leading characters.

She allows Alienor’s light to shine again, not with the glitter of a legendary queen but with the warm, seductive glow of a flesh-and-blood woman. Here she gives us a clever, resourceful, passionate wife with dynastic ambitions but forever restricted by a ruthless, mercurial, power-hungry husband and his fiercely male-dominated society.

Alienor may be equal in royal status to Henry but as a man and a king, he has the stronger grip on the throne and holds all the trump cards that control their fates. And when their turbulent marriage reaches breaking point, there can only ever be one winner.

The Winter Crown leaves a captive Alienor sailing from France on a tide that will take her back to England and into the endgame of her battle with Henry. Her date with destiny will be featured in The Autumn Throne, the final book in this gloriously passionate and definitive fictional account of her life.

(Sphere, hardback, £16.99)