The Winter Crown, the second installment in Elizabeth Chadwick's trilogy on Eleanor of Aquitaine (Alienor in this novel), is a fascinating blend of fiction and factually accurate historical events full of vigor and intrigue. The tale of Henry II of England and his queen, Alienor begins at Westminster Abbey 1154, coursing through Alienor's laborious childbearing years, the shaping of a legendary dynasty, Henry's political schemes and the volatile relationship with a stammering and peacockish Thomas Becket, to finally pause at Alienor's incarceration in 1174. Chadwick brings vivacious realness to the character of Alienor as an influential woman who was in one moment, loved and respected, then as easily betrayed in the next.
Through Chadwick's competent writing historical characters are given colorful dimension and life. Her picture of Alienor reveals she was no fool, but astute and level-headed in her actions, especially when it came to dealing with Henry's knack for underhandedness. With the collaboration of the duplicitous Thomas Becket - then Chancellor but dangerously aspiring to a greatness grander than his sovereign - Henry's effort to present to Louis of France an outrageous gift in the form of a live zoo collection: did not escape Alienor's sharp witted observations. "She still thought all this show was about Thomas Becket's desire for lavish gestures and Henry's determination to outshine and overwhelm Louis with a flamboyant display of all the resources he possessed and Louis did not. It was no more than one dog pissing higher up the wall than a rival."
It is generally accepted that Henry had many mistresses and that Alienor knew as much, having to turn a blind eye to such activities by the most powerful man in her midst especially as she was so often heavy with his child, but one could not fault her reactions when she learned she was not the only mare to breed Henry's offspring, or that his favorite Rosamund de Clifford, was barely in her teen years when she became his lover. How would any wife feel? How would a queen as prominent as Alienor react? Henry's cold exclamation "because of me you are not a barren queen, but the matriarch of a dynasty" clearly shows his lack of guilt.
We see Alienor in her many roles as: a caring and engaging mother who experiences both the joy of birthing her brood and the abject sorrow of their untimely deaths; a queen who fulfills her most significant role of providing heirs to the realm, to go from having the power of the regency of England in her hands and to end up as a prisoner in the towers of Sarum.
Chadwick gives us a clear, authentic view of the treatment of women of the period who were looked upon as possessions of the realm, inhumanly used as political pawns to seal alliances, to secure lands, to stroke a king's ego and warm his bed. The reality of having "another daughter to watch her grow up and beat her wings against a closed window" both elevated and saddened Alienor, understanding that it is the lot of the woman, by merely her gender, to be imprisoned like a caged bird, regardless of her background or position.
Chadwick's scenes of everyday life in the court of Henry and Alienor were ever realistic, never boring. I am always excited with anything involving 'William Marshal', and was greatly impressed by his introduction as William, son of John FitzGilbert - a young lad who in Alienor's approving eyes, was 'mischievous and lively, but did not overstep the bounds' - teaching young Harry how to ride and, later, to successfully compete on the Tourney battlefield.
One of the most memorable depictions of Henry and Eleanor in my estimation is presented in the 1968 Hepburn and O'Toole film 'The Lion in Winter'. The dramatic story told of the conflicts between the king-father , queen-mother, heirs-sons is passionate, desperate, treasonous and historically accepted. In The Winter Crown, Chadwick makes valid summations regarding the treacherous rift between father and sons, giving a different spin on Alienor's supposed involvement.
Elizabeth Chadwick's portrayal of Alienor is a woman of indomitable spirit, not easily subdued even by a king as powerful as her husband. With intelligence, quick wit, and courage, she gave as good as she got, proving to be Henry's greatest match and therefore, a formidable obstacle to his selfish desire for total control. By July 1174, Alienor found herself captive within the tower walls of Sarum, banished there by Henry for her perceived rebellious efforts against him.
Her greatest challenge was about to begin.
The Autumn Throne is next. I'm eagerly waiting!
The Summer Queen: 4*
The Winter Crown: 5*
Highly recommended for historical fictionistas