The second in Elizabeth Chadwick’s Eleanor of Aquitaine series, “The Winter Crown” follows Aleinor from the early days of her marriage to England’s Henry II through the births of their many children to the brink of rebellion. Aleinor completes her wifely and queenly duty by producing the many sons and daughters necessary to fulfill Henry’s dynastic ambitions. She is pleased with her unique role of raising the next generation but still, she yearns for more. She longs for an equal, co-ruling partnership with her tempestuous husband, an opportunity to freely govern her own lands without interference, and a chance to make her own decisions. Henry, however, has other ideas, which include his opinions and no one else’s. Aleinor’s ideas are usually ignored by her husband, who spends more time visiting his vast domains and finding carnal pleasure elsewhere than returning home to his wife and the new children that are regularly born. Aleinor realizes that she has been placed on the sidelines, that her role in Henry’s life has been assigned, and that there is little she can do to change that. Her frustration grows as Henry reigns his lands and his family with an iron fist.
The real tragedy for Henry is that Aleinor has a wealth of experience and skills that would soften his rough edges and help him in the long run. For instance, the more perceptive and diplomatic Aleinor foresees her husband’s difficulties with Thomas Becket, the son of a merchant that Henry raises to the positions of chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, but Aleinor’s warnings go unheeded, much to Henry’s peril. Aleinor’s vexation over Henry’s boorish behavior multiplies when Henry’s need for absolute control keeps his children relegated to the sidelines too, never giving the boys an opportunity to spread their wings and grow into the next line of rulers. As the boys reach adulthood, this problem only grows and the boys seek their mother’s help to force their father’s hand. Meanwhile, Henry’s adulterous relationship with Rosamund Clifford reminds Aleinor of what little respect Henry has for her, both as a queen and as a woman.
Readers get a deep sense of Aleinor’s frustrations, the shackles holding her back, and her dreams for a more fulfilling life. Her relationship with her husband is compared to a “tinder fire”, where the blaze is full but there is no glowing core to sustain it. The image of a lioness in a cage seems to best capture Aleinor’s angst, and it is easy to sympathize with the treatment she receives when you catch glimpses of all that she is capable of achieving. Her dissatisfaction only gains momentum over the course of the novel, culminating in her oldest boys (particularly her favorite Richard, the future Richard I of England), who bristle under their father’s restrictive authority.
Chadwick’s narrative flows seamlessly. The battles between Henry and Becket don’t dominate the narrative, as they have in other tellings, which helps keep the story racing forward. Even if this is a tale you already know, you’ll enjoy this colorful telling with its emphasis on Aleinor’s development from compliant bride, to scorned woman, to a lioness ready to take back what is rightfully hers. I look forward to the third book when it arrives.
The first book in the series, “The Summer Queen”, was reviewed here.
An interview with Elizabeth Chadwick where she discusses this series with Richard Lee of the Historical Novel Society can be found here.
Note: “The Winter Crown” will not be released in the U.S. until September 2015, but you can find the audio version on Audible.com. The last in the trilogy, “The Autumn Throne”, has yet to be published.