It is the winter of 1154 and Eleanor, Queen of England, is biding her time. While her husband King Henry II battles for land across the channel, Eleanor fulfils her duty as acting ruler and bearer of royal children. But she wants to be more than this – if only Henry would let her.
Instead, Henry belittles and excludes her, falling for a young mistress and leaving Eleanor side-lined and angry. And as her sons become young men, frustrated at Henry’s hoarding of power, Eleanor is forced into a rebellion of devastating consequences. She knows how much Henry needs her, but does Henry know himself?
In The Winter Crown, Alienor is older and wiser but even she can’t fight the inevitable, spending the majority of the book heavily pregnant with her numerous children. Unfortunately, the constant childbearing makes for tedious reading and I couldn’t help wishing we could fast forward time a bit here until the children were all born. While pregnant, Alienor isn’t really in a position to challenge Henry’s authority and although she keeps abreast of what is happening politically, she never seems to meet anyone in England other than Isabel de Warenne.
One of my peeves with The Summer Queen was the choppy narration, and I’m glad to say that The Winter Crown is far more balanced in this respect since Chadwick tells the story from different angles by using Alienor, Henry, Isabel de Warenne and Henry’s illegitimate older brother, Hamelin. While the story is still predominantly focused on Alienor, she can’t be everywhere at once so the other characters offer valuable insights. I loved the character of Hamelin who seemed to be the only honest member of Henry’s family and was truly deserving of good fortune.
Once her childbearing days are over, Alienor takes on a more active role, particularly when she is at loggerheads with Henry as she fights to stop him from using their children for political gain. When Henry arranges a marriage between his heir, Harry, and the daughter of Alienor’s ex-husband, Louis of France, Alienor is incensed by Henry’s lack of regard for her opinion and it is the beginning of the end for them.
The role of women in medieval society is excellently portrayed by Chadwick, particularly in regard to a daughter’s value in the marriage market. While Henry is pleased Alienor has provided him with healthy sons, he knows he needs daughters to form powerful alliances with other royal households and indeed sells his daughter, Matilda, in marriage to a man thirty years her senior. As king, Henry also has the power to determine who marries who in his household and a woman’s feelings in the matter are of little regard.
The portrayal of Henry and Alienor’s children foreshadows the rivalries they will experience as adults, particularly amongst the sons, Harry, Richard and John, and their childhood is described in rich detail. As the children grow into adults, their place seems to be defined by the titles they will inherit but their father is reluctant to relinquish any power and a deadly conflict arises between Henry and his heirs. Alienor, caught in the middle, is blamed for much of the actions of her sons and ends up paying a heavy price as she is taken prisoner.
The dramatic content is so much higher in The Winter Crown and is probably more familiar to readers than Alienor’s earlier years in France but Chadwick does a good job of keeping the politics interesting enough without it becoming too heavy. As the conflict between her husband and her sons reaches its inevitable conclusion, there is much more drama to come and I’m looking forward to seeing how Chadwick finishes Alienor’s story.