Eleanor of Aquitaine has been a personal hero of mine since I was a kid. At some point in time–maybe around age 10 or 11?–I read E.L. Konigsberg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, which I adored. ADORED, and read a million times, although I never bothered to learn what miniver was until literally yesterday.
For those who don’t know, Eleanor of Aquitaine was a queen in the Middle Ages. First she was the queen of France, married to Louis VII. Later, their marriage was annulled and she married Henry II and became the queen of England. On top of that, she was Duchess of Aquitaine (an incredibly important and strategically placed duchy in what is now France) in her own right, making her one of the most powerful women of her time. She was also a total badass and the mother of two English kings (King Richard I and the infamous King John). I could honestly talk about Queen Eleanor for hours, I just think she is the most fascinating woman.
So, even though I wouldn’t call historical fiction a particular favorite of mine, I was excited to pick up Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy of Eleanor’s life. The Summer Queen covers her childhood (briefly), her marriage to King Louis at age 14, and their (unhappy) marriage. The Winter Crown covers her marriage to King Henry II and the raising of their eight children. The final book, The Autumn Throne, covers her years of imprisonment at the hands of her husband, as their sons rebelled against his rule and he blamed her. It also covers her elderly years, after King Henry died and she was released. While I knew quite a bit about Eleanor, I really appreciated the way Chadwick brought her to life. This woman liiiiiiived, y’all. She accompanied her first husband on the Second Crusade. She had ten children, nine of whom survived into adulthood–and eight of whom she outlived. During the brief period between her two marriages, two–TWO!–separate lords tried to kidnap her and force her into marriage (while she was renowned for her beauty, their reasons were more mercenary in nature and related to her valuable holdings in the Aquitaine). She’s credited with creating the concept of “courtly love,” although that’s probably not accurate. She was an extremely powerful and influential woman at a time when women were mainly seen as vessels to create more men.
Anyway, she was truly an incredible woman and, like I said, something of a personal hero for me. Because of this there was a lot riding on these books–I needed them to do her justice. Thankfully, they did. As remarkable as she was, Eleanor’s life was sad and marked by a great deal of heartache. Her father died when she was a teenager and she was immediately married off to Louis, a total stranger. Their marriage was unhappy, but when it was finally annulled she was forced to marry again almost immediately in order to protect her lands (her marriage to Henry took place two months after her annulment). After the annulment Louis kept her away from their two daughters for most of their childhoods. Her and Henry’s oldest son William died at age 3 of a seizure. Later their next son, Young Henry, died as a young man, while engaged in an uprising against his father. King Henry blamed Eleanor for Young Henry and his brothers’ rebellions, and she was imprisoned by him for 16 years. Another son died while she was imprisoned. When she was finally released, she then endured the deaths of five more of her adult children, and then, at the end of her life, her grandson Arthur tried to kidnap her to further his own ambitions to become King of England. Chadwick’s books are very effective at conveying the many heartbreaks that Eleanor endured, while keeping the books from turning maudlin.
Even with all that incredible sadness in her life, Eleanor was a vital, active woman up until her death. While I probably would have enjoyed even a mediocre series about Eleanor because I love her so much, I was so glad to find a series that really did her justice.