At the beginning of The Winter Crown we find Alienor in pretty much the same place where we had left her at the end of The Summer Queen. These are the early years of her marriage to Henry II when they’re still head over heels in love with one another, and they’re ruling side by side as King and Queen of England and Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine. But soon enough, bit by bit, Alienor’s worst fears are starting to become reality. Whereas during the early days of their marriage Henry would often rely on her advise, he’s starting to sidetrack her more and more, disregarding her opinions and insights into how to best contain their unruly vassals in Aquitaine and Poitou. He begins to rely heavily on his Chancellor, Thomas Becket, with whom he develops an unhealthy relationship to say the least. All the while he rules his territories with an iron fist, leaving Alienor with little more to do than bear him a small army of heirs.
This second instalment chronicles Alienor through her relentless childbearing years and sees her become increasingly frustrated with the direction her life is taking. Henry’s political scheming seems to get worse every year, and the games he plays become increasingly more complicated. His love/hate relationship with Thomas Becket spirals out of control after he’s made him Archbishop of Canterbury, and ends with a bloody climax that sees Becket murdered by Henry’s followers inside Canterbury cathedral.
Meanwhile, Alienor worries incessantly about her children’s inheritance, as Henry seems to try and involve their sons in his political schemes. Their oldest surviving heir, Henry, had been crowned as a teenager to rule alongside his father, and was subsequently called “The Young King”, but had in fact not been allowed to rule any of his territories at all. Henry II, becoming increasingly paranoid, tries with all his might to stay the sole ruler over all of his territories. This continues to the point where Alienor has had enough of his scheme, and attempts to give her sons what is rightfully theirs, even if she has to turn to her former husband, Louis of France to achieve this. But Henry gets wind of her plans and has her captured before she manages to reach France. He takes Alienor back with him to England and has her imprisoned at Saurum (Salisbury). This is where the book ends, but Alienor’s story will be concluded in the third instalment, The Autumn Throne.
For me this was one of the most anticipated books of the year, and like The Summer Queen it did not disappoint. Chadwick’s style of writing brings the period to life in an almost magical way, but also manages to convey all the raw, heartfelt emotions and turmoil Alienor experiences. Just before reading this book I had just finished Alison Weir’s The Captive Queen, which is another historical novel centring around Eleanor of Aquitaine, so it was quite interesting to be able to compare the way the two authors filled in the many gaps in our knowledge of this fascinating woman. Both accounts are extremely well written and enjoyable to read, but in my view I got the feeling that the reader gets to “know” Alienor better in Chadwick’s book. Of course there is so much we cannot and sadly never will know about Alienor’s life, but I felt that the gaps were filled in a very realistic manner and very true to her character. But as I am no historian, just someone with a keen interest in history, I don’t know how much my opinion on the matter is worth.
In conclusion, I think this book, together with the preceding and the upcoming volumes, are great reads for anyone interested in history, medieval and women’s history in particular. I definitely enjoyed it and, even though I already know how it’ll all end, I’m looking forward to the third and final part of this story.