Book review: Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

Only the fiery Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine can rival Emma of Normandy when it comes to marrying and mothering kings, but who was this remarkable matron of the early Middle Ages?
Shadow on the Crown by Patricia BracewellShadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

Debut author Patricia Bracewell has plucked Emma, great aunt of the mighty William the Conqueror and mother of the saintly Edward the Confessor, from her relative obscurity to bring us this epic tale of seduction, war, and forbidden love set in an England when Vikings are on the brink of invasion.

Shadow on the Crown is the first in a trilogy and from the evidence of this introductory chapter about the intriguing woman who would be wife to two kings and mother of another two, it promises to be an outstanding and enthralling new series.

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Bracewell brings historical accuracy allied to exciting imaginative flair to a turbulent period of English history when King Æthelred, a man described by Anglo-Saxon chroniclers as ‘mistrustful, violent and haunted,’ looked to Normandy to help him halt the Viking threat.

Æthelred was a widower of 35 and already the father of strapping sons when he married 15-year-old Emma. She was his second wife, sister of the powerful Duke of Normandy and a mere pawn in his plan to get the Normans on his side in a bid to foil Danish King Swein Forkbeard and his Viking raiders.

It was very much a man’s world in the 11th century and little of her extraordinary life was deemed worthy for official records but Bracewell has dug deep for her research, applied the magic of an inventive mind and come up with a story so well based on fact and so refreshingly plausible that it’s hard to believe this isn’t the real Emma.

It’s 1001 and England’s future hangs in the balance as Forkbeard and his men bring death, fear and mayhem to southern English towns and abbeys with their devastating sea raids, and King Æthelred is reeling from the recent death of his wife.

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Still haunted by the ghost of his brother King Edward who was murdered 23 years ago and under pressure to take a new wife, Æthelred must choose between two women. Elgiva of Northumberland, a beautiful, ambitious, voluptuous ‘witch of a girl’ would ensure him the support of the northern territories while Emma of Normandy, who has Danish blood in her veins, could be the key to barring the Viking raiders from the shelter of French ports.

At the ducal palace in Fécamp, Normandy, Emma, a vigorous, intelligent girl gifted in languages, has no choice but to do her brother’s bidding and, for a large sum, she is despatched to England to marry a man rumoured to be both a ‘kin slayer and a king slayer.’

And she will go not as a woman but as Æthelred’s queen in a marriage of convenience. ‘He will not be father to you, nor lover, nor even friend. Do not expect it,’ her brother warns. The only thing she must do is demand his respect and never do anything that might forfeit that respect.

Emma’s other important demand is that she be crowned queen, to wear the ‘circlet of gold’ that his first queen consort was never granted and which will ensure that any boys born to her will take precedence over Æthelred’s other sons in the line of succession.

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What she hadn’t reckoned on was the discovery that the king has taken a dislike to her and that the politics of marriage are every bit as complicated as the politics of kings, and when the scheming Elgiva becomes the king’s mistress, there is a battle royal for the king’s favours.

Meanwhile, Emma finally meets 16-year-old Athelstan, the king’s eldest son, and is disconcerted by his piercing blue eyes and the way the earth shifts beneath her feet when he looks at her…

But England’s dark skies speak of a royal death and ahead of all of those jostling for power is a journey fraught with danger and deception.

Bracewell gives us a beautifully embroidered tale of a volatile, troubled king and his young, inexperienced but resilient and resourceful bride who was thrust into a loveless marriage and the heart of a country which mistrusted her Norman and Danish heritage.

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Her writing is lively, the plot fast paced, tense, romantic and laced with intrigue, and with only the first three years of Emma’s eventful life covered, Shadow on the Crown is a rip roaring read with plenty of this amazing queen’s story left to tell in the next two books.

Top marks all round!

(HarperCollins, hardback, £14.99)

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