Book review: The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

Eight hundred years after her death, Eleanor of Aquitaine still exerts a magnetic fascination which has thrilled and inspired generations of biographers and novelists.

By Pam Norfolk
Friday, 12th July 2013, 10:00 am
The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick
The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

Born around 1124, she was queen consort of both France and England, mother of King Richard the Lionheart and King John, and one of the medieval period’s most powerful, wealthy and influential women.

The latest author to be seduced into recreating Eleanor is popular historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick, award-winning author of Lady of the English and To Defy a King, who admits she has long wanted to present her own version of one of the West’s most iconic queens.

To that end, the first book of what promises to be an enthralling and truly fact-based trilogy, introduces us not to Eleanor but Alienor, the name the grand queen and Duchess of Aquitaine would have recognised and the name which appears in her charters and Anglo-Norman texts.

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Chadwick, a dedicated, enterprising and sensitive researcher, always gives us history as it happened and she has left no stone unturned in her pursuit of an intrinsically real and credible Alienor who springs to glorious and vivid life in a novel packed full of all the passion, politics, scandal, triumph and tragedy that illuminated her story.

The Summer Queen, which covers Alienor’s extraordinary early years, takes us on a thrilling journey from the colourful and eclectic Palace of Poitiers in the independent Duchy of Aquitaine to the drama, intrigue and rule-bound French court in Paris where ambition is the driving force.

In the summer of 1137, golden-haired, blue-eyed Alienor has everything to look forward to as heiress to her father, the wealthy Duke William of Aquitaine, but when he dies, her childhood ends abruptly.

As Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers, the 13-year-old is now ‘a valuable prize’ and the most eligible bride in Europe.

In an alliance agreed before her father’s death, Alienor is married off to the teenage Prince Louis of France, leaving the confused girl feeling like she is being ‘forced into a box and the lid nailed down, shutting out light and life.’

Her new husband, a second son forced to abandon a career in the Church to become heir when his brother was killed, is devoutly religious and spends more time on his knees praying than attending to his wife but within a week of their wedding King Louis VI of France dies and the young couple are catapulted onto the throne.

Thrust into the notoriously complex and sophisticated French court, peopled with eccentric and self-seeking characters, Alienor must deal with great scandals, fraught relationships and forbidden love… but at last she glimpses what her future could hold if she could only seize the moment.

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life was remarkable by any standards but Chadwick has succeeded where many other novelists have failed by giving us not just the legend but the very human young woman – intelligent, determined, witty and sexy – who steered a dangerous course through a male-dominated world without losing her sense of pride and innate dignity.

Chadwick reveals that drawing Alienor out of the shadows and refuting the ‘lies and damned lies’ told about her down the centuries has been one of the most rewarding experiences of her writing career.

And with one book down, and two to go, this magnificent trilogy is set to be an equally rewarding experience for an expectant army of avid historical fiction fans.

(Sphere, hardback, £16.99)