The Summer Queen is the first in a trilogy of novels telling the story of the medieval queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor (or Alienor as she is referred to throughout the book) is a thirteen-year-old girl when the novel begins in 1137. Following the death of her father, the Duke of Aquitaine, Alienor is married to King Louis VII of France. At first the marriage is a happier one than either Alienor or Louis had expected, but as the years go by Louis begins to change and their relationship disintegrates. During a crusade to Jerusalem, Alienor makes an important decision regarding her future and with the young Henry, Duke of Normandy – the future Henry II of England – waiting in the background, the scene is set for the next two books in the trilogy, The Winter Crown and The Autumn Throne.
I have read other novels in which Eleanor of Aquitaine has been a character, but in most books the focus is on her relationship with Henry II and their sons (who included two more future kings, Richard I and King John). This is the first time I’ve read about her early life in so much detail, so I found this book fascinating and informative as well as being an enjoyable read.
As usual, Chadwick’s characters feel like people who really could have lived and breathed during the 12th century, rather than modern day characters dropped into a medieval setting. Alienor herself is shown to be a strong and intelligent woman with ambitions of her own, who really cares about the future of her own lands of Aquitaine and the welfare of the people who live there. She is frustrated by her husband’s lack of leadership skills and reliance on his advisers, particularly when she believes they are advising him to make incorrect decisions.
Alienor (or Eleanor) is not always shown in such a positive light as she is in this book and I liked this version of her character. In her author’s note, Elizabeth Chadwick explains some of the choices she made in writing Alienor’s story, particularly how to tackle the questions of whether Alienor may have had an affair with her uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch, or with one of her own Aquitaine vassals, Geoffrey de Rancon (Chadwick’s answer is no to the first and yes to the second). She also tells us why she chose to use this particular spelling of Alienor’s name and how she decided what Alienor may have looked like.
I thought the breakdown of Alienor’s marriage to Louis was described in a way that felt realistic and believable. As a second son raised for a career in the church, only becoming heir to the throne after the death of his elder brother, Louis proves to be a weak leader and too easily influenced by the stronger personalities around him, particularly the Templar knight Thierry de Galeran. It was sad to see Alienor watch as the young, attractive husband she had once liked and cared for turned into a grim and humourless man, ready to blame his wife for all of his misfortunes (such as her failure to produce the male heir he so desperately wanted). However, Louis is never quite a villain and it’s possible to have some sympathy for the person he has become.
I also loved the portrayal of Henry, although he only really comes into the story towards the end. Being confident, self-assured and ambitious, he is the opposite of Louis in many ways and I was pleased to see Alienor find some happiness after so many wasted years, even though history tells us that this happiness isn’t going to last forever.
As well as being an entertaining story and providing a huge amount of information on Alienor’s early life, The Summer Queen is also a great introduction to the history and geography of medieval Europe and beyond. The route of Louis and Alienor’s crusade can be followed using a map at the front of the book and takes us through Hungary, Constantinople, Antioch and into Jerusalem encountering some of the most important historical figures of the period along the way.
I loved this book and am looking forward to seeing how Alienor’s story continues in The Winter Crown.