Cruel as the Grave by Sharon Penman

This is the second book in Sharon Penman’s Justin de Quincy mystery series set in medieval England. I liked but didn’t love the first one, The Queen’s Man, which is why it has taken me a while to get round to continuing, but I’m pleased to report that I found Cruel as the Grave a stronger and more enjoyable book. You could start with this one if you wanted to – there are some recurring characters but it works perfectly well as a standalone mystery.

In this book, set in 1193, Justin de Quincy, illegitimate son of the Bishop of Chester, is investigating the murder of Melangell, a young Welsh girl found dead in a London churchyard. The main suspects are the two sons of a wealthy merchant – the handsome, favoured eldest son, Geoffrey Aston, and his bitter, envious, younger brother Daniel. The Aston family are expecting Justin to clear the boys’ names, but as he delves deeper into the circumstances surrounding Melangell’s death, he is not sure he will be able to do that. The more he learns about the girl, a poor pedlar’s daughter, the more he begins to feel an affinity with her and he becomes determined to bring her killer to justice no matter what.

Meanwhile, two other brothers are also causing problems for Justin. The King of England, Richard I – the Lionheart – has been captured by the Duke of Austria and handed over as a prisoner to the Holy Roman Emperor. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is looking for a way to free him from captivity. In Richard’s absence, his younger brother John is plotting to take the crown for himself and has seized control of Windsor Castle. As Justin has assisted Eleanor in the past, she turns to him again for help.

Justin’s two missions are quite separate – one having implications for the whole country and the other much more intimate, affecting only a small number of people – but there are some parallels, such as the relationship between Geoffrey and Daniel resembling the one between Richard and John. The two storylines alternate throughout the book, but plenty of time is devoted to each one and I found them both interesting. As a murder mystery it is more tightly plotted than the first book in the series and although the culprit turned out to be the person I had suspected almost from the beginning, I still enjoyed watching the truth unfold.

Penman is better known for her long, sweeping historical novels such as Here Be Dragons and The Sunne in Splendour. Her mystery novels are much shorter, quicker reads but they still immerse the reader in the medieval period, giving us enough information to set the story in its historical context without going into a huge amount of detail. Justin himself, although perfectly likeable, continues to be slightly bland and forgettable, but the characters around him are strong and vibrant; his relationship with the queen’s lady, Claudine, is particularly intriguing and develops further in this book. I also loved Penman’s portrayal of the future King John – charismatic, complex and unpredictable:

Unlike Durand, John was not hostile. He seemed curious, almost friendly, as if welcoming a distraction midst the monotony of the siege. The Prince of Darkness. Justin wondered suddenly if John knew about Claudine’s private jest. He suspected that John would have been flattered, not offended. He must not let down his guard with this man. John could as easily doom him with a smile as with a curse.

I’ll think about reading the other two books in the series next time I’m in the mood for a medieval murder mystery, but first I really need to read The Reckoning, the final book in her Welsh Princes Trilogy, which I’ve had on my shelf since finishing the previous one, Falls the Shadow!

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: mystery).

The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick

This is the third part of Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy telling the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine in fictional form. I love Chadwick’s portrayal of Eleanor (or Alienor, as her name is spelled throughout the trilogy) and having enjoyed both The Summer Queen and The Winter Crown, I was hoping that The Autumn Throne would be just as good. As the title suggests, she is entering the ‘autumn’ of her life in this final novel but remains close to the throne in one way or another.

As well as being Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, Alienor was also Queen of France through her first marriage to Louis VII and then Queen of England as the wife of Henry II. Following Henry’s death, she would also be mother to two more kings of England: Richard I (the Lionheart) and John. The Autumn Throne, though, begins while Henry is still very much alive and has had Alienor imprisoned at Sarum in Wiltshire as punishment for supporting their sons in a rebellion against him. It’s 1176 and Alienor will remain in captivity for another thirteen years.

I was surprised to find that during the long years of her imprisonment, Alienor actually spends quite a lot of time visiting various castles and palaces, being brought out of confinement whenever it suits Henry to have her present at court celebrations and rituals. She also manages to have some contact with her sons and daughters and with her good friend, Isabel de Warenne, who is married to Henry’s half-brother Hamelin. This means that Alienor is not as cut off from the world as you might imagine and that, as the years go by, she (and through her, the reader) is kept informed of her children’s marriages, Henry’s plans for his kingdom, and important events taking place in Europe and beyond.

Alienor’s feelings towards Henry are portrayed in a way that feels plausible and realistic. There are times when she hates him for what he has done to her and the way he is treating their sons, but also times when she feels sorrow for the husband she once loved and regret that things have turned out this way. Still, it’s hard not to be relieved for Alienor’s sake when Henry finally dies and she is set free at last. After this, Alienor’s relationships with her two surviving sons, Richard and John, come to the forefront of the novel. I have to say, as far as kings of England go, Richard I has never been one of my favourites, partly due to the fact that he spent very little time actually in England. Alienor, though, makes no secret of the fact that he is the son she loves most. She is shown here to have at least some influence over his decision-making and to be trusted with playing a role in the running of the country while Richard is away taking part in the Third Crusade.

The most interesting character in the novel, apart from Alienor herself, is probably John. I have read several fictional portrayals of John, some which cast him as a villain and others which give a more balanced view – this one falls into the second category. He begins the book as an ambitious, calculating boy who does as he pleases without thinking of the consequences; he is much the same as he grows into a man, but his relationships with Alienor and his illegitimate son Richard show he is more complex than that and has enough good qualities to make people care about him.

I have had a lot of sympathy for Alienor throughout this series, but more than ever in this final book as she suffers the loss of one adult son or daughter after another. Of the eight children Alienor has with Henry, only two are still alive by the time of her death. Alienor herself lives into her eighties and it’s sad that she doesn’t have much time to relax in her old age. She is in her seventies when John sends her on the long journey to Castile to select one of his nieces as a bride for the King of France’s heir – and just two or three years before her death, she is being besieged in her castle of Mirebeau by one of her own grandsons!

With this novel covering the last thirty years of Alienor’s life, ending with her death at Fontevraud in April 1204, it does feel very long and drawn out at times. I kept wondering whether there were things that could have been left out to make it a bit shorter, though it’s hard to say which scenes could be omitted without disturbing the course of Alienor’s story. I did enjoy this book just as much as the first two in the trilogy, but I’m glad it’s been a while since I read the last one – I think if I’d read the three books one after the other it would have been too much for me!

In Elizabeth Chadwick’s next book, Templar Silks, she is returning to the story of William Marshal, hero of The Greatest Knight. William made a few appearances in The Autumn Throne where his story overlapped with Alienor’s and I’m looking forward to meeting him again. Templar Silks will be published in 2018, but I also have some of Chadwick’s earlier novels still unread on my TBR.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Winter Crown This will be my last post this week, so I’m going to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back before New Year to tell you about a Christmas-themed read and to share my list of favourite books of 2015, but first here are my thoughts on another recent read – no connection with Christmas, but at least it does have ‘winter’ in the title.

The Winter Crown is the second of Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy of novels following the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Chadwick uses the alternate spelling Alienor, as she says this is how the name would have been spelled at the time, so I have done the same throughout the rest of this post. The first book in the trilogy, The Summer Queen, covered Alienor’s early years and her marriage to King Louis VII of France. Now, in The Winter Crown, we move on to the next stage in Alienor’s life.

The novel opens in December 1154 when, having had her first marriage annulled, Alienor is crowned Queen of England alongside her second husband, Henry II. As Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, Alienor has brought Henry wealth, lands and influence – but he has made it clear that he has no plans to allow her to govern her own lands. What Henry wants is a wife who will concentrate on providing and raising children, who will turn a blind eye to his many mistresses and who will keep her opinions to herself. Alienor, though, has other ideas and a marriage that began with so much promise and a certain amount of chemistry, if not love, descends into a series of disappointments and disagreements.

The deterioration of Alienor’s relationship with the king forms a large part of the novel, but so do her relationships with her sons – Henry the ‘Young King’, Geoffrey, Duke of Britanny, and John, the youngest – and her daughters, Matilda, Alie (Alienor) and Joanna. The other son who I haven’t mentioned, of course, is Richard (the future Richard the Lionheart). Alienor makes no secret of the fact that Richard, the heir to her own lands of Aquitaine, is her favourite child, and he is the one whose character is developed most fully in this novel.

For the first half of the novel, Alienor seems to be involved in a constant cycle of pregnancies and births, but that doesn’t mean the story was boring at all. As well as the tensions that are building in Alienor and Henry’s marriage (which get worse when she learns of his new mistress, Rosamund de Clifford), a lot of time is also devoted to Henry’s feud with his chancellor, Thomas Becket. When Henry – against Alienor’s advice – makes Becket Archbishop of Canterbury, he finds that Becket now possesses power which could be used against him instead of for him. The second half of the novel is equally full of conflict, as Henry discovers that his sons are prepared to rise against him in rebellion – and Alienor is forced to take sides.

I have read a few different fictional portrayals of Alienor/Eleanor and I really like the way Elizabeth Chadwick has chosen to portray the character. The Alienor of The Winter Crown is a strong, intelligent woman, keen to play a role in the governance of Aquitaine and England, but restricted due to her gender and the reluctance of her husband to involve her in his decision-making. I was interested to read Chadwick’s author’s note at the end in which she explains why she disagrees with the popular description of Alienor as a powerful medieval woman.

There are plenty of other characters worth mentioning too. Chadwick’s novels often feature a strong female friendship and in this book we meet Isabel de Warenne, wife of William of Blois (son of the late King Stephen of England), who becomes a trusted friend of Alienor’s after being taken into her household. Isabel, and Henry II’s half-brother Hamelin, were two of my favourite characters in the novel: two people who are close to the King and Queen but who don’t always agree with their actions. And readers of Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight will be pleased to know that William Marshal also appears in this novel, as a young man who is brought into Alienor’s service to train her sons in fighting and swordplay. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of William in the next book.

I am thoroughly enjoying this trilogy so far and am looking forward to reading the final Alienor novel, The Autumn Throne, which should be available next year.

Thanks to Sourcebooks for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor

She-Wolves As the title suggests, this is a book about four medieval women who ruled – or attempted to rule – England in the centuries before Elizabeth I.

* Matilda, daughter and heir of King Henry I, was known as ‘Lady of the English’. She was never actually crowned Queen of England but fought her cousin, Stephen of Blois, for the throne in a period of civil war described as The Anarchy.

* Eleanor of Aquitaine was married to two kings – first Louis VII of France and then Matilda’s son, Henry II of England. Two of her sons – Richard I (the Lionheart) and John – also became King, and Eleanor effectively ruled England as regent while Richard was away fighting in the crusades.

* Isabella, the daughter of King Philip IV of France, came to England as Edward II’s young queen but found that her husband was so obsessed with his favourites (Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser) that he was prepared to put them before not only his wife but also his kingdom. Isabella eventually staged a rebellion with her lover Roger Mortimer and deposed Edward in order to put her young son, the future Edward III, on the throne.

* Margaret of Anjou was Henry VI’s queen consort and played a major part in the Wars of the Roses. With Henry unable to provide the strong leadership the country needed and possibly suffering from an unspecified mental illness, it fell to Margaret to rule in his place and to lead the Lancastrian faction against their Yorkist rivals.

In She-Wolves (the title refers to a term which has been used to describe both Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou) Helen Castor looks at the lives of each of these queens in turn, before examining their role in history and how they possibly opened the way for Mary I and Elizabeth I to reign in their own right. Unlike Mary and Elizabeth, the four women covered in this book never ruled as sole monarchs but found themselves in a position of power as the daughters, wives or mothers of kings who, for one reason or another, were unable to rule themselves. Henry I died without a male heir and his nephew Stephen was never fully accepted by the English nobility; Richard I spent much of his reign abroad; Edward II lost the support of his barons due to his choice of favourites; and Henry VI was simply incapable of being an effective ruler. In each case, a woman stepped in to fill the gap.

She-Wolves takes us on a fascinating journey through medieval history, but I have to confess that I didn’t read this book in the way it was intended to be read. As I had just finished reading Isabella by Colin Falconer, the queen I was most interested in was Isabella of France, so I read her section of the book first before turning back to the beginning to read the rest. This wasn’t a problem for me as I’m familiar with all four periods of history, but I would still recommend reading the book in order (unless you’re desperate to read about one particular woman, as I was). The final section of the book, which describes the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth, ties everything together and looks at how times had changed enough by the Tudor period for a woman to finally rule alone.

I thought She-Wolves was slightly dry in places but I did find the book well written, interesting and easy to read. Each section starts with a map showing the relevant areas of Britain and Europe and a family tree to help clarify the complex relationships between characters. As this is a work of non-fiction, however, I was surprised by the lack of notes and references – although there is a list of suggestions for further reading at the back of the book and some sources are named directly in the text. These sources include anonymous chronicles such as Vita Edwardi Secundi (Life of Edward II) and the Gesta Stephani (Deeds of King Stephen) and as Helen Castor points out, medieval chroniclers struggled with the idea of women wielding power and tended to focus on the men, which is why we have so little information on the women’s own experiences and actions.

Approaching the end of the book, I was ready to praise Helen Castor for avoiding bias and speculation…until I came across the statement that the Princes in the Tower were ‘murdered by Edward’s youngest brother and most trusted lieutenant, Richard of Gloucester’, stated as fact. It could be true, of course, but I would have preferred an acknowledgment that it might not be and this made me wonder whether the earlier sections of the book had been as unbiased as I’d thought or whether I just didn’t notice as I have less knowledge of those other periods of history.

I don’t think I’m ever going to decide that I prefer non-fiction to fiction, but I did enjoy reading this book and have learned a lot about Matilda, Eleanor, Isabella and Margaret. Can anyone recommend any other good biographies of any or all of these women?

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Summer Queen 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.