The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

This is the second book in Carol McGrath’s She-Wolves trilogy, telling the story of three medieval queens of England who have all been given the label ‘she-wolf’ at various times. I enjoyed the first novel, The Silken Rose, about Henry III’s wife, Eleanor of Provence, so I was looking forward to this one, which moves on to Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I.

I’ve read other books set during Edward I’s reign, so presumably I’ve come across Eleanor of Castile before, but I mustn’t have been paying attention as I couldn’t have told you much about her before reading The Damask Rose (except that she was commemorated by the Eleanor Crosses which were erected in several English towns in her memory). It’s always good when you can learn something new from historical fiction and in this case, almost the entire story was new to me.

The novel begins in 1264 when Henry III is still alive and on the throne of England, but only just – he and his son, Prince Edward, have been captured by the forces of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Lewes. Edward’s wife, Lady Eleanor, is at Windsor Castle awaiting news of her husband when Gilbert de Clare, one of de Montfort’s supporters, arrives and forces her to relinquish the castle. This traumatic incident instils in Eleanor a lifelong hatred of de Clare as well as a determination that she will never put herself in such a vulnerable position again. Once the threat of Simon de Montfort has been removed at the Battle of Evesham, Edward and Eleanor travel to the Holy Land on crusade. It is during this journey that they learn of the death of Henry III and return to England to take their place as king and queen.

I enjoyed learning more about Eleanor, but although I don’t think she deserved to be described as a ‘she-wolf’ (the term seems to have mainly referred to her unpopular methods of acquiring land and properties, which were seen as greedy and ruthless), she’s not a character I liked or managed to warm to either. It seems that the real Eleanor was also accused of being ‘unmaternal’, which McGrath suggests could be due to the fact that she lost so many children she was afraid to get too close to the ones who survived, but it still irritated me that Eleanor complained constantly about her children’s relationships with other adults while at the same time saying she was far too busy to spend time with them herself.

Part of the novel is written from the perspective of Olwen, a herbalist whom Eleanor introduces into the royal household to provide advice on plants and healing. Olwen is a fictional character but her story complements Eleanor’s very well; in fact, I think I preferred her sections of the book as I found her much easier to like and I enjoyed the different point of view she brings to the novel. I cared about Olwen and wanted her to be happy, whereas I felt that some parts of Eleanor’s story, particularly towards the end, became too factual, too concerned with just describing things that had happened rather than providing any real emotional depth.

The third book in the series is going to be about Isabella of France; I am much more familiar with Isabella than with the previous two queens and I think she will be a fascinating subject to bring the trilogy to an end!

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

Book 18/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.