The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath

The Silken Rose is the first in a new trilogy of novels telling the stories of three medieval queens who have been referred to at one time or another as ‘she-wolves’ because of their unpopularity or because they managed to wield power or influence in a period dominated by men. The second and third books in the series are going to focus on Eleanor of Castile and Isabella of France, but this first novel is about Eleanor of Provence. Carol McGrath uses the alternative spelling of Ailenor, so I will do the same throughout the rest of this post.

Ailenor of Provence is not a queen I’ve ever read much about; I think it’s safe to say that she and her husband, King Henry III of England, are not the most popular subjects for historical fiction! They appear in Sharon Penman’s Falls the Shadow, but otherwise I’m struggling to think of other books I’ve read about them and that’s a good thing because it means that the story which unfolds in The Silken Rose feels fresh and different. It begins in 1236 with Ailenor, at the age of only thirteen, arriving in England from France for her wedding to Henry, a man more than twice her age. Although her new husband treats her with kindness and their marriage is not an unhappy one, Ailenor finds it difficult adjusting to life in a strange country and values the friendships she forms with two very different women.

One of these women is Henry’s sister, Eleanor, known as Nell, who has taken a vow of chastity after being widowed. Ailenor quickly discovers that Nell is in love with Simon de Montfort, one of the most powerful noblemen at Henry’s court, and she decides to help her sister-in-law break free from her oath and marry Simon. However, this marriage will eventually have serious repercussions for Henry and for England. The other friend Ailenor makes is Rosalind, a talented embroideress who is brought to court to teach Ailenor and her ladies to embroider intricate new patterns. Unlike most of the other characters in the novel, Rosalind is a fictional character, but she plays an important part in the story, providing a link between the nobility and the merchant classes.

Although Ailenor is the main focus of the novel, there are some sections written from Rosalind’s perspective (and occasionally from Nell’s), which helps to build up a full picture of the events that take place during this period, rather than only being limited to things that Ailenor experiences herself. The story Carol McGrath builds around Rosalind feels believable and fits seamlessly into Ailenor’s story – but despite this, I didn’t find her as interesting or engaging to read about as Ailenor and although I did understand the reasons for her inclusion in the book, I would have preferred it if the novel had stuck solely to the real historical characters. Apart from that, I really enjoyed The Silken Rose; there’s not a huge amount of drama, but I was never bored.

You may be wondering why Ailenor has been described as a ‘she-wolf’; well, it seems that this was partly due to the fact that she brought a large number of her relatives to England with her, where they were given positions of power and were able to influence the king. These included several of her uncles (the ‘Savoyards’), one of whom was made Archbishop of Canterbury, and her sister, Sanchia, who married the king’s younger brother. This and some of the other reasons for Ailenor’s unpopularity are explored in the novel, yet she remains a sympathetic character and one I very much enjoyed getting to know. I am looking forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy.

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

This is book 3/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.