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.

Lionheart by Martha Rofheart

Lionheart Martha Rofheart (1917-1990) was an American author of historical fiction who wrote several novels on subjects as diverse as Cleopatra (The Alexandrian), Henry V (Fortune Made His Sword) and the Greek poet, Sappho (Burning Sappho). Lionheart, her 1981 novel on England’s King Richard I, is the first of her books that I’ve read and although I had one or two problems with it, I did enjoy it and am looking forward to trying her others.

The story of Richard I, known as the Lionheart, is told from the perspectives of not only Richard himself, but five other people who each played a significant role in his life: his mistress, Blondelza; his mercenary captain, Mercadier; his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine; his wife, Berengaria of Navarre; and his foster-brother and scribe, Alexander. All of these people really existed, apart from Blondelza, who is fictitious, and each of them is given their own section of the book in which to relate their own version of events and to share with us their personal opinion of Richard as a man and as a king.

With six different characters each telling their side of the story, I would have liked their narrative voices to have sounded more distinctive, but they did all seem to blend together, the exceptions being Richard (a child during most of the first section of the novel), and his mother, Eleanor. I have read about Eleanor and Richard recently, in Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Winter Crown, and it was good to read another author’s interpretation of the same characters. The portrayal of Richard here is balanced and well-developed, with each narrator throwing more light on a different aspect of his personality. He is shown to be a complex man, capable of being selfish and inconsiderate, but also courageous, kind-hearted and down to earth.

I’m not sure how I feel about the character of Blondelza, Richard’s mistress. As most of the other characters are real historical figures and the plot of the novel closely follows historical fact, it doesn’t seem quite right for an entirely fictional character to be given such a prominent role in the story. On the other hand, Richard did have an illegitimate son (Philip of Cognac) by an unidentified woman, so there’s plenty of scope there for an author to fill in the gaps, which is just what Martha Rofheart has done. And Blondelza, being a glee-maiden (a female poet or minstrel), is an interesting character to read about, fictional or not!

All of the major events of Richard’s life and reign are covered in the novel, from his childhood and his rebellion (with his brothers) against his father, Henry II, to his meeting with and marriage to Berengaria and, of course, his time on crusade. Obviously the crusades were of huge importance to Richard and it’s understandable that Rofheart goes into a lot of detail in describing them, but I did find that this section of the book (narrated by the monk Alexander) really started to drag, and it didn’t help that it was twice the length of any of the other sections.

Still, this was an enjoyable novel overall and I feel that I learned a lot about not only the life of Richard the Lionheart, but also medieval life in general. I was particularly intrigued by the descriptions of the Courts of Love in Poitiers and the tasks which must be carried out by a knight who wished to prove his love for his lady. Now that I’ve had my first introduction to Martha Rofheart’s writing I’m definitely planning to read her other books, all of which sound interesting.

Thanks to Endeavour Press for providing a review copy via NetGalley.