Book review: The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick

It's the autumn of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine's life but, still in the iron grip of her ruthless husband King Henry II of England, she has spent years under virtual house arrest.
The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth ChadwickThe Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick
The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick

But Henry is ailing, and waiting in the wings are his warring and ambitious sons, all eager to seize the power and influence they have long been denied.

It will fall to Eleanor as Dowager Queen to stop the English throne being rent asunder by her scheming family… and to try to keep the peace during one of the country’s most turbulent periods.

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Elizabeth Chadwick, author of the much-loved William Marshal novels, brings her stunning Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy to a memorable conclusion as we travel back in time to the perilous royal politics of 12th century England.

Throughout this outstanding series, which began with The Summer Queen and The Winter Crown, Chadwick has given fresh life and vigour to this most remarkable and powerful of medieval queens, endowing Eleanor with not just the name she would have recognised – Alienor – but going far beyond the dry bones of history text books to bring us the nearest thing to the real flesh and blood woman.

In 1176, Alienor, now aged 53, has been imprisoned by Henry for two years for helping to foment rebellion among their sons but she refuses to let her husband bully her into submission, even as he forces her away from her children and her royal birthright.

To outsiders her life away from court would seem to be calm and smooth but there are dangerous currents all around her and she knows she could be pulled under at any time.

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Kept away from the ‘warp and weft’ of family life, Alienor is finally freed when Henry dies in 1189 and she becomes dowager Queen of England to her favourite son, King Richard the Lionheart of England and Duke of Aquitaine.

But the competition for land and power that Henry stirred up among his sons has intensified to a dangerous rivalry, with her youngest son John more than willing to seize the throne by fair means or foul.

Richard, who sees fighting for God in the Holy Land as an extension of his kingship, leaves his capable mother with the reins of government as he sets out on a two-year Crusade… and John straining at the leash for his share of the power.

Alienor will need every ounce of courage and fortitude as she crosses the Alps in winter to fetch Richard’s bride Berenguela, daughter of the King of Navarre, and travels across medieval Europe to ransom Richard when he is kidnapped.

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But even her indomitable spirit will be tested to its limits as she attempts to keep the peace between her sparring sons, and to find a place for her daughters among the European courts…

Chadwick, a consummate historical novelist who revels in factual accuracy as much as in the sheer joy of getting to the heart and soul of her leading characters, rounds off this magnificent series with a poignant flourish as we journey with Alienor through the tempestuous final decades of her life.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a queen with extraordinary power and influence for her times and Chadwick gives her the perfect fictional stage to become not just the legendary monarch but a fallible, credible and very human woman who was also a wife, mother and grandmother.

Using her trademark style and immaculate research, Chadwick also fleshes out the other leading players in this exciting endgame of Eleanor’s remarkable life… her loyal and charismatic ally William Marshal, England’s famous warrior king Richard the Lionheart and his sly, manipulative brother John.

Brimming with real events, the most intimate and fascinating period detail, high emotion and thrilling drama, this is historical fiction at its best and most enthralling.

(Sphere, paperback, £8.99)