British author Chadwick (Shadows and Strongholds,2005, etc.) begins a trilogy chronicling the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a queen equal to kings.
The tale opens with William, Duke of Aquitaine, mortally ill. To ensure Aquitaine’s future, he arranges the marriage of his daughter, 13-year-old Eleanor—Alienor, as written then—to Louis, the French crown prince. Europe in 1137 was a jumble of fiefdoms, every ruler seeking alliances of power, and so Alienor acquiesces to her fate. At first, Louis proves an acceptable husband, but as king, he stumbles from one disaster to another, quickly becoming "a querulous man, old before his time, full of righteous anger, his guilt and self-loathing twisting within." Daughters are born rather than a male heir, and the marriage collapses. Alienor demands annulment, granted only after politicized negotiations. Freedom brings peril: An "irresistible marriage prize to someone," Alienor risks being kidnapped and forced into marriage by any rogue coveting Aquitaine’s riches. Chadwick’s prodigious research sets the scene, whether in castles, trekking from one dukedom to another or on Louis’ Holy Crusade, all extraordinarily detailed, if occasionally too replete with duplicities, court manners and poisoned clerics with political agendas. Leaving court and bedroom lamentations behind, Chadwick shifts into high gear when Henry, Duke of Normandy and future ruler of England, seeks marriage. Only 18, nine years younger than Alienor, but her equal in intelligence and courage, Henry, "a force of nature carrying all before him," roars into the narrative with the sure-footed power of a king-to-be. Other characters abound, some sympathetic in love and loyalty, like Alienor’s vassal and first love, Geoffrey de Rancon, whom she cannot marry lest she fracture peace in Aquitaine. Chadwick layers on each page the great passions of medieval life, all murderous manipulations and aristocratic ambitions, leaving readers only to speculate how these teenagers stepped astride history to rule.
An immersion in the life of a queen who helped shape the Western world.