The Summer Queen

The Summer Queen, by Elizabeth Chadwick

Elizabeth Chadwick has finally written the book that we Eleanor of Aquitaine-enthusiasts have been waiting for! The Summer Queen is the first in an anticipated trilogy that will follow Eleanor through the span of her long and tumultuous life. In this opening book, we meet the young Eleanor as she marries and eventually divorces Louis VII of France, and as she grows into confident and fascinating maturity.

Eleanor’s story is all too easy to sensationalize and over-romanticize. An arranged marriage – what modern woman would accept the prospect? Horrors! Was this, however, Eleanor’s viewpoint? Probably not.

Eleanor was the daughter and heiress of a powerful duke. While she undoubtedly had her own hopes and dreams, perhaps even unrealistic ones, she was raised with a strong sense of duty to the Duchy of Aquitaine and with a strong sense of pride in her own birthright. This is the Eleanor that Chadwick presents – an intelligent, politically astute young woman of the 12th century, who accepts customs and manners entirely foreign to us.

Chadwick’s style shows, as always, a welcome restraint. Her characters are, nevertheless, deeply moving (and with welcome flashes of wit and humor). The “supporting players” are vividly drawn and, in addition to creating a fully-rounded world for Eleanor to inhabit, they help to illuminate her as a fully-imagined individual.

Eleanor’s focus and discipline are thrown into sharp relief by her younger sister, Petronella, a creature of emotion and intensity. Eleanor’s innocently sensuous enjoyment of good food and luxurious clothing is highlighted by her mother-in-law’s severe disapproval. Through these interactions, Eleanor becomes approachable, understandable and sympathetic.

At the heart of The Summer Queen is Eleanor’s relationship with her husband, Louis VII of France. Poor Louis! An unloved boy, whose only emotional support came from an ascetic and unforgiving church, we see and feel him grow into a rigid, overly-pious and angry man. Any hope for respect, trust and companionship between Louis and Eleanor is gradually shredded as Louis allows his spiritual advisers to isolate him and sabotage his feeble attempts at independence.

Not even a Crusade can unshackle Louis from his self-imposed fetters. Eleanor, in contrast, embraces the crusade’s wider horizons. Her time in Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem strengthen her spirit and resolve, while quickening her intelligence and subtle discernment. At the same time, we feel – with Eleanor – a sense of growing claustrophobia as Louis narrows her options and, bit by bit, erodes her authority and undermines her independence.

Eleanor does not surrender easily. She plans, as she and Louis return from crusade via Rome, to ask the Pope for an annulment. (In a wonderful scene, Queen Melisande of Jerusalem advises Eleanor to instead “bear a son and become a widow”). The reader shares in Eleanor’s stunned shock, leading to her resigned acceptance, when the Pope, instead, attempts to revive her marriage. The resulting birth of a daughter (to Louis’s deep disapproval), however, brings Eleanor her freedom.

It is only now, having seen Eleanor grow in dignity, strength and responsibility through her disastrous marriage of fifteen years, that Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy (generally seen as the “main chapter” in Eleanor’s life), finally enters our story. Although a wonderful “young lion” of a man, Henry’s appeal for Eleanor lies even more in his power to protect her person and her duchy. And while we rejoice that her chosen husband has an excellent understanding and appreciation of the “value” she brings with her, we also sense with trepidation the seeds of that marriage’s eventual downfall in Henry’s careless dishonesty.

As this book closes, Eleanor and Henry’s first son has been born, the English throne has been won, and a new chapter in Eleanor’s life is about to begin. The next volume in Chadwick’s trilogy can’t come too soon!