The Summer Queen is the first instalment of a trilogy centring on the life of one of medieval Europe’s most influential queens, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of two kings and the mother of three.
A dying William of Aquitaine realises his death will have major repercussions on the duchy since his only heir is his thirteen year old daughter, Alienor, who is as yet unmarried. Weighing his options, William decides to appoint Louis VI of France as his daughter’s guardian who promptly arranges a marriage between Alienor and his heir, Louis. Alienor is unhappy about the prospect of marrying a boy she has never met but she realises she must do it for the sake of Aquitaine. The newlyweds barely have time to get to know each other before word comes from Paris that Louis VI has died and the young couple are thrust into the political spotlight.
For Louis, a second son who was never meant to be king, his new role is a daunting one but he is enchanted by his beautiful wife and determined to make the most of his reign. The contrast between the couple is evident from the outset as Louis is a pious young man who was given to the church from a young age, however the unexpected death of his older brother, Philip, forced Louis out of the monastery and back into the French court. As a daughter of Aquitaine, Alienor is used to a far more colourful lifestyle than can be found in the austere French court and her changes meet with disapproval. Initially, Louis’s relationship with Alienor is harmonious but her repeated failure to provide him with an heir eventually drives a wedge between them.
Trapped in a loveless marriage with only the birth of a daughter to show for it, Alienor decides she’s had enough of Louis and appeals to the pope for an annulment. She travels with Louis to Antioch to gain her uncle’s help with the dissolution of her marriage and to aid his cause against the Turks but Louis’s ineffectual actions cause more harm than good. On their way home to France, Alienor and Louis seek an audience with the pope who persuades them to resolve their differences, promising God will give them a son. The couple return to France but the promised child turns out to be another girl and a disappointed Louis gives in to Alienor’s renewed request for an annulment.
Before the ink on the annulment is even dry, Alienor realises she is in an extremely vulnerable position as she has become the target for those who wish to trap her into marriage. However, Alienor has already received a proposal from Henry, Duke of Normandy, a young man nine years her junior who has a claim on the throne of England. Once more, Alienor must put Aquitaine first to forge an alliance with a powerful ally with whom she will found a dynasty.
The Summer Queen is the first Elizabeth Chadwick novel I’ve read and I was impressed enough to want to read her other works. I haven’t read any other fictional accounts of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life so was in the fortunate position of not having to compare other books to Chadwick’s version of events. Chadwick does a great job of bringing her characters to life and I liked how she portrays them with honesty, making them sympathetic even when they are at their worst. It would’ve been easy to make Louis a villain but he is portrayed as a man torn between his duty as a king and his duty to his God. Louis is a weak and ineffectual king who relies too much on the poor advice of others and it is rather unfortunate he did not listen more to his wife.
One thing did bother me though, Louis is portrayed as having a very close relationship with the Templar knight, Pierre de la Chatre, who seemed to have undue influence over the king. On more than one occasion, Chadwick states Pierre is sharing a bed with Louis on their journey to the Holy Land however I was never certain whether she was inferring there was something sexual in the nature of their relationship. If so, wouldn’t that be as abhorrent to the pious Louis as sleeping with his wife?
Alienor is also portrayed convincingly as a beautiful and confident young woman often caught up in circumstances beyond her control. During her marriage to Louis, she has initial hopes of being treated as his equal but it soon becomes clear Louis is unable to make a decision without the input of his closest advisors who resent Alienor’s meddling. Alienor’s primary duty as queen of France is to produce heirs and her repeated failure to do so diminishes her status at court. Much of the first section of the novel is preoccupied by Alienor’s efforts to entice her reluctant husband into her bed so she can conceive but it starts to become tedious after awhile. Alienor has little control over her destiny at this point and there is little sign of the influential woman she is supposed to become, however she is still very young.
After a slow start, the book finally started to come alive for me when Louis and Alienor set off on their crusade to the Holy Land with Alienor beginning to show a feistier side of her nature. Tired of Louis’s mistreatment of her, Alienor requests an annulment from the pope on the grounds of consanguinity, a popular excuse for dissolving an unwanted marriage in those days, but fate conspires against her and it takes another three years before it is granted. Although Alienor is a far more confident woman towards the end of this novel, she is still essentially trapped by her gender and must make another powerful marriage if she is to secure her future. Determined not to make the same mistakes as before, Alienor insists she be treated as Henry’s equal but it is obvious that young Henry is adept at telling people want they want to hear and not necessarily carrying it out.
The politics of the time are not explored in any real depth but this is not necessarily a bad thing as the issues are brought to light when necessary and then allowed to fall into the background again. The narrative is mainly told from Alienor’s point of view and since she is more often than not left at home, we are not privy to many of the great battles of the time and other events such as her trip to Antioch are over within a short space of time. There is a lot of history to be explored and the first book spans the space of nearly twenty years so it would be impossible to include it all.
The biggest problem I had with the narration though was how Chadwick stuck with Alienor’s point of view for the majority of the time but then would suddenly change it to another character out of the blue. An example of this is with Alienor’s sister, Petranella, who is largely ignored until she begins a scandalous affair with Raoul de Vermandois, and her thoughts suddenly become prominent. Presumably Chadwick chose to do so because Alienor is oblivious to the affair at this stage and couldn’t possibly account for it until the facts came to light but I found it particularly intrusive. To make matters worse, when Petranella and Raoul are finally married, their relationship becomes superfluous to the plot and the characters are allowed to fade away once more. There are other examples of this throughout the book which only serve to make the narrative uneven.
Regardless, the book is an easy read, mainly because Chadwick keeps the political elements light, and the characters are genuinely interesting. Henry, Duke of Normandy, doesn’t appear until very near the end but his presence provides a much needed injection of energy as Louis’s influence begins to wane. The virile young man is instantly likeable but he is his own man and it will be interesting to see how his relationship with Alienor develops in The Winter Crown.