It is the year 1152 and a beautiful woman of thirty, attended only by a small armed escort is riding like the wind southwards through what is now France. She is leaving behind her crown, her two young daughters and a shattered marriage to Louis of France, who has been more like a monk than a king, and certainly not much of a lover. The woman is Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, and her sole purpose is to return to her vast duchy and marry the man she loves, Henry Plantagenet, and man destines for greatness as King of England. Theirs is a union founded on lust, which will create a great empire stretching from the wilds of Scotland to the Pyrenees. It will also create the devil’s brood of Plantagenets — including Richard Coeur de Lion and King John — and the most notoriously tempestuous marriage in history.
The Captive Queen is a novel on the grand scale, and epic subject for Alison Weir. It tells of the making of nations and of passionate conflicts: between Henry II and Thomas Becket, his closest friend who is murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on his orders; between Eleanor and Henry’s formidable mother Matilda; between father and sons, as Henry’s children take up arms against him; and finally between Henry and Eleanor herself.
Review: This took me way longer than usual to read because I was so ill last month and concentrating my eyes on a book was the last thing that I could handle most of the time but when I was feeling well again and got back to reading it I devoured the remaining chapters. In all honesty I’m probably a little biased towards loving this book because I think Alison Weir is a fantastic writer to begin with and I really love novels about monarchs, I’m just such a sucker for them and it’s pretty easy to suck me in because of that.
This novel is about Eleanor of Aquitaine whom I had never even heard of before I started reading this, I don’t know if that’s shameful or not considering we’re talking about the High Middle Ages in France here, but Weir ambitiously tackles Eleanor’s marriage to Henry II in this book, from start to finish. As she lays out in her author’s notes at the back of the book she didn’t want to write a novel about the whole of Eleanor’s life but if she went back and wrote about Eleanor’s first marriage (to King Louis VII of France) I would happily read it. Eleanor is a strong, feisty woman in a time when women were expected to be meek and submissive, she sees herself as a lioness and feels in her younger years that she can take on the world. For me the transition of her through middle age and into her twilight years is handled beautifully and delicately and I’m not too proud to say that I cried at the end of the book, I couldn’t help myself. Weir has a way of constructing these really concise but poignant sentences.
In the end it’s the way that she rounds out her characters that makes me enjoy her novels so much and this is no exception; Eleanor and Henry in particular are both characters that go through massive changes over the thirty-seven years the novel covers and no matter how frustrating they can be they really are just human in the end, it’s the humanity in this novel that made me enjoy it so much. I would recommend it to anyone.