The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

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This is the second in Carol McGrath’s “She-Wolves” series, with the main character being Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I.  As in her previous book, we also see events through the eyes of another character, and this time that’s a herbalist, Olwen … who sounds as if she should be Welsh but is actually English.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had a negative opinion of Eleanor of Castile, probably because I’ve always found the story about her sucking poison out of Edward’s wound (yes, all right, I know that it probably isn’t true) very romantic, and I’ve always found the story of the Eleanor Crosses very romantic as well.  However, she’s seen by many as greedy/acquisitive and as a neglectful mother, and her reputation also seems to have suffered from the “Black Legend” view of Spain which developed 300 years after her time.

Carol McGrath’s tried very hard to present her positively and provide explanations for some of her less attractive traits, in what’s a very readable and enjoyable book.  She’s also shown worked in the late 13th century obsession with Arthurian legends, which is interesting (I visited Glastonbury Abbey last year, and heard all about Edward and Eleanor attending the reburial of Arthur and Guinevere’s supposed remains!).  And readers in North West England will be interested to “see” the construction of Vale Royal Abbey, which, had Edward not spent the money intended for it on invading Wales, might have been one of the biggest abbeys in the country.

The only problem is that the book’s too short to cover such an eventful life, and it does sometimes feel a bit superficial, as we skim over major events in a few pages and don’t really get into how the characters are feeling about them.  But there are far worse criticisms of a book than wishing it’d been twice the length.

This is Eleanor’s book, not Edward’s.  Having said which, we don’t see anything of Eleanor’s life before the Second Barons’ War, by which time she was in her 20s.  But the point is that we don’t see the war with William Wallace, the expulsion of the Jews, the calling of the Model Parliament or the proclaiming of the future Edward II as Prince of Wales, all of which happened after Eleanor’s death.  Nor do we get the story about the “prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English”, which (obviously) would have happened in Eleanor’s lifetime; but, OK, it probably never happened at all!

We start with the Second Barons’ War, and Carol McGrath’s suggestion is that Eleanor’s later concern for acquiring estates dates from her being imprisoned by Simon de Montfort’s forces and wanting to ensure that she never faced poverty as well … which makes it sound as if she was kneeling in the dirt at Twelve Oaks, crying “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”!  I’m not entirely convinced by that, but it’s a possibility.

Then on to the Ninth Crusade – where we get what’s probably the accurate version of the poison story, i.e. that it was a surgeon who saved Edward’s life and that Eleanor just stood around getting upset.  I like the poison-sucking version better, but never mind!

It’s certainly interesting to see Eleanor and Olwen’s time in the Middle East, and we also see them in Gascony.  And quite a lot of the book covers the wars in Wales.  We also get to see Eleanor and Edward’s close personal relationship, and court life.  And, of course, we see all the tragedies they suffered with their family.  Eleanor’s often criticised for leaving her children behind whilst she was travelling with Edward, and for leaving one of her daughters with her mother in Ponthieu, but Carol McGrath suggests that maybe she was frightened of becoming attached to her children because of all the losses she suffered.

Out of a probable sixteen pregnancies, only six children survived to adulthood.  The future Edward II was born when Eleanor, married at only 12, was 42.  They had a son called Alphonso who died when he was 10, and another son called Henry who died when he was 6, amid a tragically long list of stillbirths, miscarriages and early deaths.  Very sad.  Olwen, meanwhile, is unable to conceive at all with her first husband, but remarries, to an old sweetheart, after being widowed during the Welsh wars, and has a daughter with her second husband.

Damask roses don’t really feature, which is rather a shame because I love damask rose oil!  It smells so nice.  Oh well.

All in all, this is a very good and very well-researched book.  I just wish it’d been longer.

 

 

 

The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath

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 As a  reader of historical fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed this, the first of a series of three novels about unpopular medieval queens of England, the protagonist of this one being Eleanor/Ailenor of Provence, wife of Henry III.  It was entertaining, well-written, and as historically accurate as a book about the Middle Ages can be.  Both the real and historical characters came across very well, and there were some gorgeous descriptive passages.  It was also good to see a book about the reign of Henry III, which, despite being one of the longest in English history, tends to be overlooked, Henry being overshadowed by his baddie father John and his majestic son Edward I.

However, as a historian, I had a problem with the fact that the book stopped in 1253, missing arguably the three salient moments in Ailenor (the spelling used by Carol McGrath)’s time as queen – Simon de Montfort’s rebellion, her expulsion of Jews from her lands, and the attack on her barge, showing just how much she was disliked, by the people of London.  The author said that she stopped the book there because it was when Edward became engaged to Eleanor of Castile, who’s going to be the main character in the next book.  So, although she was clearly keen to try to rehabilitate Ailenor’s reputation, I don’t think she was deliberately avoiding those controversial moments.  But I would take issue with the positive view of Ailenor presented by this book, because of them.

However, that doesn’t alter the fact that it was a very, very good historical novel.

Ailenor’s poor reputation is based largely on the fact that so many of her Provencal/Savoyard relatives were given prominent positions in England, and also on the extravagance of the court in her time.  No-one’s denying that that’s true, but the book played up other aspects of her life and personality – her intelligence, interest in culture, happy marriage and devotion to her children, and also reminded the reader that she was only around 13 at the time of her marriage.  It did hint at the alleged rift between her and Henry at one time, and covered all the machinations at court and beyond it, and the wars in Gascony, very well, without going to deeply into politics or warfare to an extent that a reader of a novel might not be looking for.

A lot of this involved Simon de Montfort, and Simon’s wife, also Eleanor, Henry’s sister, was another major character in the book, told almost entirely from female viewpoints.  There was also a sub-plot involving a fictional character, Rosalind, an embroideress, and her romance with and eventual marriage to one of Simon de Montfort’s squires.  Embroidery featured a lot, which was very interesting.  I think we tend to associate embroidery with Flanders/Burgundy, and forget the importance of medieval English embroidery.

Rosalind was at one point suspected of being a Cathar, due to rumours started by a spurned ex-suitor.  The point of the plotline was that she spent some time in a nunnery, doing church embroidery, but it was interesting to see the Cathars mentioned, which is rare in a novel set in England.  It didn’t mention the horrific persecution of Cathars in Occitania by Simon de Montfort’s father (also Simon) – we’re talking burning people alive and gouging people’s eyes out –  nor did it mention the persecution of Jews by “the” Simon himself.  The de Montforts were not exactly a very pleasant family, even bearing in mind the attitudes of the time.  People have taken issue with the fact that so many institutions in Leicester bear Simon de Montfort’s name, whatever his role in the Provisions of Oxford and the Barons’ War.  I appreciate that this wasn’t a book about religious persecution, but I felt that a book about Eleanor of Provence might have made more mention of it.

However, as I’ve said, it was a very entertaining and interesting novel, and I did enjoy it, and shall be looking out for the one about Eleanor of Castile when it’s published.

 

 

 

 

 

The Woman in the Shadows by Carol McGrath

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With everything that’s going on, the publication of the third “Wolf Hall” novel’s rather gone under the radar.  I didn’t particularly enjoy the first two anyway; but I did enjoy this, about Elizabeth Cromwell, nee Wykes, the wife of Thomas Cromwell.  It’s got a few sub-plots which aren’t properly developed, and it jumps about in time, both of which are annoying, but it’s generally a very interesting read.  Books about the Tudor period usually revolve around the upper-classes and their servants, so it’s good to read something about “the middling sort”, Elizabeth being the daughter and widow of cloth merchants, and Thomas the son of a cloth merchant and blacksmith.  And, whilst a lot of it’s invented because the facts aren’t known, it doesn’t take any liberties with facts that are known, unlike certain other books about the Tudor period.

Not much is actually known about Elizabeth.  She was a young widow when she married Thomas.  They had three children, but, sadly, two of them died young of the sweating sickness, and Elizabeth herself died of the sweating sickness long before Cromwell became Henry VIII’s chief minister.  He never remarried.

The book suggests – and this is all fictional – that Elizabeth took over the running of her first husband’s cloth business after he died, and did a reasonably good job of running it until it was merged with Cromwell’s business after they married.  That certainly could have happened: it wasn’t unknown for widows to run businesses at the time.  It also shows the jealousy that the Cromwells encounter as they move up the social ladder, which seems very likely to have happened, and gives some fascinating detail about the running of a “middling rank” London household during the 1510s and 1520s.  There’s also quite a bit about Cromwell’s interest in humanism and religious reform, an important reminder that there was plenty of interest in “new ideas” in England before the break with Rome, and that it was not all about Henry VIII wanting to marry Anne Boleyn.

On the negative side, there are some rather strange storylines about plots and spies, none of which are really gone into properly.  For a start, Carol McGrath’s created a storyline in which Elizabeth’s first husband is gay, and some Italian monks find out about this, and Elizabeth’s cloth warehouse is burnt down because the monks are after a servant whom they thought had been his lover.  The monks, or whoever they are, vanish into the background for a while, but then they and the servant reappear later on, and it isn’t very clear what’s happened with any of them.  Then there’s a sub-plot involving an ex-suitor who claims that he and Elizabeth had been formally betrothed and demands her dowry, but he just seems to fade out of the picture as well.  It makes for plenty of drama, but the plots should really have been resolved properly.

However, generally, it’s really not bad.  There’s some interesting information about the sumptuary laws, and there are some lovely descriptions of gardens and houses, and indeed cloth, as well as the minutiae of daily life.  And, in the time it’s taken me to write this, my brain has headed back to the 16th century and temporarily escaped the coronavirus nightmare!  Books are very important at this time, and I hope everyone’s got plenty of them!