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.