The damask rose by Carol McGrath

Eleanor of Castile is under house arrest together with her father-in-law king Henry III during the Baron’s War. She’s forced to live in poverty and her young daughter Katherine dies of a serious cold. She blames ‘Red’ Gilbert De Clare who switched sides and took her into his custody. Her husband prince Edward is locked up somewhere else but manages to escape. At the battle of Evesham, Simon The Monfort is killed and Gilbert once again declares his loyalties to Henry III. After the war, Eleanor decides to never be dependent on others again and starts to earn lands in her own name. She goes on a crusade to Acre as a princess, but she will return as queen of England.

The damask rose is the second part in McGrath’s she wolves trilogy about three medieval queens of England who weren’t popular with the people and the nobles. I did enjoy ‘The silken rose‘ about Alienor of Provence, so I couldn’t wait to learn more about the next queen called Eleanor. She was the wife and queen of Edward I. It was a love match but with a Baron’s War, a crusade and a lot of their children dying young, the couple did endure much together.

Eleanor wasn’t the loving mother, which makes her a bit of a cold character sometimes, but I could understand why she was afraid to get too close to her children. She lost so many of them and just wasn’t the maternal type. However, I did like Eleanor’s character in this book. She was an engaged queen and trusted her guts to like or dislike the people around her. She starts building up an inheritance of lands, which might have made her unpopular. But I don’t think we can really call her a she-wolf.

The novel isn’t only told from Eleanor’s perspective. We also meet Olwen, a lady herbalist who treats the royal family. She travels with them to Acre to discover new plants and herbals and when she returns she starts to plant new herbal gardens at every royal domain. It was fascinating to read about Eleanor’s intentions to improve the royal residences and their gardens.

Olwen is a fictitious character but I liked her. She offers another insight into the royal court and the politics of the time. Her relationship with both Guillaume and Eugene felt real. Also, Alienor of Provence is still present in this novel. I liked to see how the relationship between the two Eleanor’s progressed. I also got to see another side of Edward I who is often depicted as a ruthless king. McGrath succeeds in building a believable and engaging historical story.

Now I’m definitely looking forward to the third book about Isabella of France, a queen I know much more about than the two Eleanors.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything about Eleanor of Castile before? Who’s your favourite queen?

The silken rose by Carol McGrath

At thirteen, Ailenor Of Provence travels to England to wed king Henry III, who’s a lot older than herself. Against all odds, the couple does find happiness and affection together. But as a foreign queen, Ailenor is not liked at court and is seen as a ‘she wolf’ when her Savoyard relatives get high positions at court and in the clergy. Luckily, she finds friendship with two remarkable women. Rosalind, a young embroideress and Nell, the king’s sister. Nell’s love interest is none other than Simon De Monfort, but she’s not free to wed since she has taken a vow of chastity after her late husband’s death. Ailenor sees her chance to act as a modern Guinevere and decides to aid the lovebirds.

The silken rose is the first part in a trilogy about three of England’s medieval queens who were seen as she wolves in their time. McGrath wants to give them a more human voice. This books tells the story of Eleanor Of Provence, Henry III’s queen, but McGrath uses the spelling ‘Ailenor’ to distinguish her from all the English Eleanor’s (it was quite a popular name back then).

I liked to read about Henry III’s reign, as he’s a forgotten king stuck between his father ‘bad’ king John and his son Edward Longshanks, who have both gotten more attention in popular culture. But Henry’s reign was a long one and during all that time Eleanor sat faithful at his side on the throne, so the two of them certainly deserve more attention. I did know something about Eleanor. In particular that she has three sisters who would also make important marriages. Her eldest sister Marguerite becomes queen of France, thus bringing the sisters to opposite sides of the European power struggle.

The book opens with Ailenor traveling to England during a cold and wet winter. She likes her husband immediately but he finds her yet too young to consummate the marriage. Ailenor quickly makes friendship with the king’s sister Nell, who is widowed and has taken a vow to never marry again. Determined to be a good queen and smitten with tales of king Arthur and Guinevere, Ailenor develops a love for poetry and embroidery. She offers Rosalind, a very talented embroideress, her own workshop at Winchester. At the same time she petitions the king to help Nell, who has fallen in love with Simon De Montfort but needs the Pope’s blessing to wed again.

We discover court life through the eyes of this three different women. Rosalind is the only one not based on a historical character and although she has quite an interesting story herself, I liked the focus on Ailenor and Nell more.

Henry’s relationship with Nell’s husband Simon De Monfort is a complex one. Especially when events in Gascony are escalating. Eventually it will lead to rebellion, but those events are not included in this book. That may look as a strange choice, but I do understand that McGrath wants to focus on Ailenor’s story and not on the quarrel between two men.

There are many more things going on in this novel, such as the third crusade, the struggle between Ailenor’s Savoyards and the English nobles, witchcraft, Henry’s second family the De Lusignans causing unrest… You get a full insight into the politics and royal intrigues of the 13th century.

I really liked how the relationship between Ailenor and Henry was portrayed. They have a strong affection for each other, but Henry is a volatile king and the couple knows many ups and downs. Ailenor dares to stand up to Henry, which is not always appreciated.

I’m looking forward to read more about Eleanor Of Provence, and to continue with McGrath’s Rose trilogy as I know almost nothing about Eleanor Of Castile, the main subject of the next book in the series.

Rating: 4 out of 5.