The Silken Rose is the first of the new Rose Trilogy by Carol McGrath and tells the story of Ailenor of Provence. She is only thirteen years old when she travels to England in 1236 to wed King Henry III. Twice his bride’s age, he showers the young queen with luxurious gifts. For her part, Ailenor is a loving and faithful wife, determined to provide as many royal children as possible to secure future advantageous alliances.
Ailenor soon finds a friend in her new sister-in-law, Nell, who is secretly in love with Simon de Montford, the King’s seneschal. Ailenor encourages Henry to assist Nell to break free of a vow of chastity that had been forced upon her after she was widowed very young. Nell’s resulting marriage to Simon de Montford has far-reaching effects for the country and caused frequent friction between Ailenor and Henry.
Rosalind, a talented embroideress, is a fictional character who teaches her craft to Ailenor and her ladies. She becomes a favourite of the queen and introduces us to a fascinating glimpse of life in the merchant classes. The detailed descriptions of gorgeously embroidered furnishings and clothing are a high point of the novel.
Intelligent and educated, with a romantic turn of mind, Ailenor’s influence grows as she learns to navigate the turbulent politics and constant jostling for power between Henry and his barons. Henry becomes increasingly extravagant and frequently raises taxes to cover the expense of the crusades and the building of Westminster Abbey. Ailenor herself is accused of nepotism by the barons when she brings family members from Provence to fill positions usually taken by Englishmen.
I know little about medieval political history but there is a useful Historical Note at the end of the book to explain the background. The story really came to life for me with the relationships between the characters and the rich and detailed descriptions of fashion, embroidery, banquets and the poems and music of courtly love.
At times, Ailenor and Henry’s usually happy marriage is tested to the limits when she refuses to bow down to his will. She bides her time and negotiates her way out of trouble. I enjoyed reading about Ailenor’s development from a young girl to a She-Wolf queen who was relentless in her aim of increasing the royal family’s power and influence.
I received an e-copy of The Silken Rose from Netgalley.