Book Corner: The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

1266. Eleanor of Castile, adored wife of the Crown Prince of England, is still only a princess when she is held hostage in the brutal Baron’s Rebellion, and her baby daughter dies. Scarred by privation, a bitter Eleanor swears revenge on those who would harm her family – and vows never to let herself be vulnerable again.

As she rises to become Queen, Eleanor keeps Olwen – a trusted herbalist, who tried to save her daughter – by her side. But it is dangerous to be friendless in a royal household, and as the court sets out on crusade, Olwen and Eleanor discover that the true battle for Europe may not be a matter of swords and lances, but one fanned by whispers and spies . . .

The Damask Rose is the second book in historian and novelist Carol McGrath’s She-Wolves trilogy, giving a refreshing new appraisal of the lives of Eleanor of Provence, Eleanor of Castile and – still to come – Isabella of France. The first in the series, The Silken Rose, followed the story of Eleanor of Provence through the early years of the reign of her husband, Henry III and his struggle with Simon de Montfort. The Damask Rose continues the story through Eleanor’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castile. Though each book can definitely be read as a standalone, the two novels certainly complement each other.

Carol McGrath has a wonderful, engaging writing style that draws the reader in. The Damask Rose is a pleasure to read from start to finish and really gets into the mind of Eleanor of Castile, giving a new interpretation of the queen, her experiences, her emotions and motivations.

It shows the woman behind the crown and follows the life of Eleanor from the young Castilian princess, newly arrived in England to the height of her powers as queen and landowner.

And it is a thoroughly entertaining story.

In this fantastic novel, Carol McGrath explores every aspect of Eleanor’s life and explains how the Barons’ War and Simon de Montfort’s rebellion left a lasting impression on her, so much so that she never wanted to be so vulnerable and helpless ever again.

Eleanor scanned the courtyard where her frightened people had begun to gather in family groups. A priest hurried through them clutching a large cross, his habit flapping in a sudden breeze. He crossed himself and shouted in a voice as clear as reliquary crystal, ‘You, Gilbert of Gloucester, mark this, you are excommunicate by order of our Father, the Pope. You’ll burn Hell’s fire and you’ll deserve your fate.’

Earl Gilbert turned his head away from him. Pushing Eleanor forward again, he said, ‘UP you go, my lady.’ In a heartbeat, he had hoisted her onto his horse as if she were light as a feather, and jumped up behind her. He said into her pained ear, ‘Tell them they are to obey Hugh Bigod when he enters the castle this evening. He’ll arrange an escort for your ladies and household.’

‘We have no choice,’ she called down as she managed to wriggle an arm free from Gilbert’s grip. She pointed at the crumpled scroll still lying on the earth, and shouted to her shocked steward, ‘Take it. Read it to my people. Tell them the king has been forced to sign it.’

Master Thomas ran forward and scooped up the King’s letter. He picked her veil up from the ground and handed it up to her.

‘See the King’s order is obeyed,’ she said in a grudging tone as she took possession of her veil. Gilbert thrust her sword into an empty scabbard hanging from his saddle, and slowly walked his horse forward onto the drawbridge.

She could not let this seizure of her royal person go without another protest. ‘Gilbert of Gloucester, I shall have my revenge on you,’ she barked. ‘No one treats a future queen in such a manner.’ She knew she was making a formidable enemy but she didn’t care. Her temper could be foul but she did not care about this either.

‘Lady Eleanor, when you behave as a queen should, with suitable decorum, I shall treat you as a queen,’ he quipped. ‘Until then you are no better than a harridan.’

‘Arrogant bastard,’ she said under her breath as they rode into the trees, followed by the trotting horse ridden by the squire with the ridiculous name and carrying young Simon, the Devil’s son.

That evening, she peered from her heavily guarded tent, incandescent, watching as Hgh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, rode to take possession of Windsor Castle. Her child and ladies would be loaded like cattle into wagons the next day to begin the journey to Canterbury. Her close friend and lady-in-waiting, Joanna de Valence, married to King Henry’s own half-brother William of Pembroke, was pregnant and she, herself, had missed her courses twice.

Statues of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Lincoln Cathedral ©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

The leading characters of the story are a wonderful, rich collection of historical personages, from Edward and Eleanor themselves to the distasteful Gilbert de Clare, and the various lords, barons and ladies who made up their court, including my very own John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. The fictional foil to the story is a young woman, Olwen, who helps the queen with her vast knowledge of herbs and their medicinal properties. Olwen is the perfect observer to Eleanor’s life, able to watch and listen whilst escaping notice – for the most part.

Carol McGrath weaves together the known story of Eleanor’s life, through the great events that shaped it, with the fictional creation of Eleanor’s world and emotions, allowing the reader to be a fly on the wall, watching events unfold and marvelling at the sights, smells and emotions of this long lost world.

And it will play on your own emotions.

In The Damask Rose, Carol McGrath not only tells Eleanor of Castile’s story, but also looks deep into the queen’s heart, offering a scenario that would explain Eleanor’s apparent lack of maternal instinct, her need to remain at Edward’s side no matter how far he travelled, and the inter-family relationships that shaped her life. It is a window into the life of a medieval princess and queen that is hard to forget.

Carol McGrath’s portrayal of the Spanish queen is the best depiction of Eleanor of Castile that I have ever read. Beautifully written, it is so touching that it had me in tears in several places – always the sign of a good book.

To buy The Damask Rose:

About the Author:

Carol McGrath is the author of the acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, which began with the hugely successful The Silken Rose and continues with the brand new The Damask Rose. Born in Northern Ireland, she fell in love with historical fiction at a young age, when exploring local castles, such as Carrickfergus, and nearby archaeological digs – and discovering some ancient bones herself. While completing a degree in history, she became fascinated by the strong women who were silenced in record, and was inspired to start exploring their lives. Her first novel, The Handfasted Wife, was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards, and Mistress Cromwell was widely praised as a timely feminist retelling of Tudor court life. Her novels are known for their intricacy, depth of research and powerful stories.

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My books

Coming 31st May:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

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