The Damask Rose

Written by Carol McGrath
Review by Edward James

Eleanor of Castile, queen to Edward I, is better known in death than life. She died near Lincoln in 1290, and her husband caused a cross to be built wherever her coffin rested on its way to Westminster. The final stop was at Charing Cross, where an ornate replica cross now towers in the forecourt of the London railway terminus.

In The Damask Rose Carol McGrath retrieves Eleanor’s life from its relative obscurity. The book is beautifully written. McGrath delights in describing textiles, and Eleanor did not lack lavish gowns. She also loved gardens and exotic foods. The reader not only sees the mediaeval court through Eleanor’s eyes but hears it, feels it, tastes it, and smells it in all its extravagant variety.

However, one cannot escape the fact that Eleanor spent most of her life giving birth (starting at age 13 she had 16 children, most of whom died young) or stitching embroidery with her ladies. McGrath tries to balance this with a sub-plot centring around Eleanor’s herbalist, Olwen, which provides most of the romance and adventure. Being imaginary, Olwen is not constrained by the historical record.

With Eleanor’s life McGrath keeps close to the record. So read The Damask Rose, and if you ever go back to the office, lift your eyes to her cross and remember.