Review: Eleanor of Aquitane

Eleanor of Aquitane

Eleanor of AquitaneAlison Weir. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.

Summary: A highly readable account of the life of Eleanor of Aquitane, married to two different kings, mother of ten children, and “a tough, capable, and resourceful woman who travelled widely throughout the known world and was acquainted with most of the great figures of the age.”

Eleanor of Aquitane (1122-1204) was probably the most formidable woman of her age, and would have been impressive in any age. Alison Weir’s historical biography brings her to life, and leaves one with the impression that she was likely at least the equal if not superior to any of the powerful men in her life.

At roughly fifteen, she became Duchess of Aquitane, controlling territory that was about one-third of France. She was no wall flower. She was reputed to have had an affair with Geoffrey, father of Henry II, who warned Henry about her. As one of the most eligible of women, she attracted the attention of Louis VII of France, more inclined to be a monk than a King. Yet even he recognized how strategic this marriage would be for control of French territory against his rivals, including young Henry II. After fifteen years in which she bore him two daughters but no sons and went on a botched Crusade to the Holy Land with him, they finally secured an annulment on the basis of consanguinity (they were fourth cousins).

She was quickly taken up by Henry II, a man who did know how to fight and rule. Together, they controlled nearly half of France as well as England. It begins auspiciously with their crowning in England. But it was a tumultuous relationship, no doubt due to Henry’s womanizing. Nevertheless, they would succeed in having eight children together, five sons and three daughters. They would weather the assassination of Thomas Becket but become increasingly estranged after Henry’s affair with Rosamund. Eleanor would remain in Poitiers for five years, fostering a court of troubadours and “courtly love.”

Henry II grew increasingly estranged from his sons as well, refusing to delegate any of his power to them, and Eleanor supported them in revolt against him, which failed. She spent the next sixteen years in prison in England, until Henry’s death, apart from a brief period with him in Normandy.

You would think that would be the curtain call for a sixty-seven year old widow. Not for Eleanor. Her son Richard becomes king, and while he is off on another Crusade, she capably rules England in his stead, as well as administering her own duchy. She raises a ransom for his release when a rival ruler imprisons him, and survives him. When her other son, King John ascends to the throne, she embarks on a perilous journey to Castile at age 77, surviving kidnapping, to select a bride for the French King Phillip from the daughters of of the King and Queen of Castile. The death of a warrior escort at a mercenary’s hand left her weary in body and spirit. She retreated to Abbey of Fontevrault, where her husband Henry, son Richard, and daughter-in-law Isabella (John’s wife) were buried. After taking the veil as a nun, she died and joined them in 1204.

This, in briefest outline, is the life Alison Weir fills out in as much detail as can be founded in what sources remain after 800 years. Parts of the book focus more on Henry and his sons, more than on Eleanor because of years where very little was recorded, particularly the years of imprisonment. She also, while acknowledging the possibility of Eleanor’s romantic involvements, and the limits imposed on her as a woman, wife, and mother, portrays a strong figure who exercised shrewd and capable influence, sometimes checking the worst impulses of her husbands and sons, and using her power well for the welfare of her lands. She addressed popes, and was personally acquainted with most of the rulers of the world in her time, and helped lead a Crusade. She fostered the literary culture of the day and was a major benefactor of the Abbey of Fontevrault, which served as a significant religious center for nearly seven centuries. Weir’s highly readable account brings Eleanor out of the mists of time so that we “moderns” may appreciate her greatness.

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