Making the most of a woman’s lot

This is my review of Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography (WOMEN IN HISTORY) by Marion Meade.

Eight centuries on, records still remain to prove that Eleanor of Aquitaine was a remarkable woman: beautiful, robust, energetic, courageous, resilient, intelligent, cultured and a shrewd negotiator when given the chance. In a world where the status and security of feudal lords depended on the possession of lands, her inheritance of the extensive and prosperous French Duchy of Aquitaine made her an attractive marriage partner for two rival kings: firstly, the indecisive and monkish Capetin Louis VII of France, whom she grew to despise, and later by complete contrast the Angevin Henry II, Plantagenet ruler of England, a vigorous, driven man with an uncontrollable temper and insatiable sexual appetite.

Eleanor accompanied Louis on an ill-fated Crusade, slowing the procession down with her vast quantities of baggage. She often risked dangerous voyages, even when heavily pregnant, and almost up to her death, aged eighty-two, embarked on tours round her lands to maintain the loyalty of vassals and foil rebellions.

In the unlikely event of her being as promiscuous as painted by detractors, this would have fallen far short of Henry’s predatory treatment of women. Scandalous gossip, embellished long after her death, buzzed round her close friendship with handsome men like Uncle Raymond of Antioch, her probably mythical, failed attempt to elope with Saladin, and demand for divorce from Louis and immediate marriage to Henry, fourteen years her junior. Yet ultimately she was always to be constrained by the superior power of men: the Pope blocked her divorce until Louis decided to end the marriage because of her apparent inability to bear sons. Ironically, she produced four boys in rapid succession for Henry, the ill-fated John born some years later being the last of her ten children. When, in the 1170s, Henry’s heavy-handed mismanagement of his sons provoked their revolt, Eleanor’s support for them was punished with sixteen years of imprisonment, but this did not break her spirit.

When it suited Henry to let her administer affairs in his frequent absences from England, she performed with great competence. Similarly, in her self-imposed exile to Aquitaine, unable to tolerate close at hand the humiliation of Henry’s overt affair with the legendary Rosamund Clifford, she again stabilised with her shrewd and fair management a region which Henry had only disturbed. Yet again, when her favourite son Richard Coeur-de-Lion succeeded Henry, she ran Aquitaine in his absence and drummed up a heavy ransom for his release when he was kidnapped by, of all people, the Duke of Austria.

Marian Meade’s journalistic style, which sometimes slips into quaint phrases involving “hie” and “goodly”, and often seems padded out with purple prose, succeeds in breathing life into what could be a tedious, indigestible wade through long-forgotten events. I have to believe her assertion that “none of the dialogue is invented”, but the continual references to, say, Eleanor’s thoughts, together with a lack of clear sourcing of anecdotes (at least in the edition I read) make this seem like “faction” rather than academic biography. Whatever the truth, this very readable account brings home the insecurity of Medieval life. Apart from the risk of sudden death, feudal property-owners were forced into a continual soap opera of shifting allegiances, trying to take advantage of each other, or avenge some past wrong. It is fascinating to appreciate the lack of a sense of “nation state”, the ease with which castles, lands and marriageable offspring were traded: even the Lionheart did not speak English! The ephemeral fragility of the Angevin Empire which Eleanor worked so hard to build with Henry gives sobering food for thought.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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