If you were asked to name one of the 100 most influential people of the second millennium, I doubt the name of Eleanor of Aquitaine would be the first one to spring to mind but according to Time magazine she was the most powerful woman of her century. Not only does she appear in one Time magazine top 100, however, she also appears in their top 50 of the richest ever list, too. Not bad for someone who died over 800 years ago. If, like me, your only image of Eleanor is that portrayed by an aging Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter, then prepare to be amazed because Eleanor was quite a girl. A duchess and heiress in her own right, she became uniquely queen consort of both France and England, was mother to two kings, joining with her sons in a battle to dethrone her second husband, was held captive by him for fifteen years and ended her days in a nunnery at the age of 82, which is a pretty ripe old age, certainly for the early 13th century.
Eleanor may have experienced some incredible lows in her eventful life but she also had some triumphal high points too and it was certainly a life that she lived to the full. She was born in 1122 the oldest daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, an area of what is now south west France and after her brother's death she became heiress to the Duchy as unusually for those times, Aquitaine did not preclude women from the succession. This made Eleanor a Duchess-in-waiting and a teenage multi-millionairess and as such she had been educated to rule, something which would stand her in good stead in the years to come.
Douglas Boyd has written a fascinating account of Eleanor's life which is not only richly detailed about the woman herself but also brings to life the Medieval world in which she lived. This is a history which is easy to read without ever being boring or dumbing down. It's intelligently written and a very detailed and vibrant history which provides a portrait of a woman who, I feel, would have been very comfortable living in our own time. The author's interest in Eleanor was sparked when he moved to south west France some thirty years ago and he's had access to source materials in French, Old French and the Occitan languages. Occitan is the language that was spoken in Aquitaine and a version of which is still spoken in very small pockets of south western France.
The author makes no secret of his admiration for Eleanor but he isn't blind to her faults, of which she had plenty. Having been raised in the liberal and somewhat sensual courts of Dukes William IX and X of Aquitaine, sometimes known as the courts of love, she herself was accused of presiding over a similar court to that of her father and grandfather, though there isn't actually any written evidence to prove this.
Poor Eleanor, if only she'd had the good sense to remain unmarried she could have been one of the most powerful women in the world. Sadly, she was a victim of her time and as the author points out, 'Girls of her class knew that they, their mothers and sisters, were human brood-mares whose function was to merge the bloodlines of great ancestors.' As a woman, she and her duchy were vulnerable to attack so she chose to marry, first Louis, the Dauphin of France, later Louis VII when she was only 16 and later, Henry Fitz-Empress who was to become King Henry II of England.
According to Douglas Boyd, Eleanor was different from many women of her time because even following her marriage, she exuded a strength and independence of spirit not often seen in women of the 12th century. Both of her marriages were made out of expediency rather than love, love being a concept which did not naturally go with the word marriage until much later in European culture. No sooner had she married Louis than he inherited the throne, elevating Eleanor to the status of queen consort and she managed, in the early years of her marriage at least, to exert a fair amount of pressure on Louis.
Unfortunately for Eleanor, before his marriage Louis had a leaning towards the church and following a particularly unpleasant event which resulted in 1,300 innocent men, women and children losing their lives whilst seeking sanctuary in a church, Louis again turned towards his faith, prompting Eleanor to complain that 'I have married a monk!' This desire to save his immortal soul resulted in Louis signing up for the first Crusade and, of course, Eleanor went along too. But a rift was appearing in the marriage which grew ever wider and Eleanor began to make no secret of the scorn she felt for her husband and rumours began to abound about Eleanor having an affair. Douglas Boyd claims that, though there isn't written evidence, all the signs point to the fact that by the end of their stay in the Holy Land, Eleanor was little more than a prisoner of her husband which could have been the real reason she petitioned the Pope for an annulment of her marriage.
With her second marriage to Henry Fitz-Empress, son of Matilda, the daughter of Henry I of England, who by rights should have been queen but the throne was usurped by her cousin Stephen, was another political marriage. Henry was twelve years Eleanor's junior but she no doubt recognised in him a kindred spirit and a man strong enough to protect her lands and interests. The marriage was initially a successful union producing enough sons to secure the English succession, once Henry gained the English throne, and also daughters to marry into other royal households.
It's often maintained that Richard, later King Richard I, was Eleanor's favourite child and it's pretty clear from this book that Douglas Boyd is not an admirer. Richard, it seems, barely set foot in England, only spending six months here in total. He despised the English and their outlandish language and found the country only good enough to bleed of its wealth to fund his Crusades to the Holy Land. If you believe Douglas Boyd, and I've no reason not to, Richard is a prime example of what happens when you spoil a child! Whatever his failings, his early death must have been a devastating blow to Eleanor and it left her only one remaining son, John, whose claim to the throne she supported.
The royal households of Europe in the Medieval period were very different from today and relationships were intertwined in the most convoluted ways, so I was pleased to find detailed genealogies as appendices to the book, along with copious notes on the text and a full list of sources used for research.
There are several photographs in the book and though there are very few surviving images of Eleanor as she lived during a period when portraiture was not the norm, Douglas Boyd has tracked down several sites where statues and carvings depicting Eleanor can still be seen. Whether she actually looked like her images is moot but the author has more than compensated for this lack of imagery by painting a vividly accurate picture in words of a truly remarkable woman.
The author spent over twenty five years researching this book and it knocks any other biography of Eleanor out the water. The dedication and in depth research is evident on every page and it's clear this isn't a hastily thrown together biography but a labour of love and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: The History Press Ltd; Reprint edition (1 April 2011)
Biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine