July 25, 2003

Eleanor Of Aquitaine: A Life, by Alison Weir

When Katherine Hepburn died recently, I browsed the library stacks for the movie "A Lion In Winter." I hadn't seen it in years and the kids and husband had never seen it so it seemed a good choice for our traditional Sunday night movie and popcorn. Of course, all the way thru the movie they are asking me questions about who's who and why is she shut up in the castle etc etc. While I have a sketchy, at best, grasp of the history of the period, the whole thing piqued my curiosity to know more. Clearly if Hepburn's role was any indication, Eleanor was an interesting woman. And I just happened to have this book on my shelf from last Christmas so I got it out and started in.

Eleanor was indeed a very interesting woman, though Hepburn's role is romanticized and modernized to make her more palatable to the public. Henry II was too. What struck me most is how little is really known about her. Weir makes very clear what is known fact and what is supposition in her biography and where sources give no information about Eleanor, she fills in the gaps with what is known about Henry II. And Weir kindly includes a map contemporary to the times making some of the geography much clearer. France then was a small state surrounding Paris, powerful yes, but geographically miniscule compared to what Henry II and Eleanor ruled over jointly. And we must remember that no one was speaking English in England except the peasants. French and more specifically, a dialect of Provencal, was the language of court and the aristocracy.

The biography itself is easily read and understood. She gives the reader a general understanding of what life was like for a young woman of good birth, how girls were raised, what choices they had and didnít have and what levels of education they were given. She reminds us continually the role the Church plays in the ruling of nations and of the importance of alliances by marriage. And then she goes on to show how Eleanor breaks just about every rule there is. She is taught to read, though not to write since writing is the occupation of scribes. She marries Louis, King of France and takes up the Cross with him on a Crusade, scandalizing everyone. While there, she has a scandalous affair with her uncle and eventually annuls her marriage after her return on the grounds of consanguinity. She turns around and marries the King of England without consulting her former husband who is her guardian or the Church.. She gives him sons who eventually become Richard The Lion Hearted, and King John. Henry, unfortunately, is a bit of a bounder and they have a falling out. She sides with her sons against Henry in what is essentially a failed hostile takeover and he shuts her up in a castle for years. And that's the first two thirds of the book. Eventually, she enters a convent as a guest and dies at the age of 82.

She was an amazing woman. We have no representation of what she looked like aside form her effigy on her tomb and some dubious statuary and paintings. The only surviving artifact from her life is a crystal vase she gave Henry as a gift. Most of the castles she lived in are in ruins. And yet, she still inspires biographies, movies and novels. I was utterly enchanted by her.

Posted by Deb English at July 25, 2003 04:41 PM

Ian Ison said:

Eleanor and Henry's most intimate correspondence in their secret courtship is preserved in the coded text of the Lady and Unicorn tapestries which mention an empty tomb of hers in Saintes, I think whence Henry took a secret store of ancient treasure which was used to buy her freedom from Louis. For the decoded text of the tapestries, please visit:


but beware that there are many secrets here and some of them may be painful to read. Also, as with many good treasures, they are buried where people will choose not to look - in this case beneath a lewd exchange between the lovers.


Ian Ison