Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Eleanor of Aquitaine

My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. Henry Fitz-Empress, first Plantagenet, a king at twenty-one, the ablest soldier of an able time. He led men well, he cared for justice when he could and ruled, for thirty years, a state as great as Charlemagne's. He married out of love, a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen....

~James Goldman's The Lion in Winter
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) is one of those historical personages about whom there are many wild stories. In Eleanor's case, most of the stories are probably true. Although it is highly unlikely that she poisoned her husband's mistress, Fair Rosamund. Fair Rosamund was idealized at Eleanor's expense by later generations, especially the Victorians, for reasons surpassing comprehension. No doubt Rosamund was sweet and lovely, but Eleanor is immensely more interesting, or at least modern people have found her so.

Perhaps part of the contemporary fascination with Eleanor is that she is seen as being a feminist before her time. I doubt that Eleanor saw her actions in terms of being a liberated woman, asserting herself on behalf of the freedom and dignity of women everywhere. Eleanor's motives were usually part of a larger political maneuver which as a queen, a mother and a duchess she found necessary for retaining her power and influence. For a lady of rank, especially rank as exalted as Eleanor's, the loss of power and influence could mean imprisonment or death. Scheming was a matter of expediency; there is no question that she played the game well.

The play and film The Lion in Winter captures the spirit of the tempestuous relationship between Eleanor and her unfaithful husband, Henry II of England, and their perpetual attempts to outwit each other. Alison Weir's biography of Eleanor sifts through the legends and plumbs the truths. Eleanor left Henry after many years and many children, the murder of St. Thomas Becket being the last straw. She returned to France and became the catalyst for the development of the courts of love. Courtly love was not so much about sex as it was about music, Arthurian legend, chivalry, charming repartee, and showing respect for ladies.

Eleanor eventually found herself imprisoned by her husband for making war against him. He would let her rejoin the family at Christmas and Easter. Their daughters were accomplished and lovely; their sons were mostly wretches, and caused no end of trouble. Eleanor was a generous benefactress of the Church and the poor. She retired at last to the abbey of Fontevrault where she made religious vows before she died. A wonderful book for young readers about Queen Eleanor is E.L. Konigsburg's A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. Share