By Alison Weir
“Prologue: 18 May 1152
In the Romanesque cathedral of Poitiers, a man and a woman stood before the high altar, exchanging wedding vows. It was a simple ceremony. the young man, aged nineteen, was stocky, with red hair, and restless with pent-up energy, knowing he was doing a daring thing. The woman, eleven years his senior and with long auburn locks, was exceptionally beautiful, very sophisticated and a willing accomplice in this furtive ceremony.
Few would have guessed, from the lack of pomp and splendour, that the marriage of this couple was to change the face of Europe.”
I really enjoyed re-reading this biography, which I pulled off my shelf while taking a break from my TBR.
Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, was born in a court where troubadours flourished and courtly love was all the rage. She was not a meek wallflower by any means. She was first married to Louis VII of France, that union later being conveniently annulled. While married to the French king, she was shocked and appalled by the cold winters of Paris, having come from the warm South, and introduced what were then innovations at court: wooden shutters to keep out draughts, and fireplaces! Her second marriage to Henry, Duke of Anjou and later King of England was one of love, rare for medieval times. Henry was a forceful personality, intelligent and hyperactive, but Eleanor was more than a match for him with her sophistication and learning.
Opinions about her were divided: One chronicler noted that “by reason of her excessive beauty, she destroyed or injured nations”, while another stated that she “surpassed all the queens of the world”. I think it could certainly be argued that the family of Eleanor and Henry was amongst the most dysfunctional in British history. While originally in love, the couple’s happiness was not lasting, and both spent the later part of their lives undermining each other, with Eleanor eventually backing one of her sons in treason. Her sons are well known to history: Richard the Lionheart and John who said of his mother that she was an “unhappy and shameless woman”.
Above: Tombs of Eleanor and Henry, Fontevrault Abbey, Anjou, France
Eleanor was an extraordinary if controversial personality, and held considerable influence if not actual power, given the constraints on women of that time. This was a fascinating read, for anyone interested in history and one woman’s role in it. I would give it 4 ⭐️.