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Hurricane Eleanor

The lives and loves of a medieval matriarch.

Nov 22, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 10 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Eleanor of Aquitaine

Hurricane Eleanor

Tomb effigy of Eleanor at Fontevraud

Rob Moore / Newscom

Queen of France,
Queen of England
by Ralph V. Turner
Yale, 416 pp., $35

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) was, as Ralph V. Turner announces in this thorough and careful biography, “the most famous queen in all the Middle Ages and one of the most infamous women in history.” By all accounts a great beauty, she was the wife of two 12th-century monarchs, Louis VII of France (1120-1180) and Henry II of England (1133-1189) in rapid succession, getting along with neither of her husbands in spectacular ways and loathed as a louche southern foreigner by her subjects in both countries.

Eleanor was also the mother of two kings of England: Richard the
Lionhearted (1157-1199) and John (1167-1216), he of the Magna Carta. Actually, she was the mother of three English kings, since her second son by Henry (also named Henry) was crowned in 1170, at age 15, during his father’s lifetime, as was the custom among the Plantagenets. Henry the Young King, as he was called, did not survive his father, dying in 1183, and so never ruled. In addition, two of Eleanor’s three daughters by Henry (among the eight or nine children she bore him) became queen consorts like their mother: Eleanor, who was married off to Alfonso VIII of
Castile in 1177, and Joanna, wed with great pomp in Palermo to William II of Sicily
in 1176.

Eleanor also acquired what Turner calls “a black legend” among the chroniclers of her era that largely revolved around allegations of adultery, although it also included murder and massive clothing expenditures. (That last aspect of the legend was actually true, supported, as Turner points out, by archival records noting procurements of furs, fine silks, and other extravagant items for Eleanor.) The laundry list of
Eleanor’s reputed lovers included her paternal uncle Raymond, prince of Antioch, in an affair that supposedly took place while she accompanied Louis to the Holy Land on the Second Crusade in 1147 (“never take your wife along on a crusade,” a medievalist friend of mine once quipped); the Muslim prince Saladin, another supposed Syrian acquaintance from the Second Crusade; and assorted troubadours. There was also an alleged attempt on her part to seduce the bishop of Poitiers, a man 40 years her senior.

Turner discounts as baseless gossip all these stories, which started circulating during Eleanor’s lifetime and expanded in number and elaboration of detail after her death. They mostly had their origins in monastic chronicles composed long after the supposed events in question, he points out, and monks, especially in England, were notoriously hostile to Henry—and, by extension, his queen—over his role in the 1170 murder of the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who was regarded as a saint even during his lifetime. By the 14th century Eleanor was being accused of having murdered Henry’s favorite mistress, Rosamund Clifford, and of having been descended from demons.

It was not until the 19th century that historians started trying to rehabilitate Eleanor. Indeed, she is now a favorite of feminist historians who have painted her as a Queen Guinevere out of the chivalric romances that flourished during the 12th century, imposing female gentleness and good manners upon the hyper-masculine knights of the courts where she presided.

Turner is a far more cautious historian, and he has built his biography of Eleanor almost entirely out of 12th-century documents that came directly from her or those who surrounded her: her few surviving letters, her charters, tax rolls, and records of royal expenditures. What these materials show is a woman less interested in adulterous flings, feminist revolutions, or chivalrous mores than in “the pursuit of power,” Turner writes. Eleanor, as Turner depicts her, was fiercely devoted to protecting her inherited lands in Aquitaine, to sharing rulership with her two husbands when she could, and to advancing the fortunes of her royal sons. When both her husbands ultimately disappointed her, she reacted ferociously and
even self-destructively.

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