Saturday, August 21, 2010

Book 88: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir

I was first introduced to Eleanor of Aquitaine by the German historical fiction novelist Tanja Kinkel in her novel Die Lowin von Aquitanien. Unfortunately, I don't think she has been translated into English (as usual, it seems like everyone is more than willing to translate out of English and import American films but less so the other way around), and she had some very good novels. Anyway, I'm also a big fan of Alison Weir so this book definitely had two things in its favor. However, I've had this book for at least two or three years, and every time I looked at it, I'd think, oh I should finally read that, but then get distracted by something else. I was interested enough to pick this as one of the unread books that went into my car and suitcase with me rather than into a box with the packers with many others so it's not like I wasn't interested in the topic. However, my recent interest in Henry II, her husband, is what finally pushed me to read this.

Eleanor of Aquitaine lived from 1122-1204, and was married to two different kings, first the king of France, Louis VII, and then Henry II, King of England and ruler of Normandy. Given this time period, it is of course very hard to get a completely accurate view of what was going on. Sources survive, but women weren't deemed important enough to really be made much fuss over, even the wife and mother of kings. Still, enough references to her survive in history for Weir to give an overview of her life. Some of her sources are in fact lists of expenses, showing what she was spending (thus giving an idea of how much she was traveling/where she was) or what she was contributing to charity/the church. Still, there are large chunks where she is barely mentioned, if at all. As a result, much of this book explains what the men in her life were doing over various periods of time, and how this affected her. Given that I was interested in Henry II, I was actually happy with this, since Weir portrayed him quite a bit and was fair to him, even if he was the man that imprisoned the subject of her book for several years of their marriage (if I were writing a book about someone, I'd probably be a bit biased in their favor).

With such old sources, it can be hard to tell who to believe. Like Cleopatra, Eleanor was a rather controversial figure. During her marriage to Louis VII, she accompanied him on a crusade, and according to rumors of the time, cheated on him with her uncle Raymond, and Geoffrey of Anjou, her later husband's father. Some of the sources see her an adulterous, ambitious whore, while others respect her ability to rule. Especially in her later years, after being imprisoned by Henry II for a few years, she appears to have mellowed with age, and the sources that knew her only in this later period of life, have only good things to say about her. Her son Richard II left her in charge of the realm when he went off on the Crusades. Overall, I believe Weir portrays Eleanor in a very fair manner. She loved her sons, especially Richard, but supported them in rebelling against their father, hence her imprisonment. I think she appears to have been a capable ruler, especially with age - I got the impression that she could be a bit too impulsive on occasion when she was younger.

Mostly, however, I quite enjoyed reading about the men and the kings of the time. It's interesting to compare actual history to what one actually thinks of when hearing certain names and the way they have been portrayed in Hollywood or preserved in the imagination. For example, Henry II, I simply knew as the man who was seen as responsible for Beckett's murder and who locked up his wife. However, Henry II brought peace to England after almost twenty years of civil war and under his rule, England controlled the largest part of France it ever would due partially to his strategic marriage to Eleanor. Beckett tends to be remembered as a saint and martyr that fought against the power of the king and for the people, but really, he simply fought for the power of the church. One of their main disagreements was over which court should prosecute clerks and clergy for crimes - Henry believing they should be seen by a regular court like everyone else to prevent them from achieving leniency, while Beckett wanted them to remain within the Church's authority. However, not only did Beckett disagree with the king, after their disagreement he was letting the clergy off with no punishment . . . that's just flaunting the church's authority rather than trying to find a way for people to be treated fairly. Richard II is another king that I haven't thought of much but when I do, I feel like he was brave and a good ruler . . . after all he was called Richard the Lionheart. Of course, being brave and courageous and a good military man doesn't exactly translate into being a good ruler. Shortly after taking his father's crown, he went off on a crusade for three years during which time his younger brother kept conniving to take the crown, and others in the realm were constantly threatening to rebel. Call me crazy but as a ruler, it's more important to make sure your own realm is squared away before gallivanting to the East to be part of some glorious Crusade for the church.

Also, I was very surprised by Henry II's relationship with his sons. All of his sons were constantly going to war against him because they were tired of waiting for him to trust them and give them some power. They wanted to be king and didn't want to wait for him to die to achieve this goal. This also made me think of Cleopatra and Antony . . . there was a reference to one of the eastern kingdoms (the Parthians perhaps) where the ruler had killed about forty family members to assure his accession, and of course, the Ptolemies themselves were constantly scheming against each other and killing each other for power. Yet, I kind of have to respect that - at least they weren't necessarily raising armies and making a bunch of random people die to achieve their desires. I guess I was so surprised because now it just seems so natural - monarchy, the old king dies, the new one is crowned, that I couldn't believe that Henry's four sons would be straining against this so much.

Overall, it was very informative. There are a quite a few chunks where little mention is made of Eleanor as Weir is explaining exactly what is going on in the realm, but given the few resources remaining on the subject, it is completely understandable. In addition to explaining as much as is known about Eleanor and her character, the book also gave a rather balanced view of some of the influential figures in her life, and as I said, I especially enjoyed reading about Henry II, a leader that was misunderstood in his time and only truly appreciated after his death.

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