Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir. Published by Ballantine Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. $28, hardcover, 448 pages.
Alison Weir’s book on the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine is a good read. Considering the book’s subject–a beautiful, powerful duchess with vast lands of her own in the south of France; wife of two kings; mother of 10, two of whom would become kings–Weir had good material.
But not quite. When Weir was thinking about writing Eleanor’s biography, “it was put to me that it would be impossible for a biographer to do justice to a woman who lived eight centuries ago: that so few of her utterances or letters have come down to us that I would never be able to bring her to life as a real person to whom my readers could relate.”
Whoever said that to Weir underestimated her. The writer’s deep knowledge of the 12th century and the people who shared that time on Earth with Eleanor of Aquitaine makes this a rich book indeed. Weir conveys the reality of the beautiful, spoiled, wilful, 15-year-old Eleanor, married to monkish Louis VII, King of France. She paints a portrait of the two setting off on a spectacularly unsuccessful crusade, Louis hopelessly inept at war and Eleanor hopelessly impractical with her huge retinue and her parade of pack animals heaped with sumptuous belongings.
Weir leads the reader through the confusing feudal obligations and shifts of loyalty that permeated those days. One of those shifts was Eleanor’s. At age 30 she wangled an annulment of her marriage to Louis in order to marry 19-year-old Henry, an energetic, virile fellow. In two years Henry was the King of England and Eleanor was once again a queen. She bore Henry five sons and three daughters, but her ardour for Henry cooled when he persistently bedded other women. Again she shifted her loyalty, this time to her sons, whom she supported in their unsuccessful rebellion against their father in 1173, in league with her former husband. Eleanor was imprisoned for her part in the failed rebellion
She remained in captivity until Henry’s death in 1189, when, at age 67, she emerged to act as Regent for her son Richard. The strong old woman continued take part in the vagaries of power until her death at age 82.
If there isn’t already a movie about Eleanor of Aquitaine, I can suggest a screenplay.