Sunday 24 August 2014

FINDING 'ALIENOR': The Journey so far by Elizabeth Chadwick.

 It doesn't seem a minute since I was sitting over lunch with my agent and editor discussing my next project, which we decided would be three novels on Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Her life story had been on my radar for quite some time while I worked on other projects in which she often appeared in cameo roles. The more mini performances she had, the more my curiosity grew and the more I wanted to write about her.  It didn't matter to me or my editor that a few other authors had recently written about Eleanor. She was their particular version, as was right, and mine would be mine - and very different.

Following on from THE SUMMER QUEEN, September sees the hardcover publication of the second book in the trilogy, THE WINTER CROWN and I am currently  working on the final book The Autumn throne. (we decided on a seasonal theme, although without the seasons in order and just three of them - like a gestation). How time has flown.  

So, how has it been for me and Eleanor so far? 

The first thing I did to make my Eleanor different to the majority was to change her name to Alienor, which is the French version and how her name was written and spoken in her own lifetime.  One source tells us it is supposed to mean 'Another Aenor' since Aenor was her mother's name. Another version (the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, written within 20 years of her death and from eye witness reports) says that it was an amalgam of 'Pure' and 'Gold'.  Personally I don't see why both cannot be correct. It wouldn't be the first time a double pun has been used. The bottom line was that I chose to go with the version of the name that was hers from birth.

Mural of hunting party in the chapel of St Radegone, Chinon. The middle
figure is said by some to be Eleanor of Aquitaine. Others say the figure is
probably male and represents the Young King with his three brothers.
photo courtesy of John Phillips.
I soon discovered when trying to find out what she looked like, that everyone had their own notions and that her biographers played fast and loose with the none existent facts and invented notions of her appearance either from their own fantasies or from enthusiastic but misplaced reliance on questionable evidence. You will hear it mooted that Alienor's visage may be viewed on a mural in the chapel of St Radegonde at Chinon, but such evidence is conflicting and far from proven with points argued for and against her identity as middle crowned figure.

Some biographers envisage her as a sultry brunette with a superb figure, others declare that she was a blue-eyed blond, and still others belive she was a green-eyed red-head. All of this is speculation without proof since no description of her colouring has come down to us.   A scrap of evidence exists in that she had a paternal ancestor named William 'L'Etoupe' which means 'Straw Head'  i.e. he had fair hair, but who is to say he passed it down to his several times great grandaughter?  Nevertheless,since this is at least family evidence, I have made my Alienor blue-eyed and dark blond.

Appearance was only the start of the dilemmas. There was Alienor's age when she married her first husband. Older biographies say she was fifteen. Newer research with better scholarship puts her at thirteen. Twelve was the age of consent for a girl in the Middle Ages, and so Alienor was within that parameter, but the difference between thirteen and fifteen, even though only two years is a telling one. Alienor is often portrayed as a sexy, controlling siren, in charge of her own destiny and able to wrap her seventeen year old first husband around her little finger. But when you look at it from the angle of her being thirteen, her father newly in his grave, and adult movers and players surrounding her like vultures round a kill on the plains of the Serengeti, then you have a very different scenario on your hands.

I found myself constantly having to make choices between opposing takes on situations that meant big changes for the way I portrayed Alienor. For example some biographers had her gadding off on the second crusade with wild enthusiasm - she couldn't wait to escape the stultifying confines of the French court. Others more conservatively suggested that actually she might rather have stayed at home and ruled France in Louis' absence and was in fact coerced into going.  There's no proof either way. I chose the path of reluctance for my Alienor because it seemed to better suit the person I was seeing as I read between, through and under the lines.

Another controversy - I think everyone agrees she was controversial - is the supposed affair she had with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers. I have spoken of this before, and you can read my take on the business here I would add that I am delighted that a recent biography of Melisande of Jerusalem, a contemporary of Alienor's, written by historian Sharan Newman, agrees with my take on the matter that it is highly unlikely  Alienor slept with her uncle.

Effigy head of Henry II. Cast Court version V&A
It was interesting when I came to the matter of Eleanor first meeting the future Henry II in Paris in 1151 where she and the 18 year old young Duke of Normandy are thought to have arranged a marriage alliance between them as soon  as her marriage with her current husband Louis VII was annulled. Biographers have speculated that they fell for each other in Paris and that it was lust at first sight, never mind the skulduggery of interesting politics.  I took a step back and asked myself about the situation. Alienor was indeed in the act of procuring an annulment from Louis (or he from her, depends who you read) and she would need to marry again in haste once the deed was done. A rich woman still of childbearing age and with vast lands to her name, could not remain unwed for long. Either by rape or by negotiation she would be a bride again on a very fast turnaround.

Effigy plaque of Geoffrey le Bel
The eighteen year old Henry came to court with his father to negotiate on various political issues. His father at the time was thirty eight and Count of Anjou. A man in the prime of his life, renowned for his good looks and education. Henry had been conceived when he was just nineteen years old. For decades he and his family had been trying to draw Aquiitaine and Poitou into their field of influence. Geoffrey had tried to betrothe Henry to one of Alienor and Louis's daughters some years earlier, but the plan had fallen through when Louis had turned the offer down. Now, here under their noses was a golden opportunity. My question is: Who actually brokered that marriage deal?  Geoffrey le Bel who was still head of the household, the pater familias and in charge of operations, or his 18 year old son, still in training, accomplished though he was? Here was a woman nine years older than Henry, a woman and queen with whom Geoffrey had been accustomed to dealing for almost 15 years. Alienor at that point was of Geoffrey's circle, not Henry's. She had been queen of France while Henry was still tied to his nurse's apron strings.  That they met each other and were not averse to the match is plain, and that they went on to  to produce at least 8 children during their marriage, some at relentless one year intervals, shows that they were compatible, but Geoffrey's very presence at the French court as head of his household and the past history of the Angevin counts to make that link with Aquitaine, tells a story of political wheeling and dealing that seems to me to be obvious, but often overlooked.

As a caveat, Geoffrey is said to have warned Henry against the match with Alienor, declaring he had already slept with her and therefore the union was blasphemous in the eyes of God, but I suspect that the chronicler in question was on a mission to blacken Alienor's name and call Henry into disrepute because he had quarrelled with him. I also think he may have got the wrong man, but that's a whole different path of speculation!  It stands to reason that Geoffrey, known to be eager for the alliance of Aquitaine and Anjou, would wholeheartedly approve the match. Of course, having an uppity older wife himself in the Empress Matilda, he may have cautioned Henry about just how to treat such a woman!

THE WINTER CROWN, the middle novel of my Alienor trilogy, covers Alienor's marriage to Henry II as far as 1174 when he brought her to what is now Old Sarum and imprisoned her there and thereabouts under varying degrees of house arrest for 15 years for her part in supposedly encouraging his sons to rebel against him. It has been a fascinating novel to write and the controversies and differing opinions surrounding Alienor have continued.  There's the view that she turned against Henry because he deserted her for his mistress Rosamund Clifford, but that doesn't hold water when viewed against Alienor's political astuteness and the fact that whores and concubines were a natural part of court life.  Far more likely to have driven her to oppose Henry, was his attempt to annex Aquitaine to England, Normandy and Anjou by underhand means. He marginalised her and he sought to undermine her power. That's what it was about, not a spat over a favourite concubine.
Then there's the suggestion that she ignored her children and wasn't much of a mother. Again, that doesn't hold water in terms of the fact that wherever she travelled she usually had at least two of them with her. While in the usual medieval aristocratic sense the children were attended by a plethora of wet nurses and carers to whom the children became attached, Alienor was generally there in the background somewhere.  How she and the children interacted and behaved with each other is not known, but all of them in their early lives at least had contact with her, except perhaps Joanna and John who would have been little more than toddlers when they were sent to Fontevraud while Alienor dealt with matters political. Even so she had contact with these youngest children at a later stage in their lives, giving sanctuary to one in a time of distress and need and fighting tooth and nail for the other.

I am now in the middle of the first draft of THE AUTUMN THRONE, the final novel in the trilogy, and wondering what other discoveries and controversies await me as I research and write. I am enjoying finding out, and going off the well worn paths to find fresh trails!


Leslie Wilson said...

How interesting, Elizabeth! I must get your books, I have always found Eleanor or Alienor a fascinating person. Partly because of seeing The Lion in Winter, when I was a teenager - I'm afraid she will always be Katharine Hepburn to me - but also because my mother's thesis, which she was writing at that time as a mature student, dealt with courtly love, troubadours, and therefore, inevitably, with the lady in question.

Ann Turnbull said...

I love this sort of research - it's fascinating to find all those little clues to character and events and come a bit nearer to imagining the real person.

momrobare said...

And may you have Happy Trails Ms. Chadwick in your search for Alienor. If you are anything like me, you will be loath to see the end come. :(