It is now four and a half years since I was contracted to write three novels about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine - THE SUMMER QUEEN, THE WINTER CROWN and THE AUTUMN THRONE. I chose to write about Eleanor in the same way that I choose to write about all my subjects. I become interested in them, and that interest will sometimes develop into a full blown curiosity that only a more in depth exploration will satisfy. 'Who were you really?' I ask myself, and then I set out on a voyage of discovery.
With Eleanor there were already many biographies and novels in circulation and I had enjoyed reading several of them especially Sharon Kay Penman's marvelous fiction series of books about Henry II and the rise of the Angevin 'Empire.'
Eleanor had also appeared in secondary and cameo roles in many of my own novels and as a result I had conducted a certain amount of surface research into her background, which had contributed to my deepening curiosity.
Articles online tend to stress what a 'kick-ass' feminist she was, way ahead of her time in all she did. Leading her first husband a merry dance and meddling in French politics for example. Galloping off on crusade dressed as an Amazon and sleeping with her own uncle. Holding courts of love in Poitiers. Scandalously marrying the young Duke of Normandy after having slept with his father and then being imprisoned by him for encouraging her sons to turn on him when she became insanely jealous of his mistress Rosamund de Clifford.
Eleanor's popular biographers have encouraged many of these dubious points of view. However, when I began digging, I came across other opinions from historians working more sedately in the background of academia, suggesting that the majority of these notions were anachronistic and at best on shaky ground. The most forward thinking academics were also of the opinion that Eleanor was a woman firmly grounded in the 12th century culture of her own lifetime, and while formidable and intelligent she was in no way exceptional when set against other high-ranking ruling women of her period, and in some cases had less authority. The Empress Matilda, for example, or Melisande of Jerusalem or Adela of Blois. However, the voices of reason were being drowned out by the brash clamour of colourful scandal tales and by the desire people have to always choose the juicy story over the sometimes more prosaic reality.
As a writer of fiction I knew I had to pick my way carefully. I had to find my Eleanor and make her as real as possible for me and for my readers. I needed the spotlight I shone on her to contain both the drama and story telling that is the essential lifeblood of historical fiction. I wanted to illuminate Eleanor's life from a different angle while maintaining integrity toward her and doing her justice.
As I read my way through various reference works on Eleanor, it became clear that what was known about her was actually not very much and that conjecture and imagination had so often superseded fact that it had become fact itself - until one began digging. I found her variously described by her biographers as a saucy hot-blooded blond who needed her sexuality keeping in check (no evidence), a curvaceous black-eyed brunette whose figure never ran to fat in old age (no evidence) and a good-humoured green-eyed redhead (no evidence). An oft-cited portrait of her at Chinon turned out to be highly likely a man, very possibly her son, Henry, the Young King. She was also frequently misrepresented in books and online articles by images from a 14th century German work, the Codex Manesse, which has nothing to do with her.
|A queen from the German 14th century
Codex Manesse - often falsely portrayed
Biographer Amy Kelly, coming from a literature rather than history background, among other dubious notions, had promulgated the whole courts of love theory which has now been discredited, although the idea remains dear to the hearts of popular history. Victorian biographer Elizabeth Strickland is responsible for Eleanor's reputation for gadding about on the Second Crusade dressed as an Amazon. Her source for this scandalous happening goes no further back than 1739. There is no evidence for this story before that date, but it has come to be accepted by many as the truth. (See Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post Medieval image of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Michael Evans).
There is the matter of the scandal of her supposed affair with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers en route to the second Crusade when Eleanor demanded an annulment of her marriage from Louis VII. I discuss the unlikeliness of this one on my own blog Living The History. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Raymond of Poitiers and the Incident at Antioch She is also supposed to have slept with her second husband's father Geoffrey le Bel, but since the chroniclers concerned were hell bent on bringing the Angevin monarchy into disrepute and were notorious gossips, it would seem prudent to err on the side of caution in that assessment. Geoffrey is supposed to have warned his son off marrying Eleanor, but since Geoffrey and his father had been desperate for years to get their hands on Aquitaine, I somehow doubt that warning would have taken place. Indeed, I suspect that Geoffrey would have been keen to see his son marry Eleanor the moment the annulment with Louis VII was announced.
Many of the biographies and online articles (especially the latter) tell us that Eleanor incited her sons to rebel against Henry II because she was enraged that he had taken a young mistress, Rosamund de Clifford, and was treating her like a queen. Seriously? Eleanor would raise an empire-wide rebellion, dragging her sons into a war with their father because she was jealous of Henry's philandering with a baronial nobody? It's a bit insulting to promote the idea that a savvy, intelligent woman such as Eleanor was some sort of emotional harpy who would throw over an entire kingdom because her husband, already known for sleeping around, was carrying on with another woman. Would the same be said if she was male? What about the political machinations that were happening at the time as Henry undermined Eleanor's authority as ruler of Aquitaine and held their sons firmly under the thumb? Might that not just have been more pertinent to the situation than a supposed jealous snit over a mistress?
The outcome of the rebellion was that Eleanor was kept under sometimes harsh house arrest for the next fifteen years before her release on the death of Henry II. I suppose this is the point where she becomes her most 'kick-ass' as a widow with the powers of adviser, mother and co-ruler of Richard I's domains while he was absent on the third crusade. Here there is not so much digression between the narratives of popular and academic - perhaps because Henry II is now out of the picture and Eleanor is no longer the young and beautiful heroine, prime territory for sex and scandal, but an older lady with iron in her soul. The sex and scandal mongers now turn their gaze on her eldest son and begin the dance of whether or not he was homosexual (cue eye-roll).
One of the things that fascinated me about Eleanor and one in which she truly was ahead of our time, even if not her own, was the amount of energy she had and how indefatigable she was right up until her last days. She died at the age of 80, which was a marvelous span in a period without life-saving operations and medication. Most octagenarians, even the robust ones, these days are swallowing a raft of tablets to keep them up to scratch.
Like many of the medieval aristocracy Eleanor had a peripatetic lifestyle. As a girl she would have been constantly on the move throughout Aquitaine with her parents. At 13 she married the soon to be Louis VII and shortly after their wedding in Bordeaux, travelled up to Paris. Then it was back to Poitiers and then a return to France where again, the court was constantly on the move. Around the age of 23, she set off for Jerusalem with her husband on the Second Crusade. This took them down through Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) across the Bospherous, across Anatolia under constant attack, eventually to Antioch and then down the coastal strip to Jerusalem. Eleanor and Louis returned home 4 years later via Sicily and Rome on what must have been one of the 12th century's most extreme military come sight-seeing expeditions. (Louis just loved his shrines).
|Information board from Old Sarum. Click to enlarge.
When Henry died, Eleanor was released from imprisonment and was immediately back on the road, holding England safe until Richard arrived. Appointed 'chairman of the board' during Richard's absence, she was herself absent for a time. She accompanied Richard to France to see him on his way, and then set out to Navarre to collect Richard's bride Berenguela, and bring her to his winter quarters in Sicily. After a brief stopover in Pamplona, Eleanor and Berenguela crossed the Alps in midwinter on a horseback and on foot, with Eleanor now around the age of 65. They would have spent Christmas Day in transit on mountain roads. Once over the Alps in the winter ice and snow, it was down to Rome and then across the straits of Messina to Sicily.
Barely had Eleanor arrived when she learned that her son John was making trouble back in England and Normandy and she had to turn straight round and head home. Her respite was just 3 days. Travelling between England and Normandy she kept an eye on matters, until the news arrived that Richard had been captured and held to ransom by the Emperor of Germany. Following a frantic flurry of money gathering to raise the ransom, she crossed the Channel again and headed to Germany, to Speyr to bring the ransom and fetch her son from captivity. By this time she was approaching seventy. After this she tried to retire to a quieter life at the Abbey of Fontevraud which lay on the borders of Anjou and Poitou. But the gentler times were not to last. Richard died in 1199 and Eleanor, now 75, rushed down to Chalus in the Limousin to hold him in her arms as he died. She then returned to Fontevraud to bury his body beside that of his father.
Her final son John came to the throne and she was requested to go to Aquitaine and take the homage of all of her vassals, which entailed travelling the region to do so. And then she was sent on a diplomatic mission to Castile to bring back one of her grand daughters who would then marry Louis, dauphin of France and hopefully cement an alliance/truce between the houses of Capet and Anjou. So once more, she found herself, now 76, crossing mountains in winter, this time the Pyrenees, to bring back young Blanche of Castile to her marriage. Eleanor did not go to Paris with her, but returned to Fontevraud, where soon after she suffered from a bout of ill health - which could well have been brought on by a mixture of grief and exhaustion.
There was one final journey. In 1202, threatened by warfare close to Fontevraud, she evacuated the convent and started down toward Poitiers. However, when she stopped at the small castle of Mirebeau along the way, she found herself besieged by her teenage nephew Arthur, rival claimant to the Angevin throne. Eleanor sent desperate word to John, who dropped his own campaign and rode like the wind to rescue her, arriving in the nick of time as Arthur's army were breakfasting on roast pigeon while Eleanor was barricaded in the keep. Arthur was captured and the 78 year old Eleanor set free from her peril. This was to be her final journey and adventure and she returned to Fontevraud and died there in April 1204. It is thought that she had a say in the design of her own effigy and those of Henry II and Richard I, as well as the now lost effigy of her daughter Joanna. If so, then she has portrayed herself reading a book - very likely intended to be of a religious nature, so even in death she is active, while her husband and son, lie in state. Since reading was often a communal affair and books read aloud, then perhaps Henry and Richard now have to listen to her for eternity!
The majority of us will never pack in that much travelling or drama in our lives, and perhaps would not want to! I am amazed at how much strength and fortitude Eleanor possessed. Her indomitable will is what I see as her true strength, right through to the core. Yes, in the end a 'kick-ass' woman, but one of her own time and making and for whom I have the deepest admiration and respect.
The Autumn Throne is published in the UK by Sphere on September 1st and by Sourcebooks in the USA on October 1st.
The Autumn Throne is published in the UK by Sphere on September 1st and by Sourcebooks in the USA on October 1st.