Sunday, 28 July 2013

Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir

4 stars

When I was at school, I was under the impression that history was dreadfully boring and stuffy and loathed most of my lessons. However, having since been bitten by the history bug thanks to watching Horrible Histories and becoming completely obsessed with Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell, I now lay all of the blame for that firmly at the feet of my teacher, who must have been completely inept to have made our history sound so dreary. I've now decided to embark on a bit of an odyssey through as much of our history as I can get my hands on, and if this book on Eleanor of Aquitaine is anything to go by, it should be more action-packed and full of more skullduggery, sex and murder than your average HBO show.

While there is a scarcity of surviving sources of evidence on Eleanor herself, Weir did a great job of detective work and clearly undertook lots of painstaking research to be able to complile a deeply interesting and very readable account of a woman who seemed to defy certain expectations and constraints placed upon women in her time and managed to be ambitious, influential, scandalous and powerful; Queen of two countries and mother of 10 children - a greedy, squabbling, treacherous and murderous bunch of shits, rapists and assholes that make the Lannisters look like the Waltons.

Here's what I learnt:

Born in 1122 into a Europe that was largely feudal, and carved out according to the military might of various nobles, Eleanor became one of the richest and most sought-after heiresses in mediaeval Europe on her father's death and, regardless of their consanguinity (i.e., being related), was soon married to the sensitive and pious Louis VII of France. Having hailed from a slightly more enlightened area in which women could inherit and govern their lands in their own right, she was soon wielding her influence over her adoring husband, much to the dismay of the clergy who'd much rather be doing the influencing and who sought successfully to curb her power. Relegated to the sphere of the domestic and married to a man so religious he barely bonked even after marriage, deeming it sinful, Eleanor was soon scandalising the French court by flirting with the many troubadours who flocked to pay her tribute.

Possibly as another means of escaping the boredom of court, when Louis decided to go on his disastrous Crusade, Eleanor chose to go with him. Unfortunately for Louis, he turned out to be a rubbish military leader with his army not only frequently deserting, but with several thousand dying of plague and starvation and 3,000 more converting to the Muslim faith. Seeking refuge with Eleanor's uncle in Antioch, it wasn't long before she and her uncle were showing signs of a relationship that wasn't strictly familial, leading her to declare her marriage consanguineous after all and demanding an annulment, and to Louis arresting her and dragging her home by force. However, following the birth of a second daughter, Louis started to agree (because God must be angry if you're just having girls, seeing as they're completely rubbish and unimportant, and only useful as future marriage pawns).

Louis' fate was truly sealed when the then Count Henry of Anjou came to pay homage for his lands of Normandy and, though 18 to Eleanor's 29, and though they were just as consanguineous as she and Louis, and though Henry's dad had already slept with her, Eleanor was prompted to speed up her annulment and, dodging the many suitors hoping to abduct and marry her by force, flee into the arms of Henry, taking with her almost half the lands of France and ensuring Henry instantly became the most powerful ruler in Europe.

Considered one of the greatest rulers of mediaeval Europe, Henry of Anjou was soon Henry II of England, and Eleanor his Queen. And though he kept a far tighter rein on her than her ex-husband ever managed, she would spend much of the time that Henry was absent from his kingdom acting as his regent, and travelling astonishing distances through the realm whipping up support, raising funds and keeping the unruly vassals of her land in hand. Little mention is then made of Eleanor for decades in official records of the time while Henry squabbled with Louis on the continent, wrangling over land and taking girls hostage for future marriages - until she gets troublesome.

With the legendary charm of the Angevins, Henry put it about quite a bit - and not only with his wife, being father to loads of bastards. Having herself borne him eight children, Eleanor seems to have turned a blind eye up until after the murder of Thomas Becket, when she started cosying up to yet another Uncle (uncles were apparently catnip to mediaeval ladies) and, finally, initiated a separation with Henry. From now on they'd be living apart, with Eleanor governing certain lands in Henry's name. Taking her very favourite son, Richard, with her, Eleanor rules wisely and well over her vassals but Henry's decision to carve his empire between his surviving boys - Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John - will be one of the worst decisions he's ever made and the frequent dickering over entitlements will turn them and their mother against him, prompting many rebellions and uprisings and causing the boys to constantly run off to Louis and his successor, Philip, causing far more trouble than he'd ever got off France alone.

Every single one of Henry and Eleanor's sons seemed to more than live up to the family legend - "from the Devil they came and to the Devil they'll return", all being slippery, ruthless, inconstant, arrogant, ambitious, smooth-talking hypocrites with nasty tempers and a prediliction for rape (especially Richard, who "carried off wives, daughters and kinswomen of his freemen by force, and made them his concubines, and when he had sated his lust on them, he handed them over to his knights for whoring" and John, from whom "not a woman was spared if he was seized by the desire to defile her in the heat of his lust")

An indulgent mother who spoilt her sons (especially Richard, whom she idolised), Eleanor sided with them against Henry, who would spend the rest of his reign uncovering their plots, skirmishing with them and their French allies, and trying to hang on to his empire while appeasing their demands and imprisoning their mother for the best part of a decade, eventually having their marriage annulled on grounds of consanguinity (there it is again, the best mediaeval excuse for being sick of your spouse). All the while, Henry is schtupping Richard's fiance, Alys of France, and postponing his son's marriage so she can have more of his bastards, sending France into frenzies.

When Henry (the eldest son - the Young King) is killed, Richard becomes undisputed heir but John becomes the elder Henry's favourite. He's soon trying to give him parts of Richard's inheritance and continuing to postpone Alys's marriage, which goes down as well as you'd now expect and causes Richard to stomp off to his new best friend, Philip of France (Louis' successor) and take the Cross. Falling ill while trying to negotiate yet another truce, when Henry finds out that his new favourite John has also been plotting he loses the will to live, leaving Richard as King of England.

Instantly freeing his beloved mother, Eleanor was soon wielding her influence over her son and helping him to rule his empire galloping here, there and everywhere to keep his unruly vassals in hand and whipping up support and funds for his Crusade, as well as putting a stop for now and forever to his proposed marriage to Alys. A stranger to England (and only spending 10 months here throughout his reign) which Richard only seems to have seen as a giant cash machine to bleed dry in support of his constant warfare, Eleanor was instrumental in keeping his empire under control in his absence. With John seizing the opportunity to ride about the country courting the favour of common folk, telling people Richard would never return and plotting with Philip (Richard's former BFF, with whom he'd been scrapping ever since becoming King), Eleanor seemed to spend most of her time dashing from one end of the kingdom to the other, cleaning up the messes made by her shitty sons and trying to keep John under control. 

When Richard was taken hostage while returning from his Crusade, she repeatedly had a go at the Pope for his lack of intercession and somehow managed to raise the ridiculous ransom demanded (bleeding the country dry, yet again) and secured her son's return. John wisely decided to keep a low profile on Richard's return, who continued to scrap intermittently with Philip and was eventually shot with an arrow while besieging a castle, dying with his mother at his side.

John's coronation doesn't see the whole sorry saga come to a peaceful end, and Eleanor now takes up politicking on his behalf. Casting off his old wife (that dratted consanguinity again) John steals another man's 13 year old fiance who he then spends most of his time in bed with, ignoring threats from Philip and his ward, Arthur, who also has a claim to the English throne. Having to rush to Eleanor's side when her castle is besieged by Arthur, whom he takes prisoner, he makes matters even worse by his appalling treatment of his prisoners, and the apparent murder of the young Arthur. Retreating back to bed with his child-bride, he can't be bothered to rouse himself when Philip takes most of his domains and finally, at the age of 82, Eleanor dies having outlived most of her children and having seen the kingdom she helped her husbands and sons maintain virtually given away.

Phew! Makes A Game of Thrones look like Watch With Mother, doesn't it?

Cracking stuff, I'll be returning to Alison Weir often.

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