Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A mini convention of Raccoonistas (witers for the "Anna Raccoon" blog) occurred the other weekend, with various contributors to the blog turning up at Madam La Raccoon’s “chateau” in south west France. My chief contribution to this weekend was to provide much mirth as Madam La Raccoon’s enthusiastic hound placed a very well chewed and utterly salivated tennis ball on my seat, nearly resulting in a nasty accident when I sat down. An anus horribilis was only narrowly averted.

However, whilst I was there I discovered, appropriately enough, a superb biography of “local girl”, Eleanor of Aquitaine: “Eleanor of Aquitaine – By the Wrath of God, Queen of England” by Alison Weir (Random House).

Of course I can’t do full justice to a long life of adventure, political intrigue, sex, violence, triumph and tragedy in a short blog, and I truly commend Ms Weir’s book. But let me try to give something of an outline, just because I find Eleanor’s story so fascinating.

Now, as Ms Weir points out constructing a really detailed and complete biography of Eleanor is difficult chiefly for two reasons. First, at the time written sources were rare in any event. Medieval courts preferred fighting and drinking to reading and writing. Second, women occupied a totally subordinate role, expected to be wives and breeding machines or whores. They were not expected to become politicians and administrators. Recording the role and deeds of a great woman of the time would therefore have been contrary to this ethos, and doubtless given rise to a rather uncomfortable sense that the natural order of things had been overturned.
However, one might say that in her time Eleanor managed to play all of these roles, and with aplomb too.

Eleanor was born some time around 1122 or 1124, the daughter of William, Duke of Aquitaine and his wife Aenor. Her name itself is something of a pun, derived from the Latin Alia Aenor, meaning, of course, “the other Aenor”.
At the time Aquitaine included most of south west France and was not only one the richest vassal states or fiefdoms in France: it also had one of the most advanced and culturally sophisticated and glamorous courts.

Eleanor’s mother died when she was about 6, and I gain the clear impression her father doted on her, indeed spoiled her, but recognised her intelligence and spirit and treated her a bit as he would have a treated a son. For example, she was taught to read and write in Latin as well as French (or the local dialect) but some argue that she was schooled in philosophy and rhetoric as well, which at the time would have been radical for a girl. She was also taught riding, hunting and hawking, all activities which the feisty Eleanor loved.

Her father died in 1137 when she was about 15, leaving her as Duchess of Aquitaine. In the medieval times marriage of those of high rank was for political and dynastic purposes, and there was no question of the young Eleanor being left to rule Aquitaine in her own right. She was almost immediately married to 17 year old prince Louis, heir to the French crown. Within a month the old king had died, and Eleanor was not only Duchess of Aquitaine, but Queen of France.

It is this point important to mention that by all accounts Eleanor was outstandingly beautiful. Now to be fair by the conventions of the time it was appropriate to describe any wealthy noble woman as beautiful. It would also be fair to observe that a courtly poet or troubadour who described the Queen of France and Duchess of Aquitaine as looking like a bag of spanners would probably be a making a very poor career move. But even taking these factors into account, it is clear that the descriptions of her striking good looks went well beyond convention, and that she was in fact what is colloquially known as “fit as a butcher’s dog.” Whilst all the contemporary sources are agreed on this fact, annoyingly there is no clear and specific description of her which survives. We know that she had beautiful, flashing eyes, but what colour? The colour of her hair is also a topic much speculated upon, and there is no definitive answer. But it seems likely she had flowing auburn locks, a feature which I think is likely given her partly Norman lineage.

She had great energy, flamboyance and loved spending, fashion and showing off in a way which would make Victoria Beckham blush with shame. Indeed Eleanor’s upbringing in Aquitaine had given her tastes well beyond dreams of the then somewhat dreary Parisian court, and she became a style icon, the “It Girl” of the High Medieval period. With juicy irony, we get one of the best descriptions of what this was like from a contemporary prelate who wrote complaining of the “immodest” dresses worn by Eleanor and her companions in fashion:

“The garments of court ladies are fashioned from the finest tissues of wool or silk. A costly fur between two layers of rich stuff forms the lining and borders of their cloaks. Their arms are loaded with bracelets; from their ears hang pendants, enshrining precious stones. For head-dress they have a kerchief of fine linen which they drape about their neck and shoulders, allowing one corner to fall over the left arm. This is the wimple, ordinarily fastened to their brows by a chaplet, a filet or circle of wrought gold.”

Another description snipes: “As for the ladies, you might think them adders, if you judged by the tails they drag after them.” That sounds rather nice to me. They also had those most sinful of accoutrements, pointy shoes.

However, when she was not partying like it was 1399, Eleanor plainly involved herself in her husband’s affairs of state and politics much more than the Church in particular approved of. She also joined in with the Second Crusade, accompanying her husband and the Christian forces to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. According to some it was she and her female mates who at one point did so dressed up in wild and exotic clothes “like Amazons”. Although it is hard to say whether this is true, it would very much have been Eleanor’s style. According to other chroniclers and historians, Eleanor and her girlfriends were a thorough nuisance and got in the way. That, too, would have been Eleanor’s style at the time.

It also seems clear that she was in some respects frustrated and bored by her somewhat drippy husband King Louis, not least because of his increasing devotion to religion and lack of devotion to his other and more intimate duties as a husband. Frankly, it is quite clear that she like sex, and a lot of it. Indeed, when she was on crusade it was darkly rumoured that she had an extra-marital fling with her uncle, the charismatic, brutal and very handsome knight, Raymond of Poitiers.
Such rumours persisted throughout her life.

There was something of a scandal about this, but let us draw a veil over that, and move on. On her way back from the crusade she had run ins with storms, and it may be she landed in Africa, but it is recorded that she had a narrow escape from capture by pirates. All good stuff.

Despite the lack of “hot love action”, she bore Louis two daughters. However, unfortunately he in turn bored her in a different sense, and after 15 years of marriage the restless Eleanor managed to engineer an annulment in 1152. Now aged about 30 she immediately allied herself by a new marriage with her former husband Louis’ chief and most dangerous rival, the 19 year old Henry, Duke of Normandy.
The historian Simon Schama has written that there was something unusual about this marriage for the age when marriage was principally a tool of dynastic alliance, namely that the bride and the groom actually appeared to fancy each other. I think there is a great deal of truth in that. That said, by the standards of the time it seems an unusual marriage. From Henry’s point of view he was marrying a beautiful but considerably older woman of the world, already with two children and the whiff of scandal about her. What about from Eleanor’s standpoint? Well, she was marrying a young but dynamic powerhouse of a man, full of all the brute energy and fierce cunning and intelligence of his great grandfather, William the Conqueror. A powerful man already, and with a claim to the English throne.

Beauty. Power. Money. Land. Ambition. Rank. A touch of warlord brutality thrown in. It must have been a heady, sexy mix.

And shortly afterwards in early 1154 when her husband finally claimed the English crown becoming Henry II, Eleanor became (“by the Grace of God”) Queen of England. Together she and her husband in their various capacities of King and Queen, Duke and Duchess, ruled a vast family business - the Angevin Empire as it came to be known - that ran from Carlisle in the north to the borders of Pyrenees in the south, and which if it could be held united was arguably the richest and most powerful entity in Europe.

If her first marriage been a disappointment in the bedroom, it seems neither party could say the same of her second to Henry. Whilst the quality of the product cannot be known, the quantity can. Eleanor was to bear Henry eight children, and she was to see two of them Richard I (“the Lion Heart”) and the infamous John sit upon the English throne.

Henry was certainly never faithful, and it is even rumoured that at one point Eleanor had one of his mistresses murdered. I think it is unlikely. By the same token, the whiff of scandal never completely left Eleanor either, and there were again rumours of affairs on her part. And yet they seem to have been genuinely close for some years before ultimately falling out in middle age.

Ironically, in an age in which it was the duty of a queen to bear sons and heirs it may be that Eleanor fulfilled this duty all too well. As Henry’s reign and power matured, so did his sons and on the whole they rounded upon their father and the Angevin Empire tore itself apart as they vied for position and power within it. The Angevin Empiredegenerated into a form of ceaseless familial civil unrest and anarchy. Ultimately, Eleanor appears to have sided with her sons (particularly her favourite, Richard) in the vicious plotting and serial rebellions which took place, so much so that for 16 years Henry had her held under various forms of house arrest. It was this family bickering and back biting which gave rise to the James Goldman’s play and then film “The Lion in Winter”.

In the 1963 film version, the Eleanor of late middle age is played with waspish venom by Katherine Hepburn against Peter O’Toole’s Henry, and she rightly won an Academy Award as best actress for the role. I cannot help but feel that that in many respects in both looks and temperament she got quite close to the real Eleanor and what seems to have been a love/hate relationship between them. A clip which neatly sums it up can be found here:


(If you can't follow the link sorry, still learning how to do this!)

Ever the survivor, she outlived Henry and when upon his death their son Richard I succeeded to the throne in 1189 she was restored to freedom and influence as Queen Mother. Richard may be recorded as a hero in popular fiction, but in truth he was a disaster as a monarch of England. He was obsessed with recapturing the Holy Land, and his chief contribution to English society was to levy taxes for his largely unsuccessful crusades, and then to cause even more taxes to be levied to pay a colossal ransom for his release from imprisonment, almost bankrupting the country.
Richard was largely an absentee king, and in his absence Eleanor ran “the family business” as in effect his Regent. Although by this stage she was already in her late 60’s – of itself a remarkable age for the period - she appears to have done so not simply with efficiency and energy, but also grace, mercy and wisdom, granting rights and charters, dispensing justice with an even hand, and granting alms to the poor and religious orders. This was all the more remarkable because administration of the Angevin lands was a peripatetic exercise, and she was required to travel great distances in around both England and France in doing so.

After his Richard’s pointless death (from blood poisoning after being hit by a cross bow bolt), John succeeded to the throne. Modern historian have tried to repair John’s reputation, but he was arrogant, boorish and (unusually for the Angevin clan) charmless. Once again it fell to her to reign in her manage much of the administration of the family lands.

Sadly, under the intra family strife and poor rule of her children the huge Angevin Empire on the continent was gradually subsumed to the power of the King of France. Richard spent his time and money on the crusades; John appears to have been not untalented but prone to depression and vacillation. Gradually the “Empire” was eaten up by the resurgent King of France and the foundations were thus laid for attempts by the English Crown to reclaim those lands which would lead to strife between England and France for more than two hundred years.

She outlived all but two of her children (John and Eleanor of Castile), and there can be little doubt that despite the wealth, the glamour and the power politics she loved her often feckless, greedy and murderous offspring. Even a queen is not immune to the grief of loss of a child, and she lost six before she died. Ultimately battered and weary of life she retired to a monastery and took the veil. She died in 1204, aged about 82.

In her time she was a fabulously vain and wanton beauty, a wife, a mother and probably an adulteress. She was a style icon, a queen (indeed one may say an empress), a crusader, a formidable politician, a prisoner, and in her latter years a wise and highly able administrator, counsellor and judge. She achieved all this in an era where women were, in the modern parlance to be seen and not heard, and when war, assassination or execution could be only a heartbeat away, and where the Angevin empire was managed from the saddle, with endless processions by horseback.
I think I would have liked her very much. If I had had the chance to have made her acquaintance, and had she been bothered for some reason to ask the question whether she had won my affections, she would probably have expected a poem or a song: as I have mentioned above, she was the poster girl for the medieval concept of “Courtly Love” and received many such “lays” or ballads in praise of her beauty.
I think I would probably have been less flowery and more to the point. Something like:

“You had me at bonjour!”

Eleanor of Aquitaine, circa 1122- 1st April 1204. RIP

Gildas the Monk

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