Subtitled ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine, History’s Most Powerful Woman,’ this is the second in a trilogy about mediaeval Europe. Eleanor of Aquitaine was indeed powerful, though it is arguable whether she was more powerful than, for example, Queen Elizabeth the First, who ruled England several centuries later. However, Eleanor of Aquitaine certainly lived a long and eventful life, often courting danger, yet fulfilling the role of wife to two kings and ensuring the continuation of the royal line.
In mediaeval Europe the role of women born into the nobility or royalty was to serve as pawns in the power-games played by kings and powerful nobles, being married often at a very early age in order to to cement alliances, gain property or land and obtain access to a throne. The desired consequence of such a marriage was to provide a male heir, thereby ensuring the succession to the throne, property, or title in question.
That is what happened to Eleanor of Aquitaine, a region of France, which was ruled by her father. When the latter died in 1137 Eleanor, his only child was just thirteen and inherited a large part of France. She was duly married to King Louis of France, many years her senior, and bore him two daughters. Although she accompanied him on his crusade to Jerusalem and had been a loyal wife to him, he divorced her for failing to provide him with a son. Not long afterwards she married King Henry II of England, and proceeded to bear him five sons and three daughters. Two of those sons who survived their father eventually became kings of England (Richard I, ‘Lionheart,’ and John), as did her grandson, Henry III. Several of her daughters married the rulers of European countries, thereby cementing alliances and enriching both sides.
Fortunately, the book contains a family tree showing the Norman and Angevin kings of England, starting with William the Conqueror in 1066, and continuing several generations after Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, as well as maps showing the relevant parts of England and France, helping the reader to track the various royal lines of succession and journeys made by the principal characters. In mediaeval times England and France were inextricably connected, with regions of France passing to and from England;s control and back to France, whether through alliance or conquest.
As for Eleanor herself, she was evidently both beautiful, clever and strong-willed. She always remained loyal to her birthplace, Aquitaine, even while reigning as queen of England. For several years Henry II imprisoned her in an attempt to break her spirit and persuade her to cede Aquitaine to him, but she resisted him to the end, eventually outliving him and becoming dowager queen of England. When her favourite son, Richard the Lionheart, was captured and imprisoned by Heinrich of Prussia when returning from a crusade, Eleanor worked tirelessly to raise the vast sums demanded for his ransom, and then, although over seventy years old by then, travelled through Europe to deliver it to his captor and bring her son home.
The Aquitaine region of France is vast, beautiful and rich, and it is hardly surprising that it was the object of so much avarice and disputes. The fortunes of the royal houses of mediaeval Europe ebbed and flowed with the battles, births, deaths, machinations and plots of kings and nobles, and it is interesting to note that in many instances women were the power behind the throne, playing an important role in managing the affairs of state and the state of their menfolk.
A fascinating, well-written and thoroughly researched book, and a very enjoyable and informative read.