Thursday, April 01, 2010

Remembering... Eleanor of Aquitaine

Once upon a time, when women were considered empty vessels, little better than furnishings designed for recreation, procreation, and doing all those little things men normally can't be bothered to do (like picking up around the castle) more than a few of them bucked the trend; they were learned, powerful, and far more politically capable than their male counterparts specifically because they had to navigate a seemingly endless shoal of misogyny in order to demonstrate their abilities without being accused of witchcraft or worse - being un-feminine.

PhotobucketEleanor of Aquitaine was one such woman. As one of the richest heiresses in the High Middle Ages, she brought to the throne of France (through her marriage to Louis VII) the duchies of Aquitaine, Gascony, and Poitou. Together they attended the Second Crusade, and while in Jerusalem Eleanor witnessed the coronation of her uncle Raymond of Antioch as King; the affection demonstrated between uncle and niece was very nearly the scandal of the age, and probably would have been if there'd been any media in those days aside from the occasional scribbling monk or wandering minstrel.

As Eleanor's French marriage had produced only two daughters, though (and much resultant animosity between husband and wife because of it) it was reluctantly annulled by Pope Eugenius III - since girls then didn't count as people; of course, no one then knew (or would have believed anyway) that it's the father who determines the sex of the babies, not the mother. Eleanor should have been the one to divorce Louis, and not the other way round; nevertheless, however it was done she was glad to be rid of him - it seems his piety got on her nerves in a big way.

She then turned around and married Louis' rival, Henry II, King of England, and proceeded to give him five sons and three daughters (in addition to holdings amounting to one-third of southern France). Louis was now boxed in by forces loyal to England, which was led by a man with access to intimate details of his life and character - a situation that must have rankled him almost as much as the procession of sons she then bore him.

Two of these sons eventually became kings - Richard I (even then better known as Richard the Lionhearted) and John (called 'Lackland', a snivelling weasel best remembered as the villain in the legends of Robin Hood); still, Eleanor's life in England was no less chaotic, coming as it did in tumultuous times. The murder of Thomas Becket by her husband's orders, bad as it was, couldn't have hurt Eleanor as deeply as her husband's open philandering with Rosamund Clifford; it was one thing for a King to have a mistress, but it was quite another to parade her around in the Queen's place, boasting about it. Coming as she did from the court of Aquitaine - the birthplace of courtly love - the coarse manners of her second husband must have seemed no improvement over the pusillanimity of her first.

Eleanor died, on this day in 1204, at the astonishing age of about 82 - having been been held in captivity by her second husband for 16 years of it. She was buried at Fontevraud Abbey - where, in the last years of her life, she'd taken the veil - next to the husband who'd imprisoned her and her favourite son, Richard, who'd released her. All that remains, though, is the tomb - her bones were scattered along with all of the other royal remains in France, during the French Revolution. One of the most widely traveled women of her age, she had seen and done more than many of her male 'betters' but alas, she left no memoirs; what a book that would have been!

Thanks to James Goldman, whose play The Lion in Winter has twice been adapted for film, Eleanor of Aquitaine has been played by Katharine Hepburn (who won her fourth Academy Award for the portrayal) and Glenn Close (who won a Golden Globe for her portrayal in a television miniseries). She's also been played by Rosemary Harris and Stockard Channing on stage. Eleanor is a character in William Shakespeare's play King John, and is somewhat erroneously depicted in Jean Anouilh's play Becket, from whence a film was made. She's also appeared as a character in numerous novels and both histories and herstories.

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TheQuestionMan said...

Only my 3rd Favourite Queen of all time.

Very nice piece...


michael sean morris said...

Glad you enjoyed it. She's definitely in my Top Ten!