Monday, May 11, 2009

Monday Monarch Moment

Eleanor of Aquitaine (b. 1122, d. 1204)

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a vivacious, strong-willed woman who left a huge mark on European history. Because it would take too long to describe all the cool stuff she did (it took Alison Weir 346 pages in the book that, incidentally, I am taking all my information from), I am just going to give you a bare-bones list:

1. became "the greatest heiress in the known world" (Weir, 85) at age 15

2. married the King of France
3. went on the Second Crusade
4. convinced Louis to annul their marriage (she was sick of him, they were fourth cousins, and she hadn't borne him any sons)
5. married her former husband's greatest rival (and a man a decade younger than her), Henry of Anjou (soon-to-be Henry II of England)
6. proved the medieval if-a-woman-doesn't-have-sons-it's-her-fault thing wrong by having five of them with Henry
7. oh, and all but one of her ten children survived to adulthood, which is just astounding for that day and age
8. off-and-on served as ruler of her own lands and/or regent of England for her husband
9. eventually fomented rebellion by her sons against their father (although, since Henry II was much, much better at everything than his spoiled, vicious boys were, all of their rebellions failed and Henry had Eleanor locked up for several years)
10. off-and-on served as ruler of her own lands and/or regent of England for her son Richard
11. continued to be hugely influential in European politics (and her children's and grandchildren's marriage arrangements) into her seventies
12. was a great patron of the arts (particularly courtly literature) throughout her life
13. was, much like Queen Victoria, a "grandmother of Europe": "Her sons their descendants were kings of England, her daughters queens of Sicily and Castile; among her grandsons were a Holy Roman Emperor and the kings of Castile and Jerusalem, while her great-grandson became king of France. Two saints, Louis IX of France and St. Ferdinand III of Castile, were also among her descendants. In England, the line of kings that she and Henry founded [the House of Plantagenet] endured until 1485, and her blood flows in the veins of England's present queen, Elizabeth II" (Weir, 344-5).

So which moment to choose? Unfortunately, a lot of the most vivid and famous stories about Eleanor are plain old made up. (She murdered Henry's mistress Rosamund de Clifford, she held a "court of love" where she handed down verdicts based on the principles of courtly love, she dressed up as an Amazon to kick of the Second Crusade, etc.) But then there are a lot of pretty good real stories, given that--as previously mentioned--she did a lot of stuff. So here's a passage I picked nearly at random--it shows that even for a woman as powerful and intelligent and awesome as Eleanor, it still was a pretty raw deal to be a chick in the Middle Ages:

It soon became very clear to Eleanor that while she remained single [after the dissolution of her marriage to Louis] she would be at the mercy of fortune hunters. Twice, as she was making her way to [her capital at] Poitiers, would-be suitors, with covetous eyes on her vast inheritance, attempted to abduct her. At Blois, the future Count Theobald V was plotting to seize her on the night of 21 March 1152; forewarned in time, and protected by her escort, she was forced to flee under clover of darkness, taking a barge along the Loire toward Tours. Farther south . . . where she intended to make a crossing, Geoffrey of Anjou, younger brother of Henry, lay in wait for her. Again she recieved a warning . . . and narrowly evaded caputre, swinging south to where she could ford the River Vienne and, avoiding the main roads, make a dash "by another way" for Poitiers. Her marriage to Henry of Anjou had to be arranged without delay, or it might never take place at all.
Weir, 89.
And this has been your Monday Monarch Moment.

Oh, in her extreme age, Eleanor employed a secretary named "Guy Diva," which is just about the greatest name I've ever heard. That is all.

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