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Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1999)

by Alison Weir

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Alison Weir's Eleanor of Aquitaine brings to life a remarkable (and remarkably long-lived) woman. She married two kings, and was the mother of three more. She went on Crusade. One of the kings she married was the son of a man she'd likely had an affair with before her marriage, and she was rumored to have been a little too close to her own uncle. Despite having been a desirable wife to the kings of both France and England because of her inheritance, she never really ceded control of those lands to her husbands. She actively encouraged her sons to rebel against and try to overthrow her husband, Henry II of England. This is some soap-opera level stuff.

Weir has quickly become one of my favorite historians to read, because she has a way of synthesizing lots of information into an easily readable and understandable narrative. She's open about when the scholarship is unclear, or there's more than one version of a particular event, and she tells the reader why she has chosen to take a particular position on what likely really happened. She knows that her reader isn't as immersed in the subject as she is and provides context for the events she relates...she finds a good middle ground between assuming her readers know too little or too much.

My only real exposure to Eleanor's story had been the movie version of The Lion In Winter with Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn, which I saw several years ago and remember little of apart from Eleanor being portrayed as a ruthless schemer. Weir never stoops to that kind of caricature of the people involved in Eleanor's life, especially Eleanor herself: she was a political opportunist to be sure, but she also lived in an era that was especially skeptical of women in power and the accounts of her that survive reflect that bias. I've got quite a few of Weir's books on my TBR, and I always look forward to them and recommend them (including this one!) heartily. ( )
  500books | May 22, 2018 |
Summary: A highly readable account of the life of Eleanor of Aquitane, married to two different kings, mother of ten children, and “a tough, capable, and resourceful woman who travelled widely throughout the known world and was acquainted with most of the great figures of the age.”

Eleanor of Aquitane (1122-1204) was probably the most formidable woman of her age, and would have been impressive in any age. Alison Weir’s historical biography brings her to life, and leaves one with the impression that she was likely at least the equal if not superior to any of the powerful men in her life.

At roughly fifteen, she became Duchess of Aquitane, controlling territory that was about one-third of France. She was no wall flower. She was reputed to have had an affair with Geoffrey, father of Henry II, who warned Henry about her. As one of the most eligible of women, she attracted the attention of Louis VII of France, more inclined to be a monk than a King. Yet even he recognized how strategic this marriage would be for control of French territory against his rivals, including young Henry II. After fifteen years in which she bore him two daughters but no sons and went on a botched Crusade to the Holy Land with him, they finally secured an annulment on the basis of consanguinity (they were fourth cousins).

She was quickly taken up by Henry II, a man who did know how to fight and rule. Together, they controlled nearly half of France as well as England. It begins auspiciously with their crowning in England. But it was a tumultuous relationship, no doubt due to Henry’s womanizing. Nevertheless, they would succeed in having eight children together, five sons and three daughters. They would weather the assassination of Thomas Becket but become increasingly estranged after Henry’s affair with Rosamund. Eleanor would remain in Poitiers for five years, fostering a court of troubadours and “courtly love.”

Henry II grew increasingly estranged from his sons as well, refusing to delegate any of his power to them, and Eleanor supported them in revolt against him, which failed. She spent the next sixteen years in prison in England, until Henry’s death, apart from a brief period with him in Normandy.

You would think that would be the curtain call for a sixty-seven year old widow. Not for Eleanor. Her son Richard becomes king, and while he is off on another Crusade, she capably rules England in his stead, as well as administering her own duchy. She raises a ransom for his release when a rival ruler imprisons him, and survives him. When her other son, King John ascends to the throne, she embarks on a perilous journey to Castile at age 77, surviving kidnapping, to select a bride for the French King Phillip from the daughters of of the King and Queen of Castile. The death of a warrior escort at a mercenary’s hand left her weary in body and spirit. She retreated to Abbey of Fontevrault, where her husband Henry, son Richard, and daughter-in-law Isabella (John’s wife) were buried. After taking the veil as a nun, she died and joined them in 1204.

This, in briefest outline, is the life Alison Weir fills out in as much detail as can be founded in what sources remain after 800 years. Parts of the book focus more on Henry and his sons, more than on Eleanor because of years where very little was recorded, particularly the years of imprisonment. She also, while acknowledging the possibility of Eleanor’s romantic involvements, and the limits imposed on her as a woman, wife, and mother, portrays a strong figure who exercised shrewd and capable influence, sometimes checking the worst impulses of her husbands and sons, and using her power well for the welfare of her lands. She addressed popes, and was personally acquainted with most of the rulers of the world in her time, and helped lead a Crusade. She fostered the literary culture of the day and was a major benefactor of the Abbey of Fontevrault, which served as a significant religious center for nearly seven centuries. Weir’s highly readable account brings Eleanor out of the mists of time so that we “moderns” may appreciate her greatness.
  BobonBooks | Nov 5, 2017 |
Despite the title, this isn’t really a biography about Eleanor of Aquitaine, because for much of the time she’s a background figure. The focus is on the men in her life. “Eleanor of Aquitaine & Her Family” would’ve been a more accurate title.

This is inevitable, however, owing to scant records on this former Queen of England and Queen of France. Eleanor's a fascinating figure, and makes a great character in historical fiction, but it’s damned hard to write a biography about her.

This is still a good read, though, as Henry II, Richard I, and King John are hardly boring topics. ( )
  PhilSyphe | Sep 27, 2017 |
It seems like it took me forever to finish this book, and when I reached the end I knew far more about the men in Eleanor’s life than I did about the queen herself. If you want to track where Eleanor or Henry II was in any given month of their reign, this is the book for you. If you want to know more about her inner life or motivations… well, Weir herself cites the dearth of material about Eleanor… so you might be better off with a novel, because it would be pure speculation anyway. ( )
  memccauley6 | May 3, 2016 |
Great portrayal of one of the foremost woman of the Middle Ages.
  jerry-book | Jan 26, 2016 |
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This book is dedicated
with heartfelt thanks
to my agent

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who has edited so many of my books
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In the Romanesque cathedral of Poitiers a man and a woman stood before the high altar, exchanging wedding vows.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Alison Wier is a misspelling of Alison Weir.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0345434870, Paperback)

Combining the pace and descriptive quality of a novel with the authority of a textbook, Alison Weir's study of the revered and reviled Eleanor of Aquitaine should be valuable to anyone with an interest in medieval European history. Wife of Louis VII of France and subsequently of Henry II of England, and mother of Richard "the Lion-Hearted," Eleanor played a prominent part in the politics of the 12th century. The author of a number of other books on the medieval period (Life of Elizabeth I, The Children of Henry VIII), Weir brings all the color and ever-present dangers of Eleanor's world to life, filling the text with absorbing background detail and revelatory contemporary anecdotes. She is concerned throughout to make critical analysis of the primary sources, the later myths about Eleanor, and other modern biographies. This results in a fresh and thoughtful perspective on the energetic life of a determined and ambitious woman living with the sexism, excesses, and violence of a society in which the word of a single man could condemn thousands to death. Eleanor of Aquitaine is a vivacious but scholarly book with extensive notes and references, giving an objective and rich account of the staunch Eleanor, her feuding family and her complex and unstable world. --Karen Tiley, Amazon.co.uk

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:16 -0400)

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A biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, discussing her early years in twelfth-century Europe, her marriages to France's King Louis VII and England's Henry II, her unprecedented political power, and other aspects of her life.

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