A conversation with Alison Weir
Sheri Holman grew up in rural Virginia and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her novel, The Dress Lodger, was published as part of the Ballantine Reader’s Circle in January 2001.
Sheri Holman: Growing up, Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine were two of my very favorite heroines. Was there anything in the writing of The Life of Elizabeth I that made you naturally turn to Eleanor as your next subject?
AW: There was nothing as such in the writing of Elizabeth I, but I felt its success opened the door to my writing a biography of Eleanor, an idea I had been trying to sell to my publishers for about eight years! I enjoy writing about strong, charismatic women, and Eleanor was, I felt, an ideal choice.
SH: There have been some marvelous movies made about Henry II–Becket (starring Richard Burton) and Lion in Winter with Katherine Hepburn and Richard Harris. Had you seen either of these films when you started work on the book, and if so, how well do you think they represented the historical players?
AW: I first saw Becket and The Lion in Winter on their releases in 1964 and 1968 respectively; I own the video of The Lion in Winter, which I have seen several times, but Becket is not available on video in the U.K., although I used to have a long-playing record of it. I am therefore very familiar with both, and they are great favourites of mine. Given the dramatic licence inherant in any historical dramas, I would say that both films are legitimate treat-ments of their subjects, if not in the letter, certainly in the spirit. Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of Eleanor in The Lion in Winter is masterful, as is Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of Henry II in both films. Richard Burton made a superb Becket. I am not so sure about Richard I being portrayed as a homosexual, because there is very little evidence that he was; this view of him tells us more about our own age than about the 12th century. Nor do I think that John was the backward idiot as portrayed in The Lion in Winter. However, the treatment of Alys of France is probably very perceptive. And, yes, Eleanor was allowed out of custody to spend Christmas with her family, although we have no record of what went on between them. James Goldman has set his screenplay in an appropriate historical context and used the known facts to weave a credible tale. If you haven’t seen these films, see them now! They don’t make them like this any more!
SH: You say in your introduction that this book “felt more like a piece of detective work than a conventional historical biography.” Can you give us a few examples of snooping? Anything that doggedly eluded you?
AW: For me, “snooping” meant trawling through piles of ancient chronicles and more modern books in order to extract as many snippets of information about Eleanor as I could find. The de-tective work involved piecing them all together and deciding which sources were the most reliable, especially where there was no corroborating information. There are many things that eluded me and every other person who wants to find out the truth about Eleanor: what she really looked like, her relation-ships with her husbands and children, the truth about her rumoured sexual adventures, her reasons for separating from Henry II, her whereabouts and activities during the years in which she merits no mention in the sources, and the true ex-tent of her political powers. The fragments of information we have do not give us a whole picture, so I have had to infer my conclusions from what is available. I realise that some people may not agree with them.
SH: How difficult is it to reconcile primary sources that put for-ward diametrically opposed portraits of Eleanor’s character? Were their certain of her contemporaries you tended to trust more, and on what did you base this trust?
AW: This leads on from my previous answer. If there is no corrobo-rative evidence that lends credence to a source, I have tended to trust those who were near to events and therefore probably in a position to know, or who knew such people. One must always take into account the prejudices of mediaeval chroni-clers, many of whom were monks, and many of whom be-lieved that women were of little importance anyway in God’s scheme of Creation, and that females who behaved like Eleanor were an abomination!
SH: Eleanor has held a lasting fascination for generations of histori-ans. How do you think portrayals of Eleanor have changed to reflect the concerns of the age in which they were written?
AW: For centuries, portrayals of Eleanor reflected the legends that grew up in her own time and in the century after her death. So powerful were these legends that it was not until the 19th century that historians thought to question them. Before then, Eleanor was seen at best as a shameless adulteress, and at worst as a murderess. In the best mediaeval tradition, her story was used to ram home a moral lesson, a ploy that was still evident in Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England (1850s). Twentieth century historians found it hard to be objective about Eleanor, and some even drew historical conclusions from the debunked romantic legends. Now we have become obsessed with her sex life, which no doubt reflects the society we live in. Furthermore, we feel obliged to assess Eleanor within the context of fashionable women’s issues, which in my opinion is not a legitimate approach when dealing with historical subjects. And we waste endless rivers of ink on post-Freudian analysis of her character and relationships, when not enough is known about them and such an approach is almost certainly inappro-priate and could result in wild inaccuracies. Which probably leaves you in no doubt as to where I stand on such issues!
SH: What do you consider to be the truth behind Eleanor’s extra-marital affairs? How have past historians dealt with them? Do you think her frank sexuality makes her more appealing to a modern readership?
AW: We do not know the truth about Eleanor’s so-called extra-marital affairs, and we probably never will. The conclusions I reached in my book were based on inferences from contem-porary sources. Most other late 20th century historians have drawn other conclusions, i.e. that such allegations were fabri-cated by scandal-mongering chroniclers who were biased against Eleanor anyway. In my opinion, these authors had an exagger-ated romantic view of their subject, and I feel we should not ignore what contemporaries were implying.
SH: Setting aside your historian’s cap and thinking like a mother, how do you rate Eleanor’s maternal instinct? Did you ever find yourself becoming frustrated by her? Or applauding her behavior?
AW: We know very little about Eleanor’s maternal role, but speaking as a mother myself, I would have found it hard to endure the long separations from my children. Nor do I really approve of mothers having favourites, as Eleanor certainly did. But who are we, in our age, to judge the actions of those who lived in a very different era, with different priorities?
SH: You’ve told me that you received an early call to history through the fine historical novel Katherine, by Anya Seton. Do you think well-researched, rigorous historical fiction can be helpful in un-derstanding a person and her period?
AW: I entirely agree that well-researched historical fiction can be an aid to understanding history. In many cases, it was an historical novel that introduced me to historical persons or periods. There are, however, two problems with this. Firstly, there is very little of this kind of fiction about nowadays; I was told recently it was a very unfashionable genre when I tried to publish a novel about Lady Jane Grey. Secondly, when it was fashionable (in the 60s and 70s), the genre became very debased by poorly researched, tritely written books. There are very few historical novels of the calibre of Anya Seton’s Katherine.
SH: What’s next? Will you work your way through the Plantagenets? AW: I am due to publish Henry VIII: The King and His Court in June 2001, and am now researching another historical whodunnit, Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley. Future ti-tles are now under discussion, but I am keen to write another mediaeval book, possibly on John of Gaunt of Isabella of France. Or perhaps a book about the Tower of London. I have submitted about a dozen ideas to my agent, and I’m bursting to write them all!
Eleanor of Aquitaine
No woman looms so dominantly over the High Middle Ages as Eleanor, duchess of Aquitaine and Poitou, queen of England, grandmother of Europe. Amidst a 12th century rife with age-old struggles on the Continent and unceasing war in the Holy Land, mostly carried on by her sons and husbands, Queen Eleanor cultivated at the Platagenet court in Poitier a flowering of artistic revival unmatched in any other part of Europe, proving herself the most influential patron in what has become known as the 12th-century Renaissance. That is not to say she was not involved in the intrigue of feudal politics of the age, especially where her family and lands were concerned; rather, her political involvement more often kept her away from cultural pursuits. From her early marriage to Louis VII of France, then ruler of little more than the land immediately surrounding Paris, to her scheming with Henry, Duke of Anjou, to dissolve her first marriage and then to marry Henry, thus transferring her rich dowry of "opulent" Aquitaine and Poitou into the hands of this rising monarch, not to mention her central role in maintaining her son Richard's continental domains while he led the Third Crusade, and her struggles to prevent the utter demise of her-less favored son John, Eleanor tirelessly pursued a successful career in the jealously guarded male realm of war and politics.
As the daughter and heir of William X, ruler of the immensely rich lands of Aquitaine and Poitou that comprised most of what we call France, Eleanor was cast into the spotlight of northern Europe from the very outset. Married at 15 to Louis VII, Eleanor's unwavering energy and limitless ambition soon proved an unequal and painfully boring match with the lethargic and scholarly young monarch. Whether for this reason alone or due also in part to a premeditated scheme with Henry of Anjou, Eleanor eventually had the marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity (being too closely related by blood). Eight weeks later, and not without considerable effort by rivals to prevent the imminent bond, Eleanor married Henry and in an instant redefined the destiny of Europe for the next four hundred years, which would be shaped largely by the struggles between the monarchs of France and England over her lands (e.g., The Hundred Years War).
At the royal court at Poitiers, Eleanor dedicated much of her immense wealth and prestige toward the patronage of rising artists in all areas, though she is best known for her promotion of troubadours, singing poets (music and poetry was inseparable during the age), and of writers on the art of courtly love and of romances, the newly favored literary genre which gradually replaced the martial epics of the early Middle Ages (e.g., The Song of Roland). Important works in history and legend (these two were also inseparable) were also composed under the auspices of Queen Eleanor, mostly in the rising field of Arthurian legend and of Britain in general, the best example of which is Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. Eleanor not only read and listened to such legends, but equally encouraged the composition of romances about her, presenting a problem for biographers that has only recently come under close scrutiny.
As stressed above, despite all these artistic pursuits, most of Eleanor's life was spent in enthusiastic involvement in the politics of her realm. In response to her attempt to incite a rebellion by her sons against their father, the Queen was kept imprisoned until well into her sixties, forced to remain an inactive spectator in her favored son Richard's attempt to wrest the English crown from his indomitable but aging father. She was released in time for Richard's legendary adventures in the Holy Land, which claimed most of his royal career, assuming for herself the guardianship of Richard's tenuous rule against the scheming designs of the jealous Capetians and other Continental magnates. Following Richard's death, Eleanor remained occupied with these same concerns, becoming even more involved due to the incompetence of her son John who, after his mother's death in 1204, lost Continental lands to Phillip II, was forced to capitulate to the demands of English nobles, and even bowed to the preeminent authority of the Papacy, now at the height of its power.
Such a legendary life in its own right had long been bound to the whims of popular imagination both exalting and hostile, and until the late 19th-century Eleanor's life lie hidden amidst a dense fog of myth. Thanks to the efforts of serious historians since then, the accomplishments and influence of Eleanor's brilliant career are now clear to us. It is agreed that she was a woman towering over her own age, even for a queen; she was perhaps the most instrumental patron in the renaissance of the 12th-century, she was tirelessly involved, for good or ill, in her family's dynastic struggles and in feudal politics in general, and above all, the sum of her life's activity shaped, if not determined, the destiny of northern Europe (and by extension, the Holy Land) for four hundred years after her death.
Annotated BibliographyBailey, Katherine. "Eleanor of Aquitaine." British Heritage 26.2 (May 2005): 28-34.
"Endowed with intelligence, creative energy and a remarkably long life, Eleanor of Aquitaine played a major role in the 12th century, an impressive achievement given that medieval women were considered nothing more than chattel." So begins this excellent summary of Queen Eleanor. Short of offering any new insights or providing detail on any specific aspect of her career, this article is nonetheless an ideal point of departure for further research. At the center of this, and most work on Eleanor, is a tension between her political involvements and cultural pursuits; a balanced perspective is taken here.
-Illustrations with brief captions
Cavendish, Richard. "Eleanor of Aquitaine Marries Henry of Anjou." History Today 52.5 (May 2002): 64.
Brief summary of Eleanor's second marriage to Henry, Count of Poitou and Duke of Normandy, following the annulment of her previous bond to Louis VII of France, thus transferring the rich lands of Aquitaine from the struggling French monarchy into Plantagenet hands. Lists factors which contributed to the souring of first marriage, highlighting the most recent biography of Eleanor by Alison Weir which suspects a plot between Henry and his prospective bride. Briefly discusses primary characteristics of the two royal spouses, contrasting the energetic, ambitious Henry with the lethargic, scholarly Louis, stressing Henry's traits as considerably more attractive. Useful as a starting point for more extensive research or as a concise and comprehensive account of the marriage and its broader implications.
Dicks, Samuel E., "Women of the Twelfth Century," The Historian 62, no. 1, (Fall 1999): 185-6.
This article gave an interpretation of the type of person the Eleanor of Aquitaine was. What was useful about this article was the way it taught that not everything that is written is the truth. Through his research he discovered that many people have very different views of Eleanor from both ends of the spectrum. This work was especially useful as a reminder to double check facts and information.
Joan�s Royal Favorites and Links Page, http://www.xs4all.nl/~kvenjb/favour.htm; (19 December 2005).
This web site is the result of someone�s hobby. This site was used as one side to an argument. Most of the information at the site were facts but there seems to be some bits of information that cannot be easily corroborated. Some of the information tended to be interpretive rather than fact. This person is not a historian with any credentials other than vast amounts of reading. The usefulness of this page was that it helped to eliminate some of the false information.
Keller, Jane Eblen. "Three Orders, Three Women." Peace Review 11.2 (June 1999): 251-257.
A brief study of three women who exemplified their respective role within tripartite medieval society: those who fight (and thus rule), those who pray, and those who work; Eleanor is exalted as the quintessential ruling woman, along with Heloise (clergy) and Joan of Arc (peasant). This work is one of few on Eleanor which attempts a feminist discussion, stressing that class, or rank, took precedence over gender; consequently, Eleanor is not labeled a feminist, though the author does admit the temptation to "see these three women as heroic proto-feminists". She focuses instead, on shifting power relations between the sexes during the 12th century, emphasizing the rise of courtly love as the primary force driving the realignment in favor of women, especially women as powerful as Eleanor. Altogether, this brief article proves a fresh contribution to medieval feminist studies as well as a starting point for further explorations into the influence of courtly love, at least as related to its "undisputed patroness", Eleanor.
-List of recommended readings
Kelly, Amy. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950.
Kelly's narrative is comparable to Owen's more recent work in its focus on the individual, but is limited in its appeal to the scholar or student due to its narrative format, though the literary chapter headings are less obscure than Weir's. Most importantly, however, volumes of new primary evidence has been discovered since the work's publication, not to mention the emergence of feminist scholarship decades later as well a simultaneous increase in scholarly interest which only continues to grow. Considering these factors, Kelly's book is more valuable to the historiographer than to the historian. Students are urged to examine other works on this page.
***Find link to site w/ essay titles Kibler, William W., ed. Eleanor of Aquitaine: Patron and Politician. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976.
This volume is a collection of revised essays initially presented at a University of Texas symposium on all aspects of Eleanor's diverse and complex personality and career. The editor places Eleanor "at the heart of an entire civilization", referring both to her political role in the rise of the Plantagenet kingdom and the centrality of her court in the cultural renaissance of the 12th century. The essays, providing "divergent and at times contradictory interpretation's of Eleanor's significance", focus either on a specific role, whether as queen, mother, or patron, or they stress which field bears the strongest stamp of Eleanor's influence, the political or cultural. They all agree, however, that Eleanor was a towering woman in a male-dominated age, a crucial figure in the power struggles and the matron of an "artistic center unrivaled in Europe." The volume, containing such divergent viewpoints, is a perfect reflection of the state of Eleanor scholarship, and is useful to the student both for that reason and for detailed studies in specific areas. There is even something for historians of painting, music, and yes, wine bottling (well, not quite - the essay entitled "The Vintner's Son - French Wine in English Bottles is actually about literature).
-Introduction by editor, six essays, list of illustrations, general index.
Martindale, Jane. "Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Last Years." In King John: New Interpretations, ed. S.D. Church. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1999.
As an essay in a recent collection on the reign of King John, Martindale provides the most detailed study on Eleanor's influence over her less-favored son's ignoble rise from power, as is the general focus of the volume. Though political in approach, Martindale does not neglect Eleanor's extraordinary leadership characteristics, instead emphasizing their importance in the absence of such abilities on the part of John. The essay both criticizes the lack of scholarly attention to Eleanor's activity following Richard's death and effectively fills the gap, providing new insights into the queen's remarkable energy and ability that flourished undaunted even into her eighties, as exemplified by her notorious winter ride through the Pyrenees to retrieve the would-be wife of John's archrival. Students aiming to produce more than a general biography will find the most detailed account of Eleanor's last years in this essay.
-Extensive footnotes, list of maps, tables, and illustrations; no index.
Owen, D.D.R. Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen and Legend. Cambridge, Mass.:Blackwell, 1993.
Amidst a sea of biographies on the queen, this work is unique in its concern for Eleanor "the woman" rather than "the politician" and in its focus on contemporary perceptions of the highly romanticized monarch. Owen agrees with recent scholarly trends that reject traditional claims of Eleanor's having died "a disillusioned woman, saddened by a sense of ultimate failure", instead speculating that she may well have regarded herself the opposite, conscious of her own prominent role in the shaping of Europe's destiny. In seeking the "bald facts" of Eleanor's character as contained in contemporary sources, the author cautiously approaches inevitable bias and avoids trying to force his picture of the queen to fit into "any preconceived image". As a volume, this biography can be best used by the researcher as the primary tool for reference and organization due to its subject-oriented chapter divisions, detailed chronology, clear maps, family trees, and most importantly, its concision and unique contribution to the study of Eleanor's character.
-End notes organized by chapter, extensive bibliography, general index, 15 b&w plates
Pernoud, Regine, trans. Peter Wiles. Eleanor of Aquitaine. New York: Coward-McCann, 1967.
In addition to the stunning lack of a table of contents and bibliography (a short bibliographic note takes its place), Pernoud's work, like Amy Kelly's, has been eclipsed by recent scholarship. This book is recommended only to readers of Pernoud's previous book on Eleanor, which she admits was fraught with misconception due to uncritical evaluation of sources and reliance on legend and hearsay.
Reston Jr., James. Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
While entirely useful for research purposes, the author's attention to Eleanor in a book in which most of the action takes place in the distant Holy Land is an excellent example of contemporary scholarly agreement on the queen's central role in Richard's personal development, his rise to power, and the maintenance of his Continental domains while he occupied most of his life slaughtering Muslim "infidels". As a narrative historical work, Reston illuminates better than any other author on this page the general background and context of the age, contrasting the relative crudity and violent inclinations of the European Crusaders with the chivalrous and merciful Arab defenders. While not as useful for research as most works on this page, it is easily the most well-written and engaging.
-TOC divided into two main parts, List of Principal Characters, Map inserts, Sections of b&w gloss plates, Selected Bibliography, Index.
Seward, Desmond. Eleanor of Aquitaine. New York: Times Books, 1979.
As captured in his opening statement, Seward's focus is on Eleanor's public career, which he sums up as "the most colourful and the stormiest of any English queen consort before or since." Though every scholar has stressed the queen's energetic beauty, Seward is the first to declare her the "sex symbol" of her age. Compared with other recent scholars in the area of character, however, Seward's treatment of Eleanor is rather harsh, claiming that her ruthless domination of her children was responsible for turning them against Henry and bringing out their "evil qualities", under which Richard's preference for men is included. The key to understanding Eleanor's political career and personal character, according to Seward, is quite simply her "thirst for power". To his credit, his resists reducing her completely to such a power-hungry virago, instead summarizing her as a "fascinatingly complex personality", equally stressing her cultural contributions to the 12th-century renaissance. For research, this work can best be used as a complement to Owen's character-oriented biography due to its focus on Eleanor's career. However, it lacks citations, notes, and a comprehensive bibliography.
-Various maps, tables, and illustrations, but no list; select bibliography.
Shakespeare, William. �The Life and Death of King John� (c. 1600). In The Riverside Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Vol. 2, ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J.J.M. Tobin, 805-840. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Shakespeare's demonization of "Queen Elinor" reflects well the general popular imagination of Elizabethan England, and as a result is the subject of frequent criticism by serious scholars of Eleanor. A useful primary source for the study of historiography and of popular imagination.
Weir, Alison. Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000.
The most recent comprehensive biography on Eleanor, referred to in the above article by Richard Cavendish. Similar to Owen, Weir carefully avoids romanticizing in the absence of decisive evidence, instead forming conclusions based on comparative research of contemporary sources and by keeping the broader context of the age in consideration at all times, as she stresses from the opening statement: "Eleanor of Aquitaine was born into a Europe dominated by feudalism." Weir's most worthy contributions to this extensive field are her fresh reevaluations of existing controversies and in some cases, new approaches altogether. For the scholar of Eleanor who is already familiar with the dominant issues and can read this entire volume, Weir's work is excellent, especially her extensive notes on chief sources. For the undergraduate, however, Weir's literary chapter headings are too obscure to be effective research tool, despite the comprehensive index; unless of course, the student has time to read the entire book.
-Notes on chief sources, bibliography of primary and secondary sources, end notes and references, genealogical tables.