Tuesday Book: A Feisty Heroine, but Little Spice in the Telling

Article excerpt

Eleanor of Aquitaine

By Alison Weir (Jonathan Cape, pounds 20)

ELEANOR OF Aquitaine (1122-1204) was one of the greatest heiresses of the Middle Ages. The headstrong and beautiful daughter of the famously cultured and notoriously sensual Duke William IX of Aquitaine, she was 15 when she married her first husband, the shy and scholarly Louis VII of France, who "loved her beyond reason." Eleanor was less enamoured, and at the age of 31 arranged an annulment. She abandoned Louis and her two daughters in favour of the formidably forceful Henry of Normandy, heir to the throne of England and 12 years her junior.

Her own lands extended rather further than those of either of her husbands, and she ruled them with assurance and competence. She rode by Louis's side on the Second Crusade to Jerusalem, dressed as an Amazon with cherry- red leather boots, and gave her second husband Henry II a turbulent family of quarrelsome children, among them Richard the Lionheart and Bad King John. Despite a decade or more of imprisonment when she became estranged from Henry following Thomas a Becket's martyrdom, she returned to the hub of power after Henry's death, and remained there until her late seventies.

Myths and half-truths surround her name. She was a ravishingly beautiful redhead; she was scintillatingly intelligent; she had numberless paramours, including Saladin; she held Courts of Love at which she made judgements on gay troubadours and gallant knights; she inspired Chretien de Troyes' description of Guinevere; she murdered her husband Henry II's mistress Rosamund Clifford by roasting her over a fire with a pair of venomous toads on her breasts; she spent a lot of time and money on the Abbey of Fontrevault, a highly civilised blend of women's university, arts centre, publishing house and sanctuary for battered wives.

With a central character of this nature, a quartet of vicious, violent and sexually predatory sons, and a spread of history that includes the martyrdom of Becket, Richard I's march on Jerusalem, King John and Robin Hood, we might hope for a juicy, illuminating historical read along the lines of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. But Weir goes for facts without the frills, adopting a distinctly puritanical approach to her admittedly far from reliable sources. …