Magazine article The Spectator

Bevis Hillier

Magazine article The Spectator

Bevis Hillier

Article excerpt

'I think they're crazy,' A. J. P. Taylor said to me 40 years ago, when he was my history tutor at Magdalen, Oxford. He was referring to those of his colleagues who were mediaevalists. He could not fathom the appeal of a subject for which the surviving sources were so limited and in which so much had to be done by guesswork. Influenced by him, I used to think that if I were a historian I would make the 18th century my province - a period before the sources become so prolific as to drown you (as in the Victorian age) and well after the Middle Ages, in which you have to peck around for scraps.

Two books this year have quite changed my thinking on mediaeval history. The first is Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir (Cape, 20). This is the biography of an heiress who married first a king of France (Louis VII) and then a king of England (Henry II). At times she was effectively ruler of England; and she was the mother of two more English kings, Richard the Lionheart and John, and grandmother of a Holy Roman Emperor, Otto IV. This was not a queen you messed with. `Eleanor was outraged. She ordered that Anjou be laid waste as a punishment for its support of the usurper.'

All but four years of her long life were lived in the 12th century (1122-1204), so you might expect her biographer to be constantly speculating from slim pickings. On the contrary, Alison Weir is able to pin down the events of her life with chapter and verse, year by year, sometimes day by day; and when she writes, `On .23 March, Richard [I], with Eleanor riding by his side, made a state entry into London', you don't have to flick back 15 maddening pages to find out that we are in 1194.

The only passage of protracted speculation is about a mural uncovered in 1964 at the chapel of Sainte-Radegonde at Chinon. Scything through the theories of earlier historians, Weir makes a convincing case that the painting shows Eleanor with Richard I. When you finish the book you feel you have been put painlessly (but not necessarily without tears) in possession of the facts about this extraordinary, indefatigable woman, her sufferings and triumphs, and with no special pleading or whiff of `Women's Studies'. You could also draw up a calendar of the 12th century, filling in all the main developments on French and English soil.

The other excursion into mediaeval history which has been a treat is Shakespeare's Kings by John Julius Norwich (Viking, 25). It was K. B. McFarlane - one of the Magdalen dons Taylor thought crazy who in his Ford Lectures commented on the (flawed) excellence of Shakespeare as a historian. …

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