Alison Weir spends a lot of time in this book discussing common legends and misconceptions surrounding Eleanor, which was interesting for me because I really wasn’t that familiar with Eleanor of Aquitaine before reading this – mostly I just knew that she went on crusade once, was Richard the Lionheart’s mother, and was played by Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter. From these three bits of information, I could at least deduce that she must have been kind of a badass.
Having finished this account of her life, I have to admit that I now know a lot more about everyone else in Eleanor’s life than I do about Eleanor herself. Weir does her best, but the fact is there just isn’t that much concrete information about Eleanor, aside from a few letters (which were recorded by her clerk, who may have actually composed the letters himself) and some documents stating how much money she spent at a certain time or when she traveled to England. For the majority of the book, Eleanor is kept to the sidelines, occasionally coming into the picture when she gets involved with her husband’s/sons’/relatives’ politics. Alison Weir is very careful not to take anything for granted and examines all the evidence before making a claim about what Eleanor did at any given time, which is a good thing for a historian to do, but it also means Eleanor is not actually very present in this biography.
Which is not to say that it isn’t a good biography. The Plantagenets were one batshit crazy family, and reading about their violent shenanigens is always a good time. Just don’t go into this book expecting Eleanor to be present on every page – entire chapters can go by without mentioning her. However, when she does make an appearance she is always being awesome, because she is Eleanor of motherfucking Aquitaine. Take this letter she wrote to the Pope, basically tearing him a new one for not helping to free her son Richard after he was captured while on crusade:
“Is your power derived from God or from men? Did not the God of Gods speak to you through His apostle Peter, that whatsoever you bind on Earth shall be bound also in Heaven, and whatsoever you loose on Earth shall be loosed also in Heaven? Why then do you so long negligently, nay cruelly, delay to free my son, or is it rather that you do not dare? Perhaps you will say that this power is given to you over souls, not bodies: so be it, I will certainly be satisfied if you bind the souls of those who keep my son bound in prison.
It is your province to release my son, unless the fear of God has yielded to a human fear. Restore my son to me, then, O man of God, if indeed you are a man of God and not a man of mere blood. For know that if you are slow in releasing my son, from your hand will the Most High require his blood.”
She wrote that to the Pope. The Pope. Damn, lady.
Verdict: four out of five stars