Today is a particularly important day to me, in addition to the celebration of Easter and the defeat of death by Jesus as He rose from the grave.
Today is the day that Eleanor of Aquitaine lived her last, as she died at Fontevraud Abbey in 1204. She was 80 years old and had lived a more full life than many of her male counterparts, really coming into her own upon the death of her second husband, Henry II and serving as regent for her beloved son Richard once he was crowned - and he promptly left for the Holy Land.
I have felt drawn to Eleanor's story for many years now. I have touched briefly on how I came to know her story. I was pregnant with my daughter and living in a new city where I knew no one. So, I spent my weekends at the various libraries I discovered around here, and first 'met' Eleanor thanks to my BFF Dan Jones and his fantastic book, The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England. And just because I never pass up the opportunity to share these...
Eleanor fascinated me from the start and after reading Jones' book I read every other text I could find on her. Some were great, some were terrible, but all were valuable in shaping the image I have of her in my head - one that I am now trying to convey to the world through my own book. I never dreamed in a million years that I would have the opportunity to write about my heroine and yet here I am.
So on this day, I remember this Mighty Girl, who forged a path that earned her nothing but trouble for many years, and yet she persisted. Sometimes life was easy for her, most times it was not. She came into a political marriage at age 13 to Louis VII of France, then spent much of that time at odds with those around her, all vying for Louis' ear. She went on Crusade at the head of a large contingent of women, at Louis' side. But nothing went right and the Crusade was an abysmal failure - and at this time the great cracks in the marriage were becoming irreparable. Once back in France, divorce seemed inevitable and finally Louis could see that by Eleanor, he would have no male heir - a pretty obvious conclusion when she refused to sleep with him any longer. Within a short time Eleanor was free of Louis and had another marriage in mind, one that would provide her the protection she needed as a newly single woman - a marriage to the future Henry II of England. Despite him being nearly a decade younger, they were married quickly, much to Louis' surprise and fury. Eleanor did for Henry in five years what she had not done for Louis in fifteen: provided him with four sons and a daughter. They would go on to have at least three more children, one of whom was yet another boy. But like numerous royal marriages of the time, there was a husband, and a wife, and a slew of mistresses. As Eleanor reached the end of her child-bearing years, she returned home to her familial lands of Aquitaine, at Poitiers. There she was content, raising her favorite son Richard to take over as duke when he came of age. But Eleanor's involvement in the upbringing of their oldest boys lead to a rebellion when Henry II could not relinquish enough power to keep their sons happy. In the end the rebellion was crushed, the boys forgiven, and Eleanor kept as Henry's prisoner for the ensuing fifteen years, rarely allowed at Court unless it was necessary. But, as soon as Henry was gone, one of Richard's first acts was to finally free his mother from her imprisonment. She went to work right away, finally exercising the power that was rightfully hers, as skilled as any king - and often more so. She held the Angevin Empire together while Richard was off fighting Saladin, traversing the length and width of their lands to ensure loyalty and in the end, outlived eight of her ten children. It is kind of fitting that the only daughter to outlive Eleanor was the daughter named for her (and dastardly John, but never mind that).
There are many myths and legends swirling around Eleanor even now, over 800 years later. Some of the nastiest rumors began circulating before she had passed away and many more started making the rounds long after she was around to defend herself. I admit on the surface that some of them could easily be true. But one has to consider the attitude towards women at the time, expectations by the Church of women, and what the chroniclers did and did not say. While I do not believe Eleanor was a saint, there are many stories still in circulation which are simply not true. Embellishments at best and outright lies at worst.
I look forward to sharing my book with you in the near future.