The perfect companion to Becket and Lion in Winter,
This review is from: Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (Paperback)
If you are fascinated by the excellent O'Toole films and want to know more about the history behind them, this is the ideal book to read. It tells their stories in the form of a luscious narrative, spanning Eleanor's lifetime in historically accurate detail. The characters in this historical turning point are absolutely remarkable, but the reader also gets a view of the Crusades, the birth of the Gothic era, and the high point of feudalism. This is a major meal and I enjoyed every single page.
Eleanor was a rich princess of Poitiers/Aquitaine of Western France, truly one of the most important women of her time. Whoever married her gained the allegiance of all her vassals and hence, control of her lands. She started very young as the queen of France with Louis VII (the Capet dynasty), who apparently she found something of a pedestrian bore, even though she accompanied him on the 2nd Crusade, and was feted in the greatest Christian courts before its disastrous collapse into disorder. She then got her marriage annulled (due to co-sanguinity), eventually consenting to marry a Norman Prince, Henry, who become the King of England by a chain of circumstances and luck, beginning the Plantagenet dynasty. They ruled over an empire that included the British Isles and Western France. Though officially vassals to Louis VII, their power - and Henry's genius for intrigue and war - vastly surpassed his.
Eleanor and Henry's family - they had 8 children - was the cause of a great civil war. Apparently fed up with him, Eleanor retired to Poitiers, where she cultivated a court to train leaders that was unrivaled in its splendor and intellectual brilliance, and schemed against him. Her sons rebelled against Henry, who forgave them and imprisoned her for about 13 years, until his death. At the same time, Henry laid the foundations for the supremacy of civil law in Britain over that of Catholic Rome and defended his territories with a cruel ferocity (this a large part of the Becket story). Their sons are equally fascinating: young Henry was the preferred eldest, but he was forever at odds with his father, though he died young. The remaining one - Richard Coeur-de-Lion, Geoffrey, and John - were bitter rivals, forever seeking treacherous alliances as they maneuvered for power and succession (the plot of Lion in Winter). It is an absolutely fascinating case of dysfunction with catastrophic consequences. After so many years of stress, Henry dies during the next rebellion, feeling that his entire life was a failure. This releases Eleanor, enabling her to consolidate power in the cauldron of feudal politics, truly a fascinating portrayal of machination, betrayal, and brute force. In a way, I understood feudalism better after Klein's masterful evocation.
That leaves Richard as King, who promptly goes on the 3rd Crusade, which is described in truncated form. The author admires him and portrays him as a great war leader of singular potential. It is a wonderful mini-bio. Upon his untimely death on return, it is John's turn. Meanwhile, under Philip Augustus (also in Lion in Winter), the Capets are resurgent, in spite of his weaknesses as a leader and thinker. Eleanor ends her life in uncertainty, as John's cruel style taints his kingship and alienates his vassals.
The prose is extremely dense, almost baroque, and it takes some getting used to, but the rewards as a reading experience are ample. I enjoyed the book so much that I didn't want it to end. That being said, it is a narrative that cannot offer the reader an up to date idea of the latest scholarship - that will have to be sought elsewhere. Also, Eleanor herself is really kind of a backdrop in this; the 4 kings are the true focus.