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By the Wrath of God, Queen of England
on 4 January 2008
Some of the most fascinating characters in history hail from the murkier depths of times lacking much documentary sources. Perhaps their interest comes from this patchwork of conflicting sources, or perhaps the temporal distance lends enchantment. It also presents a problem for the biographer, in that the lack of sources makes it difficult to write authoritatively on the subject. If the subject is a mystery then the book can't be much more than conjectures joined up with speculation.
Eleanor of Aquitaine occupies an odd place in such a time. As a ruler and heiress in her own right, and as queen of France and later England, her life is much more richly documented than most of her contemporaries. Her movements, lodgings, nutrition and clothing can be conjured from the surviving accounts. Richer detail comes from monastic accounts, surviving letters and a good deal of conjecture based on related sources.
Weir has chosen a fascinating subject. She was a woman ruler at a time when women's right to rule was far from established, and in many areas banned by Salic Law. She was forthright, independent and had unorthodox views that capture the essence of the troubadour culture that flourished in her Aquitanian provinces.
Eleanor was wife of Louis VII of France, and then Henry II of England. She was mother to Richard the Lion Heart, and of King John. She herself went on crusade, appearing as the Amazonian queen Penthesilea to rally the troops. She lived as everything from Queen to prisoner, and did so over a remarkable 82 years.
As a writer of engaging `popular' history, Weir has been criticised for dumbing down the subject. In my opinion this is ridiculous. The idea that a book need be impenetrable and complex to be worthy of the appellation `academic' strikes me as simply the fulmination of the historical profession seeking to ensure the plebs don't scale the ivory towers. Whilst Weir's book may not push too many boundaries, it does present its subject well, contextualises admirably and is properly referenced with what source material survives.
The dearth of source material is shown by Weir quoting in full the surviving letters from Eleanor to the pope at the time of Henry II's capture and imprisonment at the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor. As these are the most extensive extant sources it is not difficult to see why they have been quoted in full. But quotations of this length in a work of popular narrative history do somewhat stall the flow of the read. This is a minor point, and Weir compensates by ensuring most of the narrative is written in an engaging and pacey style. Some might sniff at such a tome, but if you have an interest in history you will be rewarded with a fascinating insight.