Your RDA of Irony

Note To the Studios

For a beautiful, brilliant, fascinating woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine is surprisingly obscure.  Oh, historians certainly know her but Hollywood–the real arbiter of popular knowledge–has long overlooked her.  You’d think that Reese Witherspoon and Sandra Bullock would be demanding tailored-scripts to play her.  But, however long overdue, I think that Eleanor has become fashionable.  She appears–as one of the few intelligent adults–in the latest version of “Robin Hood”.  To be honest, there is no need for her in the story; the 437 previous versions of “Robin Hood” have done without her.  But the scriptwriter and director–bless them– realize that the dazzling Queen Mother was just too wonderful to leave out of the film.

For the benefit of any Hollywood producers here, let me offer this brief introduction to Eleanor.  Just her lifespan was remarkable by medieval standards:  1122-1204.  She started life as merely a duchess rather than a queen. But Aquitaine was not your standard Middle Age muck, where four huts constituted a city.  The  fertile land of Southwestern France and its proximity to Moorish Spain made the duchy the most prosperous and cultured realm in western Europe.  Eleanor was its sovereign and what a dowry that made!

At the age of 15 she was married to Louis VII of France.  He was a nice young man, dull and pious, who was infatuated with her beauty and dutifully tried to ignore her intelligence.  But Eleanor could never be ignored.  If he was going on a Crusade, she was coming along, too.  Why should she be stuck in Paris?  Constantinople and Antioch would be more her style.  He might like praying in Jerusalem, but she could appreciate the art and the history. So, off to the Crusades they went.  It was her Grande Tour and his military disaster.  Louis was never a competent soldier, but he thought that Eleanor had jinxed him.  The rumors about her and various men (her uncle, the Byzantine Emperor, Saladin. etc) must have been somewhat distracting.  Upon returning to France, Louis asked the Pope for an annulment of the marriage on the grounds of consanguinity.  Louis and Eleanor were third cousins, but he apparently had just learned that after 15 years of marriage.  The King was a gentleman not to give the real reasons; and he was disappointed that Eleanor wasn’t grateful enough to let him have the Aquitaine.  No, he got to keep the two daughters and she got to keep the duchy.

Within two months she had a second husband: the exciting–and 11 years younger–Henry of Anjou, the heir to the English throne.  There was no docile acquiescence or complacent indifference in this marriage.  The passion produced eight children and civil war.  It was X-rated for both sex and violence.  Eleanor’s ideal of maternal duty was to encourage her sons to overthrow their father.  For the last 16 years of their marriage, Henry II only felt safe when she was imprisoned.  Even then, when his favorite mistress suddenly died the king had his suspicions as to the real cause of death.  However, Henry and Eleanor never tried poisoning each other.  In a love-hate relationship, that would have been against the rules.  So, when Henry died in 1189 it really was of natural causes.

Her favorite son Richard now was King, although not much of one.  He pawned much of the realm to finance a Crusade, leaving his mother as one of his regents for England and Normandy.  Ignoring his preferences, she arranged Richard’s marriage to the Spanish princess, Berengaria of Navarre.  We are still waiting for the marriage to be consummated.  While Eleanor was trying to  perpetuate Richard’s line, her other scion John was busy plotting.  Richard had not named his gnomish, maladroit baby brother as co-regent, choosing instead a reputable bishop.  John somehow knew all the disreputable bishops and organized them into a jury to condemn and oust the regent.  The disgraced bishop fled England and John was available to take his place as regent.

Of course, Eleanor didn’t approve but she wasn’t prepared to fight a civil war with her son.  She kept busy trying to circumvent John’s plots against Richard, raising the ransom when the king was held hostage in Austria and, upon Richard’s return, protecting the incompetent usurper from his enraged brother.  When Richard died in 1199, Eleanor’s support assured John of the royal succession.  She couldn’t have had any delusions as to his ability but he was the oldest male Plantagenet available.  At least while she lived, she orchestrated political alliances to keep France at bay and England with allies.  Ironically, her dull, plodding first husband had produced in a subsequent marriage the type of son Eleanor should have had: an energetic and brilliant statesman.  Without his mother, John was no match for Philippe Auguste.  There is a reason why Normandy, Tours, Gascony and Aquitaine are called France rather than East England.  Eleanor might have averted it, but she would have had to live another 800 years to ensure it.

Now, is that a life worthy of Hollywood?  “The Lion in Winter” did Eleanor some justice but that was just one chapter in a fascinating story.


  1. Wimple says:

    Thank you for this Eugene. I loved it!

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Diane,

      Given the age disparity between Eleanor and Henry, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher might decide to play them.


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