Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings

Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, by Amy Kelly

Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings is an old-fashioned plum pudding of a book – rich, dense, and stuffed with flavor and color. It is definitely not light reading, nor is it to everyone’s taste. This reader, however, found it absolutely enthralling.

It was the discovery of this book that originally triggered a decades-long love affair with Eleanor and her kings (her two husbands, Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, and her sons by Henry, Richard and John), as well as her princes, princesses, popes, abbots, bishops, emperors, counts, and the entire panoply of regal 12th century European life.

Author Amy Kelly tells the story of a vibrant, sophisticated, intelligent and occasionally outrageous woman who played a major role in the politics and cultural life of her time, but who remains, in many ways, a mystery. We have no record of Eleanor’s individual thoughts, feelings or motivations.

All we have are her actions, the actions of those around her, and the tenor of the times. It is only through looking carefully at each and every one of those elements that we can hope to draw any conclusions about who Eleanor really was. And Kelly does indeed look at each and every one!

Kelly’s own words say it best …”The twelfth century affords especially rich materials for such study. Persons representing important aspects of experience flourished in numbers – Capets and Plantagenets, Becket, Saint Bernard, Abelard, troubadour poets, Guillaume le Marechal, Heloise – to site a varied few. The time is marked by many stirrings – the intellectual revolt, the turn from Romanesque to Gothic, the impulse to crusade, the struggle between church and state, the rise of vernacular literature, and others. The urban culture of the great cities is distinctive. Queen Eleanor knew all the personages; she was concerned with all the movements, to many of which she contributed notably; and she knew every city from London and Paris to Byzantium, Jerusalem, Rome, besides all those of her own provinces in western Europe … Without historic distortion or any attempt to fictionalize, her history brings the diverse elements together and into relation.”

Kelly (1882-1962) spent over twenty years researching her subject and travelling in Eleanor’s footsteps, in order to bring the “diverse elements together.” The book (her only published work) is very obviously a work of passion. It is also based on primary source materials and is historically sound.

There are, nevertheless, areas where scholarship has moved on. The issue of Eleanor’s role in the so-called “Courts of Love” is one area in particular that is under constant revision. Kelly also shows a distinct and perhaps unhistorical preference for the Plantagenets over the Capets (a preference obviously shared by Eleanor!).

When Eleanor’s son Richard, for instance, battled in Normandy, he “recovered Angevin prestige and comparative security,” while Philip Augustus of France was engaged in “predatory exploits.” Even those of us who share Kelly’s bias are forced to agree that there were plenty of predatory exploits on both sides. The book’s style and language can also be difficult for some readers. Kelly is prone to using archaic and incomprehensible French terms, as well as standard English terminology that is seldom used in everyday life.

For readers of the 21st century, however, easy (if not constant) Internet access makes this a small problem indeed. The “difficult” language can also be a benefit. Kelly’s use of formal wording also provides a constant but relatively unobtrusive reminder that the 12th century is indeed a foreign country. Its language, its customs, its world view were not those with which we are familiar.

It also reminds the reader that Eleanor and her family are not people “just like us”, but who happen to wear sparkly jewels and golden crowns. They not only came from an entirely different world, they occupy entirely different positions. Eleanor was a woman with the power to influence her surroundings beyond what most of us can even imagine.

These quibbles, however, are minor. The book is being rated at “Four Stars” because, while undoubtedly brilliant, it does show its age. It remains, however, an outstanding comprehensive work about Eleanor and one with the undoubted power to bring its subject to life. Anyone interested in Eleanor of Aquitaine should have this book in his or her library.