Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine
Alison Weir is first a historian, and it shows in Captive Queen. She studied Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 1970s and 1990s and realized one day that “the nature of medieval biography, particularly of women, is the piecing together of fragments of information and making sense of them. It can be a frustrating task, as there are often gaps that you know you can never fill.”
Captive Queen explores Eleanor’s life from just before her marriage to Henry FitzEmpress (later Henry II, King of England) until just after Henry’s death in 1189. There is also an epilogue that covers her death in 1204. At the beginning, there’s a map of lower England and Aquitaine, Normandy, Brittany, and France, which are all parts of present-day France. Also included is a helpful flowchart of Eleanor and Henry’s genealogy, which I referred to numerous times when I was trying to remember minor characters.
The novel itself is split into five parts, each representing a stage in Eleanor’s life and marriage to Henry. The first part is a rosy depiction of Eleanor’s early life with Henry. At the time of their wedding, he was eighteen and she was twenty-nine and already had two daughters. They were married just two months after the annulment of her marriage to the King of France, Louis VII. Eleanor’s marriage to King Henry was tumultuous: she fought with Henry often about his rule of her lands. At the same time, however, it was steamy; it wasn’t even twenty pages in before the first bedroom scene occurs. Still, it’s clear she wanted a partnership of equals, not a man to rule over her as husband and lord, which was the norm at the time, especially for women in royalty.
The following four parts accentuate her desire to be included in affairs of state, rule her lands equitably, and be treated as more than “the wife of King Henry and mother of his children.” The second part covers her apparent rivalry with Thomas Becket. In the third part, Weir writes about Eleanor and Henry’s sons: Young Henry, Richard (who would become Richard the Lionheart), Geoffrey, and John (later to become King John, best known for signing the Magna Carta and for being a primary antagonist in most Robin Hood legends).
After encouraging her sons to rebel (unsuccessfully) against their father, Henry placed Eleanor under house arrest for more than fifteen years, most notably in Sarum, Wiltshire (the earliest settlement of present-day Salisbury, England). There, she received very little news from outside the confines of her imprisonment but was finally freed upon Henry’s death in 1189. In the novel, she says to her gaoler, “Master Berneval, I command you, in the name of King Richard, to set me at liberty at once.” And he does.
Two things irked me about Captive Queen, and neither are the author’s fault. The first is Henry’s repeated insistence (and everyone else’s assumption) that women are meant to be child-bearers and nothing more. Eleanor herself even notes that she is most proud of her daughters when they produce children—hopefully sons—for their husbands. The second is that Eleanor’s life revolves around the men in it, no matter how much she wants to rule her lands herself or how intelligent and magnanimous she is in acting as Henry’s regent. The first thing is the unfortunate sexist reality Eleanor had to deal with during her lifetime. The second is related; Weir’s frustration at being able to find only a very few fragments of Eleanor’s life basically forced her to study the men surrounding Eleanor and often make conjectures about her based on what was written about them.
It’s clear in reading that Alison Weir did a lot of research before penning Captive Queen as a fiction. After all, she writes, “What is the point of a historical novel... based on a real person if the author does not take pains to make it authentic as possible?” For fans of medieval Europe, this book is a must read. Just beware that the author made it as authentic as possible, right down to the sexism of the time period.