Quite a pair of Middle Age queens

Eleanor of Aquitaine - Berengaria

August 25, 2000

These biographies of 12th-century English queens could scarcely be more different in their subjects or their approaches. Alison Weir's eloquent narrative is typical of the traditional queenly biography. Her subject, Eleanor of Aquitaine, lived a long and eventful life and has inspired a succession of romantic legends over the centuries. Much has already been written refuting the myths that have been attached to Eleanor, but Weir's rendering of events is valuable as a revision of earlier narrative biographies, accessible to those with no knowledge of the Middle Ages.

Ann Trindade's subject is Eleanor's daughter-in-law, Berengaria of Navarre, deliberately chosen because of this queen's obscurity in the annals and the fact that she is usually dismissed as a passive, pious nonentity. Trindade's work is more speculative, exploring the ideological, social and political context in which Berengaria's life was lived, in order to suggest the nature of her queenship.

Weir's biography begins with Eleanor's privileged childhood in Aquitaine, indicating that her experiences of troubadour culture and a family with lax morals and notably strong women contributed to the disastrous course of her first marriage - to the doting Louis VII of France. In her detailed account of the ill-fated Second Crusade, on which Eleanor accompanied Louis, Weir challenges most recent historians of these events by arguing that in Antioch, Eleanor indulged in an adulterous relationship with her uncle, Raymond of Toulouse (the first of several possible adulterous liaisons occurring in chronicles of Eleanor's life, which Weir accepts as true). Weir's use of 12th and 13th-century chronicles throughout the work is effective in rendering her narrative more vivid, although her approach to these texts, as here, or the lack of comment on passages she quotes, occasionally appears somewhat uncritical.

There is a tendency in queenship scholarship to attempt to justify the subject as one worthy of attention by over-emphasising indications of political influence. Weir largely avoids this, although her depiction of Eleanor's autonomy in the first decade of her second marriage, to Henry II of England, does overstate what is known of her importance. Nonetheless, generally her presentation of Eleanor's role as Henry II's queen is detailed and convincing. She argues persuasively that Eleanor's decision to establish her court permanently in her native lands, away from the king,should not be seen as a result of Henry's much-romanticised affair with Rosamund Clifford.

Henry's relationship with Thomas Becket is covered in detail. Interestingly, Weir proposes that it was Eleanor's horror at the murder of Becket that provoked her to betray Henry by supporting the rebellion of their sons (in collusion with her ex-husband, Louis) against him. Weir argues that Eleanor emerged from the long captivity that followed this betrayal "an infinitely wiser woman". Certainly she was to be a major political figure in the reigns of both her sons, Richard I and King John.

Throughout the book, there are instances where Weir's assertions on minor issues are questionable, unsurprising given that her previous work has been on late-medieval and early-modern royalty. Even so, her portrayal of 12th-century England is impressive in its breadth and clarity, made more accessible to the general reader by occasional digressions to explain social, judicial or financial matters. Her goal of depicting Eleanor as "a real person to whom my readers could relate" has certainly been achieved in this cogent and fascinating book.

Trindade's picture of Richard I's queen, Berengaria, though also meant to be accessible to "the general interested reader", is of value to medievalists for its innovative take on writing the history of the losing side (those who do not get to write history themselves) and for its reappraisal of a woman whom historians have tended to ignore.

Trindade's introduction sets out the problems of researching a figure who appears so rarely in contemporary sources, providing the context for the detective-story style of much that is to follow. Trindade then surveys social, religious and ideological constructions of women in the 12th century and suggests ways in which women came to terms with such marginalisation, by pleasing, manipulating and enduring. She also highlights the strong influence of national prejudice on depictions of Berengaria: the Anglocentric approach of most of her historians has assumed that she was not important enough to be brought over to England, never considering that England was not sufficiently important in Richard's kingdom for him to bring over his queen.

Trindade then works chronologically through the evidence we have for Berengaria. The texts of the Spanish chronicles that refer to her in connection with her natal family come under feminist scrutiny, in the context of a broad description of 12th-century Navarre. Analysing the transition from daughter to bride, Trindade questions suggestions that Richard was in love with Berengaria before their marriage but argues that the union was probably considered as early as 1185, when Henry II was still king.

In contrast to Weir's implied criticism of Richard throughout her book, Trindade tries to mitigate modern judgement on his behaviour by outlining the political and ideological complexities of his situation. Nonetheless, she suggests that a breakdown in their marriage was possibly caused by Berengaria's horror at atrocities committed by Richard on the Third Crusade, arguing that women were not so desensitised to bloodshed by their upbringing as were men.

Another important issue in exploring what was at times a dysfunctional marriage is John Harvey's argument that Richard had homosexual relationships. Weir rejects this suggestion, but Trindade is persuasive in her use of this theory to explain Richard's behaviour on a number of occasions, including his passionate hatred for the French king who had once been his bedfellow.

Richard and Berengaria's lack of an heir, Trindade suggests, aroused Eleanor of Aquitaine's resentment against Berengaria, hence the latter's absence from several major political occasions. It also left Berengaria vulnerable in her widowhood to King John's attempts to deny her the revenues of her dower lands. It is on the basis of Berengaria's determined pursuit of these revenues and her regular involvement in church politics in Le Mans, where she settled in 1204, that Trindade refutes the traditional image of Berengaria's passivity. She was evidently on good terms with successive popes, renowned as a protector of the poor and sick in Le Mans, and ultimately founded a monastery at l'Epau as the crowning achievement of a life of public piety. Trindade does not address the possibility that Berengaria emerged as a strong character only when widowhood rendered this essential to survival. But her detailed portrait of what can be ascertained of Berengaria's life is an enlightening and valuable contribution to our understanding not only of this woman but also of the conditions for queens and noblewomen throughout 12th and 13th-century Europe.

Joanna L. Laynesmith is a lecturer in medieval history, University of Oxford.

Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England

Author - Alison Weir
ISBN - 0 224 04424 9 and 0 712 67317 2
Publisher - Cape
Price - £20.00 and £8.99
Pages - 444

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