[Pictured above right is Louis VII and Eleanor of Acquitaine.]
This March, we have been celebrating Women’s History Month at The Joy Club, taking the opportunity to shine a light on overlooked perspectives both past and present. In our creative writing workshops, facilitator Grace encouraged attendees to explore the theme of honouring women from history. We were overwhelmed by the stories that came out of the class, which is why we have decided to publish them over the next few weeks as part of our ‘Unsung Voices’ showcase. Thank you to all our member writers for giving a voice to these women, reigniting the intelligence, love and resilience that burned so brightly in them.
This story is written by Ruth and it begins with a short introduction to her thinking and inspiration behind the piece. Enjoy!
Eleanor of Acquitaine (1122-1204)
Eleanor is perhaps best known today for her depiction in James Goldman’s play and film ‘The Lion in Winter’.
In this, she is in her sixties. Her serial adulterous husband King Henry II had imprisoned her because she had encouraged her sons to rebel against their father. After his death she played a strong hand in royal politics for nearly another twenty years before, worn out, retiring to a convent.
That she was a strong woman, who made an impact in her time, was clear. What I wondered, was how she achieved this, and against what odds.
Looking at her early married years I began to see her as a pawn of Kings, but one with the personality to learn to take them on at their own games, and win a few for herself.
‘Remembered by History’
The quiet crept along the cloistered walls, cell by cell. Only the royal velvet of her embroidered prie-dieu marking her cell out from the others.
The silence closed in on her, giving space for the nightly self-questioning to arise.
So much life lived, but how was it lived? What would judgement say?
In the manoeuvring of self and sons to a place of opportunity. Through the manipulation of the machinations of politics. By being swept along on the currents of the day. She questioned how much choice she had really had.
The draughts pulsed the shadows of her past across the unforgiving stone walls.
Had she been prideful, insisting on going on Crusade with her ladies? Perhaps, but she denied that they went as naked Amazonians.
Was it her stubbornness over her baggage train that truly caused the slaughter at Ephesus? Or did the soldiers and their generals need someone to blame? And why not an obstinate woman who wouldn’t stay home.
Was she admiration-seeking in Constantinople, or just practising the arts of Courtly Love she’d been schooled in as a girl? How could ‘they’ have considered her love for her uncle ‘adultery’. But even so, was she responsible for his losing his head?
Would her marriage to Louis, the scholar King of France, have worked if she had tried to be the self-effacing woman he wanted? Instead, she had had the humiliation of the Pope’s refusal of the marriage annulment she sought. His requirement that she bed her husband and beget an heir. This with the Louis who had forced his unwilling wilful wife under armed guard to Jerusalem. Just how was this marriage supposed to succeed?
And when it didn’t, her husband’s annulment request received immediate Papal approval. For reasons of consanguinity, never the unstated lack of an heir. Not that anyone had queried their third cousin-marriage at the time. It had, after all, been politically expedient. She had felt the Tarot cards of male supremacy stacking up against her.
That she was a planner, an opportunity seeker, she accepted. The world might have been shocked that within eighteen days of her disavowal, she had won the hand of 19-year-old Prince Henry, future King of England. And, that within eight weeks they were married? What choice did he have, seduced by a worldly-experienced 30-year-old ex-Queen? But was it so wrong to assure her own future in a world of men?
Her eyes teased her into tiredness, her coverlets beckoned. Tonight only these early scenes of her life would come under her prayerful scrutiny.
A female bit player on the royal power stage. This first Act had set the scene for the future acts for which the world would know her. A woman who could influence the power play of kings from her prison. But whose husband always let her out for Christmas.
What do you think? Share your thoughts with Ruth in the comments below!