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Eleanor of Aquitaine

Nicholas Vincent reads a judicious biography of an intriguing medieval queen

Published: April 27, 2012 at 8:36 am
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Reviewed by: Nicholas Vincent
Author: Ralph V Turner
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £14.99


More twaddle has been written about Eleanor of Aquitaine than about most women in history, Cleopatra and the Virgin Mary not excepted. Hardly a year passes without more legends being contributed to the already toppling towers of make-believe.

Of the real Eleanor, heiress to the rich provinces of south-west France, chief begetter of the Plantagenet ‘empire’, surprisingly little is known.

Even in her lifetime, such details as the date and place of her birth, the causes of her divorce from Louis VII of France, or the real state of her subsequent marriage to Henry II of England were so obscured or exaggerated that myth became inextricably entangled with fact. Ralph Turner’s biography is one of very few capable of distinguishing fiction from 12th-century fact. It also offers a rattling good read.

Those in search of psychological insight may be disappointed. We still know next to nothing of Eleanor’s personal appearance, let alone of her inner thoughts and feelings. Yet Eleanor’s 80 years, as heiress and queen, wife and mother, were so rich in incident and played out against so epic a background, from England to Jerusalem, that merely to recount them is a major narrative feat.


As told here, in Turner’s sober, judicious prose, the exaggerations are smoothed into plausibility and history re-emerges from the myth.

Nicholas Vincent, author of A Brief History of Britain 1066–1485 (Robinson, 2011)


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