A Queen, Two Kings, and a Kingdom: The Story of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Book Links: June/July 2002 (v.11, no.6)

by Pat Scales

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg

Konigsburg, E. L. A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. 1973. 208p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $18 (0-689-30111-1); Aladdin, paper, $4.99 (0-689-84624-X). Gr. 4-7.

The time is the twentieth century. The place is Heaven. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine is sitting on a cloud surrounded by friends and family, waiting for the arrival of her second husband, King Henry II of England. Henry died long before Eleanor, but his life on earth was filled with rather questionable behavior, and he has had to spend some time in Hell--eight centuries to be exact. Eleanor had had some Hell to pay as well, but because she had been a lover and promoter of the arts, and because musicians, artists, and poets greatly influenced the admissions policies of Heaven, Eleanor ascended to the Kingdom of Heaven two centuries after her death. Eleanor, not a patient woman in life, displays some of the same qualities in Heaven, especially when three important people in her life begin revealing her character.

The first to speak is Abbot Suger, who has known Eleanor the longest. He was present when Prince Louis, son of King Louis VI of France, learned that he was to marry Eleanor, daughter of the late William, duke of Aquitaine. Prince Louis was 17, and Eleanor only 15, when they were married, first in Bordeaux and then again in Poitiers. Though Prince Louis was at first doubtful about the marriage, he became enamored of Eleanor's beauty and sharp wit. While they were in Poitiers celebrating their marriage, King Louis VI died, and Eleanor and her groom traveled to Paris, where they were crowned king and queen of France on Christmas Day. Adelaide, Louis' mother, felt crowded out by Eleanor, and believed that her son had been bewitched by this woman, who seemed to know very little about justice and fair play. When Louis and Eleanor decided to go on Crusade, Abbot Suger disapproved. But Eleanor was bored and felt that her life was "silent and without color." It was while on Crusade that Louis and Eleanor began to grow apart and, in 1152, they separated. Next to speak is Matilda-Empress, mother of Henry, the handsome duke of Normandy. Eleanor was 30 and Henry only 18 when they married. In 1154, when Henry's cousin King Stephen of England died, Henry became king and Eleanor once again assumed the title of queen, in a grand coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Matilda-Empress didn't love her daughter-in-law, but she did respect her for her efficiency and desire to learn. England became a different place during Henry's reign. He developed the English common law system, which gave everyone a fair chance under the law, and Queen Eleanor initiated laws for better treatment of women. But things weren't always good between them. Eleanor greatly disapproved when Henry made Thomas Becket the archbishop of Canterbury, and when Eleanor visited Matilda-Empress at her deathbed, her mother-in-law noted coldness in Eleanor--a chill from deep inside.

It is William the Marshal, "a noble knight," who picks up the story next. He begins with Henry's affair with Rosamond Clifford, the reason for Eleanor's coldness and one of the reasons that she returned to Aquitaine. Though Eleanor never mentioned Rosamond to Henry, she took her revenge silently. She trained her sons in chivalry and when they rebelled against their father, Henry punished Eleanor by imprisoning her in Salisbury, near Stonehenge. Finally, Richard, Henry's son (who became known as Richard the Lion-Hearted), teamed up with Philip Augustus of France and waged a battle against King Henry. Henry hated to lose, and he especially hated the idea that his first real defeat had been caused by his son. When Henry died, Richard became king, and Eleanor, now 67, was released from prison and dedicated her time and energy to turning Richard into a great king.

Eleanor relates the last 15 years of her life in the last quarter of the novel. To Eleanor's great distress, King Richard died at the age of 42 with no heir, and his brother John became king. Eleanor was 77 years old when she assumed the impossible task of turning John into a good leader. He became known as John Lackland, and Eleanor attempted to compensate for his inability to rule the kingdom. She developed hospitals, improved the road system, developed a uniform system of weights and measures, and granted charters to towns. More dramatically, she swallowed her pride and paid homage to King Philip Augustus in Paris. Finally, at the age of 80, Eleanor crossed the mountains between Spain and France and arranged the marriage of her granddaughter Blanca to King Philip's son in an effort to keep land and power in the family. Eleanor failed with her son John, and he earned the reputation as the worst king ever to rule England. But her great-grandson, King Louis IX, became Saint Louis, and that was something to brag about to all those sitting on the cloud with her as she waited impatiently to be reunited with Henry after 800 years.

Discussion Questions

  • Discuss the relationship between politics and religion in medieval Europe. The reasons for Crusades weren't always religious. Why did Louis and Eleanor go on Crusade? Explain how Louis experienced a "spiritual crisis." Compare and contrast Eleanor's and Louis' relationships with the church.
  • Why was Eleanor's marriage to Louis considered "a marriage of pomp and pocketbook"?
  • Discuss what Abbot Suger meant when he told Adelaide that Eleanor is "too much woman." Why did Eleanor become bored with her marriage to Louis? Describe their differences. Why did Louis' vassals resent Eleanor? Abbot Suger told Eleanor, "Marriage is a land contract not a love contract." Why was this not enough for Eleanor? Explain the statement that Eleanor felt she was "casting off two winters" when she separated from Louis.
  • "Eleanor was a woman who had seen the world and had profited by it. Henry was a man who could value her experience." How had Eleanor profited by her travels? Eleanor felt that she finally had a mate who could match her "energy and decisiveness." Describe Eleanor and Henry's marriage. How did Eleanor add softness to Henry's manners?
  • Discuss Henry's relationship with Thomas Becket. Why was Eleanor opposed to Henry's appointing Becket the archbishop of Canterbury? Explain why Henry later turned against Becket.
  • What did Eleanor mean when she said, "My husband drained color from everything"? Discuss the importance of color to Eleanor.
  • Discuss what Eleanor did in life that kept her out of heaven for two centuries.
  • It appears that Eleanor knew a lot about psychology. Discuss how she used psychology to turn her sons against Henry. Why were Henry's sons called "the Devil's Brood"?
  • Abbot Suger told Matilda-Empress, "When Eleanor learns about justice, she will be a great queen." Discuss what Eleanor learns about justice in her life. Eleanor felt that she gained a lot while in prison. How did Eleanor change during those years? At what point did she become a great queen?
  • How might Eleanor be considered a feminist?
  • Discuss how the title of the novel reflects Eleanor's character.
  • Talk about the structure of the book. Debate whether the book falls under the genre of biography or historical fiction. How does Konigsburg use humor to add color to Eleanor's story?

Activities

  • Eleanor was enchanted with the mosaics in Constantinople. Find pictures of mosaics such as one would expect to see in Constantinople, and re-create some of the designs using construction paper.
  • Find out the qualifications and training for becoming a knight. How is knighthood different in England today than in medieval times? Queen Elizabeth II recently knighted former New York mayor Giuliani. Plan and dramatize Giuliani's knighting ceremony in the style of medieval England.
  • How did people become saints in the eyes of the church? Research the life and death of Thomas Becket. Why did he become a saint? How did King Louis IX, Eleanor's great-grandson, become a saint?
  • King Henry II laid the found-ation for the court system in England. Research how the British court system works today and discuss Henry's influence on current practices.
  • Research the failed relationship between King Henry II and Thomas Becket. Henry is said to be responsible for Becket's murder. Conduct a mock trial, charging Henry with Becket's death.
  • William Shakespeare wrote plays about several Henrys, but he never wrote one about Henry II, and, in the book, Eleanor was quite unhappy with him. Stage a scene where Eleanor confronts Shakespeare in Heaven and tells him why he should have written about Henry II.
  • Write a eulogy for Richard the Lion-Hearted that Eleanor might have delivered at his funeral.

Bibliography

Related Fiction
Branford, Henrietta. Fire, Bed, and Bone. 1998. 128p. Candlewick, $16.99 (0-7636-0338-4).
In this novel, set in 1381 during the rule of King Richard II and told through the character of an unnamed dog, the Peasants' Revolt is described in great detail and with suspense.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales. Translated and adapted by Barbara Cohen. Illus. by Trina Schart Hyman. 1988. 104p. HarperCollins, $21.95 (0-688-06201-6).
Four of Chaucer's more famous tales are retold in a narrative that appeals to children, and Hyman's period illustrations help to illuminate the medieval times.

Cushman, Karen. Catherine, Called Birdy. 1994. 176p. Clarion, $16 (0-395-68186-3); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.95 (0-06-440584-2).
In England in the year 1290, 13-year-old Birdy is caught up in the tough life of the Middle Ages and struggles against her father's efforts to arrange a marriage for her.

Cushman, Karen. The Midwife's Apprentice. 1995. 128p. Clarion, $10.95 (0-395-69229-6); HarperTrophy, paper, $5.95 (0-06-440630-X).
In another story set in medieval times, a homeless girl living in a dung heap is taught the skills of midwifery by the woman who finds her. The girl eventually becomes a very successful midwife because of her kindness and her true understanding of human nature.

Related Nonfiction
Dobson, Mary. Medieval Muck. Illus. by Vince Reid. 1999. 32p. Oxford, paper, $7.95 (0-19-910528-6).
Information about daily life in a medieval village is revealed in an entertaining trip that takes readers to the depths of the castle's dungeons, and through the threat of the Black Death, and reveals the dangers of the Crusades. This title is part of the Smelly Old History series.

Gibbons, Gail. Knights in Shining Armor. 1995. 32p. Little, Brown, $15.95 (0-316-30948-6); paper, $5.95 (0-316-30038-1).
Every aspect of knighthood, from apprenticeship to the battlefield, is explored in colorful watercolor illustrations. Though intended for a young audience, this book is an excellent tool for introducing older students to the training and responsibilities of a knight in the Middle Ages.

Hanawalt, Barbara A. T he Middle Ages: An Illustrated History. 1999. 160p. Oxford, $29.95 (0-19- 510359-9).
This history of the Middle Ages provides scholarly information about the Crusades, feudalism, and the prominent royal families who ruled the lands at this time.

Hatt, Christine. The Crusades: Christians at War. 2001. 64p. Watts, $22 (0-531-14610-3).
This brief overview of the Crusades provides detailed and colorful illustrations that communicate a clear connection between politics and religion during the Middle Ages.

Le¢n, Vicki. Outrageous Women of the Middle Ages. 1998. 128p. Wiley, paper, $12.95 (0-471-17004-6).
Complemented by original black-and-white illustrations, these brief biographical sketches of some of the more colorful women of the Middle Ages are an excellent source for further study of this period.

Macdonald, Fiona. How Would You Survive in the Middle Ages? 1995. 48p. Watts, paper, $7.95 (0-531-15306-1).
This pictorial journey through a medieval town discusses how people lived and worked.

Meltzer, Milton. Ten Queens: Portraits of Women of Power. Illus. by Bethanne Andersen. 1998. 144p. Dutton, $24.99 (0-525-45643-0).
Meltzer presents brief biographies of 10 queens, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, who were determined to succeed in the male-dominated world in which they lived.

Nikola-Lisa, W. Till Year's Good End: A Calendar of Medieval Labors. Illus. by Christopher Manson. 1997. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16 (0-689-80020-7).
Full-color illustrations, done in medieval style, and well-researched information reveal the day-to-day activities of medieval peasants throughout the year.

Platt, Richard. Stephen Biesty's Incredible Cross-Sections. Illus. by Stephen Biesty. 1992. 48p. Knopf, $19.95 (0-679-81411-6).
These cutaway illustrations of various structures, including a medieval castle, provide excellent information for further research.

Steele, Philip. Castles. 1995. 64p. Kingfisher, $16.95 (1-85697-547-9); paper, $10.95 (0-7534-5258-8).
Every aspect of medieval castle life, including the structure of the castle, the castle town, and what it was like living under siege, is presented in double-page spreads with pertinent information accompanying each illustration.

Pat Scales is director of library services at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina, and is the author of Teaching Banned Books: 12 Guides for Teachers (ALA Editions, 2001).