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Power of a Woman: A Guide for Reading Groups

  1. Eleanor grew up in her father’s and her grandfather’s relatively progressive courts in Bordeaux and Poitou. In the summer “traveling season” her family moved widely through her ancestral provinces of Poitou and Aquitaine. Poetry, music, troubadour entertainments and educated discussion diluted the strict, more absolute aspects of religion in these provinces. Meanwhile, the smaller kingdom of France was dominated by strong churchmen, Abbé Bernard [Saint Bernard of Clairvaux] who preached an absolute, faith-based Christianity, and Abbé Suger, principal advisor to two kings of France. At the age of fifteen, Eleanor’s marriage took her away from the liberal southwest, transferring her to Paris and the rigid, faith-based court of her new husband, Louis VII. (Louis himself had spent his first twelve years as a novice monk.) Was Eleanor’s free (rebellious?) spirit nurtured by her youth in the south, or by her need to escape the claustrophobic cloister that was Paris? Would she have had a different personality had she been reared in Paris?
  2. At a time when love within the confines of a noble marriage was rare, Louis VII seemed to harbor genuine affection for Eleanor, and she for him. Reading Power of a Woman, do you feel that Louis experienced genuine love for Eleanor, or that he “loved” her because duty, Christianity and his wedding vow demanded it?
  3. To what extent did Louis and Eleanor learn positive lessons from the disastrous policies they unleashed in Champagne during their first years of marriage?
  4.  Eleanor comments: “Louis had no skill in rhetoric or reason. As a monk he obeyed; as a king he was obeyed. As a monk he submitted; as a king, he made others submit. Between those two opposing temples his brain conceived no middle way.” Do you feel that Louis’ capacity for reason grew with age, or did he remain a “naïf,” as Eleanor describes him?
  5. Power of a Woman is Eleanor’s account of her life. To a degree her story is therefore self-serving. And yet she can be forthright: “Do all one’s memories speak truth? Some must be wishes masked as recollections, borne as fact upon the current of old time.” On top of that, she adds, “The loneliness of age bestows one singular advantage: no mortal body from my generation lives to contradict what I shall say.” At the age of 81, Eleanor leaves no witnesses! This reminds me of a line from Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, “Time’s advantage goes to the last to die.” How much objectivity surfaces, perhaps unwittingly, in Eleanor’s account?
  6. Eleanor admits fondness, even lust, for two men outside marriage: her uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch, and William Marshall. Such time as she spent with Raymond in the spring of 1148 was closely watched by Louis’ “sniff-nosed” priests and his chronicler, Odo of Deuil. Later in life Eleanor met William Marshall at Henry’s more relaxed courts in Rouen, Oxford and London. As she emerges in Power of a Woman, does Eleanor’s personality lend itself to pursuing affaires?
  7. By 1149 Eleanor was heavily criticized for not giving birth to a son, for her lack of piety, for her lack of obedience, and no doubt for opposing the disastrous military policy in Palestine dictated by the Church and sanctioned by Louis. Nevertheless, it must have required enormous frustration to kneel before Pope Eugenius with one’s husband and demand an annulment! Eleanor explains her several frustrations in the course of Power of a Woman, but attaches no weight to one more than others. What factors convinced her to divorce her fate from Louis’?
  8. In August 1151, Count Geoffrey of Anjou and his son Henry came to Paris to swear oaths of allegiance to King Louis. In the light of what happened the following spring-Eleanor’s marriage to Louis was annulled and she married the future Henry II-was her subsequent marriage the result of an earlier conspiracy? Or was it simply that the newly-divorced Eleanor was once again the wealthiest heiress in the western lands and Henry saw a major advantage and seized it?
  9. During the first years of her marriage to Henry, Eleanor transferred to Angers, a city with a climate of liberal learning not unlike that which she had known growing up in Poitou and Aquitaine. Angers made a refreshing contrast to Louis’ reactionary court in Paris. Once again troubadours flourished in Eleanor’s hall, including her favourite, Bernard of Vendadorn. “The best trobar,” Eleanor writes, “should be a mirror to one’s own best thoughts of self.” She would soon start a new life in England, elbowing space for herself as the newly crowned queen of England. Did her adjustment to the intellectual environment of Angers prepare Eleanor better for her move to London than if she had transferred directly to London from Louis’ court in Paris?
  10. Henry II and Queen Eleanor were crowned in England after nineteen years of civil war. The burden of reconstruction was enormous. The war had broken the Norman line of kings. Coupled with that, the short period of rule by Matilda (Henry II’s mother) gave the English no reason for confidence in the Plantagenets’ abilities. Henry and Eleanor had to win English allegiance. The royal couple’s challenge was compounded because the crown of England brought them the responsibilities of an empire stretching from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees. Eleanor encouraged the arts, and in the first decade of the couple’s reign the writer Wace and others breathed new life into the old Welsh legends of Arthur and Guinevere. Like Henry and Eleanor, Arthur and Guinevere had ruled a large, polyglot empire of many peoples. To what degree did Henry and Eleanor “resurrect” Arthur and Guinevere deliberately, hoping thereby to inherit the mantles of the legendary couple in the minds of the superstitious English?
  11. Power of a Woman records Eleanor as having to compete to win attention in London against the growing influence of Thomas Becket. Would Eleanor have patronized the arts in England to the same degree without this competitive pressure?
  12. Eleanor recounts in detail the breakdown of Henry’s friendship with Thomas Becket. She observed their relationship in its first, most productive years. Could she have done more to avert disaster?
  13. Henry II was a womanizer in the extreme. Eleanor writes in Power of a Woman, “Too many men behave like rams in rut, but surely there were few as hot as Henry. He was insatiable. He sired eight, nine, living children on me as well as more bastards than I choose to count. He lured women to his bed-lust by the score.” Among them was “Fair Rosamond” Clifford. Eleanor devotes (if that is the right word) a short chapter to her anger over Rosamond. In 1167, Eleanor packed her household into seven ships, leaving England and Henry, returning to Poitiers where she established her Court of Ladies. Was Rosamond merely the final straw that triggered Eleanor’s departure, or was Henry’s obvious affection for this particular mistress the stronger motive? Here’s Eleanor: “Henry summoned enough discretion to manage trysts in dark corners of a hall. But Rosamond! With her he must be seen. With her he must display affection. On her he must lavish gifts. Her he must install within a short ride of our palace at Woodstock! You may believe me when I say that Henry was quicker to give the kiss of peace to Rosamond than to Thomas Becket.” This suggests another question: would Eleanor have established her Court of Ladies without this provocation?
  14. The nature of Eleanor’s Court of Ladies is still debated, perhaps because it was misunderstood by male authors at the time. If the Church was less austere than it had been during Abbé Bernard’s life, it was still not ready to embrace progressive views. Badly bruised by thirty years in the male-dominated courts of Louis VII (a “monk” surrounded by clerics) and Henry II (a serial womanizer), Eleanor fled with her women and established their feminine-centric court at Poitiers. (Her Grande Salle still stands.) As Eleanor puts it (Chapter 26): “What child of high estate is not torn with loss when she is exiled to her future husband’s hall? If women are to be put to marriage without love, then let us claim love as our mystery. As such, love is as worthy of study as those mysteries which the Church claims for her own. That was the subject matter we conceived for my Court of Ladies. That, and nothing more.” Eleanor mentions that she drew inspiration from the life of a woman whose memory is sacred in Poitou, the sainted Radegonde (518-587). Here again we wonder: Was Eleanor’s demarche from Henry’s court a matter she had considered carefully, or was she behaving at her most impetuous?
  15. Perhaps the start of the Plantagenet fortunes’ decline began with Henry’s rift from Becket (1162), or with Eleanor’s rift from Henry (1167). Subsequent events suggest that she did not easily forgive. By 1173, when Henry ransacked her court, the couple’s sons were in open rebellion against their father. The suggestion has lingered through more than eight centuries that Eleanor gave the boys more than maternal support: she actively encouraged her sons to assert themselves against Henry. Here is Eleanor (Chapter 33): “My Poitevin father was fierce in his rages, but the constant warring among our sons, and twixt father and sons, was truly a feral thing. And yet, to the end of his days Henry blamed me for estranging his sons, our sons, from him. I raised my boys to be men who esteemed their own rights, not to disesteem their father’s. If it chanced that I spoke harshly of Henry in their hearing, my tongue cut no deeper than the lash his public whoring earned him.” In your opinion, dear reader, is Eleanor’s defence disingenuous?
  16. In 1175 the pope refused Henry’s appeals for a divorce. He then retained a cardinal, Huguezon, as emissary to Eleanor: “Henry had carefully rehearsed this fellow: I heard my husband’s Angevin idioms recited in a stranger’s voice. Via the mouth of his scarlet messenger, Henry proposed a divorce… After which I was to take the veil and hie myself to Fontevrault to reign as abbess. Hah! You notice he dared not divorce me unless I agreed to take holy orders. Otherwise I might convey my lands into another marriage. Nor could Henry leave me in my duchy as a woman seule, for then my liege-lord would again be Louis. By how much Henry feared to lose Poitou and Aquitaine, by so much Louis lusted to regain them. And all at the whim of a woman’s caprice!” (Chapter 29). Rumour persisted for decades that Henry intended not only to divorce Eleanor but to disinherit his sons by her and marry again. Rumour had it that Henry’s intended was Alice, the rejected bride of his son Richard (Lionheart). Henry’s intention: to sire another crop of legitimate sons more amenable to their father’s wishes. (Meaning: They would not grow to maturity influenced by Eleanor.) Poor Alice. She became the poisoned pawn on the chessboard of politics and remained so for decades. Question: Was there substance to the rumour that Henry had designs on Alice? Was it ever more than rumour?
  17. One imagines Eleanor, exiled to England and far from her continental lands, as sidelined. But her exile was porous, and her channels of communication excellent. Skirmishing between father and sons during the period of Eleanor’s exile grew more intense. The ongoing turmoil between father and sons, and among sons, appears dysfunctional to a degree exceptional even for the times, and one wonders about Eleanor’s involvement from afar. Did the troubles start with Henry’s treatment of Eleanor and her subsequent revenge? Did it start from the parents’ “hungry falcons” policy of making promises and then withholding them? Or was it simply that Eleanor was as she describes herself in Chapter 15: “Aleänor, the mother of sons-too many sons!”?
  18. On the death of Henry, Richard the Lionheart attained the throne, releasing his mother to become in effect the Regent of England. In important respects Richard I was king of England in name only: he spent six months there during a ten-year reign. Even before he was crowned, Eleanor took measures to increase his popularity. “Richard, although I gave birth to him at Oxford, was unknown to the English: those who did know him disliked him. Persons of wealth and those who owed military service had, for some years, either paid heavy tithes or risked their lives in Henry’s service to war against Richard and his recent ally, Philip of France. We needed to take popular measures quickly.” Later, Eleanor was heavily involved in financing Richard’s crusade; even more heavily involved in raising a second king’s ransom to free him from the Germans and bring him home again. During the first five years of Richard’s reign she showed remarkable ability for “public relations” (having already done so forty years earlier with Henry) and for her swift, adroit executive action in taxing her people while quashing rebellion. Should Eleanor be considered a sovereign ruler in her own right?
  19. Approaching the end of her tale, Eleanor expounds on the remarkable similarity between the episode in which her son King John seizes another man’s bride and the tragic events described by the Iliad (Chapter 44). “I see it all so clearly. Helen is Isabella of Taillefer; Menelaus is Hughes le Brun; Sparta with its warrior clan is Lusignan; and Paris, prince of Troy, is my foolish John? Nor is that all. Hughes le Brun fed and entertained his betrayer, as did Menelaus. Hughes was sent on distant business, as was Menelaus. Chinon, where John harboured his stolen bride, is the island of Kranai. Timeless Aphrodite, who aided and abetted Paris, conceals herself in my ancient being. And Troy-God help me-Troy is everything my life’s work built to be possessed and ruled by men now dead.” As Eleanor looks back at her “life’s work” over her span of 81 years, is the simile she draws with Troy appropriate?