Elizabeth Chadwick on Eleanor of Aquitaine, and how to push Henry II out of the limelight
RL: I gather I’m interrupting you from a BBQ with Regia Anglorum this afternoon. Anything special on the menu? Did anyone bring something (food, clothing, weapon) that you covet?
EC: It was just a social 21st century chill out in terms of food and drink. We tend to do the medieval recipes when cooking at costumed events, and this was just a jeans and tee-shirt moment for everyone to get together. The conversation involved a lot of historical discussion though. To your question about bringing things I covet. Well, I had had on order for a while some replica medieval clothing from another of our members who undertakes commissions and he arrived with it. You may remember from the HNS Conference in London that I wore a dress made from woollen fabric woven to an authentic early medieval ‘recipe’ based on a find in Winchester. There was some cloth left over and my contact had been busy making a matching male tunic. To go with it, I also now have a male linen undershirt made with medieval cutting and stitching techniques and a new linen under-dress for my re-enactment kit, so I’m all set. None of it is high status, but that’s good. Ordinary medieval wear is so much more practical for shows.
RL: How are you finding the new life in the country? Is it easier to write there? I guess the house must bound up closely in your mind with Eleanor.
EC: I love living in the country (but still close enough to communications). One gets a real notion of the seasons where we are. Also, rather like the house that promises a sea-view that you can just about see on tip-toe from the loo window, we have views on a clear day where Belvoir Castle is a smudgy set of turrets on the horizon. We bought the house so that my husband could garden from the doorstep instead of having to visit the allotment, which used to mean either a 20 minute walk or a short car drive. For me it makes no difference where I write. All I need is my head and the means to take the words out of it and put them on the page. If I’m sometimes short on word count and it’s darts match night, I’ll take my work with me and write in the pub.
RL: So – The Summer Queen – how flattering it must have been to get a 3 book deal on Eleanor! Did you find the life naturally divided up for you?
EC: Not flattering really. I know what I’m worth. It was what I wanted to do – I had been thinking about it for a while – and I deliberately aimed at getting that 3 book contract. It was always a goal, and one I expected to achieve. None of this is intended to be a brag, it’s just stating it in terms of how I saw my career progressing. I’ve been in the industry for a couple of decades now. I know how precarious it can be and I have seen it change in many ways, not least the e-book revolution which has opened many more doors – although you have to be careful of what might be behind them! Sometimes I think people want too much too soon. They expect their first novel to be an instant bestseller but it doesn’t usually work like that. My 3 book contract for the novels about Alienor of Aquitaine is an ongoing career move, achieved mostly by sales built gradually by word of mouth by readers over a span of 20 years. My response to the contract was a bit like my response to getting the call when my first novel was accepted for publication. Rather than being euphoric, it was more of a calm exhalation moment and the thought that now I could get on with the job I was meant to do.
As far as dividing the novel goes, yes, her life does split well into three sections. Her early life with Louis VII, then her second marriage to Henry II culminating in tears before bed-time, and then the role she played as regent and queen mother following the death of Henry II. I want the novels to be as much about Eleanor as about her husbands, even though her second one constantly tries to steal the limelight, even as he stole from Alienor in the 12th century. ‘Tries’ is the operative word. I’m not going to let him get away with it. He has got away with far too much for far too long as it is!
RL: Were there any particular incidents or artefacts that helped you to touch back to the young Eleanor?
EC: There are not many surviving artefacts, but the item known as the Eleanor Vase, now in the Louvre was given by Alienor to her husband Louis VII at the time of their wedding in Bordeaux in 1137. It’s a rock-crystal receptacle of Muslim origins, originally pear-shaped, but now with an added top and base in silver gilt and precious stones added by Louis’ mentor Abbé Suger. When Alienor gave it to Louis, it was a pure, simple, but highly prized and costly thing, and I thought of it as a symbol for Alienor herself. Some historians and novelists take the view that Alienor must have been distraught when Louis gave the vase to Abbé Suger, but that is to put the filter of modern mindset on the incident. Wedding gifts were frequently given away, usually to the Church. The vase was presented to Suger at the consecration of St. Denis at a time when Louis and Alienor were seeking the Church’s intercession in praying for an heir. It’s far more likely that the vase was given with Alienor’s consent.
When Alienor married, she was only 13 years old. You will find some popular histories and some of the older biographies saying that she was 15 when she married Louis of France, but the strong likelihood of 13 is now the accepted stance of the latest research, and it was interesting to write the story from that perspective. A girl of 13 is hardly going to be a mistress of political intrigue, but rather a pawn manipulated by the men around her with their own vested interests and agendas. There’s a tendency to imbue Alienor with power that she never possessed when you look at the bottom line. Influence with her young husband perhaps. Outright power? No. I found it fascinating to explore Alienor’s learning curve and coming to maturity in such an atmosphere.
RL: Petronella’s story was particularly strong in this book. Tell us about her, and how you feel Eleanor related to sister.
EC: Petronella was Alienor’s younger sister. We don’t know how many years younger, but in the novel I’ve made the age difference 2 years. Without going into too many spoilers, and I guess readers can look up the history anyway, Petronella went with Alienor to Paris and became involved with Ralph de Vermandois, a powerful, already married French Baron several decades older than herself. They ended up as a couple, scandalised society, horrified the church, were excommunicated and were the cause in part of a catastrophic war between Louis and his powerful vassal Theobald of Champagne. Alienor supported her sister, and it was probably one of several factors that eventually ended up putting her own marriage on the skids.
I feel that Alienor probably felt protective of her younger sister. Since their mother had died when they were younger children, she probably felt a maternal responsibility toward her too. Petronella I chose to make a difficult project for Alienor – a wild child if you will. I felt the profile fitted well. I was also exploring their family history. Their maternal grandmother was called Dangereuse de Chattelleraut and was their grandfather’s mistress whom he had abducted from her husband. She hadn’t always been called Dangereuse. Her real name was Amaberge. Her lover said he would paint a picture of her on his shield so that she would cover him in battle just as she covered him in bed. I had to wonder how she came by her nick-name, and if she had passed any of those traits on to family members, and decided to explore that idea through the character of Petronella. For anyone wanting to know more about Petronella, I wrote an in depth article about researching her.
RL: The early settings were great, but it was exciting to see Eleanor in the more unusual settings of Constantinople and Outremer. How comfortable do you feel Eleanor was in the East?
EC: You often read about how thrilled she was to be going on crusade, but I took the opposite view in some ways. All that travel, all that slog when she might have preferred staying at home and ruling France in Louis’ absence. I bet she was itching to have a go! There is no primary source evidence for Alienor setting out to whoop it up in the Middle East, but you find secondary sources making assumptions. But still, once on the road, there was the opportunity of visiting family in Antioch, and the experience of travel. Alienor was intelligent and indomitable and would have derived some pleasure along the way. I expect she was interested in meeting Queen Melisende of Jerusalem, a ruling woman who managed to do just that and run rings around the men who tried to bring her down. I expect she found Constantinople fabulous and exotic and probably picked up ideas to bring home. I’ll bet she adored the textiles.
However, travelling with Louis must have been the pits – she asked for a divorce (denied) during this time, and the constant concern about being attacked, about treachery, the wheeling and dealing, the bitching and back-biting must have taken its toll, as well as being forced to do what she didn’t wish. I suspect at the end she was thoroughly heartsick.
RL: It is such a novel of contrasting relationships, and contrasts within relationships, particularly in the bedroom! Do you ever feel uncomfortable writing ‘love’ scenes? Which are more enjoyable to write, the functional or dysfunctional?!
EC: No, I never feel uncomfortable writing love scenes. It’s all part of life. No one ever asks if an author is uncomfortable with writing gory battle scenes! The ‘love’ scenes are all there in the novel to further the relationships, reveal elements of character and drive the story forwards. They may be control scenes, they may be lust scenes, they may be anger scenes, or ‘I am desperately upset and I need you to matter to me’ scenes. There are ‘I’ll get you for this’ scenes. All have something important to say about the characters and the story arc. The functional are satisfying to write because they’re ordered, the dysfunctional are fun and a challenge because of the edginess and the extras one might wish to convey.
RL: Ditto childbirth (the whole spectrum of feelings) is frequently a part of your novels – and Eleanor was no stranger to it. How maternal do you think she was?
EC: I think she was a brood mare during her early marriage to Henry II. Babies were born at regular intervals, often within a year of each other. She seems to pop them out, hand them to a wet nurse and get back with the breeding programme straight away. For much of that time, Alienor appears to have been in the general vicinity of her children – in the same room if not always rocking the cradle. She kept her eye on them. Sometimes she left the youngest behind when she went on her road trips, but at least a couple of offspring could usually be found accompanying her. She seems to have been fond of them, especially Richard, and she kept in contact with the daughters she had by Henry. Her daughters by Louis were another matter and she seems to have had little contact with them (current research shows that she didn’t set up the courts of love with her daughter Marie, as some misguided biographers have suggested). However, we don’t know why there was a lack of contact and it may have had something to do with Louis. People sometimes say that she loathed her youngest son, John, but there is not a shred of evidence for this and is probably down to spin from films and less than accurate secondary sources, of which sadly there are many.
RL: Henry bursts into the novel in especially energetic fashion! And immediately the reader thinks, this is going to be combustible. Do you think either Henry or Eleanor knew had any inkling of the same thing?
EC: Not at the outset. I suspect Alienor thought that marrying a youth still in his teens meant that she had someone she could mould and manipulate. Henry, with an eye to dynasty (a longterm Angevin goal it has to be said and not I think an original idea on his part) saw Alienor as a means to an end. My impression is that early on he played his cards close to his chest. I do think that the combustion that led to the war of 1173 began quite early in the marriage and was down to political factors. Henry had several bastards and at least one long term mistress, but Alienor was a realist. The trouble wasn’t over other women; it was over land, influence, and poltical differences of opinion.
RL: I have to ask how the new novel is progressing. Where have we got to? Can you share with us one of your favourite recent ‘last lines in the WIP’?
EC: Well, the first draft is done but that’s a very dirty draft that needs a great deal of rewriting. I’m a hundred pages into draft two. The Winter Crown will take Alienor from her coronation as queen of England in December 1154, to her imprisonment at what is now Old Sarum in 1174, so covers 20 tumultous years. It’s a lot to fit in, but I’m loving the challenge. I can also say that I’ve enjoyed visiting William Marshal again, and getting to know Henry’s half-brother Hamlin de Warenne.
Every day on my Facebook page I share the opening and closing lines from the day’s work in progress. Here’s the closing one from today (as in the today when I was writing this). The location is the aforementioned Old Sarum, in the early winter of 1158.
“Her life was like this fortress on top of its isolated, windy hill. One reality inside, and another without.”