I really, really, really loved this book when it first came out. It’s still pretty great, but on a disappointing note I think I might be the first person to take it out from my local library because it’s in pristine condition. Kids these days don’t know what they’re missing! Full-on romance, courtly love, beautiful gowns, everything you need from a romance in the twelfth century.
Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine, France, 1136, Kristiana Gregory, 2002.
Eleanor is one of the most interesting women in French and English history—queen of France, Crusader, queen of England, prisoner, dowager queen and mother of Richard I and John I—wow, there’s a lot going on in her life. This book alludes to some of it, but it doesn’t become overwhelming or irritating with its “let’s preface the future, tee hee” hints—it’s just an interesting window into her early life, which is frequently overshadowed in favour of the zillions of interesting things that happened later in her life.
As we open, Eleanor is thirteen and living in Poitiers with her younger sister, Petronilla, and her grandmother and the rest of the court. She has a crush on one of the knights, Clotaire, and spends a lot of time writing about how dreamy and strong he is, which is…pretty realistic. The girls’ father has been excommunicated by the Pope for supporting the antipope, and the court in general is quite, ah, lusty. “Petra’s gown is emerald, mine blue, and our shoes are white silk beaded with pearls. When we dance we may have to kick out our feet to show them off.” That right there, that’s probably 90% of the reason I liked this so much as a kid.
The girls’ father announces he’s going to be married to the widow Emma of Cognac, which worries them—afraid he’s looking for a son to inherit and boot both of them out of the line of succession. But before he can get married, Emma is kidnapped by the count of Angouleme and married by force, which absolutely crushes her father. They go on progress to the other castles and reach Talmont on the coast by June, which is where Eleanor’s mother and younger brother died not that very long ago. So, super cheerful and great memories, I’m sure.
Eleanor has to stay in Talmont while her father mounts an invasion party to Normandy, even though she’s worried that one of the barons will try to overtake the castle while he’s gone and she’s afraid something will happen while he’s gone. And indeed, after he leaves, Eleanor and Petra are almost kidnapped by a group of bandits and just barely rescued by their knights. (The bandits are then beheaded.) They speculate that one of the barons was behind it, but there’s no evidence—just worries.
When the duke returns from Normandy, he’s very changed—he’s no longer noisy and blustery and angry, he’s quiet and subdued and haunted by something terrible that must have happened. He’s filled with remorse and shame for the terrible things he did on the battlefield, and never wants to go to war again, and wants to return to the Church and be forgiven. So he opts to go on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain—and he wants Eleanor to be married off as quickly as possible in order to secure her future. So when she turns fourteen, her father has all the knights swear their loyalty to her and promise that in the event of his death, none of them will seize power for themselves.
Eleanor’s voice throughout this whole book is a wonderful blend of maturity and youth. She flip flops between beautiful gowns and Clotaire the knight, and worrying about her father and the future of Aquitaine. Sometimes in the same diary entry. It’s remarkably well done. I love a story that does a good job of displaying the duality of youth—teenagers can be remarkably prescient and wise sometimes while complete idiots other times, and this is such a perfect example. I mean, Eleanor isn’t ever really an idiot, but she’s definitely not as mature as she thinks she is in a lot of ways.
The duke is very changed, but no one really believes he’s really and truly a different person. Everyone thinks he’s putting on an act and he’ll be going to Spain to recruit soldiers for another campaign, instead. When they return to Poitiers in the fall, he confesses to Eleanor that he is prepared for his death and if he does die, the king will be their guardian and see that she’ll marry well. He forbids her and Petra to go with him on the pilgrimage.
On another funny note: Kristiana Gregory likes to toss in little shout-outs to her other books. Her Dear America books Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie and Seeds of Hope are loosely connected, and in this book Eleanor writes that in her history reading, “The only romance so far is about Cleopatra VII. Josephus says that Marc Antony was ‘a slave to his passion for her.’” She also wrote Cleopatra: Daughter of the Nile, where Cleopatra and Marc Antony met and began to fall in love. (Young Adult Historical Vault: come for the recaps, stay for the absurdly minor trivia!)
Let’s touch on courtly love for a bit—while Eleanor is fully aware she’ll be marrying some wealthy duke or possibly a prince, that doesn’t stop her from exchanging poetry with Clotaire and having the court musician compose songs about him. There’s nothing wrong with it, either, it’s fully accepted by everyone at the court and not at all unusual. This is like an introduction to the concept of courtly love for young people—contained, highly artistic expressions of love that were never intended to be part of marriage, but instead were an “ennobling passion.”
In March, the duke leaves on his pilgrimage, taking only a few men and a brooch shaped like a scallop shell (which is the symbol for pilgrims traveling to Santiago even today). The archbishop of Bordeaux looks after Eleanor and Petra in the meantime, while the girls try to keep busy by studying and writing poetry and trying not to fret about their father.
But after several weeks away, they receive couriers with the terrible news that the duke is dead—not from anyone plotting against him, but just from eating undercooked fish. The king sends his couriers immediately, saying that Eleanor and the prince and heir to the French throne, Louis the Younger, must be married immediately. So in the span of a couple of weeks, Eleanor has lost her remaining parent, become the duchess of Aquitaine, and is in a couple weeks more will be married to the prince of France. She’s so shell-shocked by all of this that she can barely contemplate anything more than the wedding itself.
The prince begins to head for Bordeaux, bringing five hundred knights and all their associated baggage and servants and all the other necessities for royal life. They wait for his arrival while Eleanor worries about what it will be like to live at the court in Paris and how different it will be from their life in Aquitaine.
Eleanor and the Prince meet by accident, when Eleanor and Petra escape the castle and go wading in the river and the archbishop freaks out at them—and Louis is one of the bare-chested young men wading in the water and helps them out of the river. Eleanor likes the look of him at first, and thinks he seems nice, but a bit more stiff and proper than she’s used to. (This is foreshadowing. A tiny bit of it. It gets worse, Eleanor, buckle up.) He mentions that the people of Aquitaine are more passionate and “more bold” than in Paris, and Eleanor begins to fret that everyone in Paris will make fun of her accent and clothing and, you know, attitude towards life.
Eleanor’s grandmother keeps reminding her that it’s not about love—it’s a duty—and maybe love will come later. That becomes a bit less pressing when they’re notified that one of the counts may attempt to kidnap Eleanor on the way to Paris to secure an enormous ransom—so Eleanor and Louis meet secretly to plan an escape. This is the first time ever in her whole life that Eleanor has been alone with a man, as they plan, and Louis even tells her that she’s beautiful and it’s very sweet. And dramatic!
The wedding is just twelve days after Louis arrives—twelve days to do all the work for a royal wedding. Eleanor’s gown “is a brilliant red with pearls sewn along the neckline and sleeves. A robe of the same color has a hood with white fur.” God, what wouldn’t you give to see that gown when it was brand-new and perfectly clean? It must have been breathtaking. (I think that about a lot of historical gowns when I see them described.) Anyway, the wedding itself goes off without a hitch, but that night Eleanor and Louis aren’t even able to spend any time together! Instead, she and Petra and their ladies-in-waiting stay in small tents in the woods, surrounded by soldiers, in an effort to fool the would-be kidnappers until they arrive at the fortress they are traveling to.
It works, though! They travel to the castle, along with several of the nobles who have come to congratulate them—and several of the knights, including Clotaire! Aww. Courtly love. (This story has no details about consummation of the marriage, because it is for young people.) Anyway, they eventually arrive back in Poitiers, where they are shortly greeted by messengers saying that one of the barons has seized a castle, and Louis and his knights must go off to take it back. They kill the bandits and chop off the baron’s hand. And by they I mean Louis, who has never so much as killed a rabbit before. Hidden depths.
The final blow is when they are traveling to Paris and are greeted by the abbot Suger, who gives them the news that the king is dead—and Louis is king and Eleanor is queen. One week of being married.
Rating: B+. Eleanor’s life is fascinating, it truly is, and this is like a very small run-up into the most dramatic parts. It’s a nice little segue into a big, meaty book about her life, and it’s pretty well done. I think if I had to nitpick I’d like more details—the last third or so of the book tends to start feeling a little like a slog with its “almost the wedding, now we’re married, now we’re escaping”—those are not things that should feel sloggy! It just loses a little bit of its tension and drama, which is a shame. The story itself is still quite interesting but that’s because Eleanor’s life is interesting—not the writing itself, which is too bad. And odd, because usually Gregory’s books are chockablock with evocative, fascinating details and you feel like you’re living in them! Regardless, it’s still great and I enjoyed it very much. Now I want to see some beautiful clothes and visit some castles, which is of course how it should be.