Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir

Well, I’ve been on a bit of a Plantagenets binge lately, and no mistake!

As you might remember from my glowing review of Blondel’s Song, I am a massive fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lionheart. She’s just incredibly interesting. And so it was with some excitement that I turned to Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England. After all, Blondel’s Song only featured Eleanor tangentially – here was a whole book on the subject!

Eleanor of Aquitaine book cover

Unfortunately, I was… a bit disappointed.

Alison Weir certainly did her research for this book, and there’s a great deal of information on Eleanor’s life and the lives of her children and husbands. And, since Eleanor’s life and times were so interesting and over-the-top (have you ever ridden dressed as an Amazon on crusade? Because it seems Eleanor did), there is still a lot to interest an amateur historian here.

However, I’m just not sure who the book is designed for. It seems to be giving information too basic for someone with prior knowledge of the era, but too detailed for someone reading out of general interest. There is, in fact, too much information, and it is quite densely written. Take this paragraph, for example:

The House of Capet had ruled the country (France) since 987, when the feudal lord Hugh Capet had been elected king after the death of Louis V, the last monarch of the Carolingian dynasty, which descended from the Emperor Charlemagne. The surname Capet, which probably means ‘cap-wearer’ or ‘cape-wearer’, was not used for Hugh until the thirteenth century, and the dynasty he founded was not referred to as Capetian until the eighteenth century.

The paragraph comes from a chapter on the relationship between Aquitaine and France. There is just so much going on here: the name of the dynasty of French kings, the establishment of said dynasty, information on the previous dynasty, the meaning of the name… And, in my opinion, we don’t really gain from knowing all of it, since what we really want to know is how this relates to Eleanor’s life.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor, and possibly her children and grandson.

I did get some things from reading this; it covers the entirety of her life very well, so I now know a lot more about her activities following the death of Richard. However, for a basic level of interest in the topic, I would say: go for Blondel’s Song, or just watch The Lion in Winter.

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The Hills of Norfolk

It may be due to the flatness of Norfolk, a county in which the sky appears to cover the earth as a dome, with no hill or even slope to prevent one from seeing for miles, that its locals, in Medieval times, believed that each hill contained a dragon. After all, when hills are so scarce, and stand out so much, it seems only sensible that they must have been caused by some kind of mythical being.
There is a legend about two of these hills. When a battle took place on the fields below, two dragons were seen rising from their hills, and mirroring the battle that raged beneath them. As with the two warring forces, one dragon was victorious, and the other fled.
A friend of mine, who I would rather not name here, was incredibly interested in the history of Norfolk dragons. She told me this story which she was studying traditions of medieval Norfolk with the University of East Anglia in Norwich.
“I’m going treasure hunting there tomorrow,” she told me one afternoon, over our customary afternoon coffee in the University cafe. “I think there might be something to it. And, if there is a hill that’s been abandoned by a dragon, it’s probably full of treasure.”
I laughed at that, and mentioned that her imagination seemed to have grown too much over the course of her studies. She reassured me that she was joking, but that she thought that perhaps something of the battle might remain in the hills. Although dragons were generally just allegories, she argued, the record of their emergence from the hills might signify something important about the battle itself. I was unsure about this, having already grown incredibly weary of Medieval allegory and the tedious explanations which its authors always ascribed to it, but decided not to argue.
She ventured out to the hill – the one which was meant to have been abandoned – the next day, which was a Saturday. When she visited this hill, she found to her surprise and delight that there was indeed something worth looking for. The hill was largely bare aside from a number of rabbits and a large shrub. This shrub grew up against the side of the hill, so as to completely obscure a hole that had been cut into it. The hole was exceptionally large, big enough for my friend to walk through with her head just brushing against the earth of its ceiling.
Walking through the hole, she found herself in a low cave. Even in the darkness of this cave, she could see something metallic glinting on the floor, and as she moved forwards she felt the sold slither of coins under her feet. Fishing out her phone, she lit up the small space – and found it completely full of all sorts of gold.
There are rules for what one ought to do in the event of finding buried treasure, and I am sorry to say that my friend followed none of them. Instead, a strange possessiveness overcame her. She reassured herself that she didn’t need to tell anyone about this find – not yet, anyway. She needed to find out more about it. Was it a late medieval horde, from the time of the battle? That seemed unlikely. Or was it treasure buried by the Vikings, or even the Romans? It was, for the moment, too dark to be sure. She slipped a few of the golden coins into her pocked. They needed to be properly analysed before she told anyone of her findings.
She told me all of this the following Monday, in hushed tones. She wasn’t looking well – her hair was unwashed and dark circles appeared under her eyes. I wondered whether she had been getting any sleep.
The way she talked about the gold was… disturbing.
“There were mounds of it” she whispered to me, her eyes wide and wild. “Mounds of it, all glittering and gleaming. Armour, crowns, bones, coins, jewellery –“
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted her, “did you say golden bones?”
“No,” she clarified, “there were bones among the gold.”
“Then it was a burial mound?”
“I don’t know,” she mused, “they didn’t look like human bones to me. They looked… misshapen. But the gold…”
She took the coins from her pocket. I could see that she had polished them, and for a moment I could see her interest in them: they did gleam, catching the light in a way that captured the eye. I tore my thoughts from my admiration of the gold to think – how could gold that was evidently so old shine in that way?
She kept turning the coins in her hands, rubbing them, and she smiled for the first time that day.
I didn’t see her again for a fortnight. At first, it was because I became busy with my own work, but then she stopped coming to the university. I thought she must be ill; she had looked awfully run-down, after all. It was only when she hadn’t responded to my calls for a week that I realised something more serious must have happened.
I went to her flat to see her. She didn’t answer the door, and it was only after I had bitten down on my usual politeness and held down the doorbell for several minutes that she appeared.
She looked terrible. She didn’t look ill any more, but rather there was some strangeness to her that I had never seen before. She seemed harder, more determined possibly. She was also standing oddly, slightly crouched as though she was preparing to spring, and her arms and legs seemed to have developed a strange curve to them.
When I asked her if I could come in, she shook her head vehemently.
“What’s the matter?” I asked her, “why haven’t you come in to work?”
She said nothing, only bared her teeth at me. I began to worry – what was wrong with her? Had she gone mad? I asked her again if I could come in, and made a move to enter her flat, but she snarled at me, and bit me. Hard.
I am ashamed to say that at that point I abandoned her. She had managed to bite through the fabric of my shirt, and spots of blood appeared on my arm. But I know I should have stayed. I should have called an ambulance or a psychiatrist, or tried to reason with her. Instead, a deep fear came over me, and I fled. I will always feel guilt for that.
It was only after I had my arm looked at by a doctor that I called one of my co-workers and persuaded him to come with me, so we could decide the best course of action. When we reached her flat, however, it was empty.
I could tell that she was gone. Everything was too neat, too clean, and for some reason all the metal objects in the house had vanished with her.
That was the last day I sat my friend. The general belief is that she had a psychotic break, and may turn up at any time. I have my doubts though.
When the doctor inspected the bite mark on my arm, he wouldn’t believe that I had been bitten by a human. Instead, he reprimanded me for trying to protect my dog. He claimed that the bite mark could never have been made by a human being.
The scar is still there, and there are other things that unnerve me. I felt pulled by that gold, too… I keep my thoughts to myself, but to this day I have kept my distance from the Norfolk hills.