In 1137, Eleanor of Aquitaine, orphaned by her father’s death, is deeded Aquitaine and Poitou by his deathbed will, suddenly the pawn of any powerful man who should wish to control her and her lands. Thwarting the helplessness of her position, Eleanor engineers a masterful plan, or so it seems at the time: she cobbles together a marriage with the son and heir of Louis the Fat - Louis VII, “pale, blonde, beardless, soft as a girl, with meek eyes cast down like a novice monk’s.”
This is an impulsive match that Eleanor will have cause to regret as the years pass, Louis being a stern spiritual taskmaster with a cold and passionless heart. More brutal in his icy contempt for others than any knight in his command, Louis is bereft of compassion, as rigid in his beliefs as a saint and just as dangerous. He and his faithful retainers treat Aquitaine and Poitou as though they are the poor stepchildren of his realm, earning the enmity of Eleanor’s subjects.
Assuming Louis has more political skills than he actually possesses, Eleanor has made a terrible and far-reaching blunder, one she will have to make peace with in an effort to protect her people and bring prosperity to the region. The future King of France might better spend his days in self-flagellation and repentance in a dank monastery cell, in love with austerity and self-denial, relinquishing the joys of the marriage bed except by necessity.
Louis the Pious never appreciates his wife’s political acumen, too enraptured by the nature of sin to live in the real world. Forced to accompany him on crusade in 1147, Eleanor views firsthand her husband’s venality and petty jealousies, his homage to the patriarchal system that restricts her power and potential. Louis leaves the land of the infidels after a humiliating defeat, revising his accounts of the battles until he has reached the status of hero.
Attaining her womanhood despite a stifling marriage to the intransigent Louis, Eleanor is anxious to be free of this poor match. She makes yet another educated gamble, aligning herself with the future King of England, Henry Plantagenet, a red-haired upstart a decade her junior, who in turn will become a brilliant ruler on his own merits.
For a brief and dangerous period, Ball’s decidedly feminist-friendly Eleanor is pawn to any man who can claim her once she leaves Louis’ protection. Eschewing the emotional vacuum of her marriage to Louis, Eleanor risks all for a future with Henry, one she is sure will be fulfilling and passionate: “From the devil he comes, and to the devil he’ll go.”
Never a pawn of history nor a frivolous or unfaithful wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine survives indifference, betrayal and a natural prejudice against the female sex, born to rule: Queen of France, future Queen of England, and mother of Richard the Lionheart. Unfortunately, Louis is too blinded by asceticism and his own virtue to appreciate the value of such a royal consort.