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Monday 5th December - Queen Eleanor

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata

Second week of Stabvent! Honestly, I've lost all sense of time as our fridge-freezer has broken down and I have to get everything sorted before Christmas, which is pretty minor as inconveniences go, so I should be counting my blessings.  Let's crack on with a murder!

Monday 5th December - Queen Eleanor

Queen Eleanor (1858) Frederick Sandys


Lovers of Pre-Raphaelite art know this proper nasty tragedy - Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund.  Granted it's Rosamund Clifford that gets most of the attention, hanging around in her tower like this...

Monday 5th December - Queen Eleanor

Fair Rosamund (1861) Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Yeah, yeah, yeah, very pretty, but what of Queen Eleanor of Aquataine, the wealthiest and most powerful badass woman in Europe in her lifetime?  How come she gets all the negative press? And did she really murder Rosamund Clifford? Of course not, but why do we think so?

Monday 5th December - Queen Eleanor

Fair Rosamund (1917) John William Waterhouse
Neither of them was particularly good at hide and seek.


Eleanor of Aquitaine was born in 1122-ish and became Queen of France in 1137 at the age of around 15, not to mention later becoming Queen of England between 1154-1189 and then the Duchess of Aquitaine from 1137 to 1204 when she died.  She had more than enough going on in her life and on top of all that, much of her power and wealth was held in her own right, not as part of her marriages. When we think of Kings trying to ditch their wives because something sexier comes along or they can't have a son, we tend to think of Henry VIII but Eleanor's two husbands, Louis VII of France and Henry II of England tried a bit of that (with mixed results).  Louis managed to annul their marriage 1152 after an estrangement due to a lack of male heirs.  Eight weeks later she married Henry but he was a bit of a philanderer.  He had many mistresses, but Rosamund is the only one that Eleanor allegedly murdered so why was she special?

Monday 5th December - Queen Eleanor

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1861) Edward Burne-Jones


So, the story goes that King Henry was so desperate to keep his beautiful mistress safe from his angry wife that he built a maze and hid her in a tower in the middle. This was all in the grounds of Woodstock Palace, later completely cleared by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough in the 18th century, so only the legend remains.  In order to find his mistress in the center of the maze, the king used a fine silken thread that wove its way through to the hidden love-nest.  You can see Rosetti's Rosamund holding one end of it.  Queen Eleanor being a canny lass found this and discovered the erstwhile mistress.  According to some versions of the story, Eleanor offered Rosamund a choice between a dagger and poison.  In some, Queen Eleanor roasted Rosamund between two fires before stabbing her in a bathtub (which seems time consuming and either one of them would have been ample), in others Eleanor just poisoned Rosamund. In one account, Rosamund just took herself off to a nunnery and died there without being bumped off by anyone. Yawn.

Monday 5th December - Queen Eleanor

Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund (1901-2) Evelyn De Morgan


It is interesting to see the variations in the two women's relationship in the paintings. In Burne-Jones's version, Rosamund looks decidedly nervous; Evelyn De Morgan shows her as seemingly unaware of the impending doom.  I think it is interesting that Frederick Sandys chose to show Eleanor without Rosamund, dagger and poison in hand.  She is off to find her rival, but she looks unhappy in her task.  Not angry or evil or older and witchy, like some of the paintings, just a woman with a distressing task she feels she has to do.
Actually, the stories about Rosamund started during Henry II's attempts to divorce his wife with whom he shared his unhappy marriage. Much like celebrity couples nowadays, stories were spread by Henry's side that Eleanor, who had allegedly been encouraging her children to rebel against their father, was a murderous harpy.  No doubt she was a strong, opinionated woman who did not take well to a back seat role but seeing as Henry II had her imprisoned in 1173 and the affair with Rosamund started in 1174, it seems less likely that Eleanor had anything to do with it. Also, in 1174, Eleanor of Aquataine would have been around my age so can we not have her look like a wizen crone please. That's just rude.

Monday 5th December - Queen Eleanor

Fair Rosamund in her Bower (c.1854) attributed to William Bell Scott


I think we can all agree that we should never believe anything written about women in history and that the habit of pitting one woman against another in terms of beauty and youth is extremely toxic.  Next time you read a newspaper headline of how one starlet hates another starlet, disregard it all and remember Eleanor of Aquataine.  She was utterly marvelous. 
See you tomorrow.

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