Despite the odd blast from nit-picking scholars, Alison Weir deserves the large and loyal popular following for her readable historical biographies. She seems set fair to tow them after her now that she has embarked upon historical novels about the same characters. But I can't help feeling that she has missed the celestial omnibus with The Captive Queen. Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) is the most fabulous (literally) of subjects. The daughter of her grandfather's mistress's daughter and his son by his long-suffering wife, and sole heir of the vast Duchy of Aquitaine, she was married off at an early age to the King of France. She accompanied him on the Second Crusade, and was reputed not only to have ridden bare-breasted Amazon-style into battle but to have slept with her uncle Raymond of Antioch and Count Geoffrey of Anjou into the bargain.
Divorced from Louis VII on dubious grounds of consanguinity because the couple had no sons, she married Geoffrey's son, Henry. Between them they ruled over Anjou, Maine, Brittany, Normandy, England and Aquitaine. She bore him six sons and three daughters, took more than one lover, and was the toast of the troubadours of Aquitaine.
For 17 years of his 37-year reign, she was kept in some sort of captivity because she supported her sons in defying his authority. She may or may not have poisoned his mistress, the legendary Fair Rosamund of Woodstock (Weir decides not), and she outlived Henry to share the rule of the Angevin Empire with her favourite son Richard (the Lionheart). She died aged 82, halfway through the reign of her youngest son (Bad King) John.
Weir opens her tale with Eleanor lusting in thickets of colourful polysyllables after the rampant manhood of Henry of Anjou; nor can Henry resist her shimmering chestnut tresses and the voluptuous curves that ripple under the thin silk of her sapphire-blue bliaut. With one bound he is by her side and ripping it off. This happens time and time again, so if you too are now throbbing with desire, then you'll love it. Things calm down as Henry wanders and Eleanor ages, but Weir signs off before the really interesting point in Eleanor's reign, her regency of England for Richard I.
Weir's imaginative empathy wilts in comparison with the rich characterisation typical of Anya Seton, Rosemary Hawley Jarman, Margaret Irwin and even Sharon Kay Penman. Given several fascinating reassessments of the role of queens and the power of widows in the middle ages, the flamboyant Angevin Empress deserves better.
Christina Hardyment's 'Malory' is published by HarperCollinsReuse content