Rich and ruthless: how Cherie sees herself?

Blair buys a portrait depicting her as a 12-century courtier

This could be the worst news Tony Blair has had since he stepped down from the premiership. His strong-willed wife, Cherie, apparently thinks that she is the new Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Mrs Blair has paid an estimated £1,000 for a miniature painting of herself depicted as the 12th century queen by the artist Alice Instone. It is easy to see why Eleanor might appeal to someone like Cherie. She was a highly intelligent, decisive woman who was a major power broker in several parts of Europe – as formidable in real life as the character Katharine Hepburn created when she played her in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter.

But being married to Eleanor was a hazard that Mr Blair could do without, now he has opted for a quieter life than he had in Downing Street. One of her marriages ended in acrimonious divorce, while relations with her second husband became so bad he had her imprisoned for 10 years. She outlived both men.

Ms Instone, whose website says that she "makes paintings concerned with gender and power", has persuaded a squad of prominent women to pose as famous figures from history for a new exhibition at the Quintessentially Soho club in central London. Annie Lennox is depicted as Elizabeth I, her daughter Lola is Helen of Troy, the actress Emilia Fox is Marie Antoinette, and the writer India Knight is Catherine de Medici.

The Blairs' daughter, Kathryn, 22, also posed as Katherine Swynford, sister-in-law of Geoffrey Chaucer.

One important distinction between Eleanor and Mrs Blair is that Eleanor was rich and powerful before she was married. She inherited the dukedom of Aquitaine and Lorraine from her father when she was 15. She married Louis VII of France soon afterward. They had two daughters.

She found life at the French court dull, and aged 19 she led 300 ladies dressed in armour and carrying lances to "help the wounded" in the Second Crusade. Her husband was also on that Crusade, which ended in failure and marked the breakdown of their marriage. The Pope granted them an annulment, on spurious grounds. Before long, she had found another husband. He was 11 years her junior and had a temperament much similar to hers. He was Henry II, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy and a cousin to the King of England. Henry II inherited the English throne in 1154.

Henry II was a highly effective King, but unfortunately for Eleanor, he had possibly the most voracious sexual appetite of anyone to wear the English crown. Their marriage produced five sons and three daughters. In addition, he had at least four illegitimate children by different mistresses.

By 1173, her husband's infidelities were too much for Eleanor, now 50. She joined three of her sons in open rebellion against the King, hoping to win the right to rule Aquitaine independently of Henry. But he had the rebellion put down and his wife locked up for a decade.

She came into her own after Henry died and was succeeded by Richard the Lionheart, who is said to have been her favourite son. While Richard set off on the Third Crusade – from which all women were banned, by order of the Pope – his mother guarded his interests at home. When her youngest son, John, conspired with the King of France to overthrow Richard, she rallied forces in his defence.

When Richard was imprisoned on the way home, she ran an energetic campaign to get him released. Later, when she was almost 70, she rode all the way to Italy to fetch Berengaria, daughter of the King of Navarre, to marry Richard. The marriage produced no children, possibly because of Richard's homosexuality.

It was an exciting life that makes Eleanor one of the great heroines of English history.But Mrs Blair must surely be happier to settle for a quieter life free from violence, plots and family feuds.

How they compare

Cherie Blair
Wealth: Nothing inherited, but she's making up for it
Age when married: 25
Husband's power: Prime Minister for 10 years
Husband's character
: Devout
State of marriage: Stable
Children: Three sons, one daughter

Eleanor of Aquitaine
Wealth: Inherited two dukedoms, including around half of France
Age when (first) married: 15
Husbands' power: High. One was king of France, the other king of England
Husbands' characters: One devout, the other a serial adulterer
Children: Five sons, five daughters

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