Eleanor of Aquitaine and Alaïs of France: a study in contrasts

Queen's Pawn Christy English

Queen's Pawn Christy English

I am honored to host a guest post by fellow writer Christy English, whose début novel, THE QUEEN’S PAWN, has just been released. Christy kindly agreed to tell us more about the two French princesses, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Alaïs of France, who are the protagonists of her novel.

Christy English

Christy English

At only nine, Alaïs is sent to live in England to wed Richard, son of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Alais is an innocent pawn on the chessboard of dynastic marriage, her betrothal intended to broker an uneasy truce between France and England.

Estranged from her husband, Eleanor sees a kindred spirit in this determined young girl. She embraces Alaïs as a daughter, teaching the princess what it takes to be a woman of power in a world of men. But as Alaïs grows to maturity and develops ambitions of her own, Eleanor begins to see her as a threat. Their love for each other becomes overshadowed by rivalry, betrayals, revenge, conflicting passions, and a battle over the throne of England itself.

But let’s listen to what Christy herself has to say about these two ladies of power.


Aleanor of Aquitaine Queen of France

Eleanor of Aquitaine Queen of France

Eleanor of Aquitaine was an amazing woman. She was a brilliant politician and an heiress rarely seen in any age. The lands she inherited from her father stretched over what is now most of southern France. The power and wealth that those lands gave Eleanor served her all her life, as first she married Louis VII of France, and later when she married the man who would become King Henry II of England. At every moment of her life, Eleanor made hard choices, and she lived with the consequences of the choices she made.

Princess Alaïs had a very different life. Sent away from her home at the age of nine to marry her father’s enemy, she did not choose her husband, as almost no woman did during the medieval period. Forced to grow up among strangers in an effort to keep the fragile peace between the kingdom of France and the lands of Henry II of England, Alaïs had very few choices in her life. In my novel, THE QUEEN’S PAWN, I ask the question: what would have happened if Alaïs had been a political player?

But unlike Eleanor, the historical Alaïs rarely made choices of her own. Others chose the course of her life for her: her father, King Louis VII of France, her fiancé, Richard the Lionhearted, King Henry II of England, and Eleanor of Aquitaine herself. Princess Alaïs had to live with the consequences of the choices made by others on her behalf. In this way, her life was more like that of most titled women in the medieval period. Constrained by the limits enforced by religion and by a woman’s duty to always defer to the men who controlled her future, Alaïs did not have the opportunities Eleanor had to defy the men in her life. For Eleanor had wealth and power in her own right, and the brains to use them.

The vast duchy of Aquitaine served Eleanor always, even when she was maintaining a presence in her husband’s court. Spending most of her life in her husband’s domains, first Louis VII’s of France and later Henry II’s of England, Eleanor still kept the backing of her barons, the men who had served her father before her. These barons accompanied her on Crusade when her husband Louis VII took up the cross to travel to Jerusalem, and the fealty of these barons remained with her even once her marriage to Louis was annulled. Months later, when she married Henry of Normandy, who was about to reclaim the throne of England, Eleanor still had the loyalty of her barons, and that loyalty gave her strength and power in a world of men..

Though Alaïs served the throne of France all her life, she never had a semblance of the autonomy that Eleanor enjoyed. First, Alaïs went among her father’s enemies to secure the peace with her life and the lives of her children. And when Richard the Lionhearted would not fulfill their marriage contract, Alaïs returned home to marry where her brother, King Philippe Auguste, bid her. Princess Alaïs lived a life of duty and of hardship, a life of limits that Eleanor never experienced.

Every time someone made the mistake of attempting to force Eleanor of Aquitaine into a role she did not want, she would bide her time and gather her strength, so that she might set herself free from those limits and rule her own life. Even during the years when her second husband, Henry II, locked her away for rebelling against the crown, she bided her time, for she knew that one day, she would again be free. And upon her husband’s death, her favorite son, Richard the Lionhearted became king. His first order of business, even before seeing to his father’s burial, was to send word to Eleanor’s jailors to let her go.

Eleanor ended her life seeing not one son, but two, sit on the throne of England. She lived a full life of political challenges, and always managed to make her way successfully in the world of men. Princess Alaïs did not share her fate, but I hope that she found some happiness in her arranged marriage to William of Talmont, Count of Ponthieu. Though history has left the second half of Alaïs’ life in the shadows, I hope that she lived, if not by her own choice, then with joy.

Eleanor of Aquitaine Henri II Fontevraud tombs

Eleanor of Aquitaine Henri II Fontevraud tombs

FTC Disclosure: Christy and I are both published by imprints of the Penguin Group.

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