Before the advent of Elizabeth I, there were a number of women who held de facto political power in Britain. In an era when Joan of Arc and the legendary ‘Pope Joan’ were demonised, there were women like Margaret of Anjou who effectively ruled on behalf of their husbands. Eleanor of Aquitaine was a match for Henry II (Henry Plantagenet) and their tempestious relationship is central to James Goldman’s The Lion In Winter. However, to hear Eleanor solely talk about her own life, we have to go a play that was written by Catherine Muschamp…
In Eleanor of Aquitaine: Mother of the Pride, Eileen Page takes on the titular role, and as she is in her twilight years, the queen gives a full account of her life. Like many women centuries ago, women above a certain station were prized for two reasons – land that their husbands would acquire as part of their dowry and their ability to provide male heirs. (Of course we know with hindsight that it’s the male’s X chromosome that’s responsible for siring girls, but such is the irony of history.)
Anyone who has seen George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan knows how during the trial scene, Joan answers the questions put forward to her honestly, but doesn’t realise how ‘controversial’ her remarks are. Eleanor in this play is a very different person in that she knows how the world works and what men in power feel ‘threatened’ by, yet still speaks her mind.
Eleanor’s first marriage to King Louis of France is recalled, as is her ‘inability’ to provide a male heir and the subsequent anullment. Certainly in light of recent renewed interest in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the historical perspective of women as men’s property, Eleanor’s predicament illustrates this paradigm perfectly.
It is, however, as Henry Plantagenet’s bride that her profile grows exponentially. As a woman 11 years older than Henry, Eleanor was on ‘baby-making’ duty from the off. Despite producing a number of male heirs for Henry, things weren’t always easy between husband and wife. Asides from his numerous affairs – of which the relationship with Rosamund Clifford was the ‘worst’, as it was so public – Eleanor makes numerous comments about affairs of state and the major preoccupation of ‘Christendom’ at that time: the Crusades.
It is soon evident Eleanor is very much in favour in keeping Church and State separate as at the time, the Roman Catholic Church had as much political sway across Europe as they did on ‘spiritual matters’. The dangers of ‘mixing the two’ are exemplified by the anecdote involving Thomas Becket, though from a ‘personal persective’, she sees much of society’s attitudes towards women stemming from the Church. As someone who advocates that reason is just as important as faith and that women are equal to men, she is accused of heresy – the same charge levelled at Joan of Arc for threatening the status quo, the patriarchal hegemony…
Eileen Page who plays Eleanor is 92(!), but time hasn’t stinted her mind, energy or acting prowess. Certainly, she’s made Eleanor’s story her own – a ‘survivor’ who has witnessed a great many things and has much to offer in way of first-hand experience.
© Michael Davis 2018
Eleanor of Aquitaine: Mother of the Pride ran at Tara Arts on 16-18 May as part of the Wandsworth Arts Fringe Festival.