When that nice Judith Keppel became the first person to win the jackpot on TV’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? it was because she correctly identified the wife of King Henry II as Eleanor of Aquitaine. The quiz compilers presumably thought this question so arcane that their million would be safe. This is a strange and sad epitaph for a remarkable woman (Eleanor, not Judith), but ours is an era when history has been relegated to a minor option at school, with a recent New Labour Education Secretary sneering at those who study the Middle Ages. Yet, judged by modern standards, Eleanor was a mega-celebrity with a reputation for sexual scandals and a lust for power, great wealth, two royal husbands and a brood of troubled children, among them the polar opposites ‘good’ King Richard the Lionheart and ‘bad’ King John. For Shakespeare, she was a ‘cankered grandam’, for Swinburne a poisoner, for Agnes Strickland, Victorian author of Lives of the Queens of England, an intransigent Amazon.
Despite the negative assumptions of the quiz, modern historians and biographers have covered Eleanor’s life well. And what a life it was, the various twists and turns enhanced by her excellent health and exceptional longevity. Traditionally supposed to have been born near Bordeaux in 1124, and becoming the