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The Eleanor myth

June 13, 2014

If you have ever heard of Eleanor as a person, the chances are that the impression you received was that she was a very sweet, kind, unobtrusive person.  This is almost hilariously far from the truth.  While she kept out of sight of the chroniclers and therefore can be inferred to have attracted far less widely disseminated controversy than her mother in law, Eleanor of Provence, the Eleanor I have found was an extremely forceful personality whose undoubted kindness to those she cared for was counterbalanced by a fierce temper and a great fondness for having things done her way.

The gradual genesis of this myth was unravelled by John Carmi Parsons, and is recounted in Chapter 17 of my book.  But its prevalence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be attributed to three influential sources: Agnes Strickland's Lives of the Queens of England, Botfield and Turner's Manners and Household Expenses of England in the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Centuries and Thomas Costain's Plantaganets series.  Each of these containes a firm statement about Eleanor's kindness and sweet temper, suggesting that no other view of their subject was possible.

But these themselves only served to reinforce an existing visual image, an obvious favourite in late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century art: Eleanor saving Edward from the assassin's poison.  This fabrication (not even accepted by Strickland) nonethless was so prevalent that it formed one of Routledge's chosen images in their "Illsutrations of England from the Earliest Times", which formed part of their Shilling Toy Books series in the 1850s: see above.

Together these two misleading impressions have proved remarkably enduring - both featured in the portrait of Eleanor provided by Jean Plaidy - which was probably my own first introduction to her story!

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