At the beginning of 1948, Harvard University Press unenthusiastically received a manuscript from Amy Kelly, a seventy-year old woman who had been a headmistress at a girl’s school and a teacher of English composition at Wellesley College. Published in 1950, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings became the Press’s first New York Times bestseller, landing first at the #10 spot and remaining on the list for months. The book, which in 1971 was in the first group of paperbacks ever to be published by HUP, is one of the 100 significant titles we’ve chosen to commemorate our first 100 years. Below, longtime HUP sales representative Patricia Nelson reflects on the book, an excerpt of which you can read at our centennial site.
Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings bears re-reading with grace. Amy Kelly’s tightly woven prose tapestry might well have been described by Helen Sword in her practicum on Stylish Academic Writing: “serious, entertaining, straightforward, poetic, unpretentious, ornate, intimate, impersonal, and much in between.” Kelly lyrically inflects her portrait of Eleanor with sagacity, charm, gallantry, nobility, qualities the author attributes to highly stylized crowned heads carved on a Romanesque capital taken from the Langon chapel near Bordeaux and now in The Cloisters. That these are now thought not to be portrait heads of Eleanor and Henry II does not diminish the luminous restraint with which Kelly reads, beneath the stone’s wise calm, the age in which it was carved and its queen.
At perhaps fifteen, upon the sudden death of her father Count Guillaume of Poitou and Aquitaine, the Duchess Eleanor became heiress to one of the “goodliest” patrimonies of the feudal world. “The fief of the duchess was rich and desirable in itself; but its special importance was that its addition, through the marriage of its heiress to any other domain in western Europe, would raise that domain to preeminence over all others.” Her overlord Louis the Sixth married Eleanor in haste to his monkish second son and surviving heir, soon to be Louis VII. Eleanor is Queen of France in the Paris of Peter Abelard, of scholasticism and young men “consuming the last inch of candle wax to snare universals, corporeal or incorporeal.”
In the heat of civil war, Louis’ ravages and atrocities finally overcome him with remorse; the ultimately calamitous Second Crusade offers “the succor of Jerusalem.” Eleanor accompanies her husband on the years of crusade, but conflict and the lack of a male heir lead to separation. Eleanor secures an annulment, after fifteen years of marriage and two daughters, on grounds of consanguinity. Scarcely eight weeks later, Eleanor marries Henry, Duke of Normandy, a Plantagenet soon to wrest the crown of England. Her lands joined with his will create Henry’s destiny, the Angevin Empire stretching from the Pyrenees to England and Ireland, “a destiny owed not wholly to his own merit nor to Angevin contrivance, but also to some happy conjunction of the planets… It had been a lucky stroke determining the future fatefully—his unexpected capture of the Countess of Poitou.”