• Lisa Sysun

Eleanor of Acquitaine

Updated: Jan 2, 2019


Poitiers Cathedral The East window of Poitier’s Cathedral. Detail of the Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine panel.

Born in 1122 as the oldest of three children to William X, Eleanor (or Aliénor) grew up in the cultured court of Poiters. Her grandfather, intelligent and outrageously sensual, was regarded as the first troubadour.[i] By all accounts, she received the best possible education. Eleanor learned arithmetic, history and domestic skills. She developed conversational skills (native tongue was Poitevin, but she also read and spoke Latin), excelled at dancing, and was adept at music, literature, riding, hawking and hunting.

When your maternal grandmother, the mistress of William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, is named Dangerose, there’s a strong chance you’ll make your mark on the 12th century. Almost nine centuries later, the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine is still captivating.

Succession

Her succession to the Duchy of Aquitaine in 1137 made her the most eligible heiress in Europe. William died on Good Friday during a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Saint James of Compostela in northwestern Spain. But on that day he dictated a will that appointed King Louis VI of France as her guardian. William requested the king take care of both the lands and the duchess, and also to find her a suitable husband.


King Louis, known as Louis the Fat, was gravely ill at the time. His heir, Prince Louis, had originally been destined for monastic life, but became the heir apparent when Phillip, his older brother, died in a riding accident. Rather than act as guardian to the duchess and duchy, the king decided to marry Eleanor to Prince Louis and bring Aquitaine under the control of the French crown. The marriage would greatly increase the power of France and its ruling family, the Capets.

Palace of Poitiers, seat of the Counts of Poitou and Dukes of Aquitaine in the 10th through 12th centuries.

Marriage

On July 25, 1137, 17-year-old Louis and 15-year-old Eleanor were married at the Cathedral of Saint-André in Bordeaux. Immediately after the wedding, the couple was enthroned as Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine. There was a catch, however. The duchy would remain independent of France until Eleanor’s yet-to-be-born elder son became both the King of the Franks and Duke of Aquitaine. Her lands would not be integrated with France until the next generation. King Louis VI died of dysentery on August 1st, and Prince Louis became King Louis VII. He and Eleanor were anointed King and Queen of the Franks on Christmas day that same year.

Eleanor’s grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine, gave her this rock crystal vase, which she gave to Louis as a wedding gift. This is the only surviving artifact known to have belonged to Eleanor.

Because of her high-spirited nature, Eleanor was not popular with her mother-in-law, Adélaide de Maurienne, who thought her flighty and a bad influence. According to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “To live with a woman without danger is more difficult than raising the dead to life.” Noblewomen, he felt were the most dangerous of all.[ii] The king, however, was madly in love with his bride, for the time being, anyway.


Power-struggle

Louis battled the Pope for control over a candidate for the Archbishopric of Bourges, and during a war with Theobald II, Count of Champagne, was personally involved with the assault and burning of the town of Vitry. More than a thousand souls sought refuge in a church there and died in flames. Horrified, Louis sought peace with Theobald. In June 1144, Eleanor and Louis met with Bernard of Clairvaux. He scolded Eleanor for ‘her lack of penitence and interference in matters of state.’ She sobbed, ‘claiming to be bitter because of her lack of children.’ Bernard responded kindly, ‘Cease to stir up the King against the Church, and urge upon him a better course of action. If you will promise to do this, I in return promise to entreat the merciful Lord to grant you offspring.’ In April 1145, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter, Marie.


Second Crusade

Being a pious man, Louis was horrified by the massacre at Vitry and decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for his sins. That autumn, Pope Eugene III requested that Louis lead a crusade to the Middle East to save the Frankish kingdoms from the ‘Saracens’. On June 1, 1146, Louis announces that France would join. Eleanor formally took up the cross, symbolic of the second crusade during a sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux. She had been corresponding with her uncle, Raymond, Prince of Antioch, who had been lobbying for extra protection against invasion. Recruiting several of her royal ladies-in-waiting, as well as 300 non-noble Aquitainian vassals, Eleanor insisted that she serve as the feudal leader of the soldiers from her duchy. Her departure from Vézelay emphasized the role of women in the campaign.


Unfortunately, Louis was an ineffectual military leader with no skill for maintaining troop discipline or morale. He also lacked the experience to make informed or logical tactical decisions, and as a result, the crusade itself achieved little. Things went from bad to worse when the crusaders entered Asia Minor. The Byzantine Emperor told them that King Conrad had won a great victory against the Turkish army, when in fact the German army had been massacred. Weighed down by the amount of baggage (reportedly belonging to Eleanor and her ladies) and the presence of non-combatants, the crossing of Mount Cadmos turned into a disaster. The army unknowingly separated and the Turks, who had been pursuing, pounced. Soldiers and pilgrims were trapped, caught and killed. Many men, horses and much of the baggage were thrown into the canyon. Louis barely escaped. Blame fell on Geoffrey de Rancon, Eleanor’s vassal. When the king and queen finally arrived in Antioch, they had a major argument. Traveling abroad brought into sharp focus the discord between the couple.


Rumors swirled that Eleanor was having an affair with her uncle Raymond. When she asked to stay behind in Antioch while Louis continued on to Jerusalem, he forcibly took her along with his dwindling army. Humiliated, Eleanor maintained a low profile for the rest of the crusade. The royal family finally reached Tusculum and she appealed to the Pope for an annulment, citing consanguinity within the 4th degree. The Pope refused, and instead tried to reconcile them. He must have prevailed because a second daughter, named Alix, was born in 1151. With no male issue and facing substantial opposition to Eleanor from many of his barons, Louis bowed to Eleanor’s desire for divorce. On March 21, 1152, the Pope granted the annulment. Their two daughters were declared legitimate and custody was awarded to Louis.


Henry

Traveling home, Eleanor was vulnerable to kidnap and marriage to claim her lands. As soon as she reached Poitiers, she sent envoys to Henry of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, asking him to come at once and marry her. On May 18, 1152, eight weeks after her annulment, Eleanor married Henry, who was eleven years her junior.


It was later asserted by Giraldus Cambrensis, in his De Principis Instructione, was that “Count Geoffrey of Anjou, when he was Seneschal of France, had carnally known Queen Eleanor.”[iii] This affair probably occurred in the years before the crusade. Henry was Count Geoffrey’s son, but he was also a pragmatist. Overlooking the rumors, her age, and the fact that Eleanor had only produced daughters, he sought to greatly increase his land holdings. Their marriage and Henry’s eventual succession to the throne of England created the Angevin empire. This empire included roughly half of medieval France, all of England and parts of Ireland and Wales.


Henry sought the throne of England through his mother, Empress Matilda, whose father had been Henry I of England. Matilda’s cousin Stephen had usurped the throne, but eventually an agreement known as the Treaty of Wallingford was announced and Stephen recognized Henry as his adopted son and successor. Stephen died on October 25, 1154, and Henry became King of England. Eleanor was crowned Queen of England on December 19, 1154.


Over the next thirteen years, she bore Henry five sons and three daughters: William, Henry, Matilda, Richard, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John.

13th-century depiction of Henry and his legitimate children: (l to r) William, Young Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joanna and John.

Their marriage was tumultuous, but cooperative for a time. Henry had a reputation for philandering and fathered illegitimate children throughout their union. Eleanor seemed ambivalent about his transgressions. Men had affairs and were unquestioned. Women, especially noble women, ran the risk of annulment, being shut up in a convent, or worse if caught having an affair, as it would call into question any succession. It was perhaps during the summer of 1165 that Henry began his notorious affair with Rosamund de Clifford.


By 1168, after sixteen years of marriage, Eleanor and Henry’s marriage seemed irreparably strained. Matilda, their oldest daughter, aged 12, married Henry, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria. At the royal court celebrating Christmas in the German town of Argentan, Eleanor appears tohave agreed to a separation from Henry. Age may have had a bearing on her decision. She was now forty-six, an old woman by mediaeval standards, while Henry, at thirty-five, was a vigorous man in his prime. Eleanor may have felt having done her duty, she had no need to remain in a marriage that had gone stale.[iv]


The political situation was also tenuous. Aquitaine defied the authority of Henry as Eleanor’s husband and answered only to their Duchess. Attempts to claim Toulouse, the rightful inheritance of Eleanor’s grandmother, Philippa of Toulouse, ended in failure. Then there was the feud between the king and Thomas Becket, initially his Chancellor and closest advisor and later the Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry battled Thomas over the rights and privileges of the church. He wanted Becket to put the royal government first. Becket’s transformation into an ascetic made matters worse. After trial and exile, compromise and defiance, Becket was murdered on December 29, 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights who interpreted Henry’s complaint (“Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”) as a royal command.


Revolt and Capture

The royal couple’s oldest living son Henry had been crowned king, as was the French tradition, on June 14, 1170, and was known going forward as the Young King. The older King Henry was indeed reluctant to cede power to any of his sons, regarding them as children and expecting them to be satisfied with empty titles. The Young King was a weak, vain, idle, untrustworthy and irresponsible spendthrift.[v]


By 1173, unhappy that, in practice, he made no real decisions and was kept chronically short of money, he launched a revolt against hisfather.[vi] Young Henry fled to Paris and went secretly to Aquitaine to join Eleanor and her two other sons, Richard and Geoffrey. Eleanor may have encouraged the lords of the south to rise up and support her sons. After leaving Poitiers, Eleanor was arrested and sent to her husband in Rouen. Taking her back to England, she was held under house arrest for the next sixteen years at various locations. The revolt ended in failure after eighteen months.


Imprisonment and Death

During this time, Eleanor became distant with her sons, especially Richard (who was her favorite.) Although Henry released her for special occasions, such as Christmas, she didn’t see them very often. Her daughters had been married off for political gain (Joanna became Queen of Sicily and Eleanor became Queen of Castile, both in 1177.) Confined mostly to Winchester, she sometimes resided at Sarum, Ludgershall Castle and houses in Berkshire and Nottinghamshire. Her custodians were men whom the King could trust. Eleanor was treated courteously and lived in luxury, yet she was completely cut off from the outside world. Henry lived openly with Rosumund until her death in 1176.


In 1183, the Young King tried again to force his father to cede some of his power. In debt and refusing the offer of control of Normandy, Young Henry tried to ambush his father in Limoges. Henry II’s troops attacked and the Young King was forced to flee. Unfortunately, the Young King caught dysentery and overcome by remorse, begged his father’s forgiveness, asking for mercy for his mother. He died shortly thereafter. Another son, Geoffrey succumbed to a fever and died in August 1186. That left Richard and John, and John was King Henry’s favorite.


The Pope proclaimed a new crusade in 1187 after the Turks, led by Saladin, occupied Jerusalem and most of the holy cities that were a destination to a vast number of pilgrims. Richard would not commit until Henry assured him that his position as heir to the Angevin empire was secure. When Henry refused, Richard knew that his father meant to leave everything to John. Richard eventually sided with King Philip of France, deserting his father and paying Philip homage. Henry by this time was sick and weak, beset by ailments. He died on July 6, 1189. Richard then became King Richard I (also known as Richard the Lionhearted.)


Freedom

One of Richard’s first acts as King was to release his mother from captivity. At sixty-seven she devoted her energies to drumming up support for Richard in England. He had spent most of his life in Aquitaine and was a stranger to his new subjects. Eleanor, Richard and John went on progress.

Coins minted under Eleanor’s rule of Aquitaine.

Taking the Cross, Richard set off on the Third Crusade on June 24, 1190. Eleanor acted as Regent for her son. After successful battles (and a marriage to Berengaria of Navarre), Richard left the Holy Land in October 1192. During the King’s absence, John explored an alliance with Philip II. He hoped to acquire Normandy. When Richard failed to return, John asserted that his brother was dead or permanently lost. Leopold of Austria accused Richard of murdering his cousin and took him hostage. In March 1193, he was handed over to Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor. Henry demanded 150,000 marks (65,000 pounds of silver) and hostages. With her customary vigor, Eleanor set to work to raise the King’s ransom from a land and people bled dry to finance the crusade.[vii] After the ransom was paid, Richard returned home in March 1194. Eager to recover the lands Philip had seized in Normandy, Richard and Eleanor set sail in May for Barfleur. Neither would set foot in England again.


Death of Richard I

Eleanor had retired as a guest to the abbey of Fontevrault, near Chinon, in Anjou, France, a refuge of many high-born widows. At seventy-two, after ruling England for eighteen turbulent months, and having reconciled her sons, she doubtless felt entitled to a rest.[viii] She remained there for much of Richard’s reign. While laying siege to Lord Achard’s castle in Châlus on March 26, Richard was struck by an arrow in the left shoulder by the neck. The wound turned gangrenous and he began to suffer the effects of blood poisoning. Realizing he was dying, Richard sent a messenger for his mother. She crossed the hundred miles “faster than the wind.”[ix] Eleanor arrived on April 6. Richard died in her arms at the age of forty-one after bequeathing his realm to his brother John instead of his nephew Arthur of Brittany.


She had lost her favorite son, the one she called “the staff of my old age, the light of my eyes.”[x] Eleanor would again have to pull herself out of retirement and resume her public role to help secure her youngest son’s inheritance.


King John I

John was invested as Duke of Normandy on April 25, 1199 and crowned King John I on May 27th. Tensions between England and France (Philip harbored Authur of Brittany, Eleanor’s grandson, who also had a claim to the English throne) waxed and waned. John called on is mother, then seventy-seven, to travel Castile to choose a princess bride for Philip’s young nephew as part the Treaty of Le Goulet. During her journey, Eleanor was ambushed, held hostage, and released. It proved too much for her and she retired to Fontevrault. War broke out again between John and Philip again in 1201. Eleanor summoned what strength she had and departed for Poitiers to declare her support for her son. When Arthur learned of that she had sought refuge in the castle of Mirebeau, he attacked. John marched south, overcame the attackers and captured fifteen-year-old Arthur.


John would have had every justification for executing Authur: the young Duke had broken his feudal oath and committed treason against his overlord, had been arrested while besieging his grandmother on his uncle’s territory, and had made plain his intention of invading and conquering Poitou. Arthur eventually disappeared in April 1203.


Eleanor returned to Fontevrault and took the veil as a nun. She died on April 1, 1204 and her death went unremarked in the chaos surrounding the collapse of the Angevin empire.[xi] She is entombed next to her husband Henry and her son Richard.


Tomb effigies of Eleanor and Henry II at Fontevrault Abbey.

Long-remembered and Greatly Admired

Eleanor was strong-willed, politically astute, manipulative, beautiful and worldly. The nuns at Fontevrault recorded in their necrology a glowing but conventional tribute to their late patroness… “who illuminated the world with the brilliance of her royal progeny. She graced the nobility of her birth with the honesty of her life, enriched it with her moral excellence, and adorned it with the flowers of her virtues; and by her renown for unmatched goodness, she surpassed almost all the queens of the world.”[xii]


Well said, nuns of Fontevrault.


Bibliography:

  1. Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life, Alison Weir (1999)

  2. Fiona Swabey, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Courtly Love, and the Troubadours, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004

  3. Amy Ruth Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the four kings, Harvard University Press, 1978

References:

[i] Citation Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: A life, interleaf photo caption.

[ii] Ibid, pg 29.

[iii] Ibid, pg 52.

[iv] Ibid, pg 173.

[v] Ibid, pg 182

[vi] Jones, pp.29, 33–34.

[vii] Ibid, pg 292.

[viii] Ibid, pg 301.

[ix] Ibid, pg 311.

[x] Ibid, pg 313.

[xi] Ibid, pg 342.

[xii] Ibid, pg 345.


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