I confess that I have been fascinated with the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine ever since I saw the movie The Lion in Winter in high school. Who was this woman who taunted Henry II, who got under his skin? It was more than just Katherine Hepburn's portrayal, although she was fabulous. I immediately wanted to know more about this woman. Apparently I'm not the only one who is fascinated with her. Countless books have been written over the centuries. Google her name and you'll find thousands of articles as well.
Why this fascination with a long ago Queen? Well, she was the most powerful woman in Medieval Europe, wife to two Kings and the mother of two Kings, founding a dynasty that would rule England for the next 330 years. In her lifetime, she was the subject of scandalous rumors, that she rode bare-breasted on crusade, that she slept with her uncle, murdered her husband's mistress. She was a warrior who helped her sons revolt against their father, and served as regent while Richard the Lionheart went on crusade. She died at the relatively advanced age of 82, in an age when the average life span was probably about 40.
Eleanor was born Alienor of Aquitaine around 1122. Her grandfather William IX was a musician, poet, acknowledged as the first troubadour. He was also no stranger to love or to scandal. After divorcing his first wife, he married a widow who gave him two sons, William (Eleanor's father) and Raymond (who became Prince of Antioch). When his second wife bored him, she was sent to a nunnery where she lived until her death. Instead of remarrying, William decided to abduct a married woman (shades of Uther Pendragon) named Dangereuse (what an absolutely delicious name) who became his mistress.
In time, William decided that Dangereuse's daughter Aenor should marry his son William against his son's wishes. They were married in 1121, with Alienor (Eleanor) following nine months later. Two more children followed, Petronella and William Aigret. Both Eleanor's mother and William Aigret died young, leaving Eleanor the sole heiress to the duchy of Aquitaine.
At the this time, France was not the size that it is now. The duchy of Aquitaine while swearing fealty to the French King, was 1/3 the size of modern France. It was a prize, and whoever married Eleanor would be incredibly powerful. Eleanor and her father were incredibly close. Like his father before him, William X was a patron of the troubadours and storytellers who flocked to the court. Proud of having such a beautiful, lively and intelligent daughter, William made sure that she was highly educated. She traveled with him throughout the duchy, preparing for her role as Duchess.
When she was just15, her life changed forever with the death of her beloved father from food poisoning while they were on pilgrimage. In order to protect Eleanor from being kidnapped for her inheritance after he was gone, on his deathbed, William dictated a will making her a ward of Louis the Fat, King of France. Coveting the duchy of Aquitaine, Louis married Eleanor off to his son, the future Louis VII on August 1, 1137. There was only one tiny catch. Aquitaine would remain independent of France for the moment, but if the union was blessed by a son, he would be both King of France and Duke of Aquitaine.
Like another mis-matched King and Queen, Marie-Antoinette and Louis XIV, Eleanor and her new husband had absolutely nothing in common. While Eleanor was willful and high-spirited, Louis was quiet and pious, regarded by some as a saint (in fact, he was later made a saint after his death). No one, however, would ever mistake Eleanor for being a saint. Before Eleanor could adjust to being a wife, she became a Queen when her new father-in-law died a few days after the wedding.
Never one to sit around doing needlework, Eleanor threw herself enthusiastically into her new role as Queen of France. She got off on the wrong foot immediately with the French court. Even Louis' own mother thought her flighty and a bad influence. Her conduct was constantly criticized by church elders, but it didn't matter to Louis, who was madly in love with his new wife. He consulted her often on matters of state much to the chagrin of his ministers. Eleanor also frequently visited Aquitaine, where she was much loved by her people.
The only fly in the ointment was their lack of a child. Bernard of Clairvaux (who was also a thorn in Abelard's side) insisted that Eleanor was childless because she was wicked. Eventually, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter, Marie in 1145, eight years after her marriage at the relatively advanced age of 23. However, having a child didn't make Eleanor settle down. When Louis decided to go on the Second Crusade, Eleanor announced that she was joining him. Along with a company of 300 women (you can imagine how much luggage they brought). Louis advisors were completely against it until Eleanor also offered the services of a 1000men from Aquitaine.
Eleanor insisted on leading the soldiers from Aquitaine herself. However, the rumor that she and her women dressed as Amazons with one breast bare has been disputed by historians. She did however, launch her crusade from Vezelay, the rumored location of Mary Magadelene's burial. The crusade itself was a disaster. Louis didn't have the first clue on how to lead an army. By the time they reached Asia Minor, things went from merely bad to worse. A group of French soldiers lead by Geoffrey de Rancon, a vassal of Eleanor, were slaughtered by the Turks when they ignored the King's orders to make camp for the night. Eleanor was blamed, since Geoffrey was her vassal, it was assumed that she had given the order to continue to the next plateau. Her reputation was sullied and went down hill even further with the rumors of an affair with her uncle, Raymond who had married Constance of Antioch. Although Raymond had a reputation for being a faithful husband, he paid special attention to his beautiful, flirtatious niece.
Louis and Eleanor had been growing apart, and the Crusade just emphasized how incompatible they were. When Raymond pleaded for Louis's help in defending Antioch, Eleanor took his side. When Louis refused to assist Raymond, Eleanor declared that she wanted a divorce. Louis, who adored his wife, was angry and hurt. When Eleanor refused to accompany him to Jerusalem, insisting on staying in Antioch with her uncle, Louis had her brought out by force. She never saw her uncle again. In 1149 he was killed in a battle against the Muslims. His severed head was sent to the caliph in Baghdad.After a disasterous trip to Jerusalem, Louis and Eleanor returned to Europe by seperate ships. They were both persumed lost for months until Eleanor ended up in Sicily and Louis in Calabria. They reunited in Rome, when the Pope Eugenius III maneuvered events so that the estranged couple ended up sharing a bed. Their daughter Alix was born 9 months later, but it was too late to save the marriage.
Although Louis adored his wife, he was willing to let Eleanor go. He had the future of the throne to think about. After 15 years of marriage, they had only 2 daughters and no sons. Eleanor, of course, countered that it wasn't her fault, in order to have an heir, he had to sleep with her. On March 11, 1152, the marriage was dissolved, on the grounds of consaguinity. This was ludicrous since the close relationship between the two (they were third cousins) had been known before they got married. Their two daughters were declared legitimate and the King was given custody. Eleanor's lands of Aquitaine and Poitou were returned to her.
But Eleanor was not to be alone for long. Two months later, she married the Henry , Count of Anjou and Normandy, son of Matilda, and grandson of Henry I of England, shocking everyone. Not only was Henry, at 18, 11 years younger than Eleanor, but it had been rumored that Eleanor had slept with his father prior to her relationshiop with Henry. According to contemporary chronicler, Gerald of Wales, "Count Geoffrey of Anjou when he was seneschal of France took advantage of Queen Eleanor; for which reason he often warned his son Henry, telling him above all not to touch her, they say, both because she was his lord's wife, and because he had known her himself." But, ignoring his father's advice, Henry "presumed to sleep adulterously with the said queen of France, taking her from his own lord and marrying her himself. How could anything fortunate, I ask, emerge from these copulations?"
Whether or not she slept with his father, Eleanor and Henry were well-matched. They shared similar backgrounds, both were highly intelligent and strong-willed. His physical courage and keen political mind meshed well with her ambition for power. And they were powerfully attacted to one another. They had met while Eleanor was still married to Louis, when Henry had arrived at the French court to conduct peace talks between Anjou and France. Some historians believe that Eleanor and Henry made plans then to marry once her divorce went through. Ironically, they were just as related as Eleanor and Louis were. And his father warned him against marrying Eleanor. His warnings fell on deaf ears.
War broke out between Henry and Louis when the news of the marriage hit Paris. Louis was outraged by his ex-wife's conduct. As his vassal, she could not marry without his permission. Henry won the war quickly, leaving Louis to scurry home to lick his wounded pride. To add insult to injury, Eleanor and Henry also had a son, William, a year after their wedding.
Two years after their marriage, Henry of Anjou was King of England and Eleanor was now Queen of a kingdom that stretched from the Pyrnees to the Cheviots.
Stay tuned tomorrow for more on Eleanor of Aquitaine.