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Hurricane Eleanor

The lives and loves of a medieval matriarch.

Nov 22, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 10 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Eleanor of Aquitaine

Hurricane Eleanor

Tomb effigy of Eleanor at Fontevraud

Rob Moore / Newscom

Queen of France,
Queen of England
by Ralph V. Turner
Yale, 416 pp., $35

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) was, as Ralph V. Turner announces in this thorough and careful biography, “the most famous queen in all the Middle Ages and one of the most infamous women in history.” By all accounts a great beauty, she was the wife of two 12th-century monarchs, Louis VII of France (1120-1180) and Henry II of England (1133-1189) in rapid succession, getting along with neither of her husbands in spectacular ways and loathed as a louche southern foreigner by her subjects in both countries.

Eleanor was also the mother of two kings of England: Richard the
Lionhearted (1157-1199) and John (1167-1216), he of the Magna Carta. Actually, she was the mother of three English kings, since her second son by Henry (also named Henry) was crowned in 1170, at age 15, during his father’s lifetime, as was the custom among the Plantagenets. Henry the Young King, as he was called, did not survive his father, dying in 1183, and so never ruled. In addition, two of Eleanor’s three daughters by Henry (among the eight or nine children she bore him) became queen consorts like their mother: Eleanor, who was married off to Alfonso VIII of
Castile in 1177, and Joanna, wed with great pomp in Palermo to William II of Sicily
in 1176.

Eleanor also acquired what Turner calls “a black legend” among the chroniclers of her era that largely revolved around allegations of adultery, although it also included murder and massive clothing expenditures. (That last aspect of the legend was actually true, supported, as Turner points out, by archival records noting procurements of furs, fine silks, and other extravagant items for Eleanor.) The laundry list of
Eleanor’s reputed lovers included her paternal uncle Raymond, prince of Antioch, in an affair that supposedly took place while she accompanied Louis to the Holy Land on the Second Crusade in 1147 (“never take your wife along on a crusade,” a medievalist friend of mine once quipped); the Muslim prince Saladin, another supposed Syrian acquaintance from the Second Crusade; and assorted troubadours. There was also an alleged attempt on her part to seduce the bishop of Poitiers, a man 40 years her senior.

Turner discounts as baseless gossip all these stories, which started circulating during Eleanor’s lifetime and expanded in number and elaboration of detail after her death. They mostly had their origins in monastic chronicles composed long after the supposed events in question, he points out, and monks, especially in England, were notoriously hostile to Henry—and, by extension, his queen—over his role in the 1170 murder of the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who was regarded as a saint even during his lifetime. By the 14th century Eleanor was being accused of having murdered Henry’s favorite mistress, Rosamund Clifford, and of having been descended from demons.

It was not until the 19th century that historians started trying to rehabilitate Eleanor. Indeed, she is now a favorite of feminist historians who have painted her as a Queen Guinevere out of the chivalric romances that flourished during the 12th century, imposing female gentleness and good manners upon the hyper-masculine knights of the courts where she presided.

Turner is a far more cautious historian, and he has built his biography of Eleanor almost entirely out of 12th-century documents that came directly from her or those who surrounded her: her few surviving letters, her charters, tax rolls, and records of royal expenditures. What these materials show is a woman less interested in adulterous flings, feminist revolutions, or chivalrous mores than in “the pursuit of power,” Turner writes. Eleanor, as Turner depicts her, was fiercely devoted to protecting her inherited lands in Aquitaine, to sharing rulership with her two husbands when she could, and to advancing the fortunes of her royal sons. When both her husbands ultimately disappointed her, she reacted ferociously and
even self-destructively.

Eleanor’s experience with powerful but disappointing men started in her childhood. In terms of size, Aquitaine—the region south of the Loire and west of the Rhône—was the largest single territory in France, and also among the most prosperous. Its Atlantic ports, Bordeaux and La Rochelle, were already shipping wine to the rest of Europe. Aquitaine was the oldest part of Roman Gaul, and its residents prided themselves on their cultural superiority to the barbarian Franks of northern France, and on their preservation of Roman civilization through the darkest of the Dark Ages. Most of them spoke Occitan, which is different from French. Politically, however, Aquitaine was a fragmented no-man’s land of independent lords who answered to no one but themselves. Eleanor’s ancestors were dukes of Aquitaine mostly in name only. What they really were was counts of Poitou, in Aquitaine’s far northwest.

Eleanor spent most of her childhood, and most of her adulthood when she returned to visit, in the court at Poitiers, where her grandfather, Duke William IX (1071-1126), cast a long and imposing shadow. William spent his adult life warring against his rebellious nobles, composing amorous and ribald songs (his sobriquet was “the Troubadour”), fighting in the First Crusade (there were four generations of crusaders in Eleanor’s family, the last being her son Richard), and being repeatedly unfaithful to his long-suffering wife. Eleanor’s mother, Aenor, was the daughter of
William’s most notorious mistress, to whom William wed his son and heir, William X. Not surprisingly, an aura of Poitevin licentiousness, deserved or no, tainted Eleanor permanently in the eyes of her northern subjects.

William X died in 1137 leaving no male heirs, so Eleanor became duchess of Aquitaine at age 13. She promptly married Louis. (The gold-encrusted rock-crystal vase she brought him from Poitiers as a wedding present is still extant.) As the second son of Louis VI, Eleanor’s royal husband had been expected to enter the church like other aristocratic younger sons—until his older brother died in 1131 and his career was hastily redirected toward the throne, which he inherited when his father died a few weeks into his 17-year-old son’s marriage. The staid, pious Louis, whose advisers included the famous Cistercian preacher Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Suger of St. Denis, pioneer of Gothic architecture, seemed ill-prepared either for wedded bliss or for governing, as he careened between feckless vacillation and bumbling brutality in a range of ecclesiastical and secular disputes.

For a while Louis’s lands were under papal interdict after a squabble with Pope Innocent II over filling a vacancy for the post of archbishop of Bourges. Then Louis dragged his army, in 1141, into an unsuccessful attempt to exert control over Toulouse which, as part of Aquitaine, was technically part of his wife’s domain but was actually a heavily fortified mini-realm. No sooner did Louis get back from Toulouse, after securing some perfunctory homage from the ruling count, than he got into a bloody two-year war against Theobald II, count of Champagne. Louis’s seneschal, Ralph of Vermandois, had become romantically involved with Eleanor’s 15-year-old sister, Aelith, or Petronilla, as she was known at the French court.

Of course, the trouble was that Ralph was already married, and for quite some time, to Theobald’s niece, also named Eleanor (Ralph was, in fact, old enough to be Petronilla’s grandfather). Prodded by his queen, Louis secured an annulment for Ralph from three compliant bishops on grounds of consanguinity—that is to say, overly close cousinage, a common ground for obtaining what was essentially a church-sanctioned divorce. When Innocent II’s successor Eugenius III discovered that the annulment had taken place behind his back, he excommunicated Ralph and Petronilla. Louis, meanwhile, had to go to war against the enraged Theobald, a bloody affair that culminated with Louis burning down the church at Vitry, incinerating the thousand or so people who had taken refuge inside.

Louis’s next move was to help botch the Second Crusade, the least successful of the four major ventures of Western Europeans into the Holy Land. He first led a disastrous march through Anatolia, in which the Turks destroyed 90 percent of his army. Then, on arriving in Antioch, he refused to accompany Raymond on a rescue mission to Edessa, a Syrian city recently captured by the Turks from the crusaders. Louis insisted, instead, on making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Eleanor, who had sided with her uncle on the Edessa issue—a stance that undoubtedly fueled the gossip that Eleanor and Raymond were having an affair—announced that she intended to have her marriage annulled on the usual ground of consanguinity.

A failed attack on Damascus by Louis stiffened her resolve. Leaving the Holy Land in 1149, the wretched couple sought counsel in Rome from Eugenius. The pope tried to patch it up by forcing Louis and Eleanor into bed together in a papal guest room. The result was
Eleanor’s second daughter, Alix—but no reconciliation. In March 1152 a French council of bishops declared the marriage null and void. Two months later, Eleanor was married again, to Henry, age 19, nine years her junior and even more closely related to her than Louis had been.

The marriage was a huge political boost to Henry, who was now effectively lord of Aquitaine thanks to his wife. He was also lord of two other French territories, Anjou and Maine, thanks to his mother, Matilda, a granddaughter of William the Conqueror who believed that her cousin Stephen, the reigning king of England, had pushed her off the throne. In 1153 Henry invaded
England and secured a promise from Stephen that he would be Stephen’s heir. Stephen obligingly died the next year, and Henry became king and also duke of Normandy.

Although technically Louis’s vassal, he was now the most powerful man in France. Eleanor was suddenly startlingly fertile with male offspring aplenty (although her eldest son,
William, died at age two) and she achieved a kind of political partnership with her youthful husband, acting as regent while he was off battling his own recalcitrant lords in northern England and his new French territories.

Eleanor now had problems of different kinds, however, as the 1160s progressed. Henry, seeking the same kind of centralized rule over his French lands that he expected to enjoy in England, alienated the Poitevin nobility, and his numerous infidelities, especially with the fair Rosamund, likely alienated
Eleanor, who, as her childbearing years came to an end, spent increasing amounts of time away from her husband. In 1168 her husband installed her as de facto ruler of Poitou (and technically of all Aquitaine), although he never quite ceded her full control. Nor would he cede any power whatsoever to Young King Henry, even after the youth’s coronation in 1170.

Eleanor managed to get Richard, her favorite son, installed as count of Poitou and duke of Aquitaine in 1172, and another son, Geoffrey, was made future count of Brittany after Henry conquered it in 1166 and betrothed Geoffrey to the reigning count’s daughter. Young Henry got not a single castle, even though he was by then married to Margaret, Louis VII’s daughter by his second marriage, who had to stay in Paris with her father because she had no proper place to live. Young Henry’s filial allegiance gradually shifted from his father to Louis.

Turner argues that Eleanor’s real break with her husband, when she began leaving his name out of her charters, took place when Henry started intruding on the integrity of Aquitaine, taking personal homage for Toulouse and promising Gascony as part of his daughter Eleanor’s dowry on her betrothal to Alfonso of Castile. In March 1173 the Young King fled to Louis’s court, and later that spring Richard and Geoffrey, egged on by Eleanor, joined him in Paris. Uprisings followed all over Henry II’s French territories, as well as in northern England, and the king of Scotland marched south. Henry II quashed the rebellions quickly and successfully, and in the fall of 1173 Eleanor decided to flee to—of all people—her former husband, Louis.

She was captured by Henry’s troops on the road to Chartres and taken to England the next summer. Henry worked out truces with his three rebellious sons but Eleanor was stripped of her royal powers and the revenues from her lands (although her clothing allowance continued) and more or less shuffled from castle to castle for the next 15 years, not exactly a prisoner but under a sort of house arrest. Young Henry’s death, followed by Geoffrey’s death in 1186, took place during this long captivity. Meanwhile, Henry II had discussed an annulment from Eleanor (on consanguinity grounds, of course), presumably in order to marry Rosamund; but
Rosamund died in 1176 or 1177.

Louis VII died in 1180 and was succeeded by his more tough-minded son, Philip Augustus (1165-1223), who put up a more aggressive fight against
Henry’s territory-poaching than his father had. Henry, now on the defensive, was gradually worn down physically and mentally by the constant French warfare and the continued disloyalty of his sons. On July 4, 1189, Henry, under pressure from Philip, whose armies had swarmed the Angevin heartland, agreed to name Richard as his heir and do homage to Philip for all his French possessions. He died two days later. Because of the summer heat, his body could not be transported to England for burial, and his final resting place turned out to be Fontevraud Abbey in the Loire Valley, a monastery that had, ironically, been the frequent object of Eleanor’s largesse.

One of Richard’s first acts as king was to free his mother and secure her enough income to live in her stylish and expensive fashion. She came into her own as a widow and queen mother. Richard left England for the Third Crusade in 1190 and did not return until 1194, having been held for ransom by the German emperor on a trumped-up charge of murder. Eleanor acted as unofficial regent, trying to thwart John’s plans to usurp Richard’s power and Philip Augustus’s plan to conspire with John to keep Richard abroad as long as possible. She raised the money herself, pawning England’s crown jewels, to pay Richard’s outrageous ransom.
 

Then she retired to Fontevraud Abbey, only to bestir herself five years later after Richard’s death to try to persuade her contentious Poitevin subjects to recognize John, designated as heir by the childless Richard, and to help implement a peace with France by negotiating the wedding of her granddaughter Blanche of Castile (daughter of the younger Eleanor and Alfonso) and Philip Augustus’s son, Louis.

Then Eleanor retired again, to Poitiers. Naturally there was still more trouble from John, who had set aside his barren English wife to wed the beautiful Isabelle of Angoulême, who happened to be betrothed to the lord of a powerful Poitevin family. Again, Eleanor had to calm down the Poitevin barons. Still more, and worse, turmoil ensued when Philip Augustus decided to recognize the 15-year-old son of John’s late brother Geoffrey as Duke of Aquitaine and put him at the head of an invading force that besieged the castle in Poitou where Eleanor was staying. She wrote John for help, and he personally headed a force that quickly rescued his mother—and imprisoned and killed a number of the enemy.

At that point nearly all of Poitou rose up against the Plantagenets. It was the final disruption of the political world that Eleanor had painstakingly created. She spent her last days at Fontevraud overseeing the construction of the lifelike and masterfully carved tomb sculptures destined to grace the abbey’s chapel to this day: her second husband, Henry, somehow reconciled with her in death, her favorite son, Richard, and
Eleanor herself. They would be joined by
Isabelle of Angoulême on her death. 

As Turner writes, “The imposing tombs .  .  . stand as silent testimony to Eleanor’s dedication to the idea of a not purely Plantagenet but also Poitevin empire that she struggled to preserve.”

Although Turner’s writing is often more workmanlike than stylistically accomplished, and he can be repetitive, this is a fine and thorough study. I have one cavil. Turner regularly generalizes about “the pervasive misogyny of medieval churchmen and intellectuals” and “medieval texts studied by candidates for the clergy” that were “filled with anti-female views.” His theory is that Eleanor bucked those views and, hence, made many enemies in an effort to “live her life as she saw fit.”

In fact, the 12th century seemed to be relatively kind to women. It was the century of such female luminaries as Hildegard of Bingen (who corresponded with Eleanor), Abelard’s learned lover Heloise, and several gifted women poets, including Marie de France, master of medieval romance. It could be said,
contra Turner, that Eleanor was very much a creature of that extraordinarily creative hundred years.

Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website.


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