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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’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.

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