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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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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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