The Defiant Duchess: Eleanor of Aquitaine

SEPT / OCT 2017: BY SCARLETT GRANT

Few women throughout history have had such an exciting life as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Duchess of the cultured and beautiful Aquitaine in the south-west of France, it was her destiny to become queen of both England and France.  

Historical evidence points to 1122 as the likely year of Eleanor’s birth. As the oldest child and heir of Duke William of Aquitaine, she had an extensive education comprisied of history and astronomy to prepare her for government. Aquitaine was the richest duchy in France, and its lands were a third of the total French territory. The Duchy required a strong figure to rule it. As an outgoing, gregarious, strong-willed young woman, Eleanor was perfect. At fifteen, she became the Duchess of Aquitaine when her father died.

Eleanor became Europe’s most eligible bride in Europe. Duke William had known how valuable Eleanor’s inheritance was and stipulated that until Eleanor married, King Louis of France was to act as her guardian. Louis, himself facing impending death, leaped at the opportunity to bring this wealthy territory under direct control and married Eleanor to his heir—also called Louis. There was a catch: the Duchy would remain independent of France until they had a son to rule both territories. Shortly after their marriage in 1137, King Louis (often referred to as “the Fat”) died, and Prince Louis (known as “the Young”) became King.

Louis was the second son, raised in monasteries and expected to enter the church. The death of his older brother, Philip, propelled Louis to the throne. Although pious and scholarly, he was shy and introverted, the exact opposite of Eleanor. Infatuated with her, Louis did anything to please her, much to the ire of his relatives and advisors, who disliked this spirited southerner. Eleanor said she expected to marry a king and was left with a monk.

Several years into their marriage, conflict arose. It began with Eleanor’s sister, Petronilla. She fell in love with the married Count Raoul of Vermandois. Through Eleanor’s influence, Louis permitted Count Raoul to leave his wife for Petronilla. But the first wife was Count Theobald of Champagne’s sister, who rose in rebellion. The war surged for several years, culminating when a siege by Louis resulted in the death of a thousand peasants when their refuge caught fire. Eleanor later appealed to Bernard of Chairvaux, a prominent clergyman, to intervene in the conflict. Bernard told her she should stay out of the affairs of state.

Eleanor broke down, and admitted she was bitter because she had not yet conceived a child. If Eleanor had been trying to soften Bernard, it worked as he told her, “My child, seek those things which make for peace; 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.”

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Within a matter of weeks they settled the rebellion. Almost a year later in April 1145, Eleanor had her first child, Marie.

Meanwhile, Louis tortured himself over the massacre he had caused. On Christmas Day 1145, Louis declared he would lead a crusade to atone. Soon after, Eleanor also declared her intention to go on the crusade. Her uncle, Raymond, ruled the Crusader kingdom of Antioch, and was petitioning France for defense against Turkish invaders. She convinced several hundred Aquitanian vassals and some ladies-in-waiting to join her.

The Second Crusade proved a disaster. Everything went fine at first. The Byzantine Emperor entertained Louis and Eleanor and told them the German crusaders had won an outstanding victory. When they left the Empire, they discovered the Emperor had lied. The enemy had defeated the Germans and the Crusaders found the unburied German army on the way to Antioch.

Further on, disaster struck. While deciding on where to camp for the night, one of Eleanor’s vassals suggested they press on to another plateau. The travelers at the rear dawdled and became separated. The Turks, who had been following them for several days, attacked. The King escaped dressed in simple clothes; others were less fortunate. Many soldiers and pilgrims died in the ambush, and they lost countless supplies. The Crusade exasperated Louis and Eleanor’s strained marriage.

As it had been Eleanor’s vassal, he blamed her for the incident. Others blamed her for carrying so much baggage, which encumbered the soldiers. Regardless, the crusaders made it to Eleanor’s uncle in Antioch. There, Eleanor and Louis had another argument. Eleanor tried to persuade Louis to attack Aleppo and retake the city of Edessa, but Louis wanted to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and forced Eleanor to come with the small crusader army. Tired and disheartened, the army failed at every objective.

eleanor3Soon, Eleanor argued her relationship with Louis was a matter of consanguinity. That describes shared ancestry with another person. The Catholic Church could annul a marriage if it deemed the partners too closely related. Louis and Eleanor were third cousins once removed. Thus on the way back to France after the disastrous crusade, they travelled to Italy to meet Pope Eugene. Much to Eleanor’s dismay, Eugene did not want to give them an annulment and tried to counsel the couple to resolve their differences. He even instructed Louis and Eleanor to sleep together while they visited him. This is where they conceived her second child, Alix.

Since Alix was a girl and not the long awaited heir, people lost their patience. Many of Louis’ nobles opposed his marriage and in 1152, arrangements for the annulment began. That March, Eleanor returned to Aquitaine as a single woman, which in Medieval Europe was dangerous. On her journey back, Count Theobald of Blois and Count Geoffrey of Nantes tried to abduct her. Their plans included marrying her to gain her lands. Eleanor knew she would have to marry soon to prevent this from happening again.

Her made an interesting choice. She requested Henry, Duke of Normandy, for a husband. He came to Aquitaine, and they married “without the pomp and ceremony that befitted their rank.” Henry was the heir to the English throne, closer related to Eleanor than Louis, and the age gap was scandalous. Eleanor was 29, considered an old woman in medieval Europe, whereas Henry was only 18. Henry was the exact opposite of Louis, energetic and athletic but with an incredible temper, infamous for his outbursts of rage.

Although their relationship was argumentative, it produced eight children, including five boys (much to Louis’ chagrin). Henry was never faithful to Eleanor and fathered several bastards during their marriage. It seems Eleanor tolerated these affairs. She even raised one of Henry’s illegitimate children, Geoffrey of York, in her household at Westminster. Another factor in their relationship was Eleanor’s Aquitanian nobles. They defied Henry’s authority and only accepted Eleanor as their duchess and ruler. For an aggressive hothead like Henry, this proved a thorn in his side.

Rosamund Clifford was the final straw in their relationship. She was the daughter of a lord on the Welsh border, known for her outstanding beauty. It is unknown when Henry had his affair with Rosamund, but the public knew by 1166. In late 1166, Eleanor left England to return to rule in Aquitaine. Some argue Eleanor and Henry agreed to an amicable separation, as Henry’s soldiers escorted Eleanor back to her lands.

Eleanor and Henry lived apart until 1173, when their son, Prince Henry launched a rebellion, tired of his lack of power befitting the heir to the throne. Soon his younger brothers, Geoffrey and Richard joined him. Eleanor contributed to the rebellion. King Henry crushed the revolt  and took Eleanor to the south of England to hold her prisoner. She may have thought having both her sons and her power taken away from her could not get any worse, but in her absence, Henry flaunted Rosamund Clifford in public and even considered divorcing Eleanor for her.

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In 1176, Rosamund died, and rumors circulated that Eleanor had a hand in the death of her great rival. (I can’t imagine this, since she was still in prison.)

In 1183, Prince Henry again tried to force his father to cede control to him; his father defeated him. While fleeing the king’s wrath, he caught dysentery, surrendered and pleaded with his father to release Eleanor. Eleanor claimed she had a dream where she saw her son’s fate—this continued to torture her until her death.

Henry decided not to release Eleanor until it served his advantage. His son’s widow was sister to King Philip of France and claimed certain lands belonged to her. King Henry insisted they were Eleanor’s and would revert to her upon her son’s death. This marked a new period of freedom for Eleanor. Over the next few years she traveled with Henry and had a say in government. However, she had a chaperone, so she was still a prisoner.

Eleanor gained freedom on the death of Henry on 6th July 1189, through one of the first acts of the new king, Richard I. Although not a formal regnant, she had considerable influence in government when Richard was absent during 1190-1194. She survived Richard and retained influence in her youngest son John’s reign. In 1199, the 77-year-old Eleanor received a task: to retrieve one of her Spanish granddaughters for the heir of the French crown to marry. Having travelled through the Pyrenees and the Kingdom of Navarre, she arrived in Spain in 1200.

Upon arrival she received the choice of two unmarried granddaughters, Urraca or Blanca. Eleanor’s choice was arbitrary, as she picked Blanca because of her name. She escorted Blanca to Aquitaine, where she felt too unwell to continue. She entrusted the Archbishop of Bordeaux to escort Blanca while she rested at Fontevraud Abbey. Eleanor remained plagued by ill-health and soon undertook the veil and became a nun at Fontevraud. She died in 1204 and they buried her in the Abbey.

Eleanor was a formidable woman and force to be reckoned with who survived the French court and the wrath of her English husband. She refused to bow down to others’ wishes; it’s believed Eleanor refused to grant Henry a divorce even when imprisoned. In her senior years, many considered her a wise and important member of government. Eleanor has become one of the most iconic women in history.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.

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