Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  On 19 March, after a stormy and perilous voyage lasting an incredible three weeks, Louis and Eleanor disembarked at the port of St. Simeon in northern Antioch to the sound of a choir singing the Te Deum. Waiting on the quayside was a great concourse of cheering people, headed by a reception committee sent by the Prince of Antioch and led by its Patriarch, Aimery of Limoges, who gave the crusaders his blessing. Soon afterwards, Raymond himself appeared, having sailed with his courtiers ten miles down the Orontes River from the city of Antioch to meet his niece and her royal husband and escort them to his capital.22

  Although its official language was the langue d'oc, Antioch was a curious mix of eastern and western cultures, and had once been the third most important city in the Roman Empire. Built on terraces on the slopes of Mount Silpius, it boasted beautiful hanging gardens, pine groves and orchards, colonnaded villas, public baths, amphitheatres, and streets paved with marble. Yet despite the huge encircling walls intersected by no fewer than 360 towers, Antioch's great prosperity and high standard of living were under threat from Nureddin of Aleppo.23

  Now aged around thirty-six, the ruler of Antioch, Raymond of Poitiers, was "taller, better built and more handsome than any man of his time; he surpassed all others as warrior and horseman."24 He loved hunting and gambling and possessed extraordinary physical strength, being able to halt his mighty destrier merely by clenching his thighs, or bend an iron bar with his bare hands. Although he could neither read nor write, Raymond was an accomplished conversationalist who was familiar with the troubadour culture of Aquitaine, and in some respects his court resembled that of Poitiers. While he was a popular, pragmatic, and able ruler, he was also impulsive, subject to sudden, terrifying outbursts of rage, and at times rather lazy, although no one doubted his courage. Abstemious in his habits, he was not given to gluttony, drunkenness, or debauchery.25

  Raymond had spent his youth at the court of Henry I of England, where he had been knighted and treated by the King as a son. He had arrived in Outremer around 1134, at the invitation of King Fulk of Jerusalem, who, after King Bohemond II of Antioch was killed by the Turks, had "sustained the principality"26 against the Moslem threat and now wished to appoint an independent ruler. Bohemond's widow Alice was acting as regent for his only daughter and heiress, nine-year-old Constance, and Fulk hoped that the landless but nobly born Raymond would prove a suitable husband for Constance. Alice, however, wanted to rule Antioch herself, and preempted the King's plan by offering the hand of Constance to the Emperor Manuel Comnenus. When Raymond arrived in Antioch, having travelled disguised as a pedlar in order to avoid the hostility of the predatory King of Sicily, he paid court to Alice and asked her to marry him. Succumbing to his undoubted charm, she accepted, but while she was making arrangements for their wedding, he secretly married her daughter with the connivance of the Patriarch. Thus by devious means did he establish himself as sovereign prince of Antioch.

  Raymond was relieved to see the arrival of the crusading army, anticipating that its coining heralded the recovery of Edessa and the removal of the Turkish threat to Antioch, and he extended a lavish welcome to Eleanor and Louis, sparing no expense. He threw banquets and tournaments in their honour, presented them with jewels, lucky charms, and relics, and had them served wine chilled with mountain snow. They were lodged in his own palace on Mount Silpius, which had such luxuries as glass windows and running water and was lit by perfumed candles. There were also new silk gowns for Eleanor. The Prince "handled everything with the greatest magnificence."27

  Raymond also spent a noticeable amount of time alone with Eleanor, with whom he struck up an instant rapport. It was to be asserted, however, that their relationship quickly developed into something beyond that of uncle and niece. John of Salisbury, who in 1149 was a secretary in the papal curia and must have learned the details from Pope Eugenius (in whom Louis and Eleanor confided that year), states that "the attentions paid by the Prince to the Queen and his constant, indeed almost continuous conversation with her aroused the King's suspicions."28

  William of Tyre, writing thirty years later, says that Raymond's ultimate ambition was to extend his territory, and to this end "he counted greatly on the interest of the Queen with the Lord King." In fact, like Manuel Comnenus, Raymond had a greater understanding of the politics of Outremer than Louis. He wanted the crusading army to first distract Nureddin by attacking Aleppo and then go on to recapture Edessa and reinforce the defences of Antioch against the Turks,29 and it appears that he managed to convince Eleanor of the wisdom of this. But Louis, suspecting that there was a degree of self-interest in Raymond's schemes, made it clear that he was more interested in pressing on to Jerusalem than in recovering Edessa and assisting Antioch. This made Raymond exceedingly angry, and his attitude changed. Frustrated in his ambitious designs, he began to hate the King's ways. He openly plotted against him and took means to do him injury. He resolved to deprive him of his wife, either by force or by secret intrigue. The Queen readily assented to this design, for she was a foolish woman. Her conduct before and after this time showed her to be far from circumspect. Contrary to her royal dignity, she disregarded her marriage vows and was unfaithful to her husband.30

  Gervase of Canterbury stated that he thought it best to remain silent about matters best left unspoken. Giraldus Cambrensis gleefully reiterated the rumours concerning Eleanor's conduct in Antioch, while Richard of Devizes, writing around 1192, commented cryptically, "Many know what I wish none of us knew. This very Queen was at Jerusalem in the time of her first husband-- let none speak more thereof, though I know it well. Keep silent." Odo de Deuil did remain silent on the matter, since neither he nor Louis would have wished the official account of the crusade to be sullied by the sordid tale of the Queen's disloyalty. Diplomatically, he ended his history with the King's departure from Attalia.

  The Poitevin troubadour Cercamon, in a song thought to have been composed during the crusade, made what some historians believe to be an oblique reference to Eleanor: deploring the conduct of a woman who lies with more than one man, he says, "Better for her never to have been born than to have committed the fault that will be talked about from here to Poitou."31 This would appear to refer to the rumours that were rampant at the time and for years afterwards-- rumours that would hardly have been so widespread, or so durable, had they concerned any lesser woman than Eleanor.

  Other, later writers would tell even wilder stories. Around 1260, the anonymous Minstrel of Rheims, in a highly fanciful account, claimed that Eleanor was "a very evil woman" who carried on a love affair by letter with the future Turkish Emir Saladin, and tried to elope with him on a galley at Tyre, but that the King seized her at the jetty and forced her to return to the palace with him. "You are not worth a rotten pear!" she is said to have screamed at him. The Minstrel omitted to say that Saladin was no more than thirteen at the time. This tale is typical of the legends circulating about Eleanor after her death, legends that doubtless originated in contemporary reports and rumours. Such was her reputation in the thirteenth century that most people would have believed anything said of her.

  In the face of all the reliable contemporary evidence, it is puzzling to find that most of Eleanor's modern biographers do not accept that she had an adulterous affair with Raymond, when in fact the sources make it clear that she had tired of Louis and had begun to seek emotional-- and possibly sexual-- satisfaction elsewhere. Although there was a social taboo against relationships between uncle and niece, which were regarded as incestuous, and Raymond was reputedly faithful to his wife and no womaniser, Louis seems, with some justification, to have feared that the Prince was exercising a subversive influence over Eleanor, both politically and personally. Indeed, the relationship between them provoked such an enduring scandal, and so upset the King, that it is entirely credible that there was a degree of sexual involvement. What is certain is that the possibility of an annulment had been on Eleanor's mind for some time.

  Louis remained obdurate in his refus
al to comply with Raymond's plans, and a very public row ensued. The King's barons supported him, much to Raymond's incomprehension and disgust, but Eleanor intervened and warned her husband that, if he did not attack Edessa first, she would stay in Antioch with her vassals. According to John of Salisbury, "the Queen wished to remain behind, and the Prince made every effort to keep her, if the King would give his consent." Both she and Louis knew that for her to remain in Antioch with her vassals would cripple the crusaders' chances of success in the Holy Land. However, the King, who was surprised, chagrined, and very hurt,32 would not let her dictate terms to him and threatened "to tear her away"33 from Antioch by force, as was his marital right.

  In retaliation, Eleanor dropped her bombshell. "She mentioned their kinship, saying it was not lawful for them to remain together as man and wife, since they were related into the fourth and fifth degrees."34 She said "she would not live as the wife of a man whom she had discovered was her cousin";35 it was her belief that her failure to bear a son was due to God's displeasure. For the safety of both their souls, she wanted an annulment. She would then relinquish her crown, resume her tide of Duchess of Aquitaine, and remain for the time being in Antioch, under Raymond's protection.36

  Louis was "deeply moved," for he still loved Eleanor "almost beyond reason,"37 and did not wish to lose either her or her lands. But seeing her so determined, "he consented to divorce her if his counsellors and the French nobility would allow it."38

  In grief, Louis confided in Thierry Galan. Eleanor "had always hated" Thierry, probably because "he had the King's ear";39 there had been no love lost between them since she had recently ridiculed him in public for the loss of his manhood. Thierry now took his revenge and boldly persuaded the King not to suffer her to dally longer at Antioch, because guilt under kinship's guise could lie concealed, and because it would be a lasting shame to the kingdom of the Franks if, in addition to all the other disasters, it was reported that the King had been deserted by his wife, or robbed of her. So he argued, either because he hated the Queen or because he really believed it, moved perchance by widespread rumour.

  Louis reluctantly agreed and gave orders that Eleanor be "torn away and forced to leave for Jerusalem with him."40

  The French were no longer welcome anyway in Antioch and made secret preparations for their departure. At midnight on 28 March, Eleanor was rudely awakened and summarily arrested by soldiers, who bundled her unceremoniously into a waiting litter and stole away with her through St. Paul's Gate, giving her no chance to bid farewell to Raymond. Outside Antioch, the King and his army were waiting, ready to march south to Tripoli and Jerusalem. "His departure was ignominious," wrote William of Tyre, and there was no concealing the fact that the Queen was in disgrace.

  Louis's actions caused a bitter rift between the royal couple. "Their mutual anger growing greater, the wound remained, hide it as best they might."41 In despair, a distracted Louis wrote to Suger,42 telling him how Eleanor had behaved and asking if his marriage was indeed consanguinous. Suger, who believed that an annulment of the royal marriage would have disastrous consequences for France, and who felt that the crusade should be Louis's priority at present, replied: "Concerning the Queen your wife, conceal your rancour of spirit, if there is any, until such time as you both shall have returned to your own estates, when this grievance and other matters may be attended to."

  Louis heeded Suger's advice, but also saw to it that Eleanor maintained a low public profile in the Holy Land. Although it pained him to do so, he kept his distance from her, and it became clear to all his advisers that her much-resented influence over him was at an end.

  In May 1148 the crusaders had their first glimpse of the Roman walls of Jerusalem in the distance.43 They were ecstatic with joy, falling on their knees in prayer, with tears running down their faces. No one could sleep, and the whole army kept vigil that night. Many, including Louis, fasted. The next day they proceeded across a narrow ridge known as the Pilgrims' Ladder, and so came to the Jaffa Gate of the Holy City.

  Here, Louis was received as a hero, being welcomed "as an angel of the Lord" by the entire population, who had been led to the gate by Queen Melisende, with her son, young King Baldwin III; Foulques, Patriarch of Jerusalem; the Emperor Conrad (now recovered and recently arrived from Constantinople); and a delegation of the Knights Templar. There was music and cheering, and many people carried banners or olive branches. The King, however, would not acknowledge the acclaim until he had accomplished his pilgrimage, and was taken in procession through festively bedecked streets to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in order to fulfil his pilgrim's vow and be purged of all his sins. Profoundly moved to find himself on the site of the rock of Calvary and the tomb of Jesus, he reverently laid the Oriflamme of France on the altar and received the long-awaited absolution. He and his lords were then taken to other shrines and holy places in Jerusalem, before being conducted to their lodgings in the Tower of David. Only then did the King feel free to break his fast and turn his attention to more practical matters. 44

  The chroniclers are silent regarding Eleanor's whereabouts on this joyful day. Had she been at Louis's side she would no doubt have warranted a mention, so it seems likely that she was still in disgrace.

  On 24 June a conference was held at Acre (Akko), a seaport to the north of Jerusalem. Here the crusader leaders met: King Louis, the Emperor Conrad, Queen Melisende, and the barons of Jerusalem, France, and Germany.45 Eleanor was not present. Opinion was divided as to what to do next. Raymond of Antioch had made it clear that he would do nothing further to support the crusade, while Raymond, Count of Tripoli, was under suspicion of causing the death by poison of Alfonso Jordan, Count of Toulouse, and boycotted the conference in self-righteous indignation. Joscelin, Count of Edessa, dared not leave his domains for fear of Turkish incursions.

  It was becoming alarmingly plain to Louis that few people in Jerusalem shared his pious objectives. Many were chiefly concerned with material gain, while others resented foreign interference. The King could not begin to understand the extent of corruption and intrigue within the kingdom, and he was woefully ignorant of local politics.

  "Wishing to restore his reputation,"46 he favoured the suggestion of an assault on the Turkish emirate of Damascus, a strategic enterprise supported by the Emperor Conrad and the Knights Templar, but the ensuing siege was a fatal mistake, since Damascus had hitherto been a friendly neighbour. On 28 July, after an assault lasting only only four days, the attempt ended in humiliating failure as the Emir sent a plea to Nureddin for aid and the Christians were forced to retreat with considerable loss of life.47 There was talk among the crusaders that either the Emir of Damascus or the Prince of Antioch had bribed the treacherous lords of Jerusalem to go away, 48 but, whatever the truth of this, the defeat signalled the end of the crusade. The French had made themselves a laughingstock in the eyes of the Moslem world and their reputation lay in the dust. Money and resources were running out, morale was low, and Louis, who had been dogged by disaster throughout, seems to have lost his enthusiasm for the military aspects of the venture, as had the other leaders.

  Contemporaries were appalled by the failure of the crusade. Henry of Huntingdon gave voice to public opinion by attributing it to the displeasure of the Almighty, "for [the crusaders] abandoned themselves to open fornication and to adulteries hateful to God, and to robbery and every sort of wickedness."

  As autumn approached, the French army began to disintegrate, as men "impelled by want"49 demanded to go home or deserted. Louis gave orders that those remaining be given money for their passage, but he himself made no move to leave, despite receiving several urgent pleas from Abbot Suger, begging him to return to France. His realm needed him; there was great sadness and anger at the failure of the crusade. Louis ignored these pleas: he wanted to celebrate Easter in the Holy City before departing.

  The King arranged for his brother, the Count of Dreux, to escort his barons and prelates back to France. Then, on 8 September, th
e Emperor left by ship for Constantinople, whence he would travel to Germany.

  At Christmas, Louis and Eleanor were still in Jerusalem and still estranged. Louis, feeling the situation was hopeless, had again written to Suger, declaring that he would have his marriage dissolved when he returned to France. Alarmed, Suger wrote reminding him of what he stood to lose-- "the great Provence dower"-- and warned Louis that, should Eleanor remarry and have sons, Princess Marie would be deprived of her inheritance. Louis saw the sense of this and occupied his mind by making plans for another crusade, which never came to fruition.

  We know nothing of Eleanor's activities during the eleven months she spent in Jerusalem: the contemporary chroniclers do not mention her, and stories of her deeds and pilgrimages there belong to later romances; one legend claims that she brought back from the Holy Land the gallica rose, a distant forebear of the red damask rose, later used to represent the royal House of Lancaster. Another credits her with introducing silkworms from the Orient into Aquitaine, and the mulberry trees whose leaves they ate. There may be a modicum of truth in these tales, for her experiences of life in the Holy Land must have had tremendous significance for her and left their mark in many ways, even though she had no obvious public role to play.

  After celebrating the Easter of 1149 in Jerusalem, the King and Queen, attended by a retinue reduced to three hundred persons, sailed from Acre in two Sicilian vessels bound for Calabria in southern Italy. Louis, Odo de Deuil, and Thierry Galan were in one ship, Eleanor and her ladies in the other.

  Unfortunately, Sicily and Byzantium were at war. After passing Cyprus, Rhodes, and the Aegean Isles without incident, the two ships skirted the Peloponnese coast, where, perhaps near Cape Malea, they were suddenly confronted by Byzantine ships intent on hostile action. The King gave orders that the fleur-de-lys banner of France be hoisted up the mast of his ship, but this did not impress the enemy, who had been ordered by the Emperor Manuel to kidnap Louis and Eleanor and return them as hostages to Constantinople. Eleanor's ship was actually captured and turned towards Greece, but fortuitously a fleet of Sicilian galleys was in the area and came to the rescue, driving off the Greeks and enabling Louis and Eleanor to continue their voyage towards Italy.50

 
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