Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  Their troubles were by no means over. A violent storm separated the ships, and the one bearing the Queen was blown off course. Eleanor's whereabouts before it was brought finally to harbour at Palermo in Sicily are still a mystery. For two months there was no word of her as she made a "circuit of land and sea," possibly even seeking refuge on the African shores of the Mediterranean.

  Louis, who had also been feared lost at sea, arrived in Calabria, possibly at Brindisi, on 29 July. Soon afterwards he informed Suger that he had no idea whether or not Eleanor was still alive. He was shortly relieved to learn from messengers sent by Roger, the Norman King of Sicily, that the Queen's ship had been driven by adverse winds towards "the coast of Barbary" (North Africa), but "by the mercy of God" had been intercepted by his own navy and had lately arrived at Palermo.

  When Eleanor disembarked, she was very ill indeed, possibly due to exhaustion, and had to rest awhile, cared for by attendants sent by King Roger. Louis told Suger he anxiously "awaited the arrival of the Queen for almost three weeks," and, relieved when Eleanor was at last strong enough to join him in Calabria, was moved to reveal to the Abbot that she had "hurried to us with all safety and joy." Clearly, four months of separation had wrought some benefits. Although Louis informed Suger of "the very serious illness of the Bishop of Langres," he did not refer to Eleanor's sickness, an omission that suggests she had apparently regained her usual good health.

  The royal party then began to make its way back overland to France, travelling west to Potenza, where they were warmly received by Roger, whose court resembled that of an oriental potentate. Here Eleanor received news that on 29 June Raymond of Antioch had been killed in an ill-advised skirmish with Nureddin,51 who sent his head in a silver case as a trophy to the Caliph of Baghdad, who had it displayed over the city gate. The Queen gave money for perpetual masses to be said for the soul of her uncle.

  Leaving Potenza, Louis and Eleanor set off northwards towards Rome, with an escort provided by King Roger. They did not get very far: Louis was soon writing to Suger that Eleanor had again fallen "seriously ill."52 Whether her malady was physical or mental is not specified, nor do we know if it was precipitated by the news of Raymond's terrible fate or whether it was a recurrence of her earlier illness. She seems to have continued the journey in slow stages, making frequent stops. On 4 October the royal party stayed at the hilltop abbey of Monte Cassino, founded by St. Benedict in the sixth century. Here Eleanor rested for three days, while Louis received a civic deputation come to offer him the freedom of Rome.

  Pope Eugenius, meanwhile, had been informed of the approach of the King and Queen, and he invited them to stay with him in his palace at Tusculum (Frascati), south of Rome. Eleanor was now recovering and able to make the two-day journey.

  They arrived on 9 October; Eugenius welcomed Louis "with such tenderness and reverence that one would have said he was welcoming an angel of the Lord rather than a mortal man."53 This was heartening for the King, for he was painfully aware that most of the princes of Europe held him responsible for the ignominious end of the crusade.

  During their visit, both Louis and Eleanor separately confided in the Pope about their marital problems, with which he had already been acquainted by Suger. Louis made it clear "he loved the Queen passionately, in an almost childish way."54 Having heard Eleanor's doubts about the validity of the marriage, and having learned that sexual relations between the couple had ceased,55 the Pope adamantly refused to consider an annulment, but blessed the marriage and confirmed it, both in person and in writing, and "commanded under pain of anathema that no word should be spoken against it and that it should not be dissolved under any pretext whatever."56

  The normally reserved Eugenius,57 who belonged to the austere Cistercian Order, also took practical measures to bring about a reconciliation between the King and Queen. He delivered an ongoing homily on the duties of marriage and endeavoured "by friendly converse to restore love between them." He even "made them sleep in the same bed," leading them to a sumptuous room draped with silken hangings from his own chamber and furnished with a double bed embellished with valuable ornaments, and ordering them to make good use of it. This was all very pleasing to Louis, who made demonstrations of love towards his wife "in an almost puerile fashion,"58 while Eleanor submitted dutifully.

  The next day, the royal couple prepared to leave for Rome with an escort of cardinals provided by Eugenius for his "dear children. When they took their leave, the Pope, for all his sternness, could not restrain his tears. On their departure he blessed them and the kingdom of France."59 It shortly appeared that God had approved of his strategies, for Eleanor became pregnant again.

  The King and Queen, having been presented with the keys of Rome, spent a whole day touring the city's shrines, as nuns and street urchins cried with one voice, "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!" The royal couple left Rome the next morning and, after taking their leave of the cardinals at the border of the papal domains, travelled north via Acquapendente and crossed the Jural Alpine Pass into France.

  After riding through Burgundy, the King and Queen were welcomed at Auxerre by Abbot Suger, who had been summoned by Louis to give an account of his stewardship and the state of the realm. The King was aware that his brother, the Count of Dreux, had been plotting to usurp the throne, and was gratified to learn that Suger had deftly put paid to his treacherous schemes.

  Around 11 November Louis and Eleanor returned to Paris, after an absence of nearly two and a half years. It was the eve of the Feast of St. Martin, and the citizens received them with demonstrations of joy. Two medals were struck to commemorate the crusade, one embossed with a relief of Louis standing victorious in a chariot.60 Yet there was no mistaking the people's underlying disappointment and discontent at the humiliating failure of the enterprise. Devout Christians could not understand it. "No one may question the acts of God, for all His works are just and right," commented William of Tyre, "but it remains a mystery to the feeble judgement of mankind why Our Lord should suffer the French, who of all the people in the world have the deepest faith and most honour Him, to be destroyed by the enemies of religion."

  During the months to come, as scapegoats were sought, the blame would be laid mainly at Louis's door. Nor was Eleanor considered entirely blameless: her rumoured responsibility for the disastrous episodes on Mount Cadmos and in Antioch would never be forgotten.

  5. "A Righteous Annulment"

  The winter of 1149-1150 was bitterly cold;1 rivers iced over and roads became impassable. Suger had undertaken repairs and improvements to the Cite Palace against the King's return, but the old building was freezing. Nor was the atmosphere between Louis and Eleanor much warmer, for after their return, when life resumed its normal routine, "there arose discord between them concerning certain things which happened on the crusade, which are best passed over in silence."2 William of Newburgh states that the affection in the marriage was largely on Louis's side, and that Eleanor found his ascetic habits increasingly hard to live with. There were many quarrels; Eleanor "was greatly offended with the King's conduct, even pleading that she had married a monk, not a king."3

  Abbot Suger, who along with everybody else was fervently hoping that the Queen would soon give birth to the long-awaited male heir, made it his business to bring about a reconciliation, and used his influence with Louis to this end. But there were others, Thierry Galan among them, who must have feared a resurgence of the Queen's influence as mother of the King's son, and who may well have tried to undermine Suger's conciliatory policy.

  That winter Louis revisited Vitry, where he planted cypress trees brought specially from the Holy Land. (Their descendants may still be seen there today.)

  During the latter half of 1150, 4 Eleanor gave birth to a second daughter, who was named Alix.5 Her sex was a bitter disappointment to Louis, who was now approaching thirty and still had no heir to succeed him, a situation that had never yet occurred in the Capetian royal line. It now seemed to
him that God did not, after all, approve of his marriage, and that both Bernard and Eleanor had been right to call its validity into question. This was the view of the barons of France, who now began to urge Louis to set aside the Queen and marry someone less controversial, who could give him sons. Not only was his present union consanguinous, but the Queen was still the subject of defamatory rumours.6

  Suger, however, took a longer view and urged caution. Through Eleanor, Louis had acquired vast domains which, should the couple have no son-- and there was still time for them to have one-- would be the inheritance of their eldest daughter Marie. But if the royal couple's marriage was dissolved, Louis would lose Eleanor's inheritance, which would then pass to whoever else she married, and the chances were that she might choose someone hostile to French interests. Her duchy, on her death, would be inherited by the eldest son of her second marriage, and Marie would be deprived of her inheritance. Suger was committed to the eventual permanent absorption of Aquitaine into the French royal demesne, despite the administrative problems of maintaining royal authority over such a vast area, and he now tried harder than ever to revive the failing marriage and restore amicable relations between the King and Queen.

  At this time Louis had other worries to preoccupy him. Around January 1150, Count Geoffrey of Anjou had ceded the duchy of Normandy to his son Henry. In Henry, young as he was, Louis perceived the greatest threat to his crown and the welfare of his realm. For Henry of Anjou planned to unite Normandy, Anjou, and England into one vast domain, and for Louis that prospect was alarming in the extreme.

  Bernard of Clairvaux distrusted Geoffrey of Anjou, and when he first saw Geoffrey's young son Henry, he knew a moment of terrible foreboding. "From the Devil they came and to the Devil they will return," he announced.? He was referring, of course, to the notorious legend of the diabolical ancestress of the House of Anjou, a tale often fondly repeated by its members: Henry II and Richard I were both apt to make disconcerting jokes about it.8 One of the early counts-- it is not clear whom-- was said to have returned from a journey with a new wife, a beautiful woman called Melusine. She bore him four children and was satisfactory in every way except one: she could not be prevailed upon to remain in church for the sacrament of the mass. This troubled her husband, who secretly arranged for four knights to stand upon her cloak and prevent her from leaving the service. The knights did as they were bid but, just as the priest prepared to elevate the Host, Melusine tore away from them and flew shrieking out of a window, taking two of her children with her and leaving two behind. She was never seen again, and it was generally concluded that she had been the Devil's own daughter, who could not bear to look upon the Body of Christ. By the twelfth century, this tale was very well known, and it was generally believed that the counts of Anjou were descended from Melusine. Similar legends had attached themselves to other noble families, notably the House of Lusignan, but this was the most famous.

  The true history of the Angevin line was less fantastic but just as remarkable. Anjou was a rich and fertile territory on the River Loire. Its capital was Angers. Around 1200, Ralph of Diceto wrote:

  The industry of the early Angevins caused this city to be sited in a commanding position. Its ancient walls are a glorious testament to its founders. The southeastern quarter is dominated by a great house, which is indeed worthy to be called a palace. For, not long ago, vast chambers were constructed, laid out and adorned in a luxurious manner, entirely worthy of a king. Such is the extent of this great house that on the one side it looks out over the river [Maine] flowing past, and on the other towards the vine-clad hills.0 It would be difficult to find another place so abounding in religious houses, endowed by the generosity of princes.

  Tours, the capital of Touraine, which was also Angevin territory, was another fine city, where most main roads merged for the Loire crossing. This made the county of Anjou of great strategic importance in western Europe. To the west was the county of Brittany, to the north the duchy of Normandy, to the east the counties of Blois and Champagne and the kingdom of France, and to the south Poitou and Aquitaine.

  Anjou was largely a wine-producing area, lying in a fertile valley and enjoying a warm southern climate fanned by cool breezes from the ocean; it was popularly known as the Garden of France, because of the many varieties of fruit and flora that grew there, including palm trees, camellias, oaks, cedars, broom, and fig trees. Yet its inhabitants were perceived by their neighbours, particularly the hostile Normans, as savages who desecrated churches, murdered priests, and had disgusting table manners. There had been little love lost between the Normans and the Angevins since the time of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, when the hitherto impoverished Normans had gained ascendancy in northern Europe by the acquisition of a whole kingdom, much to the chagrin of their neighbours.

  The counts of Anjou were usually little better than their people, being "a ferocious and warlike race."10 Henry of Huntingdon, writing in 1154, observed: "It is well known that the Angevin race has flourished under high-spirited and warlike rulers, and that they have dominated the people surrounding them with terror. No one questions the fact that they wrought all the destruction within their power upon their neighbours, and subjugated the lands around." The Angevin greed for land and power was notorious.

  The Angevin counts were renowned for their hot temper, voracious energy, military genius, political acumen, engaging charm, and robust constitution; the spectacular Angevin temper, characteristic violent behaviour, and a tendency to go to extremes were all attributed to their demonaic ancestry. It was no surprise to their contemporaries that they were often at loggerheads with the Church, although many of them were notable for their generosity towards it. It was rare for a count of Anjou to be renowned for piety, as in the case of Fulk II, the Good (d. 960/961), who was a saintly pacifist. Most counts were known for their cruelties, their irregular matrimonial affairs-- Fulk IV Rechin, the Quarrelsome, (d. 1109) married five times-- and their debaucheries, as well as for their family feuds. Several were intelligent, cultivated, and surprisingly literate men; Fulk the Good had told Louis IV of France that "an unlettered king is a crowned ass." Most of these qualities and failings would be evident in the Angevin men associated with Eleanor of Aquitaine.

  The Angevins were a good-looking race. Many were of impressive stature, with a strong physique and red-gold hair, and most bore themselves like royalty, commanding considerable respect from their peers and vassals. They were in the main dynamic and capable rulers, and in time would provide England with a dynasty of remarkable kings, the Plantagenets, which would rule the land for 331 years.

  Emerging in the ninth century from an obscure past that would later be embellished by fantastic legends,11 the rulers of Anjou, who were originally castellans in the Loire valley, were first styled count in the tenth century. Thereafter they steadily increased in fortune, territory, and power by virtue of brilliant diplomacy and a series of advantageous marriages with the heiresses of neighbouring domains, including Amboise, Vendome, and Maine. Other castles and lands were acquired by conquest, such as Chinon in 987, Saumur in 1026, and Touraine, to the southeast, in 1044. Many of the early castles built to defend this expanding territory-- among them Montbazon, Langeais, and Loches-- remain standing today; they are some of the earliest stone castles to survive from the Middle Ages.

  Fulk V, Count of Anjou from 1109, was by his first wife, Aremburga, heiress of Maine, the father of Count Geoffrey the Fair. Fulk "led an honourable life, ruling his territory wisely." He was "an upright and vigorous man of orthodox faith [who] achieved a glorious and excellent reputation that was second to none."12 According to William of Tyre, Fulk was "a ruddy man, faithful and gende, affable and kind, a powerful prince, and very successful in ruling his own people; an experienced warrior full of patience and wisdom in military affairs." In 1128, at the request of Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem, Louis VI of France chose Fulk as the most suitable husband for Baldwin's only daughter Melisende, who was heiress to the cr
usader kingdom of Jerusalem; the following year Fulk resigned Anjou to his son Geoffrey and travelled to Outremer. In 1131, on the death of Baldwin II, Fulk became King of Jerusalem. After successfully defending his kingdom against the Turks, he died in 1143, leaving a young son, Baldwin III, for whom Melisende was to act as regent.

  Before leaving for the East, Fulk had knighted his son Geoffrey, invested him with the county of Anjou, and arranged a brilliant marriage for him with Matilda, only daughter and heiress of Henry I, King of England, and widow of the German Emperor Henry V. The marriage took place in the spring of 1128, when Matilda was twenty-six and Geoffrey not quite fifteen. It was not a success.

  Born on 24 August 1113, Geoffrey was early on nicknamed "le Bel" (the Fair); he grew up to be an exceptionally good-looking and graceful man who embodied many early ideals of chivalry. "Tall in stature, handsome and red-headed," he had many outstanding, praiseworthy qualities. As a soldier he attained the greatest glory, dedicating himself to the defence of the community and to the liberal arts. He strove to be loved and was honourable to his friends; he was more trustworthy than the rest. His words were always good-humoured and his principles admirable. This man was an energetic soldier and most shrewd in his upright dealings. He was meticulous in his justice and of strong character. He did not allow himself to be corrupted by excess or sloth, but spent his time riding about the country and performing illustrious feats. By such acts he endeared himself to all, and smote fear into the hearts of his enemies. He was unusually affable and jovial to all, especially soldiers.13

 
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