Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir

  First, however, there was the problem of Henry of Anjou. In August 1151 Louis advanced with a large army down the Seine, to where Geoffrey and Henry waited defiantly with their forces on the Norman border. A violent conflict seemed unavoidable, but Louis fell ill with a fever and hastened back to Paris, where he took to his bed, leaving Bernard of Clairvaux, now old and infirm, to mediate in the hope of securing a peace. Geoffrey and Henry were summoned to Paris, but when Geoffrey, blaspheming, refused to comply with Bernard's terms, the old Abbot predicted that he would be dead within a month.47 Although outwardly nonchalant about this, Geoffrey, after a few days, astonished everyone by advising young Henry to offer the King the Norman part of the Vexin, a much disputed strip of land on the northeastern Norman-French border,48 in return for recognition as Duke.

  Both Henry and Louis were agreeable to this, and a peace was concluded. Henry paid homage to Louis for Normandy, was formally invested with the duchy, and received the kiss of peace.49

  While Henry was in Paris he met Queen Eleanor, who at twenty-nine was eleven years his senior, although still very beautiful. The evidence suggests that they felt an immediate mutual attraction. Walter Map was of the opinion that it was in Paris that Henry first cast lustful eyes on Eleanor, and that she, in response, "cast her unchaste eyes" at him. Giraldus Cambrensis, in his De Principis Instructione, states that Geoffrey, seeing this, "frequently forewarned his son" about Eleanor, "forbidding him in any wise to touch her, both because she was the wife of his lord and because he had known her himself." According to Giraldus, Henry chose to ignore this: "It is related that Henry presumed to sleep adulterously with the Queen of France, taking her from his own lord and marrying her himself. How could anything fortunate, I ask, emerge from these copulations?"

  As for Eleanor, she seems to have decided very soon that she wanted Henry of Anjou to be her second husband, although she kept this a secret from Louis. According to William of Newburgh, "It is said that while she was still married to the King of the Franks, she had aspired to marriage with the Norman duke, whose manner of life suited better with her own, and for this reason she desired and procured a divorce." Walter Map supports this, claiming that it was Eleanor who "contrived a righteous annulment and married him."

  The prospect of a marriage between Eleanor and Henry made sound political sense for both. Once free of Louis, Eleanor-- as the greatest heiress in the known world-- would become the prey of land-hungry lords; not only would she need a powerful protector, but she also wished to marry a man with whom she was compatible, as William of Newburgh makes clear. Henry, she knew, had the strength, vigour, and expertise to govern her unruly vassals, while she would bring to the marriage her vast inheritance to add to Henry's already considerable domains, along with men, money, and resources to support his claim to England. The acquisition of such a bride would make him the greatest prince in Europe and leave his rival Louis politically and geographically isolated.

  It is possible, indeed likely, that before Henry left Paris he and Eleanor had reached a secret understanding that they would marry as soon as her marriage to Louis was dissolved. It has also been suggested by several modern historians that Geoffrey knew of this understanding and that it was the reason for his otherwise inexplicable change of heart towards Louis.

  Early in September, Geoffrey and his son travelled homewards to Anjou along the Loire. Henry was planning a final assault on England, and had summoned his Norman barons to a consultation at Angers on 14 September. On 4 September, since the weather was exceptionally hot, Geoffrey cooled down by swimming in a small tributary of the river at Chateau du Loir. That night, lodged perhaps at the nearby castle of Le Lude, he developed a raging fever, and over the next two days it became clear that Bernard's chilling prophecy was about to come true, for no physician could do anything for him.50

  As Geoffrey lay in extremis, "he forbade Henry his heir to introduce the customs of Normandy or England into his own county,"51 and gave instructions that his body was not to be buried until Henry had sworn that, if and when he became King of England, he would hand over Anjou and Maine to his younger brother Geoffrey. Henry, however, refused to swear away an inheritance that was his by right of birth, and so, after Geoffrey "paid the debt to nature"52 on 7 September, his body lay unburied. Pressured by his companions, who warned him it would be a disgrace if he permitted his father's corpse to he rotting and be denied a Christian burial, Henry capitulated and, weeping with frustration, made a solemn vow that he had no intention of keeping. He then proceeded at once to Anjou, where he made arrangements for his father to be laid to rest with great ceremony in the abbey of Saint-Julien in Le Mans (now the cathedral); later, Bishop William of Le Mans would build "a most noble tomb" adorned by "a venerable likeness of the Count," fashioned of enamel and "suitably ornamented with gold and precious stones."53

  After Geoffrey's burial, Henry took firm possession of Anjou and Maine, and then set about securing the allegiance of his vassals. For the moment, England would have to wait.

  Not suspecting what Eleanor had in mind, Louis finally capitulated in the face of her renewed pleas for an annulment and agreed to initiate proceedings.

  Towards the end of September 1151, the King and Queen commenced what would be their final tour together of Aquitaine, taking with them two large retinues; Eleanor's comprised her own lords, relations, and prelates, among them the Counts of Chatellerault and Angouleme, Geoffrey de Rancon, the Bishops of Poitiers and Saintes, and the Archbishop of Bordeaux, who had kept a watchful eye on the affairs of Aquitaine during the absence of the Duchess. The purpose of the tour was to oversee the smooth and peaceful transference of the administration of Eleanor's domains from royal officials to her own liegemen, and to arrange for the withdrawal by Christmas of all the French garrisons, and the dismantling of alien fortifications.54

  At Christmas the King and Queen held court together at Limoges, and in January 1152 they progressed south to Bordeaux, where they took steps to quell minor local disturbances. On 2 February they and the Archbishop of Bordeaux presided over a plenary Candlemas court at the abbey of Saint-Jean d'Angely. In northern Poitou, at the end of February, the King and Queen took their leave of each other, Louis returning to Paris, while Eleanor probably retired to Poitiers.

  On 11 March 1152 a synod of bishops summoned by Archbishop Hugh of Sens, Primate of France, assembled at the royal castle of Beaugency on the Loire, just southwest of OrlĂ©ans, for the purpose of dissolving the marriage of the King and Queen of France. Archbishop Hugh presided, and both Louis and Eleanor were present, as were the Archbishops of Bordeaux and Rouen, their suffragans, and many lords; Archbishop Samson of Rheims acted as cautioner for the Queen, who did not contest the action.

  On 21 March, the Friday before Palm Sunday, with the approval of Pope Eugenius, solicited perhaps by Bernard of Clairvaux, the four archbishops granted an annulment on a plea of consanguinity within the fourth degree; Eleanor herself, in a charter to the Abbey of Fontevrault, later confirmed that she had separated "for reasons of kinship from my lord, Louis." However, before the end of the twelfth century, particularly in France, where Eleanor's reputation was ruined as a result of the annulment, rumour would assert that the King had repudiated her because of her adultery.55 There is no contemporary evidence to support this assertion; indeed, the King himself brought witnesses to testify to the affinity between himself and Eleanor. Likewise, the romantic fabrications of the seventeenth-century historian Jean Bouchet, which depict Eleanor as fainting and distraught at being cast off by her husband, have no basis in fact.56

  The terms of the settlement had obviously been agreed upon beforehand. Archbishop Samson received assurances from Louis that Eleanor's lands would be restored to her as she had possessed them prior to her marriage, and pronounced that both parties were free to remarry without hindrance, so long as Eleanor preserved her allegiance to Louis as her overlord. Because their marriage had been entered into in good faith, their daughters, the Princesses Marie
and Alix, were declared legitimate, and custody of them was awarded to King Louis. Once these matters had been resolved, a decree of separation was granted.

  When the proceedings were over, Louis and Eleanor took their leave of each other; Eleanor had probably said farewell to her daughters when she left Paris the previous September. It is unlikely that she was close to them. Royal mothers normally lived their lives at some distance from their children, and Eleanor had seemingly suffered no qualms at leaving Marie for two and a half years to go on crusade. She seems, at this time, to have been more preoccupied with her own immediate future than with the children she was leaving behind in France.

  The King now returned north, having willingly renounced more than half his domains, an act of folly that would lead to a disastrous disturbance of the balance of power in France, and to more than three hundred years of conflict with England. As the Minstrel of Rheims was to comment a century later, "Far better had it served him to have immured the Queen" for adultery, for "then had her vast lands remained to him during his lifetime." But that would have precluded either of them remarrying, and for Louis, the need for a son far outweighed the desirability of retaining Eleanor's inheritance, which had proved virtually impossible to govern and administer properly with the limited resources at his disposal. A last resort would have been for him to have Eleanor condemned to death for adultery-- then a capital crime on the part of a queen-- and sequester her lands, but that would have resulted in a fearful reaction on the part of her outraged vassals, with whom she was very popular, and it is almost certain that the King would have been personally reluctant to take such a drastic and cruel measure. He also had his own reputation to consider.

  Eleanor, meanwhile, with an escort of her vassals, had taken the road to Poitiers, her capital, a free woman. She would never meet Louis again.

  6. "A Happy Issue"

  It soon became very clear to Eleanor that while she remained single she would be at the mercy of fortune hunters. Twice, as she was making her way to Poitiers, would-be suitors, with covetous eyes on her vast inheritance, attempted to abduct her. At Blois, the future Count Theobald V was plotting to seize her on the night of 21 March 1152; forewarned in time, and protected by her escort, she was forced to flee under cover of darkness, taking a barge along the Loire towards Tours. Farther south, at Port des Piles, near the River Creuse, where she intended to make a crossing, Geoffrey of Anjou, younger brother of Henry, lay in wait for her. Again she received a warning from "her good angel"-- possibly a member of her escort-- and narrowly evaded capture,1 swinging south to where she could ford the River Vienne and, avoiding the main roads, make a dash "by another way" for Poitiers.2 Her marriage to Henry of Anjou had to be arranged without delay, or it might never take place at all. As soon as she arrived in her capital, in time for Easter, Eleanor sent envoys to Henry, asking him to come at once and marry her;3 this was not necessarily a proposal, as some writers have inferred, for it is possible that the couple had already agreed to marry. Then Eleanor informed her chief vassals of the annulment and summoned them to renew their allegiance to her as Duchess of Aquitaine and, no doubt, to approve her choice of husband. Eleanor also underlined her autonomy by annulling all acts and decrees made by Louis in Aquitaine, and by issuing charters in her own name and renewing grants and privileges to religious houses within her domains. The surviving documents from this period testify to her industrious attention to the business of ruling, which suggests that she was enjoying her independence. In France she had been relegated to a subordinate role, which must have been stifling for a woman of her intelligence, energy, and ability. Now she was free and able to make her own choices. But with remarriage on her agenda, she must have known that her brief autonomy would soon be curbed, even if Henry proved an indulgent husband.

  In March, a delegation from England had visited Henry in Normandy and begged him to delay no longer, as his supporters were losing patience. On 6 April, Henry met his Norman barons at Lisieux. Although they discussed the planned invasion of England, the Duke's priority was now marriage with Eleanor, and he took counsel of his vassals, seeking their approval of the match. Having obtained this, he set his affairs in order and left with a small escort for Poitiers, arriving in the middle of May.

  On Whit Sunday, 18 May, Henry and Eleanor were married quietly in the eleventh-century cathedral of Saint-Pierre at Poitiers "without the pomp and ceremony that befitted their rank." 4 Although there existed between them the same degree of affinity as there had been between Eleanor and Louis, there is no record of a dispensation being sought.

  By all the laws of protocol and courtesy, Henry and Eleanor should have sought King Louis's permission before marrying; they were after all his two greatest vassals, and Eleanor, being without a male protector, was legally his ward. But both of them knew that Louis would certainly forbid an alliance between them; he already feared Henry's power and regarded him as his foremost enemy, and the prospect of Aquitaine being annexed to Henry's already considerable European domains would horrify him. Therefore, although marrying without his consent was an act of the greatest provocation, not to mention discourtesy, Henry and Eleanor had decided to risk the consequences rather than abandon their alliance.

  Not only had Eleanor failed to obtain Louis's consent to her marriage, she had also allied herself with his archrival, a man who was as closely related to her as Louis was and who had been forbidden to marry her daughter on grounds of consanguinity. Eleanor must have known that she could have done nothing much worse than this to injure her former husband; indeed, there may have been an element of revenge in her defiance.

  So as not to alert Louis to what was afoot, Henry and Eleanor had gone to great lengths to keep their marriage negotiations secret-- they were so successful in this that no documentation survives and few of their contemporaries ever found out how their union had come about. Robert of Torigni, for one, was not sure whether Henry had entered into the marriage "on impulse, or by premeditated design." Yet although most people were taken by surprise, the evidence suggests that the couple had decided to marry the previous August.

  Eleanor was now, at thirty, Duchess of Aquitaine and Normandy and Countess of Poitou and Anjou, while Henry had acquired by marriage almost half of what is now modern France-- more than doubling his continental possessions and gaining handsomely in status, power, wealth, and resources, as well as acquiring cities and castles of great strategic importance. He was now master of a vast tract of land stretching from the English Channel to the Pyrenees, a domain that was ten times as large as the royal demesne of France. Through marrying Eleanor, he had founded an Angevin empire and established himself, at the age of nineteen, as potentially the most powerful ruler in Europe.

  The acquisition of such an inheritance carried risks. Aquitaine was notoriously difficult to govern, outsiders being resented, and Henry might have expected to find that his newly won men and resources were being diverted from his cherished enterprise in England to resolve petty disputes between his turbulent southern vassals. This, however, presented the kind of challenge that Henry relished, and he was confident of his ability to do better than Louis had; moreover, he could not have left Eleanor free to marry anyone else, for that might have resulted in another enemy threatening his southern border.

  A further risk was the chance that Eleanor might not bear him a son to succeed to his empire; in fifteen years of marriage to Louis, she had produced only two daughters. Yet this does not seem to have put Henry off. Eleanor must have confided to him that Louis had come infrequently to her bed and, as a true child of his age, he would have accepted her view that God had withheld a son because the marriage was invalid and therefore unsanctified.

  Eleanor did not allow her marriage to disrupt her official duties, and was soon busy granting honours and privileges to favoured vassals, among them Saldebreuil of Sanzay, Constable of Aquitaine, whom she made her seneschal, and her uncle, Pvaoul de Faye. She also continued to make generous gifts to monasteries.
br />   On 26 May, less than a week after her wedding, the Duchess visited Montierneuf Abbey, where, styling herself "Eleanor, by the grace of God, Duchess of Aquitaine and Normandy, united with the Duke of Normandy, Henry of Anjou," she confirmed all the privileges granted by "my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my father." On the following day she was at the nearby abbey of Saint-Maixent, in response to a plea from Abbot Peter to restore a tract of woodland that had been granted by Louis but taken back by Eleanor immediately after her return to Poitiers. "This gift which I at first made reluctantly, I have now renewed with a glad heart, now that I am joined in wedlock to Henry, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou," she declared in the charter restoring the woodland to the abbey. 5

  Early in June 1152 Eleanor made a pilgrimage to Fontevrault, where she was received by the Abbess Isabella, Henry's aunt, to whom Eleanor would afterwards refer as "my aunt." The Duchess's affection and reverence for this place, which had held such significance for her family, comes across in the wording of the new charter she granted at this time to the abbey:

  After being joined to my very noble lord Henry, most noble Count of the Angevins, by the bond of matrimony, divine inspiration led me to want to visit the sacred congregation of the virgins of Fontevrault, and by the grace of God I have been able to realise this intention. Thus have I come to Fontevrault, guided by God. I have crossed the threshold where the sisters are gathered, and here, with heartfelt emotion, I have approved, conceded and affirmed all that my father and forebears have given to God and to the church of Fontevrault, and in particular this gift of 500 sous in the coinage of Poitou, made by myself and my lord Louis, King of France, in the days when he was my husband.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]