Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  Attached to the charter was Eleanor's newly made seal as Duchess of Aquitaine and Normandy, which survives in the Archives of France and, although in poor condition, bears a worn image of a slender woman in a long, fitted gown with tight sleeves, wearing a veil and cloak and holding in her outstretched hands a flower-- thought to be a fleur-de-lys-- and either a hawk or a bird perched upon a cross (then a symbol denoting sovereignty).

  The buoyant tone of these charters suggests that Eleanor was happy in her new marriage. What was to become one of the most turbulent royal marriages in history seems to have begun well. Although little is known of the state of the marriage before 1173, much may be inferred from circumstantial evidence. Henry and Eleanor had a great deal in common: they were both strong, dynamic characters with forceful personalities and boundless energy. Both were intelligent, sharing cultural interests, and both had a strong sex drive. Gervase of Canterbury, writing many decades later, implies that there was a strong mutual attraction, if not love, between Henry and Eleanor, and there was certainly a high degree of shared ambition and self-interest. Like many marriages of the period, it was a business arrangement between feudal magnates, with both partners committed to safeguarding their own interests, which they knew would of necessity entail long periods of separation. Such separations may well have helped the marriage to survive for as long as it did. When they were together, Henry and Eleanor presided together over their court, travelled together on progress through their domains, and slept together regularly.

  Naturally, Henry was the dominant partner, and he soon made it clear that he expected Eleanor to be submissive to his will and to confine her influence and ambition to the domestic sphere. While he allowed her a certain degree of autonomy with regard to her own lands-- insofar as this served his own purposes-- he kept a tight rein on her, rarely seeking her advice or allowing her to interfere in politics.

  Nor did he remain faithful to her. Giraldus says that "in domestic matters he was hard to deal with. He was an open adulterer." Henry took his sexual pleasure wherever he found it, with whores, women he picked up on his travels, and the "court prostitutes" who regularly infiltrated his household. Eleanor, of course, was expected not only to turn a blind eye to these infidelities but to remain faithful herself, so as not to jeopardise the succession. However, she now had no cause to complain of a lack of husbandly attention: the evidence shows that, for the first fifteen years of their marriage, Henry was a regular visitor to her bed.

  William of Newburgh states that Henry did not commit adultery until Eleanor was past childbearing age, which became apparent around 1167-1168, but this is unlikely, given the evidence of other chroniclers. It is possible that the amorous excesses referred to by the chroniclers were confined mainly to Henry's youth or his later years, but it is improbable. Well before 1167, he indulged in a passionate affair with Rohese, Countess of Lincoln and sister of Roger de Clare, Earl of Hertford, who was said to be the most beautiful woman in England. Another mistress was Avice de Stafford.

  Henry's extramarital encounters produced a number of known bastards and doubtless others who were never acknowledged. The most famous of these bastards, Geoffrey, was probably born before Henry's marriage to Eleanor, during one of his early sojourns in England. His mother was Ykenai, who was described by Walter Map as "a base-born, common harlot who stooped to all uncleanness."0 After his accession to the English throne, Henry acknowledged Geoffrey as his own, against the advice of his counsellors and "without reason and with too little discernment," according to Map, who obviously believed that the King had been hoodwinked into accepting another man's bastard. Henry, however, was devoted to Geoffrey, who reciprocated his affection, and always behaved as if Geoffrey was his true son, bringing him up initially in his own household with his children by Eleanor-- whose views on this arrangement are not recorded-- and then sending him to be educated in the schools at Northampton and Tours, with a view to his entering the Church. While still "a mere boy," and certainly before 1170, Geoffrey took minor orders and was appointed Archdeacon of Lincoln.

  Geoffrey had a brother called Peter, but he is nowhere referred to in the records as Henry's son and was probably sired by another of Ykenai's clients. Among Henry's other known bastards was William, later nicknamed "Longsword," a name used in the tenth century by one of the dukes of Normandy. William's date of birth is unknown-- he is not mentioned in the records until 1188-- as is the name of his mother. It is possible that she was also Ykenai, because in later life William asserted his right to inherit the estates of one Roger of Akeny. If Akeny is to be identified with Ykenai, then Henry's mistress was less common than Walter Map suggests, although he was probably referring to her trade and her morals rather than her lineage. It is also fair to say that, if Ykenai bore Henry two children, their affair was more than a casual encounter and may have been going on during the early years of Henry's marriage to Eleanor.

  William Longsword became Earl of Salisbury by right of his marriage to Ela, heiress of William FitzPatrick, Earl of Salisbury, in 1198. He was a faithful servant of Henry and his successors, received many honours and offices, and died in 1226.7

  Henry had another son, Morgan, by a noble Welshwoman called Nesta, the wife of Sir Ralph Bloet, a northern knight who had settled on the Welsh marches and who probably brought up Morgan in his own household; Morgan became Provost of Beverley Minster in 1201 and bishop-elect of Durham in 1213. The Pope refused to confirm his election unless Morgan declared that he was Ralph Bloet's son; legitimacy was, strictly speaking, a requirement for episcopal office, although sometimes a pope might be prevailed upon to issue a dispensation to waive it. This Pope, however, the zealous Innocent III, was inflexible on such issues, and when Morgan loyally declared it unthinkable that he should deny his father the King, the bishopric was withheld.

  Matilda, Abbess of Barking in Essex, was reputedly a bastard daughter of Henry. It has even been suggested, without the slightest shred of evidence, that Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, was his son-- an inference based purely on the affection in which Henry held the future saint. Yet there were others, born later on in the reign, in the darkest of circumstances, who were almost certainly the King's bastard children, as we shall see. In commemoration of their marriage, Henry and Eleanor commissioned a stained-glass window for Poitiers Cathedral, which may still be seen today. It depicts them kneeling, donating the window to St. Pierre. This is perhaps the earliest surviving representation of Eleanor. Several biographers have suggested that one or more pairs of the lifelike statues of the kings and queens of Judah on the west porch and facade of Chartres Cathedral, completed around 1150, may be likenesses of Eleanor and Louis. While there is no evidence for this, it is true that the face of one Queen of Judah-- although slimmer, younger, and with plumper cheeks-- resembles the face on Eleanor's tomb effigy. Certainly these figures wear the kind of queenly robes that she would have worn, and as she was Queen of France at the time they were sculpted, she may well have been the inspiration behind them.

  As we have seen, there was a very limited concept of portraiture in the early Middle Ages, so none of the few surviving representations of Eleanor-- except, perhaps, for her tomb effigy, which will be discussed later-- can be described as a true likeness. They are purely images of a queen. For example, twin Romanesque corbel heads thought to be Henry and Eleanor, now in the Cloisters Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but originally in the church of Notre-Dame-du-Bourg at Langon near Bordeaux, and probably carved around 1152 at the time of the couple's nuptial progress through Aquitaine, are identical with each other, and no attempt has been made to portray a true likeness. Similar representational heads may be seen in the church of Saint-Andre near Bordeaux, the church of Chaniers near Saintes, the church at Sharnford, Lincolnshire, and in Oakham Castle in Rutland, but those in the Cloisters Collection are the finest surviving examples.

  According to Henry of Huntingdon, the marriage of Henry and Eleanor "was the cause and promoter of
great hatred and discord between the King of France and the Duke." News of the wedding soon reached Louis, who was shocked and angered by it. Convening a council of his outraged barons, he complained that Henry had breached feudal law by having "basely stolen" his wife;8 it was now clear to him why Eleanor had been so eager to have their marriage annulled. Some lords urged Louis to revoke the terms of the annulment,0 or even the annulment itself;10 others even demanded that the guilty pair be excommunicated. But before Louis would consider that, he summoned Henry and Eleanor to his court to account for their treasonable conduct. When there was no response, he felt fully justified in going to war.

  Others who believed that they had a legitimate grievance against Henry, among them Eustace of Boulogne and Geoffrey of Anjou, offered Louis their support. They were joined by Henry of Blois, who had recently succeeded his father as Count of Champagne; his betrothal to Marie of France had just been solemnised and he faced losing her inheritance if Eleanor bore Henry a son.11 His brother Theobald, now Count of Blois, who had so recently tried to abduct and marry Eleanor, was now betrothed to her daughter Alix, Marie's little sister; he also hastened to ally himself to Louis.

  Even the rumblings of armed conflict did not shake Henry's defiance. In June, Louis led an army into Normandy, determined to assert his authority and seize his rebellious vassal's lands, including those acquired by marriage, which would then be divided between the King and his allies.12 Henry, who barely a month after their marriage had left Eleanor in Poitiers and was preparing to sail from Barfleur to England with an invasion force,13 was forced once again to abandon his plans, and advanced upon Louis with such speed that several horses collapsed and died on the road.

  Bypassing the royal army, which was beating a hasty retreat, Henry laid waste the Vexin and the domain of Robert of Dreux, Louis's brother. He then marched west to Touraine and effortlessly took two of the three castles that had been left to his brother Geoffrey by their father. Louis, meanwhile, suffering from a fever, had fallen back upon Geoffrey's remaining stronghold, Montsoreau on the Loire, which was the next castle to be besieged by his impudent young rival. When it fell, Geoffrey lost his nerve and begged his brother for forgiveness, while Louis, still laid low by sickness, gave up his cause as lost, agreed to the Church's demands for a long truce, and returned to Paris.14 The triumphant victor, who within six weeks had gained the advantage,15 and who was not unaware of the significance of his success, which firmly established him as the dominant power in western Europe, blithely resumed his preparations for invading England.

  Late in August, when Henry returned to Eleanor in Poitiers, they set out on a progress through her domains, visiting Poitou, the Limousin, Les Landes in Gascony, the salt flats of Saintonge, and the Talmont. The purpose of the tour, which lasted four months, was to introduce the new Duke of Aquitaine to his vassals, but their reception of him was cool. Always fiercely independent and, in the opinion of many, ungovernable, they had resented French interference in the duchy, but Henry represented a far more potent threat to their autonomy than his predecessor had done. They were deeply suspicious of his aspiration to be king of England, and feared that he would milk the duchy dry to achieve this, then use the vast resources at his disposal as a sovereign ruler to force his will upon them. Some lords, although they were devoted and loyal to their duchess, categorically informed her that they owed Henry no allegiance, save as her husband.

  The Duke and Duchess were initially well received at Limoges, having pitched their tents outside the city walls, but at dinner on the first night, Eleanor's cook complained that the burghers of Limoges had failed to provide the royal kitchens with the customary supplies. Glowering at the sparse fare, Henry demanded to know why-- to which the haughty Abbot of Saint-Martial explained disdainfully that supplies were delivered only when the Duchess lodged within the city walls. His insolence provoked an outburst of the already notorious Angevin temper: full of "black bile,"16 Henry gave orders for the walls of Limoges, so recently rebuilt, to be razed to the ground. In future, he declared, no Abbot would be able to use them as an excuse to withhold from their Duke his just and reasonable dues.

  After that the sullen vassals of the south held their peace, and the progress proceeded without further incident. In Gascony, Henry was able to recruit men for his invasion force, gather some supplies, and charter ships from the ports.

  In December, Eleanor returned to Poitiers while Henry travelled to Normandy, where his invasion fleet was waiting to sail. Before embarking he went to Rouen to visit his mother, the Empress Matilda, who lent him money to help finance his expedition. There is no record of Eleanor meeting Matilda during the first months of her marriage, nor might either have relished such a prospect: Matilda may well have been reluctant to receive the woman whom rumour accused of having had an adulterous affair with her own husband, while Eleanor may have resented the Empress's influence over her son and the fact that it was she whom he consulted on political matters, rather than his wife.

  In January 1153 Henry sailed from Barfleur for England with a fleet of twenty-six ships17 and an army of 3,000 foot and 140 horse, intending to bring King Stephen to submission. He left Normandy in the care of the Empress Matilda, and Anjou and Aquitaine in the custody of Eleanor, who shortly after his departure seems to have taken up residence at Angers,18 leaving her maternal uncle, Raoul de Faye, as her deputy in Aquitaine. By the spring, Eleanor knew that she was pregnant.

  It was perhaps at around this time that the celebrated troubadour Bernard de Ventadour presented himself at Eleanor's court. According to a biography of him written in the thirteenth century,19 Bernard, who was blessed with good looks and a fine singing voice, was the son of a kitchen maid in the household of Eble II, Viscount of Ventadour in the Limousin. The Viscount, who came from a family with a tradition of patronising troubadours, realised that the boy had talent and tutored him in the arts of poetry and composition. But when, on reaching maturity, Bernard repaid his noble patron by attempting to seduce Alaiz, his wife, he was thrown out of the household at Ventadour, while his hapless paramour was locked up by her enraged husband and had her marriage annulled.

  The account continues:

  Bernard left and went to the Duchess of Normandy, who was young and of great worth, and she had understanding of matters of valour, honour and fine flattery, and liked songs in praise of her. Bernard's voice and songs pleased her greatly, and she received him as her guest with a warm welcome. He was at her court for a long time and fell in love with her, and she with him, and he composed many excellent songs for her. While he was with her, King Henry of England made her his wife and took her from Normandy to England.

  There are obvious inaccuracies in this story: Eleanor was not Duchess of Normandy until she married Henry, an event that took place before he became King of England, but such errors are inevitable in a work written a century after the events it describes. There is nevertheless much evidence in Bernard's surviving verses, which are written in Provencal and are very moving, that he was at Eleanor's court and was, indeed, somewhat in love with her. His lyrics express this love and eulogise the object of it in the conventional courtly manner. One reads:

  When the sweet breeze

  Blows hither from your dwelling

  Methinks I feel

  A breath of Paradise.

  Elsewhere, addressing Eleanor as "my comfort" or "my magnet," Bernard refers to her as "noble and sweet ... faithful and loyal ... gracious, lovely, the embodiment of charm," indeed, "one meet to crown the state of any king." When she looked at him with eyes full of fire and eloquence, he felt the joy normally associated with a festival such as Christmas. "You have been the first among all my joys and you shall be the last, so long as there is life in me." Of all women, Eleanor was the most beautiful, and he would not have traded her charms for even the wealthy city of Pisa. Delighted that she was able to read, Bernard wrote poems intended for her eyes alone, in which he inserted secret messages that he hoped she would understand. Tri
stan, he declared, never suffered such woe for the fair Yseult as he, Bernard, suffered for his chosen lady. When he was in her presence, he trembled like an aspen, his wits fled, and he had "no more sense than a child, so overcome by love was I." Everything he wrote, he wrote for Eleanor:

  I am not one to scorn

  The boon God granted me.

  She said, in accents clear,

  Before I did depart,

  "Your songs they please me well."

  I would each Christian soul

  Could know my rapture then,

  For all I write and sing

  Is meant for her delight.

  How deeply these feelings went, and whether or not Eleanor reciprocated them, is not clear, although the indications are that Bernard's passion went unrequited. Looking back on the episode in later life, he wrote, "I was like a man beyond hope, sighing in such a state of love, though I would come to realise that I had been a madman."

  The dating of this episode is problematical: Bernard may have joined Eleanor's household at any time during the period from March 1152 to early 1154; as we are told that he was at her court for a long time, it cannot have been much later.

  As far as Eleanor was concerned, it was perfectly normal for troubadours to express passionate devotion to a high-born lady such as herself, and everything we know about her suggests that she enjoyed being the object of such reverence and probably expected and encouraged it. As Henry was away in England, these games of courtly love provided her with a welcome diversion. It did not occur to her that her husband might disapprove of them.

  When, after a stormy crossing, Henry arrived on the south coast of England on 6 January, "the earth quivered with sudden rumours like reeds shaken in the wind."20 When the Duke went into a church to hear mass, he heard the priest declare, "Behold, the Lord the ruler cometh, and the kingdom is in His hand." Interpreting this as a good omen, he pressed on in buoyant mood, deciding that his first objective must be to relieve his chief supporters, who were under siege at Walling-ford Castle.

 
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