Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  He was the typical ascetic: tall, skeletally thin, with transparent skin and white hair. The rigours of his austere existence had made him old before his time, and an aura of sanctity clung to him. He had no time for the new Gothic cathedrals with their stained glass and gilded decoration; his faith was one of simplicity and contemplation, and he preached that God was a benevolent and loving father-- a revolutionary view in an age when people were taught to fear the Deity and heed His commandments if they wished to avoid the horrors of Hell.

  Bernard showed surprising toleration on some issues, condemning the persecution of Jews and doing his best to love his enemies. But he could be ruthless to the latter when they expressed unorthodox views that challenged what he believed to be the will of God. He had such a forceful and magnetic personality, and such deeply held convictions, that the very sight of him or sound of his voice was enough to silence the most vociferous of his opponents, and kings and senior churchmen went in awe of him.

  One of Bernard's chief opponents was Peter Abelard. As a young man, Abelard had seduced the beautiful Heloise, niece of a canon of Notre-Dame; their love affair resulted in a secret marriage and the birth of a son. The canon found out and, at his instigation, a gang of ruffians broke into Abelard's lodging and castrated him. In grief, Heloise retired to a convent, while Abelard devoted his life to teaching rationalist theory on the Holy Trinity. Bernard, who preached the triumph of faith over reason, was one of Abelard's fiercest critics. In 1136 Abelard had been accused by the Church of heresy, and in 1140, his case still unresolved, he was summoned to a public debate with Bernard at a council held at Sens, which Louis and Eleanor attended, and which resulted in Abelard's being condemned and his theories discredited.

  It was at Sens that Bernard saw Eleanor for probably the first time, and his reaction was stiff disapproval. Writing later to a maiden called Sophia, he described the Queen and her ladies so that his young correspondent "may never sully her virginity but attain its reward." Fortunately for the modern historian, his diatribe includes a detailed description of the dress worn by Eleanor and her noble companions:

  The garments of court ladies are fashioned from the finest tissues of wool or silk. A costly fur between two layers of rich stuffs forms the lining and border of their cloaks. Their arms are loaded with bracelets; from their ears hang pendants, enshrining precious stones. For headdress they have a kerchief of fine linen which they drape about their neck and shoulders, allowing one corner to fall over the left arm. This is the wimple, ordinarily fastened to their brows by a chaplet, a filet, or a circle of wrought gold.

  His description tallies with one by Geoffrey de Vigeois, who also condemned the outlandish French court fashions of the period:

  They have clothes fashioned of rich and precious stuffs, in colours to suit their humour. They snip out the cloth in rings and long slashes to show the lining beneath, and the borders of the clothes are cut into little balls and pointed tongues, so that they look like the devils in paintings. They slash their mantles, and their sleeves flow like those of hermits. Youths affect long hair and shoes with pointed toes.

  As for the ladies, "you might think them adders, if you judged by the tails they drag after them."

  Bernard was shocked by such extravagance, which lent merely superficial beauty: "Fie on a beauty that is put on in the morning and laid aside at night! The ornaments of a queen have no beauty like to the blushes of natural modesty which colour the cheeks of a virgin. Silk,purple and paint have their own beauty, but they do not make the body beautiful." He likened Eleanor to one of those daughters of Belial who, got up in this way, put on airs, walk with heads high and mincing steps, their necks thrust forward, and, furnished and adorned as only temples should be, they drag after them trains of precious material that makes a cloud of dust. Some you see are not so much adorned as loaded down with ornaments of gold, silver, and precious stones, and all the raiment of a court, indeed with everything that pertains to queenly splendour.

  After Eleanor's departure, the unrest in her domains had grown worse. The Poitevins in particular objected to French rule, and late in 1137 the citizens of Poitiers formally repudiated Louis's authority and declared themselves a commune. Probably at Eleanor's urging, Louis immediately descended on the city with an army and occupied it without a blow being struck.

  Everyone expected the King to dissolve the commune, but he did not. Instead he demanded that the sons and daughters of the chief burghers return with him to France as hostages for their fathers' good behaviour. This provoked an outcry, and Suger, receiving complaints in Paris from horrified Poitevins, hastened to Poitiers, where he found waning children and loaded baggage carts in the square before the ducal palace, ready to depart, the anguished parents looking on. In response to Suger's urgings, Louis rescinded his order and returned to France, having displayed appalling lack of judgement and achieved nothing beyond arousing the resentment and fear of the Poitevins and the anger of his wife. Eleanor accused him of weakness in bowing to pressure from Suger and demanded that in future he listen to her instead, for she knew her people better than anyone else. As a result, Suger's moderating influence was eclipsed for some time,26 while Louis bowed to the private dictates of his domineering and somewhat irresponsible wife.

  Shortly after this episode, on Christmas Day, Eleanor was crowned Queen of France at Bourges. Louis, it will be remembered, had already been crowned in his father's lifetime, and it appears that he simply had the royal diadem ceremonially placed on his head on this occasion.

  After his initial attempt to subdue Eleanor's vassals, the King maintained a low profile in Aquitaine. His officials were administering the duchy and his soldiers garrisoning the ducal castles, but he did not have the resources to enforce his authority, which meant that the lords of the region were able to enjoy greater autonomy than ever before. Eleanor visited her fiefs occasionally, the first time being in September 1138, when she attended the Festival of Our Lady at Puy l'Evèque in neighbouring Quercy. Sometimes Louis accompanied her; more often than not it was her sister Petronilla who rode at her side. All the evidence suggests that the sisters were very close to each other. In fact, it was Eleanor's loyalty to Petronilla that was largely responsible for the first major conflict of the reign, sparking a chain of events that was to culminate in a tragedy that would have an indelible effect on Louis VII.

  3. "Counsel of the Devil"

  Early in 1141, Louis VII decided to lay claim to Toulouse in his wife's name; it is likely that his interest was prompted by Eleanor, who was determined to recover a territory she believed was rightfully hers, by virtue of her descent from its heiress, her grandmother Philippa of Toulouse.

  For the past twenty years Toulouse had been ruled by Count Alfonso Jordan. Louis saw its acquisition as a means to extend his own domains almost as far as the Mediterranean and enhance his personal prestige. Fired with enthusiasm for the project, he drew up strategies for his campaign without consulting Suger or his chief vassals, with the result that some-- among them the powerful Count Theobald IV of Champagne-- refused him their support. Nor did the Count fulfil his feudal obligation to send Louis knights and soldiers, and when the King and Queen departed for the south on 24 June, Louis was seething with anger against Theobald.

  Leaving Eleanor in Poitiers, where she seems to have remained for the duration of the campaign, Louis marched his army through Aquitaine, intending to take the city of Toulouse by surprise. Confident of his success, he had not thought it necessary to take with him many siege engines. Nor was he a very competent commander: his men were poorly organised and ill disciplined.

  When he arrived before Toulouse, the King saw to his dismay that Alfonso Jordan had been warned of his coming and that formidable defences were in place. Realising that he had no hope of taking the city, Louis retreated in undignified haste via Angouleme to Poitiers, where he was obliged to confess his failure to Eleanor.1

  The King and Queen remained in Poitou throughout the summer, with Eleano
r's sister Petronilla in attendance.2 Together, they all went on a progress through Eleanor's domains, visiting the monastery of Neuil-sur-l'Autise and the abbey of Millezais, where Eleanor's aunt Agnes was Abbess. Then the court enjoyed the hunting at Talmont for several days before returning to Paris in the early autumn.

  It was during this summer that sixteen-year-old Petronilla became involved in an adulterous affair with Count Raoul of Vermandois, seneschal of France, who was about thirty-five years her senior and was married to Eleanor, sister of Count Theobald of Champagne. Raoul, who was a cousin of the King, held wide estates to the north of France, between Flanders and Normandy; Petronilla was a very desirable bride, for she had been granted estates in Normandy and Burgundy for her dower, although she had so far refused all offers of marriage. Now she wanted only Raoul, while he, according to John of Salisbury, "was always dominated by lust." Eleanor seems to have supported the lovers from the first; she wanted to indulge her sister's desire to marry Raoul and encouraged him to have his existing marriage annulled. The Queen had no love for Theobald of Champagne, who had long been Raoul's enemy and had so recently failed to honour his feudal obligations to Louis, and she doubtless relished the prospect of his anger at this insult to his sister. In the meantime, she herself brought pressure to bear on Louis.

  Soon after Louis returned to France, it was brought to his notice that the archbishopric of Bourges had fallen vacant. Bourges was an important city, being situated near the border with Poitou, and therefore a convenient place for Louis and Eleanor to hold court for their vassals. The canons of Bourges had put forward their own candidate, Pierre de la Chatre, a Clunaic monk, to fill the vacancy, but the King nominated instead the rather less suitable Carduc, his own chancellor, to this politically significant office. The cathedral chapter wisely but provocatively opted for Pierre de la Chatre. Louis vetoed their choice, but Pierre was already in Rome, where Pope Innocent II confirmed his appointment and duly consecrated him Archbishop of Bourges.

  Louis exploded in fury on learning of this and had the gates of Bourges closed to Pierre upon his return, whereupon the Archbishop complained to the Pope, who in turn voiced the suspicion that it was Eleanor rather than Louis who was opposed to Pierre's appointment. Although there is no proof of the Queen's involvement, Innocent presumably felt that she was following in a family tradition of anticlericalism. As for Louis, the Pontiff warned the King's ministers that he was a mere child who needed to be taught good manners, and exhorted them to make him stop "behaving like a foolish schoolboy": those with any influence on him should ensure that he did not in future meddle in what was clearly not his business. Innocent's rebuke was reported to the King, who was deeply insulted and retaliated by swearing, on holy relics, that while there was breath in his body, Archbishop Pierre should never again set foot in Bourges.3

  Furious, Innocent threatened to excommunicate Louis, but the King defied him, declaring that he would not renounce a vow he had sworn directly to God with his hand on holy relics. The Pope decided instead to place the royal household under an interdict, effectively excluding its members from the sacraments of the Church-- a terrible punishment for one so devout as Louis, and one that horrified his advisers. Yet even now the King would not give way, and his fury was further fuelled by reports that Archbishop Peter had been granted asylum by Count Theobald of Champagne.

  Enticed by the prospect of marriage to the Queen's sister, with whom he seems to have begun cohabiting, Raoul of Vermandois had now deserted his wife and had finally decided to have his marriage annulled. At the end of 1141 Louis, who was almost certainly pressured by Eleanor, found three compliant bishops-- Raoul's own brother, the Bishop of Noyon, and the Bishops of Laon and Senlis-- who heard the case and willingly granted the Count of Vermandois an annulment on the grounds of consanguinity. Early in 1142 these same bishops officiated, with the King's approval, at the nuptials of Raoul and Petronilla.

  At the Church's behest, an enraged Count Theobald took under his protection his abandoned sister Eleanor and her children, and, heeding her pleas, protested forcefully to the Pope, to whom he sent documents drawn up by himself proving that both the annulment and Raoul's remarriage were invalid. He argued that Raoul had not sought the Pope's consent before proceeding with his case, and that there was clear evidence that the bishops had been suborned by Louis, who was not qualified to interfere in what was entirely a matter for the Church. Briefed by Theobald, a shocked Bernard of Clairvaux also wrote to the Pope, expressing in the most vigorous terms his disapproval of this outrage against the House of Champagne and the sacrament of marriage itself.

  In June 1142 Innocent arranged for a Church council to meet at Lagny-sur-Marne in Champagne; here, on the Pope's express instructions, the papal legate, Cardinal Yves, excommunicated the Bishop of Noyon, suspended the other two bishops, and ordered Raoul of Vermandois to return to his wife; when Raoul refused, he and Petronilla were excommunicated and their lands placed under an interdict.4 An indignant King Louis, still smarting because of the interdict on his household and angry with Theobald for harbouring Pierre de la Chatre, immediately sprang to Raoul's defence: he refused to acknowledge the legate's sentence, which he interpreted as a direct attack on his regal authority, and began plotting war on Theobald, whom he blamed for these developments. While Louis was thus occupied, Geoffrey of Anjou seized his opportunity and invaded Normandy.

  Louis, his patience exhausted, sent an army into Champagne, intending to bring Theobald to submission by punishing his people. For several months his soldiers laid waste the countryside, burning crops, looting churches and homes, killing men, women, and children indiscriminately, and, according to most chroniclers, committing unspeakable atrocities.

  Theobald remained inflexible, and in January 1143, leaving Eleanor in Paris, the King himself led a force of mercenaries and routiers into Champagne and laid siege to the small town of Vitry-sur-Marne, which clustered around one of the Count's castles, which Louis intended to occupy. Local people, terrified of a fresh French onslaught, had sought safety within the town's walls, and now had no way of retreat from the encircling enemy.

  From his camp on the La Fourche hills, the King directed an assault on the castle, which was built of wood. As his men advanced, they were met with a hail of bowshot from the keep, but the royal forces retaliated with a more deadly weapon, launching flaming arrows at the wooden edifice, which was soon ablaze. With its defenders either engulfed in flames or intent on putting the fire out, there was no one to prevent the royal mercenaries from swarming into the town, brandishing swords and torches, and the people ran from their houses in terror. In vain did their commanders try to curb the blood lust of the soldiers, who threw their torches into the doorways of houses and fired the thatched roofs, careless of whether there was anyone within.

  Soon the whole town seemed to be ablaze, and its panic-stricken inhabitants fled to the sanctuary of the cathedral. Estimates vary, but between one thousand and fifteen hundred people took refuge there that day, among them women, children, the old, and the sick. But the wind was against them: as the conflagration spread, the cathedral itself was engulfed in flames, its roof caved in, and every soul trapped within its walls perished. 5

  From his position overlooking the inferno, Louis heard the screams of the dying and smelt their burning flesh; he shed tears of horror and remorse,6 and when his captains came to him for further orders, they found him shaking and unable to speak, his face ashen and his teeth chattering. He appeared to be in a trance and seemed unaware of their presence. Concerned for his health, his officers helped him to his tent, where he lay in the same state for two days, refusing to speak or take nourishment.

  When he emerged he was a changed man, weighed down by guilt.

  Although he had not ordered the sacking of the town-- which was known for hundreds of years thereafter as Vitry-le-Brule-- he castigated himself ceaselessly for having caused the deaths of its people, whose cries haunted his days and nights. He either suffered t
errifying nightmares or lay sleepless, weeping into his pillows. Not only did his physical health suffer, but he felt he had been cast spiritually adrift, and that his soul was forever damned.

  Broken in spirit, the King returned to Paris, having lost his appetite for war. In fact, his armies had overrun most of Champagne and he was now in a strong position to dictate terms. He therefore offered to make peace with Count Theobald, on condition that the latter use his influence to have the sentence of excommunication on the Count and Countess of Vermandois lifted. Bernard of Clairvaux suggested that Pope Innocent lift the ban, but only until Louis had restored Theobald's lands to him, and the Pope readily complied.

  After Louis had ordered a general retreat of his forces, Innocent ordered Raoul one final time to renounce Petronilla. Raoul refused, and found himself and his wife excommunicated a second time. Anger roused Louis out of his deep depression, and he stormed back into Champagne at the head of his army, wreaking a terrible vengeance on the land and its people.

  Public opinion in France had turned against the war. From Clairvaux, Abbot Bernard dispatched a stream of thunderous letters to the King, condemning his aggression towards Theobald and accusing Louis, among other things, of "slaying, burning, tearing down churches, driving poor men from their dwelling places, and consorting with bandits and robbers." The Abbot warned Louis that he was imperilling his immortal soul and provoking the terrible wrath of God. "Do not, my King," he begged, "lift your hand with rash audacity against the terrible Lord who takes away the breath of kings." Finally he asked: "From whom but the Devil did this advice come under which you are acting? Those who are urging you to repeat your former wrongdoings against an innocent person are seeking in this not your honour but their own convenience. They are clearly the enemies of your crown and the disturbers of your realm."

 
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