Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  Since Louis had for some time ceased to heed the warnings of Suger and his other advisers, there can be little doubt that the mentors referred to so scathingly in Bernard's letter were Eleanor, her sister, and Raoul of Vermandois, who had probably urged the King to return to Champagne and pursue the war to its inevitable bitter end.

  Bernard wrote also to Suger and other royal advisers, criticising them for failing to give the King sound advice. At Suger's invitation, he visited Louis at Corbeil and harangued him in person before his court. After Bernard had left, Louis was visibly shaken and once more overwhelmed by guilt.7 The horror he had felt at Vitry returned in full force and so consumed him that he suffered a form of breakdown, which affected his health so badly that his doctors feared he would die. Cut off from the sacraments, thanks to the interdict on his household, he was convinced that he was irrevocably damned, and his mental agony was unbearable.8

  On 24 September, Pope Innocent died. His successor, Celestine II, was informed by Bernard of Clairvaux of the spiritual malaise that affected the King of France, and out of compassion lifted the interdict. Louis, however, was too sunk in dejection for this news to cheer him. He believed that nothing could avert the divine punishment that awaited him. When he arose from his sickbed, he was a changed man. He cut off his long hair and was shorn like a monk; he took to wearing the monastic's coarse grey gown and sandals; he spent hours at prayer, begging God for forgiveness, and was even more rigorous than before in his religious observances and fasts. He resolved to heed once more the injunctions of Abbot Suger and his other ecclesiastical advisers, who urged Louis to make peace with Count Theobald.

  The effect of these changes on Eleanor is not recorded, nor do we know how she dealt with Louis's guilt. There is no doubt, however, that he remained a fond and even foolish husband; nowhere is there any suggestion that he blamed her for what had happened in Champagne.

  It was during 1143 that the validity of the marriage of Louis and Eleanor was first questioned. The Bishop of Laon had drawn up a pedigree that exposed the consanguinous affinity between the royal couple; then Bernard of Clairvaux raised the matter twice. He asked why Louis should disapprove of the consanguinous relationship between Raoul of Vermandois and his first wife, when he himself was related to Queen Eleanor within the forbidden degrees. Later, when Theobald of Champagne sought to gain support against the French by marrying two of his heirs to the King's powerful vassals and Louis forbade the marriages on the grounds of consanguinity, Bernard asked, "How is it that the King is so scrupulous about consanguinity in the case of Theobald's heirs, when everyone knows that he himself has married his cousin in the fourth degree?" Louis chose to ignore these censures, but it is clear, from what was to come, that Eleanor took them more seriously.

  On Saturday, 10 June 1144, Louis, Eleanor, and the dowager Queen Adelaide joined the throngs of pilgrims and sightseers travelling from Paris to Saint-Denis for the consecration of Suger's new abbey church. The King hastened to spend the night keeping vigil with the monks before the altar, while Eleanor and her mother-in-law were escorted by Suger through cheering crowds to the abbey's guest house. The monastery precincts were congested with visitors, and many people were obliged to camp out in the fields.

  On Sunday, the feast day of St. Barnabas, Suger's life's work reached its culmination in the dedication of the church to St. Denis in the presence of the King and Queen. The finished church was the first truly Gothic masterpiece in Europe, boasting no fewer than twenty altars and possessing many sacramental vessels of gold and silver decorated with precious gems. Its arched windows were glazed in a blaze of coloured glass, and on the high altar stood a crucifix twenty feet tall. Among its newly acquired treasures were gifts from every feudal lord in France, including the crystal vase that Eleanor had given to Louis on their marriage. For the next three hundred years, the Oriflamme, the sacred banner of St. Denis and standard of the kings of France, would be kept on the high altar.

  Saint-Denis was that day filled to capacity with thousands of guests and pilgrims, among them Bernard of Clairvaux and Theobald of Champagne, both present in the interests of peace. The heat was so stifling that both queens nearly fainted. King Louis's attire drew some adverse comment from several onlookers, for while Eleanor wore a pearl-encrusted diadem and a robe of damask in honour of the occasion, Louis was clothed in the drab gown and sandals of a penitent. Others were impressed by the change in him: "No one would have taken the King for that scourge of war who had lately destroyed so many towns, burned so many churches, shed so much blood. The spirit of penitence shone in his whole aspect."0

  Bearing on his shoulder the new solid-silver reliquary containing the bones of the martyred St. Denis the Areopagite, patron saint of France, which had hitherto rested in the crypt of the old church, the King led the clergy in procession round the great edifice and placed the relics reverently in their new bejewelled shrine. Louis was greatly moved by the ceremony of dedication, as was Bernard of Clairvaux, and after it had ended the two men exchanged friendly greetings, with no trace of their former contention. Bernard exhorted the King not to give way to despair and reminded him of God's goodness, mercy, and forgiveness.10

  After the dedication, Eleanor saw Bernard privately, probably at her own request. He came prepared to offer more spiritual comfort, thinking that she too might be suffering qualms of conscience over Vitry, but he was surprised to learn that she was not. Nevertheless, several matters were indeed troubling her, not least the problems of her sister. She asked him to use his influence with the Pope to have the excommunication on Raoul and Petronilla lifted and their marriage recognised by the Church. In return, she would persuade Louis to make peace with Theobald of Champagne and recognise Pierre de la Chatre as Archbishop of Bourges.

  Bernard was appalled at her brazen candour. In his opinion, these affairs were no business of a twenty-two-year-old woman. He was, in fact, terrified of women and their possible effect on him. As an adolescent, first experiencing physical desire for a young girl, he had been so filled with self-disgust that he had jumped into a freezing cold pond and remained there until his erection subsided. He strongly disapproved of his sister, who had married a rich man; because she enjoyed her wealth, he thought of her as a whore, spawned by Satan to lure her husband from the paths of righteousness, and refused to have anything to do with her. Nor would he allow his monks any contact with their female relatives.

  Now there stood before him the young, worldly, and disturbingly beautiful Queen of France, intent upon meddling in matters that were not her concern. Bernard's worst suspicions were confirmed: here, beyond doubt, was the source of that "counsel of the Devil" that had urged the King on to disaster and plunged him into sin and guilt. His immediate reaction was to admonish Eleanor severely.

  "Put an end to your interference with affairs of state," he ordered her in the voice that was capable of quelling the opposition of kings. So sternly did he reprove her that she burst into tears and revealed that she had interfered in politics because her life was empty and bitter, since "during all the seven years she had lived with the King, she had remained barren, apart from one hope in the early days, which had been quickly dashed. She despaired of ever having the longed-for child," although she had prayed many times to the Virgin to grant her wish. Could God, the healer of the lame, the blind, and the deaf, move Heaven to bestow on her the gift of motherhood?"

  Gratified to hear such proper womanly sentiments and moved by Eleanor's obvious distress, Bernard took compassion on her, but he still could not resist the opportunity to deliver a little homily.

  "My child," he said, in a more gentle tone, "seek those things which make for peace. Cease to stir up the King against the Church and urge him to a better course of action. If you will promise to do this, I in my turn promise to entreat the merciful Lord to grant you offspring."12

  Later that day, thanks to the intervention of Bernard and Abbot Suger, a treaty of peace was concluded between Louis and Theobald. As a result
, the King returned to Count Theobald all the territory he had wrested from him during the recent war, renounced the oath he had sworn on holy relics, and confirmed Pierre de la Chatre as Archbishop of Bourges.

  Wisely, Louis meddled no further in the matter of the Vermandois marriage. The Pope eventually recognised the union as vahd, although Bernard warned that the couple would not enjoy each other for long, nor would their children be fruitful. Their only son, Ralph, died a leper, and their two daughters-- Elizabeth, who married Philip of Alsace, later Count of Flanders, and Eleanor, who married Matthew, Count of Beaumont-- both died childless. Raoul lived until 1151; Petronilla's date of death is not recorded.

  Louis had now done everything he could to make reparation for his great sin, yet still he was weighed down by guilt. He began privately to consider fulfilling the vow he had made in childhood, on behalf of his dead brother Philip, to take the Oriffamme of France on a pilgrimage to Christ's tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. "3 Yet events were moving in such a way as to afford him a more satisfactory means of expiation.

  The First Crusade to capture the Holy Land from the Turks, in 1096-1099, had been a marked success, and had resulted in the establishment of four crusader states dominated by the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. These states, ruled mainly by Normans and Frenchmen, were collectively known to Europeans as Outremer.

  The need to maintain a military presence to guard the holy places in Palestine against the Turks and protect pilgrims had brought into being two crusading orders of knights under monastic vows. These were the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitaller), founded in 1099, and their rivals, the exceptionally wealthy Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon (Knights Templar), founded around 1118. Both guarded and protected pilgrims to the Holy Land, but the powerful Templars, whose headquarters were in Jerusalem itself, now also acted as bankers to the kings of Europe.

  But on 24 December 1144 the security of the Christian kingdoms in Outremer was threatened when the city of Edessa, capital of the first crusader state, which was founded in 1098, was occupied by Saracen Turks led by the formidable Zengi, Governor of the Islamic states of Mosul and Aleppo. With Edessa fallen, the way lay clear for the Infidel to march against and occupy the vulnerable neighbouring principality of Antioch and, beyond that, the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem itself and its holy Christian shrines.

  In February 1145 a new Pope, Eugenius III, was elected, but although he had received pleas for help from the beleaguered states of Outremer, he was too preoccupied with the schism within the Church to be able to respond; thanks to the presence of an antipope, he was barred from entering Rome and had had to establish his exiled court in Viterbo. The catastrophic news nevertheless provoked widespread alarm throughout Christendom, for it was quickly understood that the hard-won and greatly prized conquests of the First Crusade were in jeopardy.14

  Launching a crusade against the Turks was an enterprise dear to the King's heart, and he considered it seriously, realising that it presented him with the ideal opportunity to make reparation for Vitry and restore his international prestige. So weighed down with guilt was he that his chief interest in the venture was the spiritual relief he hoped to gain by making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He was now weak from fasting for three days each week, and had taken to wearing a hair shirt beneath his outer garments in order to mortify his flesh. He had also sent aid to Vitry to enable the town to be rebuilt and relief to be given to those who had lost relatives in the holocaust. But none of this was sufficient to relieve his feelings of self-loathing or avert his fear of damnation.

  It seems that Eleanor had taken the admonitions of Bernard of Clairvaux to heart, for from now on she appears to have ceased to meddle in politics, leaving Louis to heed the wise advice of Abbot Suger, now fully restored to favour as his chief counsellor. Perhaps the Queen's prayers, and those of Bernard, had been efficacious, or perhaps Louis had been more attentive in bed, for during 1145-- the exact date is not recorded-- she bore a daughter, who was named Marie in honour of the Virgin. If the infant was not the male heir to France so desired by the King-- the Salic law forbade the succession of females to the throne-- her arrival encouraged the royal parents to hope for a son in the future.

  Relationships between aristocratic parents and children were rarely close. Queens and noblewomen did not nurse their own babies, but handed them over at birth into the care of wet nurses, leaving themselves free to become pregnant again. It was customary for sons to be sent away to another noble household to be trained for knighthood, and for daughters to be reared in convents until the time came for them to marry. Royal children were often given their own households, and contact with their frequently busy or absent parents was at the mercy of circumstances. Virtually nothing is recorded of the Princess Marie's childhood, yet the course of events suggests that Eleanor was a distant mother.

  Louis's love for his wife was undimmed, but he was perturbed by the effect that her beauty and charm had on others, and around this time, perhaps after the birth of Marie, he found himself suffering the unfamiliar pangs of jealousy. Earlier, Eleanor had invited the Gascon troubadour Marcabru to Paris. She had known him as a girl, for her father had been his patron and he had often displayed his poetic talents at the court of Poitiers. Since then his fame had spread throughout Aquitaine and the south, and the Queen must have been delighted when the renowned troubadour accepted her invitation.

  It was not long, however, before Marcabru overstepped the bounds of propriety. It was expected that he would write impassioned verses in honour of his unattainable patroness, but it soon became apparent to Louis that the poet, whose lyrics were generally derogatory to women, was showing an unacceptable degree of familiarity in his addresses to Eleanor. There is no hint that she returned his interest, and it is possible that Louis did not appreciate the more relaxed social customs of the south and completely misinterpreted the situation. Nevertheless, his outrage was deeply felt, and he banished Marcabru from his court.

  In September, Zengi died, but this was hardly comforting news to the beset crusader states, since his son, Nureddin, was a ruthless warrior and religious fanatic who was determined to carry on his father's plans for a Moslem reconquest.

  Louis's tentative plans for a crusade had to be set aside during the autumn, when he had to mount a punitive expedition against his wife's disputatious vassals in Aquitaine. On his return, he received the Bishop of Djebail and other messengers sent by Eleanor's uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, Prince of Antioch, with an appeal for aid against the threat posed by Nureddin; they brought "noble gifts and treasures of great price in the hope of winning favour."15 At this time also, Queen Melisende of Jerusalem sent a forceful plea to the Pope at Viterbo, urging him to preach a new crusade. On 1 December, Eugenius published a papal bull exhorting King Louis and all the faithful Christians of France to muster their resources and deliver the states of Outremer from the Infidel; in return, all who joined the new crusade would receive remission for their sins. A similar bull was later sent to the German Emperor, Conrad III.

  Louis and Eleanor held their Christmas court at Bourges that year, and it was here that the Pope's appeal reached them.16 Their response was immediate and enthusiastic; according to Odo de Deuil, Louis's heart burned at the prospect of leading a crusade to Jerusalem, and he believed that such a mission was divinely appointed. Without consulting his advisers, he wrote to Eugenius, expressing his zeal for the crusade and declaring his intention of committing himself fully to its successful outcome.

  On Christmas Day the King disclosed "the secret in his heart" and announced to the assembled vassals of France and Aquitaine, who were present to renew their allegiance to their sovereign,17 that he intended to take the Cross and launch a Second Crusade in order to liberate Edessa from the Turks.18

  His announcement did not receive unanimous approval. The barons of France and Aquitaine were generally lukewarm in their response, many suspecting that Louis'
s priority was penance rather than recon-quest. Eleanor's vassals recalled that seventy thousand of their countrymen had perished during William IX's ill-fated venture into the Holy Land, while the French lords were jealous of their richer countrymen in Outremer and thought them more than capable of protecting themselves. Most thought that Louis was asking a great deal of them: thousands of Frenchmen had also died fighting in the First Crusade, and the long journey to the Holy Land was fraught with dangers.

  Even the pious Suger urged the King to reconsider, declaring that God would be better served by Louis's remaining in France, maintaining peace, and governing his kingdom wisely; the Abbot voiced fears that unrest and disorder might well result from the King's being absent for at least a year.

  Suger became even more alarmed when Eleanor announced her intention of taking the Cross too and accompanying her husband on the crusade. Given the fact that she was potentially able to muster a vast following of her vassals, it was unlikely that Louis would gainsay her. Moreover, according to William of Newburgh, writing half a century later, the Queen had so bedazzled her husband with her beauty that, fearing out of jealousy to leave her behind, he felt compelled to take her with him. Suger therefore pointed out that Louis had little experience of military leadership and that his previous campaigns had ended in disaster. He warned that it would be foolhardy for the King to leave France without first siring a male heir, for if he did not return, the succession would undoubtedly be disputed. He urged the royal couple to reconsider their decision, in the interests of France.19

  But Louis and Eleanor were, for different reasons, so eager and determined to implement their plans that they were unwilling to listen to dissenting voices. Eleanor seems to have viewed the crusade as an opportunity to escape the boring routine of the court in favour of adventure and the chance to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and see her uncle in Antioch. She would have been a cold wife indeed had she not wished to see her husband's peace of mind restored, and like most people in Europe at that time, she was undoubtedly inspired by the desire to protect from the Infidel the holy places associated with Christ.

 
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