Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  During that Christmas season Eleanor set to work on her vassals, and her enthusiasm was such that before long several lords of Aquitaine were declaring themselves keen to take the Cross, among them her loyal Geoffrey de Rancon, Lord of Taillebourg; her constable, Saldebreuil of Sanzay; and two notoriously volatile lords of the Limousin, Hugh de Lusignan and Guy of Thouars. But there were many more to win over. As the court prepared to leave Bourges, it was still uncertain whether there was enough support to enable the crusade to go ahead. Suger advised that the decision therefore be postponed until Louis could summon a full council of his barons and bishops. It was arranged that this should take place at the end of March at Vezelay in Burgundy. Suger thought that might be the end of the matter, but when he learned that the Pope, with Louis's support, had enlisted Bernard of Clairvaux to preach the crusade at Vezelay, he knew with mounting despair that it would not be. And his chances of prevailing on the King seemed even more remote when in March 1146 Louis received a letter from the Pope bestowing his blessing on the crusade and warmly praising Louis's valour.

  At Easter 1146, in good weather, vast crowds converged on the new Romanesque abbey of St. Mary Magdalene on its hilltop at Vezelay to hear Bernard of Clairvaux preach the new crusade. There were too many people to fit into the church, so on Easter Day, 31 March, the frail Abbot mounted an open-air platform in a field and delivered an inspirational sermon to the assembled multitudes. Apart from his reiteration of the papal bull and its promise of salvation to all who took the Cross, his words are not recorded,20 but they inspired great fervour and deeply moved his listeners, not least Louis and Eleanor, who, shriven of their sins, sat enthroned behind the Abbot, surrounded by their chief vassals and bishops.

  Amid shouts of "To Jerusalem!" the King went first, weeping with emotion, to take the Cross blessed for him by the Pope, prostrating himself in front of Bernard,21 who attached it to the shoulder of Louis's mande. Eleanor followed, falling to her knees before the Abbot and vowing to take her vassals with her to the Holy Land.22

  The chroniclers did not have space to list all the other noble ladies who followed the Queen's example,23 but among them were those who were to be her personal companions: Mamille of Roucy; Sybilla of Anjou, Countess of Flanders; Florine of Burgundy; Torqueri of Bouillon; and Faydide of Toulouse. Three hundred humbler women volunteered to go and nurse the wounded. It took some courage for these women to take the Cross, for during the previous crusade many of their sex had suffered extreme hardship or even death, or had been captured by the Turks and sold as slaves.

  Gervase of Canterbury states that after receiving their crosses Eleanor and these other ladies withdrew, dressed themselves as Penthesilea and her Amazon warriors in white tunics emblazoned with red crosses, plumes, white buskins, and cherry-red boots, and galloped on white horses through the crowds on the hillside, brandishing banners and swords, calling upon knights and nobles to heed the summons of Almighty God, and tossing spindles and distaffs to those faint-hearts who held back from making a final commitment.24 Most historians dismiss this tale as pure legend, because there are no contemporary accounts of it, but it is in keeping with what we know of Eleanor's character, and was believed credible by some who knew her in her later years. The tale may have originated from the eyewitness account of a Greek observer, who described Eleanor and her ladies as being dressed as Amazons on their way to the Holy Land.25 Ordericus Vitalis tells a similar story of Isabella of Anjou, who retired to Fontevrault after riding armed into battle like an Amazon.

  It is perhaps significant that when, probably a decade or so later, Benoit de Saint-Maure dedicated his Roman de Troie to Eleanor, he dwelt at some length upon Penthesilea and her Amazons, describing the warrior Queen as riding into battle on a fine Spanish horse caparisoned with "a hundred tiny golden twinkling bells" and armed with "a hauberk whiter than snow," a sword, a lance, and a golden shield bordered with rubies and emeralds. She and her Amazons let "their lovely hair hang free." This description tallies with the Greek account of the noble ladies in the crusading army, and Benoit may have intended to recall Eleanor's already fabled exploits during the crusade.

  Whether or not the story is true, thousands of people came forward, all eager to receive their crusaders' emblems from Bernard himself. Great lords shouted, "Crosses! Give us crosses!" and their cry was taken up by humbler folk. "It is God's will!" they chanted. Soon the Abbot ran out of crosses and was obliged to cut strips from his white wool choir mantle. He was still distributing them when darkness fell.26 For once, the turbulent barons of Aquitaine set aside their private feuds and united in a common enterprise with their French counterparts. Among them were Count Theobald's heir, Henry; Count Alfonso Jordan of Toulouse; Louis's brother Robert, Count of Dreux; and Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders.

  All France, it seemed, was afire with crusading fervour, which soon spread north across the Rhine and south across the Pyrenees. A triumphant Bernard informed the Pope: "You ordered, and I obeyed. I opened my mouth and spoke, and the crusaders at once multiplied into infinity. Villages and towns are deserted, and you will scarcely find one man for every seven women."

  * * *

  It was decided that the crusaders should set out in the spring of 1147; the marathon of planning and organisation that had to be completed beforehand precluded an earlier departure. Louis imposed a heavy tax on his subjects, which caused great hardship and provoked many complaints, while the royal administrators in Aquitaine were ruthless in raising money and supplies. The churches donated their treasure and the Jews were mulcted of the profits of usury. Armourers busily made chain mail and weapons, lords mortgaged their estates in order to finance the journey, and the poor forgot the miseries caused by a famine that had blighted their lives for five years.27

  At Etampes in February, the King, now in much better spirits, consulted his vassals and deliberated as to which route to travel on to Outremer. It was decided that an overland route via Constantinople, whose Emperor had offered his support, would be safer and more economic.28 Louis then chose his personal entourage. While Suger remained in France, governing in the King's name, Louis's secretary and chaplain, Odo de Deuil, was to be his chief adviser, who would share the King's tent at night and write an official account of the crusade.29 A Templar, the eunuch Thierry Galan, was given charge of the coffers containing the money raised for the enterprise, and was also instructed to keep fortune-seekers and sycophants at a distance from his master,30 an order that he seems to have interpreted as including Eleanor. Louis also visited abbeys and leper hospitals, distributing alms in return for prayers of intercession.

  Eleanor immersed herself with zest in the preparations. She toured her domains, whipping up support among her vassals for the crusade. She recruited troops, held tournaments to attract the interest of the knightly classes, helped to organise supplies for the vast army, and granted or renewed privileges to religious houses in exchange for financial and spiritual support. She also made her first recorded visit and gift to the abbey of Fontevrault, where she confirmed a donation made by Louis just after he had taken the Cross and pledged the nuns a profit of five hundred sous from each fair held in Poitou on the eve of her departure for the East. In return, they promised to pray for her soul if she died on crusade.31 Thanks to her efforts the larger part of the crusading army comprised her own vassals. Even the troubadours played their part: the exiled Marcabru composed crusading songs, while others, including Jofffe Rudel, who perished in the Holy Land, vowed to fight the Infidel.

  In the autumn of 1146 Bernard had gone to Germany to preach the crusade. The Emperor Conrad, insecure on his throne, was reluctant to take the Cross, but at Christmas-- after having great pressure brought to bear on him by a persistent Bernard-- he was shamed into capitulating. Bernard continued to travel about preaching the crusade until the spring of 1147, when he returned to Clairvaux.

  Suger was still concerned about the risk of Louis leaving his kingdom without a male heir, and both he and the King wer
e perturbed by the ambition of Count Geoffrey of Anjou. In 1144, after a three-year campaign, Geoffrey had conquered Normandy, and Louis, as its overlord, had confirmed him as its duke. Geoffrey was politically astute. Five years earlier, his wife Matilda had unsuccessfully prosecuted her claim to the English throne, which had been usurped by her cousin, Stephen of Blois. Geoffrey had not embroiled himself in that war, since his ambitions were focused on the continent. He had been appointed seneschal of Poitou by Louis, and he now sought to extend his influence to France itself. He therefore proposed to the King that his son Henry, then aged thirteen, marry Louis's infant daughter Marie. The Salic law prevented Marie's accession, but it is possible that Geoffrey felt himself powerful enough to circumvent this in the event that the King died while on crusade. Although Henry of Anjou was undoubtedly a suitable match for his daughter, Louis prevaricated. Then Geoffrey began to put pressure on him.

  While Louis was considering the proposal, Bernard of Clairvaux heard of it, and wrote at once to the King to express his disapproval:

  I have heard that the Count of Anjou is pressing to bind you under oath respecting the proposed marriage between his son and your daughter. This is something not merely inadvisable but also unlawful, because apart from other reasons, it is barred by the impediment of consanguinity. I have learned on trustworthy evidence that the mothers of the Queen and this boy are related in the third degree. Have nothing whatever to do with the matter.

  Armed with Bernard's letter, Louis turned down Geoffrey's proposal, and the matter was dropped.

  It was later asserted by Giraldus Cambrensis, in his De Principis Instructione, that "Count Geoffrey of Anjou, when he was Seneschal of France [sic], had carnally known Queen Eleanor" and that the Count later confessed this to his son. It is not known exactly when Geoffrey was seneschal of Poitou (not of France, as Giraldus asserts), but it was probably during the years before the crusade; his tenure of the office appears to have ceased sometime before 1151. He was an extremely handsome man trapped in a tempestuous marriage, and several bastards testified to his various extramarital affairs.

  After Louis confirmed him as Duke of Normandy, Geoffrey was on friendly terms with the King, but their relations may have cooled when Geoffrey declined to accompany the crusade in order to protect his own interests in Normandy. As Geoffrey's half brother Baldwin was King of Jerusalem, Louis may have felt that the Count was ducking both his spiritual and his familial obligations.

  Giraldus claimed that he had heard about Eleanor's adultery with Geoffrey from the saintly Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, who had learned of it from Henry II of England, Geoffrey's son and Eleanor's second husband. Eleanor was estranged from Henry at the time Giraldus was writing, and the King was trying to secure an annulment of their marriage from the Pope. It would have been to his advantage to declare her an adulterous wife who had had carnal relations with his father, for that in itself would have rendered their marriage incestuous and would have provided prima facie grounds for its dissolution. Indeed, the grounds on which Henry sought an annulment were shrouded in secrecy, which may in itself have been significant. It seems likely that he alleged consanguinity, which could have embraced either his genetic affinity with Eleanor or her possible affair with his father. The incestuous nature of such a connection would alone have ensured confidentiality.

  It is unlikely that Henry would have lied about the affair to the respected Bishop Hugh, who would surely have protested at being named as the source for such a calumny if it were untrue.

  It has been stated, with some truth, that at the time he was writing, Giraldus was antagonistic towards Henry II for blocking his election to the See of St. David's; his text is hostile and sometimes scathing. Even so, it is hardly likely that he would have written something so prejudicial to the King's honour and to the legitimacy of his heirs without reliable evidence. It is true that Giraldus did not like or approve of Eleanor, but it is also fair to say that he must have had some grounds for his disapproval, very probably Eleanor's own conduct.

  On balance, therefore, it seems likely that she did indeed have an affair with Count Geoffrey, which they managed to keep secret from Louis and the rest of the world. Probably it happened on impulse and was of brief duration, and it may have flourished during one of the Queen's visits to Poitou, possibly the one she made in the autumn of 1146. By then, she may have been having doubts about the validity of her marriage.

  After Giraldus wrote his account, discretion appears to have been maintained. Walter Map, a trusted royal secretary, justice, and confidant, would say only that the Queen "was secretly reputed to have shared the couch of Louis with Geoffrey." It was for this reason that Map and others believed that the offspring of Henry and Eleanor were "tainted at the source." How, Giraldus asked, could happy issue stem from such a union?

  By the second week of May, 1147, everything was ready for the crusade. The army and royal retinues were assembled and the baggage carts packed; Eleanor's luggage filled a good many of them, for she was determined not to travel without the courtly comforts and luxuries to which she was accustomed. Her luggage included clothes, furs, tents, saddles, harnesses, household plate, jewellery, veils, pallet beds, goblets, washbasins, soap, and food. Other ladies followed suit, and they and the Queen were criticised for taking so much unnecessary gear as well as an excessive number of tirewomen, which would be encumbrances that the crusaders could well do without.

  The King and Queen, accompanied by the dowager Queen Adelaide, then went to Saint-Denis, where they lodged on the night of 7 June. That evening Louis dined in the refectory with the monks, while Eleanor and her mother-in-law ate in private in the guest house.

  On 8 June, clad in a black pilgrim's tunic emblazoned with a red cross, the King entered the abbey church, which was hung with banners and illuminated by thousands of candles. In the presence of the Pope, he committed his kingdom to the safekeeping of Abbot Suger. Eugenius then delivered to him the red and gold silk Oriflamme of St. Denis to take to the Holy Land. As Louis grasped its gilded pole, the congregation burst out cheering and Queen Eleanor wept with emotion. Finally, Eugenius gave Louis his blessing and handed him the traditional pilgrim's staff and wallet.

  It was now time for the departing crusaders to say farewell to their loved ones, many of whom had come to see them off. "The crowds and the King's wife and his mother, who nearly perished because of their tears and the heat, could not endure the delay; but to wish to depict the grief and wailing which occurred is impossible."32 Then the army, which numbered around 100,000 persons-- "an immense multitude from every part of France"33-- set off, ahead of the King, for Metz in Germany, where Louis had arranged to rendezvous with the Emperor Conrad.

  Louis had decided to defer his own departure until 11 June, the feast day of St. Denis, in order to invoke the saint's protection, but on that day the press of people around the abbey was still so great that the front door was blocked and the King and Queen were obliged to leave Saint-Denis via the monks' dorter. Then, with Eleanor and her entourage going on ahead of Louis, with her unwieldy baggage train, the royal couple left for Metz on the first stage of their long journey to the Holy Land.

  4. "To Jerusalem!"

  After traversing Champagne, King Louis met up with the Emperor Conrad at Metz on the banks of the Mosel. In the middle of June 1147, amid cheering crowds and the pealing of bells, the two armies left for the Holy Land, Eleanor looking resplendent in a robe embroidered with the lilies of France and riding a proud horse with a silver saddle and plaited mane; some noble ladies in her entourage carried falcons on their wrists, while a number of lords and knights bore swords with fragments of the True Cross set into their hilts. Marching at a brisk pace, the two armies set off on their separate courses, the French making for Ratisbon (Regensburg) in Bavaria, whence they would follow the course of the River Danube through Hungary and Bulgaria, covering between ten and twenty miles a day. "Anyone seeing these columns with their helmets and buckles shining in the sun, with their ba
nners streaming in the breeze, would have been certain that they were about to triumph over all the enemies of the Cross and reduce to submission all the countries of the Orient."1

  Eleanor and Louis travelled with their separate retinues, the King bringing up the rear. He heard mass every morning, and at night Odo de Deuil and Thierry Galan, who acted as the King's bodyguards and were not allowed out of his sight, shared his tent, while Eleanor was relegated to the company of her noblewomen and vassals. Odo praises Louis for the purity of his designs, and it seems likely that, for pious reasons, the King had resolved to abstain from sexual relations. Doubtless he had also taken practical as well as spiritual considerations into account, for if Eleanor became pregnant there would be unnecessary complications.

  It was asserted by many later historians that the Queen and her ladies behaved as if they were on a pleasure trip, distracting their male companions from their holy purpose and causing general mayhem, but in fact there is very little contemporary evidence attesting to Eleanor's activities on the journey. Odo de Deuil, for example, does not refer to her at all in the passages of his work covering the first weeks, and thereafter makes only four brief references to her. Some modern historians suggest that his work has been censored by later writers, but there is no real proof of this. Probably Odo did not consider women worthy of much mention.

  The King had given express orders commanding his soldiers to behave in a godly manner, but at Worms these were already being flouted:2 a merchant who protested at crusaders plundering food was murdered. After that, it became clear that Louis was ineffective at maintaining discipline, and some of his men even began to desert.

 
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