Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  At Ratisbon, Louis was met by two emissaries of the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Comnenus,3 who, while outwardly committed to supporting the crusade, was nevertheless alarmed at the prospect of such a vast host converging on Constantinople. In particular, he was nervous about the presence of so many Poitevins, for he and Raymond of An-tioch had been deadly enemies since Manuel's brother, the late Emperor John, had established Byzantine suzerainty over Antioch and been savagely treated by Raymond in return. The Emperor therefore asked for guarantees that Louis came in friendship and would not attempt to take any cities or towns belonging to Manuel, and also that he would surrender to Manuel all the territory he took from the Turks. Louis agreed to the two former demands, but not to the latter, saying that he would discuss this with the Emperor when they met.

  In Hungary, food was plentiful and spirits were high. Eleanor received letters from Manuel's wife, the Empress Irene, in joyful anticipation of her visit to Constantinople.4

  "The Lord is aiding us at every turn," Louis wrote to Suger. But he had spoken too soon.

  The imperial army, ten thousand strong, led by Conrad, had marched ahead through Greece, where the German soldiers had plundered, looted, burned, raped, and murdered without check, and had so alienated the local people that they had butchered any stragglers from the ranks. The situation had become so fraught that the Emperor Manuel thought it fit to send a large force to escort the Germans to his capital and prevent them from committing any more violent acts. Conrad took exception to this and quarrelled with Manuel, and when he and his leaders arrived in Constantinople, they deliberately vandalised the quarters they were assigned in Manuel's hunting lodge, the Philopation, located outside the city walls.

  The French, having crossed the Danube at Branitchevo, followed through Greece towards Adrianople in September, finding towns and cities closed to them, and such food as the hostile Greeks were willing to sell excessively dear. The decomposing bodies of the Germans still lay unburied and, according to Odo de Deuil, "polluted all things, so that to the Franks less harm arose from the armed Greeks than from the dead Germans." Louis, who wrote complaining to Suger of the "intolerable hardships and infinite dangers" of this stage of the journey, was shocked to receive news that the Emperor Manuel had just concluded a twelve-year truce with the Turks. Many of his advisers feared treachery and urged the King to lay siege to Constantinople, but he refused to consider it, asserting that he had not come to make war on Christian princes but to liberate the Holy Land from the Turks.

  On 3 October, a few days after Conrad and his army had left Byzantium for Asia Minor, the French crusaders approached the double walls of the fabled city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church and guardian of much of the tradition and culture of the ancient Roman Empire. Louis was welcomed by dignitaries sent by Manuel; these, the following day, escorted the King and his advisers to the Boukoleon Palace on the Golden Horn. Here the Emperor, clad in purple and gold, was waiting to receive them and give them the kiss of peace.5 Odo was overawed by the magnificence of the palace, which was "throughout elaborately decorated with gold and a great variety of colours, with marble floors."

  Eleanor was not present, but a Greek chronicler, Niketas Choniates, writing about fifty years later, has left what was probably an eyewitness description of the women in the army as they arrived at Constantinople. He marvelled that

  even women travelled in the ranks of the crusaders, boldly sitting astride in their saddles as men do, dressed as men and armed with lance and battle axe. They kept a martial mien, bold as Amazons. At the head of these was one in particular, richly-dressed, who, because of the gold embroidery on the hem of her dress, was nicknamed Chrysopus [Golden Foot]. The elegance of her bearing and the freedom of her movements recalled Penthesilea, the celebrated leader of the Amazons.

  This was almost certainly Eleanor, who would not have been allowed to dress in men's clothes, and it may be that the so-called legend of her dressing up as an Amazon is really based on fact.

  Manuel Comnenus was a highly intelligent man in his late twenties who was renowned for his knowledge of medicine. He extended an outwardly warm welcome to the French, then had Louis and Eleanor escorted to their lodgings, which were either in the opulent Blachernae Palace, Manuel's second residence, which overlooked the Golden Horn, or more probably in the hastily refurbished Philopation, so recently pillaged by Conrad and his men. Here they were to reside during their twelve-day stay at Constantinople. At the insistence of the Emperor, the huge army was confined to its camp outside the city walls.

  During the visit, the Emperor royally entertained Louis and his nobles. There was a solemn service in the domed basilica of St. Sophia, followed by a sumptuous reception and banquet in the hall of the palace. At the banquet the guests were served artichokes, stuffed kid, fried frogs, caviare, and sauces flavoured with expensive spices such as cinnamon, pepper, coriander, and sugar. The food was served in silver dishes, the wine in glasses, and forks (unknown in the West) were used to eat with. The floor was a bed of rose petals, and sweet music played throughout the meal; afterwards, the guests were entertained by dancers, jugglers, and mime-artists.

  There were hunting expeditions with tame leopards and a day spent watching the races at the Hippodrome. Constantinople, built like Rome on seven hills and surrounded on three sides by water, was a wondrous city, quite unlike anything the French had ever seen, with its spacious squares, fountains, wide streets, and piped water system. Louis was escorted by Manuel to several shrines and shown the sacred relics, claimed by the Byzantines to be authentic, kept in the ancient palace of Constantine: the lance that had pierced Christ's side, the Crown of Thorns, part of the True Cross, a nail that had held Jesus to the Cross, and the stone from His tomb.

  We know little of Eleanor's stay in Constantinople. Women in the Eastern Empire were generally kept secluded in the oriental manner, and there is no mention of the Queen accompanying her husband on his public forays. She seems to have been privately entertained by the Empress Irene, formerly Bertha of Sulzbach, a Bavarian noblewoman whose sister was married to the Emperor Conrad III, and who now lived a gilded but restricted existence waited on by slaves and eunuchs.

  The common soldiers, confined to their camp, soon became restive and unmanageable, and Louis was forced to resort to stern measures to control them. "The King frequently punished offenders by cutting off their ears, hands and feet, yet he could not check the folly of the whole group."6

  Manuel had his own hidden political agenda. His empire had suffered from the inroads of the Turks and he had spent years playing their leaders off one against the other in order to deflect them from further attempts at conquest. It was clear to him that the western princes had little understanding of Middle Eastern politics, and that their crusade, which had already provoked the warring Turkish factions to unite against the West, might further jeopardise the already crumbling Eastern Empire. Manuel was also at war with Sicily, and he had no intention of involving himself in another conflict, especially when it might prove so damaging to himself. He therefore resolved to be rid of Louis and his army as soon as possible, in the hope that the crusaders and the Turks might destroy each other and so leave him in peace.

  To Manuel's relief, the King was eager to press on to Jerusalem. On 16 October, rather than follow the overland route through the mountains, which Conrad had taken, Louis sent his army south across the Bosphorus and along the western coast of Asia Minor. He and Eleanor lingered in Constantinople for five days, awaiting the arrival of a supplementary force from Italy, headed by Louis's uncle, the Count of Maurienne and the Marquess of Montferrat. The royal couple then joined the main army at Chalcedon (Kadikoy) on the coast, where the King wasted five more days deliberating whether he should press on to rendezvous with Conrad or wait for news of him. It was a fatal delay, for the army was rapidly consuming its food supplies, and the provisions sent begrudgingly by Manuel were insufficient to replace them.
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  On 26 October, as an eclipse of the sun darkened the sky-- a phenomenon interpreted by many as an evil omen-- the King gave orders for the crusaders to resume their march south, although he himself returned to Constantinople. Here Manuel, dismayed to see him again and doubtless concerned that he would never get rid of this importunate guest, informed Louis he had received word that the Emperor Conrad had won a great victory at Anatolia (Anadolu), annihilating fourteen thousand Turks. Exhilarated by this news, Louis left the same day to rejoin his army at Nicaea (Izmit) on the Marmara Sea. Manuel had offered to send some guides, or dragomans, to take the crusaders through the inhospitable territory that lay inland, but they never materialised. He had, however, sent guides with Conrad, and some of them arrived in the French camp at Nicaea, bringing further news of the German victory.

  At the end of October, the crusaders continued their march south along the coastal lowlands. A day or so later, they met up with several hundred men from Conrad's army, most of them starving, wounded, or dying. They revealed that they were all that was left of the imperial army and that, far from gaining a victory over the Turks, they had suffered a devastating defeat, with more than nine-tenths of their number being slaughtered.? They warned that the Turks were now lying in wait for the French.

  Louis was "stupefied with grief,"8 not only at the loss of life but also at Manuel's perfidy, for it was now clear that he had abandoned the crusaders to the enemy for purely selfish reasons, and that his guides had deliberately led the Germans into danger. The King ordered the army to march on, in the hope of finding more survivors, and on 2 or 3 November he finally met up with Conrad, who had suffered a serious head wound, the sight of which made Louis burst into tears.0

  The two leaders called their captains to a council of war and debated on the safest route to the Holy Land. They abandoned their original plan to travel through the mountains of Cappadocia in favour of two other options: either they could take the longer way around the coast, most of which was in Byzantine territory, or they could opt for the shorter and more dangerous route overland, through mountainous country infested by Turks. Their food supplies were dwindling, and it was felt that they would have a better chance of replenishing them along the coastal route, and be within reach of the ports.

  Throughout November and December the crusaders moved south via the ancient towns of Pergamus (Bergama), Smyrna (Izmir), and Ephesus (nowadays a ruin), which they reached in time for Christmas. Their journey took them through often inhospitable territory, riven with canyons and gorges, and they tried in vain to discover shortcuts to avoid these obstacles; Louis was lost for three days searching for one, and had to be guided back to camp by "rustics."10 Inevitably, supplies were lost along the way, and some of the ladies' gear had to be traded for food, which was scarce. As morale sank lower, discipline slipped and it became obvious that Louis had lost interest in trying to control his unruly troops, some of whom had deserted. The Emperor Conrad was appalled at this, and "found the arrogance of the Franks unendurable."11

  At Ephesus, where the crusaders set up camp on the banks of the River Maeander, it became clear that Conrad was too ill to go farther, and he and his barons took a boat back to Constantinople, to take issue with Manuel. Manuel, however, ended up personally nursing Conrad back to health; by then most of the German crusaders had gone home. Meanwhile, on Christmas Eve, the Christians were victorious in their first skirmish with the Turks, cutting down many, driving the rest into the hills, and raiding their deserted camp for gold and food.

  On Christmas Day and for the next four days there was torrential rain and sleet, and the river flooded its banks. Gale-force winds wrecked the crusaders' camp, many men and horses were drowned or battered to death on the rocks, and vital food stores and equipment were lost.12 Surveying the devastation, Louis decided that they had no choice but to press on to Antioch without delay, taking the most direct route over the Phrygian mountains to Laodicea and Attalia (Antalya). As they had no guides, they would have to rely on the sun and the stars for directions.

  It was no easy journey, for the weather was rough and Turkish raiding parties on fast ponies continually harassed the crusaders, shooting them with bows and arrows or cutting them down with deadly sabres. "The road had become so rugged that sometimes the helmets of the knights touched the sky, while sometimes their horses' hooves trod the very floor of hell."13 For safety, and protection against the weather, Eleanor and her ladies now travelled in horse-drawn litters with closed leather curtains. At night, they were among the few who were sheltered by the remaining tents, sleeping on painted beds.

  In January 1148, as the crusaders were crossing table-land on Mount Cadmos in the mountains of Paphlagonia, Louis sent ahead Eleanor's vassal, Geoffrey de Rancon, with the Count of Maurienne, the Queen and her ladies, and the vanguard of the army, to set up camp on the bare plateau before the next mountain pass. However, when he found the chosen terrain to be flat and windswept, Geoffrey, taking the advice of the Count and probably that of Eleanor, as his suzerain, ignored his sovereign's orders and pushed on through the rocky pass, beyond which he found a sheltered and well-irrigated valley, which he considered a much more suitable site for a camp.14

  When the main army arrived at the appointed place, they found it deserted. Louis, bringing up the rear, did not arrive until later, his progress impeded by the sheer unwieldiness of his wife's excessive baggage, and he was alarmed to discover that Eleanor and the vanguard were nowhere to be seen. He therefore sent his scouts ahead in the hope that they would catch up with de Rancon's party.15

  The Turks, however, were lying in wait at the pass. Having allowed the unsuspecting vanguard to pass, they swooped on the main army and cut it to pieces; many men and horses, attempting to flee, plunged down a ravine to their deaths.16 Geoffrey de Rancon, not being where he was supposed to be, was unaware of what was going on and therefore unable to help. Not only are the Turks said to have killed seven thousand crusaders, but they also ransacked the baggage train and made off with valuable supplies and most of the women's gear. Louis, whose horse was killed beneath him, barely escaped with his life. After his bodyguards had been slain, "he nimbly and bravely scaled a rock" by grabbing hold of tree roots, and held off the Turks with his back to the mountain.17 Soon, darkness fell on the terrible scene of carnage, and the enemy retreated.

  Midnight approached, and Odo de Deuil, espying the distant fires of de Rancon's camp, rode towards it. As the evening had worn on, and the main body of the army failed to appear, Geoffrey and his party had grown anxious and sent a party of knights to make a search. They came upon the scene of slaughter and encountered some survivors, covered in blood and faint from exhaustion, wandering towards the pass. When they revealed what had happened, there was much weeping and wailing.

  As dawn broke, Louis, also blood-smeared and half-dead with fatigue, arrived in de Rancon's camp, his borrowed horse guided by a monk. Despite his relief at being reunited with Eleanor, he was furious to find her and his vanguard in a vulnerable and exposed position below hills from which the enemy could swoop down at any time. Although he rejected suggestions that Geoffrey de Rancon be hanged for treason, he castigated him severely and, refusing to listen to his excuses, sent him back to Poitou in disgrace. Because it was Eleanor's vassal who had disobeyed orders, many people believed-- perhaps with justification-- that he had done so at her instigation, or at least with her approval, and there was so much bitter feeling against her that her fame was irrevocably tarnished.18 There is no record, however, of Louis reproaching her for what had happened.

  Fearing that the Turks were still lurking in the mountains, the King decided that the crusaders should make for the nearest port and complete their journey by sea. Guided by the Knights Templar, the tattered remnants of the army now descended to the port of Attalia, harassed by the Turks and so short of food that they were obliged to kill and eat their horses, a practice normally forbidden to Christians. Nevertheless, "even the wealthy were satisfied with th
is food."19

  On 20 January they reached Attalia, where they would stay for five weeks while their leaders tried to find ships to transport them to Antioch, one of the four crusader states established after the First Crusade. Most of those in the army were in a sorry state, starved and dirty. The ladies had lost most of their clothes, and some bishops went barefoot, having lost their shoes. Many horses had perished and a great deal of equipment was lost. But there was little relief to be found in the town, for the surrounding countryside, which was normally well cultivated, had suffered from Turkish aggression, and its people were short of food themselves. Such food as they had was shipped in, and they would sell it to the crusaders only at a very high price.

  Louis was told that the local Greeks were prepared to ferry the army to Antioch-- a voyage that usually lasted three days-- but only at a cost of four silver marks per passenger. The alternative was a forty-day march over hostile and difficult country, but Louis was reluctant to pay so much money. While he haggled, conditions in the crusaders' camp worsened, with wind and rain battering the tents, men and horses dying of starvation, and many people falling sick.

  The King insisted they must "follow the route of our fathers, whose incomparable valour ensured them renown on Earth and glory in Heaven,"20 but when plague broke out in the camp and the crusaders began to die at an alarming rate, his chief vassals forced him to hire the ships, saying that those who wished to go with him would pay for themselves. There were many without the means to do so, and seven thousand unfortunate souls were left behind to starve or die of plague; more than three thousand, enticed by offers of food from the Turks, converted to the Moslem faith.21

 
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