Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England by Alison Weir


  By all the laws of protocol and courtesy, Henry and Eleanor should have sought King Louis's permission before marrying; they were after all his two greatest vassals, and Eleanor, being without a male protector, was legally his ward. But both of them knew that Louis would certainly forbid an alliance between them; he already feared Henry's power and regarded him as his foremost enemy, and the prospect of Aquitaine being annexed to Henry's already considerable European domains would horrify him. Therefore, although marrying without his consent was an act of the greatest provocation, not to mention discourtesy, Henry and Eleanor had decided to risk the consequences rather than abandon their alliance.

  Not only had Eleanor failed to obtain Louis's consent to her marriage, she had also allied herself with his archrival, a man who was as closely related to her as Louis was and who had been forbidden to marry her daughter on grounds of consanguinity. Eleanor must have known that she could have done nothing much worse than this to injure her former husband; indeed, there may have been an element of revenge in her defiance.

  So as not to alert Louis to what was afoot, Henry and Eleanor had gone to great lengths to keep their marriage negotiations secret-- they were so successful in this that no documentation survives and few of their contemporaries ever found out how their union had come about. Robert of Torigni, for one, was not sure whether Henry had entered into the marriage "on impulse, or by premeditated design." Yet although most people were taken by surprise, the evidence suggests that the couple had decided to marry the previous August.

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  Eleanor was now, at thirty, Duchess of Aquitaine and Normandy and Countess of Poitou and Anjou, while Henry had acquired by marriage almost half of what is now modern France-- more than doubling his continental possessions and gaining handsomely in status, power, wealth, and resources, as well as acquiring cities and castles of great strategic importance. He was now master of a vast tract of land stretching from the English Channel to the Pyrenees, a domain that was ten times as large as the royal demesne of France. Through marrying Eleanor, he had founded an Angevin empire and established himself, at the age of nineteen, as potentially the most powerful ruler in Europe.

  The acquisition of such an inheritance carried risks. Aquitaine was notoriously difficult to govern, outsiders being resented, and Henry might have expected to find that his newly won men and resources were being diverted from his cherished enterprise in England to resolve petty disputes between his turbulent southern vassals. This, however, presented the kind of challenge that Henry relished, and he was confident of his ability to do better than Louis had; moreover, he could not have left Eleanor free to marry anyone else, for that might have resulted in another enemy threatening his southern border.

  A further risk was the chance that Eleanor might not bear him a son to succeed to his empire; in fifteen years of marriage to Louis, she had produced only two daughters. Yet this does not seem to have put Henry off. Eleanor must have confided to him that Louis had come infrequently to her bed and, as a true child of his age, he would have accepted her view that God had withheld a son because the marriage was invalid and therefore unsanctified.

  Eleanor did not allow her marriage to disrupt her official duties, and was soon busy granting honours and privileges to favoured vassals, among them Saldebreuil of Sanzay, Constable of Aquitaine, whom she made her seneschal, and her uncle, Pvaoul de Faye. She also continued to make generous gifts to monasteries.

  On 26 May, less than a week after her wedding, the Duchess visited Montierneuf Abbey, where, styling herself "Eleanor, by the grace of God, Duchess of Aquitaine and Normandy, united with the Duke of Normandy, Henry of Anjou," she confirmed all the privileges granted by "my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my father." On the following day she was at the nearby abbey of Saint-Maixent, in response to a plea from Abbot Peter to restore a tract of woodland that had been granted by Louis but taken back by Eleanor immediately after her return to Poitiers. "This gift which I at first made reluctantly, I have now renewed with a glad heart, now that I am joined in wedlock to Henry, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou," she declared in the charter restoring the woodland to the abbey. 5

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  Early in June 1152 Eleanor made a pilgrimage to Fontevrault, where she was received by the Abbess Isabella, Henry's aunt, to whom Eleanor would afterwards refer as "my aunt." The Duchess's affection and reverence for this place, which had held such significance for her family, comes across in the wording of the new charter she granted at this time to the abbey:

  After being joined to my very noble lord Henry, most noble Count of the Angevins, by the bond of matrimony, divine inspiration led me to want to visit the sacred congregation of the virgins of Fontevrault, and by the grace of God I have been able to realise this intention. Thus have I come to Fontevrault, guided by God. I have crossed the threshold where the sisters are gathered, and here, with heartfelt emotion, I have approved, conceded and affirmed all that my father and forebears have given to God and to the church of Fontevrault, and in particular this gift of 500 sous in the coinage of Poitou, made by myself and my lord Louis, King of France, in the days when he was my husband.

  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

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  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. We
ll 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

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  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

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  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

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  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

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  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.

 
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