Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Soap Opera Life in the 12th Century

“In days of old when knights were bold and ladies they were merry,

One lady fair beyond compare was queen of two great countries.

She went away on the bold Crusade a’camping in a tent.

How many men she vanquished there would fill a regiment.

Oh, Eleanor is a gay old lass, a lusty buxom lady.

She tossed old Louie on his arse to marry our King Harry.


So far as I know, I made this little ditty up all by myself, but it could have been sung at that time and place. Eleanor was born the eldest of the three children of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, the largest and richest province in France, comprising nearly 1/3 of French territory. When Eleanor’s mother and younger brother died in 1130, she became heiress to Aquitaine. By all accounts, her father doted on his two daughters, Eleanor and Petronella, educating them not only in the feminine arts of household management and needlework, the noble arts of hunting and hawking, the family specialities of poetry and music, but academic subjects such as mathematics and Latin, as well.

dagged sleevesNot only the wealthiest and arguably best-connected woman in Europe, she was reportedly beautiful as well, although no mention is made in all the positive male commentary of such details as her hair or eye color, and no confirmed images of her exist. In addition, like many wealthy and beautiful women throughout history, she had a fashion sense to die for, and the budget to back it up. When the crusade that she and her first husband, Louis VII of France, embarked upon visited Constatinople, she was referred to there as chrysopous (golden-foot) from the cloth of gold that fringed her robe. (It should be noted that she and her troops were nearly starving when they reached Constantinople. More on that later.) Various sources credit her with the introduction of oak-leaf sleeves (which are gorgeous, but an enormously labor-intensive undertaking) and the wimple, a High Middle Ages fashion staple for women with double chins. Given the resemblance of the simplest version of the wimple to the Muslim hijab, I suspect she may have borrowed this idea while in the Holy Land, rather than come up with it herself. (Other sources suggest that the wimple was common in Europe centuries before Eleanor, and that she simply reintroduced it to fashion.)

Eleanor’s father died in 1137, when Eleanor, who was born in either 1122 or 1124, was in her teens. She needed a powerful husband, and quickly, as the nobles of Aquitaine were somewhat noted for their rebellious nature. Fortunately, her guardian, King Louis VI of France, had a ready solution: he married her off to his son, thus putting a stop to the ambitions of the Aquitainian lords and consolidating the throne’s control over a big chunk of his own kingdom.

The younger Louis had been educated in a monastery. A second son, he was expected to take his place in the social hierarchy as eventual Archbishop of Paris. However, his brother died in a riding accident, making Louis the heir, and his religious education was belatedly swapped out for education in the art of governance. He was seventeen when they married. His father died during his and Eleanor’s honeymoon. Although the marriage began auspiciously, in more than the financial and political sense, (He was reportedly quite smitten with his beautiful and accomplished wife.) the seeds of its destruction were already planted.

The cultures of Paris and Aquitaine, not to mention the upbringings of the newlyweds, could not have been more different. In sunny Aquitaine, Eleanor’s grandfather, William IX, had pioneered the Troubadour forms of poetry, song, and storytelling with its belief in the triumph of Amor (Love) over stultifying Roma (Law). Catharism, AKA the Albigensian Heresy, from it’s hotbed in the city of Albi, existed comfortably within Provençal society. Eleanor’s maternal grandmother was her father’s mistress. In addition, another French queen from the South, Constance, wife of Robert II, still lived in courtiers’ memories for her strong-willed nature and scandalous dress.

Louis, on the other hand, had been raised in a monastery. Plus, they began their reign as teenagers, and governed as such.

By 1141 Louis was in conflict with the Pope over which of them had the right to appoint a new bishop for the city of Bourges. Eleanor was blamed for this, as her father had tried the same gambit in Poitou. Things came to a head when Eleanor’s sister Petronella began a torrid love affair with Raoul of Vermandois and he wished to annul his marriage to the sister of Theobald, Count of Blois. Louis permitted it, and Theobald, already siding against Louis over the bishop, went to war. The war lasted two years, and the town of Vitry suffered the worst of it.

Louis’ troops besieged the city. About 1,500 townsfolk took refuge in the church. Louis’ troops launched an assault with flaming pitch, some of which landed on the church’s wooden roof. It burned and collapsed, killing all within over a period of days. Louis, listening to the screams of the dying, lost the will to fight. He sued for peace. He agreed to return the land he had taken, and that Petronella and Raoul’s marriage be annulled.

Petronella and Raoul refused, and the war began anew. Eleanor called upon (actually, demanded) that St. Bernard of Clairvaux intercede with the Pope on their behalf. After chastising her for her lack of repentance and interference with politics, he agreed  to assist, and further, to pray that she might conceive, something that had not happened in the seven years of her marriage.

Marie was born the following year.

File:Philippe_Auguste_et_Richard_AcreEight months later, possibly burdened with guilt over the events in Vitry, Louis and Eleanor vowed to go on Crusade. The undertaking was a disaster. They crossed the Balkans after Holy Roman Emperor Conrad’s army and found that the Germans had eaten all the available food. This led to behavior that, I have read, continued to have negative repercussions in the area until the end of the last century. Louis proved to have little strategic sense, and Eleanor insisted, as Duchess of Aquitaine, to have control over her own troops, with the result being that the two separated and Louis, in the rear with the baggage train and pilgrims, was nearly killed in battle. (He had the good sense to dress like a common pilgrim and thus escape notice. His guards, dressed more impressively, all had their heads smashed in.) Eleanor was blamed for this, although technically one of her subordinates, Geoffre de Rançon, made the decision to continue on, and not stop at the agreed upon camping place and allow the baggage train and civilians to catch up.

Once in Jerusalem, her marriage in tatters, Eleanor stayed with her uncle, Raymond of Antioch, giving rise to rumors of infidelity and incest. I have taken advantage of this undocumented interlude, but will not provide a spoiler.

Eleanor’s life, and story, continued. They chose to return by sea and stopped in Rome to visit the Pope. He encouraged them to repair their marriage, and their second child was born the following year. Unfortunately, she was another girl. Convinced that his wife was incapable of bearing sons (and ignorant of genetics) Louis had the marriage annulled on grounds of consanguinity. Being 4th cousins once removed, they were less than 5th cousins mandated by Church law. Within two months, Eleanor married Henry of Normandy, heir to the throne of England, her 4th cousin.)

Not satisfied with merely delivering a third of France to English control–although technically Henry owed fealty to the French crown for it and his other French possessions–she then proceeded to enact perhaps the most stunning post-divorce revenge ever accomplished. She bore her new husband eight children: three girls and five boys, the middle son known as Richard Lionheart.

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