Sunday 23 January 2011

Daughter of Riches: The Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and Queen of England (Part I)

“Reared with abundance of all delights, you had a taste for luxury and refinement and enjoyed a royal liberty. You lived richly in your own inheritance, you took pleasure in the pastimes of your women, you delighted in the melodies of flute and drum ... You abounded in riches of every kind.” 
- The poet Richard of Poitiers, writing on Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1176)

This is Part V of this blog's series on the lives of the Queens of England, with apologies for the delay since its last instalment, The Other Queen. The life of Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of the longest in English royal history and, furthermore, she was the queen of two countries and had a lengthy career as Queen Mother also. I have therefore decided to divide this instalment up into three posts - her career as queen of France, her career as queen of England and her widowhood.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was a woman of firsts. She was the first (and so far the only) woman to be married to both a king of France and a king of England. She is the first queen of England of whom there are popular biographies currently in print. She was the first queen in England to live past her seventh decade and she was the first to acquire posthumous celebrity status, which means that even today Eleanor has her admirers, enthusiasts and fans. And it’s due in no small part to Eleanor’s brazen and unconventional personality that she exerts this nine century-long fascination; Eleanor of Aquitaine titillates our senses and satisfies a craving for melodrama entirely absent in the modern period.

It is therefore difficult not to be seduced by the sheer improbable glamour of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s story – this is a woman, after all, who turned up to her first wedding dressed entirely in scarlet, who (according to one legend) rode bare-breasted past a group of priests en route to the Crusades, whose flashy jewel collection and extravagant lifestyle would earn her the enmity of a man who was later declared a saint in the Roman Catholic faith. Some say she indulged in a torrid affair in the Holy Land, whilst her first husband was distracted with trying to liberate the holy city of Jerusalem. She fled cross country from a terrifying feudal lord who sought to possess her body and her legendary fortune. She married one of the most handsome and powerful men in English history and she gave birth to two of its future kings – one of whom is enshrined in legend, the other encased in villainy. There is a long-standing legend that she found, tricked and poisoned her second husband’s mistress; that she became so enraged with said husband that, to avenge herself, she encouraged her sons to start a civil war against their father. She was the mother of two queens – the future queens-consort of Castile and Sicily. She was a woman who, whilst in her eighties, could be seen on the battlements of a castle under siege, daring her enemies to fire at her. And so to say that the legend of Eleanor of Aquitaine is rich in delightful dramatic possibilities is an epic understatement.

However, celebrity in any guise creates just as many problems as it solves. In the case of Eleanor, as with other queens, its unfortunate legacy has been to create a set of assumptions about her life and character, which is held to be veritably sacrosanct based on no surer foundation than the merits of repetition. Furthermore, because of the dearth of medieval sources, it has proved close to impossible to completely separate the truth of her story from the more extravagant elements of her legend. In his biography of her second husband, Belfast-based historian W.L. Warren wrote that so entrenched is the legend of Eleanor of Aquitaine that she has become "a creature of romance and legend, but not of history."

It was a life that began, appropriately, in a place steeped in romance and legend. The province of Aquitaine consisted of the south-western third of modern-day France and along with its beautiful climate, it was also one of the wealthiest areas on the European continent in the early twelfth century, when Eleanor was born to its reigning duke, William X, and his allegedly beautiful wife, Eleanor de la Rochefoucauld. Its wealth came in part from its strong agricultural sector, helped no doubt by the weather, from the money generated by its trade in wine and salt, the duke's control of the prosperous Atlantic and Mediterranean trading ports and what might today be called the tourist sector of its economy. The shrine of Santiago de Compostela, said in medieval legend to be the resting place of Saint James the Great, one of the twelve original Apostles of Christ, lay over the border in modern-day Spain. The pilgrimage route to Santiago was one of the busiest in medieval Christendom and in order to reach it, unless one was Spanish or Portuguese, you had to pass through the  Aquitaine. This wealth, combined with its ruling family's interest in literature and music, had turned Aquitaine into a centre of the arts, far more so than its northern neighbour - France. 

Eleanor's late grandfather, Duke William IX, had been a keen patron of the arts and an early pioneer of the lifestyle known as troubadour culture, in which lavishly romantic poetry gave rise to one of the most potent myths of the middle ages - that of knights and their ladies fair. Duke William's own contributions to early troubadour literature had possessed a mildly erotic tinge to them (and sometimes not so mild), far removed from the insistence of later proponents of the troubadour ideal that the romantic love expressed in its poetry had to be essentially chaste. The saucy flavour of the duke's writings is perhaps no surprise when one takes a look at his scandalous private life, in which he brazenly set-up house with the fantastically named courtesan, Dangerosa, a woman of extraordinary beauty and minimal morals. Eventually, disgusted by the affair, his duchess, Philippa of Toulouse, ostentatiously retired to a nunnery, leaving William and Dangerosa to get on with their adulterous antics in peace.

William and Philippa's son, also called William and who eventually inherited the duchy upon his father's death in 1126, took after his mother in terms of his personality. His younger brother, Raymond, had inherited their father's military brilliance and he sailed off to Palestine to complete his father's legacy in the Holy Land, in helping to lead the newly-established Christian federation of Outremer, whilst William stayed behind to rule Aquitaine. The new duke and duchess had three children together - William, Eleanor and Petronilla. The first two children were named in honour of their parents; the youngest in honour of Saint Petronilla, the daughter of the chief of Christ's apostles and, according to early church legend, the first of the popes. Like many medieval children, Eleanor and Petronilla's brother William died young; unlike most cases of infant mortality, young William's death altered the balance of power in Europe for the rest of his generation. At the moment he breathed his last, his sister Eleanor became heiress to their father's duchy. In time, the beauty, the wealth and the vast territories of the Aquitaine would all be hers.

Not long after their brother's death, Eleanor and Petronilla lost their mother as well. With the death of the duchess, Duke William's life became more and more devoted to his religion, although like all members of his family he still had a keen interest in the arts. Luckily for the two girls, their father's piety did not lean towards the more militant elements of self-renunciation then being promoted by the stormtroopers of medieval asceticism. Their lifestyles continued to be ones dominated by great luxury, unheard of even for most other members of the European upper classes. At that time, luxury was being turned into an art form by the aristocracy of the Aquitaine, since their country had both the wealth and the weather to generate a truly comfortable form of living. It was art, luxury and style which therefore dominated Eleanor of Aquitaine's childhood and, as one observer later wrote, she "had a taste for luxury and refinement," which never left her. 

In 1136, William decided to go on pilgrimage himself to Santiago de Compostela. All his life, he had seen pilgrims wearing the cockle shell badges of the shrine progressing to and fro through his duchy; both his father and his brother had made names for themselves fighting in the great glory of the crusades and, fired by a recent visit to his court by Bernard of Clairvaux, William was in the mood to go on pilgrimage. His two daughters accompanied him as far as Bordeaux, where they bid farewell to their father, as he journeyed across the mountains with his entourage and they returned to one of the nearby family châteaux with theirs. William made it to the tomb of the Apostle, but only just. There, on Good Friday 1137, he died at the age of thirty-eight. Eleanor had just become an orphan and Duchess of Aquitaine, all in the space of one short breath.

Eleanor's precise age at the moment she became one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Europe is still a subject of debate. The generally accepted date puts her birth to 1122, meaning that she was about fourteen when her father died; recently, however, some have suggested that a thirteenth-century genealogy of the House of Aquitaine, placing Eleanor's birth to 1124, is more probable. Either way, she must have been about thirteen or so when she suddenly inherited the richest territory on the continent and immediately found herself as the most desirable wedding catch for all of the unmarried men of her class.

However, the difference between the romantic fantasy expressed in her grandfather and father's poems and the reality of medieval love-making could not have been better illustrated by the fact that from the moment she heard her father was dead, Eleanor immediately fled with her sister to their family's palace of Ombriere in Bordeaux and surrounded herself with a squadron of military protectors. Aristocratic bounty hunters, keen to possess her inheritance, were now likely to kidnap and rape her, thus forcing her into marriage with them. Upon his deathbed, her father had left clear instructions that he wanted Eleanor to marry as quickly as possible to the eldest son of the King of France. Eleanor immediately dispatched a panicked request to Paris, placing herself entirely in King Louis's hands and begging that he send his eldest son to her side, so that he could marry her and thus offer her the protection of being a married member of the French Royal Family. From his own deathbed, crippled by a life-time of obesity, King Louis VI dispatched his son and heir, 17 year-old Louis, south to Bordeaux to rescue the young duchess from her predicament and make her Dauphine as soon as possible.

What happened next was the first of those picture perfect and unforgettable moments in Eleanor's life, which seem to lift right out of a fairy tale book. The young princess, trapped in her castle, was rescued on a hot summer's day, when her 17 year-old prince, softly handsome and quietly devout, rode through the gates, dressed in armour and velvets and flanked by five hundred of his most gallant knights. Coming in to Eleanor's presence, Louis swept a low bow and pledged himself to her as her husband. He was flanked on either side by two of the most powerful lords in the French kingdom, his cousin Raoul the Valiant, comte de Vermandois and Theobold, comte de Champagne. Raoul was married to Theobold's sister, meaning that the three men were especially close, not just as allies, but as friends too - even if Theobold, at times, disagreed with the dauphin's politics. Louis and Eleanor moved quickly to the nearby cathedral of Saint Andrew (left) where they were married on July 25th 1137. It didn't mean much at the time, but Eleanor chose to get married in a scarlet gown; moralists would grimly point out later that it was an entirely appropriate colour.

There were little time for celebrations after the ceremony. Louis and Eleanor were immediately enthroned as co-ruling Duke and Duchess of the Aquitaine and Eleanor's lords and magnates arrived to swear an oath of fealty to Louis as their lawful overlord. It was not a universally popular notion and Louis personally hunted down and lopped off the hands of one seigneur who refused to swear the oath, and upset Eleanor by stealing some of her favourite expensive white hunting falcons. At the time, some of Eleanor's more devout subjects also objected to the fact that the newly-weds were third cousins, since both were descendants of King Robert the Pious of France and his queen, Constance of Arles. This family tie technically placed Louis and Eleanor within the seven degrees of affinity codified as unacceptable for Christian marriage by the church. This impediment, known as consanguinity at the time, was largely ignored in 1137 - but Louis's family had a history of deliberately marrying women from within the forbidden seven degrees, just in case they failed to produce a son and needed to be quickly divorced. If Eleanor wanted to keep her husband and protector, she would need to produce a son to carry on the Capetian line.

Six days after their marriage, news arrived from Paris that Eleanor had not just gained a husband but a crown too. Her father-in-law had passed away, making his 17 year-old son King Louis VII and Eleanor had, in the space of four months, acquired both the coronet of a duchess and the crown of a queen. The old king's death now meant that Louis must return to Paris to oversee his father's funeral and the transition of power. His new wife would, of course accompany him, and it would be her first opportunity to see Paris and to meet her new mother-in-law, as well as her husband's four younger brothers and sister. Eleanor's own sister, Petronilla, was part of the vast entourage Eleanor insisted on bringing with her from the Aquitaine, partly because it was obviously dangerous to leave such a wealthy heiress unprotected, but also because both girls evidently enjoyed a close relationship and, for the majority of their lives, proved to be inseparable.

What kind of couple was it that made their official entry into Paris in the summer of 1137? Louis VII, nearly eighteen years old at the time, was said to be intelligent, handsome and conscientious. According to one chronicler, the young monarch was in a state "of loving almost beyond reason" his new bride, who, we can surmise, was evidently a very attractive woman herself. Or rather, she would be once she became an adult. No precise reports exist on Eleanor's physical appearance, but there is a long-standing tradition that she had ginger or fair hair, pale skin and she was said to be very beautiful - although whether that was simply an illusion created by the later drama of her story, we cannot know for certain. She was evidently intelligent and her childhood had given her a love of the finer things in life. Indeed, as events were to show, the French found her to be obscenely extravagant. She was also temperamental, brazen, ruthless and oblivious to criticism. 

Like many members of his family, Eleanor's husband was deeply religious. Too religious, in fact. He had not been his parents' eldest son and whilst his eldest brother lived, Louis had been groomed for a career in the church - the natural vocation for the spare son in medieval monarchy. This meant that throughout his childhood, Louis's education had not only been placed entirely in the hands of monks and priests, but they had also been under quite specific instructions from the royal family to groom the young prince to eventually become part of the clergy. The benefits of this were that it meant Louis was better-read and far more knowledgeable than most of his peers; the downside was that he had a deeply unhealthy attitude towards his own sexuality. Despite the works of recent apologists who bravely assert the contrary, there can be absolutely no doubt that for a large part of the medieval period, the clergy's attitude towards sex was a fearsome one. Virginity was a gift from God; every time you had sex, you therefore took yourself further and further away from His Light. Christ had remained uncorrupted by sins of the flesh, so too had Holy Mary - thus, even to have sex for the purposes of procreation was undesirable, but occasionally necessary. Anything else was variously classed as fornication, lust or sodomy, depending on which cleric you listened to. The truly devout dedicated themselves to a life of perpetual chastity, wherever possible. In young Louis's case, of course, from the moment his eldest brother died, chastity was no longer possible - at least, not permanently. Whilst he may have a duty as a Christian to remain pure, he had a duty as a king to reproduce. And, if Eleanor is to be believed, a large part of Louis's later troubles came from his erratic attempts to reconcile his morbid fear of sexuality with both his own desires and the requirements of kingship.

All this was some way off in the future when Louis and Eleanor underwent their coronation on Christmas Day 1137 in Bourges and settled down to the task of ruling France. Or rather, Louis did. Although Eleanor was required to be co-signatory on any documents pertaining to Aquitaine, it was made quite clear to the young woman that her primary role in Paris was as a consort, not as a co-sovereign and, despite her later reputation for gutsy proto-feminism, it was to this role which Eleanor accustomed herself with apparent willingness in the months and years which followed her marriage to Louis. First and foremost, she would have to build relationships with her in-laws. Louis had four brothers - Henri and Philippe who, like their brother, were intensely devout and Robert and Pierre, who preferred life in the military; they also had a 13 year-old sister, Princess Constance, whose marriage to Prince Eustace of England was already being considered by her brother. Most importantly of all was the figure of Eleanor's mother-in-law, the Queen Mother, Adelaide of Maurienne. 

Like her eldest son, Adelaide was a woman torn between faith and flesh. She was a generous patron of the church and particularly devoted to veneration of Saint Peter, but even in the earliest days of her widowhood she was anxious to marry again and, according to courtly gossip, before the mourning period for her dead husband was over, Queen Adelaide had apparently already fallen madly in love with a visiting English knight, William d'Albini, a handsome and athletic young man sixteen years younger than she was. Unfortunately, despite her intelligence and commendable religiosity, Adelaide of Maurienne was an ugly woman and William rejected her supposed advances. As an ugly woman, Adelaide had a corresponding dislike of pretty ones and she nursed a particularly cancerous hatred of Adeliza of Louvain, the widow of King Henry I of England - particularly because after he rejected Adelaide's advances, d'Albini returned to England where he fell madly and passionately in love with the beautiful Adeliza, whom he promptly married. Apparently widowed queens found William d'Albini particularly irresistible.

The Queen Mother's dislike of pretty women could very well have spelled trouble for Eleanor, had it not been for the fact that she did eventually fall in love again and within a few years of her first husband's death, Adelaide married Matthieu, comte de Montmorency, another younger man (although not as young as William d'Albini.) Having spent most of her life married to the monstrously corpulent Louis VI, nicknamed "Louis the Fat" by his subjects, perhaps it is best not to judge Adelaide too harshly for searching for a more attractive candidate in her second husband. 

Raised in the sun-soaked paradise of Aquitaine, with its traditions of art and style, Eleanor apparently did not take particularly well to her new home. Paris was rainy, unrefined, culturally backward, artistically undeveloped and smelly - at least, it must have seemed that way to its new queen. Compared to the Aquitaine, it must have seemed like a provincial backwater to Eleanor. It was to be a very long time before Paris because the epicentre of European art, as it was in the days when Leonardo da Vinci and Anne Boleyn found it so much to their liking, and the chic, glamour and decadence which are today inextricably associated with Paris were even further away. 

Furthermore, if Eleanor was not used to Paris, neither were the Parisians exactly used to her. France's long difficulty with pretty queens struck Eleanor hard, although not as hard as it was to strike poor Marie-Antoinette. Her predecessor had been pious and decidedly unattractive; on both counts, that made it easier to take her more seriously. Eleanor was highly attractive, fun-loving and extravagant, which meant many of her husband's subjects regarded her with suspicion. Despite having held a high opinion of her late father, the famous preacher Bernard of Clairvaux, known as "the Virgin's troubadour" due to the depth of his devotion to the Blessed Virgin, disliked Eleanor intensely. As far as he was concerned, the new queen was selfish, extravagant, reckless and troublesome. He took particular umbrage at her extravagance, her confrontational nature and he criticised her for appearing in public glistening in expensive jewellery and her beloved fur-trimmed gowns of silks and satins. Her long sleeves and pendulous earrings also seemed to rile Bernard, for reasons he did not elaborate upon.

Eighteen months into her marriage, a queen much more to Bernard's tastes arrived in Paris for a state visit. It was Matilda of Boulogne, the Queen of England, accompanied by her eldest son, Eustace; they had come to negotiate the proposed marriage between the impetuous prince and Louis's only sister, Constance. England, at the time, was being convulsed by a particularly savage civil war between two rival claimants to the throne - Matilda's husband, King Stephen, and his cousin, the Dowager Holy Roman Empress Maud. Stephen had seized the throne following his uncle's death four years earlier, claiming that since his cousin Maud was a woman she was legally ineligible to inherit. Maud had not exactly taken this decision in a spirit of feminine docility and the result was a brutal series of wars and rebellions. It was vital for Stephen's diplomacy that the French monarchy continue to recognise his claim as the rightful one and a key part of this was making sure the betrothal between Stephen's son and Louis's sister went ahead as planned. Stephen's elder brother, Theobold, was the aforementioned comte de Champagne and one of Louis's most trusted and powerful friends, but the negotiations over Eustace and Constance's marriage required a finesse and delicacy which Theobold was spectacularly incapable of. Instead, King Stephen therefore dispatched his wife, Matilda, who was an intelligent, devout and well-spoken, with a proven track record of being able to charm both friend and opponent. In contrast to his stinging criticism of the glamorous Eleanor, Bernard of Clairvaux had nothing but praise for the pious Matilda, calling her "the glory of your kingdom".

The state visit of Matilda and Eustace to Paris in 1139, which brought one queen of England into contact with her improbable successor, was not an unmitigated success from the English point of view. It has already been narrated on this blog in the chapter on Matilda's own career and it is perhaps worth quoting again, here: -

"... Matilda set sail for France with her eldest son, Eustace, for a state visit to Paris. There, they were royally entertained by the young King of France, Louis VII, and his glamorous queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (who could have foreseen then that she would one day be Matilda’s successor as Queen of England?) Stephen and Matilda were desirous of a marriage between Eustace and King Louis’s younger sister, 15 year-old Princess Constance. A marriage between Eustace and Constance would strengthen Stephen’s claim to royal legitimacy and despite the recent unrest, Louis continued to show himself amenable to the proposed match. Matilda, however, could not help but notice that there were some concerns in Paris about betrothing their princess to an English prince who, very soon, might not even have a royal inheritance. After all, Stephen may have all the trappings of power, but his main rival still lay ensconced within the walls of Arundel Castle, on English soil, with the protection of the second lady of the kingdom and the alleged king seemed powerless to drive her out. By medieval standards, it was an uninspiring spectacle. That being said, Matilda and Eustace’s state visit to Paris was not exactly a disaster. Indeed, it was a success, from the point of view that the betrothal between the two teenagers was eventually formally announced, but the mutterings of concern over her family’s future cannot have filled Matilda with confidence, nor is she likely to have withheld this uncomfortable reaction from Stephen."

Despite her physical attractiveness, the main reason for Louis and Eleanor's marriage had been her inheritance. This not only meant the prosperity and size of the Aquitaine, but also several other provinces to which Eleanor had a blood claim, chief amongst them being Toulouse, which Louis claimed was rightfully Eleanor's thanks to the inheritance of her late grandmother, Philippa. In 1142, five years after their marriage, the 22 year-old Louis decided that now was the time to go to war to conquer Toulouse in his wife's name - which, like the Aquitaine, meant it would become Louis's in reality. What happened next was to show the potent fusion of the political and the personal which dominated Eleanor's life, particularly in moments of military crisis.

Theobold, comte de Champagne, the King of England's brother, was unconvinced about the chances of success for the proposed invasion of Toulouse. Not only was Theobold actively trying to send money and men over to his beleaguered brother in England at the time, but he was even less inclined to help back a war which he thought was both unnecessary and probably going to prove unsuccessful as well. Along with several other minor lords, Theobold therefore refused to send troops to aid in King Louis's attack on Toulouse which was, as Theobold had predicted, an exercise in failure. Louis, however, did not think the reason for defeat lay in his own military strategy, but rather in his former friend's refusal to help him.

At precisely that moment, a private scandal presented Louis with the perfect opportunity to exact political revenge on Theobold. Apparently, all the fun and games in the queen's household had gotten a little out of hand and Eleanor's younger sister Petronilla had embarked upon an affair with a married man, Louis's favourite, the comte de Vermandois. Eleanor had known all about the affair and, as any sister might, had kept Petronilla and Raoul's secret. Now however Raoul wanted to divorce his wife and marry Petronilla. Deliciously (or tragically depending on your point-of-view), Petronilla's married lover was married to Theobold's younger sister. If Louis gave Raoul help in divorcing his wife so that he could marry his mistress, then it would publicly humiliate Theobold's honour, in much the same way as Toulouse had dented Louis's. Torn between his desire to seek revenge upon Theobold and his abhorrence at Petronilla's immoral actions, Louis also had to face competing advice from those closest to him. On the one hand, Eleanor was insisting that he should help her sister get what she wanted; on the other, his priests and spiritual advisers were furious that the King should even be considering helping Petronilla, rather than locking her up in a convent as she apparently deserved. Bernard of Clairvaux and Louis's confessor, the Abbé de Suger, urged him not to let personal prejudice cloud his mind. He could not and must not help the comte de Vermandois set aside his lawful wife in order to marry a woman with whom he had been shamelessly committing adultery for God knew how long. 

Eventually, Petronilla - and Eleanor - got their way and Louis got his revenge. The King let it be known that he would look favourably on any cleric or bishop which declared the marriage of the Comte and Comtesse de Vermandois to be illegal on grounds of consanguinity. To Theobold's rage and humiliation, his sister was divorced and Raoul and Petronilla married in a lavish ceremony, with the festivities overseen and organised by Queen Eleanor. Left with no choice but to try and avenge his family's honour, Theobold went to war with the French Crown, which resulted in the occupation of Champagne by the French armies and their infamously cruel attack on Vitry-sur-François.

Back in Paris, many felt that Theobold had brought all this on himself by his refusal to help his king when he should have. It was not a liegeman's place to only support his sovereign when he thought he would win or when it was convenient for him to do so; it was his place to obey. And Theobold had not done that. However, the issue of the queen's sister and her affair with Theobold's brother-in-law had not done the king's cause any favours. Unsurprisingly, it was Eleanor who bore the brunt of disapproval for what had happened, particularly from the clergy - Bernard of Clairvaux and Suger were under absolutely no illusions that it had been Eleanor who not only prevented Petronilla from being punished but, worse, had actually gone out of her way to make sure she was rewarded for her seduction of a married man. Eleanor, spending as freely as usual and enjoying herself in celebrating Petronilla's happiness, initially stuck to what eventually became her usual strategy of dealing with criticism - by digging her heels in, carrying on as normal, insisting she had done absolutely nothing wrong and lashing out at those who dared criticise her. When Pope Innocent II excommunicated Petronilla and Raoul for what they had done, the reaction of the French Royal Household was, initially, to face the whole thing down with a quintessentially Gallic shrug.

But, in Eleanor's luxurious apartments, so different to those gaudy and uncomfortable ones belonging to her mother-in-law, the queen's conscience eventually began to nag at her. Try as she might, she could not rid herself of the superstitious fear that God was punishing her. At first, she had an angry confrontation with Bernard, in which she demanded he persuade the Pope to lift the excommunication on Petronilla and Raoul. Taken aback by her lack of contrition, Bernard understandably refused and Eleanor became very upset. Petronilla, now comtesse de Vermandois, was already carrying her new husband's baby. (In fact, it's my hunch that the discovery of Petronilla and Raoul's affair and Eleanor's zeal in trying to push through their marriage may have been brought about by the fact that Petronilla had suddenly found herself with child out of wedlock.) All that is speculation however and the fact remains that Petronilla's swollen belly could now be seen parading around the court, whilst Eleanor's remained noticeably flat after six years of marriage. It had just about been possible to explain away the first two years of childlessness as being a result of her youth, but she was just twenty now and still no baby, nor any sign of one.  Pressure was being applied on all sides and Eleanor cannot have been ignorant of the poisonous whispers criticising her for failing to gave them a dauphin. 

In her new state of mind, Eleanor confided her worries to her husband, whose mind was even more likely to see the hand of God in things than Eleanor was. The King and Queen both began to fear that God had placed a curse on their marriage - either because they were third cousins or because of what they had done for Petronilla and Raoul. Fearful of Divine Wrath, Louis made overtures of friendship towards Theobold once again, promising to forget the politic humiliation of Toulouse if he would forgive the personal humiliation visited on his sister and family by Raoul's divorce. He also sought spiritual advice from the new Archbishop of Bordeaux, begging him to put his mind at ease about his sister-in-law's quarrel with the papacy and his own qualms about the consanguinity that existed between him and Eleanor. Eleanor sought advice from her one-time foe, Bernard, who told her that if she helped heal the rift between her husband and Theobold, acting as a mediatrix for peace in the way the Holy Virgin did in Heaven, then God might lift the curse He had placed on her womb.

By the end of the year, shortly after Petronilla gave birth to her daughter Elisabeth, Eleanor found herself pregnant at last. Bernard assured the royal couple that the queen's pregnancy must have been brought about by the prayers of the Mother of God, in recognition of their recent good deeds. Eleanor's baby bump thus corresponded with a period of renewed piety in the royal couple's life. It was whilst she was pregnant with her first child that news reached Europe that Edessa had fallen to the armies of Imad al-Din Zengi, the Islamic Emir of Mosul and Aleppo. Edessa was part of the four constitute parts of the federal monarchy of Outremer, the Christian federation set up in the Holy Land by the First Crusade. With Edessa having fallen, the fear in the Christian West was that the other three - the kingdom of Jerusalem, the principality of Antioch (ruled over by Eleanor's uncle, Raymond) and the county of Tripoli - would all collapse and that the dwelling places of Christ and the Holy Family, along with Christianity's holiest sites, would fall into the hands of the Heathen. At the Christmas festivities, Louis vowed to "take the Cross" - that is, to go on Crusade and defend the existence of Outremer.

Given her family's close links to the First Crusade and the fact that her uncle was the ruler of Antioch, Eleanor naturally shared her husband's sympathies and approved of Pope Eugenius's decision to issue a bull calling the legions of Christ to war. The bull, Quantam Praedecessores, was aimed at Catholic Europe in general, but it contained specific exhortations to the French Crown as "the eldest son of the church" to lead the charge in defending the Holy Land. However, despite the king and queen's enthusiasm, support for the crusade remained decidedly lukewarm until Bernard of Clairvaux took off on a whirlwind tour to evangelise the nation and whip up support for the Pope's endeavour. 

The masterpiece of Louis and Bernard's campaign to infuse France with proper crusading zeal came in Bernard's Easter sermon, preached at Vézelay, the site where a decidedly fanciful early legend claimed Saint Mary Magdalene was buried. The true resting site of the saint was almost certainly in the hills surrounding Ephesus in modern-day Turkey; the legend which said she had sailed to France on a rudderless ship in the company of Lazarus and two other biblical saints was only one of the plethora of romantic, improbable and fantastic stories attached to the Magdalene's name. In any case, by the twelfth century the idea that she was buried in Vézelay was firmly believed by most good Frenchmen and it is one of the reasons why, even today, the modern day equivalent of the Magdalene legends so often seem to fixate on France. 

As ever, Bernard's oratory was second to none. The King, with a velvet cross sewn into his robes, was surrounded by his court, army and thousands of his subjects, while a beautifully dressed and pregnant Eleanor sat next to him as a model of maternal propriety. By the end of the sermon, the crowd were openly weeping and hundreds were pledging themselves to "take the Cross" to Jerusalem. At the end of Bernard's impassioned plea for French Christians to rise up and defend the earthly dwelling places of their Saviour, Eleanor decorously knelt at her one-time critic's feet and pledged the support of every knight in the Aquitaine. The province would rise as one, she promised, in the name of Christ and she, as their duchess, would go with them.

Bernard had probably not intended Eleanor to accompany her husband on Crusade; indeed, he and many people felt it was no place for women. However, Eleanor's charm and charisma had been instrumental in securing the support of Aquitaine for the Second Crusade and the organisers of the crusade could not afford to alienate it or her. As Bernard set off on his travels again, to preach across the kingdom, promising all who went on the Crusade instant remission of all their confessed sins, generous financial terms to finance their crusading and immunity from all civil law suits, Eleanor went into labour. Disappointingly, given everything that gone into conceiving, the child was a girl, but with appropriate piety the new baby princess was christened Marie, in the Virgin's honour. At the same time, Petronilla gave birth to her second child - a son, christened Raoul after his father.

The logistics in organising a Crusade were, of course, enormous and it was a full two years after Marie's birth that her parents finally set off for the Holy Land. Much to the disgust of Bernard and the hundreds of other devout clergymen either supporting the Crusade or actually in its entourage, Eleanor and three hundred accompanying women were still insisting on coming. For Eleanor, much of it was personal - her father had gone on the first Crusade to establish Outremer and her uncle Raymond now lived there as the ruler of Antioch. Crusading was in her blood. More importantly, she seems to have grown bored of Paris and life at court. She wanted excitement and she did not want to be left behind. And despite the pious disapproval of her, rearing its head again after the lull surrounding Marie's birth, Eleanor cut an absolutely magnificent figure as the Second Crusade set off from Metz on the eleventh day of June, 1147. Her long hair was worn loose down her back, the silver saddle she sat on was encrusted with golden fleur-de-lys and she shimmered in a fabulous collection of jewels. Once again, it was a picture perfect snapshot of a fiery young queen - glamorous, beautiful, brave - riding off into the sunset to fight a holy war.

The actual business of the Crusade, of course, was a good deal less glamorous - particularly the early stage, which involved the vast cavalcade of court and army making its way across Europe. Ordinarily, this would have been politically impossible, but to attack a crusade for one's own advantage in the twelfth century would have been the spiritual equivalent of go to Hell, go directly to Hell, do not pass purgatory and do not collect two hundred rosaries. Once the French contingent reached Hungary, Eleanor received letters from the Empress Irene (pronounced ee-ren-ay), promising the French the full force of Byzantine hospitality once they reached Constantinople. Of course, as an Orthodox monarchy, her husband the Emperor could not publicly contribute to a Catholic crusade, but he was more than happy to welcome the King and Queen of France to his court. Given that Byzantium was then considered to the epicentre of imperial magnificence and style, dwarfing even Aquitaine, it's easy to imagine Eleanor's pleasure at receiving the empress's invitation.

Louis, Eleanor and their respective households were greeted at the awe-inspiring gates of Constantinople on October 4th, just under four months after they had set out from France. There, they met the 28 year-old Byzantine emperor, Manuel Komnenos (right.) Manuel was handsome, sophisticated, charming and generally considered to be one of the most able and brilliant monarchs and diplomats of his age. Next to him was his dignified and modest wife, Irene, with whom Eleanor had been communicating since her time in Hungary. The Emperor and Empress were keen to show off the splendours of their capital and given that Constantinople was then the richest and most advanced city in the world, as well as being the centre of the last surviving true section of the Christian Roman Empire, one can understand the romantic allure and envy it attracted in equal measure from western Europeans. 

To begin with, Manuel and Irene showed Louis and Eleanor the many holy relics housed in Byzantium, most of them brought there by the long-dead empress, Saint Helena, mother of the first Christian emperor. They also gave them a private tour of the Church of Hagia Sophia (meaning Holy Wisdom), which was then justifiably considered to be one of the wonders of the Christian world. Like Eleanor in the early days of her marriage, the sophisticated and sumptuously dressed Byzantines seemed to view the French as amusingly provincial. When they showed themselves ignorant of how to use proper cutlery and sniffed the Byzantine delicacies served at the official banquet at the emperor's lavish Boukoleon Palace (the cavair and, ironically, frog's legs caused the most confusion), the emperor's courtiers snickered into their silks, but otherwise said nothing. Louis's piety impressed the Byzantine imperial family, although it was the sophisticated Eleanor who undeniably conformed more closely to their ideas of what a royal should be. 

Throughout the trip, however, the Emperor was careful not to flaunt his empire's great wealth in Louis's face and he showed himself sensitive to French sensibilities. He organised a party to celebrate the festival of Saint Denis, France's patron saint and one particularly dear to its royal family and when the Crusade set off to the south, travelling towards the city of Ephesus, the Byzantines tactfully did not point out that it was in that city that Mary Magdalene was probably buried, along with Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Luke and the Seven Sleepers. It was also the place where Cleopatra had come to seduce Marc Antony, the Virgin Mary had ascended into Heaven (although the Byzantines preferred to call it the Dormition), Saint Paul had preached and one of the earliest Christian communities had formed outside of Palestine. When it came to links to the ancients and the sacred, it was rather tartly noted that Byzantium didn't need to make things up - unlike the French.

It was this journey south towards Ephesus which marked the point at which the Second Crusade began to fall apart. To begin with, news arrived that their ally, Conrad III of Germany, had sustained a devastating defeat at Turkish hands in Dorylaeum. On the same day, the French witnessed a partial eclipse of the Sun. In an age more inclined to see indicators of the Divine Will in such celestial occurrences, the blocking out of light when news of the Second Crusade's first defeat reached them could not have been more clear. God was not pleased and some began to mutter that the reason for his displeasure was that the Crusade contained women amongst its number - most conspicuously of all, Queen Eleanor.

Shortly after Conrad's defeat at Dorylaeum, Louis suffered his own disaster which permanently weakened the Second Crusade and Eleanor, unfairly, was later blamed for the whole thing. The anti-Eleanor version of what happened maintains that as the French army approached Mount Cadmos, King Louis sent news back to his wife that she and her entourage should pitch camp for the night at a safe place nearby called Hanoz Daghi. Eleanor, already in something of a huff with her husband and disliking Hanoz Daghi, refused and ordered her servants to ride through a pass near the main mountain to find somewhere more to her liking. Whilst doing so, the queen's party was attacked by the Turks and the King had to send in the French knights to rescue her from what turned out to be a Turkish ambush, resulting in serious losses to the French army. It makes for a fine story, but it almost certainly isn't true.

As early as 1950, in his article "Eleanor of Aquitaine and the disaster at Cadmos Mountain on the Second Crusade," the American academic Curtis H. Walker queried the Cadmos legend by pointing out that there are only two eyewitness or contemporary accounts of the ambush - one by Odo de Deuil and the other by William of Tyre - neither of which mention Eleanor as having had anything to do with it. And William certainly wasn't a fan of the French queen, so it's difficult to see why he would have left out this information if she had unwittingly caused a military catastrophe of crusade-crippling proportions. The French did undoubtedly sustain heavy losses and an ambush did occur at Cadmos, but it had nothing to do with Eleanor and probably everything to do with Louis's poor military judgement, which had first shown itself long ago at Toulouse and was now causing much greater damage on Crusade.

After the Cadmos ambush, the Turkish destruction of French manpower and supplies was keenly felt. Some of the troops were forced to survive on horse meat as they processed to the coast to board ships for the Holy Land. By now, sensing their advantage, the Turkish armies were in hot pursuit of them and what happened next made Cadmos look like nothing more than a minor blip. When the French reached Adalia, they discovered that there were not enough ships to transport the entire army across the Mediterranean to the Holy Land. Louis hesitated, since he did not like the idea of leaving too much of the infantry - most of whom were poor men from France, gone to fight for their religion in a land they had never seen. However, Louis's circle of advisers insisted that the entire army couldn't possibly march across land to Jerusalem and still hope to evade the Turks and the King's priests insisted that speed was essential in reaching the Holy Land. Finally succumbing to these twin strands of advice, Louis agreed to go on and sail with the cavalry and leave the infantry to march on foot to Outremer, under the command of Thierry of Flanders and Archibald de Bourbon. Once the ships had set sail from Adalia, the infantry was ambushed by the Turks, with thousands being slaughtered and thousands more being captured and sold into slavery for the rest of their lives. It was both an humanitarian and a military disaster.

Perhaps it was Louis's plethora of bad decisions or perhaps she found the day-to-day reality of life on Crusade a good deal less glamorous than she had originally thought, but either way it does not seem that Eleanor was in a particularly loving mood as her ship crossed the Mediterranean. It would not be long now until she had to appear in public again when she and Louis landed in Antioch and were greeted by its ruler, her uncle Raymond. But strong evidence suggests that Eleanor was unhappy in her marriage and irritated beyond measure by her husband. It seems almost certain that by this stage they were not sleeping together and Eleanor later complained that Louis was an incompetent and infrequent lover, thanks to the excessive religiosity in which he had been raised. One chronicler later heard that during the Crusade, Eleanor had complained to her ladies that "she had married a monk, not a king." Furthermore, she cannot have been impressed or heartened by the heartbreaking incompetence of Louis's decision at Adalia and the resultant slaughter of his men and hers. 

As the King and Queen disembarked in the Holy Land, any mention of Cadmos or Adalia was suppressed. A joyful choir of local children greeted them with a Te Deum as they made their first formal meeting with Prince Raymond, Eleanor's 33 year-old uncle, described by one English chronicler as a man who was "magnificent beyond measure." According to William of Tyre, Eleanor's uncle was "the handsomest of the princes of the earth, a man of charming affability and conversation". Tanned from a dozen years of reigning as Prince of Antioch, tall and muscular, Raymond exuded calm masculine confidence and determination of purpose, in a welcome contrast to Louis's recent dithering and uncertainty. Eleanor liked Antioch and she found her uncle a refreshing companion. Too refreshing, in fact, according to some people.

One question always looms large in any study of Eleanor's time on Crusade: did she have an incestuous and adulterous affair with Uncle Raymond? Well, put bluntly, we don't know and we never will. Attempts to excuse Eleanor from the allegation of adultery founder on the same lack of firm evidence as attempts to assert that she definitely was guilty. In her recent book, Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens, Lisa Hilton summarises the question of Raymond and Eleanor's relationship best when she writes: "Whether Eleanor “technically” committed adultery is a moot point (though it is worth remembering that to have done so while on the holy mission of crusade would have been a grave sin indeed). What matters is that her behaviour was sufficiently careless for those around her to believe she did."

On the one hand, there is firm and undeniable evidence that Raymond and Eleanor got on so well together that many people at the time including, possibly, her own husband, thought that they were sleeping together. Given that Eleanor and Raymond did not grow up together, it is entirely possible (although unprovable) that upon meeting in Antioch, they both fell victim to something called "Genetic Sexual Attraction," in which people from the same family who have been raised apart confuse the intensity of their familial feelings for a sexual impulse. Equally, at the time, whilst uncle-niece relationships were regarded as sinful and were definitely prohibited by the church's teachings, they were not totally unheard of. In certain cases, the church provided dispensations for marriages between uncles and nieces to occur and Eleanor's generation would have had little knowledge of the genetic consequences of her actions. If she did decide to take a lover, it would not have been as abhorrent to go to bed with her uncle as it would be today.

In Eleanor's defence, she did have a history of refusing to adjust her behaviour when criticised by those around her and so it may have been that her refusal to deny her alleged adultery with her uncle was simply another manifestation of Eleanor's regal disdain for her critics. She was not guilty, but why should she demean herself by acknowledging people who didn't agree with her? Furthermore, the story that she slept with her uncle is one of many ludicrous stories which attached themselves to her name during the Second Crusade - for example, a source from the following century, Récits d’un Ménéstral de Reims, hilariously accused her of having an affair with the great Islamic leader, Saladin. Finally, the Aquitinian upper classes were known for being particularly effusive in their modes of greeting and the way they interacted with each other. Was it true in Eleanor's case, as some historians have alleged was the case with Anne Boleyn four centuries later, that her reputation was shredded by men who did not understand the rarefied conventions and manners with which she had grown up?

Evidently something did happen in Antioch that permanently weakened Louis and Eleanor's marriage and there must have been something about the queen's relationship with Prince Raymond which gave rise to suspicion. Two of the chroniclers covering the Second Crusade, Gervase of Canterbury and Richard of Devizes, do not come right out and accuse them of adultery but they certainly hint very strongly at inappropriate behaviour. Another, John of Salisbury, goes slightly further: "The most Christian King of the Franks reached Antioch, after the destruction of his armies in the east, and was nobly entertained there by Prince Raymond ... He was as it happened the Queen’s uncle ... [but] the attentions paid by the Prince to the Queen, and his constant, indeed almost continuous conversation with her, aroused the King’s suspicions."

John's account of what happened in Antioch is interesting, because at least part of it is verifiable. Louis was suspicious of his wife's closeness with the macho Raymond and we do know that, whatever else was going on, Eleanor and Raymond were in "constant, indeed almost continuous" interaction with one another. Finally, and perhaps most damningly, one of the chroniclers stationed in the Holy Land is the only one who comes right out and says it. William of Tyre, otherwise such an admirer of Raymond's and the main authority on his career, is quite explicit in stating that Raymond seduced his niece: "Contrary to her royal dignity, she disregarded her marriage vows and was unfaithful to her husband."

Before researching Eleanor's life again for the purposes of writing this post on her, I had always dismissed as nonsense the suggestion that she and Raymond of Antioch were lovers. However, having looked at the evidence afresh, I would have to say that on balance I think the idea that they had an affair is probable but not certain. Admittedly, it is also possible that everything that happened in Antioch was smoke caused by very little fire (a series of misunderstandings and gossip.) However, Eleanor was young, beautiful and, according to her own account, sexually frustrated; Raymond was handsome, virile and a noted seducer of women. Eleanor liked strong, assertive and clever men. Raymond was all of those things and, as far as she was now concerned, her husband definitely wasn't. Uncle and niece were less than a decade apart from one another and they did not know each other in a familial context. My hunch, for what it is worth, is that Eleanor and Raymond either were lovers at some point in the spring or early summer of 1148 or that their relationship was an intense, maybe even a romantic one, without necessarily being sexual. I don't think that Louis and William of Tyre completely misread the situation, although such an interpretation is just about possible.

One night, a furious row erupted between Louis and Eleanor. He wanted to move on from Antioch and to launch the attack on Damascus in partnership with his German ally, Conrad. Raymond disagreed with the strategy and said that a victory at Damascus was unlikely; the crusaders would be better to join Raymond's forces in attacking Nur ad-Din's stronghold at Aleppo. It was Aleppo's attack on Edessa which had brought about the whole necessity of crusade in the first place and it was essential to Outremer's survival that it be crushed and crippled. Eleanor, unsurprisingly, backed her uncle's assessment of the situation against her husband's. Even if she did pick Raymond's side for personal reasons, there were sound political reasons for heeding his advice instead of Louis's. Raymond had lived and reigned in the Holy Land for years; Louis knew nothing of it beyond the walls of Antioch, where he had been staying as a guest for a few hectic months. Somehow the argument over whether to go to Damascus and from there to press on to Jerusalem or to go with Raymond to Aleppo turned in to one about the state of their marriage. Louis basically ordered Eleanor to come with him when he left Antioch to continue with the crusade and Eleanor point-blank refused. Louis then reminded her that he had made a sacred vow to lay the royal colours of France on the one-time tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and it was her duty as his wife to be at his side. Incandescent at being ordered to leave Antioch and Raymond, Eleanor shot back by saying that she wanted a divorce. There had been doubts about the legality of their marriage at the time they entered into it, she said, and it was not valid. Now, she wanted out. 

In a panic, Louis wrote back to his spiritual adviser, Abbé Suger, asking him what he should do about Eleanor's accusation that their marriage was illegal. This was not the first time the idea had been raised and it had plagued Louis himself in the months before Marie's birth. Suger, wisely, took the attitude that the queen had only spoken in anger and nothing good could come from taking her demand for a divorce too seriously, particularly at such a crucial stage in the Crusade. If they both still had their doubts when they got back to Paris then they should launch a formal ecclesiastical investigation into their union. As it was, they were in a foreign land in the middle of a crusade which had already been beset by a series of setbacks. The unity of the royal family needed to be kept up, in public at least, and the King and Queen were just going to have to act like grown ups for the time being.

Talk of divorce disappeared, but the strain on the royal marriage was still obvious for anyone in Antioch to see. In July, Louis finally decided to ignore Raymond's advice and join Conrad near Jerusalem to prepare for their joint attack on Damascus. Eleanor stayed behind, "greatly offended by the King's conduct," and in the final weekend of July received the news that, just as Raymond had predicted, Conrad and her husband had sustained a humiliating defeat at Islamic hands outside the walls of Damascus. The Second Crusade's credibility and fighting power had irretrievably vanished and there was nothing left for the French to do but to return home in disgrace. Some said what had happened at Damascus had been God's judgement for the King and cavalry abandoning the infantry at Adalia; others said it had been brought about by Eleanor's behaviour with her uncle and some more said that it was because King Louis had allowed women to come along in the first place.

The tattered fragments of the Second Crusade sailed back to Europe and this time, Eleanor had no choice but to leave Antioch. Her husband's government had been humiliated and of the many men and resources she had brought with her from Aquitaine, most had perished at Cadmos, on the shores of Adalia or amidst the breathtaking idiocy of Damascus. Worse still, Outremer was now weakened irreparably in Islamic eyes; she could not even invoke the power of her European protectors as she had done in the past. Europe had come and proven just how little help it could be. 

After landing in Europe, Louis and Eleanor went to Rome to meet with the Pope Eugenius, who had been the first to urge them on the Crusade in the first place. The marriage of the King and Queen was still on rocky ground and Louis had not been able to forget his wife's insistence that their marriage was canonically invalid. She was still offended by his incompetence. Worse news came when Eleanor was told that Raymond had been killed in the attack on Aleppo which Louis had refused to help with. Her uncle had fallen in the Battle of Inab and his body had been recovered by ad-Din's soldiers, beheaded and the head sent in a solid silver case as a gift to the Caliph of Baghdad.

Amidst such a fraught environment, Pope Eugenius moved with commendable tact and in fact became something of a marriage counsellor for the couple - one observer wrote that "he strove by kindly converse to restore love between them." He did not reproach Louis for the failure in the Holy Land, nor criticise Eleanor for any of the rumours then circulating about her private life. He dismissed Louis's doubts about the legality of the marriage and threatened with anathema anyone who queried it or the legitimacy of their daughter, Marie. Speaking of children, the Pope wanted to know why there had been no more since? After all, Eleanor would need to produce a son and quickly, given that she was now in her mid-to-late twenties. Hearing of the erratic sex lives enjoyed or endured by the King and Queen of France, the Pontiff gave them some intimate advice: they needed to sleep together more and to help, he gave them a gift of a magnificent bed "decked with priceless hangings." Apparently, the pope's gift worked a miracle, for by the time they reached French soil again Eleanor was pregnant for the second time. The child, when born, was another girl - christened Alice.

Queen Eleanor had only conceived twice in the space of a thirteen year marriage and on both occasions, she had produced girls. Louis showed himself to be a protective father for both Marie and Alice, but he knew that neither could inherit when he died. Despite his apparent panic about Eleanor's request for his divorce and his later appeal to the Pope to clarify whether such a thing was even possible, Louis's pious protestations of love began to give way the moment the Crusade was over. It had taken Eleanor nearly five years to conceive between Marie's birth and Alice's; Louis could not afford another delay between Alice and a third baby. Following the death of his deeply conservative and beloved confidante, Abbé Suger, who had been so insistent that Louis and Eleanor remain married, Louis began to prepare for a divorce. Regardless of the pope's best efforts, a marriage which had once been relatively happy and even mutually supportive had irretrievably broken down for a variety of reasons over the course of the crusade and, most importantly of all, Louis needed a son. Even if he had loved Eleanor as much as he had done when they first married, it's likely that after Alice's birth he would have started to consider separation. The convenient excuse of consanguinity could be used to have the marriage swiftly annulled and, since it had been entered into in good faith, the legitimacy of Marie and Alice could be left legally intact. Even before the Church had been approached for the annulment, Louis and his advisers had already selected a replacement for Eleanor in the shape of the pubescent Constanza, Princess of Castile. 

Louis, Eleanor, Marie and Alice kept Christmas together at Limoges and gave off the appearance that everything was well within the royal family, but Eleanor was already mentally preparing to salvage both her inheritance and reputation in the relatively short period of time she had between the divorce being negotiated and made public. Earlier that year, she had met young Prince Henry Plantagenet, the son of the duke of Normandy and the Empress Maud, one of the claimants to the English throne. Henry was about nine or so years Eleanor's junior, but there seems to have been an instant chemistry between them when he visited Paris with his father shortly after baby Alice's birth. Most importantly of all, Henry was still unmarried and in search of a wife. The civil war in England had drawn to an exhausted conclusion in which everyone but King Stephen knew that Henry would eventually inherit the throne. Henry was strong, handsome, ambitious and determined and, without doubt, he and Eleanor entered into some sort of romantic agreement whilst she was still married to Louis. The moment she lost the protection of the current king of France, she would place herself under the protection of the future king of England.

Divorce was in the air as 1152 dawned. Eleanor's sister, Petronilla, was busy celebrating her own freedom after divorcing her husband Raoul, to whom she had gone to so much trouble to marry. The marriage had not been a fulfilling one after the attraction had fizzled out between them and, with Eleanor preparing to leave Paris, Petronilla decided the time was right to ditch Raoul and to remain by her sister's side. In February, Louis and Eleanor bid farewell to each other under the official pretence that the Queen planned to spend some time on religious retreat; in reality, both knew that this was goodbye. Probably for the last time. 

As she waited for the divorce, Eleanor carried out some shrewd political strategy of her own. She revoked all the charters she had issued from the age of twelve or thirteen, all of which had been co-signed with her husband. Then she re-issued them solely in her name. She needed to drive home the point that Aquitaine was hers and hers alone, not something she co-owned with Louis. Then she made sure that her earlier complaints about Louis's sexual performance were broadcast far and wide. If she was going to secure another husband, particularly as she was in her late twenties, she would need it to be known that the lack of regular children was not her fault, but Louis's. As events were later to show, she was probably right.

Within a few weeks, a church council convened at Beaugency by the Archbishop of Sens concluded - no doubt to everyone's complete lack of surprise - that the marriage of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine was, indeed, canonically invalid. The couple were no longer legally tied and their possessions were as they had been when they were married. France was Louis's; the Aquitaine was Eleanor's.

However, as the career of one of her daughters-in-law would show later, kidnapping for aristocratic women was still a real risk and it had been that very fear which had prompted the speed of Eleanor's marriage to Louis fifteen years earlier. On March 21st 1152, the day the divorce was pronounced, Eleanor was very nearly kidnapped by her old enemy, Theobold, comte de Champagne, who was not only anxious to exact revenge on the woman he blamed for his sister's humiliation but also to prevent her rumoured marriage to the son of his brother's rival. Eleanor subsequently made a mad dash across the country for the safety of the abbey at Fontevrault, where she could throw herself on the church's protection and await the arrival of her husband-to-be. There was a second attempt made to kidnap her when she tried to cross the River Creusde at Port-des-Piles, but she evaded it too and made it to the abbey, from where she dispatched a message to Henry in Normandy telling him to come and get her. 

She was no longer Queen of France and the next stage of her already dramatic life could begin. 


  1. I LOVE this!!! Thank you, thank you!!

  2. I'm so glad, Elena Maria! Thank you!

  3. Eleanor of Aquitaine was simply magnificent. Thank you so much!

  4. The image at the top is just spectacular! That flamboyance really captures the essence of Eleanor, I think.

  5. Awesome description! I found out that my relation line goes back to this amazing woman!! Thank you for informing me so much about her!

  6. Great post, can I ask where did you get the portrait from and do you know its source?

  7. You need citations. Where did the rumor about her bare-breasted ride on Crusade come from? Why isn't any of it cited.

  8. I'm afraid you're wrong. A narrative, non-academic piece doesn't "need citations". Footnotes and endnotes are not generally contained in articles like this. If you are particularly curious about a point, I might suggest wider research than becoming snarky about the article you've read. Thank you for your comment.


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