There once was a woman who married the King of France and the King of England, and her name was Eleanor of Aquitaine. You might have heard of her. Not only did she marry her way into two of the most prestigious European dynasties, she also divorced a king on her way to doing so. Consider the outrage and disdain with which Wallis Simpson was met in the 1930s and compare that with the fact that Eleanor went through a divorce and came out on top back in the 12th century. Let’s just say there’s a reason she’s famous.
Now, we can’t tackle Eleanor’s entire life in one go, but we can take a look at one of its most dramatic periods – particularly since it was today in 1152 Eleanor and the future King Henry II of England were married privately in Poitiers. Eight weeks earlier, Eleanor’s first marriage to King Louis VII of France had been annulled after a disastrous and largely unhappy 15 years together. When she left Louis she left behind her life as the queen consort of France, a role that was accompanied by enormous power, particularly given her own birthright as Duchess of Aquitaine. She also left behind her young daughters, Princesses Marie and Alix, who had failed to be born the boys their father’s government so desperately desired them to be.
But Eleanor was hardly a woman scorned. Contemporary rumors abounded that Eleanor had taken lovers during her marriage, one of whom was believed to be her own uncle, however to say this gossip was politically motivated would be an understatement. It was Eleanor who sought the annulment, which she viewed as a way out of a marriage to a man for whom she had nothing but disdain, whose nobles had aligned against her and who was seemingly incapable of fathering a son. Louis, desperate, finally bowed to the inevitable.
A few years before, the couple had traveled to Tusculum together to visit Pope Eugene III and seek a Church-approved divorce. Instead, the Pope all but forced them to reconcile, making it impossible for Eleanor to sleep anywhere except in Louis’s bed. She left the trip without an annulment and pregnant with her second daughter. By 1152 the situation had only grown worse, her wishes were granted, her daughters’ legitimacy intact and Eleanor left Paris for Poitiers.
As one of the wealthiest and most powerful figures in Christendom at the time, unmarried, beautiful and only 30 years old, Eleanor was also a target for men seeking to make an advantageous marriage. However, this wasn’t a Jane Austen novel and I mean “target” quite literally. During her journey no less than two men attempted to abduct and rape her, hoping to force her to marry them and thus acquire her lands and title. One of those men was Geoffrey of Anjou, the younger brother of her future second husband.
After having successfully evaded attack, Eleanor summoned Henry of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, with whom she was already acquainted and they were quickly married without much ceremony. There are varying theories as to how exactly this marriage went down, particularly since the couple already knew one another. Some claim that Henry was yet another opportunist – that he also abducted and raped Eleanor and forced her to marry him. Others believe theirs was a true love story.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, if not closer to the latter. Whether they genuinely loved one another or not at the outset, they were perfectly suited in a disastrous sort of way and their alliance was poetic in its revenge. Did they plot to wed as far back as 1151? Quite possibly, though it’s difficult to assess how concrete those plans were.
In order to comprehend the significance of this match, one has to understand who exactly Henry was, because he wasn’t yet the king of England. Instead, he was the eldest son of Geoffrey of Anjou and Matilda of England, usually referred to as Empress Matilda via her first marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor. She was the only surviving child of King Henry I of England and the one who he designated as his heir. When he did, however, her cousin, Stephen of Blois, usurped the throne with the support of the English magnates and a nearly 20-year war broke out, now known as the Anarchy.
Henry, once he reached adolescence and adulthood, took up his mother’s claim. In 1150 his father made him Duke of Normandy, a significant swathe of what is now France – an arrangement that meant he swore fealty to Louis. By marrying Eleanor, Louis’s ex-wife and the Duchess of Aquitaine, another huge chunk of French land, the couple actually held more of modern-day France than the King. It was, to put it mildly, a situation that greatly displeased Louis who viewed it as insubordination and a humiliating insult.
In response, Louis formed a fun little coalition of all the men who hated Henry. This included his younger brother, Geoffrey; King Stephen in England; King Stephen’s eldest son, Eustace; and a handful of French lords. Fortunately for Henry, he was an extremely skilled soldier because he ended up fighting a war on all fronts and despite his agility in responding, was mostly saved by the fact that Louis grew ill, withdrew and the others followed suit. Geoffrey, God help him, was forced to make peace his brother.
And Eleanor? She responded by promptly delivering Henry the son she had never had with Louis – an event which did nothing to help her ex-husband’s reputation abroad.
The following year Henry would succeed Stephen on the English throne and establish the House of Plantagenet. Henry and Eleanor would have seven more children and what was seemingly a successful working relationship, if not a loving marriage, for years. It would eventually sour – indeed, it ended with Henry putting Eleanor under house arrest. But like Louis before him, Henry wouldn’t win the war against Eleanor. She would be freed under the reign of their son, Richard, serve as his regent and be remembered as one of the most famous figures in European history.