The Early Years of Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine

Henry & Eleanor

Eleanor of Aquitaine stands as one of the most recognizable names from the Middle Ages. For those who know a bit about her, her status as an heiress in her own right might come to mind, as might her rather shocking divorce from the king of France. In fact, the period of time that truly solidified Eleanor’s reputation for the better came much later in life, after the death of her husband, Henry II, and while her son, Richard I, sat on the throne. Her efficient administration and tireless survey of his estates, combined with her famous beauty and colorful past, helped cement her status as a woman worth knowing. Yet, a significant chunk of time in-between, the period of her second marriage and when she was in fact the queen of England, was altogether quieter in its early years.

We’ve covered Eleanor’s divorce before, but to recap: it went down in 1152 and saw her leave Louis VII of France (as well as her two daughters) to return to Aquitaine. In both secret and haste she took Henry of Anjou, Duke of Normandy as her second husband. Henry was the eldest son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and Matilda of England (often referred to as the “Empress Matilda” thanks to her first marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor). Matilda was a daughter of England’s Henry I, thus Henry II was his grandson. Technically, Matilda should have inherited the throne after her father’s death, but her cousin, Stephen of Blois, instead had himself crowned king, prompting 19 years of anarchy.

By the time Henry and Eleanor married, Matilda had retired from public life and her “claim” was passed on to her son. Already he was Duke of Normandy, but he was all the more politically significant given the possibility he would end up on the English throne. For Louis, this was as politically disastrous as it was personal – not only were Normandy and Aquitaine aligned, but their rulers had married without his approval.

The question mark that surrounds Henry and Eleanor’s marriage (well, actually there are several, but let’s start with the first) is how exactly did this go down? Some maintain they were in love, some that Henry abducted her to claim her inheritance and others that they were mutually ambitious and plotted it out together. The last option is probably the closest to the truth based on what we know (which is, granted, not everything). Notably, however, Eleanor’s divorce saw her leave Paris for Aquitaine and resume day-to-day control of her land, a skill set with which she had natural acumen.

But an interesting truth about her second marriage is that while Eleanor showed a natural ability to govern, it was not a role that Henry looked for her to fill when it came to his own lands. At the outset, he generally left her alone when it came to Aquitaine, but he did not share power with her when it came to Normandy or England. What he would eventually do, however, is deputize her when he was absent, but even then her role was close to being nominal. Given her extensive travel through England, perhaps what he did rely on her for was intelligence gathering, and a trusted eye on his domain.

Given that Henry was the son of a woman who claimed England as her own birthright, it may be safe to claim that he didn’t think women were as inferior as many men did in the 12th century – indeed, he often sought Matilda’s advice. What is quite possible, though, is that having grown up watching her claim be thwarted time and again, he was well-aware there was little appetite in England for a woman in power and thus never attempted to push Eleanor forward into the spotlight. As such, for their first nearly two decades of marriage, Eleanor’s life was almost wholly traditional – ceremonial, supportive and filled with pregnancy and childbirth.

It is equally as difficult to guess the personal dynamic between Henry and Eleanor until their marriage deteriorated in the 1170s. If they didn’t marry for love, but rather ambition, then it may be safe to say they had a great deal in common, not least of which was self-interest, intelligence and confidence in their own ability. If the marriage was without lust, then at least it didn’t keep Henry from Eleanor’s bed, for in 13 years, Eleanor gave birth to eight children – even as Henry carried on numerous extramarital affairs. Regardless, there was at least some sense of contentment in the early years by all reports.

Well, contentment might be a bit of a reach given the high drama – after Louis learned that his ex-wife had married without permission, he invaded Normandy, forcing Henry to abandon his own plans to invade England and instead defend himself. Henry was victorious, but in addition to having pissed off the King of France, he also had to reckon with the fact that Louis had been joined by Henry’s own brother, Geoffrey. Geoffrey, a bit put out by the injustice of birth order, was eventually brought to heel.

By August, Henry returned to Eleanor and the two undertook a progress through Aquitaine, introducing him to Poitou, the Limousin, Gascony, Saintonge and the Talmont. Sadly for him, he would never be popular with Eleanor’s people – in fact, they distrusted him from the get-go and resented even the hint of meddling in their affairs. The couple remained together until December when Henry traveled to Normandy and Eleanor returned to Poitiers. Indeed, amicable separation would become the byword of their marriage.

Henry sailed for England to launch his final invasion in January 1153. Normandy was left in the care of his mother, while Eleanor was put in charge of Aquitaine (duh) and Anjou. She traveled to Angers (in Anjou) soon after his departure and it was here, in the spring, where she learned that she was pregnant. She gave birth to a son, William, on August 17, 1153 in Normandy, a particularly joyful occurrence for not only did Henry need an heir, but her first marriage to Louis had been plagued by their inability to produce a son.

Henry wouldn’t meet William until April 1154, when he returned to Normandy victorious having successfully made himself King Stephen’s heir. Finally, after nearly two decades of civil war, the dynastic dispute between the Normans and the Plantagenets had been resolved. Notably, Henry went first to his mother – not his wife – when returning home. When Eleanor joined them, the reunion marked the first time she and Matilda met, though sadly, their dynamic is lost to us (though God knows many have hypothesized).

Within two months of Henry’s return, Eleanor was pregnant again. Meanwhile, King Stephen died and Henry ascended the English throne. News came first to Rouen where Matilda and Eleanor were both residing in October 1154. Henry didn’t learn of it until early November – in the middle of putting down a revolt, he continued with the task at hand, put his affairs in order in Normandy via his mother and then began preparing to claim his crown. The couple, William, Eleanor’s sister, and Henry’s brother, Geoffrey, all set sail from Barfleur and landed on the English coast on December 8.

The party rode straight to Winchester to take possession of the treasury and receive the homage of the barons. From there, it was on to London, though the new king and queen were housed in Bermondsey Abbey until their coronation on December 19. What Eleanor made of their mad dash in the span of only a few weeks is anyone’s guess, but it’s safe to say she was probably exhausted – by now she was seven months pregnant.

Christmas 1154 was spent at Westminster, and it was somewhere in England on February 28, 1155 that Eleanor gave birth to a second son, named Henry for his father. Henry’s rule in England was efficient, effective and relatively respectful. Unlike his long-deceased uncle, William Adelin, who made clear that when he became king he would bring the English to heel, Henry’s focus on good governance positioned him for success. Both he and Eleanor traveled throughout the country extensively over the years, despite also spending considerable time abroad. Henry’s control of his government was paramount – he levied new taxes, tightened the reins and insisted on an authority that King Stephen never possessed. Part of his success in doing so, of course, was that after nearly two decades of violence, everyone wanted peace. And peace was what they got – by 1155, England would remain out of conflict for nearly two decades.

As for Eleanor, she was an international legend whose sheer fame brought England not an inconsiderable amount of clout. Its former queens – three out of four of whom had been called Matilda since the Conquest – were known for their piety, public docility and ability (or lack thereof) to produce children. Eleanor’s reputation, however, was for being a beauty and, if you were in certain circles, for having once been a bit too generous with her favors.

Henry was called back to Normandy in January 1155 and Eleanor stepped in as his regent. To those who knew her, she was lauded for her wisdom and intelligence, and though she was not in a position to bring about sweeping policy changes, she was an able administrator. Her letters show that she was completely at ease in her own authority, highly conscious of her position and insistent that she be obeyed. As for what she signified, England enjoyed the free flow of trade with Aquitaine, including the influx of wine and silk.

Eleanor’s relationship with England in some ways mirrors that with her husband. At times it seems built on good faith, amiable and solid. At others, it’s hard not to get the sense she viewed it all as a glorified business arrangement. Used to the more luxurious standard of living that she enjoyed both in Paris and Aquitaine, England was hardly up to snuff in the 12th century, even in London. Henry’s court was masculine, hectic and without much ceremony. Even so, Eleanor did little to up the sophistication and instead the luxuries that she personally enjoyed were mostly used within the privacy of her own apartments.

The quasi-empire that Henry and Eleanor were building was one bolstered and made sustainable, by their growing family. A third child, Matilda, was born in June 1156. Her birth came two months after the death of her eldest brother, William, a blow which devastated Henry and Eleanor. Indeed, while the Queen’s relationship to her two daughters by Louis indicates that she was a distant or disinterested mother, her relationship to her children by Henry show a woman very emotionally invested in her offspring. She kept them with her when they were young and took particular interest in their futures, despite having favorites. One such favorite was the fourth child born – Richard – on September 8, 1157.

At the outset, it seems that the short-lived William was intended to succeed his mother in Aquitaine, while the younger Henry was to be given his father’s domain of Anjou. By all accounts, Henry intended to divide his domains among his sons, much in the way that William I once had, however where and to whom shifted as the years went on.

Late in July 1156, Eleanor left England to join Henry in Anjou with her two younger children. As such, she was away from William, who had been left behind as a figurehead, when he passed away. He was interred at the feet of the tomb of his great-grandfather, Henry I, in Westminster Abbey. In October, the young family made a progress through Aquitaine and in December, they celebrated Christmas in Bordeaux. It was during this time that Richard was conceived, for by February 1157, Eleanor and her children had returned to London, and Henry didn’t join them until April.

From birth, Richard was one of – if not the – favorite child of his mother. In place of the deceased William, he was intended to succeed his mother in Aquitaine, and as such she seems to have taken a special joy in preparing him for a future in her homeland. After she recovered from childbirth, Eleanor joined Henry on a progress for the next several months, taking them through northern England, Scotland and then back down through the country’s center.

In the background of these events, Eleanor’s ex-husband remarried. Louis chose for his second wife Constance of Castile, who he married in 1154. Unfortunately, they were not able to show the same success rate with heirs. Early in 1158, Constance gave birth to a daughter, Marguerite, prompting notable complaint from her husband. For Henry, however, it gave him a way to ease relations between him and Louis. He suggested that Marguerite – the only one of Louis’s daughters not to be a half-sibling – marry his eldest son. Thus, if Louis died without a male heir, then the younger Henry and Marguerite would rule France. Technically, this predicament violated the Salic Law, but considering the boldness of the proposition all around, that hardly seems to be the biggest stumbling block.

Henry sent Thomas Becket to Paris to work on securing Louis’s agreement and the man, with his ever-present charm and diplomatic flair, was successful. In August 1158, Henry departed Eleanor in Winchester and, leaving her regent, traveled to France to formally meet Louis. What Eleanor thought of her two husbands joining up is anyone’s guess, but it’s really moments like this when you wish every royal had followed Queen Victoria’s lead and kept a diary.

In the end, the marriage agreement centered on Marguerite bringing with her Vexin and the castle of Gisors, which would be held by Louis until 1164. Physical custody of his daughter, however, was easier to depart with (apparently) and she was handed over to Henry despite her infancy. One of Louis’s stipulations was that under no circumstances was Eleanor to raise his daughter, thus, after a formal ceremony in Paris in which Constance gave up her child, the young princess was placed in the care of Robert of Neubourg, chief justice of Normandy.

As for Eleanor, she gave birth to another son on September 23 who was named Geoffrey after Henry’s father. Still serving as regent at this time, she quickly rejoined her court after her confinement and traveled through England to hear cases and maintain law and order. In November, she finally joined her husband in Cherbourg, leaving Robert de Beaumont in charge of England. Early in 1159, the two took another tour of Aquitaine together and it was around this time that Henry decided to lay claim to Eleanor’s ancestral rights to Toulouse, an idea which almost certainly came from Eleanor herself.

The campaign was a disaster, undermining Henry’s relationship with Louis and putting his army at risk when a wave of dysentery swept through the region. The couple was only reunited the following Christmas in Falaise, however by then one of them desperately needed to return to England. Henry apparently chose Eleanor, for more important matters kept him in Normandy and Eleanor set sail on December 29 with her two eldest children, Henry and Matilda. She spent the next nine months serving as regent once more.

By the summer of 1160, the English were annoyed by Henry’s absence, calling out his neglect of both them and his own children. He ignored the situation, instead summoning Eleanor to Rouen that September, just in time for Queen Constance to give birth to her next child. The idea, according to Henry, was that if it was a boy then he would betroth him to Matilda. Instead, Constance gave birth to another daughter, Alys, and then passed away on October 4.

Desperate, Louis quickly arranged a third marriage to Adela of Champagne, thwarting Henry’s goals of someday uniting England with all of France through the marriages of his children since Adela came from a powerful family of her own. Henry took advantage of Louis’s grief and preoccupation by rushing the marriage of their children, forcing a ceremony between the five-year-old Lord Henry and the toddler Princess Marguerite. Making matters worse, Henry brought Marguerite into his own household to ensure her protection, thus facilitating Eleanor’s access to her, the thing Louis was most against. When Louis found out, he was livid, but despite cheap (military) shots thrown over the next month, the Christmas holiday brought a cessation to real fighting.

Through the spring of 1161 Henry traveled, preparing for war and reinforcing his defenses. Eleanor remained in Normandy, pregnant, and in September she gave birth to another daughter, this time named after herself. The gap between the births of Geoffrey and Eleanor was the longest in their parents’ marriage leading to conjecture that either there was discord between the king and queen or evidence of another child has fallen through the cracks. There are references to another son, Philip, born in the interim years who died young – this is a distinct possibility, however the sources are not wholly reliable. Instead, it may simply come down to the time the two spent apart and the fact that Eleanor was then in her late 30s, slowing her fertility.

Shortly after the birth, Lord Henry was removed from Eleanor’s care – at six years old he was deemed ready for the next phase of his education and he was placed in the household of Becket.

Henry and Eleanor intended to return to England that autumn with their daughters, but storms kept them in Normandy. It wasn’t until January 1163 that the two prepared to leave, marking the first time Henry had set foot in his country since the summer of 1158. He would remain in England for the next two years as a way to make up for it.

In the early months of 1165, Henry arranged the marriage of Matilda to the Duke of Saxony’s son, Frederick. In May, Eleanor traveled with Matilda and Richard to join Henry in Normandy before he left for a campaign in Wales, and she then took up residence in Anjou. It was here, in August, that news came that Louis’s third wife had done for him what she and Constance had not – delivered a son. Henry’s hopes for seeing Lord Henry on the French throne via his wife were dashed, while Eleanor was beset with a rebellion in Normandy. Two comets appeared over England at this time; they would later be regarded as an omen of misfortune thanks to Prince Philip’s birth.

Even so, Eleanor gave birth to another daughter, Joan, that October at Angers. Usually the royal couple held Christmas together – this year, they did not. Eleanor remained in Anjou through the holiday, while Henry stayed in England. It is entirely possible that this is yet another sign they were growing apart, but more on that in a moment.

The two were reunited at Easter at Angers and it was then that Eleanor conceived her last child.

That summer, Henry was in Brittany securing the duchy for his son, Geoffrey, by deposing Duke Conan and cementing the arrangement through the marriage of Geoffrey and Conan’s daughter, Constance. By then, more cracks appeared between Henry and his wife when he laid out his plans for Lord Henry to inherit England, Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine, while Geoffrey would have Brittany. The arrangement left nothing for Richard, Eleanor’s favorite son and the child she had planned to succeed her in Aquitaine. Seemingly at odds, Henry sent her and Matilda back to England that autumn.

On December 24, 1166, she gave birth to a son, John.

Eleanor spent the spring of 1167 preparing her nine-year-old daughter, Matilda, for her departure to Saxony. The German envoys arrived in the summer to escort the princess abroad. Eleanor traveled with Matilda at least to Dover – there is some belief that she may have sailed with her to Germany, but if she did, then she immediately returned, for she was certainly in Winchester shortly thereafter and by December, she was traveling from England to Normandy once more.

The reason for the journey, whether Eleanor knew it at the time or not, is that Henry had decided to temporarily install his wife in Poitiers. But before that could come about, she was forced to accompany Henry to Aquitaine to help quell a rebellion. During this time, she is believed to have left John at Fontevrault Abbey where he would live for the next five years. Indeed, he may well have joined his sisters, Eleanor and Joan there, however the girls were never intended for the church. John, as the fifth son of his parents, was.

Eleanor spent the majority of 1168 in Poitiers as intended while Henry put out fires throughout his domains. One of them was due to his having seduced Duke Conan’s other daughter, Alice, a situation Eleanor would have been well aware of. Indeed, throughout their marriage, Henry had never been faithful. It was around this time – in fact at least a year earlier – that he began an affair with an adolescent known as Rosamund Clifford. At least this second affair was one premised on emotion, however there is evidence that more than one of Henry’s extramarital relationships were more than just physical. Whatever the details, Eleanor never acknowledged them publicly, nor did they seem to impact the health of the marriage from a professional standpoint.

Still, 1168 was a crescendo year for Eleanor. At the age of 46 she decided she had no interest in resuming her position as Henry’s wife day-to-day. Instead, she intended to remain apart from him, living in Poitiers and overseeing her own court – what Henry had viewed as a temporary fix became permanent. There could have been any number of reasons for this, however we can only speculate. She may have reached menopause and because she had already given her husband seven living children, believed she had fulfilled her duty. Past childbirth and older, she also may have decided she wished to live out her remaining years among her own people, in her own lands and away from a country that had always felt foreign. What there isn’t is any evidence that the split, even if only nominal, was acrimonious. We can, however, be certain that it was Eleanor’s choice based on the confirmation of her contemporaries.

The decision did not mean that she abdicated her responsibilities – she was still an active mother to her Plantagenet offspring (her French daughters are another story) and she occasionally served as Henry’s deputy in Normandy and Anjou as needed. Relations between her and her husband would eventually sour – violently so – but we can safely assume that the turn of events that went down in the early 1170s was separate and apart from the marriage that was at least romantically over.

As for the next evolution, which saw the rebellion of their sons and Eleanor’s imprisonment, we’ll save that for a future post.

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