When Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Queen of France


Eleanor of Aquitaine is now known as a Medieval heroine thanks to the independent holding of her  inheritance and her actions during the last years of her husband’s and sons’ reigns. For me, I’m mostly impressed that she’s the only woman in  history to have been queen of both France and England – throw a 12th century divorce into the mix, a stint of imprisonment and a few goes at regency and it makes for such a notable life that it’s not surprising she’s still relatively well-known today. We’ve covered already Eleanor’s divorce from Louis VII of France and the first several years of her marriage to Henry II of England, but today we’re going to go back a bit further to her tenure as queen of France.

On April 9, 1137, Eleanor’s father, William X, Duke of Aquitaine died in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. His marriage to Aenor de Châtellerault had resulted in three children, the youngest of whom had been a namesake boy who passed away seven years prior. Left behind were  two daughters, Eleanor and Petronilla, to whom he offered up to the protection of his own liege lord, King Louis VI of France. Among his last wishes was a marriage between Eleanor and the King’s eldest son, which would allow France to rule Aquitaine. His final, desperate plea was that Aquitaine not be incorporated into the French crown, but rather inherited only by Eleanor’s heirs – in other words, it would make a hefty consolation prize for one of her younger sons someday.

In the meantime, Eleanor was 15 years old, Duchess of Aquitaine and Gascony and Countess of Poitou in her own right and the most eligible heiress in all of Christendom.

When King Louis learned of William’s death at his hunting lodge, he was beside himself. While some of his ministers expressed concern over how to manage so vast a territory, the King saw it only as an opportunity to enrich the crown. It was also an insurance mechanism, for if Eleanor married another of his vassals, together they would threaten kings.

King Louis’s son, also named Louis, was 16 or 17 years old in 1137, the second-born but eldest surviving offspring of the King’s marriage to Adelaide of Maurienne. He was destined for the church until 1131 when his elder brother died, and that autumn his father had him crowned king at Rheims to solidify the succession. (The practice of crowning the heir as a sort of “junior king” wasn’t unusual in the Middle Ages – indeed, Eleanor’s second husband would do so during his lifetime as well.) If the set up sounds a bit like Henry VIII nearly 400 years later, it was made up of wildly different characters, for Louis’s nature was suited for the Church and unlike Henry, who was raised by his mother, Louis had spent his childhood surrounded by monks. He was kind, pious and naive, but hardly made of the characteristics required to successfully run a 12th-century nation.

The younger Louis left Paris on June 18 at the head of an impressive entourage, his coffers full of gold and jewels to bestow on his bride. Unfortunately, France was in the midst of a heat wave, so the party traveled only at night, reaching Bordeaux on July 11. Eleanor deputized the Archbishop of Bordeaux to meet her bridegroom and then summoned her vassals to attend the wedding, but there was a solid two-week delay during which said vassals made it abundantly clear they were underwhelmed by Louis’s presence in the region. Indeed, a few failed to show up altogether, which was indicative of the region’s sensitivity towards any outsiders encroaching.

Finally, on July 25, 1137, the couple married in the Cathedral of Saint-Andre, the bride wearing a gown of scarlet. They took their seats on thrones raised on a dais to hear the acclaim of their subjects, before taking part in a procession through the streets with tapestries hanging from houses and pipe music filling the air. A banquet was held that evening at Ombriere Palace, though when it was done the couple immediately began their journey for Poitiers, spending their first night together at Taillebourg Castle. Once they reached the city on August 1, they then spent a week being feted, culminating in their investiture as Count and Countess in Poitiers Cathedral.

From there, it was time for Eleanor to join her new husband on his turf, and so she, flanked by her sister, Petronilla, and her entire household, traveled to Orleans and Paris. We don’t know what Eleanor and Louis made of one another in these early days, save that they were both thought to be attractive and similarly aged – it was a better hand of cards to be dealt than most in their position were. Even so, the French were slightly horrified by the lavishness of Eleanor’s household, and her departure from her homeland was met with displeasure by her people. For her personally, considering her father had only died four months before and she was not yet 16, it had to have been at least a bit overwhelming. If it wasn’t, then that moment likely came en-route when the couple learned that Louis VI died on August 1 – they were now the senior king and queen of France.

The couple’s welcome into Paris was over the top, but once the festivities died down, real life began and France and its old, gloomy castles weren’t to Eleanor’s liking. By the winter, Louis financed renovations to his wife’s apartments, including a fireplace, while Eleanor commissioned new tapestries to be hung on the walls. She ushered in musicians, playwrights and poetry. She saw to it, too, that table manners were observed at court functions, and tables laid with cloths and napkins. In short, she added a feminine touch and heightened the sophistication of what had become an overly masculine and boorish environment.

Unfortunately, once those modernizations were met, there wasn’t much else for Eleanor to do. She was to have no say in statecraft: Her days were spent in the garden, at prayer or in her chambers where she and her ladies-in-waiting played games, danced, read or sewed. Motherhood, ostensibly, could have alleviated her boredom, but save a miscarriage that Eleanor suffered in the first or second year of her marriage, children were not immediately forthcoming.

Instead, Eleanor began to resent the men to whom Louis did turn for help in governing, namely Abbott Suger, Odo de Deuil and Bernard of Clairvaux, who she said were ill-equipped, particularly, to oversee Aquitaine. Steps were taken to limit the Queen’s ability to touch policy, but there was little they could do about her outsized influence on Louis, who was completely infatuated with his wife and eager to please. Ironically, it was Suger, Deuil and Clairvaux who were breaking with tradition, for in France it had hitherto been normal for queens to be consulted by their husbands. Eleanor, however, was viewed as a risk, and her outspoken opposition to Suger and Deuil incentivized them to sideline her, setting a precedent for future queen consorts of France.

When it came to Eleanor’s lands the move was to Louis’s own detriment. By the end of 1137, the people of Poitiers rose up against French rule and declared themselves a commune. Louis immediately left with an army, which was normal, but what wasn’t was his decision to take the rebels’ children away from them as punishment, carting them up in a city square. The rest of France and its territories was horrified – Suger hurriedly wrote to Louis to release the children, which he did, and so the King returned to Paris with his tail between his legs. Eleanor was livid. Over the next years she would make frequent return trips to her dominions, the first coming in September 1138 – more often than not, she opted to have Petronilla accompany her or fly solo.

In 1141, at Eleanor’s behest, Louis laid claim to Toulouse in his wife’s name, but the campaign was a failure and another embarrassing foray for him. He retreated to Poitou where Eleanor and Petronilla were spending the summer, only to find that his 16-year-old sister-in-law was in the throes of an affair with the 35-year-old Count Raoul of Vermandois. Raoul, problematically, was already married to the sister Count Theobold of Champagne, who was none too pleased. Eleanor was in favor of Raoul annulling his marriage so that he could marry Petronilla, even going so far as to apply pressure on Louis to lend his support. By the end of the year, Raoul left his wife and Louis found three bishops who agreed to dissolve the unwanted marriage. Early in 1142, they oversaw Raoul and Petronilla’s wedding.

Unfortunately, Louis was on the outs with Pope Innocent following a blowout over the new Archbishop of Bourges. When Theobold, who had taken in his sister and her children, appealed the case to him, Innocent agreed to a council in June 1142 that quickly found in Theobold’s favor. Raoul was ordered to leave Petronilla and return to his first wife; when he refused, he and Petronilla were excommunicated and their lands placed uner an interdict. Louis responded by declaring the decision an attack on his own authority and promptly began planning to go to war.

If that wasn’t enough, in the middle of this, Count Geoffrey of Anjou decided to invade Normandy. Geoffrey, notably, was married to none other than Matilda of England, a claimant of the English throne through her father, Henry I, then currently held by her cousin, Stephen of Blois. In other words, the civil war known as the “Anarchy.” In 1144, Geoffrey would end up securing Normandy and Louis acknowledged him as its duke, but more on that in a moment.

Louis ordered an army into Champagne, which ransacked the region, murdering civilians, including women and children, burning crops and desecrating churches. In January 1143, Louis joined them and ordered the attack of one of Theobold’s castle. The soldiers complied, and, since the castle was made of wood, they used flaming arrows, which soon set the building ablaze. The royal soldiers then attacked the town, throwing torches directly into people’s thatched homes and causing them to run, screaming, into the nearby cathedral. The wind caused the fires to spread to the cathedral, catching hold of its roof, which caved in – by some estimates, 1,000-1,500 civilians were killed that day.

Louis saw all of this from the hill on which he had given the original orders. When his captains found him, he was mute and shaking. He stayed in the same trance-like state for two days, unable to eat or speak. When he emerged, he continued to suffer nightmares and insomnia, too guilty over what he had done. He offered to make peace with Theobold, who agreed, and Innocent was due to lift the ban on Raoul and Petronilla’s lands, however when Louis’s army retreated, Innocent excommunicated them again. Louis seemingly got over his guilt, for his army was once more sent in to wreak havoc.

In the end, Bernard of Clairvaux berated Louis in Corbeil in front of his court, prompting another nervous breakdown. Unable to receive sacraments thanks to the verdict from Rome, the King was at a low point and his ministers were terrified that he was at death’s door. On September 24, Innocent died and, sensing an opportunity for rapprochement, Clairvaux convinced his successor, Celestine III, to lift the interdict. Louis recovered his health, but at a cost – he cut his hair, spent hours each day in prayer, took to wearing the clothes of a monk and regularly fasting. Even if he still loved her, he was hardly the husband for Eleanor, if he ever was.

That same year, the degree of affinity between Louis and Eleanor was first raised, primarily in rebuttals against Louis’s supposed hypocrisy. Louis used consanguity as grounds to withold his approval for three matches between his vassals, prompting the question as to how he could then be married to a woman who was in fact his fourth cousin. It was but a blip on the royal radar at the time, but the issue would re-emerge a few years later.

In June 1144, Eleanor sought an audience with Clairvaux, hoping to take advantage of his close relationship with Celestine. She asked him to intercede with the Pope to lift the interdict on Petronilla and Raoul – in return, she promised to persuade Louis to make peace with Theobold and recognize Rome’s choice for Archbishop of Bourges. But it backfired – Clairvaux was offended, not impressed, by a young woman attempting to negotiate with him, even if she was a queen. He remonstrated her for her impropriety until she burst into tears, claiming that she only meddled because she had yet to conceive a child. Her reaction calmed Clairvaux, and her wishes were eventually granted, prompting the question as to whether it was true insight into Eleanor’s state of mind or simply a case study for her ability to manipulate?

Perhaps the moment reflected a reckoning within the royal marriage, for at some point in 1145, Eleanor gave birth to a child. It was not the son and heir that Louis needed, but it was a healthy daughter, christened Marie, who proved her parents had the ability to successfully procreate. Whatever joy or relief the birth brought Louis and Eleanor, they apparently weren’t too wrapped up in parenthood, for that same year Louis decided to go on a pilgrimage and Eleanor chose to accompany him. Her presence on the journey may have something to do with Louis’s recent banishment of a troubadour he felt had shown untoward attention to his wife, but if he hoped that keeping her close would keep her attention, he would proven massively incorrect.

The couple decided to leave in the spring of 1147, giving them enough time to put their affairs in order, including the day-to-day management of the government. Within this period, Geoffrey of Anjou, now Duke of Normandy, approached Louis about a match between his son, Henry Plantagenet, and Princess Marie. From Geoffrey’s point of view, if Louis failed to produce a son, then Henry ruling through his wife was a viable option despite the Salic Law, while Geoffrey’s power and the breadth of his holdings made him a not insignificant person to bring within the fold of the crown. Bernard of Clairvaux, however, was opposed to it on the grounds that the children were too closely related, thus Louis rejected the offer.

It is worth noting here one item of gossip to help tie all of this together, for Henry Plantagenet, 13 at the time of the marriage proposal, would eventually become Henry II of England and Eleanor’s second husband. Decades later, it was rumored that Eleanor had an affair with Geoffrey in the years before she left for the Crusade, and that while Henry knew that during their marriage, he used it as grounds to petition for an annulment once they fell out. The annulment came to nothing, but the basis on which Henry’s application was built are unknown. Meanwhile, Geoffrey was unhappily married to Matilda of England and a well-known philanderer. It’s not impossible that the two conducted an affair, though it would have been a dangerous game for Eleanor to play – even if conducted when she was visiting Poitou – and the first that we know of in her marriage to Louis.

It would not be the last rumored liaison. During the Crusade, Eleanor is said to have had an affair with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers. Biographers are split on the issue, though most believe it unlikely. Incest on top of adultery was no small matter, and given that Raymond had known Eleanor since childhood, it was likely familiarity and a shared history that sparked their closeness, not romance. Raymond did have a negative impact on Eleanor’s marriage, but in a different way – he wanted Louis to give up his trek to Jerusalem and instead stay in Antioch to help him conquer Aleppo and Caesarea. When Louis refused, Eleanor threatened to stay behind with her own vassals, and when Louis responded that he could force her to follow him as was his right, she finally showed her hand: She believed that their marriage was invalid since they were distantly related, and it was likely this which prevented them from producing a son. An argument after Henry VIII’s own heart.

However angry at her he was, Louis reportedly still loved Eleanor; even so, he agreed to a divorce if the government and nobility would allow it. In the meantime, they were of course still far from home. The Queen now in disgrace, Louis forced her to leave Antioch with him without a chance to say goodbye to Raymond. Raymond was killed in battle the following year, his severed head sent to the Caliph of Baghdad as a gift. By Christmas 1148, relations between the royal couple were so bad that Louis wrote to Suger in Paris that he meant to finalize a divorce as soon as he was home. Doing so, Suger warned him, would mean depriving Marie of her inheritance in Aquitaine should Eleanor remarry and have a son – it also made Eleanor a tantalizing prospect on the marriage market, just as she had been a decade before.

By the autumn of 1149, they were on their way home. During a stop in Rome, they made a point of visiting the new Pope Eugenius, who spoke with them separately and together about their marital woes. Attempting to put off a divorce, he gave them a speech on duty and then bade them to share a bedchamber. It proved a short-term fix: Eleanor became pregnant with their second child. The couple were back in Paris by November and in the summer of 1150, Eleanor gave birth to another daughter, Alix.

In January of 1150, Geoffrey reared his head again, but in a different fashion – he ceded the duchy of Normandy to his son, Henry. This posed a considerable threat to Louis, for through Henry’s inheritance of Normandy and Anjou from his father, and the eventuality of him successfully wresting England from Stephen of Blois the 17-year-old was on his way to ruling an empire. When Henry failed to pay Louis homage as his vassal, Louis aligned himself with King Stephen’s son, Eustace, and together they led an army towards Normandy. Violence was only put off by Suger, but then Suger passed away in January 1151, removing not only a trusted voice for Louis, but one of the last obstacles to Louis’s divorce from Eleanor.

By the summer of 1151, Louis was reconciled to the dissolution of his marriage, but first, he once again led an army to Normandy to face off with Geoffrey and Henry. This time, his own health proved the obstacle and he retreated to Paris. Surprisingly, it was Geoffrey who found the solution – he urged Henry to offer Louis a disputed strip of land in recognition as duke of Normandy, and the two made peace. Henry traveled to Paris to pay homage and it was there that he first met Eleanor.

By March 1152, Eleanor’s marriage to Louis ended. By May, she and Henry were married.

One thought on “When Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Queen of France

  1. Agnieszka Smieja

    Another very interesting article on these incredible women of Middle Ages. One would think they had nothing to say about their lives but they were so strong and independent.

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