Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Lady Eleanor

Eleanor marrying the future Louis VII
Anyway you look at it Eleanor of Aquitaine was a pretty impressive lady! At a time when women were seen as chattels of men she trod her own path with determination.

Heiress to, and then ruler in her own right of Aquitaine & Poitou, she married twice -- firstly to the French King Louis VII and then to Henry II of England. She participated in the 2nd Crusade [1145 - 49]. Two of her sons became kings of England: Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland. She also acted as regent for Richard while he was on the 3rd Crusade [1187 -92]. Her husband, Henry II placed her under house arrest for about 15 years for participating in her sons' [failed] rebellion against him.

Chroniclers of the time, even those who disapproved highly of her behaviour, decribe her as a very beautiful woman: tall, fair and blue eyed. Even in old age she continues to be described as such. She certainly was far too assertive for the men of the church:- Bernard of Clairvaux scolded her for her interference in matters of state. Born in either 1122 or 1124 she outlived all but her youngest son John and a daughter, dying in 1204 at 82, a very great age for the time.

By modern standars she had an eventful life; by those of the medieval period it was extraordinary. By rights, at the time, all that a women possessed became the property of her husband upon marriage. Effectively this meant that in Eleanor's case her domains of Aquitaine and Poitou were her husband's to rule.  In practice, during her mariage to Henry II she ruled/administered her domains most of the time; although he did stick his oar in from time to time--mostly with infelicitous results. Aquitaine looked to Eleanor not Henry. These domains were vast and extremely attractive possessions. It is hardly surprizing therefore, that at 15 having recently inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine and become Countess of Poitou she was married to the future King Louis VII of France.

1154: grey= English, pink= Royal French
A quick glance at a map will show that the actual domains pertaining directly to the King of France were but a very small percentage of modern day France. Most of the land was held by others who acknowledged the King of France as their feudal overlord; but effectively these 'princes' ruled their own domains.

Eleanor had two daughters by Louis VII but the marriage wasn't a success. During the 2nd Crusade she very publicly disagreed with Louis regarding military strategy and sided with her uncle Raymond of Antioch who wanted to attack Aleppo. Louis imprisoned her for this opposition and headed off towards Jerusalem. She disagreed with Louis a second time about his intention to sack Damascus and was again imprisoned. The assault on Damascus was a failure and by the time the royal couple left Outremer to sail back to Rome and then travel on to Paris, Eleanor and her husband were on separate boats.

Eleanor and Henry side by side, Fontevraud
After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing to obtain the necessary papal dispensation, the marriage was annulled in 1152. Louis was given custody of their two daughters and Eleanor's lands were returned to her. She headed immediately to Poitiers foiling 2 attempts, one by the Count of Blois and the other by the Count of Nantes, to kidnap her so as to marry her and claim her lands.

Once in Poitiers she wrote to Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy asking him to come and marry her. It certainly wasn't customary for a woman to summon a prospective husband! They were married 8 weeks after her annulment; he was about 9 years her junior.

In 1154 Henry of Anjou became Henry II, King of England and Eleanor a queen for the second time. The marriage was probably stormy; Eleanor was strong willed and Henry II had the notorious Agevin temper which could, in extreme fits, leave him rolling on the floor foaming at the mouth in rage. However she bore him 8 children; the last John, in 1166.

Abbey church at Fontevraud
By this time there were cracks in the relationship caused by Henry's infidelities and then Eleanor's support for her son Henry, the 'Young King' who, aggrieved by his lack of any power, rebelled against his father in March 1173. At the time Eleanor was in Poitiers ruling her domains but left them sometime that spring. She was arrested and taken to King Henry in Rouen. From then until Henry II's death at Chinon in 1189 she was kept in close house arrest in England. She was brought to court each Christmas as a gesture of seasonal goodwill by the King.

The 'Young King' had died of dysentry in 1183 during a second rebellion against his father. This left the second son, Richard to ascend the English throne on Henry II's death. He immediately gave orders for his mother's confinement to be lifted and Eleanor then went on to play a significant role during his reign, 1189 -1199.

tiny Isabelle next to brother-in-law Richard
When she died in 1204, Eleanor was buried at L'Abbeye de Fontevraud beside her husband, Henry II; her son, King Richard I, 'the Lionheart'; and her daughter-in-law Isabella d'Angouleme, wife of her son King John. Their effigies can still be seen, although there are no graves. These were probably despoiled during the French Revolution.

An eventful life by anyone's standards! Alison Wier's, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a Life (1999) is an excellent read if you wish to find out more.

Not far from Chinon Fontevraud, now restored and a cultural centre, is a wonderful place to visit. 

24 comments:

GaynorB said...

Thanks for a very enjoyable History lesson.

82 is a pretty good age to live at any time! I'm hoping to get there, although sadly neither of my parents did ...

Food, Fun and Life in the Charente said...

Great post, I love French history and there is so much of it. It is quite sad that there is no French Royal family nowadays. Diane

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Niall and Antoinette:
This has been a most enjoyable read. What a woman indeed. Even by C21 standards she clearly was a woman to be reckoned with on all accounts.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Gaynor - me too; my father made it to 86 and Niall's mum will be 83 next month; so here's hoping.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Diane - find Eleanor fascinating. We visited Fontevraud just before Christmas with my cousin's daughter so thought it would be nice to give Eleanor some "blog time".

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Jane & Lance - Thanks! :-) She's be on our 'imaginary dinner party' list for certain!

Jean said...

Thanks so much for this interesting and enlightening post. We have visited Fontevraud several times and it is one of our favourite places to wander around in the Loire. I have often gazed at Eleanor and Henry as they lay there in their splendour and wondered how they fitted in and now I know. History is probably my weakest subject but it still fascinates me.

The Broad said...

I love love love this post! I have long been interested in this amazing woman ever since I heard an old tongue-in-cheek folk song about 'Queen Eleanor' and her supposed goings on!! Katharine Hepburn's character in The Lion in Winter furthered that interest -- but I never pursued it -- so with your recommended reading I think I've found a good addition to my list of summer reading...

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Jean - you're welcome :-) It is one of our favorite places as well.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Broad - Alison Weir writes excellent academic books. Scholarly in content they are nevertheless easy to read. She's also written fairly extensively on the Tudor period.

Recently she's also begun writing historical fiction -- I prefer her academic writing.
Antoinette

Perpetua said...

What an absolutely fascinating post about a remarkable woman - not least that she survived having 8 children after the age of 30! My main acquaintance with her has been in the pages of fiction, but I will definitely see if the library has Alison Weir's biography. Many thanks and more history soon, please. :-)

the fly in the web said...

Sorry to be so late...Blogger seems to have problems crossing the Atlantic...

Thanks for the introduction to Alison Weir...I'll take a look at her academic work, then.

When I first visited Fontevraud there was a sword on the grave of Richard...by later visits it had gone.

One thing I remember was the moody teenager dragged on a visit by family suddenly coming to life on finding hemp in the medieval garden alongside the abbey!

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Perpetua - a testament to her stamina and luck I think!

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Fly - LOL! we first visited Fontevraud in the early 1990's and the medieval herb/kitchen garden was in a very sorry state then. It's much better now.

ladybird said...

I was deeply impressed when I visited Fontevraud a couple of years ago. I think the whole place is absolutely brilliant and the renovation of the church is awesome. Everything looks so bright and white - almost celestial!

the cuby poet said...

This post is so interesting and also Eleanor is too what a great post, thank you for this.What a strong lady and in those days probably so much harder than today.The cultural centre sounds a great place to visit.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Martine - love the austere white of the renovated church but would have also loved to have seen it in its hey-day: with frescos and colour.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@cuby - it is, in our opinion, a 'must see' if in the Loire Valley.

SP said...

What an amazing life, she certainly lived a full one.

SP

Niall & Antoinette said...

@SP - Eleanor certainly didn't opt for a 'quiet life'.

Susan said...

This is the sort of properly knowledgeable potted history post that got you the award. I always learn a lot. Eleanor was unquestionably a remarkable person. On a personal level, probably thoroughly unlikeable and quarrelsome, like the rest of her family. The Lion in Winter gives a very good feel for the period I think. We read the Alison Weir biog a few years ago and thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in Eleanor and her times. Fontevraud is always worth a visit, although you do have to warn those who warm to the romantic ruin style of built heritage that the restored Abbey may be an acquired taste. We remind people that until the 1960s it was being used as a gaol. Then they get some understanding of how damaged it was.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Susan - Merci. :-) Suspect, as you do, that Eleanor would have been hard work if you crossed her. However, rather her than Henry and his rages.

Re: Fontevraud -- as you say...see our post which went up today :-)

Read Alison Weir's book when it came out [slight fight who was going to read it 1st] Her other academic books are a good read too.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I have been really enjoying your blog as I am currently writing about Eleanor of Aquitaine.
I have to say though that Alison's Weir's biography does contain a lot of historical errors and personal opinions stated as fact, so buyer beware! I like Jean Flori's biography of Eleanor -Eleanor of Aquitaine Queen and Rebel, and also a series of essays edited by Bonnie Wheeler and John C. Parsons - Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady. Ralph Turner has written a good biography too, although he still manages to have Geoffrey le Bel going on the 2nd crusade when he didn't, and then dying by drowning!
I was interested by your statement that Eleanor was tall and fair (which is how I am portraying her in the novel). As far as I know there aren't any physical descriptions of her existing? W.L. Warren states that she was a 'black-haired,black-eyed beauty', but I suspect that's made up, as is professor Owen's comment that she had a slender figure that didn't run to fat in old age!
Anyway, I'm enjoying the blog and thank you.

Niall & Antoinette said...

@Elizabeth - welcome! Glad you enjoy our blog :-)
Will have a look at Jean Flori's biography -- always good to read various works about the same person.

The comment that Eleanor was tall and fair is just our thought/opinion. There is no rock solid historical evidence 'per se'. It is based on the length of her effigy. If one contrasts it with Isabella's which is small [and more akin to others we've seen of medieval women] Eleanor's is quite tall. There would be no reason to portray her as tall, if she wasn't that we can think of. Secondly there is the mural in Ste Radegonde's chapel in Chinon which shows a woman with auburn/light hair who is thought to be Eleanor. Also all her offspring were[as far as we are aware from our knowledge of the times]fair haired and light eyed [light eyes being most likely though not exclusive result if both parents are blue eyed]. So nothing conclusive just logical assumption.

Greatly enjoy your books BTW and will look forward to the Eleanor one :-) Antoinette