Category Archives: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine & Louis VII

On 21 March 1152, the marriage of Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine was finally dissolved. The couple had married in 1137, shortly after the death of Eleanor’s father. He had entrusted the care of his daughters to the king of France who had decided that the best way to take care of the girls’ huge fortune and important land was to marry the elder to his son. Less than a week after the wedding the old king died, making Louis and Eleanor king and queen.

From the start the couple were ill-matches, although Louis seems to have loved his wife. Eleanor found him bookish, overly pious and unmanly. Until his elder brother’s premature death, Louis had been meant for a career in the church and as such had been educated by monks. The court, and in particular Louis’s mother Adelaide of Savoy, found Eleanor flighty and lacking the decorum and sobriety of the Parisian court. Eleanor was used to the court of Poitiers where the troubadour tradition flourished and where art, music and culture were celebrated. The court of her husband must have seemed dull in comparison. Her husband too, with his monkish habits and unworldly ways must have been a stark contrast with the men she knew from home. While her father had been a religious man (dying on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela), he, like his own father William IX, had been a great lover of arts, music and poetry. He was also a successful warrior. William IX had been rather scandalous in his personal life and his unorthodox approach to romantic relationships* would have been known to his precocious granddaughter.

Couple on horseback, hawking

However, Eleanor made the best of the situation and even managed to conceive a child by her pious husband. Their daughter Marie was born in 1145. The following year both parents joined the Second Crusade in the Holy Land. It was an opportunity for Louis to show his wife that he could be a man as well as a monk but he only demonstrated that his wife was correct. While rumours flew back to Europe that she and her ladies had led the Aquitanian armies bare-breasted like Amazons, Louis found that he had no skill for war. He proved to be ineffectual, indecisive and weak.

When the armies reached Antioch, Eleanor met the prince, her uncle, Raymond. He was charming, good-looking and a skilled warrior. The two spent much time in private conversation, speaking in the Occitan dialect of their home and thus excluding Louis and all the northern courtiers. It led to rumours that they were having an affair.
With little havig been achieved, Louis eventually abandoned the crusade. The couple returned separately, meeting up in Italy. They paid a visit to the Pope and requested that he annul their marriage but instead the Pope refused and tried to effect reconciliation. It was a success for a short time as nine months later, in 1151, Eleanor gave birth to their second child. That it was a girl was another blow. Louis needed an heir, and that meant a son.

Louis secured the support of the French bishops and petitioned the Pope once again for an annulment. The bishops were only too glad to support a move that would rid them of the wilful and impious queen, replace her with someone more suitable (and no doubt more biddable) to provide a secure succession to the throne. The Pope acquiesced. He gave the king custody of their daughters and Eleanor returned to Poitiers, but not to a life of quiet retirement.

Stamp of Eleanor

*Definitely a subject for a future post. Any tale involving a woman named Dangereuse has a place on an infamous women blog.

Role Models

I often say that one of the reasons I feel so passionately about this project is that modern girls and young women lack good heroines. Cheryl Cole seems like a perfectly pleasant woman but is she really the best we can aspire to? A reality t.v. show pop start, married (though apparently not for much longer) to an unfaithful footballer. Is getting on the cover of a gossip magazine really the pinnacle of human achievement?

When I was about ten years old, I went through a phase of being rather obsessed with Joan of Arc. (Looking back, I accept I was probably something of an odd child.) I admired her bravery, her faith and her determination. I accepted, not without relief, that life was almost certainly not going to offer me the opportunity to lead an army against invading foreigners. I didn’t believe in her god but even at that age found other people’s faith fascinating (I went on to study religion, along with history, at university). I may not have exactly wanted to be like Joan of Arc, but I aspired to many of the qualities I saw in her.

Miniature of Joan of Arc, c. 1450-1500

Joan of Arc, c.1450-1500

Now I’m older and have a more nuanced view of what makes a person admirable, I see many of the infamous women I’m investigating as being brimful of the qualities I aspire to. No, these women weren’t always “good.” More often than not they refused to toe the line; frequently failed to do their wifely duties and often disregarded contemporary standards of acceptable behaviour, it’s true. Their faults, even including criminality, serve to make them more interesting people (Cheryl Cole’s conviction for common assault notwithstanding.)

Cleopatra refused to be a victim, even in defeat. Eleanor of Aquitaine sought out her own path through life, refusing to bow to other people’s demands. Anne Boleyn was offered a good opportunity, saw a way to make it great and took it, on her own terms. Catherine de’ Medicis was ruthless in the defence of her family. Anne Bonny and Mary Read both found escape from unsatisfying lives for the excitement and adventure of a life on the high seas.

I can’t help but think that those qualities are worth more than fame, wealth and great hair.