Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), renowned for her cultivated intelligence and great beauty, was queen to two kings and mother of two others. She was one of the most powerful and fascinating personalities of feudal Europe.
Eleanor was a granddaughter of Guillaume (William) IX of Aquitaine (1070-1127), who was one of the first and most famous troubadours. He was a cheerful man and an ardent lover of women, who joined the First Crusade. When he returned from this disastrous crusade early in the century in a very cynical mood, he found his countess, Philippa of Toulouse, taken up with one of those religious movements perennially arising on the soil of Aquitaine. He abandoned his lady and took up with the Countess of Chatellerault to enliven his middle years. The new countess was the mother of a daughter, Anor (Eleanor) by her previous marriage and this young woman the troubadour married to his own heir Guillaume X, born of Philippa. Anor and Guillaume X were the parents of Eleanor, a sister, Petronilla and a brother, Agret who did not survive childhood.
The court of Guillaume X was the centre of western European culture. Unlike most of her contemporaries, male and especially female, Eleanor was carefully educated and she was an excellent student. Eleanor's happy childhood ended with the subsequent deaths of her mother, her little brother and, in 1137, her father. Heiress of the duchy of Aquitaine, the orphaned Eleanor was married to Louis VII King of France in 1137 at age 15, bringing into the union her vast possessions from the River Loire to the Pyrenees.
Louis had been brought up for an office in the church, but he had become heir to the French throne after the death of his elder brother. He was a weak, dull, grave and pious man and he and the lively Eleanor were ill matched. Louis never understood his young wife, but he appears to have adored her with a passionate admiration. It wasn't until 1145 that a daughter, Marie, was born.
A few years after her marriage, at age 19, Eleanor knelt in the cathedral of Vezelay before the celebrated Abbe Bernard of Clairvaux offering him thousands of her vassals for the Second Crusade which included "many other ladies of quality": Sybille, Countess of Flanders, whose half brother was King of Jerusalem, Mamille of Roucy, Florine of Bourgogne, Torqueri of Bouillon, Faydide of Toulouse, and scores of others whom the chroniclers could not afford the parchment to enumerate.
No one appears to have asked publicly what these female warriors were to inflict upon the Saracens. The historians do not well explain why hordes of women took up the cross, however, most deplore the fact that the queen's example made other ladies intractable and to the Second Crusade went "a good many women who had no business to be included in the army."
A legend tells us that the queen and her ladies disappeared and presently reappeared on white horses in the guise of Amazons, in gilded buskins, plumed and with banners and that the queen and her cavalcade galloped over the hillside of Vezelay, rallying laggard knights. The tale is in character, and later allusions to Amazons en route, found in Greek histories, give some substance to it.
While the church may have been pleased to receive her thousand fighting vassals, they were less happy when they learned that Eleanor, attended by 300 of her ladies, also planned to go to help "tend the wounded." The presence of Eleanor, her ladies and wagons of female servants, was criticized by commentators throughout her adventure. Dressed in armor and carrying lances, the women never fought. In the papal bull for the next Crusade, it expressly forbade women of all sorts to join the expedition. All the Christian monarchs, including King Louis, agreed to this.
When they reached the city of Antioch, Eleanor found herself deep in a renewed friendship with Raymond, her uncle, who had been appointed prince of the city. Raymond, only a few years older than Eleanor, was far more interesting and handsome than Eleanor's husband, Louis. When Raymond decided that the best strategic objective of the Crusade would be to recapture Edessa, thus protecting the Western presence in the Holy Land, Eleanor sided with his view. But Louis VII, fixated on reaching Jerusalem, rejected the plan and a quarrel followed. Louis demanded that Eleanor follow him to Jerusalem. Eleanor, furious, announced to one and all that their marriage was not valid in the eyes of God, for they were distantly related to an extent prohibited by the Church.
Wounded by her claim, Louis began preparations for his departure and after dark Eleanor was forcibly conducted from Antioch. Soon the crusade became a complete failure and even Louis' brother Robert quickly rushed home. On their way back to France, Louis and Eleanor visited the pope to plead for a divorce. Instead, the pope tried to reconcile them and induced them to sleep in the same bed again.
On her way home, while resting in Sicily, Eleanor was brought the news that her uncle Raymond had been killed in battle, and that his head delivered to the Caliph of Baghdad.
Although her marriage to Louis continued for a time, the relationship was over. In 1152 the marriage was annulled and her vast estates reverted to Eleanor's control. Although consanguinity was the official reason for the annulment of their marriage in 1152, basic incompatibility was the real reason. Hardly had her marriage to Louis been dissolved when Eleanor married Henry of Anjou, soon to become (1154) King Henry II of England.
Eleanor's inheritance passed to the English crown, which, when combined with his English possessions, made Henry much more powerful than Louis, and he was a frequently hostile neighbor. The marriage of Eleanor and Henry was as stormy as her first.
Although Eleanor's first marriage had resulted in only two daughters born in fifteen year, Eleanor bore Henry five sons and three daughters. As the children grew up and Henry openly took mistresses, the couple grew apart. Eleanor was 44 years old, when she gave birth to their youngest son, John Lackland. By then she had discovered the existence of "Fair" Rosamund Clifford, the most famous of Henry's mistresses. Later Henry even managed to seduce the fiancee of his son Richard, who was a daughter of Louis VII and his second wife.
In 1169 Henry sent Eleanor to Aquitaine to restore order as its duchess. Her proceedings from the time she resume her residence in Poitou indicate a resolution to cut herself away from feudal kings and to establish a Poutevin domain. She was no mere game piece as were most feudal women, to be moved like a queen in chess. In this, her third important role in history, she was the pawn of neither king, and arrived as her own mistress, equipped with plans to establish her own assize. She was resolved to escape from secondary roles, to assert her independent sovereignty, to dispense her own justice, and her own patronage. Though continuing now and then to cooperate with Henry outside her provinces in the interests of her other sons, she took measures to establish her own heir, son Richard, in Poutou and Aquitaine and to restore throughout her provinces the ancient glories of the native dukes and counts.
Once more the ducal palace at Poitou became the center of all that was civilized and refined. Troubadours, musicians and scholars were welcomed at Poitiers. There, in 1170 Eleanor reconciled with her first born daughter Marie of France, countess of Champagne. Marie had a "code of love" written down in thirty-one articles. They described feminist ideas far beyond the 12th century cult of chivalry. In addition, Eleanor sponsored the "courts of love" in which men having problems with the code of love could bring their questions before a tribunal of ladies for judgement.
When in 1173 their sons revolted against their father, Eleanor backed them and was subsequently imprisoned by Henry until his death in 1189. By then three of their sons had already died and Henry's successor was Eleanor's favourite son, Richard I Lionheart (1157-1199), who appreciated his mother's advice. When he went on crusade, Eleanor became regent. Although Richard was reputedly a homosexual, he was supposed to provide England with heirs, so Eleanor escorted his bride-to-be to Sicily. When Richard was killed in 1199, he was succeeded by his youngest brother, John Lackland (1166-1216). Eleanor returned to Aquitaine and retired in the abbey of Fontevraud. She remained busy and active and personally arranged the marriage of her Castilian granddaughter to the grandson of Louis VII. Thus she lived to be about 82, an extraordinary age in the middle ages.
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