Sunday, January 17, 2016

England and the Aquitaine Part I: Eleanor

“England has gone downhill ever since she lost the Aquitaine,” a very dear English friend used to lament. (For those of you who are a bit rusty with dates, that was 1454.) He was referring mostly to the climate and the wine, of course, and many of you—thinking of the Glories of the Empire—may vehemently disagree with him. However, the Aquitaine was immensely important to England in the three hundred years preceding its final loss and it is strongly associated with three of England’s most charismatic historical figures: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart and Edward, the Black Prince. I’d like to look more closely at the importance of the Aquitaine for each of these English icons in three entries, starting today with Eleanor.

Eleanor in a Medieval Manuscript Illustraton

The importance of the Aquitaine to Eleanor (as her name suggests) can hardly be underestimated or overstated. Eleanor was Aquitaine. She was the unquestioned heiress to the wealthy Duchy, and as such she brought the Aquitaine with her into the two marriages she contracted. This is an important point: the Aquitaine was not her dowry. Ownership of the Aquitaine did not transfer to her husband at her marriage; it remained her property or “honor” and could only be transmitted in her lifetime with her consent—or by force of arms.

To be sure, the Aquitaine was also a large territory filled with unruly barons and lords wealthy enough to build castles and maintain mercenaries.  Even exceptionally powerful men (e.g. Henry II, Richard the Lionheart) found it difficult to control the Aquitaine. Frequent uprisings by the independently-minded lords meant that the rulers of the Aquitaine were almost perpetually engaged in subduing one rebellious vassal or another, usually by force of arms.

One of the many powerful castles of Aquitaine

Under the circumstances it was unreasonable to expect a woman, much less a young maiden as Eleanor was at the time of her father’s death, to maintain control. The only way to keep the Duchy together (and paying taxes to the Duke/Duchess) was to entrust it (and its human incorporation Eleanor) to someone strong enough to rule with an iron fist. Her father on his deathbed in 1137 decided to entrust Eleanor and his duchy to the King of France. He sent a secret embassy to the French King suggesting a marriage between Eleanor and his eldest son and heir, Louis, and the French King instantly dispatched his prince with a very powerful escort to secure control of this valuable prize. Just three months after her father’s death, Eleanor and Louis were married in Bordeaux. Before they reached Paris, Louis’ father was dead and he was king. At the age of 15 Eleanor was Queen of France.

That did not impress her vassals. Indeed, it may have fostered a greater desire for independence. In any case, true to their nature, some of the lords of Eleanor’s vast domains rebelled soon afterwards. Louis went to put them down. Note, he did not do this as King of France, but in his wife’s name. He was her deputy, exercising her authority. He was harsh but effective.

The Medieval Bridge at Cahors - Not directly in Eleanor's domains, but she claimed the County of Toulouse. Her second husband, Henry of England, captured Cahors and Quercy for her, although he failed to subdue the entire County

Unfortunately, he next quarreled with one of his most powerful vassals, the Counts of Champagne, allegedly to secure an advantageous marriage for Eleanor’s younger sister. While successful, this episode ended badly with people being burnt alive in a church, an atrocity which haunted Louis the rest of his life. It caused him to become even more pious than before, and may have largely motivated his desire to “take the cross” and go to the Holy Land in what would become known as the Second Crusade. It almost certainly also contributed to increasingly strained relations between Louis and his bride. On the one hand, Louis may have blamed Eleanor for the incident (because he was representing her interests), on the other hand his penitence for the act included wearing hair shirts and increased religious fervor that can be summed up by a remark attributed to Eleanor to the effect that she thought she was marrying a king but found herself married to a monk instead.

It is noteworthy in this context that when Louis dramatically “took the cross” as Vézeley he was followed by Eleanor. Although Eleanor did later accompany him on the crusade, her gesture was not that of a wife declaring her desire to share her husband’s pilgrimage (although that was very common at the time). Eleanor took the cross not as Queen of France, but as Duchess of Aquitaine, and in so doing she was putting pressure on her vassals to follow their liege lord (herself) and join the crusade. Her gesture was very carefully staged for maximum effect, and initially at least had the desired effect of inducing many lords and knights from the Aquitaine to join the crusade.

Medieval Merchant Homes in Cordes - Eleanor's Wealth was based on trade as well as land.

Unfortunately, the very strength of the Aquitanian contingent led to further strains in Eleanor’s marriage.  In an unfortunate incident while crossing the mountains of Paphlagonia, the Poitevan/Aquitainian lords moved too far forward causing a gap to develop between the vanguard and the main body of troops. The Turks exploited the situation, routed the King’s knights and as darkness fell King Louis himself was left perched in a tree, his army apparently annihilated around him. Eventually, the survivors regrouped and the crusade continued, but there had been many unnecessary casualties and Eleanor (because she commanded those Aquitainian lords) was blamed.

By the time Eleanor and Louis reached Antioch, where Eleanor’s uncle was the ruling prince, Eleanor wanted to escape her marriage. Whether she had an affair with her uncle or not (and it seems highly unlikely to me), Louis felt compelled to use force to remove her from Antioch.  Even after their return to France and a public reconciliation brokered by the pope, the marriage was not salvageable. After the birth of a second daughter to Eleanor in 1150, court opinion also swung against her. Churchmen now, after 15 years of marriage, conveniently remembered she was too closely related to Louis for a valid marriage. The marriage was annulled.

Romanesque Sculpture at the Abbey of  Moissac already in place in Eleanor's time

What this meant was that Eleanor was no longer Queen of France, but she was still Duchess of Aquitaine. As such, she was the most valuable single woman on the continent of Europe. The very trip from Paris back to Poitiers (one of her favorite residences) was fraught with dangers, and any man who could seize her and then force her to marry him stood to win the richest province of France. Both the heir to the Count of Blois, Theobald, and the younger son of the Count of Anjou, Geoffrey, laid ambushes for Eleanor, but she evaded both. Obviously, however, she needed to remarry as rapidly as possible or live in constant fear of such assaults. She might be 30 rather than 15, but she still needed—as her father had foreseen—a powerful husband who could both fight off other suitors and keep her unruly barons under control.

It is appealing to imagine that Eleanor could now marry whom she pleased, but that was not the case. She still incorporated the Aquitaine and her marriage as a mature woman of 30, no less than as a maiden of 15, had to be a dynastic one designed to ensure the preservation of her inheritance and the continuation of her house. That was what noblemen (and women) were concerned about in the 12th century. Emotions did not play a dominant role. That said, there is some evidence that Eleanor had met —and been attracted to— her next husband. Then again, having been a queen, she may have been as attracted to his prospects of becoming King of England (and so making her a queen again) as to the man himself. In any case, her choice—and it was her choice, even if it was not based on her affections—fell on Henry of Anjou, soon to be King Henry II of England, the first of the Plantagenet kings.

Henry’s reasons for marrying Eleanor were unquestionably political. He gained the vast wealth of Aquitaine (and Eleanor’s other possessions of Poitou, Angouleme, Limousin, Perigord, etc.), and with this one stroke (that cost not a single life) he placed his overlord, the King of France, in check. It was decades before the Kings of France could make serious trouble for the Angevins again. Whether Henry found Eleanor, who was 11 years older, the mother of two girls, and had a sullied reputation, attractive is a moot point. Then again, there is considerable evidence that he found Eleanor very much to his liking.

In any case, the early years of Eleanor and Henry’s marriage appear to have been harmonious. They produced no less than eight children, and after so singularly failing to produce a male heir for Louis of France, Eleanor gave Henry five sons, four of whom lived to adulthood. The turbulent relationships that eventually developed between Henry, Eleanor and these sons are, however, beyond the focus of this essay.

For whatever her feelings, Eleanor remained Aquitaine, and it was this fact that shaped so much of what was to come. In 1159, after Henry had been King of England roughly five years and restored good governance there after decades of civil war, he—apparently bored—decided to assert Eleanor’s claims to Toulouse. After initial successes, his attempt was foiled by the arrival of King Louis of France in the city of Toulouse when Henry was about to lay siege to it. Louis was still his liege lord so attacking Toulouse under the circumstances would technically have been treason. Pressing Eleanor’s claim to Toulouse wasn’t worth it to him. He did, however, loyally put down rebellions against Eleanor in 1166-1168, including that led by the Lusignans (in which, famously, Eleanor was nearly taken captive and William Marshal won her gratitude.) It was during this period, however, that Eleanor returned to Poitiers and took up residence there.

Eleanor's Palace at Poitiers

Far from going there against Henry’s wishes, the move was apparently instigated by the king himself. England was at peace and well administered, but Eleanor’s territories were restless. She had already proved a highly able deputy for him elsewhere, so why not in the land of her birth? Thus, while Henry was occupied putting down a rebellion in Brittany, Eleanor was engaged in getting reacquainted with her own vassals. By 1168, however, the move to Poitiers had become a formal “separation.” Eleanor had decided to stay in Poitiers—whether Henry liked it or not.

Various reasons have been given for this decision: Henry’s affair with Rosamund Clifford, the fact that Eleanor had probably reached menopause (she was now 46), while Henry was still a virile 35, or simply that she and Henry, two strong personalities, quarreled too much. Other possible reasons include the fact that Richard had just been designated her heir, his elder brother having been given England, Normandy and Anjou, and it made sense to introduce Richard to his inheritance and future vassals; who could do that better than Eleanor herself? Or Eleanor might simply have discovered that she preferred the climate, cuisine and culture of her native Aquitaine over the fast-paced and notoriously Spartan lifestyle of her over-active husband. All these factors may have played a role. Furthermore, the “break” between Eleanor and Henry at this stage should not be exaggerated. Eleanor was entrusted with control over her domains, and her children visited her here. Eleanor was still occasionally called upon to act as Henry’s deputy elsewhere, for example in Normandy in 1170. Henry and Eleanor also went on pilgrimage together after Henry suffered a serious illness which caused him to think he was on his deathbed.  

Poitiers Cathedral

Yet in 1173, when Henry the Young King rose in rebellion against his father with the support of King Louis (who had waited a long time for his revenge!), Eleanor threw in her lot with her son rather than her husband. She allegedly encouraged both Richard and Geoffrey, who were residing with her at the time, to join the Young King. She also encouraged her vassals to rebel against Henry’s rule, and when Henry sent her a warning to desist or face excommunication (for treason), she tried to flee to the French court. She never made it. She was apprehended by men loyal to her husband and turned over to him. She spent the next ten years as his prisoner.

After the death of Henry the Young King in 1183, however, Henry did allow her to travel and even preform ceremonial functions (under close surveillance).  With the young king dead, Henry wanted to redistribute his territories. Since Richard was now the heir apparent to the paternal inheritance of England, Normandy and Anjou, he wanted to give his favorite son (the only legitimate son had not yet rebelled against him) the Aquitaine. But Henry couldn’t do that because it didn’t belong to him. It was Eleanor’s. And she refused to disinherit Richard for John. The only way Henry could get Richard to relinquish the Aquitaine was to order him to resign it to Eleanor herself. This Richard dutifully did in 1185, and for the next two years Eleanor was master of her own territories again —under Henry’s watchful guidance.

By 1187, however, Richard was chaffing under his father’s dominance and frustrated by not having been officially named heir—despite renouncing the Aquitaine. He formally broke with his father by making a great show of going to Paris, where he was received with open arms by the French King — now Louis’ son Philip II.  The French King’s interest was obvious: weakening and humiliating Henry II of England, his father’s greatest rival. Henry, apparently suspecting that Eleanor might again side with her son — in this case her favorite son — against him, sent Eleanor back to England and confinement. When Richard became king two years later while in open rebellion against his father, his first act was to order the release of his mother and to appoint her his regent in England.

Historical Re-enactment of Richard the Lionheart in Aquitaine

Curiously, in a way, it was with Richard’s ascension to the throne that Eleanor’s association with Aquitaine weakened. Richard’s attention was focused on the Holy Land for the first four years of his reign, and after his release from captivity he had his hands full fighting off Philip II’s tenacious attempts to wrench his continental possessions from him. Eleanor supported him more in England than in Aquitaine because that was where Richard needed her most. Although she remained Duchess of Aquitaine until her death, her ability to exert her authority there had faded. In 1202, at the age of 80, she took the veil at Frontevault Abbey, and in 1204 she died there.

Eleanor of Aquitaine's Tomb at Fontevrault. I love the fact she is shown reading a book!

And the Aquitaine? As her heir, John inherited it at her death—and lost almost all of it before his reign was over.  

* All photos in this entry (except the medieval manuscript illustration at the top) were taken by the author in 1993.

Helena Schrader is the currently writing a three part biography of Balian d’Ibelin, a contemporary of Eleanor. The first two books in the series, Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem, were released in 2014 and 2015 respectively. You can find out more about them and the Crusader Jerusalem at and more about all of Helena Schrader’s books at:


  1. I love your post and wonderful images. I read the biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine years ago and still remember much of it, though not nearly what you recounted here. I was vastly impressed by her intelligence, determination, and refusal to be subjugated. She was an outstanding woman for her time period, perhaps for any time. She wasn't, however, particularly tenderhearted, as I recall. But did dote on her children, especially her favorites. I think she could not afford what she must have considered the luxury of being a deeply compassionate person with so much to defend herself against. It's such a different world she lived in. Thanks for this engrossing glimpse into her life. I also love that she is depicted in death with a book!

  2. I love your post and wonderful images. I read the biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine years ago and still remember much of it, though not nearly what you recounted here. I was vastly impressed by her intelligence, determination, and refusal to be subjugated. She was an outstanding woman for her time period, perhaps for any time. She wasn't, however, particularly tenderhearted, as I recall. But did dote on her children, especially her favorites. I think she could not afford what she must have considered the luxury of being a deeply compassionate person with so much to defend herself against. It's such a different world she lived in. Thanks for this engrossing glimpse into her life. I also love that she is depicted in death with a book!

  3. Very interesting post and woman, thanks


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