Eleanor of
Aquitaine

This picture was painted in the right century, but it's a picture of St Ursula. There are no authenticated portraits of Eleanor of Aquitaine; nothing at all other than the stone carving on her tomb at Fontrevault

Part 1

Things are pretty murky back in the 12th century. The few reliable, contemporary sources that do exist often don't agree with each other and invariably leave out the interesting parts. Sometimes, we know a part wasinteresting precisely because it was left out -- like who slew King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Sometimes we can do some solid sleuthing and come up with explanations that satisfy generation after generation. Sometimes, we just don't know.

We don't know when the future Eleanor of Aquitaine was born, though it was probably in 1122 and possibly in the castle of Belin near Bordeaux. Aside from demonstrating that a wife wasn't barren, firstborn females weren't an event 12th century folk celebrated.

Her father was William, styled the Toulousan, of Aquitaine, the tenth duke of that name to inherit the Aquitaine; not surprisingly, William X was the son of Eleanor's living grandfather, William IX, styled the Troubadour. Her mother was Aenor de Rochefoucauld; somewhat more surprisingly, Aenor was the daughter of Eleanor's living grandmother, the Vicomtess de Rouchefoucauld, whose name is recorded as Dangereuse.

Properly speaking, Eleanor's name is Alia-Aenor, which means “the other Aenor,” which not only tends to confirm the usual disinterest surrounding a firstborn daughter but, perhaps, also the irregular nature of the ducal family at that particular moment. Alia-Aenor had a younger sister, Aelith, probably born in 1125 and known as Petronella, which is Latin for, among other things, Younger Sister or Little Stone. With their third child, possibly born in 1126 or 1127, William and Aenor got the son they were undoubtedly praying for. They named him William Aigret; unfortunately, both he and Aenor died about 1130.

Duke William should have remarried immediately, but didn't make plans until 1136, when the husband of the woman he'd selected, Emma of Limoges, was providentially widowed. Unfortunately for the Duke, the other Limousin nobles were less enthused about the prospects of an alliance between their ducal overlord and their provincial overlord. Another William, Count of Angouleme, kidnapped Emma before the nuptial negotiations were complete and successfully married her, to the relief of his peers. Duke William reacted to this disappointment by joining his neighbor, Count Geoffrey of Anjou (who will play a larger role in a later segment of this story) in the count's ongoing effort to enforce his wife Matilda's (daughter of Henry I of England and widow of the German Emperor Henry V) claim to the ducal province of Normandy.

The campaign didn't go well; Geoffrey wounded his foot and returned to Anjou. William returned home. The following year, he decided to go on a pilgrimage to St James at Santiago de Campostela. En route, he took sick (possibly from making a meal of bad eels) and died in the Campostela cathedral, having told his men to entrust his eldest daughter into the care of Louis the Fat, King of France (and William's nominal liege-lord, though the dukes of Aquitaine traditionally thumbed their noses at the far-less-powerful Capetian kings of far-smaller France.)

End of part 1

 

Part 2

With more success than was usual in the 12th century, the dead duke's men managed to keep his death a secret from his vassals and subjects as they hurried north to Paris. I can't find any mention of when Eleanor and her immediate family learned of William's death, but whatever honest grief they felt would have been tempered by their understanding that the dynasty was imperiled. Might may not have made Right in the 12th century, but Right didn't stand a chance without Might to back it up and a fifteen-year-old heiress was among the least mighty actors on the contemporary political stage.

Eleanor's unquestioned legitimacy and right to inherit her father's titles and lands made her a tempting target for any and every ambitious man who might learn of her situation. Marriage by abduction and rape was not widely practiced in the 12th century and the Catholic Church was beginning to insist that the consent of both parties was a necessary precursor to a valid marriage, but the Church's power wasn't absolute in the upper reaches of 12th century society. Any man who kept an unmarried woman under his roof for a night could claim that he had married her: Rape was presumed and, from the new husband's persepective, the end justified the means because the Church accepted St Paul's assertion that it was better to "marry than to burn." If the woman were an heiress (which was, generally speaking, the only circumstance which justified the risks of abducting a woman) her newly recognized husband would claim her rights, privileges, and income-- and unless the unwilling bride's family were willing to go to war-- his claim would recognized.

Is it any wonder, then, that when the question "Are marriage and love compatible?" was raised in the 12th and 13th century (and it was the central question of the Courts of Love which Eleanor is often credited with founding) the men and women alike usually answered No.

The alternative to marriage by abduction was, in effect, marriage by decree. A woman, young or old, would quite literally be given away in marriage by her father, her guardian, or her family. Eleanor Searle wrote a book entitled "Predatory Kinship and the Creation of Norman Power" which provides one of the better descriptions I've come across of how noble families mantained themselves in the early medieval period. The title says it all and although Eleanor of Aquitaine wasn't Norman, the strategies Eleanor Searle were in effect during her lifetime.

There's no way of knowing whether Eleanor of Aquitaine had begun to daydream about her future life as a wife and mother or what her hopes and fears might have been if she had. Given her heritage and temperament, it seems reasonable to assume that she would have been more concerned about her prospective husband's status than about any notion of love. It's also reasonable to assume that, had her father lived, she would have had some say in the selection process. The 11th and 12th century-- especially in and around the Aquitaine -- had seen a number of formidable women who wielded dynastic power well and in their own right, and Eleanor was related to most of them.

But, of course, her father had died unexpectedly, leaving important things undone. With his dying testament, he placed the burden of choosing his heir's husband into the hands of the Capetian king -- a man Eleanor would not have known and could not hope to influence but whose decision she would have no choice but to obey.

Louis the Fat was the Duke of Aquitaine's liege lord -- based on the allotment of land and titles made after Charlemagne's death several hundred years earlier. In practice, the Capetian domain in the north of France was smaller and far less wealthy than the ducal lands in the south. Eleanor's ancestors had been able to ignore their king with impugnity for generations although, in fact, the economic and political decline of the Aquitaine had begun during the rule of Eleanor's illustrious grandfather, William the Troubadour who made, in our terms, some bad business and investment decisions during his life. Eleanor's father, William the Toulousian, continued in his father's footsteps-- though without the Troubadour's flair for staying one step ahead of disaster. By the time he died, Eleanor's father had lost effective control of much of his domain and was at least partly aware of this fact. He certainly knew that the best way to insure his daughter's safety and his dynasty's continuation was to make her a ward of Louis the Fat rather than trust that any of his own Aquitainian vassals would respect her rights and interests.

Louis the Fat had been dying for several years at that point in time. No one, including him, would have expected the Capetian king to outlive the Duke of Aquitaine. Almost certainly the Capetian court expected Eleanor's father to remarry, beget himself a passel of sons, one of whom might prove capable of whipping the Aquitaine back into line and almost any of whom would have looked more promising than Louis' own heir, his second son-- destined for the Church from birth, but wrenched from that fate by his elder brother Philip's untimely death, trampled by swine in the muddy Parisian streets.

(Young Philip Capet was a piece-of-work-and-a-half. Louis the Fat, thinking to assure the eventual succession, had had his son crowned beside him when Philip was twelve. Henceforth, the boy believed he was his father's equal and at the time of his death at sixteen was on the verge of full-scale civil rebellion; he was not much mourned by his father. Louis the Fat resolved not to make the same mistake with his second son, now heir to the French crown. And as young Louis Capet was already accustomed to a life of prayerful obedience to his superiors, Louis the Fat saw no reason to change the direction of his new heir's education... (This will prove very significant later on.)

Anyway, Louis the Fat was beached in his bedchamber, which he never left, when the Aquitainian delegation arrived with news of Duke William's death. There are some fairly graphic descriptions of the persistent aromas in the king's bedchamber, which, when combined with the usual squalor of Paris at that time (recall the mud and the swine that got young Philip). Those in service to the Capetian king, needed a strong stomach and a weak nose. We can assume that the Aquitainians were at a disadvantage when they made their announcement and that they left promptly when given the opportunity.

Despite his many ailments, Louis the Fat's mind was quite intact and he was competent king who understood immediately that God and Fortune had smiled at him that day. In one swell foop (as it were), three of his most pressing problems were solved. 1) There would be no young, male Aquitainian heirs cluttering up the dynastic landscape for future Capetian generations to contend with. 2) He had absolute control over who would become the next Duke of Aquitaine and 3) He'd found a bride for his son. Never mind that she was a year younger than him or reputed to be a great beauty. What mattered was that when Louis Capet became Duke of Aquitaine, the effective size of the domain of the Capetian kings would double in size and more than double in wealth and prestige.

The young man was summoned into his father's presence, told what his duty would be, and sent south to claim his bride in the company of the cream of Northern French nobility, including the formidable Suger, Abbot of Saint-Denis, a clergyman of considerable power in his own right and, additionally, the king's confidant. It was Suger's job to make certain the marriage came off smoothly.

Bibliography

  • Eleanor ofAquitaine -- Queen and Legend by D.D.R. Owen
      
    copyright 1993, 1996; Blackwell Publishers; ISBN: 0-631-20101-7
    • The best of the biographies I've read so far. Owen tries to balance what little is actually known about Eleanor against her legend, which was well-formed by the time of her death. He places her squarely in the context of her times; his bibliography is stronger and more complete than that of Meade or Kelly. Like them, he is generally sympathetic to her, but less inclined to apologize for her apparent mistakes in judgment
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir
    copyright 1999; Ballentine Books; ISBN: 0-345-40540-4
    • Every decade gets its Arthur and its Eleanor of Aquitaine. This is the Eleanor of the 1990s. A thorough study that draws on both contemporary medieval resources and modern interpretations. It’s determinedly fair-handed and has a detailed, current bibliography.
  • . Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings by Amy Kelly
     copyright 1950; ISBN: 674-24254-8
    • Probably the best known history (as opposed to fiction) book about Eleanor of Aquitaine. The scholarship is solid, though firmly in the who-did-what school of historiography. For me, Kelly's attitude toward her subject is firmly rooted in the US 1950's and markedly condescending. It was just about the first work on Eleanor to refer back to the original 12th century chronicles, and for that it merits respect. The biblography of primary sources is quite complete. It's one of rare times when I wish an writer had paid more attention to the secondary sources available instead of drawing her own conclusions.
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine, A Biography by Marion Meade
     copyright 1977; ISBN: 0-8015-2232-3
    • For my money, a more scholarly work than Kelly's with an ironic style to the prose. It covers the who-did-what bases thoroughly and tries to get into the why's of the events as well. The bibliography of both 12th century primary and modern secondary sources is extensive and the text itself has more citations to back up its claims than Kelly's.
  • England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings (1075-1225) by Robert Bartlett
    copyright 2000; Oxford University Press; ISBN: 0-19-822741-8
    • Eleanor’s marriage to Henry II is the event that transformed the Dukes of Normandy (and Kings of England) into the rulers of the Angevin Empire, so she’s important to the story. This book is a part of the NEW Oxford History of England which is giving equal time to social and cultural aspects of the period (as well as the more traditional political measurements).
  • Henry II by WL Warren
    copyright 1973; ISBN: 0-520-03494-5
    • Part of the University of California's English Monarch series, a thoroughly documented and well-written history of Henry II, which means that Warren has to take note of Eleanor and the Aquitaine. It fills out the material in the two Eleanor biographies. If you want to know what Henry accomplished and how he did it, this is the book to study.
  • The Plantagenet Chronicles edited by Elizabeth Hallam
    copyright 1995; ISBN: 0-517-14076-4
    • In addition to great photographs and reproductions, some 150,000 translated words from some of the contemporary sources that both Meade and Kelly refer to. Unfortunately, Hallam is casting a big net and the selections she makes, while very interesting, tend not to be the snippets that tell us anything about Eleanor of Aquitaine. Still, they're useful for creating a 12th century context from contemporary sources.
  • Predatory Kinship and the Creation of Norman Power 840-1066 by Eleanor Searle
     copyright 1988; University of California Press; ISBN: 0-520-06276-0
    • Searles contends that as the Normans struggled to establish themselves in the 9th century, they (men and women alike) forumlated and pursued consistent dynastic strategies which she calls cooperation within the family group and predatory outside it. Children were regarded as the family's primary asset and parents sought both carefully and consciously to maximize each child's value to the family's future. Insofar as this strategy was spectacularly successful, it spread (like the Normans themselves) far beyond the boundaries of Normandy and persisted for generations..

On the web, the best place I’ve found for general who’s who in the royal world is The Directory of Royal Genealogical Data, currently maintained by Brian Tompsett of the University of Hull in the UK

 

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