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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Eleanor of Aquitaine's Notorious Royal Divorce - Guest Post by Leslie Carroll

As part of the Historical Fiction Bloggers Round Table event for Notorious Royal Marriages by Leslie Carroll, I have the amazing opportunity to welcome Leslie here today with a guest post. She wrote about a woman that I knew absolutely nothing about prior to reading this book, other than her name - Eleanor of Aquitaine. So without further adieu...

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Notorious Royal Divorce

Guest Post by Leslie Carroll, Author of
Notorious Royal Marriages

Eleanor of Aquitaine
Duchess of Aquitaine, Countess of Poitiers, Queen of the English

On the death of her father, Duke William X of Aquitaine on Good Friday, April 9, 1137, his fifteen-year-old daughter Eleanor became Europe’s richest heiress, inheriting much of what now comprises western and southern France—including the regions of Poitou, Aquitaine, and Gascony.
According to the twelfth century chronicler Richard de Poitevin, Eleanor was “brought up in delicacy and reared in abundance of all delights, living in the bosom of wealth.” She was quite the catch, even if she’d been a bit spoiled as a girl. Headstrong, willful, high-spirited, and exceptionally intelligent, she was also an acknowledged beauty. Although no physical description of her survives, Eleanor’s father and grandfather were both redheads.

On Sunday, July 25, 1137, Eleanor wed Louis the Young, the meek sixteen-year-old son of King Louis VI of France. The ceremony was immediately followed by their coronation as Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine. A few days later, they were also crowned Count and Countess of Poitou.

The bridegroom, who had spent much of his life as a “child-monk,” was shy and awkward in company, and at his own wedding reception he was both shocked and appalled by the merry dancing and ribald songs, not to mention his new wife’s unchecked vitality and exuberance during the festivities. Luckily, the couple enjoyed a mutual physical attraction—and Louis remained smitten with Eleanor’s looks until the day they divorced. However, their temperaments could not have been more dissimilar.

As Louis was both quiet and spiritual, Eleanor often took the lead in their relationship, although her aggressiveness defied what was considered the natural order of things. But Aquitanian women were more forthright than most and Eleanor had learned how to manage estates, as well as people from all walks of life, having accompanied her father as he rode through his vast territories collecting his vassals’ tithes and tributes.

Her new husband, on the other hand, although he was considered quite intelligent, wasn’t quite ready for prime time when his father died of dysentery on August 1, 1137, just seven days after the royal marriage. In the space of a single week the sensitive, untested Louis became both bridegroom and king.

Although her formal coronation did not take place until Christmas Day, Eleanor was now Queen of France. Her lands, inherited from her father, became Louis’s domains, although they would revert to her if she became widowed or divorced.

Their relationship was not a happy one. Despite the mutual physical attraction, Louis, who had been taught that marriage was for procreational purposes only, felt guilty every time he wanted to have sex. Eleanor was a political animal muzzled by institutional misogyny, even though Louis claimed to love her “beyond all reason.” As queen of France she was a mere figurehead; her husband wielded the power. Eleanor’s thirst for adventure was partially quenched when she accompanied her husband on crusade in 1147, but a series of diplomatic disasters not of her making cost the queen her reputation.

Louis listened to questionable counsel. His chaplains advised him to eliminate Raymond’s undue influence on the queen and assert his rights as her husband by abducting Eleanor and carrying her off to Jerusalem. The dramatic circumstances surrounding her hasty departure fueled rumors that would persist for centuries claiming that Louis had snatched her from an adulterous—and incestuous—affair with Prince Raymond of Antioch. Given their degree of consanguinity, the royal marriage was incestuous as well, although the couple had conveniently overlooked this detail for years!

Eleanor was infuriated by Louis’s ignominious treatment of her, and from that point on resolved to have as little to do with him as possible.

In 1148, at Christmas, a heavy-hearted Louis wrote to Abbé Suger from Jerusalem, informing him of his intention to seek a divorce from Eleanor as soon as he returned to France.

The royal estrangement dragged on into the spring. Louis’s Crusade had so far yielded nothing but tremendous loss of life and precious equipment. But another life would be forfeited that would strain the marriage even further.

After spending Easter in Jerusalem, Louis and Eleanor set sail for home—in separate ships. Eleanor’s vessel got caught in the middle of a naval battle between the Sicilians and the Byzantine Greeks, and for two months Louis had no news of his wife. When Eleanor landed safely in Sicily, she received news that the Turks had invaded Antioch after their departure and beheaded Raymond. Eleanor blamed Louis for his death.

On the Italian mainland, the royal couple met with the Pope, and each employed the pontiff as a personal marriage counselor. According to John of Salisbury, Louis told Pope Eugenius that he “loved the Queen passionately, in an almost childish way.” Eleanor privately confided her doubts about the marriage’s validity because of the consanguinity issue, admitting to His Holiness that she and Louis no longer had sex. The Pope’s response was not only to reiterate his sanction of the royal marriage but to escort Eleanor and Louis to a lavish, sensuously appointed bed and encourage them to heed nature’s call. John of Salisbury wrote that the king was delighted, making amorous overtures to his queen “in an almost puerile fashion.” By the time the monarchs returned to France on November 11, 1149, Eleanor was pregnant.

But the ugly rumors of Eleanor’s alleged infidelity with Raymond preceded her, and not only did the French believe them, but they blamed her for the failure of the Second Crusade. Louis’s chaplains then persuaded him to remove any governmental power and authority from her hands.

In the latter half of 1150, Eleanor gave birth to another daughter, Alix. It was a huge disappointment to Louis and, as far as the queen was concerned, offered further proof that God disapproved of their marriage. After fourteen years of wedlock and only two girls to show for it, surely there must be a greater plan at work. Eleanor’s reiterated desire for a divorce was unwittingly aided by the French barons, who encouraged Louis to put her aside for the sake of the succession, and marry another (and less controversial) woman who would bear him sons.

The following summer, another catalyst for Eleanor’s divorce appeared on the horizon—or, more specifically, at court—in the persons of the handsome Count Geoffrey of Anjou, known as Geoffrey le Bel, and his son, the stocky, redheaded Henry, now Duke of Normandy.

There was an instant undercurrent of sexual tension between the twenty-nine-year-old Eleanor and the eighteen-year-old Henry—the man destined to become Eleanor’s future husband and King Henry II of England. Days later, Eleanor obtained Louis’s consent to a divorce and the first steps were taken to annul their marriage.

Eleanor last saw Louis in September 1151. There were no tearful good-byes, even with her daughters, little Marie and Alix, who, in accordance with French law, were left behind in Paris to be raised in their father’s court. Eleanor had lost custody of them and would not see them again.

On March 11, 1152, a synod of bishops convened to debate the validity of the royal marriage, and ten days later, with the approval of Pope Eugenius, the union was annulled on the grounds of consanguinity.

During the Middle Ages, it was exceptionally rare for a woman to seek and receive a divorce, and when a noblewoman, even a queen, received her decree, her ex-husband usually shoved her into a convent.

But Eleanor had beaten the system. She was a free woman, and though no longer Queen of France, governed lands far vaster than the little kingdom on the Seine. She was now mistress of her own destiny. Or was she? In reality, she was a prime target for kidnappers. If she were violated, she would have to wed her abductor and everything she owned from her body to her estates would become his, a dynamic that played itself out centuries later between Mary, Queen of Scots and the 4th Earl of Bothwell.

However, Eleanor’s cunning and political savvy prevented her from becoming a victim. And her divorce from Louis VII redrew the map of France and significantly altered the balance of power in the realm.

Thank you so much Leslie for your wonderful post about Eleanor - I have learned so much about her and look forward to reading more about her.  You can learn more about Leslie and her works at her website.

I have a giveaway running for 1 copy of Notorious Royal Marriages - it ends January 16th.
Other HFBRT events today:

    Copyright © 2010 by The Maiden’s Court


    1. She certainly was a woman whay ahead of her times! I've had my moments about Eleanor (depending on who amnd what I read). She was either the woman I rooted for - or I detested. I've since come to terms with that and opted for the Eleanor that has no fear to represent the extent of a woman's power. I absolutely LOVE this post. Thanks Leslie:)

    2. Thank you, Lucy -- and thank you Heather, for posting the guest essay, and for finding such great images to illustrate it.

      I've loved Eleanor ever since I was in 5th grade, and yet, once you've seen her portrayed by the incomparable Katharine HepBurn in THE LION IN WINTER (rent it! rent it!) you can't help but picture her as Eleanor whenever you read anything about her!

    3. I find Eleanor to one of the most intriguing of the French (English) queens. She managed to secure a divorce from the king of France and become her own woman, then she marries the king of England and gives him several tiger cubs, then gets imprisoned by the English king.........and still she has the last laugh later in life. I imagine her as a woman with a will of iron.

    4. Eleanor is probably the most interesting queen in English history. Totally fascinating in so many ways, and unique in that she was the only woman to be queen of both England and France.

    5. Thanks Leslie...I find Eleanor to be one of the most fascinating monarchs. The more I read about her, the more my fascination grows.

    6. Leslie and Heather, thank you for this wonderful post! There can never be enough said about Eleanor. She is my hero! Or I suppose in this case, my heroine. What an amazing woman, and an amazing queen.


    Thanks for leaving your comments! I love reading them and try to reply to all!