Henry II – A Scandalous Wife

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Eleanor of Aquitaine book cover illustration by Duncan Long for a book by Robert Fripp

On 18 May 1152, at the cathedral in Poitiers, Henry duke of Normandy married Eleanor duchess of Aquitaine. Planned in haste and with the utmost secrecy, the ceremony had been executed as quickly as possible. And the effects of the marriage would reverberate across western Europe both in its immediate aftermath and for decades to follow.

Henry, like his father, was marrying an older woman. Eleanor was twenty-eight years old. Henry had just turned nineteen. He was a restless young soldier little concerned with the trappings of nobility. His bride was almost impossibly glamorous, famous across Christendom for her unconventional beauty, her potent sexuality and headstrong political personality. Most important of all, until just over two months before the marriage she had been queen of France: the wife of Louis VII, mother of two French princesses and a vital part of the territorial reach of the French Crown, through her duchy of Aquitaine, which stretched down from the borders of Anjou to the Pyrenees.

Henry’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the greatest coups of his lifetime. For an ambitious young player in European politics, there could have been no more valuable bride. Eleanor brought wealth, power and vast lands. She was an experienced ruler and politician in her own right. And the fact that she had been recently discarded by Louis VII raised her value even higher for a duke of Normandy intent on establishing his status as a pre-eminent French nobleman.

Eleanor’s life story was already extraordinary. She was born in 1124, the eldest daughter of William X, duke of Aquitaine and count of Poitou – a patron of the arts and an enthusiastic warrior, who alternated between quarrelling with the papacy and making pious submissions to ecclesiastical authority. But poetry, as well as piety, filled the souls of the dukes of Aquitaine. Eleanor’s grandfather was William IX, ‘the Troubadour Duke’, who had been perhaps the greatest wit, poet and songwriter of his age. He composed verse in the southern French language of Occitan, telling the stories of seduction, heroism and courtliness that were part of the romantic fabric of southern French life. His own reputation – and that of his descendants – mingled inextricably with the visions of passionate courtliness that lay at the core of his poetry. The house of Aquitaine was formed in his image.

William IX had died in 1126, shortly after his granddaughter Eleanor’s birth. Eleven years later, in 1137, Eleanor’s father William X also died, rather suddenly, while he was on pilgrimage to Compostela. His death left a thirteen-year-old Eleanor both sole heir to one of the greatest inheritances in Europe and a vulnerable orphan in need of urgent protection.

Aquitaine was a large, sprawling, very loosely governed territory that comprised more than a quarter of the territorial whole of medieval France. It included the lordship of Gascony, the cities of Bordeaux and Bayonne, the counties of Saintonge, Angoulême, Périgord, Limousin, Auvergne and La Manche. The influence of the dukes of Aquitaine looked north via the county of Poitou, and south, where they had links with Navarre and Barcelona. Aquitaine was warm, fertile country, which traded in wine and salt via the Gascon ports on the Atlantic coast. It had an important tourist industry, thanks to control over the pilgrim roads to Compostela, as they converged on the Pyrenean passes. It was a stopping point for pious travellers, who could take on supplies and enjoy the region’s hospitality before they disappeared into the sun-baked mountains. It provided a potentially huge source of wealth, power and cultural influence to whoever could control it.

Control came hard, however. Government sat very light in Aquitaine. Power and authority were subject to a patchwork of troublesome and rebellious lords whose fealty to the duke was seldom more than nominal. It was obvious to everyone that this was no place for a thirteen-year-old girl to rule. King Louis VI of France moved swiftly, and three months after her father died, Eleanor was married to the seventeen-year-old Prince Louis in Bordeaux Cathedral. This union with the heir apparent to the French Crown brought Aquitaine beneath the protection of Paris.

Then, just days after Eleanor’s first marriage, her new father-in-law Louis VI was dead. Eleanor, in her teens, became queen of France.

The southern queen-duchess had proved out of place at first amid the frosty monasticism of the Parisian court. There was a marked difference between the cultures of the Île de France, in the centre of the Paris basin, and the great southern duchy of Aquitaine. Even the languages spoken were different – the langue d’oïl of the north contrasting sharply with the langue d’oc spoken by Eleanor and her large group of attendants. Eleanor was a typically feisty, worldly, southerner, who both captivated and terrified her new husband. While Louis VII conducted himself with austere, sackclothed piety, Eleanor embraced the splendour of queenship. She and her entourage dressed and behaved extravagantly. Louis VII wore a habit and followed an austere, monkish diet. According to William of Newburgh, Eleanor would complain in later years that in Louis she had married ‘a monk, not a king’. Eleanor enjoyed a rich palace life that shocked her husband’s closest attendants.

From the start, the marriage was profoundly dysfunctional, both personally and politically. Eleanor was capable, as the famous French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, of ‘taking a determined political stance’. She pushed Louis into several unwise ventures, including a vicious war between the French Crown and the count of Champagne, provoked after Eleanor’s younger sister Petronilla had a rash fling with the count of Vermandois. Very swiftly, Eleanor built a reputation in France for causing scandal and political chaos. By the 1140s that reputation preceded her. When Eleanor accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade to the East in 1147, rumours flew up concerning almost every aspect of her participation. She was blamed (wrongly) for disastrous ambushes on the crusading forces; she was accused (falsely) of conniving – or sleeping – with her uncle, Prince Raymond of Toulouse, the ruler of Antioch. Later chroniclers even spread the rumour that she had had an affair with the great Muslim ruler Saladin and attempted to elope with him on a boat – quite some notch on Saladin’s bedpost, given that he was only about ten years old at the time of the Second Crusade. On the way home from the crusade, Louis and Eleanor had stopped at Tusculum to meet Pope Eugene III. He gave them marriage counselling and offered them a reconciliatory bed, draped with his own precious curtains.

It did not work. Although Eleanor bore Louis two children – Marie countess of Champagne was born in 1145 and Alix countess of Blois in 1150 – it was clear by the early 1150s that Eleanor’s marriage to Louis was untenable. Perhaps they could have continued had Eleanor produced a male heir. But she did not. After the Christmas court of 1151–2, held deep in Eleanor’s territory at Limoges, it was an open secret that the French royal marriage would soon be consigned to the bulging dustbin of Capetian history. On 21 March 1152 an assembly of French bishops declared that Louis and Eleanor were related within the prohibited bounds of consanguinity. Their marriage was declared void. Eleanor would have her duchy of Aquitaine back, and Louis, like every other Capet since Philip I, would have a marriage annulled. The production line of royal heirs would continue in the womb of a different queen. It is hard to believe that Eleanor felt anything but relief.

That relief, however, was alloyed with the knowledge that she was as vulnerable at the age of twenty-eight as on the day that her father died. Once more the unwed duchess of Aquitaine, and no longer protected by the French Crown, she was back on the marriage market with no shortage of bidders. In March 1152 she made a perilous journey through the Loire valley, on the road from Beaugency to Poitiers, the principal seat of her duchy. She moved with all possible haste, knowing that the countryside around her was fraught with danger. Already word was spreading that Eleanor was no longer the queen of France. Kidnappers were said to be pursuing her from two directions, both hoping to abduct and forcibly marry her. According to a chronicler from Tours, both Theobald V, count of Blois, and Geoffrey Plantagenet the Younger (Henry’s sixteen-year-old brother, the Empress Matilda’s second son) were bent on waylaying Eleanor. If they caught her, then her life and her fate might never again belong to her.

But a decade and a half spent at the heart of French politics had taught Eleanor much about political survival. She realized that marriage was inevitable and necessary, but was determined that it should be on her terms. So as she rode hard for Poitiers, giving the slip to her would-be abductors, she was also thinking of the one man who would best secure her future. Henry Plantagenet, duke of Normandy, count of Anjou, Maine and Touraine, was in Lisieux, near the coast of Normandy, preparing an invasion of England, where he aimed to claim the Crown in his mother’s name.

Henry had met Eleanor the previous year, when he and his father visited for peace talks in Paris in 1151. It is very possible then that the unhappy queen and the ambitious Plantagenet had considered one another as potential future mates. Whether a formal agreement was made is unknown. The most we can say is that Eleanor perhaps cast her seductive dark eyes on the young duke of Normandy and saw a man on the rise; Henry may likewise have gazed back at this captivating older queen and calculated possibilities.

What is in no doubt is that in 1152 the alliance was there to be made. On her arrival in Poitou, Eleanor sent a message to Henry, asking him with all urgency to abandon his English invasion and come and marry her. Henry wasted no time, cancelling all his plans for invading King Stephen’s troubled realm. ‘The duke indeed allured by the nobility of that woman and by desire for the great honours belonging to her, impatient at all delay, took with him a few companions, hastened quickly over the long routes and in little time obtained that marriage which he had long desired,’ wrote William of Newburgh.

Thus Henry Plantagenet married Eleanor duchess of Aquitaine in a low-key ceremony at the cathedral of Notre-Dame-la-Grande in Poitiers on 18 May 1152 – less than two months after her marriage to Louis had been annulled. Their marriage ceremony was swift and discreet, but it tilted the balance of an era.

The big loser was Louis VII. While he could not have expected Eleanor to take any other course of action but to remarry, he would have expected both Henry – as vassal – and Eleanor – as ex-wife – to seek his permission. They did not, and it rankled ever after. As Henry of Huntingdon put it, Henry’s marriage to Eleanor was ‘the cause and origin of great hatred and discord between the French king and the duke’.

Eleanor’s remarriage to Henry – rather than to his brother Geoffrey the Younger or to Theobald of Blois – transformed the map of France at a stroke. Henry’s control of Normandy, Anjou, Maine and Touraine was now fused with the giant duchy of Aquitaine. One vassal now theoretically controlled virtually the entire western seaboard of the kingdom, and almost half the landed territory. In seeking an annulment of his marriage to Eleanor, Louis had made an entirely understandable decision. In letting her fall into Henry Plantagenet’s hands, he had committed an inexcusable blunder.

To add to the French king’s woes, within months of her speedy marriage Eleanor was pregnant and Henry had revived his plans to conquer England. This not only made a mockery of Louis’s inability to produce children with her; it also threatened to sunder his daughters Marie and Alix from any claim to an Aquitanian dowry. A Plantagenet heir was in production, who one day might conceivably rule Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine together. Within two years, that likely patrimony would grow to include the Crown of England.


Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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