Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor, daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine was born in 1122 at Bordeaux from where wine merchants sailed to England and sailors set out to hunt the whale. A formidable and lavishly gifted lady she was the greatest heiress in Europe, an idealised and adored lady for whom troubadours wrote and sang their songs.
Renowned as a generous and strong ruler who has schemed against her husband and who has dominated her sons, she throws off the constraints that shackle women of today and patronises the abbey of Fontevrault, a refuge for battered wives.
|Grandfather Was a Troubadour
Eleanor's grandfather, William the 9th, Duke of Aquitaine, was the earliest known troubadour. He wrote songs to lute accompaniment; unfortunately most of them were unashamedly licentious. His private life was a scandal - he carried off another man's wife and kept her as his concubine in the tower of his palace. When he fought in the Holy Land, he had her likeness painted on his shield, explaining that he wanted her over him in battle just as he was over her in bed. Believe it or not he was remembered as one of the most courteous men in the world.
Eleanor's father, William the 10th, Duke of Aquitaine, patronised poets and troubadours at his court. And it was at his court that troubadours developed their cult of platonic love, where they sang of an impossible passion for some unattainable noblewoman. It was her father who ensured that Eleanor learned Latin, the Bible, Ovid, and the art of the troubadour.
Eleanor was only fifteen years old when her father died. Prey to any ruthless suitor who could seize her, force her to marry him, and enjoy her inheritance, she quickly married Louis the 7th, heir to the French throne.
|Queen of France
The court that Eleanor set up in Paris was the gayest and most splendid in Christendom. She introduced poets, troubadours, new fashions and respect for ladies. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux didn't like it. He deplored the devilish vanity of court ladies in their rich dresses made from the toil of worms, their arms weighed down with bracelets and the painted faces that they removed at night.
One of the poets at court, Chretien of Troyes, was first poet to popularise the legends of King Arthur's Knights. His legendary stories, in verse, were about valour and chivalry and love for fair ladies . . . tales of love and sentimental adventure where bright armour sparkled in the sunlight, people wore silk and satin, ermine and sable, and cloth was made of gold. His early romance, Eric and Enide (pictured right) was supposedly based on Eleanor' s adventures.
Queen Eleanor was a devout Christian. Many times she endowed the abbey of Fontevrault, a revolutionary new order that became the first haven for battered and ill-used wives. No one was refused entry. The founder, a preacher named Robert from Brittany, once took in an entire brothel home to Fontevrault, after he had converted them.
When Saint Bernard of Clairvaux called for a second crusade to the Holy Land, King Louis willingly responded . . . and so did Eleanor. On the way, Eleanor took a liking to her long-lost Uncle Raymond, the tall, good-looking Prince of Antioch. Eleanor and Louis fell out. After spending a year in the Holy city, the couple returned home in separate ships.
Uncle Raymond was less fortunate. He fell in battle against the Saracens and his skull was set in silver and sent to the caliph of Baghdad.
Eleanor gave birth to two daughters, Marie and Alice, but Louis needed a male heir, so Eleanor's and Louis' marriage was annulled because they were third cousins. Within eight weeks Eleanor married the most eligible bachelor in France, Henry, Duke of Normandy (they were third cousins too).
Within two years, she had became the Queen of England when Henry succeeded King Stephen.
|Queen of England
King Stephen had left England in a miserable state, and to put things in order King Henry (pictured right) was constantly in the saddle. Eleanor accompanied him on horseback, or when she was pregnant which was often, in a leather-roofed wagon with springless wooden wheels.
The places they stayed in were not exactly palaces - rushes on the floor, a fireplace with a louvre for a chimney, rooms lit at night by flaring torches, or guttering rushlights. Eleanor did her best to improve conditions. She bought cushions and tapestry, lit her apartments with sweet-scented oil, perfumed them with incense, imported wine from La Rochelle, and ensured her cooks made lavish use of pepper and cinnamon.
She sheltered the famous troubadour, Bernart de Ventadour, who developed an extravagant passion for Eleanor in his songs. Henry dismissed him.
Both Henry and Eleanor were believers in the legend of King Arthur, and together they visited Glastonbury in search of King Arthur's tomb.
For thirteen years, Eleanor bore five sons and three more daughters by Henry. He fathered at least two bastard sons and took mistresses. But it was Henry's affair with 'Fair Rosamund', whom he openly paraded at court, that finally turned Eleanor against him. Eleanor supposedly entered Rosamund's tower refuge at Woodstock by the clue of a silken thread and offered her the choice of a dagger, or a poisoned chalice. The story may or may not be true, but it does give some insight into Eleanor's character.
Eleanor left Henry and departed for Poitiers where she set up her own court, filling it with poets and troubadours, and even presided over romantic song contests. Her daughters from her previous marriage to King Louis, Alice and Marie, joined her. Both of her daughters had inherited a taste for culture and poetry from their mother. In particular, Marie of Champagne was an enthusiastic follower of the Arthurian legend, and like her mother, she patronised the poet Chretien of Troyes. It was to Marie that the poet dedicated his famous story of Lancelot.
After King Henry's knights had murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, Eleanor believed Henry had lost his power, and in league with her sons, plotted a revolt against her husband. It all went wrong. During the skirmishing, some of Henry's troops intercepted a group of knights riding towards Paris. Among them, riding astride and dressed like a nobleman, was fifty-year-old Queen Eleanor.
Henry shipped Eleanor back to England and kept her, more or less confined for the next fifteen years, sometimes in Winchester Castle, sometimes in Old Sarum and odd times in Nottingham Castle, although he often summoned her to keep Christmas with him at Windsor. Offered divorce on condition that she took vows as a nun and retired to Fontevrault Abbey, she refused. No way was she going to abandon her rights to Aquitaine, and nothing, not even confinement, could break her extraordinary spirit.
During her confinement, her eldest son Young Henry died of dysentery. She mourned her handsome, charming son and years later wrote to the pope that she was still tortured by his memory. Two years later her third eldest son Geoffrey died after falling off a horse in a tournament.
In 1189, King Henry died from blood poisoning at Chinon whilst fighting his two remaining sons Richard and John.
|Queen Mother Eleanor
Though Eleanor was sixty-seven years of age when her husband Henry died and her son released her from confinement, she must have possessed a magnificent constitution. Described as 'like a sovereign in full sail', she travelled from castle to castle and city to city, issuing orders throughout England. Her first order was to free those men who had been unjustly imprisoned infringing the forest laws. 'By my own experience,' she said. 'I have found that prisons were hateful to men, and to be released from one was a delightful refreshment to the spirit.'
At Richard's coronation, Eleanor preserved a youthful image by wearing make-up, and a nun-like wimple to hide her white hair and wrinkled neck. Richard immediately left on crusade.
While Richard was still in Sicily and despite her years, Eleanor travelled by way of Bordeaux, rode over the Pyrenees to Pamplona, picked up Princess Berengaria, the daughter of the King of Navarre, rode with her over the Alps, and all the way down the Italian peninsular, where she took ship to Sicily and presented Princess Berengaria as a bride for her son.
On her way home, she joined in the festivities for the coronation of the new Pope who just happened to be an old friend. This would have been a daunting journey for anyone, let alone a woman of seventy years.
On his way home from crusade, Richard was arrested and ransomed in Germany. King Philip of France and Prince John were delighted at this news - King Philip was trying to drive the English out of France and Prince John just couldn't wait to succeed his brother. In concert, Philip attacked Normandy and John tried to raise a revolt by seizing several castles in England. Eleanor outmanouvered both of them. She called out the fyrd on the south coast to guard against a French invasion, while her supporters besieged John in Windsor Castle.
It was then that Eleanor took control of affairs of state. She sent two abbots to Germany to search for the King, and wrote terrible letters to the Pope complaining of the arrest of her son and demanding that he does something about it. 'I have lost the staff of my age, the light of my eyes,' she wrote and signed herself 'Eleanor, by the wrath of God, Queen of the English.'
At eighty-three years of age, Pope Celestine hadn't Eleanor's fire and determination, so she had to set about raising the ransom. Eleanor then personally escorted the ransom to Germany and and it was her astuteness that finally got him released. The German Emperor wouldn't release Richard until he had paid him homage as a vassal. Always a realist, Eleanor saw at once that this was a meaningless condition, and advised her son to accept it.
Mother and son triumphantly travelled home down the Rhine where they were feted by the Archbishop of Cologne and German princes who were impressed by Richard's exploits in the Holy Land.
Eleanor can now leave the kingdom in King Richard's safe hands and retire to Fontevrault Abbey (pictured right) where she can form her own quiet, intimate court. As a refuge, a haven of spiritual comfort for ladies, the abbey is the ideal place for Queen Eleanor to spend her twilight years, though with her abundant energy, she may yet play a part in the future affairs of England.