The Duke and the French Queen: the original power couple

A mural depicting Henry, Eleanor and some of their children at Chinon castle
A mural depicting Henry, Eleanor and some of their children at Chinon castle

May 2014 will mark 860 years since Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine in Poitiers. It is the anniversary of one of the most controversial and tempestuous marriages history has ever known and, despite its age, the marriage of Henry and Eleanor is still very much important to the history of England and of France. The marriage has come to define how people see Henry, in fact when people ask me who he is-unfortunately this happens a lot- I usually say ‘he married Eleanor of Aquitaine’. Henry, a man who is responsible for laying the foundations of English law and government, a man who at one point was a more powerful force in France than the King himself, is mainly known for the woman he married. It’s a bizarre reversal in roles, for a medieval king to be overshadowed by his wife, but as we all know, Eleanor was anything but ordinary.

Eleanor seen here in flirt mode
Eleanor seen here in flirt mode
Henry II in kingly mode
Henry II in kingly mode

Henry and Eleanor only met once, when Henry was eighteen in Paris. Henry was with his father Geoffrey Plantagenet; and had been given the order to swear homage to Eleanor’s then husband Louis, in order to claim the duchy of Normandy for his own. Nobody is entirely sure about what was said between Henry and Eleanor and what went on in Paris but, a few months later Eleanor and Louis divorced and weeks later she was married to her handsome new toy-boy. Marriage to Louis could not have been all that fun, the French king was famously pious and, as his father’s second son he’d been expected to take the cloth rather than be a king. At one point the Pope ordered Louis and Eleanor to share a bed after she’d complained that ‘it is like being married to a monk’.

There were constant whisperings of infidelity on Eleanor’s part, she was linked to Saladdin (impossible as the Turkish Leader was only about ten), many courtiers, Henry’s own father and most scandalously, her uncle Count Raymond. Eleanor already had a reputation as a woman with a rampant sexual appetite and a habit of being rather bossy. She and Louis went on a disastrous crusade in which Eleanor is rumoured to have ridden through the desert, bare breasted with just pearls decorating her chest, apparently Louis was mortified. This is almost certainly, if not definitely a rumour but I think it illustrates just what kind of woman the queen of France was thought to be.  If we think about Henry’s reputation as well…a bit of a sexual beast himself, the two would have been perfect for each other in that sense. Perhaps if they’d been compatible beyond the bedroom and in the personality department, the marriage would have been more successful.

The marriage between a nineteen year old Henry and the recently divorced Eleanor (who was 11 years his senior) divided Europe and made Henry a lifelong enemy in Eleanor’s ex-husband King Louis of France. This rivalry would go on to dictate all of Henry’s movements in Europe and the majority of his foreign policies. Before he was even crowned king of England, Henry’s marriage to Eleanor was defining his politics. Louis swore revenge on Henry who at the time was only Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, for what could only be seen a huge humiliation for Louis. Throughout his reign Henry would sign treaty after treaty with Louis, betroth his children to Louis’s and swear repeated oaths to the king. All this was to hold peace and, in the long-run, peace between the two kings never lasted.

Nelly and Hen take on Hollywood
Nelly and Hen take on Hollywood

Another sticking point for Louis was that in the many years he was married to Eleanor they produced only two daughters-Alix and Marie-Henry and Eleanor went onto have three daughters and more importantly five sons, four of whom survived to adulthood (although Geffrey and Young Henry didn’t last long). Not only had Henry ‘stolen’ is overlord’s wife but the younger king proved time and time again to *ahem* perform in ways Louis could not. Sad fact: it took Louis three wives to sire one male heir, Philip Augustus who was thorn in Henry’s side, a brief ally and possible lover to Richard, and a rival king who bested John in just about everything.  Henry and Eleanor were pretty poor parents, both mother and father clearly had favourite children: Richard and John and the others were happily left to their own devices for a while. When the children weren’t being ignored they were either married off or promised lands with no responsibilities attached, something that would make four ambitious sons very resentful indeed. The first two to rebel were Young Henry (then crowned what would basically be secondary king) and Geffrey, the two led what would be a devastating but ultimately fruitless campaign against Henry in the 1180s and had played an active role in the revolt of the Barons in 1173, something Eleanor had also done. Both boys were feckless and arrogant, they possessed the charm of their grandfather but none of the skill of their father, but, in 1174 after defeating the barons, his sons and his wife, Henry forgave them. Henry was not so forgiving with Eleanor who’d become estranged from in the late 1160s sometime after John was born, no as punishment for her betrayal Eleanor lived in relative comfort, but as a prisoner for 16 years.

Heleanor's terrible children
Heleanor’s terrible children

Many people don’t understand why Henry appeared to so lenient to the sons and so harsh on his wife, but I think it’s obvious why. For all their whining and betrayal Geffrey and Young Henry were not a threat to Henry who I think was always-rightly-more wary of Richard than the other two. Henry knew that at least temporarily money and positions of power would shut up the two boys long enough for Henry to eventually crash down like a tonne of bricks and force them into submission. It was not the done thing but nor was it unusual for relatives and nobles to war against their king, it’s a tradition that carries on in the Peasant’s Revolt, Richard II’s deposition and the rise of the Lancastrians, the subsequent Wars of the Roses and of course the famous ascension to the throne by Henry Tudor. Yes, in family squabbles were not unusual for the time but a woman, a queen revolting against her husband? That is a big no-no in any king’s book. I think the sense of betrayal Henry would have felt towards Eleanor is far greater than that that he felt from his sons. Despite being their father Henry was not all that fussed about the boys and the only betrayal of a son to truly wound the king, and pretty much finish him off, was by his favourite son John. Eleanor, in Henry’s eyes must have been the biggest traitor, as queen she was supposed to be his support, there to stand by his side as a symbol of steadfast in what a very difficult period for Henry II. Yet, despite also not being that bothered about Young Henry, Eleanor had ridden to his aide and to the side of her ex-husband Louis, proclaiming Young Henry the only king of England. Hardly fitting behaviour for a king and, if you think about it, it’s no wonder why Henry wished to make an example of his wife. She was imprisoned in England still, every now and then carrying out her ‘duties’ as a queen and assisting her husband…kinky huh?

However, despite the rebellions, the imprisonment and general dislike of each other, the two never divorced.  There was too much as risk for both of them, their combined lands in France was vast, for Henry, his marriage to Eleanor meant owning huge swathes of Southern France and for Eleanor it meant stability as Aquitaine had always been unsteady. Also, while Richard was essentially running Aquitaine, Henry had three other sons who all equally deserved a share of the province. A fierce protector of Richard’s interests, Eleanor could not allow Henry any excuse to dupe her favourite out of his inheritance. Throughout the remaining years of Henry’s life the marriage rumbled along, Eleanor watched Henry rise to new heights before crashing down to earth with a fatal bump, she arranged for his tomb in the exquisite Fontevraud Abbey to be built and now rests beside him. Their marriage was one of great passion but also one of great resentment. I look at them like the Burton and Taylor of the medieval period; they were madly attracted to each other but they would eventually try to destroy each other…it’s a thin line between love and hate.

So it’s a future happy anniversary to Heleanor (the medieval version of Brangelina) you two were many things but you were never boring.

The couple are laid to rest in Fontevraud Abbey
The couple are laid to rest in Fontevraud Abbey

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