Passion and Possession

In her lifetime, Eleanor of Aquitaine found herself married to not one, but two kings. Her first husband came into her life when she was only fifteen years old. Her father dead, Eleanor had become Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right. Though the marriage contract between herself and Louis VII was still being negotiated when her father died, the papers had not yet been signed. The King of France was reluctant, because the contract was incredibly favorable to Eleanor, and listed a clause that was completely unheard of in 12th century Europe. Namely, that the Duchy of Aquitaine and the County of Poitou did not go to Louis VII upon their marriage, but to Eleanor and Louis’ son, once he came of age.

A Modern Rendering of Louis VII of France

Eleanor and her ally, the Bishop of Limoges, finished negotiating the marriage contract and the King of France signed it. So Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine were married on July 25, 1137. Louis was a young man, only one year older than Eleanor herself. He had soft blond hair and blue eyes, and there is no doubt that he loved his queen with an unswerving devotion throughout their married life, and beyond. Louis had been raised to be a monk in the Church, and had taken on the role of young king only after his older brother’s death. From all accounts, Louis was a very devout man who put the needs of the Church ahead of Eleanor. And, even more to the point, Eleanor did not love Louis back.

A lack of love is no hindrance to a political marriage, and Eleanor had wanted to be the Queen of France. Her father had raised her in the midst of the political realities of the world, and she knew that her personal feelings should and must be set aside to maintain the alliance with Paris, and to make her son King of France as well as Duke of Aquitaine, a second Charlemagne.

In spite of their youth and Louis’ love for her, there was never a son born to them. Only two girls, whose births were separated by six years. Two princesses were not what Eleanor had married Louis VII for, and after fifteen years of marriage to a man who lived like a monk, she wanted her freedom.

In August 1151, Henry, the eighteen-year-old Duke of Normandy, came to Paris to be confirmed in his duchy. He was a strong man as well as an intelligent one, a politician who even at such a young age intended to reclaim the throne of England, which had been taken from his mother by the usurper, Stephen of Blois almost two decades before. When Henry and Eleanor met at her husband’s court, they made an instant alliance built on passion as well as power. Eleanor knew that her annulment would soon be announced and Henry of Normandy was just the man to step into the role of her second husband.

A Rendering from 1620 of King Henry II of England

Louis VII, who through Eleanor retained rights to Aquitaine and Poitou, lost all of her possessions when their marriage was annulled on March 21, 1152. And in May of that same year, when word reached Louis that Eleanor, his ex-wife, and Henry, his vassal, had married, Louis VII immediately attacked the border of Normandy, beginning a war.

Henry, a consummate politician, managed to make peace with Louis VII of France, who heart broken and humiliated, was furious at the marriage Eleanor had made. But with her first husband out of the picture, Eleanor and Henry went on to have their first son by the time Henry gained the crown of England in December 1154. Their alliance of passion combined with politics ruled an empire stretching from England and Wales, to encompass part of Ireland, as well as Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Gascony, Poitou and the Aquitaine.

During the first fourteen years of their marriage, Eleanor gave birth to eight children. Three of her sons by Henry went on to be crowned king. Henry the Younger, Richard the Lionhearted, and Prince John all wore the crown of England. Eleanor and Henry’s daughters made alliances as far away as Sicily and Saxony, binding kings and princes far and wide to support Henry and Eleanor’s power.

Though Henry took a lover, Rosemund de Clifford in 1166 and effectively ended the passionate connection that he and Eleanor had shared throughout their married life, Eleanor and Henry stayed allies until 1173, when she openly rebelled against Henry, along with their sons. Though this rebellion failed, and though Eleanor was held as a prisoner until Henry’s death in 1189, the first half of their marriage was still a passionate alliance between a man and a woman who faced each other as equals. In the end, they were torn apart by the one simple truth that Eleanor found hard to accept: there can be only one king.

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