“The descendants of King Henry must bear the curse pronounced in Holy Scripture: ` The multiplied brood of the wicked shall not thrive; and bastard slips shall not take deep root nor any fast foundation……The children of adulterers shall be rooted out`. The present King of France will avenge the memory of his virtuous father, King Louis, upon the children of the faithless wife who left him to unite with his enemy. And as the ox eats down the grass to the very roots, so shall Philip of France entirely destroy the race.”
~~ Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, prophecy on the ruin of the Angevin Plantagenet dynasty ~~
Here lies Eleanor of Aquitaine, By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, reclining at her ease, while reading her medieval ebook. Bishop Hugh, that free flowing, religious human bile duct, has prophecied that the acid rain of heavenly retribution will fall upon the sacrilegious heads of that nest of perfidious Angevin vipers, known universally as The Devil`s Brood. The Mother of Vipers is Eleanor of Aquitaine, Duchess of Aquitaine, one time Queen of France, wife to the saintly, but sexually comatose Louis, who she ditches in favour of the virile, upwardly mobile young Henry Plantagenet – the new King of England.
I`ve just seen a question on another blog site: “Who is your favourite woman from history?”
It`s an impossible question for me to answer: so many to choose from, each unique and precious to historical memory; how long is a piece of string? There are celestial bodies that blaze across the heavens, and are gone in the twinkling of an eye; the fire within others burns brightly, it`s heart a white hot furnace which lasts a human lifetime. Others float through life, like the softness of a pillow made from an angel`s sigh, a candle which gutters with the prevailing winds of time and fashion, but always constant. So today, I choose a woman who was a blazing comet of immense magnitude: a woman who scandalized Europe for most of her 82 years on Earth; mother of two kings, wife of two kings, who went on crusade to the Holy Land arrayed in full battle armour, with husband number one, and imprisoned by both for plotting against them. I give you the most remarkable, that incomparable woman, Europe`s most eligible heiress………..Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Eleanor is a woman who`s reputation has had a rocky ride for most of it`s existence: it`s only been in the last hundred years or so that her good name has been recovered from it`s dark legend, the grimy soot of prejudice and falsehood washed away, allowing her to stride once more into the sunlight. Powerful, and influential women have always had a bad press from male dominated society: it`s a natural instinct that men feel threatened by a woman in control; Eleanor suffered because she dared to act differently, exert personal control over her life to satisfy her own needs, rather than that of any man.
“They called the Queen the eagle because she stretched out her wings, as it were, over two kingdoms, France and England. She had separated from her French relatives by divorce, while the King had separated from her marriage bed by confining her to prison. Richard, her third son, was her third nestling, and the one who would raise his mother`s name to great glory.”
In her time Eleanor was called many things. Her youngest son, John, called her “….a shameless and unhappy woman.” Which was a bit rich coming from a man with such an unsavory reputation. To Gervase of Canterbury she was ” an exceedingly shrewd and clever woman”, but being a man, he couldn`t resist a snide aside on her femininity…..” but unstable and flighty.”
Eleanor was born in 1122, and raised in Aquitaine`s hedonistic ducal palace at Poitiers. Her upbringing was pampered and intellectually rigorous, which coupled with a headstrong mentality, that recognized it`s own physical beauty, she was a handful from almost day one. When her father, Duke William X died young without a male heir, Eleanor was gifted the duchies of Aquitaine and Gascony, with King Louis VI of France her guardian, who promptly married her off to his limp wristed son Louis, in order to secure her vast, and rich territory for the French crown. Unfortunately, although initially trying to make a decent fist of marriage to Louis, Eleanor very quickly came to the conclusion that he wasn`t going to give her any exciting bedroom acrobatics, or emotional support. She felt isolated in a court bereft of the high quality culture she had enjoyed at Poitiers; so she basically ignored Louis, apart from the odd excursion into what passed as sex with him, and set up her own court within a court, and went on her merry way.
When Louis decided to go on Crusade she was suddenly in her element, and arrived in Outremer with a troop of female amazons, fully kitted out in amazonian couture of white tunics slit up the side to reveal knee – high red leather boots, turned with an orange lining. The entire spectacle distracted the crusaders rather a lot apparently. Eleanor insisted on going into the countryside on a picnic excursion with her friends, where they were set upon by a Saracen army which was only fought off with the loss of seven thousand of Louis`s men. The French army decided that Eleanor`s presence was a liability and had doomed the Crusade from the get-go; so Louis first confined her and her entourage to headquarters, before packing her off home to France against her will, where the marriage staggered on for another two years before being annulled.
Eleanor really didn`t give two hoots for seeing the back of Louis and his intellectually challenged court; she had bigger fish to fry in the shape of a brazen, lustful, sexually virile young man called Henry of Anjou. He was redheaded, 19 years old, and was destined to be the next King of England….What wasn`t there to like? She was about 30 by this time, but still renowned as a great beauty, and over the next 13 years would give Henry five sons and three daughters. It`s fairly certain that the sex for Eleanor was satisfying, otherwise, being such a strong willed individual, she would have let Henry know her views on the matter one way or the other. Between them, they spawned the most famous line of Kings in English history, the Plantagenets.
“But of course; what family doesn`t have it`s ups and downs?”
The marriage was as tumultuous as her previous one however; Eleanor knew full well that her husband was a virile stud with a large appetite for sex, which didn`t confine itself to her. The list of mistresses lengthened as the years progressed along with Eleanor`s anger, and he eventually agreed to her returning to her first love – Aquitaine, where she set up her own court and ruled in her own right under husband Henry as her liege lord. This worked reasonably amicably until her sons grew up and started champing at the bit over Henry`s lack of designating his workload to them. They wanted; no, they demanded responsibility to keep them quiet, otherwise there would be trouble. Henry knew this full well, but because of his control freakery, kept on putting off the moment of decision; so the boys went to Big Momma and vented their grievances in her very receptive ears, and they hatched a plot amongst themselves to set the old boy to one side and take control of the family business.
It failed. Eleanor`s semi- autonomous Aquitanian sanctuary of culture, troubadours and courtly love was ended by a vengeful and betrayed Henry, and she was packed off to various castles for the next sixteen years to keep her out of mischief, and away from influencing her sons against dad. Their marriage was beset with quarrels, argument, and even war, as she encouraged and financed her sons rebellions against their father; but it was by no means an unhappy one. They knew the measure of each other full well: both were highly intelligent, educated and strong headed, and recognized themselves as kindred spirits and soul mates. It was a strange, destructive and all consuming love they possessed for each other: neither able to live with, or without the other.
” How nice of you to let me out for Christmas.”
The couple always spent Christmas together, providing the plot for a James Goldman play, turned into the wonderful 1968 film, The Lion in Winter, which won three Academy Awards, one of which Katherine Hepburn won for playing Eleanor, alongside Peter O`Toole as Henry. Although there have been other adaptions of Goldman`s play, the electrifying double act of Hepburn and O`Toole has always rendered them forgettable. Their wildly dysfunctional marriage is the cornerstone on which the film is built. While Henry died exhausted and spent, fighting another rebellion by his sons, Eleanor lived for another fifteen, action packed, and eventful years; possibly the most productive and influential of her long life. Richard becomes King and immediately leaves on Crusade, naming Eleanor governor of the family shop, and to keep an eye on her youngest nestling, the paradox that is John. When Richard is captured for ransom on his way back from the Holy Land, Eleanor ( much to John`s chagrin and opposition) organizes the fee to release him. She also arranges his strategic marriage to Berengaria of Navarre in the faint hope that even a gay son would do his duty and produce a male heir ( fat chance with Richard), and organizes his funeral after he is killed by a crossbow bolt during a minor skirmish in France 1199.
” She passed from the world as a candle in the sconce goeth out when the wind strketh it.”
On April 1st, 1204, the candle guttered and died, as her late husband`s once vast dominions in France were being lost by her last surviving son, John, to the French King Philip. She had counseled John wisely for five years; to give him much needed backbone and the prestige of her presence by his side. But now all was lost; irony of ironies, to the son of the husband she had left for Henry. How the worm turns in such unexpected and hurtful ways.
Salus et vita.