Eleanor of Aquitaine, as It Was Said: Truths and Tales about the Medieval Queen 
by Karen Sullivan.
Chicago, 270 pp., £36, August, 978 0 226 82583 0
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Historians​ usually exclude gossip and rumour from their sources, or use them with caution. In her new book about Eleanor of Aquitaine, Karen Sullivan does the opposite. She looks at what friends, enemies, troubadours and chroniclers as late as the 16th century had to say, often relaying it with the phrase ut dicebatur, ‘as it was said’. Eleanor has been many things to many people, from the arbiter of a Court of Love in Andreas Capellanus’s treatise De Amore to the acerbic power broker played by Katharine Hepburn in A Lion in Winter. Moving between fact, rumour and outright fiction, Sullivan traces Eleanor’s reputation through five phases of her career: as heiress, crusader, patroness of poets, queen mother and aged affiliate of Fontevraud, the nunnery where she is buried. Eleanor’s contemporaries, like modern historians, were agreed that she both sought and exercised power. But for a medieval king or queen, power couldn’t be divorced from land, family, inheritance and hereditary privilege. As the heir to Aquitaine, the largest and richest province in France, Eleanor (or Aliénor) was from the age of twelve the most eligible heiress in Europe. She learned early on to make the most of her assets, from territory to personal charms. Her shrewd political manoeuvres were designed to secure sovereignty over her lands, and later to protect the claims of her sons, rather than to advance her own rule.

Marriage was central to the career of any queen. Twelfth-century theologians innovated in their insistence that consent – not sex, dowries or parental agreements – established a union. Hugh of Saint-Victor, for instance, said that marriage begins when a man and a woman agree to a lifelong union with ‘words in the present tense’ (not the future, which would merely indicate a betrothal). Such a marriage is valid in the absence of witnesses, parental approval or priestly blessing, even if consummation does not immediately follow. For obvious reasons, the aristocracy fought against this reform, and, as Sullivan points out, ‘consent’ should not be confused with ‘choice’. A daughter was supposed to comply with her father’s wishes, so when Eleanor married Louis VII of France in 1137, at the age of fifteen, we shouldn’t imagine it was for love, even if Louis was said to be taken with her beauty. Eleanor became queen of France and Louis duke of Aquitaine. His was the greater gain, since in the next generation the province would pass to the French crown – but only if Eleanor bore him a son. She did not.

Although the Church didn’t allow divorce, there was a loophole for the rich and powerful. This was consanguinity: a degree of kinship, not necessarily close, that rendered a marriage quasi-incestuous and thus displeasing to God. Disgruntled spouses might discover – even after having a daughter together – that they were third cousins. They could then try to persuade the pope to annul the marriage, which he might or might not do. Eugene III did agree to divorce Eleanor and Louis, but only after long resistance. He first required the couple to try to conceive again, resulting in the birth of a second daughter. (A son could have rendered the marriage permanent.) Just eight weeks after the annulment, Eleanor married Henry II of England, a fourth cousin.

Here is where the sources get interesting, for chroniclers do not agree on how the separation came about. Several say that Louis ‘repudiated’ his queen, either because he was upset by the consanguinity or because she hadn’t borne a son (though they attribute the second motive to his barons, who are often depicted as anxious to avoid civil wars over succession). But John of Salisbury, Gervase of Canterbury and William of Newburgh all say that the initiative was with Eleanor. Gervase claims that she used consanguinity as a ‘pretext’ and William that she ‘grew most irritated with the king’s habits and … said that she had married a monk, not a king’. Louis had in fact been raised in a monastery. The cleric Stephen of Paris agreed that he ‘was entirely ecclesiastical in his conversation and habits’, though from him that was high praise.

Louis’s monkish tendencies became all too apparent during the disastrous Second Crusade of 1147-49. Eleanor herself had taken the cross to accompany him to the East, but he showed no aptitude for strategy and seemed more interested in completing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. After the French army suffered catastrophic losses, Eleanor abandoned him to travel with her more valiant uncle, Raymond of Antioch. Some claimed that they had an affair, though this seems unlikely. Later sources make the rumour still juicier: Eleanor’s lover was not her uncle but ‘the sultan of Babylon’. The Minstrel of Reims identified the sultan as Saladin, who was greatly admired in the West for his chivalry. Such an affair would have been impossible – Saladin was a child at the time – but the tale is interesting for its characterisation of Eleanor as a wildly transgressive, exotic figure. For the minstrel, she is both an excellent judge of character and an ‘evil woman’, betraying her faith as well as her husband. Her preference for virile courage over piety helps explain her attraction to the energetic Henry.

Matthew Paris, a well-regarded historian writing in the 13th century, gives three reasons for the divorce: consanguinity, the queen’s alleged adultery and the astonishing charge that ‘she was of the devil’s race.’ He meant it literally: Eleanor was like the folkloric figure of Mélusine, woman above and fish or serpent from the waist down, though she normally managed to conceal that trait. None of the Mélusine romances explicitly mention Eleanor, but they make suggestive links: she was either descended from such a creature or had inherited her lands. Caesarius of Heisterbach, a monk writing around 1230, observed that the English king (at that time Henry III, Eleanor’s grandson) was ‘said to be descended from a phantom mother’. Eleanor’s magical character might explain both Louis’s initial, passionate devotion to his queen and his later repugnance. One poet makes her tell her barons that the king had called her ‘something misshapen and unworthy of his bed’.

Eleanor married Henry II in 1152 and was crowned in Westminster Abbey two years later. England was going through a turbulent period, and Eleanor’s vassals in Aquitaine would do homage only to their duchess, not to the English king. From 1168 to 1173, she lived on her own lands in Poitiers. In her late forties, still renowned for her beauty, she presided over a glittering court that has been the subject of scholarly debate since the late 19th century. Capellanus’s De Amore (1180s), a parody of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, codified the ‘rules’ of courtly love expressed in troubadour lyrics and romances. The most scandalous section involves the ‘courts of love’, in which a panel of noble ladies, including Eleanor and her daughter Marie of Champagne, give their verdicts. In one decision, coming close to home, Eleanor criticises a lady who wishes to stay with her lover even after he has discovered their kinship. A woman who ‘seeks to preserve an incestuous love’, she warns, ‘is going against what is right and proper’.

Did courts of love exist? For many decades, scholars treated De Amore as a depiction of social practice, until the tide turned in the 1970s towards a more satirical reading. But even if the courts of love were only a parlour game – and it is hard to imagine that they could have been anything more – Andreas was writing under Marie’s patronage and during Eleanor’s lifetime. He must have known that his aristocratic audience would be titillated, without taking offence. Marie’s patronage of poets, especially Chrétien de Troyes, is well known, and she might have followed her mother’s example. Eleanor’s grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine, was the earliest troubadour whose songs have come down to us.

The celebrated Bernart de Ventadorn dedicated one of his songs to Eleanor as ‘Queen of the Normans’, and after she passed through Germany en route to Jerusalem, a Middle High German poet wrote: ‘If all the world were mine/from the sea to the Rhine/I would gladly give it up/if only the Queen of England/would lie in my arms.’ Despite the many allusions to the extent of her patronage, more sceptical historians have tended to disregard them. But Sullivan points out that we need not choose between the ‘maximalists’ and the ‘minimalists’. ‘We must resist the temptation to transform an ambiguous suggestion into either an affirmation or a denial.’ Which is to say, how Eleanor was perceived mattered as much as what she did.

She did one thing, however, that proved disastrous for both Henry’s reign and her own liberty. In 1173, Eleanor’s sons, Henry ‘the Young King’, Richard (later called Lionheart) and Geoffrey of Brittany, rebelled against their father, encouraged by Louis VII. Most chroniclers agree that Eleanor supported their revolt. Why she did so isn’t clear, but Henry was publicly unfaithful and the couple had long been estranged. Eleanor probably urged her southern vassals to aid her rebel sons. A famous troubadour, Bertran de Born, supported the young Henry’s revolt – earning himself a memorable place in Dante’s hell as a false counsellor. So quarrelsome was the whole Angevin family that one chronicler, Richard of Devizes, compared them to the house of Oedipus. At any event, the rebellion went badly. It was crushed by Henry’s troops and his heir, the Young King, died on campaign. Eleanor was arrested and imprisoned in various castles over the next sixteen years; she wasn’t released until Henry’s death in 1189. Although most sources condemn her part in the revolt, she had sympathisers even at the time. Geoffrey of Monmouth had compiled the so-called prophecies of Merlin in the 1130s, and now a series of interpreters came forth to identify the ‘eagle of the broken covenant’ as Queen Eleanor, spreading her regal wings over two realms and encouraging the precocious flight of her ‘eaglets’.

Richard I succeeded his father but spent little time in England. Though he was praised for his courage on the Third Crusade (1189-92), he was captured on the way home by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI, and held for a ransom of 150,000 marks – around $3 billion in today’s money, according to one estimate. The luckless Eleanor, ruling as regent, had to raise the money from taxes, on top of those which had already been levied to fund the crusade. Roger of Howden claims that all ‘shed tears of joy’ when Richard was released into his mother’s custody and William Marshal advised that ‘all men of good birth should suffer hardship and great pain for their rightful lord.’ Many of lesser birth would no doubt have disagreed. Nonetheless, the elderly queen won admiration for her vigorous regency and loyalty to her son. When he was succeeded by the unpopular John in 1199, Eleanor supported this son as well, helping to suppress a rebellion against him. Remarkably, the fractious brothers who had united against their father remained devoted to their mother. John not only confirmed Eleanor’s right to hold Poitou independently during her lifetime, but saluted her as sovereign lady (domina) of his own Continental lands and even himself.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, tales emerged of Eleanor the murderess. Holinshed, followed by Shakespeare, implies that she was complicit with King John in killing John’s nephew Arthur of Brittany, the son of his brother Geoffrey, who had a superior claim to the throne. Shakespeare makes Eleanor a lesser Lady Macbeth, supporting John’s rule chiefly to satisfy her own lust for power. When Eleanor maintains (truthfully) that Richard left the kingdom to John in his will, Arthur’s equally ambitious mother, Constance, counters that this was no more than ‘a wicked will:/A woman’s will, a canker’d grandam’s will!’ Another Renaissance poet, Samuel Daniel, charged the queen with a second murder. In his ‘Complaint of Rosamund’ (1592), he depicts Eleanor as the vengeful Juno to Henry’s philandering Jupiter. The king took countless mistresses, but the one he flaunted most publicly was ‘fair Rosamund’ Clifford, whom the queen was said to have poisoned in 1176. We have to wonder how far such innuendos, unsupported by medieval sources, were motivated by political fears about what John Knox had censured as the ‘monstrous regiment of women’.

Far removed from these salacious tales is the serene tomb effigy of Eleanor at Fontevraud, the Angevin necropolis (though, thanks to the French Revolution, the royal bones are no longer there). Having long supported the nuns financially, Eleanor is said to have taken the veil among them in the days before her death in 1204. This needn’t be seen as a sign of exceptional piety. Dying aristocrats often took religious vows in the hope of assisting their salvation – the monks or nuns who buried them would then be obliged to pray for their souls. Still crowned, the queen bends her eyes over an open psalter, but she gazes into eternity.

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