Power without Piety

Historians agree, generally, that Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) was extraordinary but disagree, specifically, about what made her remarkable. Some declare that around this great lady coalesced the principles of chivalry and courtly love. Others maintain that nobleness was a stranger to her houses and courts and that the tales of valiant knights and fair ladies are woolgathering.

Eleanor was first a queen of France and then of England. She was mother to ten children (two in her first marriage to Louis VII of France, then eight with England’s Henry II). Among those she bore to Henry were kings Richard the Lionheart and John – characters known well from such films as The Adventures of Robin Hood(1938) and The Lion in Winter(1968). That latter film (for which Kate Hepburn won an Oscar) correctly notes that Henry imprisoned Eleanor for sixteen years after she supported an insurrection by his own sons.

In Eleanor’s day, the people of Aquitaine were as Spanish as French. Indeed, they were part Basque, a people who still covet their separate identity. Her native language was Occitan, also called Langue d’Oc – “oc” being the dialect word for “yes.” In Southwestern France today, some provincial writers employ Occitan or a modern version of it, Provençal (common, in several dialects, to all of Southern France). The area is still referred to as Languedoc, especially when referring to the region’s wines. In her day, the duchy comprised all of the southwest from Poitiers through Bordeaux to Lourdes and the Spanish border.

We know Eleanor was beautiful because troubadours who came to her court wrote songs fairly swooning over her loveliness.

She was the granddaughter of the greatest of 12th-century warlords, Duke Guillaume IX, himself a troubadour poet. He was also a crusader, a politician, and . . . a lecher, twice excommunicated. Although Eleanor was a child when he died, his spirit defined her long life. Guillaume was an enthusiast of Ovid, whose Art of Love was among the most widely read books of the age.

The courtliness Eleanor would promote, one scholar writes, “is medieval Europe’s memory of the Roman statesman, of his humanity and urbane skillfulness in guarding the state and facing the trials of public life.” Guillaume’s attachment to the exotic East, tenderness towards Moorish Spain, and ardor for women led to serial charges of heresy. A pornographer, they said! Eleanor cherished his memory.

Queen Eleanor (artist unknown)

C.S. Lewis defined courtly love as “Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love.” Sad but true, although humility, courtesy, and – to an extent – love came from Catholicism.

At fifteen Eleanor was the most eligible woman in Europe, and after the death of her father – Guillaume X – she married the sixteen-year-old French dauphin, who became Louis VII, and with whom she would have no happiness. Eleanor was, by heritage and disposition, a woman of radiance and passion, whereas Louis was a man of gloom and prudery, though thunderstruck by her beauty and vivacity.

Initially, Eleanor found Louis and her new status tolerable: he was well educated, and she was now a queen. She seems a woman born to love her new home in Paris, except it was then (to her) a massive, malodorous, muddy town of 50,000 filled with philosophers, priests, and pedants. She hated it, although she enjoyed listening in on the Sorbonne disputations of brilliant students (such as John of Salisbury) of great teachers (such as Peter Abelard). Eleanor heard them argue, spent lavishly, but pined for the blithe liberty and green beauty of Southern France. She pilfered Louis’ purse and made him the object of ridicule among her Provençal courtiers. The king endured it.

But Eleanor was wasting away. Her newborn daughter, Marie, consoled her, but she became estranged from her pious husband, whose personal dullness was exceeded only by his sexual indifference, due in part to guilt, born of a violent dispute with the Count of Champagne. In 1144 the king had led an assault on the town of Vitry, during which 1000 townspeople had taken refuge in a church. Louis recklessly ordered it torched, and all inside died. He may have lacked leadership skills, but not a conscience.

The end of the marriage might have come sooner if Pope Eugene III had not called upon Louis to lead the Second Crusade.

Perhaps as a way of shoring up their marriage, the royal couple decided to crusade together, and Eleanor and her ladies-in-waiting rode to a recruitment rally dressed in costumes as Amazons, which probably means – something else historians dispute – the women were armed for battle and, possibly, that they were topless.

Nude or not, Eleanor’s behavior did not endear her to the pope or the great St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who sought to instill loftier passions in the crusaders. Still, the Crusade’s success depended upon troops from Aquitaine, and, besides, Louis had no intention of leaving Eleanor in France where lustful men might invade the royal bed.

When they reached Antioch, where Raymond, one of her father’s younger brothers (just seven years her senior), was prince, Eleanor was so ecstatic at the wondrous sensuality of the place that she became her uncle’s lover – or so said wagging tongues. Louis believed the rumors and kidnapped his queen and dragged her off to Jerusalem and then to France, where their broken marriage received annulment in 1152 on grounds, not of adultery, but of consanguinity: she and Louis were fourth cousins. Louis, exhausted and mortified, and Pope Eugene, tired of the royal melodrama, were glad to be rid of her.

Besides, in the interim between their return from the Crusade and the annulment, Eleanor had given birth to another daughter, Alix, and her failure to produce a male heir was another impetus for the separation, since France never permitted the succession of women to the throne.

Less than two months after her annulment, Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet – at 19, eleven years her junior – to whom she’d been introduced by – again, so wagging tongues report – the lover she had taken upon her return from the Crusade: Geoffrey Plantagenet, her new husband’s father.

Tell me a modern fiction more outrageous than this medieval tale of power overwhelming piety.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.