Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine: Europe’s Medieval Power Couple

Matt Lewis

On 18 May 1152, Whitsunday, a marriage took place within the cathedral at Poitiers that sent shockwaves around Europe

The immediate scandal was to be nothing compared to the impact the union would have on the course of European politics over the decades and centuries that followed. The groom was Henry, then known as the Duke of Normandy. At nineteen years old, he was also Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, about to acquire another duchy by marriage, and had dashed away from invasion preparations in order to get married. The young man had connections to the throne of Jerusalem, which his grandfather had sat upon, and had attempted to assault England at the age of fifteen. It had been an embarrassing failure, with his foe, King Stephen, paying Henry’s knights wages as they left. But it had been an early glimpse of the restless, impatient, thrusting action that would be Henry’s hallmark all his life. The bride was around a decade older than Henry. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s year of birth has traditionally been given as 1122, but a family genealogy describes her as thirteen in 1137, meaning 1124 is perhaps more likely. In 1152, she was either thirty or twenty-eight. Eleanor was entering into her second marriage less than two months after the first had been dissolved. The reason for the rush had a lot to do with her ex. Eleanor had been married in 1137 to Louis VII, just days before he became King of France. She had brought the vast Aquitaine to the French crown, but after years of marriage, the royal couple had only produced two daughters; not the male heir Louis required. Eleanor had travelled with her husband to the Holy Land on the Second Crusade in 1147. By their return, despite the Pope ordering them to stay together and blessing a bed for them to sleep together in, (nine months after which their second daughter was born), their relationship was in tatters. Eleanor was accused of having an affair with her uncle, the Prince of Antioch. In reality, she had agreed with her uncle’s assessment of the priorities of the war in opposition to Louis. Medieval chroniclers could find no other explanation for such an abomination than sexual impropriety. Eleanor had attended a meeting at Beaugency on the banks of the River Loire in March to hear France’s leading churchmen annul her marriage on the grounds of consanguinity – a family relationship that was close enough to be prohibited and require dispensation – in spite of the Pope’s specific prohibition. It must have been heart-breaking for Eleanor to have to leave her two young daughters behind; they were French princesses and in the custody of their father. There is no evidence that Eleanor ever saw either of them again. The journey back to her native Poitou in south-west France had driven home the need for her to put her affairs in order. A new marriage was the best way to achieve that. After leaving Paris, Eleanor had suffered two attempts to abduct her, both of which aimed to force her into marriage. The prize was clear in her vast and wealthy territories in Aquitaine. The first attempt was by Theobald, Count of Blois and Champagne. The second was by Geoffrey of Anjou, the younger brother of the new Duke of Normandy who was mustering his forces to assault England.
Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine: Europe’s Medieval Power Couple
Detail of a miniature of Philip Augustus sending an envoy, and the envoy being received by Henry II and his queen.

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Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine: Europe’s Medieval Power Couple
Tombs of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in Fontevraud Abbey

On 6th May, Henry received a letter from Eleanor inviting him to marry her.

Henry dropped everything and sped south. The couple had met a few months earlier in Paris when Henry had been invested as Duke of Normandy. Chroniclers were quick to jump on the idea that Eleanor’s uncontrollable passion again lay behind a controversy. Walter Map wrote that when they met in Paris ‘Eleanor, the Queen of France, cast glances of unholy love’ upon Henry. To add to the scandal, Walter noted that this was ‘in spite of the charge secretly made against her that she had shared Louis’s bed with Henry’s father, Geoffrey. Gerald of Wales’s written portrait of Henry doesn’t really support the notion that the attraction was primarily physical. He described him as ‘having hair somewhat red, grey eyes, and an ample and round head; his bluish eyes were fierce, and with redness when in a passion; his face fiery, his voice broken, his neck in a slight degree depressed from his shoulders, his breast square, his arms strong; his body fleshy, rather by nature than by indulgence of appetite; his belly was large, and yet there was no unusual rotundity, no laziness whatever; and he was moderate even in his excesses’. The effort to paint this as a seedy, scandal fuelled passion fits the pattern deployed against Eleanor (and plenty of other women with power). The truth is much less shocking, but much more interesting. Eleanor owned vast swathes of land. Attempts to capture her had made her perilous situation clear. If Eleanor was to look for a new husband, she needed someone who could protect her from and rival her ex – the King of France. Few bachelors fit the bill quite like Henry. Still in his teens, he owned lands on Aquitaine’s northern border, stretching to the northern coast of Normandy. He had a strong claim to the throne of England, which it must have appeared he was capable of realising. For Henry, the advantages were equally clear. Aquitaine was a huge area that brought wealth, as well as prestige, and another dukedom. Beside these advantages was the glaring warning that neither could have missed. They could only have accepted that the benefits outweighed the dangers. Eleanor was now Louis’s vassal, and such a significant one ought to seek her lord’s permission to remarry, even ignoring the fact that they had been wed. Eleanor did not. To add to the insult, Henry was Louis’s vassal in his continental lands too. The union made Henry the largest landowner in France by a country mile. He held far more land than Louis, and probably more than anyone had in centuries. The issue was further compounded for Louis when Henry’s expedition to England ended in success. He was crowned in December 1154, creating a set of lands that stretched from Hadrian’s Wall to the Pyrenees. Eleanor had chosen well. In the early years of their marriage, Henry and Eleanor worked incredibly well together. Eleanor was frequently left as Henry’s regent in England when he was on the continent, and represented him in other territories ably. Normandy was run for the remainder of her life by Henry’s mother, Empress Matilda, another redoubtable woman, demonstrating Henry’s comfort with delegation. Fuel was added to the fires of Louis’s fear of a new rival by the swift arrival of an heir for Henry and Eleanor. In August 1153, the couple had a son named William, after the Dukes of Aquitaine, suggesting Eleanor was behind his naming. He would only survive until 1156, though. This son was swiftly added to by another, named Henry for his father. This son was followed by three more, as well as three daughters. Their last child was John, born in 1166. Given that fifteen years of marriage to Louis had produced two daughters, and Louis had been keen to lay the blame for the lack of a son at Eleanor’s feet, her immediate furnishing of Henry with a son, followed by four more, was another embarrassment to Louis. It also meant Henry and Eleanor had huge leverage on the international marriage (and therefore alliance) market.
Ancestry UK

Henry and Eleanor are often remembered better for the distance and trauma of their later years, rather than the glittering partnership of their early marriage.

In 1173, three of the couple’s four surviving sons flew into revolt. Eleanor was apprehended leaving Aquitaine and accused of trying to make for Paris, where her sons had entered the warm embrace of Louis and his court. The uprising was nominally about King Henry’s unwillingness to devolve power to his sons, but he had no issue with that. In fact, Richard and Geoffrey were enjoying a good degree of independence and authority. The problem appears to have lain with Henry the Younger. Potentially there was something in him that Henry realised meant he was unready for power. Despite all that would follow, Henry was never anything other than a doting father. When Henry the Younger died in 1183, once more in open revolt, Henry was left distraught. Gerald of Wales recorded that ‘so great and so immoderate a grief oppressed his father, by a sorrow beyond all comparison deep, that, refusing all consolation, and perplexed between two evils, he declared that he had far rather that his son had triumphed over him than that death should have triumphed over his son.’ All of those involved in the 1173-4 uprising were swiftly forgiven, with one exception. Eleanor is widely believed to have spent the rest of her husband’s life under house arrest, as his prisoner. In writing my joint biography of this medieval power couple, I questioned whether Eleanor in fact took the fall for their sons’ revolt, facilitating their smooth forgiveness. Eleanor had returned to Aquitaine to rule there – something again often seen as a punishment, due to the distance between the couple, but I frame it as something more like a reward. It was all Eleanor had ever wanted, and after years of faultless service at Henry’s side, I think this was her golden handshake. When their son Henry died, it was to Eleanor that Henry turned immediately. He allowed her to visit their son’s tomb, and she was often recorded at court during her supposed captivity. Henry and Eleanor were undoubtedly an incredible pair of individuals who made a devastating team. The problem was the threat they posed to the Capetian crown, uneasy on its small spit of land around Paris. Louis VII and his son Philip II Augustus developed and honed a tactic of getting between them and their sons to disrupt Angevin power within France, continuing it throughout Richard I’s reign. It worked incredibly well, too many times. Henry and Eleanor’s success forced the kings of France to find a way to bring them down. In many ways, that set the tone of western European politics for centuries to follow.
Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine: Europe’s Medieval Power Couple
Henry II
Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine: Europe’s Medieval Power Couple

Matt Lewis

Matt Lewis is a medieval historian and author who has written biographies of Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry III, Richard Duke of York, and Richard III as well as accounts of The Anarchy and the Wars of the Roses. Matt co-hosts History Hit’s Gone Medieval podcast as well as presenting documentaries for History Hit.
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