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.