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Eleanor of Aquitaine Between History and Legend | A Guest Post from Karen Sullivan

In Eleanor of Aquitaine, as It Was Said: Truth and Tales about the Medieval Queen, Karen Sullivan invites readers on a literary journey through the stories about the famous medieval queen, in order to discover what even the most fantastical tales reveal about Eleanor and life as a twelfth-century noblewoman. In this guest post below, Sullivan follows the queen through four such stories.

Book cover with black background and image of a woman's profile wearing a crown.

In the 1968 film The Lion in Winter, Henry II, King of England, speculates as to what future historians will record about his reign. He imagines them saying that he was the ablest soldier at an able time and the ruler of a state as great as Charlemagne’s. But he also predicts that they will write, “He married, out of love, a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen.” Thanks to Katharine Hepburn’s Academy Award-winning turn as Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine demonstrates in this film the qualities that earned her her husband’s admiration. She is cunning and manipulative, murderous and seductive, imperious and vulnerable. But it is telling that Henry expects that Eleanor will be remembered, not as a woman out of history, but as “a woman out of legend.” The facts of her life will command the attention of historians interested in the Angevin empire of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but the story of her life will captivate a much broader audience.

Eleanor did become, as Henry predicts, the most famous queen of the Middle Ages, but she has always presented a conundrum for historians. We possess surprisingly few reliable records about her from the centuries when she lived. The most influential accounts that have come down to us are not so much historical as what I am calling “parahistorical”—that is, works that claim to be historical but are not grounded in what either medieval or modern people would recognize as fact. Faced with the dearth of solid information about Eleanor, historians have often speculated about her life, drawing on anachronistic assumptions about how a medieval woman would have thought and acted.

My new book, Eleanor of Aquitaine, as It Was Said, takes a different approach. I show how a close reading of the historical sources about Eleanor—that is, a reading which considers not just what is said but how it is said—reveals far more about her than has been appreciated so far. The parahistorical sources about Eleanor show us how her contemporaries made sense of her character (whether as someone to be admired or condemned) and, by extension, how Eleanor made sense of herself through the vocabulary of her time. If we wish to understand Eleanor “as she truly was,” we need to take seriously the cultural categories with which those around her and—from what we can tell—she herself interpreted her behavior.

A few episodes from Eleanor’s life, as represented by writings from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, can illustrate how this queen became “a woman out of legend” for her contemporaries.

The Unfaithful Wife

When Eleanor was on the Second Crusade with her first husband Louis VII, King of France, a quarrel broke out between the two rulers that provoked great consternation back in Western Europe. One chronicler writes, “Many know what I would that none of us knew. This same queen, during the time of her first husband, was at Jerusalem. Let no one say any more about it. I too know it well. Keep silent!” The authors of the three original sources on this quarrel—William of Tyre, John of Salisbury, and Gerhoh of Reichersberg—agree that something happened when Eleanor and Louis were staying with Raymond, Prince of Antioch, the queen’s handsome and dashing uncle. Did Eleanor break her marriage vows, as William of Tyre alleges, though without identifying her lover? Did she enter into an illicit liaison with her own uncle, as John of Salisbury insinuates she may have done? By the thirteenth century, the most common story was that Eleanor had an affair with a Turk—even, as the anonymous Minstrel of Reims proposes, with Saladin himself, Sultan of Egypt and Syria and the greatest Muslim leader of the Crusades. But Eleanor could not have had an affair with Saladin, who was a small child when she was in the Holy Land. What, then, do we make of this story?

A close consideration of the original sources of “the incident of Antioch” suggests that the trouble began when Louis refused to send an army to help Raymond fight neighboring Muslim potentates and Raymond sought to avenge himself on the French king by alienating Louis from his wife, “by force” and/or “by fraud.” Gerhoh of Reichersberg suggests that Raymond forcibly seized and confined Eleanor, that Louis suspected that Eleanor had been unfaithful to him during that time (with or without her consent),, and that Eleanor was furious that Louis refused to believe that she had kept her marital vows.

If we limit ourselves to the testimony of the sources, there is little reason to doubt that Eleanor had grown disgusted with her husband, who was floundering on the crusade, by the time they arrived in Antioch, and that she proposed that their marriage be dissolved. She was said to have regarded her husband by this point as “more of a monk than a king.” There is also little reason to doubt that, once her marriage was annulled, Eleanor invited the young Henry, who was preparing to cross the Channel to claim the English throne, to join her in Poitiers for the purpose of matrimony. If the Minstrel of Reims and his many followers represent Eleanor as having attempted to leave her pusillanimous husband and to unite in marriage with a more vigorous military leader, they are not mistaken— though, in proposing that she tried to elope with Saladin, they are conflating Raymond’s and Henry’s characters with that of the great Muslim ruler. There lies a truth in these accounts’ apparent fictions.

The Demonic Bride

Contemporaries debated the reason behind Eleanor and Louis’s divorce for years. The official story was that the Council of Beaugency annulled their union on grounds of consanguinity, but Louis would go on to marry two other women more closely related to himself than Eleanor, and his willingness to lose control over Eleanor’s vast lands of Aquitaine and Poitou was regarded as so foolish that there was assumed to be an additional motivation for this rupture.  Modern historians agree that Louis sought a new wife because Eleanor had failed to provide him with a male heir. Yet it is worth noting that, of all the sources that mention their divorce, only one—the parahistorical Minstrel of Reims, writing more than a hundred years after the fact—mentions the lack of a son as a precipitating factor. The Minstrel cites Louis’s barons as recommending that their lord repudiate his queen because “You have no child from her,” but he also quotes them as stating, in this very sentence, “In faith, … the best counsel we can give you is that you let her go, for she is a devil.” What is going on here?

At this time, folkloric stories circulated about a high lord who becomes infatuated with a beautiful young woman—as Louis had been with Eleanor—and marries her, only to discover that she is of demonic (or fairy) nature. In the stories, this lord is either commended for casting off his wife in horror or criticized for treating a loving spouse (whatever her origin) with cruelty. Following this folkloric model, many sources from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries claim that Eleanor (or an ancestor of hers, or a woman with her titles, husband, and children) was a demon. Indeed, in one French-language chronicle, when Eleanor returned to her lands after the divorce, she complains to her vassals that “The king said that I was a devil and that I was in all ways something misshapen and unworthy of his bed.” Hurt, she strips herself of a garment—perhaps her cape, but perhaps more intimate clothing—and asks, “See, lords, is my body not delightful?” Her men reassure her of her beauty and of the likelihood that she will find another suitable husband (as she soon did). If multiple sources represent Eleanor as demonic, they are, again, not mistaken, though her bewitching effect upon her husband and her vassals was more erotic than infernal in origin.

The Queen Mother

After Eleanor was divorced from Louis, she married the future Henry II of England, with whom she had four remarkable sons. She is best remembered for her close attachment to Richard the Lionheart, yet her bond with John, her youngest son, is no less noteworthy. After Richard died, John’s claim to his lands was contested by Arthur of Brittany, his late brother Geoffrey’s heir, but Eleanor would prove crucial in securing his kingship. She traveled around her domain, receiving homage on John’s behalf from her vassals and granting them privileges in return for their loyalty. When the people of Le Mans and Angers pledged themselves to Arthur rather than John, she led armies against these cities, conquering them and incarcerating their principal citizens. In recognition of her assistance in establishing his rule, John acknowledged Eleanor’s right to hold Poitou during her lifetime, adding in a remarkable passage, “We wish her to be the Lady [Domina], not only of our said lands, but also of us and all our lands and possessions.” While John expects to come in to these territories after Eleanor’s death, for the time being, he bows to her as his feudal “Lady,” with authority over him and all he owns.

Though John was jeeringly termed “John Softsword” because of his reluctance to go to battle, he showed another side of his character when Eleanor was threatened. After Arthur besieged Eleanor at the Castle of Mirebeau, John marched his army all night to surprise the assailants, rescue his mother, and take his nephew captive. Even William the Breton, who was in the service of Philip II, King of France and Arthur’s ally,  writes approvingly of John’s action, “No one will judge it an unjust war where a son frees his mother from a faithless enemy.” Later, in The Life and Death of King John, William Shakespeare depicts John as relying upon Eleanor’s advice because she is the only person in the kingdom whose loyalty to him and whose political competence he entirely trusts. When he learns that she has died, he exclaims, in his only soliloquy in the play, “My mother dead!” Modern literary scholars, even of a supposedly feminist bent, have often interpreted John’s dependence upon Eleanor as a sign of weakness. But there is no evidence that anyone in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance ever perceived John’s reliance upon Eleanor’s assistance as unseemly. Decisive in her preference for one mate over another and enchanting in her effect on her vassals, Eleanor becomes, in her later years, a queen mother whose devotion to her children is matched only by their devotion to her.

A Murderous Retirement

Eleanor spent the last years of her long life associated with the Abbey of Fontevraud. The abbey contained both nuns and brothers, but, remarkably, it was the abbess who ruled over the entire enclosure and its daughter-houses.  In 1183 or 1184, the troubadour Bertran de Born, an associate of Eleanor’s sons, wrote of Alfonso II, King of Aragon, that

He knew how to shortchange Peire the minstrel, … since the old woman who runs Fontevraud had him cut all to pieces. Even the badge that the king of arms gave him, made with a band from his pourpoint, could not keep him from getting hacked up with knives.

Bertran suggests that Alfonso had given a minstrel named Peire a tabard adorned with his coat of arms, which should have protected him against attack. Yet an “old woman” of Fontevraud, formidable in her defiance of the king of Aragon’s protection and her access to paid assassins, had taken no notice of this patronage and had had him stabbed to death. It is not clear who this woman was (if she ever existed at all), but she was not Eleanor. At this date, our queen was still living in England; she would not be in residence at the abbey for at least another ten years. Yet Eleanor would become identified with Bertran’s murderous dowager.

According to an anonymous thirteenth-century commentary of Bertran de Born’s poem, “Peire the Jongleur had said many evil things about the old queen of England, the one who was holding Fontevraud, which is an abbey where all rich old women retire. So she had him killed with the consent of the king of Aragon.” What is interesting here for our purposes is that the author of this commentary evidently associates any reference to a powerful old woman at Fontevraud with Eleanor and, therefore, that he sees Eleanor to have been a powerful old woman when she lived at this abbey. Given Eleanor’s longstanding reputation, it is not surprising that she should be regarded as someone sufficiently notorious to inspire a jongleur to compose an “evil song” (mala chanso) about her, sufficiently vindictive to arrange for his murder, and sufficiently persuasive to set get her kinsman Alfonso to permit this assault. “All the extremes of human things meet in the life of this woman,” the early twentieth-century nuns of Sainte-Marie de Fontevraud would remark, including, one might add, the piety of the cloister and the vengefulness of the world.

There are different types of rulers. Some, like Henry, are remembered for having accomplished great deeds. Others, like Eleanor, are remembered, not so much for their great deeds (though they may exist), but for the inspiration they arouse in the minds of their subjects. Eleanor’s son Richard spent a mere six months of his reign in England and did little more for the country than tax it to fund his wars, yet it is his story that continues to fill the minds of English schoolchildren and his statue that stands outside the Houses of Parliament.

Eleanor is sometimes compared unfavorably to her mother-in-law Empress Matilda or her granddaughter Blanche of Castile, both of whom wielded power more directly than she did. Yet to judge this queen on such grounds is to miss the point. She fascinates—and has always fascinated—in a way that no other medieval woman ruler has ever done. She commands interest, not just as a political leader, but as a person. In the end, the truth about Eleanor can be found in the untruth, the history of this queen can be found in the legend, and the understanding of her character can be found with the help, not just of observation, but of imagination.

Karen Sullivan is the Irma Brandeis Professor of Romance Culture and Literature at Bard College. She is the author of many books, including The Danger of Romance: Truth, Fantasy, and Arthurian Fictions, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Eleanor of Acquitaine, as It Was Said: Truth and Tales about the Medieval Queen is available now from our website and your favorite bookseller.