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Eleanor of Aquitaine’s greatest gamble


The decree was read out and that, for Eleanor, was that. The prize of release from the marriage to Louis VII of France, which she had sought for so long, had been obtained at the cost of a year of her life, plus a pregnancy she had not wanted. But she was free, at a price. Her daughters were the property of the house of Capet; it was extremely unlikely she would ever see them again and if she did, they would be strangers.

Eleanor rode away from Beaugency with a small escort of her own vassals, once again, at the age of thirty, fair game for any noble with the nerve to kidnap her and marry her by force. Near Blois, she came near to being ambushed by men commanded by Henry of Anjou’s younger brother Geoffrey, an upstart of sixteen who had all the Plantagenet nerve, but little else in his favour. Another ambush by Thibault of Blois, second son of Louis’ vassal the count of Champagne, had been prepared where she was to cross the River Loire near Tours, as the shortest way to safety on her own territory. A last-minute change of route left him empty-handed, and saw Eleanor at long last mistress of her own possessions.

In the Tour Maubergeonne of the ducal palace at Poitiers she could draw breath and plan her next move. She was fairly certain that the arrangement secretly arrived at with the late count of Anjou would be honoured by his son for his own selfish reasons, but Henry Plantagenet was a man who made promises and broke them all his life, so one could never be sure where one stood with him – as she was to find out.

On 6 April he called a meeting of his vassals in Normandy. In acquainting them with his intention of marrying the ex-queen of France without the king’s permission in accordance with feudal custom, he was warning them to be ready for incursions from Frankish territory. As one of his assembled bishops must have pointed out to him, there was a significant impediment to his plan to marry Eleanor in that she was even more closely related to him than she had been to Louis. Leaving that detail to his clerics, Henry prepared to make his move.

In Aquitaine, Eleanor was busy with administrative chores, repudiating all the charters she had signed jointly with Louis on the grounds that they had been granted under constraint. It was with great relief that she welcomed the arrival in Poitiers during the second week of May of the nineteen-year-old duke of Normandy. Married life with him was certain to be more exciting than with Louis. So much so that even the sober Alfred Richard, nineteenth-century archivist of the département of Vienne, who devoted several hundred pages to Eleanor in his comprehensive study of the counts of Poitou, stated that she was bored with Louis’ platonic love and deliberately sought a brutal new lover in Henry because she was ‘one of those women who like to be knocked around’.

Like all the other slanders, the accusation is baseless. The facts are that though she had been denied a proper hearing in Louis’ councils for the past few years, all Eleanor’s life had been spent in the corridors of power. This was no love match. In marrying Henry, she was wedding the thirteen counties of Aquitaine and the county of Poitou to the duchy of Normandy, plus Anjou, Maine and Touraine. This master stroke created a power bloc that stretched all the way from the snows of the Pyrenees to the waters of the English Channel and eventually united nearly half of Louis’ kingdom. On 18 May a ceremony in due form in Poitiers Cathedral made her wife to the man who not only solved her pressing need for a spouse strong enough to protect her domains from present enemies, but owed her a lifelong debt of gratitude for making him the most powerful man in France. Ironically, he would become in the course of time her most implacable enemy of all.

Extracted from April Queen by Douglas Boyd 

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