Wednesday, April 1, 2015
The Passing of Eleanor of Aquitaine
Today marks the anniversary of the death, in 1204, of Eleanor of Aquitaine. By any measure employed, she led an incredible life.
Heir to more of what we today think of as France than was the then king of France, she would both marry and then divorce Louis VII, King of France. In between the marriage and divorce she would go on a crusade to the Holy Land. Louis, who had originally been trained for a career in the church and became heir to the French throne only upon his brother Phillip’s death, was not tolerant of what we would today refer to as her high-spirited ways. Allegations that, while in the Holy Land, she had an affair with her uncle have never been substantiated.
After divorcing Louis on grounds of consanguinity, she married Henry of Anjou, the heir to the English throne. Upon his ascension to the English throne there was created, by personal union, the Angevin Empire. Had she predeceased Henry, Eleanor’s lands would have been claimed by him. History, however, enjoys a good twist, and Eleanor significantly outlived Henry.
Eleanor was the mother of three English kings, the first Henry III, Richard (the Lionheart) I and John. Admittedly, one can quibble as to whether this Henry III was ever king. He was crowned during his father Henry II’s lifetime in an effort to secure the succession. He would never, however, sit upon the throne as a sole monarch as he predeceased his father. Richard, in his own right, was king of England. Sadly, so was John, to this day identified by the moniker “Bad King.”
But back to Henry III. Having been crowned king of England, but deprived of significant lands, income or authority, he bristled at being a showpiece. In concert with his brothers, the then King of France and the King of Scotland, he led a revolt against his father. It was ultimately put down, whereafter Henry II kept Henry III on a short leash. Still, he did not even bother keeping Eleanor on a leash. Rather, for 16 years, he kept her prisoner including in the castle at Old Sarum.
The Angevin Empire would substantially fall under Bad King John; he simply did not have the wherewithal to hold together its far flung properties.
Aside from these historic notes, Eleanor’s influence continues to this day. At her court in Aquitaine they played the relatively recently imported game of chess, it having arrived from the Middle East. Eleanor, however, took umbrage at one of the rules and had it changed. Prior to Eleanor’s intervention, the rules of chess provided that the king was the most powerful character while the queen had a circumscribed range. Eleanor decreed, it is said, that those roles be reversed. Her rule continues to this day.