In the summer of 1151 two years after leaving Outremer, Louis and Eleanor, king and Queen of the French admitted their mortal enemy to the Court. The 39 year old Geoffrey le Bel was tall and handsome, red haired man, larger than life full of expansive bonhomie and self confidence; and a born warrior. The kind of man for whom life was fun, and adventure, spent very little time worrying about his pension scheme or searching for the best annuity yield. At his side was his 18 year old lad Henry. Maybe less beautiful
middle height, reddish, freckled complexion, with a large round head, grey eyes which glowed fiercely and grew bloodshot in anger, a fiery countenance and a harsh, cracked voice’.
but something of a draw in other ways
‘his countenance was one upon which a man might gaze a thousand times, yet still feel drawn to return to gaze upon again’.
Like Eleanor, then, this young man had charisma, sex appeal, attraction. Whatever it was he had and whatever it was she had, the chroniclers, sitting in their rough habits and woolly hose on stone cold seats in the cold and drafty abbeys wrote lasciviously of the ‘unchaste eyes’ that each cast on each other. Oo’er and indeed missus. And then hurried off for a cold shower.
How did we get here then? Eleanor and Louis left Jerusalem for the port city of Acre in 1149, and took the boat home. Their journey confirmed why suffering heat, ceaseless attacks and the death of 70% of your army was preferable to sailing, a rule I hold on to firmly today. But eventually Eleanor and Louis washed up on the coast of Sicily – not literally, obviously, they had servants for that sort of thing. From Sicily the unhappy couple went northwards on to mainland Italy and went to see Eugenius the Pope. As you do.
The subject of annulment came up; not sure where or how, before coffee or after but it came up. Eugenius could not have been more emphatic or indeed more charming. There he was, leader of the Christian world, and he was giving marriage guidance counselling, getting the couple to talk to each other and insisting they share the same bed; and telling them that there was no way that they would have their marriage annulled, so they’d better learn to love it.
Now, one has to think that Eleanor was at the end of her tether. As she would famously exclaim, she seemed to be married to a monk rather than a king. She might also have heard by this time that Uncle Raymond has been killed fighting on the frontiers of Antioch, and his body had been found mutilated. It is pure supposition, but it could be that the news gave Eleanor fresh reason to despise her husband. Now I realise that listing items is not a guide to the strength of a relationship, but here was Eleanor tied to a man who had been proving his incompetence for 12 years now, and was a difficult sort of bloke with all his piety, and despite all that had kept her away from the real levers of power. The lid had been put back on the domestic pot in Antioch. But the stew was still bubbling away and the lid was rattling and the steam forced its way out now and again.
Nonetheless the Pope’s ministrations, maybe even his minestrone, seem to have had some effect because Eleanor was soon able to tell the world that she was pregnant again. Maybe as Elizabeth Chadwick suggested, advice from religious superiors unblocked Louis’ neuroses. By this stage she and Louis were back in Paris, and a prince would most certainly have settled the question. I might tell you here that one of the wrinkles of French history is the so called Capetian miracle. The miracle in question is the unbroken line of Capetian succession across hundreds of years, and it looked as though the miracle was on again. Every one was nervous, no one could relax. But in the summer of 1550, it was little Alice was born rather than wee Alistair, and the lid started popping around on the pan again.
It is probable that it was not just Eleanor now; for the first time, doubts may have been creeping into Louis’ mind. Bernard of Clairvaux’s will hovered round his head like spells from Saruman around Caradhras. Was this a judgment from God? And he had loved his wife with a passion quite unsuited to doylies and a nice cup of afternoon tea, immoderately that is to say, and he must have felt the humiliations of Antioch keenly. While Abbot Suger was still around there was a moderating influence; after all Eleanor was but 30 even now. But in 1151 Suger died, and the pan lid was rattling furiously now.
Into this, then, walked our tall handsome stranger and his fascinating son. We are talking of course about Geoffrey Plantagenet and his son Henry. Geoffrey Plantagenet was an aggressive sort of bloke, much given to eyeing other men’s possessions. He had been a worry to Louis as king of France, and as Duke of Aquitaine. Now however, Geoffrey had come to Louis cap in hand, though I am sure he would not have presented it that way. England was torn by civil war – Stephen of Blois had usurped the throne there from the Empress Matilda, who was now Geoffrey’s wife. It was a vicious sort of war; in just a year’s time, for example, a small boy would be strapped to a Trebuchet. How, why and what happened you can find out at the brother podcast, William the Marshal. Anyway, Matilda has sort of retired from the struggle now, leaving her son Henry to carry on, and a key battleground was Normandy. In the battle for Normandy, Louis had initially backed Eustace, King Stephen’s son but now Geoffrey came with an interesting proposition. Henry would do homage to Louis for the Duchy of Normandy, and he would do it here at Paris on Louis’s turf, rather than on the border at Gisors as normal. And he’d give Louis back that stretch of land in the Vexin that Henry I had taken off him. IF he supported their claim. Well, Louis stroked his chin for a while and said yeah sure.
You will not be surprised to hear that there’s a lot of rumour about the meeting. Did Eleanor have an affair with the father Geoffrey? It’s really unlikely; in the slightly weird doctrine of the day, it would have meant having sex with the son would have been incest for one thing, along with all the other good reasons not to do such a thing. Did she have an affair with the son, or stitch up a deal with the lad? Well, much more possible I’d have thought. Let’s talk about the lad a bit, because after all he is going to be very important in Eleanor’s life. This Henry is an impressive man. Very intelligent, with a thirst for knowledge that would have made a subscription to the history of England an inevitability, and able to more than hold his own with scholars. But there was nothing of the dreaming spires about him; he was all energy and dynamism. He was practical, down to earth, personal; if one of his robes sprung a leak he would fix it himself. His was primus inter pares kingship, charging energetically around his possessions courtiers in train, setting up camp for the evening and sitting round the camp fire. He was supposed to be massively polite; Gerald of Wales wrote that he was ‘second to none in politeness’, so I am now sort of thinking ‘will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?!!….if you wouldn’t mind awfully. But only if you have a moment. Thank you so much’ sort of thing. There were downsides to all of his. Henry chased women just like his father, and already had a couple of bastards. He was used to and expected to command and delegation would never be a big talent for him; if Henry said jump you made Frosbie look like a beginner. And lord, the man had an evil temper on him. Straw chewing stuff. Literally. Totes. And I’m not even joking.
So the big question; did Eleanor and Henry get it on, and/or did they make an agreement to hook up if Eleanor could escape Louis’s clammy hands? We don’t know, we cannot tell. But yes, yes they did. Or well, I don’t know about the beast with two backs, but I reckon they came to some sort of agreement, not because Eleanor lost her head or fell wildly in love or anything so romantic, though I don’t know, she may have, but because Eleanor was a clever person who knew what she would need. As we will explain.
Anyway, deal done, Geoffrey and Henry went back home. Except only one of them made it, because Geoffrey went for a dip in the river on the way back in September 1151, caught a bug and died. That happened to me too, by the way, I fell in the Thames when practising for the Thames walk thing, caught a bug. Didn’t die as it happens, but you know, I could have. Anyway in this case it meant that Henry was now Count of Anjou and a jolly powerful man. In my case it meant a change of clothes and a nice cup of tea.
We don’t know whether Eleanor had been pushing Louis or whether Louis himself also came to the conclusion that an annulment was the way forward. All I can say is that the idea never made sense to me – it seems incredible that a man who was apparently so potty about his wife, who also came with the small matter of, um, a QUARTER OF FRANCE would agree to an annulment. For me it has to be a number of things; the relentless dissatisfaction of Eleanor; the lack of a male heir; the feeling that the marriage was cursed; but also a cooling of his own feelings. And also history – remember that Capetian Miracle? Well, it was helped by the fact that every French king between 1060 and 1223 divorced at least once. God helps those who help themselves was their philosophy. But it was a big decision, and hate it or loathe it, without his agreement Eleanor could never have managed it – the Pope had threatened to excommunicate anyone who supported the idea.
Once the decision was made by the pair of them at least, a sort of order descended. They went on a final joint tour of Eleanor’s territories, a sort of farewell to kings. Bernard championed the idea of an annulment; he considered Eleanor to be incorrigibly immoral, and her blood corrupted by her ancestry. And so a small ecclesiastical council was convened at Beaugency on the Loire, to consider if the pair of the were too closely related and the marriage should therefore be annulled. Obviously it was pure theatre. At one point, a bishop connected with Bernard suggested they consider Eleanor’s alleged infidelities, but Eleanor’s friend the AB of Bordeaux was able to squash that one. And after 3 days of earnest, dedicated pointless debate, and presumably plenty of buns, the good clergy pompously delivered their verdict – it was all over.
Louis and Eleanor had in all probability cut the deal in advance. Their two kiddies, Marie and Alice would stay with dad, such was the law. Medieval royal parents spent relatively little time with their children, but I would be surprised if that didn’t cause Eleanor some pain at least. Aquitaine would go back to Eleanor. Louis had spent relatively little time with Aquitaine, but I would be surprised if that didn’t cause him some pain. He wasn’t to know that it would lead to hundreds of years of warfare, because he had no idea that Eleanor and Henry had shaken hands; and actually Louis expected to have some rights in Aquitaine for the purpose of his children; he may have hoped that Eleanor would die childless, and Aquitaine would come back into the family. However, both parties were free to remarry – essential for Louis of course. And as Eleanor probably knew already, essential for her also. If she didn’t know that – she was about to find out.
When things were wrapped up in Beaugency, Eleanor was keen to get back to Poitiers as quickly as possible. As she set out in March, she had over 100 miles to go; she needed to get through Blois and Tourraine. Around her the wolves gathered. It would not be the first or last time if such an important heiress had been kidnapped and forced to marry, and on 21st March she learned that Theobald, the Count of Blois planned to seize her under cover of darkness that very night. Eleanor fled, and Theobald was left clutching air. But it would not be the last attempt.