Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France: an ill-fated royal match

On the 25th of July 1137, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, and the future Louis VII of France married in the Cathedral of Saint-Andre in Bordeaux.  The marriage between was arranged by Louis VII’s father – King Louis VI of France known as the Fat.

The wedding of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the Grandes Chroniques de France

After the death of her father Duke William X, Eleanor, aged between twelve and fifteen, became the Duchess of Aquitaine, and Louis VI was appointed as her legal guardian according to the late duke’s will.  The old King of France was going to use such a lucky circumstance for the benefit of the Capetian dynasty and France.  It was decided that Eleanor would marry his young heir, the future Louis VIII, bringing Aquitaine under the control of the French Crown.

In her book “Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England”, Alison Weir describes the wedding the events after the wedding:

“After the marriage service was concluded, the young couple sat enthroned on a dais in the chancel of the cathedral, both wearing the golden ducal coronets of Aquitaine, which they had received from the Archbishop, and acknowledged the acclaim of their subjects.  Then they proceeded through cheering crowds along a street strewn with leaves and past houses hung with tapestries, banners, and greenery, to the sound of pipe and tabor and wooden sabots stamping in time to the music.

Finally they arrived at the Ombrière Palace for the wedding banquet.  They left Bordeaux immediately afterwards for Poitiers, crossing the Paver Charente at Saintes and spending their first night together as man and wife at the castle of Taillebourg, owned by Eleanor’s loyal and chivalrous vassal Geoffrey de Pvancon.  Louis was a virgin when he married, and it was likely that Eleanor, carefully nurtured and guarded as she had been, was, too.”

Very soon after the marriage, King Louis VI died of dysentery, and his son, Louis, ascended to the throne as Louis VII of France, who also was Count of Poitou, as well as Duke of Aquitaine and of Gascony.  Eleanor became the Queen of France by her marriage to Louis.  The future might have seemed bright and promising to someone, but I doubt that Eleanor thought so.

In “Eleanor of Aquitaine.  A Biography Book”, one of Eleanor’s biographers, Marion Meade claims that Eleanor was disappointed with Louis during the wedding festivities.  Meade writes about their wedding:

“There were whispers from the tables as many a guest, staring at Louis, murmured that he almost looked like a monk.  If these remarks reached Eleanor’s ears, she would have been the first to admit that her betrothed seemed as mild as a lamb.  At times during the course of the festivities his grave, vulnerable eyes rested on her with a strange expression of wonderment and puppylike adoration, and Eleanor for her part was an astute observer of human beings to comprehend that here was a man susceptible to feminine manipulation.”

                                Eleanor of Aquitaine

Even though Eleanor and Louis were still very young, it was obvious that they were different people who were almost incompatible.  Eleanor grew up at the majestic, sophisticated, and opulent court in Aquitaine, surrounded by cultured troubadours and poets, as well as well-educated and intelligent southern people of her era.  At the same time, young Louis was originally destined for a career in the Church while his elder brother, Philippe, was still alive; the situation resembled Henry VIII’s initially supposed fate while Prince Arthur was expected to inherit Henry VII’s throne.  However, Louis became an heir apparent when Philippe died from a riding accident.

Louis VII was charmed by his young queen and fell in love with her, but Eleanor seems to have never reciprocated his feelings.  Eleanor found her husband boring, overly pious, and rather unmanly.  Eleanor was a woman of untamed passions, and life with her Louis could hardly satisfy her.  Her passionate personality was destined to “burn and devastate” Louis’s calm and monastic personality.  Moreover, accustomed to the arts and music in Aquitaine, Eleanor found the French court uninteresting, so the new queen tried to re-create the splendid and cultured environment in France.  Some evidence has survived from the Middle Ages that Eleanor commissioned plays in Latin and encouraged troubadours and jongleurs to visit and entertain her household and guests.

Portrait of King Louis VII of France by Henri Decaisne, the Musée historique de Versailles.
Nevertheless, France was not a progressive and intellectual center of Europe back then.  At the time, the French were much more conservative in their habits, tastes, and manners.  The French courtiers cringed at the attempts of their queen to change their life, probably shocked with courtly love and troubadours’ songs.  For a short time, they tolerated the queen’s unusual lifestyle and manners, but it was bound to change because Louis VII was growing tired of Eleanor’s behavior. Soon Eleanor discovered that she was expected to be only Louis’s consort and the mother of his heirs, playing no role in politics and even not ruling her beloved Aquitaine.  Yet, it was not in her nature to be a brooding mare and an epitome of a modest and pious queen.
Depiction of courtly love

Eleanor possessed the spirit of a female ruler, a headstrong and intelligent personality, and she expected that Louis would seek her counsel on political matters.  Nevertheless, many courtiers and Louis’s ministers looked at Eleanor disapprovingly and in alarm because she still exerted much influence over her young husband.  Eleanor also wanted to play a considerable role in the life of Aquitaine and always said that she was much better qualified than all of Louis’ ministers to rule her lands.  Eleanor’s first confrontation happened with Louis’s mother, Adelaide of Maurienne; many influential French nobles grew to resent her.

The royal couple also had a problem with intimate relations.  Louis barely visited his wife’s bed, and Eleanor failed to get pregnant throughout many years.  Apparently, Louis didn’t want to sleep with his wife only for pleasure because marriage was necessary for procreation, not pleasure, in accordance with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.  Eleanor’s first daughter, Marie, was born in 1145, in 8 years after their wedding.  It was a huge disappointment for Louise who craved to have a male heir.  It is known that Eleanor said that “she married a monk, not a king.”

Raymond of Poitiers welcoming Louis VII in Antioch (15th century illustration).

Later, Eleanor and Louis took the Cross and embarked on the Second Crusade.  In Antioch, Eleanor met her uncle Raymond, Prince of the Crusader kingdom of Antioch, who was a charming, good-looking, and skilled warrior, in contrast to her boring, pious husband.  Her communication with Raymond led to the gossip that they had an illicit affair.  It is highly unlikely that Eleanor had a liaison with her uncle, but we can say for a certainty that she admired Raymond’s masculine splendor and manly appearance, which she liked in her mighty grandfather and father, but which she did not see in Louis and which later attracted her to her second husband, the future King Henry II of England.  Most likely, Eleanor simply enjoyed interacting with her beloved uncle.

Château de Beaugency

In 1151, shortly after the royal couple’s return from the Second Crusade, Eleanor and Louis endeavored to get their marriage annulled, but Pope Eugene III strongly encouraged them to remain married.   The couple then conceived another child in a special bed, arranged by the Pope, and soon Eleanor birthed their second daughter – Alix, the future Countess of Blois, but the French royal couple still did not have a son.  As a result, on the 21st of March 1552, the four archbishops, this time with the Pope’s reluctant approval, granted Louis and Eleanor an annulment on grounds of consanguinity at the castle at Beaugency on the Loire River, near the city of Orléans. Their 15-year matrimony was over, and in less than 3 months, Eleanor of Aquitaine married again.

Perhaps the royal match of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII was a doomed one from the beginning.   Eleanor and Louis were two people with different upbringing, various backgrounds, incompatible habits and manners, and, most importantly, different personalities.  The energetic, high-spirited, smart, and active Eleanor could thrive only in the majestic Aquitanian court of love and definitely not in the medieval Paris of those times, while the even-tempered, unworldly, and pious Louis was ideally suited for the life of a monk.  Royal marriage might be doomed to failure.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville

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