If you singled out just one person to stand for the Second Crusade, it should be Queen Eleanor. She was the grand-daughter of Duke William of Aquitaine, the troubadour who just barely survived the First Crusade. William had gone home to his unhappy wife Philippa and flamboyant mistress “Dangereuse,” but eventually this family rift had been healed by a marriage between Philippa’s son and Dangereuse’s daughter (an aristocrat in her own right).
Eleanor was this couple’s oldest child, and in Aquitaine, girls could inherit. She grew up in a very wealthy and musical household and was already the subject of troubadour admiration in her early teens. In 1137, both her father and the King of France died. At age 15, Duchess Eleanor married 17 year old King Louis VII. Annexing Aquitaine was one of the major goals of every French king, so marrying a reigning heiress was a great coup.
However, it didn’t work out that way at all. First, Eleanor gave birth to two girls. While a girl could rule Aquitaine, she could not rule France. If one of those girls inherited, it would mean marrying her to, say, a King of Germany, and that would add up to France’s being annexed. This was not acceptable. Louis and Eleanor could have kept trying for a boy, but their marriage fell apart dramatically right in the middle of the Crusade.
When Louis vowed to take up the Cross, Eleanor decided to ride along. She brought her ladies in waiting, and some stories say they designed a sort of uniform dress with a cross. Although she did not intend to fight, she led a contingent of knights from Aquitaine. One of this period’s historians, William of Tyre, claimed that the presence of so many feminine non-combatants was a key factor in the battle loss when King Louis was nearly killed. The breaking point, though, was still to come.
A few years before (1136), her father’s younger brother Raymond had been the stealth bridegroom of little Constance of Antioch (to the great disappointment of Princess Alice, the child’s mother). So when Louis and Eleanor arrived in Antioch in 1148, Raymond was delighted to see his niece Eleanor. They shared dialect, culture, education, and taste. We have no record of Princess Constance’s attitude toward how much time uncle and niece spent together, but we do know King Louis was very disturbed.
Some accounts speculate that he thought there was an incestuous affair going on, but on balance it seems unlikely. It’s more likely that Eleanor had already been proving too outgoing, domineering, and condescending for Louis. The pilgrimage must have created many points of friction. I’m sure Eleanor wasn’t impressed by Louis’s military losses. When she began snubbing his company in favor of singing songs with her uncle, they had to face the truth that they could no longer stand each other. Baby Alix’s birth was just the last straw.
Eleanor’s two little girls stayed in France when she went home to Aquitaine. Marie and Alix were both famous beauties who married two very wealthy brothers, the Counts of Champagne and Blois. Marie made a name for herself in the literature of troubadours and courtly love; she is sometimes called “Marie of France.”
But Eleanor is the one who really made history. Only eight weeks after she arrived home in Aquitaine, she got married a second time. There are a number of ironies in this. First, her French marriage annulment was granted because they were related within four degrees, but her new husband was related to her within three degrees. Second, her new husband was a direct rival of her first. (Take that, ex!) She married the teenage Duke of Normandy, great-grandson of the Conqueror. Henry was also the Count of Anjou, Maine, and Nantes. On marrying Eleanor, he became Duke of Aquitaine. Third, he was actually a teenager while she was now 30.
England had been in a political crisis, caught between rival claims among the Conqueror’s heirs. The son of Faint-Hearted Crusader Stephen of Blois was currently King Stephen when Eleanor remarried, but a recent peace treaty to end civil war had stipulated that her new husband Henry was Stephen’s heir. And within a short time, Stephen died. Eleanor’s young husband was King Henry II of England.
It’s a rare feat to have been Queen of both France and England, in addition to being a Crusader. But Eleanor’s claims to history’s notice were just beginning: she had eight children between 1153 and 1166. Her most famous son was Richard the Lion-Hearted, leader of the Third Crusade. Therefore, her most infamous son was also King John, known to all Disney-watching children as the pathetic lion who couldn’t keep his crown on straight. Her three daughters married into top-tier royalty and gave birth to future kings, queens, and a Holy Roman Emperor. Her husband, Henry II, was the king who appointed his best friend to be Archbishop Thomas a Becket and ended up with a martyr.
Queen Eleanor’s marriage to Henry II did not go smoothly. Around the time of John’s birth, Henry II had a passionate (and public) love affair with a woman named Rosamund Clifford. Eleanor moved back to Aquitaine, though without dissolving the legal marriage. This next stage, living as a separated wife with young children, seems to be when she gained the most fame as a patroness of music and literature, the Queen of Courtly Love. It seems likely that daughters Marie and Alix visited and got to know their mother during these years.
The oldest son Henry had been crowned co-king with his father, to avoid another succession dispute. He stayed behind in England, while it appears the others went to Normandy and Aquitaine. He had married the French princess who was half-sister to his half-sisters (but no blood relation to himself).
Suddenly, Henry the Young King went to Paris and launched a revolt against his father, who was not sharing enough power. His brothers Geoffrey and Richard joined him, and soon after, Eleanor herself left Aquitaine and headed north. She disguised herself, riding as a private person, not riding in her royal litter or cavalcade. She was not as lucky as her sons, though; English authorities arrested her in Normandy, and she spent the rest of her estranged husband’s life in various cold, dark castles around England.
Sons Henry and Geoffrey both died before 1189, when King Henry II himself passed away. Richard became king. By then, the drums were beating for another Crusade. Eleanor did not dream of going this time; she stayed in England to help John as regent when Richard left. Richard used England only as a tax base and spent the rest of his life abroad, either crusading or in captivity.
Eleanor lived very long for her era; she died in 1204 at age 82. In her last years, she supported John’s inheritance of the crown against Geoffrey’s surviving son, and ended up imprisoned again for a bit. She also took on a diplomatic mission for John to choose one of his Castilian nieces to marry King Louis’s heir Philip II. She ended up captured and imprisoned on that journey, too. Worn out, she entered a monastery in Anjou, where she is buried next to Henry II and her son Richard. Anjou was the family burial place, but by the time John died it was no longer his territory, so he was buried in England instead of by his mother.