Scandalous Proposals—Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an heiress in possession of enormous tracts of land must be in want of a husband. Or at least that was the universal truth during the high middle ages—to the point where such an heiress risked being abducted and forced to marry her captor so he could gain control of her property.


At the age of fifteen, Eleanor of Aquitaine became just such an heiress when her father died suddenly, leaving her in possession of a territory nearly 1/3 the size of modern France. But like his daughter, William X Duke of Aquitaine was  intelligent and left a provision in his will to ensure Eleanor wouldn’t fall prey to the first kidnapper who came along.

The marriage of Louis and Eleanor from Les Chroniques de Saint-Denis

The marriage of Louis and Eleanor from Les Chroniques de Saint-Denis

Upon his death, word was sent immediately to the king of France, Louis VI, known as Louis the Fat. Louis the Fat naturally leapt on the opportunity to join Aquitaine, Poitou and Gascony to the crown territory and arranged for Eleanor to marry his son, who became King Louis VII that same year at the tender age of seventeen.


Now none of that is particularly scandalous by medieval standards. Marriages made for purely political reasons? Check. Marriages between teenagers? Check. Marriages between two parties who had never before met? Check. The scandal would come some fifteen years later after the pair participated in the Second Crusade.


By then, Eleanor had borne only one child to Louis—a girl—and by the time the couple returned to France sometime in 1150, Eleanor was itching for an annulment. Their disputes were so profound, they couldn’t even stand to be on the same ship together. The Church refused the annulment at first, and Eleanor bore a second daughter—apparently they were able to lay their differences aside to that extent. But the arrival of another daughter was the final stroke of doom for the marriage.


Henry II of England

In March of 1152, the annulment was granted on the grounds of consanguinity within the fourth degree. Louis and Eleanor were fourth cousins once removed, but that was close enough for the Church to declare their marriage invalid, although the two daughters were declared legitimate.


Funny how those things worked back then, but I suppose if you were the king of France or controlled vast tracts of land, you could manage to influence these outcomes. Somehow.


Once again Eleanor found herself in a position where she risked having a marriage forced on her to gain control of her lands, because, according to her marriage agreement with Louis VII, she retained her duchy in her own name. In fact, two lords attempted to kidnap her as she made her way back to Poitiers. To fend off this sort of event in the future, the moment she arrived home, she chose her next husband.


She made a scandalous proposal to Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, a young man she had met on her return from the Holy Land—to marry her at once.


The children of Henry and Eleanor. Source: Membrane 6 of Royal 14 B VI, British Library

The children of Henry and Eleanor. Source: Membrane 6 of Royal 14 B VI, British Library

So why was this proposal so scandalous?


In an age where men ruled, she made the first move in the relationship.


Their marriage took place a mere eight weeks after her annulment—and this in an era where divorce was unheard of.


Henry was eleven years younger than Eleanor—nineteen to her thirty—in a time where cougars were still unknown.


Eleanor was rumored to have numerous lovers during her marriage to Louis VII, notably her uncle Raymond of Antioch

Henry and Eleanor's effigies on their tombs in Fontevraud Abbey. Photo by Lainestl.

Henry and Eleanor’s effigies on their tombs in Fontevraud Abbey. Photo by Lainestl.

and Henry’s father, Geoffrey of Anjou. The story about the uncle is unlikely true, however. Henry, on the other hand, got his own back, since he was hardly faithful himself during the course of their marriage, which, while stormy, nonetheless resulted in eight children. One imagines the pair going about everything with great passion.


And here’s the kicker. Henry and Eleanor were more closely related than Eleanor and Louis. They were third cousins, close enough that either could have taken that route out of the marriage, but despite their differences—they lived apart for awhile, before Henry had her imprisoned for  sixteen years—they never took it.


So what do you think? Was Eleanor really all that scandalous or was she a strong-minded woman trying to make the best of her place in a world where men ruled?


Ashlyn_Macnamara_Headshot_smWhile Ashlyn Macnamara Regency romance with a dash of wit and a hint of wicked, other periods of history hold a great deal of fascination for her, as well. As she prepares for the release of her debut A Most Scandalous Proposal next month, she finds herself contemplating scandalous proposals of other eras.


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28 Comments on “Scandalous Proposals—Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet
  1. What a fantastic “lesson.” I feel as though I have just read a fascinating piece of history and it was written to be so interesting. When I was in school, history was so dry and boring, but if only I had had a teacher like Duchess Ashlyn, I would have LOVED history! Ashlyn, you have a a very valuable talent in being able to dig through the dry pages of history and glean a very interesting story! Thank you for sharing. I’m definitely interested in reading this novel.

    • Thank you! I admittedly found history boring in high school when it was all about dates and such. But when I went to university, I took a course in French culture, which was basically a social history. Our textbook tended to focus on more of the gossip–such as which kings liked to dress as women and hang out in the seedier parts of Paris. If high school history could have been more like that I would have LOVED it.

      • That’s a great idea. Wouldn’t it be nice if our high school history teachers could let students choose and read a historical novel about someone they find interesting and then let each student discuss it in class. Learning has to be made to be fun!!

  2. What a coincidence that you’re blogging about this now. I *just* finished reading Roselynde (book #1 of The Roselynde Chronicles) by Roberta Gellis in which Eleanor (Alinor) of Aquitaine is a major character. The book is set in the early days of Richard’s rule (after the time you describe above), so I’m glad to get the backstory on his still-influential mother. The book depicts her as a spitfire well into her 70s.

  3. The saddest part of this story is that the husband she chose seemed no better than the one who was forced on her. Still, they managed to have eight children, so I guess it wasn’t all bad all the time!

    • I get the impression that Henry was the stronger personality of her two husbands. I also think Eleanor herself was a force of nature. She’d never be happy with some milksop, and I don’t feel like she was one to let herself be walked over if she could help it.

  4. Entertaining and informative, Duchess Ashlyn! I wonder what those years of imprisonment were like–was she in a miserable tower room, or was it more a sort of house arrest? And isn’t it maddening to read of all those historical women who were blamed or discarded for not “‘providing” sons when it’s the male contribution that determines the outcome?

    • I think her separation from Louis was mutual. She originally wanted the divorce, but the pope convinced her she ought to stay with him and give producing an heir another shot. In fact, they may have been tricked into spending the night together. When she ended up pregnant, they decided to wait it out to see if she’d produce an heir.

      As for her imprisonment, I don’t know if she was locked in a tower or not, but she was moved around to various locations during those 16 years.

      • As for Eleanor’s early imprisonment by Henri, you can bet it was harsh. Recall that Henri just had the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered. After earlier uprisings of his sons who looked to Eleanor and her court in Poitiers, and with Christendom railing, King Henri nailed down and hid his assets. As for latter days of her capture, things get more complex until Eleanor by help of her sons outlives her jailor.

        As for daily life in captivity, she likely shared life with her loyal first maid and servants. She had been impounded times before. Incidents certainly shared with her head maid. First in the tower of Bordeaux waiting for her marriage to Louis, and later, for a complexity of reasons, to be dragged out bodily and put under house arrest when Louis’ priests set fire and exit Antioch with Eleanor in a caged animal basket.

        Though untamable, she knew who to pace a cage.

  5. Not one, but two attempted abductions after her annulment. She’d just ‘bested’ a King and had her lands returned! Did they thing she’d acquiesce quietly? Those Lords certainly had high opinions of themselves. Great post, Duchess Ashlyn!

    • The thing about her keeping her lands was in the marriage contract. As for who negotiated the contract, I don’t know. But she retained her lands, and if she’d had male issue, that son would have inherited both the duchy and the French throne. But yes, Eleanor was something.

  6. I’ve always loved Eleanor’s story, but maybe it’s because I was a huge Jean Plaidy (Victoria Holt) fan when I was a teenager and read all of her Plantagenet books. Then I saw the Lion in Winter movie and decided she was my favorite heroine. Thanks for such a wonderful post!

  7. To add intrigue, in the arranged marriage of Eleanor and Louis the Seventh, curiously both their fathers die within months of each other and the Catholic church has a plan. The groom-to-be-king is a devout monk and his bride (in recent historical research she was 13) was innocent and believed to be malleable. Bernard of Clairvaux is a master leader of the Templars loyal to church, not king. He grants estates with vine and watermill that his industrious Cistercians can work. (Watermills were the source of unlimited power at the time). And where are the most mills and vines – in the Aquitaine.

    At any rate, Ashlyn, your views of this complex woman are poignant. And I enjoyed your reader’s vibrant responses. I have yet to read (which is why I write) of her story told with all her layers of vitality, faith, personal sense for justice, her unique way of love, with mixed days of ennui and drive. Margaret Mitchell wrote of a sixteen year old girl who marries twice, and moves from the age of innocent desire to profound passion. Scarlet always seemed like an Eleanorish motif presaging a grand symphonic score.

  8. Sharon Kay Penman has done wonders with Eleanor’s story, both as historical fact and then as a murder mystery series when Eleanor was in her 70s. All of her children seemed to have inherited her determined spirit.

  9. I was not that familiar with Eleanor of Aquitaine before checking out your post Ashyln, but I enjoyed reading about her! The workings of the system of annulment at the time certainly seem inconsistent, at best. Cosanguinity, the marriage was void, but daughters were considered legitimate? I also am trying to wrap my head around the fact that in an age where women did not live that long, SHE lived to 70, and had 8 children AFTER she married husband #2 at 30.

    And also, quite frankly, it makes me feel a little more secure in the value of my own spitfireness. :)

  10. Is there anything better than English history? Maybe Russian, but still….These are the best of all stories, strong willed women in an age where women were really little more than property. Thank you for bringing it out again! So many people think that the English monarchy starts at Henry VIII; the earlier years were just as vibrant

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