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.
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.
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.
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
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?
While 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.