On this day, 18th May, in 1152, a wedding took place in Poitiers in France. The marriage had been hastily arranged and the service was simple, lacking any pomp or ceremony. But this was no lowly peasant’s big day or a shotgun affair called for by an angry father; instead it was a scandalous marriage between a future king of England and one of the most powerful women in Europe. En route to Poitiers, the bride had managed to evade an ambush from the groom’s own brother, who’d hoped to marry her forcibly to obtain her lands and power, and the groom had to hot-foot it to Poitier Cathedral before the ceremony could be sabotaged. So the wedding between Eleanor of Aquitaine and the future King Henry II of England went ahead, despite all the setbacks. It sounds like a fairy tale romance, but far from it – rather than a match made in heaven, it was more like one forged in hell. This union of two of the most ambitious and formidable characters of the Middle Ages would be a tempestuous affair involving betrayal, infidelity and long-term incarceration.
Beautiful, feisty and highly intelligent, Eleanor was the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, that vast principality that took up a quarter of the French lands, and Henry was to be her second husband. Her first marriage had been to King Louis VII of France, but that had proved equally disastrous. Louis was pious and bookish, and was quite unable to cope with Eleanor’s disobedience and wanton ways. Eleanor once said of him: “I’ve married a monk, not a monarch!”. But as well as being headstrong and unfaithful, she failed as a wife in another vital role. Being a king, Louis needed a son and heir, but Eleanor bore him only daughters, so after 15 years of marital strife, Louis persuaded the pope that the marriage should be annulled.
But Eleanor, now around 30 years old, had her own dynastic ambitions, and she wasted no time in putting them into action. She knew that Henry Plantagenet, then aged only 19, was the man who could help, so she headed back to her capital from Paris and immediately sent word to Henry to come and marry her. Only 8 weeks after her marriage to Louis was declared void, Eleanor and Henry were married quickly and quietly in Poitiers Cathedral. Louis was furious when he heard the news. Neither of them had sought his permission, which they should have done as his vassals, and had he been consulted he would have refused. Now, when Henry succeeded to the throne of England in 1154, this Plantagenet upstart would preside over vast dominions stretching from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees, including half of Louis’ former lands.
Eleanor was a hands-on queen, playing a prominent part in government and acting as a patron of the arts and culture. But there was tension in their relationship over Henry’s numerous extramarital affairs, although Eleanor can hardly be described as squeaky clean with a similar history in her first marriage. Even at the wedding there had been rumours that the bride had known the groom’s late father rather more than was appropriate. Nevertheless, dynastic ambition triumphed, and over a period of 12 years Eleanor and Henry had five sons and three daughters, and two of the sons, Richard and John, would go on to be kings of England. But the boys took after their parents and had ambitions of their own. It was a toxic cocktail of volatile Plantagenet personalities, and the family were set on a course to implode on a grand scale.
When Henry frustrated his sons by refusing to give them any authority or independent income, Eleanor encouraged them to rebel, and in 1173 she joined in the family uprising. Rebellious sons weren’t uncommon in the Middle Ages, but a disloyal queen was another matter entirely. Seeing this as the ultimate betrayal, Henry had Eleanor locked up for 16 years in Winchester and Old Sarum in Salisbury until he died in 1189. Under Richard and John, Eleanor remained active in matters of state, and she lived into her early eighties, when she died in a nunnery at Fontrevault in Anjou in 1204, just as John had lost the great empire she had founded and fought so hard to maintain.
And so ended the first chapter of England’s incredible Plantagenet story. But the joining together of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the young Henry Plantagenet on this day in 1152 was to spawn a dynastic line that would rule for the rest of the Middle Ages, and etch into history all the infighting, intrigue and treachery of the original dysfunctional family.