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Death Day of a Queen Who was Nobody’s Fool: April 1, 1204

Seal depicting Queen Eleanor

At Henry I’s death, civil war engulfed England. Neither the Norman nor the English barons wanted King Henry’s chosen heir to be their king. This heir was Henry Plantagenet, the son of Matilda (King Henry I’s daughter) and Count Geoffrey Plantagenet. From Geoffrey, Henry Plantagenet inherited the French fiefs of Anjou, Touraine, and Maine, as well as Normandy. After the civil war in England ended, Henry came into his inheritance there as King Henry II. (From Henry’s family name, we call his line of English kings the Plantagenets.) He controlled not only England and a large portion of northern France, but much of southern France as well. As lord of the four French fiefs, Henry II controlled a large section of France. Before becoming king he had, in 1152, married Eleanor of Aquitaine — heiress to the French provinces of Poitou, Guienne, Gascony, and most of southern France. This marriage made Henry the most powerful man in western Europe.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, born about 1122, was one of the wealthiest and most intelligent women of the age. She had been queen of France as wife of Louis VII and had borne him two daughters. She had also traveled to the Holy Land with Louis and made his court a center of literature and music. But Louis claimed the marriage was invalid since he and Eleanor were close relations. (Eleanor had also not given him a male heir.) A council of French bishops agreed with Louis, and they annulled the marriage. Six weeks later, Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, then just the count of Anjou — for love as well as for a political alliance. She was 11 years older than Henry.

King Henry II

Eleanor’s father, William X of Aquitaine, was both a duke and a leading poet of medieval France. Lord over more land and more wealth than the king of France, William was a patron of the leading poets of France. Eleanor had grown up in the company of poets and musicians. She made the duke’s court in Poitiers a center of culture. In England, too, she became the patroness of poets and judge of artistic quality. She was responsible for the development of troubadour poetry as well as for the writing of songs and poems about King Arthur, the legendary king of England, that became the basis of the medieval romances about Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Eleanor was an extremely capable woman. When Henry was absent from England, Eleanor served as his regent there. She administered her own extensive lands in France. During the conflict of Henry with Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, Eleanor tried to find common ground for both men and to resolve their quarrel. The strong-willed, intelligent woman finally came into conflict with her husband for personal as well as political reasons.

Eleanor and Henry had five sons — William (who died in childhood), Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John. King Henry, however, was unfaithful to Eleanor. In 1173, she encouraged her sons to rebel against their father. For this rebellion, Henry placed her under house arrest and even briefly imprisoned her. She remained under house arrest until King Henry died, 16 years later.

Effigies of Queen Eleanor and King Henry, at Fontevrault Abbey

In 1200, when she was nearly 80 years old, Eleanor helped defend Anjou and Aquitaine against her rebel grandson, Arthur of Brittany. After King Henry’s death, Eleanor served as regent of England and her French provinces while her son, King Richard the Lion-Heart, was away at the Crusades. She finally retired to the monastery of Fontevrault in Anjou, where she died on April 1, 1204. Her death was mourned by poets and princes throughout England and France. All knew they had lost in her both a patron and an inspiration — a truly great woman.

Music by Eleanor’s Grandfather

Guillaume IX d’Aquitaine (William IX of Aquitaine) was Eleanor of Aquitaine’s grandfather and one of the most powerful men in Europe in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. He was also something of an artist — a composer of poems in what is called the Troubadour style. Indeed, he is known as one of the first Troubadours. The following recording is a performance by Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI of one his poems set to music, Pos de chantar m´es pres talenz (“Since I have the desire to sing”).

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