Why Did Eleanor of Aquitaine Marry Henry II?

This week I explore the story of a true medieval power couple, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, with author Matt Lewis. Henry and Eleanor established built their vast Angevin empire with endless determination and clear cooperation whilst embracing one of the most unique love stories from history.

Holly: Hello darlings and welcome back to Past Loves – the (not so) weekly history podcast that explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time to add a touch of romance to daily life. I’m Holly, your true romantic host, and I am back with a very exciting new episode today about a couple quite unlike any other.

I hope that 2022 is treating you well. I can’t quite believe that we are already so far through the year – I mean how has it got to April?! If you haven’t listened to the last episode of the podcast it was a Christmas special – so testament to the fact that I can’t quite believe that it’s already April. It was an absolute joy to speak to Matthew Thompson, Operations Manager at Floors Castle, about the love story of Henry John Innes-Ker, 8th Duke of Roxburghe and his wife, Mary “May” Goelet. It was a very special Christmas treat to be immersed in a place so magical with such a lovely love story. Although, as if I am on a streak, for this episode, I am joined by another Matthew – Matthew Lewis. So Matt is an author of some truly wonderful non-fiction histories and historical fiction. He specialised in the medieval period with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and Richard III, but today he is taking us back to a love story in the 12th Century of which he very aptly wrote (and I will quote him directly here): their story is one of high drama, the kind of thing that would be dismissed as far-fetched imaginings if it appeared in fiction. It is all the more compelling, fascinating, breathtaking, sensational and dramatic because it is all true”

We are of course explore today the relationship between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. In his book Henry II & Eleanor Aquitaine: Founding An Empire, Matt examines Henry and Eleanor as a medieval power couple who soon added the ultimate rank of king and queen consort to their list of titles, charting their early lives, exploring the birth of their empire (vast amounts of land that spread from Northumberland to the Mediterranean) and tracing how this all fell apart. It is a sprawling story with so many twists and turns that to be honest a hour long chat simply cannot do it justice but the key to how Matt sees the relationship between Henry and Eleanor is that they curated an incredible life together. They were the power couple of their day and their relationship is a fascinating portrayal of passion, power and family politics. I hope that you very much enjoy discovering their world…

Welcome Matt and thank you so much for joining me today.

Matt: Thanks very much for having me Holly, it’s pleasure to be here.

Holly: I’m so excited to speak to you and I think we should probably start with Eleanor, because, as you say in your book, she lived a pretty amazing life before she even ever came into contact with Henry. She was born probably in 1124 – is what we think. And how would you describe her as a person just to start us off setting the scene?

Matt: Yeah we’re back in the vagaries of not quite being sure when people were actually even born. So for quite a long time it was believed that Eleanor was probably born in 1122. But we have a family genealogy that was complied in 1137 and describes Eleanor as being 13 at that time. So we think it’s more likely 1124 now but still nobody is 100% certain because she was a daughter of a nobleman and unfortunately, in those times, they didn’t quite matter so much as the sons, particularly. I mean, Eleanor, she’s quite a hard person to get to, isn’t she? I find it absolutely fascinating, but she is obscured behind all of these layers of myths and stories and scandal and all sorts of things that spring up around her throughout her entire life. I mean, it’s not something that just starts when she marries Henry II. It’s a big part of her life before then and I quite often say that Eleanor, for my money, she lived three incredibly full medieval lives. She’d lived one before she even met Henry, and then she lived one with Henry, and she lived a whole another one after he died. So she’s an absolutely incredible woman. I think indomitable is a good word for her. I think we can see in a lot of her behaviour some of her obsessions. I think she had a lifelong, absolute obsession with protecting Aquitaine and the inheritance of Aquitaine and I think partly this lies in the fact that she was a woman ruler of Aquitaine. So she did have a brother, but he passed away young, and so she became her father’s heir and we were getting into this world where there was a belief that women couldn’t wield power. That hadn’t always been the case, but the Catholic Church was really ramping up this idea that it wasn’t good for women to have any kind of power. They’re a terribly emotional bunch, driven by their libido, completely out of control, and all these poor men just can’t handle it if women are given power. 

Holly: We are.

Matt: So I think she’s fighting against that, particularly in Aquitaine. So where Aquitaine is positioned, you’ve got the kind of much more straight laced north of France around Paris. And I think it’s a much freer, much more open – I guess we might call it a liberal society around Aquitaine, and they haven’t quite got this notion yet that women can’t rule. There are a lot of strong women in Eleanor’s past, and I think she would have been brought up hearing stories of all of these women and there might have been an expectation that when she becomes her father’s heir that  ‘uh she’s just a woman. She’s not going to be able to do this.’ So I think she spends her life proving that she can do it. And Aquitaine is the real absolute passion and focus of her life. 

Holly: Yeah, she is absolutely fascinating and you mentioned her father. So maybe we can talk a little bit about what her childhood might have been like, who her parents were, what kind of environment she was being brought up in.

Matt: Her father is Duke William X of Aquitaine. There is a humongous history of every Duke of Aquitaine being called William. If he didn’t happen to be called William at birth, then he becomes William when he becomes Duke. So her dad was Duke William X, and he was the son of unsurprisingly Duke William IX and Philippa of Toulouse. And so Toulouse is a place that plays a big part in Eleanor’s story as well. There’s lots of controversy over who owns Toulouse. Eleanor quite strongly, firmly believes that she does at several points, and that claim comes from Philippa of Toulouse. And her mother was Aénor of Châtelleraul, who was a daughter of Aimery I, Viscount of Châtellerault, and a woman who has possibly the most fantastic name in history during this entire period, a woman called Dangereuse de l’Isle Bouchard. And she is a slightly complex figure because she was married to Aimery and so Aénor, who was Duke William X wife, is the daughter of Aimery of Amory and Dangereuse, but Dangereuse is also the mistress of Duke William IX, William X’s father. His wife isn’t related to him, but his dad is having an affair with his wife’s mom and so you get this kind of complex, difficult picture there, and there’s lots of talk about William IX. He’s known as the Troubadour Duke, so he’s not the first of this kind of troubadours, these famous sort of minstrel poets, but he’s the most high ranking one of them. So he becomes really closely associated with this idea of troubadours. William IX was captured during the First Crusade and when he comes back, Orderic Vitalis talks about him making songs out of all of his miseries. He says he “made the sufferings he had undergone during his captivity a subject of amusement among Kings and nobles and Christian assemblies, discanting on them in rhyming verse to merry tunes.” So he sort of made jokes and rhymes and poems about the horrible things he’d seen in the Holy Land, which today we might think that’s a way of dealing with some kind of post traumatic stress and processing all of those horrible things that he’d seen. William of Malmesbury says that William IX was so besotted with Dangereuse that he had an image of her painted onto his shield. So despite the fact that he’s married, he has a picture of his girlfriend painted onto his shield, according to William of Malmsbury. So there’s quite a complex family dynamic there. William IX has this reputation as a bit of a rogue. As I mentioned before, Eleanor did have an older brother. She had a brother called William (unsurprisingly) 

Holly: Ten points for guessing that one. 

Matt: And she also has a younger sister who plays a fairly significant role during her life as Queen of France a little bit later on. But her mother, uh, and her brother both passed away in 1130, making Eleanor her father’s heir. And so they’re leaving her without a mother and with no marriage arranged at this point and her father never remarries, but also never arranges any kind of marriage for Eleanor either. So we don’t quite know why. I mean, I presume he would have imagined he was going to live longer than he did in the end, but he never arranges the kind of marriage that will protect Aquitaine. So Eleanor is left very much utterly responsible for the future of Aquitaine and I think that’s a weight she carries with her for the rest of her life and it kind of directs a lot of her attention and her activities later in life as well. Her education, I think, would have been fairly standard. As I say, the atmosphere in Aquitaine in Southern France was much more relaxed and open than it was in Northern France, around Paris, where it was quite straight laced and very sensible. And I think when she ended up going to Paris, it must have been a bit of a culture shock for her. So I think she was probably brought up surrounded by stories of very strong women who had ruled in the past and probably instilled in her this notion that there was no reason why she couldn’t do that. Her ancestors have done it, so why shouldn’t she?

Holly: Yeah. So what did happen once her father died and she became heir? 

Matt: Off on a complete tangent, off on a rocket, a roller coaster. Her father Duke William X, he ends up being castigated by this guy called Bernard of Clairvaux, who was one of the most senior religious figures at the time, and he’s pulled off by Bernard outside of a Church sd Duke William collapses and potentially has a stroke or something like that and isn’t very well. And he decides to go on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain in 1137. But having got part way there, he dies along the way. And the Archbishop of Bordeaux comes back in a bit of a panic, probably, and says that the Duke’s dying wish was for his daughter Eleanor to be placed in the care of King Louis VI of France. Louis is sort of the overlord say that the position in France is quite difficult at this point. So French Kings weren’t really the Kings of the whole of France. They ruled around Paris. They had their own domain lands around Paris, but they relied on some pretty fragile ties of loyalty to control the rest of what we view as France. So the Duchy of Aquitaine was nominally a vassal state of the King of France, but in places like that, he could never exert too much direct pressure or power without breaking ties. So what Louis VI sees when he gets Eleanor of Aquitaine kind of falling into his lap, this 13 year old heiress to a huge, vast area worth an awful lot of money, Louis immediate thought is right ‘I’m having some of this.’ And he marries Eleanor off to his son and heir, also called Louis. Because there’s about three names in this whole story, in some ways makes it simple and utterly impossible to understand what’s going on. In 1137, at the age of 13, Eleanor is married to Louis and within weeks, Louis VI then dies as well. And so Louis becomes Louis VII at the age of sort of 17, with his 13 year old wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, suddenly Queen of France. So she’s gone from living this fairly comfortable life. Yes, she’s her dad’s heir, but he’s not an old man. Nothing’s going on. One day she’ll probably get a husband and all of this will move along nicely. And at the age of 13, she’s suddenly an orphan, whisked off to Paris, married to a man and almost immediately, she’s Queen of France. So her life, I think, is pretty much turned upside down at this point.

Holly: It’s not much of a surprise that we kind of see that level of resilience coming through for the rest of her life because she had to learn it pretty quickly, it seems, when she was very very young.

Matt: I think, so early in her life. There’s a lot of loss there. At the age of six, she’s lost her mum and her brother and been catapulted into this position as her father’s heir. And then at the age of 13, she’s lost her dad as well. She’s responsible for her younger sister and all of a sudden married and Queen of France. And, I mean, she must have been looking over her shoulder, thinking, ‘how did that happen?’

Holly: So what was their marriage like kind of built on quite normal for the time, but built very much on just this transactional situation in terms of land and money?

Matt: It was absolutely a political alliance. Louis VI just saw a chance for the French Crown to extend its authority into Aquitaine and to get control of that. A generation later Aquitaine would become part of the French Crown as well when Louis and Eleanor had a son. And their marriage actually starts off, surprisingly, apparently, well. There seems to be a fair amount of love there, at least on Louis’ part. So Louis was not his father’s oldest son. Again his older brother had passed away. Louis had been brought up in a sort of Church environment, perhaps being prepared for the Church, and then was sort of yanked away from that when his brother dies. And a lot like Eleanor thrust into this sudden position of being an heir, which he hadn’t expected to be. So perhaps there’s a bit of a shared experience there. But famously, Eleanor would comment later on that she felt like she’d married a priest rather than a King. And that was because he had this heavily religious influence in his early life. And so I don’t know if he quite knew what to do with the fact that he was now married to Eleanor. And he seems to have been, according to a lot of the sources – although it’s very difficult to know what to believe in some of these sources, the only thing you can really be certain of is that they don’t like women. We always have to take that as a red when we’re reading some of these sources. Virtually everything we have for this period is written by monks who are necessarily men and who don’t think women should be in positions of power. So we always have to bear in mind that when we read horrible things about these women in history, it’s kind of laced with all of this misogyny and an agenda to denigrate the role of women in politics. But nevertheless, they start saying that Louis was absolutely infatuated by his young wife. He fell head over heels in love with her. And of course, then they start to position this as Eleanor taking advantage of this and using her influence over Louis for her own dastardly plans and plots all over the place. So we get stories, for example, she encourages Louis to go and invade Toulouse. So I mentioned earlier there was a dispute over who was in charge of Toulouse and she encourages Louis to head down there to challenge the Count of Toulouse, to swear fealty to Eleanor as Duchess of Aquitaine and it all goes horribly wrong. They can’t get control of Toulouse. And obviously, all of that has to be Eleanor’s fault because she’s the woman. And then Louis gets caught up in Eleanor’s sister has an affair with a married man, and it all goes a little bit messy, and Louis gets sucked into a kind of war then further north of Paris, and that goes horribly wrong as well. He ends up burning a town with lots of people trapped inside a church. So he’s burning French people inside a church, which is not a great look for a French King. And he’s absolutely in despair about all of this. And there’s a strong chance that this is why he’s so keen to sign up to the crusade. So it actually starts off looking like they’ve got a really good relationship. There’s a sense in some of the sources that Eleanor has a bit too much control over Louis, but we don’t know how true that is. What we probably see is them working quite closely together, albeit that then the men that surround Louis start to feel like they want a bit more influence and people like Abbot Suger, who have been Louis VI’s chief advisor, retreats from the scene a little bit, but starts to come back a little bit later in the relationship as they try to sort of edge Eleanor out of the politics.

louis vii and eleanor of aquitaine marriage
A 14th-century representation of the wedding of Louis VII and Eleanor (left) and Louis’ leaving on Crusade (right)

Holly: And so you mentioned the Second Crusade what’s the story there? Because that sounds like quite a pivotal time in their relationship.

Matt: It is. The one thing to say by this point is that they’ve got one child, a daughter, and obviously what Louis needs is a son. He needs a son and an heir. So they’ve got a daughter, which is fine. They’re still both young, they’ve got time, all of that kind of thing. But nevertheless, it’s going to become more and more of a preoccupation. And when the Second Crusade is preached, Louis, as we mentioned, he has this religious inclination anyway, things have gone horribly wrong in that attack in France, and he’s burnt some Christians in a church. So he has reasons why he might want to atone for all of that. And I think he leaps at the chance to lead this crusade to reclaim the Holy Land. And I think he’s then quite put out when the Holy Roman Emperor decides to join it as well, and he’s no longer the big ruler in charge of the whole thing. But nevertheless, they decide to head off, and Eleanor goes with Louis and I think there’s several potential reasons for that. I mean, we’re still in a position, I think, here where they seem to be in love, or at least people are still saying in the sources that Louis is besotted with Eleanor and didn’t want to leave her behind. But there are also political reasons for Eleanor going, not least the fact that her husband could be gone for a prolonged amount of time. He was going to somewhere incredibly dangerous. There was no guarantee that he’d come back and they still needed a son. So by Eleanor going with him, we’re still leaving that window open, a window of opportunity for them to conceive a son and an heir for France. But I think it also removes the potential that Eleanor would have made what would have been a perfectly reasonable claim for a regency in France while Louis was gone. Abbot Suger, who I mentioned had started to come back into the political fold a little bit, was the person that Louis left in charge. I think everyone was quite happy with that. They knew Abbot Suger. They knew what he was about. What they didn’t really want was this crazy woman Eleanor left in charge doing  all these crazy things that women will do when they’re in power. 

Holly: That women do. 

Matt:  I have to keep saying all through things like this – this is not my views at all. I’m reflecting the views of chroniclers, like, nearly 1000 years ago. But they are a terrible bunch of misogynists. So I think there are lots of good reasons, political reasons, why she goes. And if you’re a woman in the middle of the 12th Century, if you’re anybody in the middle of the 12th Century, the chance to travel to the Holy Land is not something you pass up easily. I mean, they’re getting to go to Jerusalem and walk where Jesus walked and to be in those places. When they actually get there, they spend Easter in Jerusalem which would have been once in a lifetime thing to be able to do. But aside from that, the Second Crusade was an absolute disaster. There’s a theme here, isn’t there? Everything Louis does, everything he touches, does not turn to gold. He struggles to get to the Holy Land. The journey there is difficult. They get assaulted across mountains on the way there. And at one point, they’re crossing a mountain and the army is obviously quite strung out going across this mountain. And there’s a plan that they’ll get to the top, find somewhere to camp and all catch up with the army so they don’t get too strung out. When the front of the army gets to the top, they find there isn’t enough room for everybody. So they press on a little bit either to find somewhere big enough for all of them, or the advanced guard will camp a bit further down the other side of the mountain and leave space at the top for the other people. But the effect of this is they get so strung out that a Turk Army attacks them and some of Louis bodyguard are killed and he comes very close to being physically assaulted during this pretty scary moment. And they managed to turn this into being all Eleanor’s fault. So the guy who’s leading the front of the army is one of her Aquitanian vassals. So he owes allegiance to her. And he’s been told, ‘get to the top, find a campsite, blah, blah, blah,’ and because he doesn’t do that it’s flipping Eleanor’s fault. ‘Flipping Eleanor, she nearly got the King killed on the mountain.’ You can already see all of these times when they’re trying to paint every failure as being Eleanor’s fault. She dragged Louis to Toulouse. He was only involved in that conflict in Northern France because of her sister. Now it’s all going wrong in the Holy Land because Eleanor won’t do as she’s told. All the people that work for Eleanor won’t do as they’re told. And this continues when they get to Antioch. So Eleanor’s uncle, Prince Raymond of Antioch, hosts Louis and Eleanor. And I imagine Eleanor must have been quite happy to see a family member. But they spend a bit of time at Antioch and reading between the lines of the sources – so again, we get the horrible, misogynistic twisting of all the stuff that goes on the sources that I’ll get to in a minute – it sounds to me like Raymond says to Louis, ‘here’s what we need to do to retake areas of the Holy Land. We need to attack this place first, then we’ll move here. This is how we’ll do it.’ And Louis says, ‘no, not doing that. I’m just going to go to Jerusalem.’ And Raymond sort of says, ‘no, that’s a really bad idea. That’s not how you need to operate in the Holy Land here.’ And Louis is just like, ‘no, go into Jerusalem. That’s what I’m going to do.’ And Eleanor seems to take Raymond’s side in all of this. So I imagine her saying, ‘Uncle Raymond lives here. He knows what he’s talking about. He knows the land, he knows the people, all of those kinds of things. Why don’t we take his advice? What do you do as he counsels?’ And Louis still is sort of ‘no we’re going into Jerusalem.’ A lot of sources talk about the fact that they kind of upsticks in the middle of the night and Eleanor is sort of dragged out of her bed, chucked into a carriage or whatever, and forced to leave Antioch because she’s saying, ‘I want to stay here with Raymond if you’re going to go and do something stupid like plowing on to Jerusalem.’ And this is where we get all of those stories that come later about the fact that Eleanor must have been having an affair with her uncle. Not because there’s actual evidence that she was having an affair, but because they need to understand why would she disobey her husband like this? What could possibly make her go against Louis? There’s no other explanation for this. It can’t be politics. It can’t be a tactical understanding. It can’t be wanting to rely on local knowledge and all of that kind of thing. It’s just got to be that she’s having an affair. It’s in those moments where women are trying to exercise any kind of power or authority, they’re painted as the antithesis of everything a woman was supposed to be during this period. So the Second Crusade basically goes horribly wrong. They do manage to spend some time in Jerusalem, but they don’t make any military gains whatsoever. And they come back and there’s hints here that things are starting to go wrong. So they travel back in separate ships and Eleanor’s ship is attacked by pirates and captured. Louis lands in Italy doesn’t quite know what to do, and she ends up having to be saved by somebody else and makes landfall a distance away from him. And they eventually meet back up. They go and see the Pope, and the Pope provides them with this blessed bed for them to sleep in.

Holly: And says, you know one of my favourite stories.

Matt: It’s such an un-Pope-ish thing to do. He tells them that, ‘don’t split up, whatever you do.’ There must have been some kind of sense that things were going wrong in their marriage by this point. He says, ‘don’t split up, whatever you do’ and he kind of forbids them to separate and to annul their marriage and says ‘you’ll have a son. I promise you, I’m going to bless this bed.’ I mean, I know they were married, but it’s just a crazy situation for them to be.

Holly: It is mad and unfortunately, in their view, only ended up with a daughter anyway.

Matt: Well, interestingly, nine months later, Eleanor does have a baby, but it’s a second daughter, which isn’t what Louis wants or needs. So all through their pregnancy, it might have looked like they were getting things back on track and the Pope whatever he done had worked. This is a second daughter that they end up having and I think to some extent, those experiences on the crusade and perhaps a second daughter coming along as well, rather than a son, is what really begins to drive a wedge into their marriage and despite the Pope’s earlier prohibition, uh, they do end up getting an annulment in 1152. Louis gets custody of both their daughters and as far as we know she never, ever saw her two daughters again because of what happens next.

Holly: Wow. And, uh, kind of how precarious is the situation now that she was a single woman of means.

Matt: Incredibly precarious, because she’s a single woman who is now in control of a vast swathe of France. She’s possibly the most eligible heiress in Europe, and she’s just dropped back onto the marriage market. And so she heads back to Poitou, which Aquitaine is this kind of big conglomeration of different barony and earldoms and things, nominally ruled by the Count of Poitou. So William X had been Count of Poitou, and by virtue of that, Duke of Aquitaine. Poitou is sort of her home ground, her heartland. She goes back to Poitou when she leaves Louis court, and on the journey back there, there were two attempts to abduct her and forcibly marry her: one by Theobald, Count of Blois, and she manages to sort of narrowly avoid that and then the second is by Geoffrey of Anjou, who is the younger brother of the future, Henry II, who is about to make a big entry into her life. So Henry’s younger brother tries to abduct Eleanor as she’s getting to the border of Poitou and forcibly marry her so that he can become Duke of Aquitaine. So she needed to be reminded of how precarious she was. She wanted to be the strong woman who was the Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right. But I don’t think she was so blind to the political reality that she was in trouble here. She was going to be a target for as long as she was a single woman who was valuable on the marriage market now.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

Holly: So she writes a letter to Henry, but they had met before then, so kind of how had they first crossed paths?

Matt: It was only about a year before Eleanor’s marriage was annulled in 1151. They met in Paris. So Henry had come to Paris with his dad, Geoffrey of Anjou, to discuss with Louis the ownership of Normandy. So Geoffrey wanted to give Normandy to Henry, so Henry needed to swear fealty to Louis as his overlord, as French King. So it was to kind of negotiate all of that arrangement. Always a tricky thing because there’s lots of borderlands between Normandy and France, the Norman Vexin, and all that kind of thing that are always disputed and so they go backwards and forwards, and ‘I’ll accept you as Duke if you hand over this chunk of land.’ There’s quite a complex negotiation that goes on around all of these things. But this is when we know that Henry comes to court in Paris, where Eleanor is also there. So she’s 27 at this point. Henry is 18. So bit of an age gap, scandalous. And we get these kind of, again, these crazy rumors that dog Eleanor’s life. There are stories that she slept with Geoffrey of Anjou during this time at the court, so Henry’s dad.

Holly: Yeah. Dad not brother.

Matt: Absolutely. Yeah. Sorry.

Holly: Different Geoffreys.

Matt: Different Geoffreys. We’ve only got those three names we’re dealing with here. It’s another example of those stories that just follow Eleanor around. And this was really to denigrate her once she was married to Henry, because everyone’s like, ‘oh man, she slept with your dad and everything. This is gross. You shouldn’t be doing all of this.’ And it’s just more mud to sling at Eleanor. Then we get these other stories later that it was love at first sight, and they were eyes locked across the throne room, and it was meant to be. But there’s no evidence of that either. I think it’s easy to see Eleanor looking at this 18 year old guy who by all accounts, are a good looking bloke as well as his dad’s son. 18 years old, a bundle of energy. Henry has described everything absolutely non-stop bundle of energy. Everything that Louis isn’t. So if Eleanor is getting disillusioned with Louis at this point and a bit fed up of this kind of boring, wimpy king who’s not able to achieve anything he sets his mind to. Here is the exact antithesis of him busting into the French court and setting it alight. 18 years old, about to become Duke of Normandy, claiming the throne of England, the world ahead of him. It’s easy to think of Eleanor seeing this young man as everything that she was missing from Louis and I guess it’s easy to see Henry looking at this maybe slightly exotic older woman from the South of France, this woman who has been Queen of France for 15 years by this point. She has power and authority and everything else. And perhaps he’s looking at her and is impressed by her, but we just don’t know. We don’t know that this is all like love at first sight stuff going on. Those are much later stories. I think it’s easy to see that they would have had appeal to each other. And it’s striking that when Eleanor is separated from Louis and get back to Poitou, as you say, she gets back having survived these two abduction attempts, and she pens this letter to Henry saying, ‘do you want to come and marry me?’ So she’d met him. We know that she’d met him, but I think even beyond that, it’s again, a big dose of pragmatism and political reality. She’s just split up from the King of France. She’s survived attempts to abduct her, to forcibly marry her and take control of her Duchy. This is Eleanor taking her destiny into her own hands and saying, ‘if I’m going to have to marry, I’m going to marry someone I choose. I’m going to write the letter to him. I’m not waiting here to be abducted. I’m going to write to him and tell him that he can come and marry me if he hauls himself down here and does it, I’m not going to run into him either. He’s coming to me.’ From her point of view as well, if she’s thinking I need someone who can protect me and protect Aquitaine, but protect us against the King of France, potentially as well if Louis is going to pursue the idea that he wants Aquitaine for their daughters, she needs someone who can stand up to Louis. And she must have seen Henry as potentially the only person who was available in the area who would have been able to stand up to Louis. He’s Duke of Normandy as I said, he’s about to press his claim to the throne of England. So he’s one of the few people who I think would have been in a good position to protect her. So I think there’s a big dose of political reality and pragmatism in what Eleanor does, but also of her taking her destiny into her own hands.

Holly: Absolutely, makes me like her quite a lot that she did that.

Matt: And I mean, it probably was a nice side effect for her that it absolutely outrages Louis.

Holly: That’s one way to get back at your ex.

Matt: Within weeks of their annulment, as soon as they’re not married anymore, she is back to being Louis’ vassal and one of his most important and powerful vassals, so Louis would have expected to have a say in who she married next, but she just writes to Henry and marries him within weeks. And Louis gets this news that this up and coming 18 year old, who seems to be everything he lays his eyes on is falling into his lap. All of a sudden he’s now Duke of Aquitaine as well. His dad passes away, so he gets to be Count of Anjou, Count of Maine. He’s Duke of Normandy. He’s about to cross over into England to claim to be King of England. And now when he marries Eleanor, he owns more of France than the King of France does. I mean, he’s nominally Louis vassal for all of this, but as I mentioned, those ties are quite fragile, and Louis always has to be careful how much he pulls on those things.

Holly: Yeah, absolutely. So we’ve touched quite a lot on who Henry was, this younger man full of energy and who his parents were as well. But I do want to go back to his childhood, just in the sense of thinking about what his parents instilled in him?

Matt: Yeah. I mean, the relationship between Geoffrey of Anjou and Empress Matilda is a fascinating one. She’s an older woman. She’s older than Geoffrey, so we can see the same dynamic as there is between Henry and Eleanor. Matilda is initially married to Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor. He dies when they haven’t had any children, she comes back to England. There’s the White Ship disaster. So she’s Henry I daughter – I should probably just put that in as well – we get the White Ship disaster in which her brother, who is Henry I heir, is drowned and killed. So she becomes her father’s heir. Lots of parallels there with what was happening to Eleanor. And Henry sort of causes all of the Barons of England to swear to recognise Matilda as his heir. But when he dies, we get the situation where his nephew Stephen of Blois jumps in and has himself crowned. And then from 1138 – so that happens at 1135 – from 1138 onwards, Matilda sort of presses her claim to the English throne as well and we get this period of civil war called the Anarchy. It all kicks off a bit in 1141 and the Matilda doesn’t manage to get herself crowned, and after that, she begins to drift away from it. But she definitely keeps the cause alive in the name of her son, Henry, her oldest son. So I think what Matilda instils in her son is an absolute conviction that England is his and Normandy is his by right. He should have what his granddad had held. And I think we see this throughout Henry’s life that the measure of everything he ever wanted to do was to regain everything his granddad had ever held. He wants all of the rights, the lands, the titles, powers, authorities that his granddad had. That is his yardstick and I think that comes directly from his mother, drilling into him from a very early age that you are your grandfather’s heir, and you should have everything that he had. Geoffrey, I think, is a much more different character. He gets involved in the conquest of Normandy, nominally in Matilda’s name, but really he just wants to conquer Normandy for himself. Anjou has a long standing rivalry with Normandy. So he conquers Normandy slowly and carefully. He’s very careful never to get involved in what’s going on in England. He completely stays out of that, and he conquers Normandy, but then hands it over to Henry pretty much immediately and makes him Duke of Normandy. So Henry is getting these things that he’s been told are his, and he would have been aware that he’s going to get on Anjou and Maine as well, which are big counties in Western France that sit between Normandy and Aquitaine. So he has a lot coming his way. William of Malmsbury writes “the boy’s called Henry, recalling his grandfather’s name, and would he may someday recall his prosperity and power.” He’s telling the future a little bit here you know. William of Mosby is absolutely born out. If anything, Henry becomes greater than his granddad had ever been. But I think we see there that idea that he is using his grandfather as a yardstick and a measure for everything that he should have. And he’s obviously viewed as quite a precocious  little boy. He comes over to England with his Uncle Robert, Robert of Gloucester, who is an illegitimate son of Henry. I’m a half brother to Empress Matilda. But Henry comes over as a boy. He spends some time being tutored by Adelard of Bath, quite a well known academic. He’s also later studied with some other fairly well known sort of academic people with widespread experience. So I think no expense is spared on his education from an academic point of view and I think his dad is keen to educate him from a political point of view as well, about how to rule and how to be in charge of Duchies and counties and things like that. So I think he has a really good balance of those elements of his education. Walter Map would say later that Henry could speak or could get by in every language from the Bay of Biscay to Jordan. He tended to work in Latin and French, but he could understand all of those other languages because he made it his business to be able to speak them. So he’s clearly a clever guy with a lot going on. And combine that with this endless energy that he seemed to have, this inability to ever sit still. So he’s quite a complex character, I think, and there’s a lot to it, but clearly a very clever guy, an absolute bundle of energy, utterly disinterested in the trappings of being a King. And I think all of that is drilled into him from his youth, that he’s entitled to a lot of this stuff and that he should go after all of the things that are his. So I think he approaches all of that with absolute conviction that these things rightfully belong to him.

Depiction of Henry II and Thomas Becket from ‘Peter of Langtoft, Chronicle of England (14th Century)

Holly: Yeah. So they have a joint Coronation. And then how would you describe them as King and Queen in those beginning few years?

Matt: So a couple of years after they’re married…1153, Henry sort of invades England, gets accepted as Stephen’s heir. Stephan adopts him as his son, and Stephan dies in 1154. And Henry succeeds, and he actually takes a little bit of time to come to England, and I think that’s a little bit of a test of his own position. Maybe he’s allowing people to show their hand if they’re planning to rebel against him, but nobody does. And I think everyone is quite happy to have a settled succession of a married man and probably, very much to Louis’ annoyance by this point, they already have a son. And I think the fact that his son is born while Henry is away in England and Eleanor is in Normandy, and Eleanor’s left to name him, can you guess what she names him? She names him William. I think this plays into her obsession with Aquitaine. She wants another Duke William. That’s absolutely all she is fixated on. She doesn’t care about Normandy, England, nothing, she cares about Aquitaine. Unfortunately, that child wouldn’t live very long, but nevertheless, the first child is called William. So they end up with this huge conglomeration of lands that stretch from Hadrian’s Wall and the North Sea in the north, all the way down to the South Coast of France and the Pyrenees and all that. It’s absolutely vast territory. I don’t think there’s any way they could have ruled that if they weren’t working together as a partnership at the start of their relationship. I think Eleanor was obviously vastly experienced. She had been Queen of France for 15 years. She sort of knew what she was doing in ruling a Kingdom in a way that Henry probably didn’t. And you find Henry relying really heavily on the two women in his life at this point – so his mother Matilda, is essentially put in charge of Normandy. She rules Normandy for him for pretty much the rest of her life, and everyone thinks she’s great at it because now she’s ruling on behalf of a man and everybody can understand that. Eleanor is quite often left as Regent in England. She occasionally looks after Maine and Anjou for Henry as well. So while he’s having to move around, he’s able to rely on Eleanor and Matilda to look after these places for him so that he doesn’t have to worry. But that does mean that they’re not necessarily always together. So I don’t think their relationship required them to be living in each other’s pockets all of the time. They were quite happy to be apart and doing their jobs. So I would characterise it as an incredibly close relationship. I might even say I think they probably loved each other at this point, but they didn’t spend all day, every day in each other’s pockets. They were both working incredibly hard. I say that, but they also managed to have eight children in the 13 years that followed.

Holly: They had a lot of children and I very much enjoyed in your book how you were tracing the fluctuations in their marriage by when they were having children throughout those years.

Matt: Yeah. I think you can see the parts where they’re obviously not with each other and maybe not getting on so well. Things are going wrong. Eleanor gets Henry involved in a Toulouse campaign again, which doesn’t go very well and I think you can kind of chart happy years of their marriage based on a child being born nine months later. I think they had an incredibly close relationship, particularly in those first years.

Holly: So you mentioned that in this time, they were really taking hold ideas of how women and men could rule and did that affect their relationship in any way?

Matt: I think it did and it didn’t. Eleanor was largely accepted in the roles that she was put in because she was representing Henry. She was wielding power on his behalf and Matilda, his mum, was successful in Normandy for exactly the same reason. So I think Eleanor is in this position where she’s only ever wielding authority on behalf of Henry. There are a couple of times when she goes back to Aquitaine and is sort of trying to take control of Aquitaine and she struggles with that. She does struggle with Aquitaine. I mean, everyone struggles with Aquitaine, and it’s difficult place to rule for anybody. But Eleanor definitely does struggle when she’s not being Henry’s representative. She doesn’t seem to have problems, particularly in England or Maine and Anjou or Normandy or anywhere like that. But when she goes back to Aquitaine and is probably trying to rule more as it’s Duchess rather than as Henry’s wife, then I think she sees a little bit more trouble. But I think generally she’s okay because she’s in a role there that people recognise and understand as a Queen consort or the ruler of the Land’s wife.

Holly: And so when she moved back to Aquitaine in 1168, quite substantially, then, to rule, do you characterise that as a cooling off in their relationship? Like it’s kind of quite often been characterised as.

Matt: Yeah, it’s usually portrayed as the point at which Henry has kind of had enough of Eleanor. He gets a couple of mistresses and packs the old lady off back down to the south, so he can have a bit of freedom. He’s probably a bit fed up of and all that kind of thing. But I don’t think that stacks up against the way that they’d interacted with each other up until that point. To some extent, I suggest that that move in 1168 is Henry giving Eleanor a great big thank you and giving her a reward, if you like, for a job well done. 1168 – she’s 44 years old. They’ve got seven surviving children. All she’s ever really wanted is to be Duchess of Aquitaine and to secure the future of Aquitaine and I would suggest that potentially what Henry is doing is giving her exactly what she wanted as a thank you for what she’s done for him. Between them, they’ve ruled this huge area of land. He’s become King of England since he married her. They’ve achieved an awful lot together. They’ve secured the succession, at least as far as they’re concerned at this point, with seven children, made some fantastic marriages for their sons and daughters, and they are absolutely on top of the European political scene at this point. They are the absolute power couple of Europe in this period. They didn’t ever have this relationship where they need to be in each other’s pockets, as I said. So I’m tempted to characterise this as Henry, not Eleanor retiring because she’s going to be politically active in Aquitaine, but Henry saying ‘thank you. You’ve done everything I needed you to do. You’ve done it incredibly well. So here’s me giving you everything that you’ve ever wanted. You can have Aquitaine, you can rule it in your own right. You can take Richard a second son with you, and you can teach him to be Duke of Aquitaine and when we’re gone, Richard gets Aquitaine and you can teach him how to be the next Duke of Aquitaine.’ And all she wanted throughout her life, I think, was to secure Aquitaine and I think Henry now gives her the tools to do that.

Holly: Yeah. I think it’s a real recognition of what she wanted. It doesn’t seem like a bad thing to be given everything that you’ve ever wanted by your husband.

Matt: Yeah, it’s often been viewed as this Henry pushing her away. But if you consider that Eleanor had always wanted Aquitaine and to secure its future, he’s not punishing her. He’s giving her what she wants.

Holly: You mentioned that they were the kind of power couple of Europe. And this is going to have to be brief because it’s a very complicated a story and you mentioned that Thomas Beckett was one of his counsellors. How does what was happening around Beckett start to threaten their position as a power couple?

Matt: I’m not very good at brief, so I’ll try, yeah. So Beckett starts off a bit of a nobody from London, brought to Henry’s attention by the Archbishop, um, of Canterbury, installed as Henry’s Chancellor. So sort of effectively head of his government, does all the dirty work and the writing and stuff that Henry can’t really be bothered with doing. And they actually seem to become quite close to each other. There’s lot seems to be lots of pranks going on between them, albeit that I think Thomas is never left in any doubt with the fact that Henry is King and that the pranks are quite often at Thomas’ expense and that kind of thing, which I think is an element of their relationship later on. But when the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, Henry is trying to get control over the Church in England. So, again, this goes back to his grandfather. Since his grandfather’s time, the control that the Crown has over the Church in England has slipped a fair bit. Henry wants to get that back. So he has things like the Constitution of Clarendon about imposing more Royal control over the Church in England, restricting their opportunities to appeal to Rome and things like that. So he decides the best way to do this is to put his mate in as Archbishop of Canterbury. And then Thomas will just sign the papers and it’ll all be done. Great stuff. And it almost immediately goes horribly wrong. I’m not so sure that it impacts their relationship too much, but it’s kind of a constant drag on Henry’s attention. I think he does his best to ignore Beckett an awful lot, particularly when Beckett goes into exile in France. And obviously, Louis VII in France is very keen to use Beckett against Henry and, by extension, against Eleanor as well. Thomas Beckett is very good at thrusting himself in front of everybody. Whenever there’s a peace conference, Beckett will turn up uninvited so what he does, really, is disrupts European politics, particularly between Henry and Louis, and kind of prevents peace between England and France whenever there’s an opportunity for it, which, by extension, creates an environment in which Louis is looking for ways to attack Henry and sort of seizes on using their children against them and managing to turn the heads of Henry and Eleanor’s children. So I think Beckett, he doesn’t really have a direct impact on Henry and Ellen’s relationship, but he’s kind of always there, buzzing away in the background until he is killed. His death is probably the biggest threat to Henry’s kingship in his life. If he had been found guilty of ordering Beckett’s death, he would probably have been excommunicated and effectively deposed by the Pope and all of that kind of thing, and it all would have gone horribly wrong. But he manages to get around that. But I think what it does is show Louis that there are ways to get at Henry and Ellen other than with an army, so he turns to kind of politically weaponizing their children against them at that point.

Holly: I think most people will have heard of when their son plotted to overthrow Henry in 1173 and I wondered if you could describe what happened and explain how it relates to how Eleanor and Henry were as parents.

Matt: Yes. So essentially, they’ve got Henry the Young King, because we’re only going to reuse the name Henry, obviously, Henry, they’ve got a son called Geoffrey as well, just like Henry’s dad. So Henry the Young King, is the only in English history to be crowned in his father’s lifetime and this was a French tradition to secure the succession. So up until the accession of Edward I in 1072, it wasn’t the case that when one King died, another immediately became King. There was a gap, there was an interregnum, and there was no King’s peace. Law and order fell apart. So the French had this system of crowning an heir during their father’s lifetime, so that as soon as the old King died, the new King was already there. And so Henry wanted to do this. In England, we just had this period of civil war, the Anarchy about who had the right to be King and his solution was to crown Henry the Young King. And Henry the Young King is crowned and not really given any political power or authority and so he starts to sort of buck against his dad’s control. He wants land, he wants castles, he wants men, he wants money. And Henry keeps denying it to him. It’s quite often painted as Henry was such a control freak that he couldn’t let go of his territories. But in actual fact, he pretty much given Aquitaine to Richard by this point. He’d pretty much given Brittany to Geoffrey. He was trying to give Ireland to John and to line these things up and the inability to give away control is very specific to Henry, the Young King. And I think there was something about Henry, the Young King, that was problematical. He clearly didn’t display an aptitude for power and authority. As we mentioned earlier, Henry’s dad had given him Normandy at the age of 16. But Henry was utterly unable to hand anything over to Henry and Louis sees this and starts to say to Henry, the young King, ‘well, you’ve been crowned. Why haven’t you got lands and titles and things like that? It doesn’t seem very fair that your dad’s not giving you this stuff,’ and he sort of drives a wedge between Henry and his sons and Eleanor gets wrapped up in, or is at least suspected of being involved in this rebellion, and obviously, the sources then start to talk about Eleanor was driving this. She was doing it. It was her fault. She was encouraging her sons, because this kind of bad feeling about Eleanor is still continuing through a lot of the source material. Something’s going wrong, it must be Eleanor’s fault. And we get the situation where the boys rebel, and this happens on and off for the rest of Henry II’s life really. And Eleanor is suspected of involvement in all of this. And, I mean, traditionally, we’re told that she’s arrested and she’s basically imprisoned for the rest of Henry II’s life. He carts her back off to England, locks her up, and she spends the rest of his life as a prisoner for 13 or 14 years. But again, I would question how accurate that was, how much of a prisoner she really was. But it does see a huge change in Henry and Eleanor’s relationship. I tried to discuss in the book the idea that perhaps Eleanor, that this isn’t a big falling out between them and that what Eleanor does…because Henry is absolutely desperate to make peace with his sons. He makes concessions at peace talks that they have, and he gives them more and he gives them more and he gives them more to try and get peace and I suggest that Eleanor perhaps took one for the team. She took the blame for this and nominally imprisoned in England. She was kept at Old Sarum, at her favourite castle in England. She was very well looked after, very well provided for. She was allowed to see her children fairly frequently when they were in England. She’s allowed over to France sometimes and gets involved later in the reign, gets involved in politics again. So I don’t think she was quite the prisoner that she’s often made out to be. But I wonder whether she sort of took the blame for the rebellion so that Henry could forgive their sons and that this was the arrangement that they came to between them potentially ‘lock me up, blame me for it, and then you can make peace with your sons and go back to the way that it was.’ I mean, it didn’t entirely play out because Henry the Young King continues to rebel right up until his own death. But I think there’s a different side to this story that we don’t normally consider that this wasn’t a massive fallout, that this was a way for the family to stay together, to stop Louis being able to drive a massive wedge between them all.

Holly: Yeah, I thought that was really interesting because it makes sense. It makes sense that he needed to find a way to continue the succession and to make sure that when he died, it was all okay and that seems like a really viable way that they could do it. And I was also really interested by how you kind of talked about the softening between them in later years as well, because there was a kind of a shift, wasn’t there?

Matt: Very definitely. I mean, Henry the Young King, for example, if we talk about them as parents, I would characterise both of them as absolutely doting parents. I think they absolutely loved their children. There are times when their daughter Matilda, because she’s called Matilda as well, obviously, who’s married to a man called Henry – Henry the Lion, who’s Duke of Saxony. Henry, Duke of Saxony, gets exiled and comes back to England with Matilda and the grandkids and you get this very clear picture of Henry and Eleanor chasing the grandkids around the castle grounds and all that sort of stuff. Absolutely loving having the family there. And I think perhaps the best sign of Henry as a doting parent is in what happens to his oldest son, his oldest surviving son, Henry the Young King. He spends the best part of ten years after that, 1173, in and out of rebellion against his father. They keep being reconciled and then Henry the Young King kicks off again. I think again, I can still see this picture in which Henry just doesn’t think his son is up to it and is worried about giving him power and authority. But Henry the Young King ends up dying in June 1183, at the age of 28, during a revolt against his father. He falls ill and he sends words to his father to come to his bedside because he’s dying and Henry wants to go. But a lot of his advisers say ‘your son is a little bit shifty. We’re not sure we can trust him. What if this is a plan?’ So Henry sends a ring to his son as a token of his love and his forgiveness. Henry the Young King then dies, and Henry is inconsolable when the news gets him. So this guy has been rebelling against him, and we’re told that Henry wouldn’t hand over power to him because he couldn’t let go of anything. As I say, I think that’s because he saw some kind of fault in his son, but we’re told that he is absolutely distraught. So, Roger of Howden one of the sources talks about Henry the Young King’s death, and he says, ‘all are overjoyed, all rejoice. The father alone bewails the son. Why, glorious father, dost thou bewail him? He was no son of thine who would commit such violence upon thy fatherly affection.’ It’s not very sympathetic for someone whose son has just died. But I think it reflects the idea that this Henry, the young King, had been causing upset, rebellion, problems, trouble, and everyone else was actually quite happy he gone and he wasn’t going to do that anymore. But Henry is absolutely distraught, even though his son has caused him nothing but trouble for the last ten years. Gerald of Wales, another source, says he says ‘so great and so immoderate in grief oppressed the father by a sorrow beyond all comparison deep that refusing all consolation and perplexed between two evils, he declared that he had far rather that his son had triumphed over him than that death should have triumphed over his son.’ So Henry is left saying, ‘I’d rather he had won and I died. Then he’d been taken away from me,’ even though he’s rebelling against him. So I think we get this very clear picture for me of Henry as an absolutely doting family man, which I know is at odds with the idea of him imprisoning his wife and his sons rebelling against him and then constantly fighting. But I think it’s a much more subtle picture than that.

Old Sarum

Holly: Yeah, absolutely. And so kind of things do start to relax in terms of her imprisonment in his late in Henry’s later year. But it’s not until Henry II dies in 1189 that she’s actually officially released. Is that the case?

Matt: Yes. So again, we do see the softening. So in the wake of Henry the Young King’s death, we know that Eleanor is allowed to travel over to Normandy, where Henry, the Young King, is buried to visit his tomb. And Henry does get her back over again to the continent to get involved in some political negotiations when he needs her help. So I think particularly in the wake of Henry the young King’s death, you get the sense that they are still each other’s emotional crutch. They’ve gone through a shared trauma, and she is still the one that Henry turns to for solace and comfort. So I don’t buy this idea that he despised her from then on and kept her a prisoner forever. But yeah so Henry dies…Again. it’s Richard, their oldest remaining son, is in rebellion against Henry and we’re quite often told John is Henry’s favourite son by this point, but I think it’s simply the fact that John hasn’t rebelled right up until the last minute, when he does, as soon as he’s old enough to because that’s what John’s like. But we’re told that William Marshall, the most famous night of the medieval period, gallops back to Eleanor and tells her that she’s free and her husband is dead and her son is King. And Eleanor’s like, ‘yeah, I know.’ William Marshall sort of found her already freed and perfectly well aware of exactly what was going on. So she manages to maintain this air of mystique. How on earth did she know what had gone on? She is effectively set free on Henry II’s death and the accession of her beloved Richard.

Holly: And so what was life like for her in this kind of last years?

Matt: She’s becoming an old lady by this point. She’s got 65 when Henry II dies. So right at the point where we might be expecting her to retire, she spins back into action after this period of inactivity, and she’s really at the heart of Richard’s efforts to establish himself as King. And then obviously, he goes off to the Crusade. She goes to Spain to get a wife for him because she’s, much the same as when she was with Louis, she’s worried about Richard going off on Crusade without a wife and a son and no heir. So she goes and fetches Berengaria of Navarre, brings her down to Italy to meet Richard and gets them married and then packs them off to the Holy Land. And you get this sense, then ‘I’m going to go to Fontevrault and I’m going to retire now.’ And then, of course, Richard gets captured on the way back from the Crusade and she leaps into action again, and she drives a lot of the efforts to raise this monumental ransom for Richard. She is working with the government in England and across Richard’s lands to gather all of this money. And then she herself approaching 70-odd, makes it across to Germany to deliver this ransom herself and secure Richard’s freedom for herself. And we have this one fantastic letter that she writes to the Pope. Absolutely having a massive go at the Pope for not getting involved. Richard has gone on Crusade, and the Pope is supposed to protect your lands when you’re on Crusade and so he gets abducted on the way back, and the French King is stealing all of his lands, and Eleanor is sort of saying to the Pope, ‘what are you doing? You absolutely wet fish. You’re supposed to wield the sword of St. Peter, and you’re sitting there with it in its scabbard, allowing all of this to happen around you. You’re an absolute disgrace.’ So she’s lost absolutely none of her edge and I think when Richard comes back again, probably heads off the Fontevrault, thinks ‘few now I can retire. Everything’s great.’ And then in 1199, Richard dies, trying to win back some of the lands in France that Philip Augustus has taken while he’s been on crusade. And Eleanor again springs into action and is really heavily involved in deciding who should succeed Richard, and then she goes off to Fontevrault to retire. And I think finally, this time, she manages to get a little bit of peace, and she dies in 1204. She’s buried at Fontevrault. And again, just in terms of her relationship with Henry, she commissions two effigies that you can go and see today of her and Henry next to each other, with Richard sort of at their feet. So she wanted to be buried with Henry and I think you don’t necessarily do that if you absolutely despise this guy and he’s imprisoned you for 13 or 14 years of your life. I think if you look at that tomb effigy – Henry is almost asleep, his guy who never rested in his entire life, never sat still, he’s lying there perfectly still, looks like he’s asleep, just holding his regalia of kingship. And Eleanor is sort of there, reclined, sort of awake with an open book on her lap. You’re left thinking that, what are you reading for all of eternity while this restless guy next to you is sleeping, what are you reading? And I think she retains that kind of inscrutability. We don’t know what Eleanor is thinking or reading or doing or anything else. And I think she still has that mystique about her if you go and look at that tomb effigy today.

Effigies at Fontevrault of Eleanor and Henry

Holly: Yeah. So how do you think they should be remembered?

Matt: Yeah, their legacy is a really tricky one. The book was subtitled Founding an Empire. But I tried to constantly say in the book that I don’t think they ever viewed what they had as an Empire. I think there were efforts to unify ways of control across it because it was such a massive, unwieldy area. But they never tried to force this into one empire that was called one thing. All of the territories remained absolutely separate, and they clearly intended to divide them up when they died. So Henry, the Young King, was going to get England and probably Normandy. Geoffrey would get Brittany. Richard would get Aquitaine. John would probably get Ireland, something like that. There was no idea that this was going to be a long standing empire that Henry, the Young King, was going to take on, the whole lot of it. And it’s striking that when Eleanor dies in 1204, almost immediately, John loses everything, almost as if it was Eleanor’s force of will while she was alive that was holding all of this stuff together. I guess part of Henry’s legacy is the common law that we have in England today. He kind of establishes the common law, so we have that legal legacy to his need to unify and standardise his control. But to some extent, I suspect that their biggest legacy is the one they wouldn’t have wanted. And it’s in helping to forge what we think of as France today. So I think it was in reaction to their power and the amount of land that they controlled and the threat that they posed to the Crown in Paris that France begins to push back against all of that. And you get Louis XII’s son and Philip carries on this idea of trying to drive a wedge between the Plantagenet children and all of that kind of thing. And to some extent, that need to increase the French King’s control over his lands was a direct reaction to the threat that Henry and Eleanor’s power posed to Paris. To some extent, I almost feel like their biggest legacy is in the creation of France during this period as a reaction to them, because their legacy in terms of the territories that they hold doesn’t outlive them. It’s gone almost as soon as Eleanor is gone. I’d like people to just look at them again and see what I see sometimes in a couple who were probably in love with each other, who were probably quite cool, pretty fiery, passionate people. Absolutely doting parents and grandparents. Henry just wanting all of his rights back. Eleanor just wanting to protect Aquitaine and the two of them doing a great job of that together. So I think despite appearances and lots of the comments in the chronicles and films like The Lion in Winter, I think it was actually quite a lot of love in their relationship.

Holly: Yeah, well, I would like to think and thank you so much for talking about them to me today, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

Matt: It’s a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.

Holly: And thank you for listening. I really hope that you enjoyed this episode as much as I enjoyed talking with Matt about Henry and Eleanor. 

His book Henry II & Eleanor Aquitaine: Founding An Empire is published by Amberley Publishing who were kind enough to gift me a copy of the book and frankly, I loved it. I find medieval history complicated by Matt does a really incredible job of tracing their life together. He has such a gift for writing about their relationship and piecing together the fragments of their lives that remain. Matt has other works as well, including non-fiction books about Richard III, the Princes in the Tower and the War of the Roses and two fiction books as well. You can find out more at mattlewisauthor.com or find Matt on Twitter @MattLewisAuthor

I’m so happy that you chose to spend this last hour or so with me and Matt talking about this really incredible couple. I think I’m going to now spend an awful lot of time reading about Eleanor because how could you not help but fall in love with her after listening to what an incredible woman, how tenacious she was and how her and Henry just an incredible empire to use Matt’s title.  

If you have enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening to it now. It means so much to me to hear what you think of the podcast – it really does bring me so much joy and helps other true romantics with a love of history to find the podcast as well. If you want even more of the podcast, the conversation continues over on Instagram @pastlovespodcast and if you’re following me there, you really won’t miss a single thing – which is very important if Past Loves has become your current love. Until soon!

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