Little did I know that in 2003 that I would be visiting the last resting place of my 24th great-grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. She lies serenely in company with her husband Henry II in Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon in the Loire Valley. Our visit was part of effort to see places of historical importance and along with an interest in the old gal. Eleanor remains one of the more interesting and important women in Western history and was part of my Dad’s family.
We visited Fontevraud Abbey along with a variety of other locations in our 2003 visit to France. Since Eleanor owned Aquitaine we felt entitled to enjoy the region. For those not up on their French geography, Aquitaine lies along France’s southwest coast much like California. It is home to wonderful places like St. Emilion where we enjoyed a couple of days.
Many people will remember Eleanor’s depiction by Katherine Hepburn in the movie, “The Lion in Winter”. The movie focuses on a Christmas family reunion in Chinon just upriver from the Abbey. In the movie Eleanor reveals herself to be the Lioness of the extraordinary family. Her wimpy son John “Lackland” from whom I am descended will go on to become the evil King John who will be forced to sign the Magna Carta. John is not buried in the Abbey but his “heroic” brother Richard the Lionhearted is calmly resting with his less than beloved wife. Evidently, my 23rd great grand uncle had a rather wide ranging love life.
Eleanor inherited the duchy of Aquitaine at age 15 and immediately became the most eligible prize in Christendom. Her guardian King Louis VI of France wasted no time marrying her off to his son, the future Louis VII. Eleanor and Louis would have a relationship suitable for Hollywood. She bears him only girls which was understood to be her fault. The final straw was her insistence on accompanying him on his crusade to the Holy Land. She provided testimony at Vezelay, the reputed resting place of Mary Magdalene, for the value of her fellow women crusaders.
We had visited Vezelay earlier in our trip so that we could challenge Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.
It is said that Eleanor brought more than 300 servants and vassals on the Crusade and was blamed for a defeat suffered at the hands of the Saracens. In the end, the Crusade accomplished little and mostly led to estrangement because of rumors that Eleanor had unnatural relations with her uncle Raymond. The return to France was a series of near disasters that far exceeded any airport delays or missed connections of today. Her marriage was finally annulled by the Pope and she was free to remarry.
She manages to escape capture by French Counts who desire her and the wine-rich lands of Aquitaine which she inherited and retained. She seeks a protector in a much younger man, the soon to be King of England Henry II. Eleanor will provide Henry with five sons and three daughters over a 13 year period. Despite the full house, the marriage remained tumultuous. It was not helped by Henry’s philandering ways and his irritation at the Aquitaine subjects refusal to acknowledge him as their ruler. Eleanor will eventually be blamed by Henry for encouraging his sons to rebel against him. Eleanor as a result would spend much of remaining life in a variety of “velvet” prisons in England. She would receive temporary furloughs like in the movie to gather with the family at times like Christmas.
Eleanor outlasts Henry and rules England as Regent while her favorite son, King Richard goes on the Third Crusade. After Richard’s death, Eleanor’s youngest son John assumes the English Crown. She will support John in his squabbles with the French King Philip and eventually return to Fontevraud Abbey and takes the veil of a nun. She passes in her 82 or 84 year and finally reconciles with Henry II.