Monday, May 08, 2006

Life Lessons from a 12th Century Queen

This past week I read two biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor, an ancestor of Britain’s current monarch, Elizabeth II, was a remarkable woman who lived in France and England from 1122-1204.

When Eleanor was fifteen she married seventeen-year-old Louis VII (of the Capet dynasty) of France. Since Eleanor was a duchess who had just inherited a substantial amount of territory in France, this marriage was politically and strategically important for Louis. During her fifteen-year tenure as Queen of France, Eleanor gave birth to two daughters and accompanied Louis on a Crusade to the Holy Land. I’m not sure which undertaking was more dangerous, childbirth or Crusading - both were high-risk activities in the twelfth century. Unfortunately for Louis, who grew to love Eleanor, their personalities were not compatible. He was quiet, devout and humble; she was flamboyant, adventurous and sensuous. Her Crusading exploits, for which she acquired a very racy reputation, provided lots of material for poets, musicians and jesters throughout Europe.

Shortly before she turned thirty, Eleanor met Henry, Count of Anjou, who was about eighteen at the time. In addition to his lands in France, Henry had a strong claim to the throne of England. In many ways he was a good counterpart for Eleanor; both of them were ambitious, energetic and intelligent. Since Eleanor was already in the process of having her marriage to Louis annulled, they got married as soon as the annulment was official.

When Louis found out about their marriage he was furious. First, it was embarrassing to lose his wife to his most dangerous rival. Second, the merger of Henry’s French lands with Eleanor’s French lands meant that they controlled more French territory than Louis did! Technically, Henry and Eleanor were Louis’s vassals, but the reality was that theirs was a formidable military, economic and political coalition. Moreover, if Henry could gain control of England (which he did with little effort), Louis would have great difficulty holding his land against Henry’s aggression.

Eleanor and Henry (he was crowned Henry II) founded the Plantagenet dynasty that ruled England (and a good portion of France) from 1154-1485. Even while she was Queen of England, Eleanor often held her own court in her French domains and she frequently served as Henry’s regent when he was at war. She became famous as a patron of the arts and she also patronized several abbeys and religious orders. In the midst of all this activity Eleanor found the time to have another eight children by Henry (yes, she had a total of ten children). Two of her sons became kings and two of her grandsons became Catholic saints.

But the Plantagenet household was not always filled with peace, joy and love. Eventually, Eleanor and Henry grew apart to the point where Eleanor actively encouraged her sons to rebel against their father. Moreover, when they weren’t rebelling against Henry the sons were constantly at war with each other. Talk about a dysfunctional family! When Henry learned of Eleanor’s role in his sons’ rebellion he had her arrested. She was imprisoned for about sixteen years until Henry’s death.

After Henry died, Richard I (who was a great warrior and an accomplished poet and musician) became King of England. After freeing his mother from prison and attending his coronation, he left his realms to lead a Crusade to the Holy Land. Eleanor served as regent in his absence. This was the period in which Eleanor really bloomed. She gained universal respect for her wise, just and effective administration of Richard’s vast territory. When Richard was captured and held for ransom by Duke Leopold of Austria, Eleanor raised the money and selected the hostages (a heartbreaking task) that were exchanged for Richard’s freedom.

When Richard died without any heirs, his brother John became King of England. John also relied on his mother’s counsel and her occasional service as his regent. Of course, by this time, Eleanor was rather old and could only provide limited assistance to John.

In the last few years of her life Eleanor pretty much retired from public life and lived the quiet life of a nun. The abbey where she died still contains her tomb, as well as those of Henry II and Richard I. All of the tombs were vandalized during the French Revolution and the bodily remains were scattered at that time. Since then, however, the tombs have been restored and are on display at the abbey church.

I’m awed by what Eleanor accomplished, particularly in an age in which women typically did not have many opportunities for personal development or leadership. She traveled on a Crusade (an activity generally restricted to men only), was queen of two countries, was counselor and regent to three kings, and somehow managed to be both a mother and a nun! WOW!

But I’m also saddened at how chaotic her family life was. Eleanor and her family were extraordinary in so many ways. Today, Henry II is generally regarded as one of England’s greatest medieval kings. Richard I (also known as the Lion-Hearted) continues to capture popular imagination for his exceptional skills as a warrior, even though he wasn’t a particularly effective king. John I (also known as Prince John in the Robin Hood tales, which take place during Richard’s reign) has generally been regarded as the weakest of these three kings. Some current historians, however, are acknowledging his accomplishments as a legal reformer. John actually did more to improve the lives of the common folks than his father, mother or brother. I can’t help but wonder how much more this family would have accomplished if they had cultivated healthy marriage and family relationships. If the tremendous energy they expended fighting amongst themselves had been spent on justly administering their domains the world they lived in and left to their heirs could have been so much better.

Eleanor’s life challenges me in two ways. First, her accomplishments inspire me to set high standards and goals for myself and my family. Second, her failures warn me to keep my priorities right, for it is only when I do so that my husband, my children and I will be able to be the people God intends us to be and do the work he needs us to do.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

She certainly had quite the life. It's amazing to see the influence mothers continue to have on their children throughout their lives. It's not a responsibility to be taken lightly!