Category Archives: queens

Eleanor and Raymond, part 2

Okay we’ve read the evidence. What can the historian, and the historical novelist, do with it? Let’s be both prosecution and defence and see what we come up with.

The main problem with the story, I think, is our natural aversion to a tale of incest and the way it conflicts with our sympathy for Eleanor. What might a prosecutor say? Eleanor was quite young at the time of the Second Crusade, about twenty six. In all likelihood, before she met him on a pier in Antioch, she had probably spent little to no time with her uncle, since he had been at court in England prior to his journey to Jerusalem in 1136. And by all accounts, he was quite a hottie, tall and good-looking.

More importantly, attitudes to what we would consider incest were very different in the south of France, where Eleanor came from. The church at the time was trying to push a very strict definition of marriage that excluded even quite distant relative from marrying. But in the south they practiced partible inheritance, meaning a family’s property would be divided between all the heirs (including women) when the parents died. This meant that a family’s holdings would be divided into smaller and smaller pieces — unless relatives married and kept the bits together. And Eleanor herself was the product of a union that would squick most of us out. Her father, William X of Aquitaine, was the child of Wiliam IX. Her mother, Aenor of Chatellerault, was the daughter of William IX’s mistress, Dangereuse.

Many of the later salacious stories abut Eleanor come from the pens of authors in England who had every reason to discredit her in support of their king, Henry II, once the two became estranged. But the two who report the story of Eleanor and Raymond had little reason to shred her reputation. John of Salisbury was English, but much of his career was spent on the continent. William of Tyre, who is most explicit about the accusations, was even further from the world of the English court.

I’ve discussed evidence. There is also some interesting “absence of evidence.” King Louis’s chaplain, Odo of Deuil, wrote a history of the Second Crusade meant to glorify his master. Surely it was intended to cover the whole crusade, but in fact it ends abruptly right before the French reach Antioch. And there is some evidence that passages about Eleanor have been expunged from it, to minimize her role.

What can the defence say to all of this? Simply this: The crusade was a failure. And the chronicles our historians wrote were not meant to be simple collections of facts; they were to be moral explanations that explained why the world was as it was within a Christian framework. Failure was expressed as God’s will and the consequences of sin. The notion that a prideful, arrogant, greedy, or lustful woman could bring down a kingdom was an ancient one and used often in medieval histories to explain reverses of fortune. Certainly there was something wrong between Eleanor and Louis, which came to a head in Antioch. But perhaps Eleanor was merely supporting Raymond politically, wanting to remain with her armies to help him in Antioch, while her husband preferred to go south to Jerusalem. Unused to a political women, perhaps the historians just assumed sex was involved because it fit their moral universe.

It is interesting to me that while most popular historians dismiss the tale of Raymond and Eleanor, the most recent study of the Second Crusade by an academic historian, Jonathan Phillips, gives it much more credence. People who write historical fiction often talk about “getting the facts straight,” and of course this is important. But what I hope I have shown in these posts, is that history isn’t only or even mostly about a set of facts. We have very few facts, much fewer than you would imagine. What we have is evidence. And it is in the interpretation of that evidence that the historian and the novelist create art.

Eleanor and Raymond

In the spring of 1148, Eleanor of Aquitaine arrived with her husband, King Louis of France in the county of Antioch, after a horribly traumatic journey through Asia Minor (what we’d call Turkey) which ended with the loss of most of the crusader army they had brought with them. They were met by Raymond of Poitiers, Eleanor’s uncle on her father’s side. He had come to Antioch years before, hinting he’d wed the widowed countess, Alice, and instead, to her great chagrin, married her daughter, and claimed the county in her name.

The story told of Eleanor’s time in Antioch, that she had an illicit relationship with Raymond, is not one that tends to find favour with readers. It seems too gossipy and too, well, icky. Eleanor has entered the pantheon as a brave, strong, independent women at a time when they were rather thin on the ground, and it is just not a story that we want to believe about her.

So what do her contemporaries say? John of Salisbury raises the alarm bell in his Historia Pontificalis:

While they remained in Antioch to console, heal, and revive the survivors from the wreck of the army, the attentions paid by Count Raymond to Eleanor and his constant, indeed almost continuous conversation with her aroused the king’s suspicions.

He goes on to say that when the king decided to leave Antioch, the queen wished to stay and use her army to help the count, and Raymond was more than happy to have her remain, if the king would give his consent:

And when the king made haste to tear her away, she mentioned their kinship, saying it was not lawful for them to remain together as man and wife since they were related in the fourth and fifth degree.

In other words she raised the idea of divorce from the king, based on their consanguineity.
John tells us more:

There was one knight amongst the king’s secretaries, Thierry de Galeran, a eunuch whom the queen had always hated and mocked, but who was faithful and had the king’s ear like his father before him. He boldly persuaded the king not to suffer her to dally longer at Antioch, both because, “Guilt under kinship’s guise could lie concealed,” and because it would be a lasting shame to the kingdom of the Franks if in addition to the other disasters, it was reported that the king had been deserted by his wife or robbed of her.

Thierry’s words about guilt under kinship’s guise are meant to imply a sinful relationship between Eleanor and her uncle, and John is well aware of the irony of her using her distant relationship with the king to escape her marriage and stay with Raymond. The king did tear her away from Antioch against her will , and the two hated each other ever more. John recounts that they went in separate ships when they finally left the Holy Land, and that Pope Eugenius did a spot of marriage counselling when they arrived in Rome, pushing them to sleep in the same bed. John was in Rome at the time, so would have been in a good place to hear all the gossip first hand.

William of Tyre, speaking abut the same events, is more explicit:

The queen readily assented to Raymond’s design for she was a foolish woman. Her conduct before and after this time showed her to be far from circumspect. Contrary to her royal dignity, she disregarded her marriage vows and was unfaithful to her husband.

William, too, writes of Louis’s departure from Antioch and raises the spectre of s sneaky, night-time escape:

By the advice of his chief nobles, King Louis hastened his departure and secretly left Antioch with his people. Thus the splendid aspect of his affairs was completely changed, and the end was quite unlike the beginning. His coming had been attended with pomp and glory; but fortune is fickle, and his departure was ignominious

John and William both wrote their accounts some years after the events they describe, though both were alive during the events they describe. William would have been about eighteen when Louis and Eleanor were in the Holy Land, certainly old enough to hear the tales. There is also some evidence that is exactly contemporary that, at the very least, demonstrates the king and queen were having serious marriage troubles. Abbot Suger of St. Denis was one of those left in France to take care of the kingdom while Louis and Eleanor were off gallivanting in the Holy Land. He wrote the following in a letter to Louis, responding to one that is now lost:

Concerning the queen your wife, we venture to congratulate you, if we may, upon the extent to which you wait to express your anger, if there be anger, until with God’s will you return to your own kingdom and see to these matters and others.

Hmm, something was certainly up. Can we be sure, reading this evidence, that we know what it was? Was Eleanor unfaithful to her husband with her uncle? We still need to place this evidence in context. In my next post, I’ll do just that and give some reasons why she may be guilty as charged — and some why she may be innocent.

Manners and the Queen


(No, I’m not going to talk about The Hug) When I saw this photo on the newspapers this morning, it reminded me of when I was a little girl. Whenever the table manners of my sister and I left anything to be desired (which was often), my mother would chide us by asking how we thought the queen would respond to our disgusting habits. “Would you eat like that if the queen were here?” she’d ask when we switched our fork from hand to hand. “What if the queen came to tea?” she’d say when we buttered and jammed a whole piece of bread in one go, instead of just the part that was about to go into our mouths. And the worst threat of all: “What if you get invited to Buckingham Palace some day? Will you behave like this there?”

I always thought this was just a special little behavioural modification strategy of our family, maybe shared with a few other British ex-pats with a longing for the good order of the home country. But to my great surprise, when I was working my way through the Yarn Harlot’s archive, I found the following quotation (you’ll have to scroll down a fair way through the link I provided, just past the photo of the —erm— sock photographed in front of the monument to Queen Victoria to find the bit Im citing):

The flag was flying, so I know the Queen was home, but I didn’t see her, but I stood there in the rain, thinking about all the times [my grandfather] reminded me of my manners, saying “Careful now, or you’ll never be invited to the palace” and I remembered how as a little girl, I thought that was an entirely possible thing.

So it wasn’t just my mother! Because I thought being invited to the palace was an entirely possible thing for me too. Is this perhaps a broader Canadian phenomenon? I started to wonder.

And then I began to wonder about Americans. Whom do their parents hold up as paragons of good behaviour? Presidents? Somehow I can’t quite picture it (“Eat your broccoli! Ronald Reagan loves broccoli!”), and that difference may explain a lot about a lot of things.

But who knows? I think back to a conversation I had with my son a week or so ago, when I drove him and some of his friends to an academic olympics competition at a school in Englewood. “We’re going to be the only white kids there,” my son said worriedly, though I don’t know exactly what he was worried about. “That’s okay,” I said, “It might be a good experience for you to see what it feels like to be in the minority.”

“Besides,” I continued, “Think of what it must have been like for Barack Obama at Harvard Law School.”

Bonus Joke Content, also from the Yarn Harlot: How do you get 50 drunk and rowdy Canadians to get out of your pool.”
Say, “Would you please get out of my pool?”

Or, I suppose, tell them that the queen is turning up.