Monday, 17 September 2012

THE ANTIQUARIAN: Eleanor of Aquitaine & the March to Jerusalem

When Eleanor Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitou married Duke Henry of Anjou,  on 18 May 1152, she had already been Queen of France and owned a territory whose eastern border spanned the Atlantic seaboard from Poitou in the north to Gascony in the south, stretching as far west as the eastern marches of Burgundy. Strong minded and individualistic, she was also considered one of the most beautiful women in the world.  In 1154, Henry of Anjou mounted the throne of England as King Henry II and Eleanor became Queen; together they ruled the vast Angevin Empire.

The Nuns of Fontevrault said of her in their necrology “she surpassed all the queens of the world” and adorned her noble birth with “the honesty of her life” and “the flowers of her virtues”(Weir, 344).  In her youth, however, Eleanor was often a figure of scandal and controversy.  Her worldly power excited wonder; her beauty attracted fervent admiration and as a woman who transcended the mores of a male dominated society, she was altogether unique in her time.  Her exploits were retold for generations and the power of her character inspired legends. Attesting to this is a romantic telling of Eleanor’s march to Jerusalem. 

As the legend goes, when Eleanor’s first husband King Louis VII of France heard of the fall of Edessa to the Muslims, he vowed to go to the aid of the Christians in Asia Minor and to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Chambers, 459).  Eleanor who loved adventure and excitement was determined to go with him and because Louis “loved her too passionately to go away without her” he agreed (Chambers, 459).  Eleanor’s presence in the Second Crusade, however, was not merely as the wife of her husband.  By right of title to her Duchy, she insisted on leading her own troops into battle.  So according to one version of the narrative, onlookers who had gathered to watch the crusading army depart were astounded when at the front of her battalion, Eleanor led a band of female warriors (made up of her own royal ladies-in-waiting) dressed up like Amazons.   The Greek chronicler Niketas Choniates described Eleanor arriving in Constantinople at the head of her army as a resurrection of Penthesilea herself, the celebrated Queen of the Amazons (Weir, 57).

Weir, Alison.  Eleanor of Aquitaine.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1999

Chambers, Frank McMinn.  “Some Legends Concerning Eleanor of Aquitaine.”  Medieval Academy of America, Vol. 16, No 4. (Oct., 1941), pp. 459-468.

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