November 13, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II

John F. Fink(Fourteenth in a series of columns)

If St. Bernard was the outstanding man of the 12th century (see last week’s column), Eleanor of Aquitaine was beyond a doubt the most fascinating woman. She was not saintly as St. Bernard was, but she definitely was involved in the events of 12th-century Christianity.

Described as very beautiful, she also became extremely wealthy when she succeeded her father, Duke William X of Aquitaine (a duchy in present-day France), in 1137. Duke William was on a pilgrimage to St. James Cathedral in Compostela, Spain, when he became ill. On his deathbed, he asked King Louis VI of France to protect his 15-year-old daughter, Eleanor, and to find her a suitable husband.

King Louis didn’t look far. Three months later, Eleanor married the king’s son, who became King Louis VII when his father died, still in 1137. So Eleanor was now queen consort of France.

In 1145, Eleanor heard St. Bernard preach a crusade, called by Pope Eugene III, to rescue Edessa from the Muslims. Both Louis and Eleanor took up the cross for what is known as the Second Crusade, and Louis was one of the military leaders. As I wrote last week, the crusade went badly, and the crusaders returned to France.

By this time, Eleanor decided that she wanted an annulment of her marriage to Louis, with whom she had two daughters. At first refused by Pope Eugene III, it was granted in 1152 on grounds of consanguinity (relationship by blood) within the fourth degree. Eight weeks after the annulment, Eleanor married Henry, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou (a cousin of the third degree).

Two years later, Henry became King Henry II of England, so Eleanor was now queen consort of England. During the next 13 years, the couple had five sons and three daughters.

Henry II is the English king who had a conflict with Archbishop Thomas Becket of Canterbury over the rights of the Church. At one point, he supposedly said, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Whether or not he said it, four knights went to the cathedral in Canterbury and assassinated Thomas on Dec. 29, 1170.

Modern works about this story include T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral and the movie Becket, in which Peter O’Toole played Henry and Richard Burton portrayed Thomas.

As penance, Henry endowed some monasteries in France, as well as some religious hospitals in both England and France.

As Henry’s and Eleanor’s children grew up, they became alienated from their father, and Eleanor supported her children. Therefore, in 1173, Henry imprisoned Eleanor, and she remained imprisoned for 16 years, until Henry died in 1189.

Henry II was succeeded by his and Eleanor’s son, Richard I, who has gone down in history as Richard the Lionheart. I’ll write about him next week. Eleanor ruled with him and, as queen dowager, acted as regent of England while Richard went on the Third Crusade.

Eleanor has been portrayed in the movie Lion in Winter by Katharine Hepburn, and in the remake of the movie for television by Glenn Close. †

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