The Two Coronations of Eleanor of Aquitaine
leanor of Aquitaine – the legendary, sophisticated, extraordinarily wealthy, scandalous and fascinating Eleanor, queen of France as wife of King Louis VII and then queen of England as wife of King Henry II — who could overlook her?
The monkish chroniclers of 12th century France and England, that’s who! We do not know the color of Eleanor’s hair, the color of her eyes, or what she did or wore for either of her two undoubtedly magnificent coronations. Eleanor herself, therefore, must remain a creature of our imaginations (in mine, she will ALWAYS be Katharine Hepburn).
It is possible, however, to reconstruct at least a bare outline of her coronations by using the examples of other coronations of the time.
Eleanor, the daughter of William X, Count of Poitou and Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony, and Aenor of Chatellereault, was born between 1122 and 1124. Her father William undertook a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James at Compostello and died en route 9 April 1137. His daughter Eleanor was sole heiress to all his properties — and they were considerable!
Aquitaine was the richest and most desirable area of France. While the dukes (and now the duchess) in theory gave fealty to the French crown, in practice they were strong, independent and frequently troublesome.
King Louis VI of France immediately arranged for 14-year-old Eleanor to marry his heir, the 17-year-old Louis VII. Young Louis would then become Duke of Aquitaine in his wife’s right. With the birth of a son to the couple, Aquitaine would become part of the French royal holdings.
King Louis VI, according to his biographer (and hagiographer) Abbot Suger of St. Denis, approached the marriage alliance “gladly and with his customary magnanimity” (as if it wasn’t an enormous benefit to him and the crown of France!). He organized a retinue of some five hundred men, led by Thibaut II, Count of Champagne, and Raoul, Count of Vermandois, and including Abbot Suger and, in Suger’s words, “whomever else he could find of good judgment,” to accompany young Louis south.
Eleanor and Louis were married 25 July 1137 at the Cathedral of St Andre, Bordeaux, Aquitaine. Suger wrote, “the prince crowned Eleanor with the crown of the kingdom and married her.”
How was it that the prince, in the absence of his father, could crown his bride? The accounts are confused but it seems that two events helped make that possible.
First, young Louis had himself been crowned as a “junior king” at age 11 during his father’s lifetime. This was a long-standing custom of the Capetian rulers of France, meant to assure a peaceful and secure succession. Young Louis was not Louis VI’s first “junior king.” His promising brother Philip, older by some four years, had been previously invested as “junior king.”
In October 1131, however, while riding through a suburb of Paris, his horse had collided with a pig. Philip was thrown, dashed his head against a rock and died. Twelve days later, on Sunday 25 October 1131, Louis was crowned as replacement “junior king.” The ceremony must have been magnificent but only few details were recorded. We know that young Louis was anointed and crowned at the Cathedral of Reims, France’s traditional coronation site, in the presence of his father and mother.
Coronations tend to be elaborate ceremonial occasions. A number of symbolic rituals are generally included that add meaning and solemnity, as well as giving a participatory role to the realm’s great lords and prelates and most upstanding citizens.
Regal regalia, such as golden scepters, golden wands, swords with golden sheaths and golden rings, signifying authority, peace, justice and commitment, may be bestowed with individual ceremonies (and individual prayers). A lengthy Mass, with a full assortment of prayers and blessings, is celebrated. Both before and after, there are processions, banquets and pageants.
And, amidst all the planning, is a relentless jockeying for pride of place and for status. Which duke will carry the king’s canopy? Which archbishop will preside over the Mass? Which guild will prepare the meat for the banquet? Battles of precedence would be waged for months!
At the heart of the coronation, however, are two simple elements. One, the monarch is anointed with holy oil, signifying the monarch’s almost priest-like role both as God’s representative and as protector of his church. Two, the monarch has a crown placed on his or her head, as the visible sign of the bestowing or transference of power.
We know that the ecclesiastical pride of place at the coronation of young Louis was not awarded to the Archbishop of Reims, as was usual. Young Louis was crowned by Pope Innocent II, an honor that seems to have driven any other description out of the clerical minds of the chroniclers. (Innocent was in France to attend a council called by Louis VI, who was deciding which of two rival popes to support — he went for Innocent).
From this early crowning until his father’s death, young Louis would refer to himself as “Ludovicus junior, magni Ludovici filius” — Louis junior, son of big Louis. Now, with his marriage, thanks to Eleanor, he could add “dux Aquitanorum.”
The second event that might have allowed young Louis to bestow a crown on his new bride was that his gravely ill father had bestowed his own regal ring upon his son not long before he set out for Aquitaine. He publicly renounced his kingship and asked Louis to swear to defend the church, the poor, and the rights of every man. Louis Senior had afterwards regained some of his physical powers but nowhere is it recorded that he took back his regal authority.
Although it is clear that Eleanor was crowned at the time of her marriage, it is not at all clear whether Louis himself was “recrowned” at this time. The ceremonies involved in both the marriage and Eleanor’s coronation undoubtedly contained significant rituals showcasing Louis himself, but more likely in his new capacity as Duke of Aquitaine. It would probably not have included re-anointing (having already been anointed at his own coronation, Louis was probably deemed sufficiently regal).
After the wedding, Louis and Eleanor and their cortege journeyed north to Paris. They stopped first in Eleanor’s city of Poitiers where word was received that Louis VI had died. The young couple was now the reigning sovereigns of France. A ritual very similar to the coronation at Bordeaux seems to have been performed in Poitiers to acknowledge that Louis and Eleanor were now king and queen of France, as well as duke and duchess of Aquitaine. Another lavish ceremony recognizing their new status, as both monarchs and as a married couple, was probably held in Paris when the young couple finally arrived in their capital city.
The marriage began well enough.
Louis, a pious, quiet and studious young man, found Eleanor utterly enchanting. To his disapproving court, however, she seemed flighty, shallow and a very bad influence on their king. And, when she was in her teens, Eleanor’s behavior could indeed be unthinking and her judgment sometimes very bad.
Louis, undoubtedly pressured by Eleanor, jumped into a fierce dispute between the two barons who had led his wedding retinue: Thibaut II, Count of Champagne, and Raoul, Count of Vermandois. Raoul was married to Thibaut’s sister but, having fallen in love with Eleanor’s younger sister Petronilla, wished to divorce his wife. This was a scandalous and dishonorable slap at the house of Champagne. Louis allowed the divorce. A war ensued, in which Louis personally led an assault on the town of Vitry. When a church filled with terrified citizens seeking sanctuary was burned to the ground, Louis was shaken to the core. Thereafter, while continuing to dote on Eleanor, he no longer listened to her opinions on matters of state.
In 1147, the couple headed off on the Second Crusade. During this grand adventure, Eleanor’s exposure to foreign courts (particularly that of her Uncle Raymond at Antioch) and her involvement in the upper levels of diplomacy, gave her renewed confidence.
She now matured into a clever, cultured, regal and formidable woman. The crusade was not a success and, combined with a marked personal divergence in goals and outlook, led the couple further apart. Finally, in 1152, with only two princesses and no male heir to show, Louis was convinced – for the good of France – to have the marriage annulled. Louis lost Eleanor and Aquitaine. Eleanor lost the crown of France, and regained Aquitaine as her own. She also gained her freedom.
Two months after the annulment of her first marriage, on 18 May 1152, in her city of Poitiers (site of her second coronation ceremony with Louis), Eleanor married young Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy and heir to the throne of England.
The young 18-year-old King Henry II of England, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou was Eleanor’s second wealthy and powerful husband. He makes her Queen for a second time.
Two and a half years later, Henry and Eleanor (heavily pregnant with her second son) were crowned in London’s Westminster Abbey on 19 December 1154 by Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. Eleanor was, once again, a queen.
There are no descriptions of what actually happened at this coronation, either. Chronicler Henry of Huntingdon only notes that Henry was “crowned and consecrated with becoming pomp and splendor, amidst universal rejoicings.” (We need details, Henry, details!) Gervase of Canterbury tells us that Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, officiated, assisted by two archbishops, fourteen bishops, counts and barons from both England and across the sea, and “innumera multitudine plebis.”
Another chronicler, Robert of Torigni, does at least list names (although his bishops number more than fourteen): Roger, Archbishop of York; Richard, Bishop of London; Robert, Bishop of Lincoln; Walter, Bishop of Chester; Gilbert, Bishop of Hereford; Robert, Bishop of Bath; John, Bishop of Worcester; Robert, Bishop of Exeter; Hilary, Bishop of Chichester; Jocelin, Bishop of Salisbury; Walter, Bishop of Rochester; Nigel, Bishop of Ely; William, Bishop of Norwich; Hugh, Bishop of Durham; Adeluf, Bishop of Carlisle; Hugh, Archbishop of Rouen; Philip, Bishop of Bayeux; Arnulf, Bishop of Lisieux; and Herbert, Bishop of Avranches. On the secular side, Robert mentions only Thierry, Count of Flanders (a renowned crusader), and Robert, Earl of Leicester (an older baron who had been a strong supporter of Henry’s grandfather Henry I).
Even with the striking lack of detail, some details of the ceremony can be reconstructed by following precedents set by earlier coronations (and followed by later ones).
Henry and Eleanor, clad in magnificent robes of silk, trimmed with furs, and glittering with jewels, would have processed into Westminster Abbey surrounded by brilliant entourages. Henry’s coronation would take pride of place. Anointed with holy oil on his head, chest and arms, and his head then covered by a linen coif, with his hand on the Gospels and relics, he would have sworn an oath to protect the Church, to deliver justice to the people, to suppress evil laws and customs, and to protect the rights of the crown.
He would then have received the royal regalia, including two scepters, one with a gold cross at the top and the other of iron with a fleur-de-lys at the top; St. Edward’s staff, similar to a scepter but crowned with a dove as emblem of peace; and, finally, St. Edward’s Crown, a very heavy circlet with four “fleurons” alternating with four crosses around the diameter, above which was a double arch topped with a cross. These were the “sacred” regalia kept at Westminster Abbey. Henry was probably also invested with personal items of regalia, such as ceremonial swords and a ring.
Henry II was crowned in an “Anglo-French” ritual, almost identical to that used for the coronation of French kings. This image shows a French king processing into church, the presentation of the regal sword, and the crowning.
Henry would then have stepped away from the altar and taken a seat while Eleanor’s ceremony was conducted. That ceremony is very cloudy indeed. Gervase of Canterbury writes only “Regina quoque Alianor, a rege Francorum Lodovico repudiata, cum ipso coronata est” (“Also Queen Eleanor, having been repudiated by the king of the Franks Louis, with him was crowned”). Having been an anointed queen in her earlier French role, Eleanor probably was not anointed again.
She would, however, have had an impressive and formal ceremony to present her to the assembled nobles and prelates as England’s new queen. A possible scenario is that, following Henry’s coronation, Eleanor would have approached the altar. Kneeling, the archbishop would have lowered a golden crown onto her head and placed a coronation ring on her finger. She then would have joined Henry while Mass was said.
During that Mass, blessings would have been called down on the new king, Henry II. In England, the role of queen consort was also endowed with honor and dignitary. God was also called upon to give his blessing to Eleanor, who was, by His will, “regalis imperii particeps,” a participant in the royal power.
Following Mass, Henry and Eleanor would have taken off their massive coronation crowns, which were given back into the safekeeping of the monks of Westminster Abbey. Instead, they donned crowns of lighter weight and significance for the celebratory banquets, receptions, and tournaments that undoubtedly followed. The uncomfortable official crowns would be pulled out again, but rarely and only on the great religious occasions of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun (Pentecost), and only if the king wished to make a point by holding a “crown-wearing.” Eleanor and Henry’s crown-wearings were infrequent, both being often out of England and attending to business in Normandy or Aquitaine.
The marriage of Eleanor and Henry was, on most levels, far more successful than the marriage of Eleanor and Louis. The couple had four boys (as fiery and troublesome as their parents) that lived to adulthood and three daughters. Their oldest boy, another Henry, was (following the French example) crowned in 1170, during his father’s lifetime. Eleanor was not present, remaining instead in Normandy to hold down the family fort.
The coronation of Henry “the Young King” seemed to exacerbate tensions within the family. Both Henry II and Eleanor were clever, charming, energetic, fiercely proud and extremely strong-willed. It was inevitable that they would clash. And, when they did, it produced a cataclysm that riveted the horrified attention of all Europe.
Eleanor did the absolutely unthinkable — she encouraged Henry’s sons to rebel against their own father. The “boys” were young and, this first time, unsuccessful. They were forced to reconcile with their father. Their mother paid a heavy price. Henry chased Eleanor down and kept her in close custody in England, powerless and largely isolated, until he died some fifteen years later on 6 July 1189.
By that time, Henry and Eleanor’s sons Henry and Geoffrey were already dead. Son Richard, the future “Lion Heart,” Eleanor’s favorite and the chosen heir of her personal duchy of Aquitaine, was engaged in open conflict with his father.
One of Richard’s first acts on succeeding to the throne of England was to send word that his mother should not only be freed but given power to, according to Roger of Wendover, “manage matters in the kingdom according to her own pleasure, and the nobles were instructed to obey her in every respect.” And one of Eleanor’s first orders of business was to plan the jubilant coronation of her Richard, held in magnificence at Westminster Abbey on 3 September 1189.
Richard soon departed on crusade. During his absence, first in Palestine and then in prison in Germany, Eleanor played a leading role in keeping England secure for his return. She journeyed personally to Germany in 1193 to deliver Richard’s ransom. She was also by his side when, on his brief return to England after his release, he was gloriously “recrowned” at Winchester Cathedral.
When Eleanor’s youngest son John was crowned in 1199, Eleanor was not there. As with the Henry “the Young King,” Eleanor — now in her mid 70s – was holding down the family fort, ensuring that John would (during her lifetime, at least) hold on to the Plantagenet lands in Normandy and Aquitaine.