Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII’s marital problems

In 1137, King Louis VI of France arranged for his seventeen-year-old son Louis VII to marry the fifteen-year-old Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was the Duchess of Aquitaine and one of the wealthiest and most privileged women in Europe. A week after their marriage, Eleanor and Louis VII became France’s Queen and King. Eleanor of Aquitaine is often celebrated today as being a strong, independent woman, much like the sixth-century Byzantine Empress Theodora. Louis VII is much less famous. Despite having six children and leading armies in numerous wars, Louis VII has been disparaged as not adequately fulfilling his marital obligations to Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Within twelve years of marriage, Eleanor and Louis VII were having serious marital difficulties. On the Second Crusade with Louis in Antioch, Eleanor became enamored of their host, her father’s brother Raymond of Poitiers. He was about seventeen years older than she. When Louis sought to travel on to Jerusalem, Eleanor wanted to remain with Raymond in Antioch:

When the king specifically then made haste to wrest her away, she mentioned their kinship, saying it was illicit for them to remain married since they were related in the fourth and fifth degrees. Even before they had departed, this statement had been heard in France. The late Bartholomew, Bishop of Laon, had calculated the degrees of kinship, but it was uncertain whether the computation was true or false.

{ Cum uero rex eam inde properaret auellere, ipsa parentele mentionem faciens dixit illicitum esse ut diutius commanerent, quia inter eos cognatio in quarto gradu uertebatur et quinto. Hoc autem uerbum antequam recederent auditum fuit in Francia, Bartholomeo bone memorie Laudunensi episcopo gradus cognationis computante; sed fida fuerit an infidelis supputatio incertum est. }[1]

Eleanor thus viciously escalated her dispute with her husband. Drawing upon an unconvincing pretext, she essentially declared that they must get divorced. Louis and his army had already suffered a devasating attack from the Turks. Now Eleanor was crusading against Louis:

At this the king was much troubled. Although he had loved the queen with an affection that he nearly permitted to be immoderate, he acquiesced to divorce her if his counselors and the French nobility would allow it. One knight among the king’s secretaries, Thierry Galeran, was a eunuch that the queen had always hated and mocked. But the eunuch was faithful and very close to the king, as he was before to the king’s father. Thierry boldly persuaded him not to endure delay any longer in Antioch, both because “guilt under kinship’s guise could lie concealed” and because he would threaten perpetual shame to the kingdom of the Franks if, among the other disasters of the Crusade, it was said that the king was robbed of his wife or deserted by her. This is what Thierry argued, either because hated the queen or because he really believed it and was moved perhaps by widespread opinion. Therefore the queen was forced to draw away and leave with the king for Jerusalem. The wound remained in their hearts and again rose higher, although they hid it as best they could.

{ Cum uero rex eam inde properaret auellere, ipsa parentele mentionem faciens dixit illicitum esse ut diutius commanerent, quia inter eos cognatio in quarto gradu uertebatur et quinto. … Vnde rex plurimum turbatus est; et licet reginam affectu fere immoderato diligeret, tamen acquieuisset eam dimittere si consiliarii sui et Francorum proceres permisissent. Erat inter secretarios regis miles eunuchus quem illa semper oderat et consucuerat deridere, fidelis et familiarissimus regi, sicut et patri eius antea fuerat, Terricus scilicet Gualerancius. Is ei persuasit audentius ne ipsam Antiochie morari diutius pateretur, tum quia cognato poterat nomine culpa tegi, tum quia regno Francorum perpetuum opprobrium imminebat si inter cetera infortunia rex diceretur spoliatus coniuge uel relictus. Hoc ille, uel quia reginam oderate uel quia sic sentiebat, diuulgata fortasse motus opinione. Abstracta ergo coacta est cum rege Ierosolimam proficisci, et in cor utriusque uicissim altius ascenderat et, licet dissimularent ut poterant, manebat iniuria. }

The eunuch Thierry Galeran quoted Phaedra’s letter to Hippolytus from Ovid’s Heroines {Heroides}.[2] That letter comes in the context of Phaedra attempting to coercive her stepson Hippolytus into having sex with her. The verse “guilt under kinship’s guise could lie concealed {cognato poterat nomine culpa tegi}” suggests that Eleanor was using a claim of kinship with Louis to hide the guilt of her seeking sex with Raymond.

When a Byzantine naval attack forced Eleanor and Louis to land in Sicily in 1149 on their way back to France, Pope Eugenius III sought to heal their marriage. The pope taught Eleanor and Louis the fundamental importance of wife and husband sleeping together in a place of beauty, peace, and joy:

After hearing separately the accounts each gave of the discord that was formed in Antioch, the pope reconciled the king and queen. He prohibited any further mention of consanguinity between them and confirmed their marriage, both orally and in writing. He commanded under threat of anathema that no attacking of it should be heard and that it shouldn’t be dissolved under any circumstances whatsoever. This ruling brought much delight to the king’s face. He loved the queen ardently and nearly in a childish way. The pope made them sleep in the same bed, which he had decorated with his own priceless cloth hangings. And daily during their brief visit he strove by friendly conversation to restore love between them.

{ Discordiam regis et regine, quae Antiochie concepta fuerat, auditis querelis utriusque seorsum omnino sedauit, prohibens ne de cetero consanguinitatis inter eos mentio haberetur; et confirmans matrimonium tam uerbo quam scripto sub anathematis interminatione inhibuit ne quis illud impetens audiretur et ne quacumque solueretur occasione. Regi uisa est placuisse plurimum constitutio, eo quod reginam uehementer amabat et fere puerili modo. Fecit eos in eodem lecto decumbere, quem de suo preciosissimis uestibus fecerat exornari. Et singulis diebus illius morule familiari colloquio redintegrare studuit caritatem. }[3]

Pope Eugenius III thus acted as a good pastor would for a troubled married couple today.

Eleanor of Aquitaine reading in bed

Eleanor and Louis’s marriage nonetheless failed. Lack of mutual sexual ardor apparently was a problem. One source reported:

When the king together with his wife had returned from the East to their own land, not without the ignominy of an incomplete endeavor, the former love between them gradually grew cold. Reasons for a separation also began to multiply. She was extremely offended by the king’s habits and argued that she had married not a king but a monk.

{ Cumque idem rex ab oriente una cum coniuge, non sine infecti negotii dedecore, ad propria fuisset reuersus, amore pristino inter eos paulatim refrigescente, causae quoque discidii succrescere coeperunt, illa maxime moribus regiis offensa et causante se monacho non regi nupsisse. }[4]

While marital sexual disputes are realistic, Eleanor’s claim about her husband seems both hyperbolic and literary. They apparently did sleep together, at least on some occasions, and they begot two daughters. Moreover, Fortunatus’s life of the sixth-century queen and nun Radegund of Thuringia reports a contemporary claim about frigidity in marital relations: Radegund’s husband, King Chlothar I reportedly “had married a nun rather than a queen {habere se potius iugalem monacham quam reginam}.”[5] Eleanor’s complaint seems to adapt that earlier claim. In any case, eight weeks after her marriage to Louis was annulled, Eleanor married Henry, the Duke of Normandy. Another source provided a different perspective on these events:

Henry, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, and afterward King of England, took as a wife the abandoned wife of Louis, King of the Franks. From this war arose between Henry and Louis. Because of his wife’s incontinence Louis had left her. She behaved not as a queen, but nearly as a prostitute.

{ Relictam Ludovici Regis Francorum uxorem duxit Henricus somes Andegavensis, et dux Northmanniae, postea rex Angliae. Unde guerra orta est inter eos. Hanc reliquit Ludovicus, propter incontinentiam ipsius mulieris, quae non sicut regina, sed fere sicut meretrix se habebat. }[6]

Louis didn’t abandon Eleanor. He sought a divorce from her with her consent. Whether Eleanor was like a prostitute or Louis like a monk, their personal incompatiblity seems to have been sexual. Castration culture, or even just disparagement of men’s sexuality, undermines marriages.

King Louis VII of France

Christians have long cherished the ideal of marriage as an equal, life-long union of a woman and a man. A sixth-century Christian poet offered this blessing for a marriage:

May you advance, long joined in limbs and united in heart,
both equal in character, in merits and manners both equal,
each ornamenting your gender with your laudable actions.
May you encircle one another’s necks in a single embrace
and spend all your years in peaceful amusements.
May each desire what delights the other,
and both share equal health protecting your two hearts.
May one love, held firm in living union, nourish you.

{ Ite diu iuncti membris et corde iugati,
ambo pares genio, meritis et moribus ambo,
sexum quisque suum pretiosis actibus ornans,
cuius amplexu sint colla conexa sub uno,
et totos placidis peragatis lusibus annos.
Hoc velit alterutrum quidquid dilexerit alter;
Aequa salus ambobus eat duo pectora servans;
unus amor vivo solidamine iunctus alescat. }[7]

Healthy spouses are long joined in limbs and held firm in a delightful, living union. Underscoring this erotic imperative, the sixth-century Christian wedding song concludes:

May you thus celebrate again as parents your children’s wedding vows,
and may you have grandchildren, your own children’s offspring.

{ Sic iterum natis celebretis vota parentes
et de natorum teneatis prole nepotes. }[8]

The marital difficulties of Eleanor and Louis in twelfth-century France are now systemic in high-income, westernized societies. While husbands’ sexual obligation to their wives is vitally important, a husband’s burden of performance can be debilitating. Husbands should be supported and encouraged, not belittled. If only for the sake of children, men’s sexuality and Christian marriage must be better appreciated.

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[1] John of Salisbury, Pontifical History {Historia Pontificalis} c. 23, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Chibnall (1956) p. 53. The subsequent quote above is similarly sourced from Historia Pontificalis c. 23. Louis and Eleanor reached Antioch in March, 1148. Id.

John of Salisbury studied at Paris and Chartres. He was a leading humanist cleric of his time and became the Bishop of Chartres in 1176. In his thinking, John emphasized moderation and respect for nature. His understanding of scientific knowledge as always open to questioning and re-evaluation contrasts with today’s dogmatic assertions of scientific truth.

Historia Pontificalis covers only the years 1148 to 1152. John was employed in the Papal Curia for at least some of those years. He apparently drafted Historia Pontificalis in 1164. Historia Pontificalis survives in only one manuscript, Bern MS 367. Chibnall (1956) pp. xxiv, xxvii-xxx, xlvii.

[2] Ovid, Heroines {Heroides} 4, “Phaedra to Hippolytus {Phaedra Hippolyto},” v. 138.

[3] John of Salisbury, Historia Pontificalis c, 29, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Chibnall (1956) p. 61. These events occurred on October 9-10, 1149. John was then with Pope Eugenius III at Tusculum, so John was able to write as a well-connected contemporary on location. Id. p. xlv.

[4] William of Newburgh / William Parvus, The History of English Affairs {Historia rerum Anglicarum} 1.31, “Of the divorce of the king of France from his wife, and of her marriage with the future king of England {De divortio inter regem Francorum et uxorem ejus celebrato, et quomodo ipsa nupserit futuro regi Anglorum},” excerpt, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Walsh & Kennedy (1988). Hamilton (1856) provides a freely available Latin edition.

[5] Venantius Fortunatus, The Life of Holy Radegund {De vita sanctae Radegundis} para. 5, Latin text from Leo (1881), English translation (modified) from McNamara & Halborg (1992) p. 73. Here’s more on Radegund of Thuringia.

[6] Hélinand de Froidmont, Chronicle {Chronicon}, entry for the year 1152, Latin text from Patrologiae Latina 212, columns 1057-8, English translation (modified) from Adams (2005) p. 142.

An enormous literature has developed concerning the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Scholars now tend to defend Eleanor as a strong, independent woman maligned for her transgressive sexual desire. Wikipedia comically states that Eleanor was “a key leading figure in the unsuccessful Second Crusade.” Cf. Evans (2014) Ch. 1. For recent gynocentric study of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her historical reception, Wheeler & Parsons (2002) and Evans (2014).

[7] Venantius Fortunatus, Carmina 6.1, “About the lord and king Sigibert and queen Brunhilda {De domno Sigiberctho rege et Brunichilde regina},” incipit “With the coming of spring, when the earth has thrown off the frost {Vere novo tellus fuerit dum exuta pruinis},” vv. 132-9, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Roberts (2017). Leo (1881) provides a freely available Latin edition differing little from Roberts’s Latin edition. The subsequent quote above is from “Vere novo tellus fuerit dum exuta pruinis” vv. 142-3.

Fortunatus wrote this wedding song (epithalamium) for Sigibert I, King of Austrasia, and Princess Brunhilda, the daughter of Athanagild, King of the Visigoths. Brunhilda and Sigibert married in Metz in 566.

[8] Praising equality of woman and man and urging the couple to have children has long been conventional among Christians. In an epithalamium for the marriage of Ruricius and Hiberia about 460 GC, the Christian Roman aristocrat Sidonius Apollinaris declared that Ruricus and Hiberia “correspond in wealth, beauty, and lineage {census, forma genusque conveniunt}.” Sidonius’s epithalamium ends thus:

Then the goddess of Paphos, clasping the right hands of the young man and young woman, chanted the solemn blessing in few words, unwilling that even words should cause delay: “Pass your lives in happiness and concord. May you have children and grandchildren. May your great-grandchildren perceive in their great-grandparents that which they themselves would desire.”

{ tum Paphie dextram iuvenis dextramque puellae complectens paucis cecinit sollemnia dictis, ne facerent vel verba moram: “feliciter aevum ducite concordes; sint nati sintque nepotes; cernat et in proavo sibimet quod pronepos optet.” }

Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmina 11.91, 11.129-33, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Anderson (1936). The goddess of Paphos is Venus, the classical goddess of fleshly love. On Ruricius and Hiberia, Mathisen (2019).

[images] (1) Eleanor of Aquitaine reading in bed. Tomb effigy in the church of Fontevraud Abbey. Photo thanks to Adam Bishop and Wikimedia Commons. (2) King Louis VII of France. Painted by Henri Decaisne in 1837 for a series of portraits of kings of France for the Musée Historique {Historical Museum} in the Palace of Versailles. Via flickr and Wikimedia Commons.


Adams, Tracy. 2005. Violent Passions: Managing Love in the Old French Verse Romance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Anderson, W.B. 1936. Sidonius: Poems and Letters. With an English translation, introduction, and notes. Loeb Classical Library 296. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chibnall, Marjorie. 1956. The Historia Pontificalis of John of Salisbury. London: Nelson.

Evans Michael. 2014. Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine. London: Bloomsbury Academic. Review by Elena Woodacre.

Hamilton, Hans Claude, ed. 1856. Historia Rerum Anglicarum Willelmi Parvi ordinis Sancti Augustini canonici regularis in coenobio Beatae Mariae de Newburgh. Londini: Sumptibus Societatis.

Leo, Friedrich, ed. 1881. Venanti Fortunati Opera Poetica (Pars Prior), Venanti Fortunati Opera Pedestria (Pars Posterior). Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctores Antiquissimi IV. Berlin: Weidmann. Another copy.

Mathisen, Ralph. 2019, “Ruricius of Limoges.” Subject entry in Paul J.J. van Geest, et al., eds. Brill Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. Leiden: Brill.

McNamara, Jo Ann, and John E. Halborg, ed. and trans., with E. Gordon Whatley. 1992. Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Roberts, Michael, ed and trans. 2017. Venantius Fortunatus. Poems. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reviews by Hope Williard and by Lionel Yaceczko.

Walsh, P. G. and M. J Kennedy, ed. and trans. 1988. William of Newburgh. The History of English Affairs. Book 1. Warminster, UK: Aris.

Wheeler, Bonnie and John Carmi Parsons, eds. 2002. Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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