The Alliance of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine ruled England and Aquitaine together from 1154 through 1189. Their marriage proved to be a powerful alliance between two neighboring families. Henry and Eleanor married each other to strengthen their own standings. While Henry’s ultimate desire was to take the throne of England from his cousin, King Stephen, Henry found Eleanor to be a desirable wife due to her lineage and lands on continental Europe.1

Eleanor had different reasons for her marriage to Henry. Since her annulment from Louis VII in 1152, Eleanor needed to find a husband to ensure her estate and inheritance would be safe. This, coupled with the fact that Henry held adjacent land, was a great incentive to consider Henry as her next husband.2

After their marriage, Henry fended off attacks from Louis before setting his eyes on King Stephen in England. Henry eventually negotiated with King Stephen and assumed the throne as King of England in December of 1154.

Henry and Eleanor exercised power in different ways. As King of England, Henry was the primary ruler while Eleanor ruled in a supporting role. This was the accepted order during the twelfth century. The primary and secondary roles worked for these rulers, though. Eleanor’s role was similar to that of a modern-day Vice President of Operations for a major corporation. She spent much of her time looking after her husband’s interests while he was away.3 Having a strong wife capable of administrative duties allowed Henry to have an effective rule by not having to delegate authority outside of his family (although, being a close family member did not always guarantee loyalty).

In 1168, Eleanor moved back to Aquitaine to address the concern of “rebellious nobles.”4 With the king and queen split between England and Aquitaine, Henry and Eleanor were able to rule effectively despite the separation between the British Isles and the continental European territories.

It is possible that the separation between Henry and Eleanor caused a conflict of interest. Henry’s sons lived with Eleanor in Aquitaine and as they became older, they desired more power and control of family estate. Louis VII and Henry, the son of Henry II, rebelled. Eleanor joined the son in the revolt while also persuading her other sons, Richard and Geoffrey, to join. Eleanor’s treasonous acts were “scandalous,” even for her times.5 The rebellion lasted one year and Henry II eventually pardoned his sons. However, Eleanor was confined until the death of Henry II in 1189.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine had a different set of accomplishments during their lifetimes. As Henry’s elder, Eleanor already had plenty of experience as a secondary ruler before their marriage. Her role as Queen of France was off to a rocky start when she received the blame for the ruthlessness of her first husband, King Louis VII—actions that include the burning of a church that resulted in the deaths of 1300 refugees. Referring to this incident and others, Bernard of Clairvaux accused Eleanor of having an evil influence on Louis and demanded that she “put an end to [her] interference with affairs of state.”6

When Louis decided to join the Second Crusade, Eleanor played an important role in making preparations. She raised taxes, sponsored tournaments, and set aside supplies. In addition to her role in preparation, Eleanor, along with an entourage of 300 women, accompanied Louis to the Middle East. Her presence was an offense to the papacy and eventually led to the pope banning women from joining future crusades.7

Henry II had a set of accomplishments that resulted in improvements to his effectiveness as king. Reminiscent of the missi dominici of Charlemagne, Henry sent agents to investigate allegations of corrupt sheriffs around 1170. Henry subsequently fired nearly all of his sheriffs and replaced them with officials deemed loyal to the throne.8

Henry also made improvements in the criminal justice system. He reformed criminal prosecution in 1166 by issuing the Assize of Clarendon. This established procedures concerning the accused and defined the responsibilities of the courts. The Assize of Clarendon also established juries to aid in the judicial process. Henry established these reforms to secure greater power and control for himself.9

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine forged an alliance that strengthened the monarchy of England. Henry proved to be a competent leader that was welcomed by the nobles. Eleanor’s administrative skills allowed Henry to effectively rule over the England and Aquitaine by allowing Eleanor to have delegated authority over her home territory. This peace was temporary, though, as that separation allowed conflict to arise between Henry and his wife and sons.

References:

  1. Jane Slaughter and Melissa K. Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage: Biography and Gender in Western Civilization (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 221.
  2. Slaughter and Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage, 220.
  3. Slaughter and Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage, 222.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Slaughter and Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage, 228-229.
  6. Amy Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, in Slaughter and Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage, 218.
  7. Slaughter and Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage, 218-219.
  8. Slaughter and Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage, 226.
  9. Slaughter and Bokovoy, Sharing the Stage, 225.
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