“I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn, but the troops were dazzled.”
Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 1967 film “The Lion in Winter” starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn.
As with most good historical fiction, there is more than a grain of truth to this fictional line from The Lion in Winter. Not only did Eleanor of Aquitaine take part in the Second Crusade, her role soon became controversial and her participation precipitated a marriage crisis. Here is a summary of what happened.
In 1144, the crusader County of Edessa was overrun by the atabeg of Mosul, Zengi. The news shocked Western Europe and Pope Eugenius III called for a new crusade. St. Bernard of Clairvaux enthusiastically took up the call, and at the pope’s bidding preached the crusade far and wide, including on Easter Sunday in Vezelay, Burgundy. Here King Louis VII of France knelt before the abbot and took the cross to the thunderous cheers of his vassals and subjects. When he finished, his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, knelt beside him and likewise took the cross.
Eleanor did so as the Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitou – not as Queen of France. The importance of her gesture was to muster support among the barons and lords who owed her, but not Louis of France, homage. However, Eleanor’s example inspired many other noblewomen to take the cross as well.
When King Louis’ crusaders set forth on their crusade, the estimated 100,000 French included an unnamed number of ladies – or “amazons” as some liked to call them – determined to take part in the crusade themselves. Far from being Eleanor’s “maids,” most of these women were the wives of noble crusaders, wealthy enough to afford horses and armor, since according to a Greek chronicler writing some fifty years after the event, they rode astride and wore armor. They were also accompanied by servants and a great deal of baggage.
Depiction of Eleanor of Aquitaine in a German 12th century Manuscript
The first stages of this crusade went remarkably well, with the army making good progress. Although accounts differ on the extent to which Louis was able to prevent pillaging and abuse of the civilian population along the route, it is clear that the French intention was to pay for provisions and leave the Christian populations in peace. Unfortunately, they were preceded by German crusaders under the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III that behaved so badly the French found all the cities closed to them, and the price for goods exorbitant.
Nevertheless, they reached Constantinople in comparatively good order, and while the common soldiers encamped outside the walls, the nobles, including Eleanor and her ladies, were introduced to the luxuries and splendors of the fabled Queen of Cities. They were lodged in palaces the like of which they had never seen before, feted and entertained.
The news that the Byzantine Emperor had just concluded a 12 year truce with the Turks, however, cast serious doubts upon his reliability. The mistrust of the Greeks only increased when the Byzantine Emperor tried to make Louis swear to turn over any territories his army conquered to the Emperor. Louis thought he had come to fight the Turks and restore Christian rule – not expand the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Nevertheless, Louis rejected calls by some of his advisors to capture Constantinople and depose the Greek emperor. Instead he set out for Jerusalem determined to fulfill his crusading vow – and consult with the King of Jerusalem about further action.
The French crusaders advanced along the southern, coastal route at a leisurely pace until at the end of October they encountered deserters from the German crusade, who reported that the Turks had all but annihilated the Germans and now lay in wait for the French. A few days later, the French caught up with what was left of the Germans, including Emperor Conrad, who was suffering from a head wound. Together Louis and Conrad’s crusaders followed the Mediterranean coast, finally reaching Ephesus in time for Christmas. Here, however, Conrad decided he was too ill to continue, so he and his nobles took ship back for Constantinople, while what was left of the foot soldiers continued with Louis’s army.
No sooner had the German Emperor departed, than adversity struck the French. Torrential rains lasting four days washed away tents, supplies, and many men and horses. After this catastrophe, Louis elected to strike out inland across the mountains, despite the absence of guides, in an attempt to reach Antioch as soon as possible. This route, however, was not only through rugged terrain and along bad roads, but took the French where they were constantly harassed by Turkish raiders. By now, at the latest, the “gayness and the gilt” of Eleanor and her lady-crusaders (or amazons) were “all besmirched with rainy marching in the painful field.”
Disaster, however, did not overtake them until mid-January, when two Poitevin nobles in command of the van took fatal independent action. They had been ordered to set up camp for the main army at a specific place, and Eleanor was sent with them. (Throughout the crusade, King Louis maintained separation from Eleanor in order not to be tempted to break his vow of chastity during the duration of the crusade.) When the main army reached the designated camp, however, they found it empty. The vanguard of Poitevins with the Queen had decided to move to a more attractive-looking spot down in the valley. The exhausted troops at the rear, including the King with Eleanor’s baggage train, could not possibly catch up and as darkness fell a large gap had been opened between the van and main force of the Christians. The Turks quickly exploited the situation. They attacked the main force, killing Louis’ horse under him and some 7,000 crusaders before darkness fell, putting an end to the slaughter. Many in the army blamed Eleanor, because it was her vassals who had left the main French army in the lurch.
After this disaster, the French returned to the coast, now determined to continue the crusade by ship. They were without supplies, however, and soon reduced to eating their horses before what was left of Louis’ force finally reached Antalia on January 20, 1148. Here they discovered it was impossible to find sufficient ships for the whole force at prices King Louis was willing to pay. Plague broke out in the crusader camp, decimating a force already on the brink of starvation. At this junction, King Louis VII (not to be confused with his namesake and future saint, Louis IX) abandoned his troops and took ship with his wife and nobles for Antioch. Abandoned by their king, some 3000 French crusaders are said to have converted to Islam in exchange for their lives and food.
Louis and Eleanor, meanwhile, arrived in Antioch. Antioch was a magnificent, walled city, which had been one of the richest in the Roman Empire. At this time it was inhabited by a mixed population of Greek and Armenian Christians ruled by a Latin Christian elite, headed by Raymond of Poitiers, the younger brother of Eleanor’s father, William Duke of Aquitaine. The language of the court at Antioch was Eleanor’s own langue d’oc, and the customs were likewise those of the Languedoc. Within a very short time, Eleanor and her uncle developed such rapport that the king became jealous and then suspicious. The clerical chroniclers are united in condemning Eleanor of forgetting her “royal dignity” – and her marriage vows.
The situation was aggravated by the fact that Raymond of Antioch thought the crusaders had come to restore Christian control over the county of Edessa – and so secure his eastern flank, but Louis thought he had come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and insisted on continuing to the Holy City, rather than following the Prince of Antioch’s military advice. At this junction, with Louis already jealous of Eleanor’s close relationship (sexual or not) with Prince Raymond, she announced that she – and all her vassals – would remain in Antioch, whether Louis went to Jerusalem or not. Since her vassals made up the bulk of what was left of the French forces, this was an effective veto. Louis threated to use force to make her come with him as was his right as her husband. Eleanor retorted their marriage was invalid because they were related within the prohibited degrees and demanded an annulment. Louis responded by having her abducted in the middle of the night and carried away from Antioch by force.
Although Eleanor then spent several months in Jerusalem while her husband’s crusade came to its final humiliating disaster outside Damascus, nothing is recorded of her activities. Her influence on Louis and her role in the crusade was over. Furthermore, despite an attempt to patch up the marriage, after their return to France, the birth of a second daughter made a divorce a dynastic priority, paving the way for Eleanor to marry Henry of Anjou, the future King Henry II of England.
(Truly, fiction does not get better than facts like these!)
There are many biographies of Eleanor, I personally relied on Alison Weir’s Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, (London, Pimlico, 1999), and Amy Kelly’s Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, (Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 1950). There are innumerable novels about Eleanor. I have not read them all and the ones I did read, failed to do her justice, so I’ll refrain from a recommendation.
Eleanor’s Tomb at the Abbey of Fontevrault