Tag Archives: Women rulers in history

Eleanor of Aquitaine – and the Mystery of Love and Incest

Eleanor of Aquitane
Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most sought after daughter in medieval Europe, became the most wealthy and powerful woman during the 12th and 13th centuries. At 12-13 years of age, Eleanor inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine when her father, William X, died. Orphaned, Eleanor came under the guardianship of King Louis VI of France. Three months later, she married the King’s son, Louis VII. Shortly after the two teenagers wed, the King, known as Louis the Fat, died of dysentery leaving Louis the Younger and Eleanor the Kingdom.

As with most women of power, many of Eleanor’s critics claim she came by that power, and possibly held onto that power, through dubious and immoral methods–meaning, she used her feminine wiles and uncontrolled sexual passion to gain the upper hand. One of the most popular rumors about Eleanor is her alleged incestuous affair with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers.

Historians agree that Eleanor, reputed to be beautiful, intelligent, and wise beyond her years, enchanted her husband Louis with her wit and charm. Despite his intense love for her, the couple’s 8-year relationship slowly disintegrated as they could produce no male heir. Of course, as with most infertile royal couples of the time, the fault lay with Eleanor, despite the fact she gave birth to a daughter, Marie in 1145.

When Pope Eugene III requested Louis lead a second crusade to the Middle East to rescue the Frankish Kingdoms from the Muslims, Eleanor encouraged her husband to rise to the occasion. She also requested to accompany him. It is debated whether Louis agreed to allow his beautiful, flirtatious bride to join him to keep her under close watch, or he simply desired her company. Eleanor, along with her royal ladies-in-waiting and 300 of her courtiers boarded the ships to Antioch for the campaign.

When the royal couple arrived, they accepted the hospitality of Eleanor’s handsome uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch. Raymond and Eleanor spent constant time in each others company. It didn’t take long for rumors to spread that the two engaged in an incestuous affair. Louis, appalled and affronted with the rumors, pulled up stakes left after only two weeks in Antioch.

Louis VII
Louis VII
(Biography.com)

Eleanor implored her husband to let her stay under the protection of her uncle, but he refused her plea, and bade she accompany him on the rest of the crusade. When they returned to France, the rumors of Eleanor’s infidelity with her uncle further alienated her from Louis, and she asked Pope Eugene for an annulment. She claimed to want the annulment on the grounds of consanguinity—the close familial relation to her husband, her fourth cousin. The Pope refused and tried to reconcile the royal couple.

In 1150, Eleanor gave birth to another daughter—another disappointment that further alienated Eleanor from her husband. The Pope finally relented, and in 1152 gave Eleanor the annulment on grounds of consanguinity, but gave custody of her daughters to Louis.

The second famous rumor about Eleanor concerns the mystery of her Court of Love. After her annulment, noblemen and Kings lined up to win Eleanor’s hand. Still the most powerful woman in Europe, she again became a most sought-after bride. Even if it meant kidnapping her. Eleanor got wind of at least two of these plots, and sent word to Henry, her third cousin, the Duke of Normandy and future King of England, imploring him to marry her. He didn’t refuse.

Eight weeks after her annulment to Louis, Henry and Eleanor married. Although they had 8 children together over 15 years of marriage, the two often bickered and fought. Henry spent much time away from England, and also with other women. During this time, Eleanor returned to her castle in Poitiers, France, where she is said to have started the Court of Love.

Eleanor
Eleanor
(www.telegraph.co.uk)

Discouraged by her own two marriages, Eleanor set out to educate men in the areas of romance, love, and chivalry. Noblemen brought their relationship problems to a jury of nearly 60 women, (the Court of Love) including Eleanor and her daughter Marie, Countess of Champagne, in search of answers. The women directed the love-lorn men how to dress, speak, and act with their women, including writing poetry, playing music, and taking an interest in the arts–a far cry from manly behavior of the middle ages.

Many historians deny the existence of Eleanor’s Court of Love, but others say it contributed to the literature, music, and  arts of the time, and into the future. The art of courtly love also grew in popularity from this period on.

Henry and Eleanor’s marriage would see greater decline when their son, Henry the Younger, led a revolt against his father for the crown of England. Eleanor sided with her son, and for this, Henry imprisoned her for the next 16 years. At the death of her husband, her third son, Richard, became King. One of his first acts as King of England? To free his mother from prison.

Though her critics, and her husbands, tried to discredit her time and time again, Eleanor proved to be a woman empowered, and a woman who found a way to survive and prevail. She lived into her early eighties. The mere fact that she obtained an annulment from a King who still ruled, is unfathomable—considering that a woman in the 12th Century, even a ruling woman, only existed as a means to an end—to better the lives of men.

We may never solve the mystery of Eleanor’s relationship with her uncle, or her reported infidelities in the French court, or whether or not she developed a “Court of Love” in Poitiers. We can only go by the records that exist in history, and no one knows whether all the records are true or not. Sometimes, it is up to us to decide. Despite the claims of her critics, Eleanor still remains one of the most beloved, and most empowered women in history.

For more information on Raymond of Antioch, read this blog post by Elizabeth Chadwick.

Photo found in French Quarter Magazine

Catherine the Great – and the Murder of a Russian Tsar

portrait of Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great
(telegraph.co.uk)

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, is known as one of the most empowered, successful, and longest-ruling women in history. She came to the throne at 33 years of age, and by using her political and intellectual acumen, expanded her empire to become one of the great powers of Europe. But how did she get there?

Born Princess Sophie Friederike August von Anhalt-Zergst-Dornburg of Prussia, Sophie, as many noble children, proved useful as a pawn for political power. King Frederick of Prussia and Empress Elizabeth of Russia (daughter of Peter the Great) set out to strengthen relations between their two countries, and thereby weaken Austria, with an arranged marriage. The two young people who would accomplish this goal for them; none other than Sophie, and Elizabeth’s nephew and heir, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp.   

Sophie came to the Russian court as 14-year-old girl. Strong-willed, savvy, and intelligent, she made plans then to prepare herself to someday rule her adopted country. She immersed herself in the culture, spent hours learning the language, and converted from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox Church, much to her father’s discontent and objection. She even changed her name to Ekaterina Alexeievna (Catherine), to better fit her new Russian identity. Catherine later wrote in her memoirs that she would do whatever necessary, and profess to believe whatever necessary, to become qualified to wear the crown.

Catherine at 16 years old
Catherine at 16 years old.
(Wikipedia)

Wed at 16, Catherine’s marriage proved to be unhappy, and her partner cruel. She disliked Peter the moment she met him for his ugly features, his childish behavior, and his penchant for alcohol. Historians note that on their wedding night, Peter set up his toy soldiers on the bed and demanded she “play war” with him. Peter would often have public tantrums, with Catherine bearing the brunt of his childish rants. Along with Catherine, history did not remember him well. From the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Nature made him mean, the smallpox had made him hideous, and his degraded habits made him loathsome…He had the conviction that his princeship entitled him to disregard decency and the feelings of others. He planned brutal practical jokes, in which blows had always a share…”

Needless to say, the couple did not conceive for 8 years, at which time the Empress Elizabeth took matters into her own hands. Historians claim she encouraged the couple to each have extramarital affairs in the hopes it would awaken them sexually to each other to produce the needed heir. Catherine found refuge in the arms of the first of her many lovers, Sergei Saltykov. In 1754, Catherine bore her first child, Paul. Speculation at court at who fathered the child still exists, but Empress Elizabeth, relieved that Catherine finally produced an heir, claimed the child legitimate.

The relationship between Catherine and Peter did not improve. In fact, Peter began plotting ways to be rid of Catherine, after finding a more suitable mate in his mistress Elizabeth Vorontova. By this time, Catherine had taken another lover, Grigory Orlov, a handsome military officer.

Young Peter III of Russia
Young Peter III of Russia
(Wikimedia Commons)

When Empress Elizabeth died in 1762, Peter became Russia’s new ruler and Catherine his consort. Unlike Catherine, Peter, also of German descent, never immersed himself in the Russian culture, and clung to his Germanic roots, something the Russian people abhorred. His favoritism and alliance with Frederick II of Prussia further alienated the new Emperor from his people.

Catherine, who now considered herself Russian in every way, saw the disenchantment of the people for Peter, and had an entirely different vision of how to rule.

Together with Grigory Orlov, Catherine plotted to remove Peter from power. Six months after becoming emperor, Peter traveled to the Russian royal residence of  Oranienbaum to visit his German friends and relatives. While there, he learned of the conspiracy to have him removed, and arrested one of Catherine’s men. She knew she had to act fast. She gained the support of the Ismailovsky regiment, the Imperial Russian Guard, and had Peter arrested. With the aid of the Guard, she forced him to abdicate, and claimed the Russian crown. She had accomplished a coup without shedding a drop of Russian or German blood.

Peter requested permission to leave the country, but Catherine refused his request, stating she intended to hold him prisoner for life. However, less than two weeks later, Peter died at the hands of Alexi Orlov, Grigory Orlov’s brother. Historians have found no evidence of Catherine’s complicity in the murder, but one has to wonder.

Catherine II reigned for 34 years and became the most renown Tsar of Russia. She never married again, but took many lovers—something she is also known for—and made them her advisors without apology. Some of the best known are Orlov, who helped her win the crown, and Grigory Potemkin, a Russian military leader, statesman, nobleman, and her declared soul-mate.

Like other empowered women of history, Catherine’s enemies tried to paint her in an unfavorable light. They portrayed her as a woman who captivated and bewitched men with sex, and bent them to her will to help her gain the crown and run her empire. At her death, a rumor spread that her sexual appetites had grown so fierce that she could no longer be satisfied by a man, so sought to couple with a horse. In the attempt, she was crushed and died. In truth, she suffered a stroke, slipped into a coma and died a short time later.

Critics of empowered women rulers were, and still can be, cruel—unable to wrap their heads around the idea that a woman can be true to her nature, and still rule with intelligence, savvy, and confidence.

Although no evidence has been brought forward then, or now, as to Catherine’s role in her husband’s death, it gives one pause. Catherine had a dream to rule, even as a child. Her lust for life and lust for power seemed insatiable, and, like Mary Queen of Scots, (see my post here) the person who stood in the way of her ambition and her safety was her husband. It is interesting that historically, when a king’s wife stood in the way of his ambition or power, her life no longer had value, and killing her was a matter of due course. (We all know about King Henry IIX!) When a Queen’s husband stood in her way, and he died under mysterious circumstances, the scandal forever hung over her head.

Knowing this, it would only make sense that if a woman ruler like Catherine, who stated she would do whatever necessary to rule,  wanted her husband out of the way, she had two choices – imprison him or have him killed. Or, perhaps there existed a third choice; to do both.