The Most Expensive Divorce in History

An artist's impression of what Eleanor could have looked like
An artist's impression of what Eleanor could have looked like

by Ray Setterfield


Event Date: March 21, 1152
Location: Aquitaine, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France

In the 12th Century Eleanor, the Duchess of Acquitane, controlled about a quarter of all France and was by far the richest woman in Europe. She had been married to King Louis VII of France for nearly 15 years but that was about to end.

Louis wanted a son. Under Salic law no woman could inherit the throne of France and Louis desperately wanted a male heir. So desperately, in fact, that he was willing to let Eleanor go, along with her vast wealth – she having produced not a son for the king, but two daughters.

Letting Eleanor go also meant letting go of the extensive lands and huge fortune that she owned in her own right.

Eleanor, fun-loving, wild and beautiful, was the daughter and heiress of William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers, who possessed one of the largest domains in France — putting the possessions of French kings in the shade. Eleanor inherited the duchy of Aquitaine when her father died in 1137.

She was about 15 at the time and was quickly placed under the protection of the King of France who wasted no time in pledging her to his son and heir, Louis. The king sent 500 men to break the news and bring Eleanor to his palace to join the royal household.

Louis, born in 1120, had been raised as a monk and had been expected to live his life in piety. That all changed when his elder brother unexpectedly died, making Louis heir to the throne and he inherited the crown in 1137.

But he clung to monastic habits and possibly to Eleanor's dismay his visits to her bed-chamber were said to be infrequent once the honeymoon period had faded.

Allegedly, she claimed: “I thought I was wed to a king; now I find I am wed to a monk.”

Louis came to believe that his wife's failure to provide him with a son was a sign from God that their union was wrong, probably because they were too closely related. In modern terms, they were third cousins once removed.

A new wife, more acceptable to God, could perhaps produce the desperately sought son and heir. So Eleanor, notwithstanding the vast riches that she brought to the marriage, had to go.

Accordingly, a church court declared that Louis VII and Eleanor were too closely related for their marriage to be legal and on 21 March 1152 an annulment was granted on the grounds of consanguinity. According to feudal customs, Eleanor then regained sole possession of Aquitaine.

It remains the most expensive divorce in history and by then, flirtatious Eleanor – she was rumoured to have had an affair with her Uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch – had already set her eye and her heart on her next conquest.

Two months after the annulment of her union with Louis she married the grandson of Henry I of England – Henry Plantagenet, who boasted the titles of Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. In 1154 he became King Henry II of England, with the result that England, Normandy, and the west of France were united under his rule. Eleanor became Queen of England.

While she basked in the bliss of her new relationship, in the same year as Henry II was crowned Louis married Constance, daughter of King Alfonso VII of Castile. Frustratingly, she produced two daughters, then died in childbirth in 1160.

Five weeks later, Louis married Adela of Champagne and was finally granted his wish for a son – Philip Augustus who ruled as King of France from 1180 to 1223. But the bad luck that had dogged Louis throughout his life continued. Poor health meant he could not be present at his son's coronation.

At first, no such ill fortune darkened Eleanor's door. Over the next 13 years, she gave birth to eight children – five sons, three of whom became kings, and three daughters.

However, one of these sons – also named Henry – was to cause a major rift in the family. Wanting more power for himself, young Henry organised a revolt against his father, winning the support of not only his brothers but also of his mother.

The revolt failed and for her part in the affair the enraged King kept Eleanor under house arrest in various English castles for 16 years. She was not released until 1189 when King Henry died and another of Eleanor's sons, Richard, became King.

He was to become known as Richard the Lionheart spending much of his time away at the Crusades, with Eleanor wielding supreme power as Regent in his absence.

In 1202, she withdrew from public life and became a nun at Fontevraud Abbey in France, where she died two years later. Records are not precise, but she was thought to be 82 years old – a grand age for the time.

Published: February 19, 2019

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