Friday, 17 June 2022

ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE'S BIRTH YEAR - and why it matters to this writer of historical fiction


FOR MANY YEARS it was assumed and accepted that Eleanor of Aquitaine was born in 1122.  Several of her modern biographers have stated it as her birth year, but they often tend to copy and cite each other and it can be a minefield leading to wrong information.

Eleanor's birthdate is one of those minefield traps, where circular arguments have been used to show taht she was born in 1122. Alison Weir in her biography of Eleanor gives Eleanor's birth year as 1122. She does say that 'the exact birth date is not known, but the year can be determined from the evidence of her age at death and from the fact that the Lords of Aquitaine swore fealty to her on her 14th birthday in 1136. Some chroniclers give 1120 as a date, but her parents cannot have been married until 1121.  Unfortunately Weir does not cite the chroniclers who give the 1120 birth date, nor the documents for the fealty swearing, making it difficult for the curious to follow up. 

Medieval scholar Elizabeth Brown states that Eleanor was born in 1124, the first daughter and the second child of William X of Aquitaine. Ragena C. Dearagon says that when Duke William X died in April 1137, his 13-year-old daughter Eleanor had been his presumptive heir for 7 years.  Elizabeth Brown, at the time of the statement was a specialist in medieval and early modern French history and professor emeritus of history at the City University of New York.  Ragena C. Dearagon was associate profeessor of history at Gozanga University, Spokane, Washington.

The scholar who unravelled the tangle of Eleanor's (probable) birth year is Andrew. W. Lewis who was  Professor of History at Southwest Missouri State University.  He says "For Eleanor of Aquitaine's age, most recent scholars have relied on Alfred Richard, the great modern specialist in the Counts of Anjou.  But details of this sort were not among Richard's strengths as a scholar. Moreover he vacillated in his statements on the subject and his argument is circular. Thus, when speaking of Eleanor's birth, he wrote that it was only from knowing that she was 82 years old when she died in 1204, that one could place her birthday in 1122.  Yet, when speaking of her death, he gave her age as 'about 82 years old' while citing no source to that effect.  In other words, without sources, the evidence is doubtful and inadmissible.  In fact there is only one source quoted in footnotes as giving her age, and when professor Lewis checked back to the primary source for himself, he found that it didn't actually mention her age at her death at all! 

Lewis goes on to say that greater confidence can be placed in the genealogical text composed in Limoges in the late 13th century.  This record has an early tradition that she was 13 years old at the time of her father's death in April 1137. Lewis says that not only would more people at that time, before the passing of generations, have been likely to know her age, but by canon law, a woman had to be at least 12 years old in order to marry, and the information would have a practical relevance.  By contrast, Eleanor's exact age at her death had no such need for relevance. 

The document Lewis cites is an early 14th century manuscript from St. Martin of Limoges, containing copies of early manuscripts from St. Martial of Limoges.  It says that in "1136 on the fifth ides of April, which in that year was Good Friday, William Count Palatine of Poitou and the last Duke of Aquitaine died at St.James in Galicia, leaving his only daughter, named Eleanor, aged 13 years, whom he had begotten of the sister of Viscount de Chatelleraut in the principality of Aquitaine to Louis King of the French...;   Now that may seem partially wrong because William X died on that date in 1137, but Lewis suggests that it is either a copying error by the cleric, or more likely caused because the reckoning of the years at that time was from Easter to Easter, and so would actually be correct.

It is interesting that Weir says that the nobles swore fealty to Eleanor on her 14th birthday in 1136 - there is no citation given. However, the age of consent for a girl was 12 at that time and Eleanor would have turned 12 in 1136.  If the birthdate of 1124 is correct, it seems more likely to me that Eleanor's father would have the nobles swear to her the moment she came of age rather than leaving it until she was 14.  She would also have come of age around the time that her father was campaigning with Geoffrey le Bel, Count of Anjou.  One has to wonder whether approaches were made by Geoffrey to William X concerning Geoffrey's infant son Henry and a proposal to unite Anjou and Aquitaine by a marriage with Eleanor. Certainly Geoffrey was intent throughout his life on pursuing such a course of union. He approached Eleanor Louis VII on the matter of a betrothal between Henry and their small daughter Marie, which was refused by Louis.  As soon as Louis's and Eleanor's marriage was annuled, Henry and Eleanor were married.  How much of that was set up by Geoffrey before his death?  Were approaches made in 1136 concerning the 12 year old Eleanor and the then 3-year-old Henry?   Was William X dismayed at the thought?  Did he prefer to put his eggs in a bigger basket when he arranged for the French to care for his daughters when he went to Compostella?  It's a point to ponder - and pure speculation on my behalf, I honestly admit. 

I do believe that the current scholarly thinking regarding Eleanor's age is correct.  The concrete evidence points to her being in her 13th year at the time of her marriage to the future Louis VII and makes sense.  It's also interesting for me the writer.  13 is such a different prospect to 15.  Eleanor is often imbued with power and charisma she simply did not possess at the time in her life.  She was a year out of childhood and a pawn in the power struggles of the men who wanted to rule. Aristocratic medieval girls might have grown up swiftly, but 13 is still 13 and a perilously young and vulnerable age. Political clout, for a female especially, was none existent beyond that of being a figurehead for the ambitions of men. It makes for a rather different angle when it comes to telling the story of Eleanor's first marriage, and that's one of the reasons why that 2-year difference is important to me as a writer of Eleanor's tale, when others might be asking "Does it really matter?"  Yes, it really does. 

Elizabeth Chadwick is the author of an internationally best-selling trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine - THE SUMMER QUEEN, THE WINTER MANTLE and THE AUTUMN THRONE. 

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