Culture Re-View: France's King Louis VII pays for one of history's most expensive divorces

A tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevraud Abbey in France
A tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevraud Abbey in France Copyright Wikimedia Commons
Copyright Wikimedia Commons
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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History is littered with marriages that never should have happened and costly separations and on this day in 1152, spring time in France meant King Louis VII would have to pay dearly for the annulment of his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, marking one of the most expensive divorces in history.


On this day, 21 March in 1152 the French King Louis VII was granted an annulment from Eleanor of Aquitaine on the grounds of consanguinity, marking one of the most expensive divorces in history.

Eleanor, the Duchess of Aquitaine, was by far the richest woman in Europe in the 12th Century and controlled around a quarter of the entirety of France, thanks to her role as the head of the House of Poitiers, which oversaw a large chunk of the south of the country. She was also married to King Louis VII of France for almost 15 years - but that came to an end after an unhappy union.

Despite Eleanor’s individual power, impressive for her gender at the time, the laws of the day said no woman could inherit the throne of France and, unfortunately for Louis VII, the couple had two daughters and no son. That fact and Louis’ desperation for a male heir led to one of the most expensive divorces in history.

Eleanor, born in c. 1122, was the daughter and heiress of William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers, who possessed one of the largest domains in France. She inherited the duchy of Aquitaine after her father’s death in 1137, when she was about 15. She was placed under protection of the then king of France and soon married Louis, who would soon become the King of France. He didn’t expect to become king, having trained as a monk but, after the unexpected death of his elder brother Philip, he became heir to the throne and eventually took it after his father, Louis VI died in 1137.

Muddled matchmaking

Louis and Eleanor were, according to historians, a bad match from the start. She was said to be high-spirited and lively while he clung to his monastic habits - Eleanor allegedly claimed, “I thought I was wed to a king; now I find I am wed to a monk”.

Their lack of compatibility combined with the failure to produce a son caused Louis to believe that God thought their union was wrong on the grounds of consanguinity - namely, that they were ‘too closely’ related. In actual fact, they were only third cousins once removed which was fairly distant by some standards among European aristocracy and royals at the time.

Louis convinced a church court to annul the partnership but his decision cost him dearly. Eleanor’s wealth was huge and, according to feudal customs, she regained sole possession of Aquitaine.

It remains the most expensive royal divorce in history due to the sheer volume of land, wealth and power Louis lost by ending his marriage.

Ironically, his next marriage two years later to Constance, daughter of King Alfonso VII of Castile, also produced two daughters and no son - and Constance died giving birth to their second daughter in 1160. Only five weeks after her untimely death, Louis married Adela of Champagne. He finally got the son he so desperately craved, though - Philip Augustus was born in 1165 and ruled as King of France after Louis’ death in 1180 until 1223.

Eleanor herself had a very full life, marrying the grandson of Henry I of England just two months after the annulment with Louis. Henry Plantagenet boasted the titles of Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy and, in 1154 he became King Henry II of England, uniting that country, Normandy and the west of France under his rule. Eleanor, of course, became Queen of England. Over the next 13 years, she gave birth to three daughters and five sons - three of whom became kings.

Her son Henry, though, caused a huge rift in the royal family, organising a revolt against his same-named father in 1173 after wanting more power. He won the support of his brothers and his mother Eleanor, but the revolt failed and King Henry II punished her for her part by keeping her under house arrest for 16 years. She wasn’t released until 1189 when Henry II died and their son Richard I ascended to the throne.

He was known as Richard the Lionheart due to his reputation as a great military leader and warrior. He spent much of his time at the Crusades, leaving Eleanor to wield supreme power as Regent in his absence. Richard died in 1199 after getting hit in the shoulder with a crossbow; he passed away in his mother’s arms.

In 1202, with her son John on the English throne, Eleanor withdrew from public life and became a nun at Fontevraud Abbey in France, where she died two years later. She outlived all but two of her children and, although records are not precise, was thought to be 82 years old - a deeply impressive age for the time.

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