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Reminders of Plantagenet Power in Today’s Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France

(This post is by Megan O’Connor, intern, European Division. She became intrigued by the ties the English rulers had with Aquitaine.) 

The name “Aquitaine” has been used for at least two millennia to describe an area that has changed its borders a number of times in what is now southwest France. In Roman times “Aquitania” extended from the Pyrenees to the Garonne River and beyond as an administrative district. Currently, Nouvelle-Aquitaine is an administrative region formed in 2016, and whose capital city is Bordeaux.

Perhaps the most romantic individual associated with the region is Eleanor of Aquitaine (Aliénor d’Aquitaine 1122-1204). It was through her marriage that Aquitaine came to be within the control of the English monarchy from the 12th to the 15th centuries. Today, one can find sites in Nouvelle-Aquitaine that are the physical reminders of the once strong aristocratic connections between Southwestern France and England.

An artist’s rendering of Eleanor of Aquitaine from “The Queens of England and Their Times.” p. 59.

 

Between the 10th and 12th centuries, Aquitaine was ruled by the House of Poitiers, so named because the Dukes of Aquitaine were also the Counts of Poitou. In 1137, Eleanor of Aquitaine inherited the Duchy from her Father, Duke William X. As the consort of Louis VII of France, with whom she had two daughters; Eleanor was queen of France 1137-52. She left Louis in 1152 to marry Henry Plantagenet (1133-89), count of Anjou and duke of Normandy, who thus gained control of Aquitaine through his marriage to Eleanor. With the power gained from his holdings, Henry was ideally positioned to claim the English throne, and was crowned Henry II of England in 1154. Two of Henry’s and Eleanor’s eight children became kings of England: Richard I “the Lionheart” and King John “Lackland.” After remaining an English territory, reaching its largest size in the mid to late 1300s, Aquitaine was secured by France in the mid-1400s.

 

 

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s first husband, Louis VII of France, “Recueil des roys de France” p. 92.

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s second husband, King Henry II of England, “The Pastyme of People.”

There are still many places in France where one can see evidence of the English monarchy; three structures within Nouvelle-Aquitaine are discussed in this post. Two are located in the city of Poitiers, the Poitiers Cathédrale Saint-Pierre and the former Palais de Justice, once the residence of the Counts of Poitou. The third, Château des Rois-Ducs, is located in Sauveterre-la-Lémance, part of the Lot-et-Garonne administrative area within Nouvelle-Aquitaine. These three structures provide glimpses into the world of changing power dynamics and borders that defined the Plantagenet presence in modern France.

The Plantagenets are associated with a style known as Gothic Angevin architecture—after the city of Angers in Anjou, a region of which King Henry II was Count from 1154-89. This style bridges the transition from the Romanesque to Gothic styles in architecture and is evident in the Poitiers cathedral. Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine were married in 1152 at the church that was previously in the location of the present-day cathedral. The couple are thought to have been involved in the construction of the cathedral, but it is not clear to what extent the two had a hand in its creation. Work on the church is believed to have begun in the latter half of the 1100s and continued for around two hundred years.

West side of Poitiers Cathedral. From “Les sculptures de la cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Poitiers,” Plate XIII.

The cathedral and its contents bridge the centuries that have passed since the days of Eleanor and Henry. The king and queen are thought to be portrayed in the stained glass windows, and they are also believed to have donated windows to the cathedral. Their potential contributions may be observed in the east end of the church. The building’s original stained glass windows are notable, they are similar to ones found at the cathedral in Bourges. The cathedral itself has structural elements from different eras in building design. These elements, remnants of Henry and Eleanor’s personal influence, highlight the lasting impact of the Plantagenets in Poitiers.

Eleanor is thought to have stopped in Poitiers with her first husband soon after they married. For a long time, the palace in Poitiers was home to the Counts of Poitou, who were also the Dukes of Aquitaine. Eleanor stayed there with both of her husbands. The great hall, called the Salle des Pas Perdus, was built when Eleanor of Aquitaine had control of the region. The room has subsequently been renovated over time, and the building held a variety of roles between Eleanor’s additions and the French Revolution. The building was later used as a courthouse, or Palais de Justice, until 2019.

 

Salle des Pas Perdus in the former Palais de Justice in Poitiers. From “Poitou gothique,” pp. 281-2.

Moving forward in time, the Château des Rois-Ducs was built in Sauveterre-la-Lémance during the reign of Edward I (1239-1307), great-grandson of Eleanor and Henry II. The Château was variously under French and English control and an important stronghold during the Hundred Years’ War, which lasted approximately from the mid-1300s to the mid-1400s. Edward III (1312-77), grandson of Edward I, acquired the château early during the War, but it was lost to the French early in the next century.

 

Edward III of England. From “The Pastyme of People.”

Edward I of England. From “The Pastyme of People.”

The legacy of the Plantagenet rulers in France is still visible in Nouvelle-Aquitaine. These remaining structures provide a reminder of the events that formed modern society and the people who were at the helm of those events. Some of the English aristocrats chose to remain in France permanently. Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II were both laid to rest at the Abbey of Fontevrault outside the borders of Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

Further reading:

Yves Blomme. “Poitou gothique.” Paris: Picard, 1993.

Michel Dillange. “Les comtes de Poitou: ducs d’Aquitaine (778-1204).” Mougon: Geste éditions, 1995. .

Francis Lancelott. “The Queens of England and Their Times.” New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1858, online version at HathiTrust.

Élisa Maillard. “Les sculptures de la cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Poitiers; ouvrage illustré de 48 planches en phototypie et de 20 figures, publié sous les auspices de la Société des Antiquaires de l’Ouest.” Poitiers, 1921, online version at HathiTrust.

John Rastell. “The Pastyme of People: The Cronycles of Dyuers Realmys and Most Specyally of the Realme of Englond Breuely Cōpylyd & Empryntyd in Chepsyde at the Sygne of the Mearemayd Next to Pollys Gate …” London: Johannes Rastell, ca. 1529.

Jean du Tillet. “Recueil des roys de France, leurs couronne et maison” (A compilation of the king of France, their crown and house). Paris: Barthelemy Macé …, 1602.

Books about Eleanor of Aquitaine:

Mireille Calmel. “Aliénor: roman,” Paris: XO, 2011-2012. French-language fiction.

Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy. Fun, “scandalous” historical fiction in three volumes:

Elizabeth Chadwick. “The Summer Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine.” Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2014.

_______ “The Winter Crown: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine.” Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2015

_______ “The Autumn Throne: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine.” Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016.

Joëlle Dusseau. “Portraits de dames: dix femmes d’Aquitaine” (Portraits of ladies: ten women of Aquitaine). Bordeaux: Editions Sud Ouest, 2000. French-language Young Adult (Jeunes Adultes) fiction.

Jean Flori. “Aliénor d’Aquitaine: la reine insoumise” (The rebellious queen). Jean Flori. Paris: Payot, 2004. A French-language biography.

Kerrily Sapet. “Eleanor of Aquitaine: Medieval Queen.” Greensboro, N.C.: Morgan Reynolds Pub., 2006. Young Adult series on French Royalty.

Alison Weir. “Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life.” New York: Ballantine Books, 2000. A modern classic.

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