Eleanor and Louis were married in the summer of 1137, but apart from a miscarriage early in the relationship, there was no sign of an heir. It has been suggested by historians that Eleanor and Louis gave the famous 'Eleanor' vase to St Denis at its consecration in 1144 not just as a gift for the church, but also as an offering in the hopes that a child would be granted to Eleanor's womb. Eleanor also, apparently, appealed to the 'saintly' Bernard of Clairvaux for advice. I asked Alison to go and take a look at aspects of this situation. I have seen suggestions by other historians and some novelists that Louis' giving of the vase to Suger, greatly upset Eleanor. I wanted to observe her mindset here.
Alison: She feels quite tight across the heart area. This is an Alienor who is quite worked up. Tight heart, tight cheeks, tight eyes. Emotional in an anxious way. I am getting the words ‘Please God, this has got to work.’ She is angry and not that bothered about the vase. This is about God. Her anger is connected to her relationship with God, so this is a direct communication with God. Suger is just a periphery. I think this is to do with wanting a boy child. It doesn’t seem fair. Why can’t she have what she wants? She will give anything, it doesn’t matter what, in order to have what she wants. So the actual item isn’t as relevant as what she wants. Suger to her is just someone who is doing what’s needed in the circumstances. Not quite a servant, but a functionary. It’s not up to him, it’s up to God. That’s how she sees it, although she wouldn’t say it outright. It wouldn’t be necessary. She can find Suger a bit annoying but he’s got a job to do. She’ll let him get on with his job, but this isn’t to do with him really. It’s to do with God. He’s just a functionary of God.
So this vase is to be given to God as a plea for her fertility? It’s more of a demand actually! She hardly even looks at the vase. It’s only in her side vision and the main part of her vision is to God. Why the vase and not a different gift? Well she could give anything. She doesn’t mind what it is, and it isn’t the only thing she’s given. She’s given loads of things. She’s given bags of gems. She’s given gold coverings to things. I am seeing one of those gold engraved domes that you put over tombs. She would rake around and give whatever it took.
Going off on a slight sidetrack: I wonder how Louis feels about Alienor’s childlessness. He feels he must have done something wrong to displease God in such a way and he is starting to distrust Alienor because just maybe she has done something wrong that he doesn’t know about, or there is something wrong in their relationship. His mind is working on those old fashioned things like consanguinity and something that’s displeasing to God about them being together. That’s one part of it. The other part is someone who is holding back sobs and just wants to cling on to Alienor for comfort in their mutual sadness. She’s the one who comforts him. I can see his head on her chest and she is stroking his back and head.
So is this not for want of trying? Because when she married Henry II, she was having children one after the other. So let’s take a look, without being salacious, at the reason for non conception. I think he’s having difficulties in sustaining the act. He still wants that closeness in being with her, but the actual finishing off – he’s not sustaining. To get into the emotions of that… His heart is hurting. It’s breaking. He feels he doesn’t deserve so much in terms of Alienor. Such beauty, such love. He’s finding it hard to accept. He keeps going there because outwardly there seems no reason why he shouldn’t have these things, but there’s something inside that’s not opening to accept them. He does actually cry about it. He’s really upset.
So to the Alienor Vase. Why did Louis decide to give it to Suger.
Louis loves this man and there seems to be a flowering of this love as Louis gets older. It seems to be something that sustains him. He has been able to rely on Suger right from childhood as someone that sustains him. He just wants to show his appreciation for everything that Suger has done for him and his family in everything that he upholds. The way that he’s treated in the family. The way that Suger has dedicated his whole being and life to upholding the family. What more loyal member of state could you wish for? It almost brings tears to his eyes. So how can he show what he feels without bringing something that is very precious, fragile and more than that, luminous, to give to Suger. It’s something which appears transparent but in certain…ah this is interesting…but in certain lights gives off other colours like a prismatic effect. That’s why it would be so precious wouldn’t it? It would be like a real light show. It would complement the windows that Suger had put in his church – like a reflection. I can feel that Louis feels the emotional preciousness of it in the connection that he has with Alienor. So it has that emotional resonance as well as the other resonances. And to give that, all his love, all this beauty, all his connection with Alienor is an enormous gift. No wonder it brings tears to his eyes.
What does Suger think of this gift? He is taking it into his stomach, taking it into his treasury. Mmm, yum, nice.
But then he tarted it up, didn’t he? That’s to make it his. It can’t go back; it’s his now.
Yes, he made an inscription to that effect. So the tarting wasn’t because he felt it needed extra bling? No, he was putting his own graffiti on it. So he thinks it’s a worthy gift? Oh indeed, yes. Has he coveted it before? Yes, he has! Has he ever made mention before that it’s a nice piece? I’ve lost it now, but I just got the feeling he has commented on it before and seen it before, but said things like ‘If only it was a little bit here and a little bit there, it would be perfect, or it would be gorgeous. He certainly does like it.
Now to April 1144 Alienor at St Denis and any conversation Eleanor had with Bernard of Clairvaux about her infertility.
Alienor is upset. This is a different Alienor. She is crying. She says ‘I don't mean to burden you with this but I cannot understand it. Why is God punishing me so when I do everything in my power to please him? By ’him’ she means Louis. ‘And he just rejects me. I cannot see why, I cannot tell why. He says he loves me. He also tells her that she is - I can't quite get the words - the apple of his eye staple of his life, the thing that runs through the centre of his life like lettering on a stick of rock. And yet, he does not find me attractive enough to want to procreate. Please give me the means, whatever the means are to reawaken his interests and the love that I have to give him so that we can do God's work and produce a child for this world and an heir to the throne. I cannot imagine how I have failed him. Therefore I must ask you to throw some light on the situation. Tell me how God sees it, that I may rectify my ways and be more of a wife to him. I do love him dearly and I have no one else. I need to please him in the eyes of God.’ All the time she is saying this, it's very internal. It's as if she's not talking to Bernard. He doesn't feel to be there. She's atlking to herself and generally perhaps to God, yes to God. She's in such a situation that she can't make that connection for herself. She's asking it to be done from the outside.
When I see Bernard of Clairvaux, I see sharks in the water, a very bad sign. I got him, just as the sharks went under the water. He's got a thin bony face and thin lips, and he's smiling with satisfaction, not with the compassion that you'd expect in this situation. He's got her where he wants her. He says ‘Very well my dear. You have done well to recognise the error of your ways. God has a way of bringing his flock back to him. Now you have accepted what you've done, he will welcome you back into his fold. Leave off all those fripperies, those wicked ways that have come to be so important to you, and forsaking them hold tight to Christ your saviour.’ I've got a sense of holding onto a relic of a cross and I think he might even have put that in her hand at that point. ‘Just as Christ died on the cross to the physical world and rose again, so let your soul die to the physical world and rise stronger and greater than ever before and God will admonish you and test you again and again until he is sure that you are one of his. You may carry his cross and be worthy of it, for this is no easy task to bear the burden of a country upon one's back, and one must be ready for it and worthy of it. Therefore I say, scourge your life and make it as he would wish and you shall be fruitful as you would wish in the ways of the spirit. Gird your loins and prepare for the journey that he has prepared for you, for this is what I tell you: In order to make new life, you must leave behind the old life. You must go forward in sanctity and be at peace with the whole world, which is God's world, and you must do God's work fervently. Do you understand me in this?’
And she looks up with serious eyes and she nods.
He says again, just in case she hasn't got it ‘You must change your ways.’
She swallows and nods again. She can only think if it will bring her closer to Louis, then she will have to do it. She decides to make prayer a very important part of her life, and alms, and fraternising with the clergy. I think this means the female clergy. He says’Good my child.’ He is writing something down. He says ‘Here take this and give it to the Abbess, and they will purge you of any deleterious spirits. You must stay there for three days on bread and water. Do not ask for the 40 days that Christ endured, but only what your small frame can muster. Hold yourself in that knowledge and place in the scale of things, and you will come to a better understanding of your place in the world.’
Alienor feels quite humbled, but also kind of real. It's as if this has brought her down to the ground. She's breathing in a different way.