If you have read about Eleanor of Aquitaine, chances are that you have heard she had a younger sister named Petronilla. You may have heard how Petronilla’s marriage caused quite the scandal. But is there anything else to say about Petronilla?
Very little is known about Petronilla of Aquitaine. She is hidden within the shadows of her famous sister’s life. We don’t even have an exact death year for her, and sources disagree on whether or not she outlived her husband, Raoul of Vermandois. To make things even more confusing, not all sources call her Petronilla, she is also called Aelith. I’ll go with Petronilla for this article because that is the name she is most commonly known by.
As with many medieval people, it is hard to tell exactly what year Petronilla was born in. We know that she was younger than Eleanor. Eleanor’s date of birth isn’t known either, traditionally she is said to have been born in 1122, but recent research suggests 1124 as more likely. Eleanor and Petronilla had one brother named William, who died as a child in 1130. William’s year of birth is not known either, and neither is the exact birth order of these three siblings. Some sources have Eleanor as the oldest, others William. William could have been born between Eleanor and Petronilla, or he could have been the youngest of the three. The uncertainty of the birth order makes it harder to find Petronilla’s year of birth. Their mother Aenor died in 1130, so she had to have been born before then. Petronilla’s relationship with Raoul of Vermandois begun in 1141, and she had her first child around 1143, so she couldn’t have been too much younger than Eleanor. 1125 or 1126 seem like the most likely years for her birth.
Petronilla enters the scene in 1137, when her father, Duke William X of Aquitaine died. Her older sister, Eleanor, inherited his duchy, and Petronilla inherited some lands and castles from him in Burgundy. Petronilla was to be Eleanor’s heir until she had children of her own. Soon after their father’s death, Eleanor married Louis, who was to become King Louis VII of France that same year. Petronilla followed Eleanor and Louis to Paris and lived at the French court.
Petronilla and Raoul
The clearest event of Petronilla’s life is her involvement with, and eventual marriage to, Raoul of Vermandois. This began in 1141, when Eleanor and Louis went back to Aquitaine, in hope to claim the county of Toulouse. They brought the French court with them, including Petronilla and Raoul. That summer, Louis continued south with his army, while Eleanor and the others remained in Poitou.
During this time, Petronilla began her affair with Count Raoul of Vermandois. He was about thirty-five years her senior, but the problem that led to the scandal was that he was already married. His wife was Eleanor of Blois, either a sister or a niece of Count Theobald IV of Blois, one of the most powerful French nobles. Sources disagree on whether Raoul and Eleanor had children. A son named Hugh, who is said to have briefly succeeded Raoul as Count of Vermandois, then became a monk under the name Felix of Valois is attributed to them, but this is disputed. Sources also vary on when Raoul married Eleanor, some saying as early as 1120.
Eleanor of Aquitaine approved of this relationship and encouraged Raoul to repudiate his current wife. Petronilla’s marriage to Raoul looked like a good idea at first: he was a close relative of the king, one of the most powerful lords in France, and Eleanor would get to keep Petronilla close by. Louis also agreed to this match. At the end of the year, he found three bishops, one who was Raoul’s brother, who agreed to annul the current marriage on the grounds of consanguinity. At the beginning of 1142, these same bishops married Raoul and Petronilla, with the king’s approval.
Count Theobald IV of Blois gave shelter to Raoul’s discarded wife and protested to the Pope on her behalf. Theobald was also supported by Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (a future saint), who strongly disapproved of the annulment and remarriage. That summer, at a church council arranged by the Pope, the bishops who officiated the marriage of Raoul and Petronilla were excommunicated and suspended. Raoul was ordered to set aside Petronilla and return to his former wife under threat of excommunication. He refused, and both him and Petronilla were excommunicated from the church, and his lands were placed under interdict. A war broke out between Louis and Theobald. In January 1143, Louis’ army laid siege to the town of Virty-sur-Marne, in Theobald’s domains. A fire broke out, and consumed the whole town, killing over a thousand people. Louis, having witnessed this, was haunted by it for the rest of his days.
Around 1143, Petronilla gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Isabelle or Elizabeth. Whilst excommunicated, Raoul and Petronilla took part in the establishment of religious houses, possibly as penance. In 1144, the war between Louis and Theobald ended, and they agreed on a peace, but Petronilla and Raoul still remained excommunicated. Also that year, Eleanor begged Bernard de Clairvaux to use his influence with the Pope, and have the excommunication on her sister and brother-in-law lifted. He denied her request. Around 1145, their second child, a son named Raoul was born.
In 1147, Louis and Eleonor set off on the Second Crusade. Raoul remained behind to govern the kingdom in Louis’ absence. There are some speculations about Petronilla accompanying Eleanor on the crusade, but she likely stayed behind with her husband. In 1147 or 1148, the first wife of Raoul died, and the marriage of Raoul and Petronilla was approved by the new Pope in 1148. With their marriage approved, the excommunication was finally lifted. They had their third and last child, Eleanor, around 1148-1149. When their marriage was validated by the Pope, Bernard de Clairvaux however, proclaimed that Raoul and Petronilla won’t enjoy each other much longer, and their children wouldn’t have children of their own. His predictions came true, Raoul died on 14 October 1152. Their son died young and childless of leprosy. Their two daughters would marry- Elizabeth to Count Philip of Flanders, and Eleanor would marry four times, but they did not have any children.
Petronilla’s Later Life?
Petronilla seems to have disappeared from historical record around the time of the annulment of her sister’s first marriage. Some believe that she predeceased Raoul in 1151, and Raoul remarried to Laurette of Flanders. Another theory is that Raoul divorced her around the same time as Eleanor and Louis’s annulment, and then took Laurette of Flanders as his third wife. It is sometimes said the Laurette was the mother of Raoul’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, but based on the name, Petronilla is more likely to be her mother. A French source suggests that Petronilla and Raoul were still married at the time of his death, and the marriage to Laurette of Flanders never happened. Laurette was married twice before her possible marriage to Raoul, her first marriage was to Iwain, Count of Aalst, and her second one to Henry II, Duke of Limburg who apparently divorced her before 1152. Her last marriage, after Raoul’s death, was to Henry IV, Count of Luxembourg, who divorced her in 1163.
Petronilla was still alive in October 1151, when she appears in a charter. If she did indeed predecease Raoul, it had to be soon after this. However, there are some records that suggest she was still alive after 1152. It is commonly believed that she followed Eleanor back to Aquitaine after the annulment, and joined the court of Eleanor’s second husband, Henry II, after he became king of England. Petronilla is often said to have accompanied Eleanor to England for her and Henry’s coronation in 1154. In the Pipe Roles from the early years of Henry’s reign, there is a mention of a Petronilla, near Eleanor’s name, and this might just be the same Petronilla.
Either way, Petronilla soon disappears from the historical record. The Wikipedia article on Petronilla says that she kept Eleanor company while she was imprisoned by her second husband, but unfortunately, this is probably false. She was probably long dead before Eleanor’s imprisonment started in 1173. It seems safe to say that Petronilla most likely died sometime in the 1150s.
Petronilla is often a character in novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine. Due to the lack of record, authors often use their imagination on her fate after Raoul’s death and eventually do have to pick their own date and cause of death for her. The claim that she was still alive during Eleanor’s captivity probably came from a novel, and unfortunately, this false information keeps being repeated on the internet.1
A. Moreau-Neret; Le Comte de Vermandois Raoul IV de Crepy et Petronelle d’Aquitaine soeur de la Reine Alienor. (The Count of Vermandois Raoul IV de Crepy and Petronella of Aquitaine sister of Queen Eleanor)
Cawley, Charles; Medieval Lands
Chadwick, Elizabeth; “Finding Petronella”
Jansen, Sharon L.; “Eleanor of Aquitaine and the other women”
Meade, Marion; Eleanor of Aquitaine: a Biography.