Louis VII was born around 1120 as the son of King Louis VI of France. As the king’s second son, Prince Louis was initially destined for a church career. However, after his elder brother, Philip, died in 1131, Louis became his father’s new heir. Before Louis VI’s death in 1137, the king had his son marry the wealthy heiress Eleanor of Aquitaine. Upon their marriage, the kingdom’s territory extended south to the Pyrenees mountains.
King of France
During his reign, Louis VII continued the policies of his father. Like Louis VI, the king improved his government by promoting competent men from the lower classes. Louis also focused on securing his current territory rather than expanding. To show his Christian devotion, the king strove to maintain a good relationship with the pope. When Pope Alexander III came into conflict with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, the king offered the pope protection in France. Despite his support of the church, Louis didn’t hesitate to disagree with the pope if he felt his royal authority was being challenged.
As king, Louis VII demonstrated traits associated with clergymen. Due to his upbringing, the king tended to be very pious and lived simply. As a result, Louis’ piety caused friction in his marriage to Eleanor. The queen complained that she married a monk rather than a king. In contrast to her modest husband, the queen was vibrant and outgoing. Louis adored Eleanor, but she grew frustrated with their marriage.
Although a successful administrator, Louis VII proved to be less adept in military affairs. In 1143, Louis decided to participate in a disastrous military campaign. In Vitry, French soldiers mercilessly killed the town’s citizens. When the surviving citizens retreated to a local church, the king’s soldiers ruthlessly burned the structure down. As a result of the massacre, Louis would be condemned throughout Europe.
The Second Crusade
In 1145, the pope announced the Second Crusade to the Holy Land. Plagued with guilt over Vitry, Louis VII sought redemption for the massacre. Upon learning of the crusade, the French king readily joined. During 1147, Louis and Eleanor departed France and journeyed to Jerusalem. As the couple traveled though, their relationship began to sour.
By the time Louis VII and Eleanor arrived in Antioch, a rumor arose that the queen had become romantically involved with her uncle. Although the rumor had little evidence to support it, the king became enraged upon hearing it. Afterward, Louis started to distrust Eleanor, and their relationship became more strained.
Eventually, Louis VII and Eleanor arrived in the Holy Land. Unfortunately for the king, his military efforts proved to be disastrous. Discouraged by his lack of success, Louis decided to abandon the crusade in 1148. Eleanor disagreed with the king’s decision but left with Louis regardless. The stress of their journey, the king’s military failures, and their lack of male heirs caused a breakdown in the couple’s marriage.
After returning to France, Louis VII and Eleanor mutually sought an annulment. On March 21, 1152, the pope granted their request. As part of their separation, Eleanor regained her territory, while Louis gained custody of their two daughters. The former queen returned to Aquitaine as the most eligible woman in Europe. In response, many French nobles sought to marry her. However, Eleanor successfully avoided being captured on her way to Aquitaine.
In May 1152, Eleanor decided to marry Henry, Duke of Normandy. Despite requiring Louis VII’s permission to re-marry, the couple ignored this and married in a small ceremony. Upon their marriage, Eleanor and Henry’s territory joined together, forming a formidable union against Louis. However, the king was about to face a more significant threat to his kingdom.
Henry II of England
In 1154, matters became even worse for Louis VII. After King Stephen’s death, Henry inherited the English throne. As a result, the newly crowned Henry II now controlled both England and Western France. The joining of these vast territories formed the English Angevin Empire. Louis’s kingdom had now become dwarfed by his French vassal’s. This event sparked a bitter rivalry between both men that would continue with their descendants.
After the formation of the Angevin Empire, Louis VII focused his efforts on undermining it. The king engaged in a series of skirmishes with Henry II from 1154 to 1174. During this period, Louis supported Henry’s former friend, Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. As Thomas sought to protect the church’s rights in England, he came into conflict with the English king. After angering Henry in 1164, Thomas fled to France for protection. From 1164-1170, Louis protected Thomas from the English king’s wrath.
In 1173, Henry II’s heir, Prince Henry, revolted against his father. Frustrated with the king’s refusal to give him power, the prince sought to overthrow Henry. Since Prince Henry was married to his daughter, Louis VII offered his son-in-law aid. When King Henry overcame the revolt in 1174, the French king finally admitted defeat. In 1177, Louis and Henry signed a peace treaty.
During the last three years of his life, Louis VII focused on securing his kingdom for his heir. After the death of his second wife, the king had married again to Adele of Champagne. Finally, after fathering four daughters with his former wives, Louis had a son, Philip, in August 1165. When the prince became ill in August 1179, the king was worried.
As he had done throughout his reign, Louis VII turned to God. To save his only son’s life, the king went on a pilgrimage to Thomas Becket’s tomb. After praying for divine intervention, Prince Philip made a full recovery. However, the stressful experience had taken its toll on Louis’ health. On September 18, 1180, the old king succumbed to a stroke.
Louis VII experienced much misfortune during his reign. As king, he failed as a crusader, saw his first marriage crumble, and witnessed the rise of the powerful Angevin Empire. Despite his efforts, Louis proved incapable of riding France of English control. Although unable to best Henry II, Louis managed to secure his kingdom for his heir. After his death, Philip II completed his father’s work and oversaw the downfall of the Angevin Empire in 1214.
Bradbury, J. (2010). The Capetians: Kings of France, 987-1328. London: Hambledon Continuum.
Jones, D. (2014). The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England. New York, NY: Viking Penguin Books.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, September 14). Louis VII. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-VII