Born: c.1122, Poitiers, France
Died: 1 April 1204 (aged 81-82), Poitiers, France
Reigns: Duchess of Aquitaine: 9 April 1137 – 1 April 1204; Queen Consort of France: 1 August 1137 – 21 March 1152; Queen Consort of England: 19 December 1154 – 6 July 1189
Spouses: Louis VII of France (m. 1137; annulled 1152); Henry II of England (m. 1152; his death 1189)
Children: Marie, Countess of Champagne; Alix, Countess of Blois; William IX, Count of Poitiers; Henry the Young King; Matilda, Duchess of Saxony; Richard I, King of England; Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany; Eleanor, Queen of Castile; Joan, Queen of Sicily; John, King of England.
One of the most renowned names and formidable queens of the Middle Ages, Eleanor of Aquitaine is often unfortunately overlooked because of the contemporaries who surrounded her: King Louis VII of France, the Crusader; King Henry II of England, the first Plantagenet; King Richard I of England, the Lionheart; and the infamous King John ‘Lackland’ of England. Despite this, without Eleanor, none of these men would have been who they were – married to two kings of different countries, mother to over five kings and queens, Eleanor epitomised the courtly lifestyle of the high Middle Ages: crusading, chivalry and even confinement. She is not just one of the stand-out queens of the Middle Ages, but one of the most powerful, influential and greatest queens of all time.
Early Life, c. 1122-37
As is unfortunately the case with many of the medieval sources we have looked at so far at History in 20, Eleanor’s exact birth date is unknown. In fact, there is even debate about her birth year. But what we do know is that she was born in Poiters, some time around 1122-24. She was of noble birth, born to William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Aénor de Châtellerault, Duchess of Aquitaine.
Eleanor was well-educated in her upbringing, which was clear to see in her later life. She was thoroughly knowledgeable in a multitude of subjects, ranging from literature and philosophy to languages and the constellations. As part of her upbringing, she was trained in courtly life, and what was expected of a young woman in a twelfth-century French court. Her father died when Eleanor was aged fifteen, and as she was the eldest of his three children, she became his heir, and thus Duchess of Aquitaine (her mother had died when Eleanor was about five). William X had requested in his will that Eleanor be placed under the guardianship of the French king, Louis VI (r. 1108-37); within hours, she had been betrothed to the king’s son, Prince Louis. Louis VI died in August 1137, and his son succeeded him as King Louis VII (r. 1137-80).
Queen of France and the Second Crusade (1137-52)
Eleanor married Louis VII of France when she was aged about fifteen in July 1137. They were officially crowned King and Queen of France on Christmas Day 1137. With this marriage, Eleanor almost doubled the land area subject to the Capetian House (the Royal Family of France at the time), bringing with her, her territories in the south and south-west of France.
Ironically enough, Louis was not even meant to be king in the first place. His older brother, Philip, had fallen from his horse and died as a result, leaving Louis as the heir to the Capetian Crown. This was evident in Louis’ kingship and his personal life: as a young boy, Louis had been sent to Paris by his father to train for priesthood – and Eleanor famously once commented that she “had married a monk, not a king.” Their marriage was therefore destined to be difficult from the outset: Eleanor’s fiery, politically astute, tempestuous demeanour was unsuited to Louis’ pious, humble nature. Historian Geoffrey Hindley states that she ‘hardly fitted conventional models of domestic docility.’ And he was right.
I…married a monk, not a king.Eleanor on her marriage to King Louis VII of France.
Eleanor is credited with being responsible for the introduction of built-in fireplaces in castles. She was shocked by the frigid winters in the north of France, in complete contrast to the warmer, milder winters of the south. This innovation spread quickly, and built in fireplaces became a staple in castles from hereon in!
Arguably the most major event in Louis and Eleanor’s marriage was their involvement in the Second Crusade (1147-50). Under almost direct instruction from Pope Eugene III (r. 1145-53), Eleanor accompanied Louis (or, more likely, Louis accompanied Eleanor) on the way to Jerusalem, to liberate the ‘Christian’ city from the infidel (Muslims) who had taken it over. Eleanor and Louis arrived in Antioch (in modern-day Turkey) on 11 March 1148, and were showered with lavish gifts, pomp and ceremony put on by Raymond of Antioch, who had been Prince of Antioch since 1136, and was also Eleanor’s uncle.
Historian Dan Jones argues that this was ‘likely a source of comfort’ for Eleanor, to visit a close family member so far away from her homeland, and be present in his exotic court which was not only filled with exotic eastern spices, flora and fauna, but also with homely additions, such as Occitan-speaking men and women from the south and southwest of France. Despite only spending ten days as Raymond’s guests in Antioch, it was enough time to create rifts in their marriage.
Notwithstanding Raymond’s generosity and hospitality, Louis announced that he had no intention of deploying his troops to help increase Raymond’s army for the Second Crusade. Raymond was naturally furious upon hearing this, and the chronicler William of Tyre reported that “Raymond began to hate [Louis’] ways; he openly plotted against him and took means to do him injury.” To achieve this, Raymond used his relationship with Eleanor to undermine Louis.
This trick worked on Eleanor. Happy at Raymond’s court, she refused to leave for Jerusalem with her husband, so Louis set off without her. However, the joy was short-lived: as Eleanor remained in Antioch with her uncle, rumours began spreading that they were having an incestuous affair (in fact, it would not actually have been incestuous as Raymond was her blood-aunt’s husband), which blackened Eleanor’s reputation, and essentially cuckolded Louis. William of Tyre wrote that “Contrary to her royal dignity, she disregarded her marriage vows and was unfaithful to her husband.” Yet interpreting this in the twelfth century and the twenty-first century yield very different results. It was almost certain that William was referring to the perceived domestic sin of disobedience, which his straight-edged contemporaries viewed as a sin of equal magnitude to sexual infidelity. Nevertheless, the Crusade went on (and actually culminated in a miserable failure), and marked the beginning end of Louis and Eleanor’s marriage.
The royal couple were briefly reconciled at Easter 1149 and left back home for France – albeit on separate ships. Both ships (and couples) met up at Sicily, before sailing on to Pope Eugene III’s villa in Tusculum (Frascati), around twelve miles south of Rome. The Pope attempted to reconcile the couple, even offering them a marital bed draped with fine fabrics. It failed. Within eighteen months of their return to France in 1149, Eleanor had already remarried: this time to a young English nobleman, called Henry Fitzempress.
Queen of England, 1152-67
By Aquitaine’s law, women – unusually – could inherit and administer property in their own right, and Eleanor’s father had specified that the Duchy of Aquitaine should not be integrated into the royal demesne but should instead remain independent and be inherited by Eleanor’s heirs – not Eleanor and Louis’. Therefore, when their marriage was annulled in 1152, Eleanor parted from Louis and her huge inheritance also parted from the French Crown.
Within the space of a few months, Eleanor married Henry, Count of Anjou and Maine and Duke of Normandy. Two years later, he became King of England, and was crowned as the first Plantagenet monarch: Henry II (r. 1154-89). Eleanor’s vast territories in the south and south west of France joined with Henry’s and formed the Plantagenet Empire, from the Scotland to Spain.
Eleanor had still not escaped crusading: it was in Henry’s blood. His grandfather was King Fulk of Jerusalem (r. 1131-43), and his uncles were also both Kings of Jerusalem: Baldwin III (r. 1143-63) and Amalric I (r. 1163-74). It seemed like a match made in heaven. But despite their prosperous marriage (they had eight children, five of whom went on to become kings or queens), it was notoriously fractious, too. This was largely a result of Henry’s numerous mistresses, including one affectionately known as Fair Rosamund (whom Eleanor was accused of poisoning to death). Due to Henry’s infidelities, Eleanor moved back to Poitiers in France in 1167.
Lifestyle and Culture: The Court of Love (1167-73)
During her time in her homeland, Eleanor founded and established the Court of Love. This was a court where everything we associate with the high medieval period took place: chivalry was encouraged, poetry and music were rife, and folklore and literature were constructed within its walls. Accompanied by her daughter Marie, the court was also focused on courtly love and symbolic ritual that was eagerly lapped up by the writers and musicians of the day. However, despite the brief interlude in Eleanor’s exciting life thus far, it was soon to take a turn for the worse.
Rebellion and Imprisonment (1173-99)
After the crisis between Henry II and Thomas Becket, Eleanor had begun to start stirring rebellions against her estranged husband. She initially inspired a rebellion from the English earls Robert of Leicester and Bigod of Norfolk in early 1173 and was actually supported by her ex-husband Louis VII. Initially, Henry had managed to quash these rebellions at the expense of generous pardons and financial aid. However, in mid-1173, there was one rebellion which tipped Henry over the edge.
His eldest son, and heir, ‘Young Henry’, fled to France to be with his mother (Eleanor), apparently to plot to seize the throne from his father. Eleanor, rumoured to be actively supporting her son’s plans against Henry II, was arrested and placed under arrest. She also later encouraged Richard to pay homage to the King of France (Philip II, r. 1190-1223). But, unlike ordinary prisoners (as she was no ordinary prisoner), she was placed under relatively comfortable confinement – essentially house arrest – and shuttled between different English castles for the next sixteen years.
Young Henry died of a disease in 1183, allegedly begging for his mother’s release on his deathbed. Henry II did release Eleanor, on occasion, and she re-joined his household in 1184 for at least a part of each year, and accompanied him on solemn occasions, as well as resuming some of her ceremonial duties as queen.
Later Life and Death (1199-1204)
Henry II died in 1189, leaving their next oldest son – and Eleanor’s favourite son – Richard as heir. He succeeded his father as Richard I ‘the Lionheart’ (r. 1189-99) the same year, and one of his first acts was to release Eleanor completely from house arrest. Eleanor went on to rule as regent in Richard’s absence during his leading of the Third Crusade (another crusading relation to Eleanor!). Yet the ageing Eleanor’s duties were far from over: aged 70, she negotiated Richard I’s release from prison.
Additionally, one of her granddaughters was Blanche of Castile, and when Eleanor was 78, she brought Blanche from Spain to wed the King of France (Louis VIII, r. 1223-26). And when she turned 80, she directed the defence of a town under siege from a marauding army. Truly iconic!
When Richard died in 1199, Eleanor lived long enough to see her youngest son (and Henry II’s favourite) John become King of England (r. 1199-1216) – she was even employed by John as an envoy to France. She later supported John’s rule against the rebellion of one of her grandsons (Arthur), and finally retired as a nun to the Abbey at Fontevraud.
Eleanor peacefully slipped away on 1 April 1204, aged 81-82, an immense age for the time. She was buried at Fontevraud, next to her favourite son, Richard.
There are few historians who would disagree with the statement that Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most influential woman of the Middle Ages. There were numerous kings who did twice as little yet have twice as many sources written about them. Despite the fact she was a twelfth-century woman, she arguably had more influence over the people around her than the men did.
Historian Norman Davies states that ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine was perhaps the outstanding personality of the age. She made her mark not only as a woman of remarkable spirit, but as a political and cultural patron of immense influence.’ This is true: among her children and grandchildren, she lived to see one emperor, three kings of England, kings of Jerusalem and Castile, a duke of Brittany and another queen of France.
Despite the attempts of chroniclers like William of Tyre to stain her reputation as an incestuous whore, and those others who accused her of poisoning Fair Rosamund, she nevertheless survived all odds and stands as the central figure in the cultural history of a land in which her enemies were intent on destroying.
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Norman Davies, Europe: A History (2012)
Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of the Crusades: Islam and Christianity in the Struggle for World Supremacy (2004)
Simon Jenkins, A Short History of England (2011)
Dan Jones, Crusaders: An Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Land (2020)
W.B. Marsh & Bruce Carrick, Great Stories from History: 365 for Every Day of the Year (2005)