The Life and Times of the Notorious Medieval Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine is considered to have been one of the wealthiest and most powerful women of medieval Europe during the 12 th century. For a start, Eleanor was Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, which made her the most eligible bride on the continent at that time. Subsequently, she became the Queen of France, and then Queen of England. During her second marriage, she produced eight children, seven of whom survived till adulthood. Three of Eleanor’s sons became kings, whilst two of her daughters became queens. Eleanor wielded considerable political power as queen, and even as queen dowager after her husband’s death. Apart from that, Eleanor was also a generous patron of the arts. As one of the most outstanding women of the Middle Ages, Eleanor has appeared in various forms of popular culture over the centuries.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (Éléonore or Aliénor d’Aquitaine in French), known also as Eleanor of Guyenne, was born around 1124. Her birthplace is generally thought to have been Poitiers, in today’s west-central France. Eleanor was the eldest child of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and Aénor, Viscountess of Châtellerault. The marriage of William and Aénor is an interesting story in itself. Eleanor’s paternal grandfather, William IX, though a duke, is best remembered today as one of the earliest troubadours. He is, after all, the first poet in the Provençal language whose works have survived till this day. In any event, William ‘abducted’ Dangereuse, the wife of one of his vassals, Aimeric I, Viscount of Châtellerault, and made her his mistress. It was Dangereuse who suggested to the duke that his son, William, should be married to her daughter, Aénor. William agreed, and the two were married, which caused the resulting family relations to be somewhat convoluted.
Painting of Queen Eleanor by Frederick Sandys (1858) located in the National Museum Cardiff collection. (Frederick Sandys / Public domain).
Eleanor of Aquitaine Became Ruler of a Vast Territory at Fifteen
Eleanor’s father, William X, died of an illness in April 1137, whilst he was on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. As a consequence, Eleanor, who was around 15 years old at that time, inherited all his lands. In addition to Aquitaine, William also controlled Poitiers, Gascony, Limousin, and Auvergne. This meant that the Eleanor was now the ruler of a large chunk of France. It also meant that whoever married Eleanor would be her co-ruler over this vast territory. As he was on his deathbed, William named Louis VI (whose epithet was ‘the Fat’ or ‘the Fighter’), the King of France, as Eleanor’s guardian. At that time, the French king, who was severely obese, was bed-ridden, and close to death. Nevertheless, he managed to arrange the marriage of Eleanor to his son and heir, the future Louis VII of France.
The Tumultuous Marriage to Louis VII and becoming Queen of France
The betrothal was settled within hours of Louis gaining guardianship of Eleanor. The king sent an escort of 500 men to convey the news to the duchess, and to transport her to her new home. In July 1137, just months after William’s death, Eleanor and Louis, both of whom were around the same age, were married. This union strengthened the French crown, as it received a share of Aquitaine’s lands and wealth. Due to the conflicting personalities of Eleanor and Louis the marriage was not going to be easy. Whilst Eleanor was high-spirited, worldly, and strong-headed, Louis was quite the opposite. Monkish, pious, and meek, Louis is thought to have been raised for a life in the church. He only became king because his older brother Philip had died in 1131.
A week after the marriage, King Louis VI fell ill and died. As a consequence, Eleanor became the Queen of France, following the ascension of her husband. It seems that Eleanor had a difficult time adjusting to her new home. The royal court in Paris, as well as northern France, was more reserved and less sophisticated than Eleanor’s home in Aquitaine. Still, Eleanor and Louis were able to sustain their marriage until the 1140s when it took a turn for the worse.
14th-century representation of the wedding of Louis and Eleanor on the left, and Louis leaving for the crusade on the right. ( Public domain)
In 1142 Eleanor’s sister, Petronilla, was invited to the French court. Whist at court, Petronilla met Raoul I, Count of Vermandois, and the two began an affair. As the count was already married, he decided to repudiate his wife in order to marry the queen’s sister. Unfortunately Raoul’s wife was Eleanor of Champagne, the sister of Theobald II, Count of Champagne. The two siblings belonged to the powerful House of Blois, which meant that they would not allow Raoul to have his way that easily. Eleanor managed to convince the king to support her sister and Raoul, resulting in a war with the Count of Champagne. The war lasted two years and ended with the defeat of Theobald, but it left a huge impact on Louis and influenced the events of the coming years.
Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Second Crusade
In 1143, Louis personally led the assault on a small town called Vitry-en-Perthois. The town was burned down and as many as 1500 of its inhabitants lost their lives. These included those who sought refuge in a church. Louis felt extremely remorseful for his actions. When peace was restored, the king vowed to go on a crusade to atone for his sins. In 1147, the Second Crusade was launched in response to the fall of the County of Edessa to the Muslims in 1144. Louis took up the cross and served as one of the leaders of the expedition. Eleanor accompanied her husband on the crusade. As the bulk of the French force is said to have come from Aquitaine, Eleanor, as Duchess of Aquitaine, served as their leader.
Detail of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the stained-glass window of Poitiers Cathedral. Source: Danielclauzier / CC BY-SA
The Second Crusade ended in 1150, achieving little success in the Holy Land. Instead, the expedition caused further strain between Eleanor and Louis. It also gave critics the chance to criticize the queen. Rumors of her excesses began to spread and Eleanor was blamed for the crusade’s failure. One popular rumor claimed that Eleanor brought with her 300 ladies-in-waiting, whose caravan stretched for miles, impeding the army’s progress. There were also rumors about Eleanor’s apparent incestuous affair with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, Prince of Antioch, with whom she spent a great deal of time and listened to his council.
The rumor of incest also circulated because there were disagreements in strategy between Raymond and Louis. Whilst the former wanted to attack Aleppo, and proceed to Edessa, the latter intended to go to Jerusalem first. The queen openly sided with her uncle, going so far as to threaten to annul her marriage with Louis if the king refused to accept Raymond’s counsel. Louis defied his wife, forcing Eleanor to go with him to Jerusalem. It was not too difficult for rumormongers to depict this uncharacteristic behavior by Louis as a reaction to the queen’s infidelity.
Annulment of Marriage to Louis VII and Marriage to Henry Plantagenet
In any event, the Second Crusade was a failure. In 1149, Louis and Eleanor returned to France. The humiliating defeat of the crusade, in addition to the increasing tensions during their time in the Holy Land caused the couple to drift further apart. On top of that, Eleanor had failed to produce a male heir. In spite of efforts to reconcile the two, the marriage was eventually annulled. The Pope, Eugenius III, tried to play marriage counsellor, even threatening excommunication, but to no avail.
In 1152, a council of bishops at Beaugency nullified Louis and Eleanor’s marriage on the grounds of consanguinity. The couple’s two daughters stayed with Louis, whilst Eleanor retained her duchy.
Once again, Eleanor was the most eligible woman in Europe. Theobald V, Count of Blois, even tried to kidnap her! The former queen, however, had another man in mind: Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, and Duke of Normandy. The two had met when Henry and his father came to Paris in 1151 to negotiate a peace treaty with Louis. About two months after her divorce from Louis, Eleanor and Henry were married. In 1153, Henry crossed the English Channel and made a bid for the English throne. His campaign was successful, and in the following year, Henry was crowned King Henry II of England, making Eleanor Queen of England.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry Plantagenet and their children in a mural found the chapel of Saint Radegund in Chinon, France. (Chinpat / CC BY-SA)
Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of the Troubadours and Her Court of Love
The union of King Henry and Eleanor made them one of the most powerful couples in Europe. In addition to Eleanor’s lands, the couple also controlled England, Normandy, and Anjou. This marriage was also a fruitful one. Between 1153 and 1166, Henry and Eleanor had eight children, five sons and three daughters. Their eldest, William, died in childhood, but the rest of their children lived till adulthood. Although this meant that their dynasty was secured, Henry’s children would eventually rebel against him. For the time being, however, the rule of Henry and Eleanor was safe and sound, and they reigned unchallenged. This peace and prosperity also allowed Eleanor to become a patron of the arts.
Between 1168 and 1173, Eleanor held court in Poitiers, where she is said to have established the so-called ‘Court of Love’. Troubadours, who sang of chivalry and courtly love, were attracted to Eleanor’s court, and found a patron in the queen. We also know that at least four writers dedicated their works to Eleanor, indicating that they had received patronage from her. Thus, Eleanor’s court became a known as a center of culture, where music, poetry, and the arts flourished.
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Although Eleanor and Henry had a great start, relations between the two grew tense as the years went by. Their marriage, for example, was damaged by King Henry’s infidelity, and the king’s neglect of their children. As a matter of fact, Eleanor’s return to Aquitaine in 1168 was caused by the couple’s domestic problems. She took two of her sons with her, Richard and Geoffrey. Things broke down completely in 1173 when the couple’s eldest surviving son, Henry, plotted to overthrow his father, as he was unhappy about being excluded from power. The prince travelled to Aquitaine, and convinced Richard and Geoffrey to support his revolt. Eleanor is often thought to have supported her son’s revolt, though her reasons for doing so are unclear. Some have even argued that Eleanor instigated the revolt.
Family relations were never peaceful for Eleanor of Aquitaine. In this image by James William Edmund Doyle, Richard I pardons his brother Prince John at the behest of their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. (Public Domain)
Imprisonment for Supporting a Revolt Against Her Husband King Henry II
The revolt was a failure, and the queen was captured. For the part she played in the revolt, Eleanor was imprisoned by her husband. She was confined under guard at various castles in Henry’s kingdom. Eleanor’s imprisonment only ended in 1189, when her husband died. The new king was Richard I (known also as Richard the Lionheart), Eleanor’s favorite son. With Richard on the throne, Eleanor wielded more political power than ever before. Her lands, which had been confiscated after the failed revolt, were returned to her. She was given a position in the government and actively prepared for her son’s coronation. When Richard was away crusading in the Holy Land, Eleanor ruled the kingdom as regent and prevented it from falling into the hands of her other son, John, who was plotting with the French king, Philip II Augustus. When Richard was captured by the Duke of Austria on his way home from the crusade, Eleanor collected his ransom, and went personally to escort her son back to England.
Richard died in 1199 and John became the new king. Eleanor was almost 80 years old by then, but was still actively involved in the kingdom’s politics. As an example, she was hoping to strengthen relations between the Plantagenets of England and the Capetians of France. Therefore, in 1200, Eleanor travelled to Castile to escort her granddaughter, Blanche of Castile, to France, where she was to marry the future French king, Louis VIII. In the same year, Eleanor helped her son John defend Anjou and Aquitaine from her grandson, Arthur of Brittany. Two years later, she defended Mirebeau from Arthur. The siege was lifted when King John arrived with a relief force. This was to be Eleanor’s last political action, as she retired to Fontevraud Abbey, in Anjou, soon after.
Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevraud Abbey, where she was buried next to her husband, Henry, and son, Richard. (ElanorGamgee / CC BY 3.0)
The legacy of Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine died in 1204, and was buried in Fontevraud Abbey, next to her husband, Henry, and son, Richard. As one of the most remarkable women of the Middle Ages, Eleanor has been portrayed throughout the ages in various media. The queen is a character, for instance, in Shakespeare’s play King John, and appears in Donizetti’s opera, Rosmonda d’Inghilterra. In more recent times, Eleanor has appeared in various television series and films, one of the most famous being the 1968 film The Lion in Winter, in which the queen was portrayed by the American actress Katharine Hepburn.
Top image: Medieval Queen. Credit: Julia Shepeleva / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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