The most mighty woman of the Middle Ages outwitted and outlasted her rivals

Ruler of two nations, mother to kings and queens, leader of a crusade: Eleanor of Aquitaine was a savvy power player in medieval France and England.

Thursday, March 5, 2020,
By Marina Montesano

When reviewing the history of medieval Europe, no woman stands out as much as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Once the most eligible woman in Europe, she became queen of two nations, leader of a crusade, mother of kings, and patron of the arts. Her power and prestige earned her enemies in the 12th century, and her critics authored a black legend founded on gossip and rumour that has fuelled ideas about her until the present time.

Eleanor (Aliénor) was born around 1124 in southwestern France to William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and Aénor, Viscountess of Châtellerault (Named for her mother, her name meant “the other Aénor”). The oldest of the couple’s three children, she had a younger sister, Petronilla, and a younger brother, William Aigret.

The Romanesque Church of Sainte-Radegonde rises in the foreground of this image of Poitiers, the birthplace of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Behind is the city’s cathedral, where Eleanor wed the future Henry II of England in 1152.
Photograph by AGE FOTOSTOCK

William X controlled many territories in west and central France including Aquitaine, Poitiers, Gascony, Limousin, and Auvergne. Their ducal court had a fine reputation as a patron of the arts. Eleanor’s grandfather, William IX, was known as the “troubadour duke,” famous for his poetry and songs about heroism and courtly love. Poets of the time, especially the famous Marcabru, found hospitality at the court of Aquitaine. (Skeleton of medieval artist reveals hidden truths about its identity.)

Culture and learning were a family tradition for Eleanor, who received the best possible education of the time. She was taught mathematics, astronomy, history, literature, Latin, and music. She also learned arts and crafts: embroidery, needlepoint, sewing, and spinning. Like any daughter of nobility, she danced and sang, as well as rode horses and went hunting. Like many noble daughters, Eleanor would have been raised to be a nobleman’s wife and was probably not expected to play any role in governing. (Here are the best and worst places to be a woman today.)

From duchess to queen

During the 12th century, monarchies were gaining power and expanding across Europe as alliances formed and linked them together. Powerful aristocracies that fell within their kingdoms still held great influence and needed to be respected. In France the Capetian dynasty ruled a slice of north-central France, the so-called Île-de-France, between the Seine and the Loire. The royal house of France, the Capets, when Eleanor was born, was led by King Louis VI (also known as Louis the Fat).

Eleanor gave this vase, made of rock crystal and gold, to her first husband, Louis, when they married. Louvre Museum, Paris.
Photograph by ALBUM

Much of what is now France was divided up into powerful dukedoms—Normandy, Brittany, and Aquitaine—and large counties—Flanders, Anjou, Lorraine, Champagne, Bourgogne, and Toulouse, some of which were larger and richer than the possessions of the Capetian dynasty. Of the dukedoms, the duchy of Aquitaine was one of the largest, wealthiest, and most influential.

To complicate matters, in 1066 William, Duke of Normandy (also known as William the Conqueror), became king of England. While William was technically a vassal of France on the French side of the English channel, when he was on the other side, he was king of England—the French king’s equal in rank. Who controlled the lands of England and France would lead to many bloody conflicts over the coming centuries as different houses vied for control.

Eleanor played a vital role in these power struggles. Her destiny took a radical turn when her younger brother died in 1130, leaving her the new heiress to her father’s dominions. When her father died unexpectedly in April 1137, while on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Eleanor was thrust into the world of medieval politics in her early teens. (Romanesque cathedrals sprang up alongside pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.)

Shortly before his death, Eleanor’s father had dictated his will and officially named Eleanor as his heir. He appointed King Louis VI as her guardian, and the Capetian king shrewdly saw a way to bring the lands of Aquitaine under his control. He quickly announced the betrothal of Duchess Eleanor to his 17-year-old son, the future Louis VII.

The marriage of young Eleanor of Aquitaine and the future King Louis VII in 1137 is depicted in the Chroniques de Saint- Denis (12th-13th century). Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.
Photograph by BRIDGEMAN/ACI

Queen of France

The wedding was celebrated in Bordeaux on July 25, 1137. Seven days later, Louis the Fat was dead, leaving the teenagers Louis and Eleanor to rule as king and queen. The two were coronated at Bourges Cathedral later that year on Christmas Day. Despite the marriage, the lands of Eleanor’s family would not come under the control of the Capetian dynasty. According to the terms of her father’s will, Queen Eleanor first had to give birth to a son, who then had to reach the age of majority and become the new duke of Aquitaine before the lands would officially pass to Louis’s family. (Scientists are using lasers to unlock the mysteries of Gothic cathedrals.)

A 12th-century fresco found at the Chapelle Sainte-Radegonde, in Chinon, France depicts several figures on horseback. Some historians have identified the crowned figure (second from right) as Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Photograph by BRIDGEMAN/ACI

By many accounts, Eleanor was a bright and vivacious woman. Life at the Capetian court did not entirely meet the expectations and tastes of the young bride who was used to the court of Aquitaine’s embrace of troubadour poetry, sophistication, extravagance, and a greater freedom of manners. The Parisian court and northern France were more reserved. The poet Marcabru, who had followed Eleanor to court, was sent away on account of his passionate verses. Bold and vibrant, Eleanor strained against the confines of life at court and her marriage. One historian of the time remarked how Eleanor complained that she married “a monk, not a king.”

Louis had become king by chance when his older brother Philip died in 1131. Sources say that Louis was being raised for a life in the church rather than the throne. His upbringing was sheltered and quiet compared to Eleanor’s. He was austere and frugal, a marked contrast to the brazen queen. The two newlyweds’ personalities could not have been more different.

The marriage was not a fruitful one. The couple did not have many children. Eleanor only gave birth to two daughters: Marie, countess of Champagne, in 1145, and Alice (or Alix), countess of Blois, around 1150. By most accounts, the marriage’s failure to produce a male heir led to greater tensions between husband and wife.

Yet it was not just the differences in culture and character that led to disputes; youth also led to unwise choices. In 1142 Petronilla, Eleanor’s sister, fell in love with the married count of Vermandois, who was married to Eleanor of Champagne, daughter of a powerful French family. The count set aside his wife and married Petronilla. Critics saw Eleanor’s hand in the affair, which may have been a love match, but could have served a strategic purpose of strengthening the bonds between the Capetian crown and the House of Aquitaine. (These are ten of history's red-hot power couples.)

Petronilla’s marriage led to a war between Louis and the count of Champagne in 1142. In 1143 Louis ordered the burning of the small town of Vitry-en-Perthois, killing as many as 1,500 people. The church condemned the actions of the French crown, which caused the pious Louis deep shame. He vowed to mount a crusade to atone for it.

Queen on a crusade

The Crusades were a series of European military expeditions to the Holy Land. Starting in 1095, the First Crusade aimed to recapture sites under the control of Islamic rulers. It culminated when European forces took the city of Jerusalem in summer 1099. After declaring the Crusade a success, many European commanders and forces departed for home, which left the conquered territories vulnerable to attack and reconquest. (The Knights Templar got their start during the Crusades.)

During the early 12th century, Muslim forces began to regroup in Aleppo and Mosul. When they took the Armenian city of Edessa in 1144 (today Urfa), the papacy and European powers grew alarmed that Muslim emirates would unite and take back more territories in the region. (The medieval Muslim warriors of Alamut (dubbed "Assassins" by their enemies) inspired fear and legends.)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux preaches the Second Crusade before Louis VII in Vézelay, in 1146. From Les Passages d’Outremer by Sébastien Mamerot, miniature by Jean Colombe. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
Photograph by Bridgeman/ACI

Pope Eugene III organized an expedition to safeguard the former conquests in the East and “rescue” Edessa. The designated leader was German king Conrad III. Louis VII decided to help lead the Crusade, and Queen Eleanor would join him. People from her lands made up the bulk of the French forces, and she accompanied them as their leader, the Duchess of Aquitaine.

The pair departed for the Holy Land in June 1147. Critics of Eleanor delighted in spreading rumours about her, detailing her excesses and blaming her for military failures. Many of these misconceptions have lingered until this day. One of the most popular is that she brought 300 ladies-in-waiting with her, whose caravan stretched for miles and allegedly slowed the mission’s progress.

After passing Constantinople, the mission encountered hostilities in Asia Minor. The first battles were a disaster for the French. In early 1148 the royal couple arrived in Antioch and were welcomed by Raymond of Poitiers, Eleanor’s paternal uncle. The atmosphere was tense: Raymond wanted to attack Aleppo and move to liberate Edessa from there, but Louis insisted on going to Jerusalem first.

Eleanor openly sided with her uncle and threatened to annul the marriage to Louis if he did not heed Raymond’s counsel. Their marriage had shown signs of strain before, but tensions over the Crusade pushed it to the breaking point. Malign rumours about the queen began to circulate: many chroniclers, possibly to cover the king’s incompetent strategy, falsely accused Eleanor of incest with her uncle. In an uncharacteristic act of defiance against Eleanor, Louis forced her to go to Jerusalem. (Archaeological excavations under Jerusalem are stoking long-standing tensions.)

Royal endings

A series of disastrous military decisions resulted in the failure of the Second Crusade. In 1149 Louis and Eleanor boarded ships to sail back to France in defeat. For Louis VII, the Crusade was a twofold disaster: He had been away from his kingdom for two years, involved in expensive military campaigns the results of which were humiliating, and his marriage had completely broken down.

After the couple returned to Europe, they met with Pope Eugene III who tried to reconcile them—even threatening excommunication. It was no use, the union was doomed: On March 21, 1152, a group of bishops at Beaugency declared Eleanor’s marriage void for reasons of consanguinity. In line with tradition, the daughters remained with their father, and Eleanor retained her duchy in Aquitaine.

Duchess Eleanor was only 28, and it did not take long for suitors to begin to pursue her—for her lands and her mind. Theobald V of Blois, six years Eleanor’s junior, tried to kidnap her (he would later marry her daughter, Alice). Eleanor had her eye on a different suitor. From her court at Poitiers, she sent for him in secret. His name was Henry Plantagenet, duke of Normandy and count of Anjou.

Romancing the queen

Shortly before her divorce, Eleanor had met young Henry and his father, Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of Anjou, when they came to Paris in August 1151 to negotiate a peace agreement with Louis. Wagging tongues speculated that the handsome Geoffrey had a liaison with Eleanor, but no hard evidence of a romantic relationship between the two exists.

Geoffrey had a strong tie to the English throne. In 1128 he had married Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England and widow of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. They had a son, also named Henry. After the death of her father, Matilda battled with Stephen of Blois for control of England, while Geoffrey defended his holdings in France. As he grew, young Henry Plantagenet had his eyes on the English throne, establishing his reputation for military might as a teenager. (Three centuries later Joan of Arc would also guide France as a teenager.)

Less than three months after her divorce from Louis, Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, nine years her junior, on May 18, 1152. Genealogy shows that the pair were more closely related than Eleanor and Louis, but that did not stand in the way of the union. Henry and Eleanor were masters of Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, and the Aquitaine, and serious rivals to Louis.

Lions’ den

In 1153 Henry crossed the English Channel and was able to secure his position on the throne from the sitting king of England. By the time he and Eleanor were coronated in December 1154, she had already given birth to their first son, William, in August 1153—and was pregnant with their second child. In one bold stroke, the lands of Normandy, Aquitaine, Anjou, and other important French territories came under the control of the English king and queen. Eleanor’s children, as well as her lands, gave her much security.

Eleanor was crowned queen of England in Westminster Abbey on December 19, 1154. Consecrated on December 28, 1065, the abbey was a coronation and burial site of English royalty.
Photograph by JAMES BRITTAIN/AGE FOTOSTOCK

In the early years of their marriage, Eleanor and Henry II were a strong team as they oversaw their French and English possessions. Between 1153 and 1166, they produced a literal dynasty of five sons and three daughters. Henry often travelled to different parts of his realm, and while he was away, Eleanor assumed the role of regent and other political duties. (Four centuries later, Queen Elizabeth I and King Philip would go from from allies to enemies.)

In this marriage, Eleanor was also able to become a patron of the arts, and at least four writers dedicated their work to her. She famously established the so-called Court of Love at Poitiers between 1168 and 1173. Along with her daughter Marie (from her first marriage), popular accounts describe Eleanor’s court as a flowering of culture where music, poetry, and chivalry took center stage.

A pommel from a 12th-century dagger bears the image of a lion, a heraldic device from Eleanor of Aquitaine's coat of arms.
Photograph by RMN-GRAND PALAIS / EMILIE CAMBIER

Toward the late 1160s, relations between Eleanor and Henry were growing tense. Henry was a notorious philanderer, and many speculate that his infidelities damaged the marriage beyond repair. The royal children were not making things easy on their parents either. In 1173 three of Henry’s sons, who many believe were spurred on by Eleanor, led the French territories and a number of Anglo-Norman barons in a rebellion against Henry II.

Henry the Young King enlisted his brothers Richard and Geoffrey to rebel against their father. Richard, his mother’s favorite son, was the designated heir of the Aquitaine and had grown quite powerful. By the end of that year, the king appeared to have gotten the upper hand in the struggle and Eleanor was captured and held at the fortress of Chinon, France. She would remain a prisoner until Henry II’s death in 1189. (Eleanor's sons were major characters in the tale of Robin Hood.)

House arrest

The following years were very hard for the queen, who lived under house arrest in several different locations in England. Henry II was rumored to be seeking a divorce from Eleanor, perhaps to marry the most well known of his mistresses, Rosamund Clifford. Famous for her beauty, Rosamund died under mysterious circumstances in 1176. Black legends arose that Eleanor had managed to capture “Fair Rosamund” and forced her to kill herself, giving her a choice between a knife and poison. Eleanor was imprisoned during this time, so her murdering Rosamund seems unlikely.

Eleanor was held captive by Henry II at this fortress, built on the banks of the Vienne (a tributary of the Loire). The king would later die here in 1189.
Photograph by RICCARDO SPILA/FOTOTECA 9X12

During her confinement, Eleanor would be allowed to travel for holidays, most notably Christmas, and to see her sons. Her influence on them waned during this time, but her son Henry’s thirst for power did not. He rebelled again against his father in 1183, but was struck by dysentery. Knowing he was going to die, he implored Henry II to show mercy to his mother. Eleanor would be granted more freedoms over time and would even travel with her husband, but she was not free to come and go as she pleased.

Return to power

After Henry’s death in July 1189, Richard the Lion-Heart became king, and Eleanor gained her complete freedom. Her son restored her lands that had been seized after the 1173 rebellion. Richard appointed her to a government position, and Eleanor travelled the English countryside securing loyalty oaths to her son and his kingdom.

Before her death in 1204, Eleanor of Aquitaine lived at the Abbey of Fontevraud in Anjou, France. Her tomb, and those of English kings Henry II and Richard I, can be found there.
Photograph by NATHALIE CUVELIER/AGE FOTOSTOCK

Even in her late 60s, Eleanor continued to follow and often direct the political events of her lands. In 1191 she arranged a marriage for Richard to Berengaria of Navarre. While Richard was crusading in the Holy Land, Eleanor wielded influence over the men ruling in Richard’s absence, including his younger brother, Prince John. Moreover, accused of having ordered the murder of Conrad of Montferrat in the Holy Land, Richard was imprisoned by Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. Eleanor turned to the pope, Celestine III, to help arrange her son’s release and also secured funds for his ransom.

In her 70s, Eleanor sought to strengthen the bonds between the Plantagenets and the Capets. In 1200 she traveled to the Pyrenees to escort her granddaughter Blanche to marry the son of the French king in a continuing effort to maintain the power of her family.

Eleanor outlived most of her children: her two daughters with King Louis VII; her sons William, Henry, Geoffrey, and Richard; and her daughters Matilda and Joan—all died before their mother. After Richard’s death, Eleanor’s youngest son John became king of England. Around age 80, Eleanor died in 1204 at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou, France. The wars between France and England would last long past her death.

A likeness of Eleanor of Aquitaine lies above her tomb in Fontevraud Abbey. At the time of her death in 1204, she had outlived all but two of her children.
Photograph by ORONOZ/ALBUM

At times portrayed as a frivolous young woman or a manipulative schemer, Eleanor was a savvy player on the political stage—unafraid to exercise the power she held; her reputation may have been damaged by her boldness, but her influence on the political and cultural events of the 12th century remains undiminished.

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