From teenage duchess to elderly mother of kings, Eleanor of Aquitane sat at the heart of European politics for six decades, refusing to accept the traditional position of her gender in a medieval world.
When her father died in 1137, Eleanor of Aquitaine, still just a teenager, became the most eligible heiress in all of Europe. She was not only beautiful, smart and tenacious, but the 15-year-old had inherited expansive territories in the south of France and a great fortune, making her the ideal choice of wife for the powerful or ambitious young men of the continent.
In a 12th-century world dictated by men, even wealthy women like Eleanor rarely had a say in their own life – the most important roles they could perform were as trading commodities (to be married off as part of political alliances) and to bear male heirs. It therefore seemed that Eleanor’s future as a doting and loyal wife was laid before her and yet, for more than 60 years, she refused to accept this fate.
Politically shrewd and dynamic, she skilfully manoeuvred herself to the peak of European politics – rising to be the queen consort of both France and England – and established her own legacy as two of her sons would go on to be kings. Eleanor held her own in a male-dominated society to be, arguably, the most powerful woman of the Middle Ages.
Thrust into power
The teenage Eleanor was a quick and avid learner, which turned out to be a necessity when her father fell ill and died suddenly while on a pilgrimage. Thrust into her inherited duchy, Eleanor now controlled a large domain – more land, in fact, than French King Louis VI, who, at her father’s request, was made her guardian. Within hours of the King hearing the news, Eleanor had been betrothed to his heir, also named Louis. The pair were married in July 1137, shortly before the King died and Eleanor’s 17-year-old husband became Louis VII.
In a matter of months, Eleanor went from duchess-in-waiting to queen consort of France. What’s more, the unworldly and weak-minded Louis adored her for her intelligence, strength and, as described by contemporary writers, for being “perpulchra”, meaning ‘more than beautiful’.
Eleanor, on the other hand, was not so devoted to her husband, allegedly announcing: “I thought I was wed to a king, now I find I am wed to a monk.” For the first decade of their marriage, she exerted considerable influence over his rule – dominated by conflicts with his own lords as well as with the Pope – and gave birth to only one child, a daughter.
In 1147, in an attempt to restore favour with Rome, the pious Louis embarked on the Second Crusade to win control of Jerusalem over the Turks, and Eleanor made the surprising decision to accompany him. She knew that this meant a journey of thousands of miles over treacherous lands, risking disease and experiencing the horrors of war, but Eleanor remained steadfast, even taking her own military support with her.
The crusade was ultimately a failure and the greatest danger Eleanor faced during the two-year expedition came not from the Turks, but a scandalous rumour that she was having an incestuous affair with her uncle, Raymond, ruler of Antioch (in modern-day Turkey). As Louis’ suspicions of his queen’s behaviour deepened, the couple grew more estranged and Eleanor risked being accused of treason.
Yet, it was her who made the daring first move against Louis and began seeking an annulment on the grounds of consanguinity (meaning they shouldn’t have been permitted to marry in the first place as they were too closely related by blood).
Her efforts, which would have been unprecedented if successful, achieved nothing and she was forced to travel back to France with Louis and the remains of his doomed crusade. There seemed to be signs of a reconciliation, especially when a second daughter was born, but the relationship continued to deteriorate until, in 1152, Louis was eventually granted an annulment. Eleanor immediately left Paris and made for Poitiers.
Only two months after the annulment, and risking Louis’ wrath, she was wed to Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy – the grandson of King Henry I of England – in a small service at Poitiers Cathedral. Henry, 11 years her junior, was much more suited to Eleanor’s personality as he was strong, courageous, bursting with energy, ambitious and charming, although he also had a ferocious temper.
When he was crowned as Henry II of England in 1154, Eleanor’s second marriage changed the political landscape of Europe and created a vast empire. Their shared domain stretched from England’s northernmost border to the Pyrenees in the south of France. Eleanor spent many years travelling between England and France playing an integral part in the running of these territories.
Theirs was a fiery, tempestuous marriage. In some ways, it was very successful – Eleanor gave birth to eight children, with the three daughters going on to marry into Europe’s ruling dynasties – but they also fought often. Eleanor strived for the same influence she had held over her first husband, but Henry was much more assertive and unwilling to delegate power, particularly to a woman.
In 1167, Eleanor left Henry’s court and moved her household to Poitiers, where she grasped the opportunity to rule Aquitaine in Henry’s name. Why she separated from Henry remains debatable; some argued she resented the lack of power she was being given, while others claims she had grown angry at his increasingly flagrant infidelities.
Any loyalty Eleanor felt towards Henry had eroded by 1173, when one of their sons, ‘Young Henry’, launched a revolt in the hope of seizing the throne. He was joined by two of his brothers as well as Eleanor, who provided military support from disillusioned nobles in Aquitaine. The rebellion plunged the royal family into civil war and Eleanor was captured and imprisoned for the next 16 years. And although the King offered mercy to his surviving sons, the betrayal of his wife clearly cut deeper – he kept her captive until his death in 1189. Only when her son Richard (the Lionheart) came to the throne was Eleanor released.
After so long away from power, Eleanor was ardent in achieving influence in Richard’s new regime, and she was rewarded with more than she could have hoped.
As Richard had dreams of glory in the Third Crusade, he sailed to the Holy Land and left his mother to rule as regent, despite her being in her late 60s. Maybe after her own aborted effort in the Crusades, she advised against Richard’s actions, arguing that the priority should be securing his new and fragile throne.
With him gone, she worked tirelessly to administer the laws of the land – which she did by personally moving from city to city with a royal retinue – and withstood the opportunistic coup led by her other son, John Lackland. When Richard was captured in Germany on his way home, it was Eleanor who collected the hefty ransom for his release.
At the time of Richard’s death in 1199, having been struck by an arrow at a siege, Eleanor ensured that her second son, ‘Bad King’ John, was crowned. She was approaching 80 but remained a dynamic political player. To show her support for John, she even crossed the Pyrenees in winter so that she could escort her granddaughter, Blanche, back to France to negotiate a key marriage alliance that would keep the peace between John and the French King.
In the first years of the 13th century, John was once again indebted to his ageing mother after her grandson, Arthur of Brittany, attempted to capture England’s territories in France, only for Eleanor to muster enough men to rebuff him at Mirebeau in 1202.
It was 65 years after she had inherited her father’s land and wealth in Aquitaine that Eleanor finally left the political arena. Retiring to the Anjou monastery at Fontevraud in 1202, she spent her last two years in increasingly poor health, dying on 1 April 1204. When she was buried, next to Henry II, the nuns at Fontevrault described Eleanor as a queen “who surpassed almost all the queens of the world”.