Women in History: Eleanor of Aquitaine

One of the most powerful and influential women of her time, Eleanor of Aquitaine was born in the early 1120s and lived until 1204. 

By birth, she became Duchess of Aquitaine, a province in the southwest of France, when her father died in 1137. Independently wealthy and renowned for her beauty, she was the most sought-after bride in Europe.

Eleanor married King Louis VII of France in 1137, but the marriage was not happy. She sought an annulment of her marriage— one wonders how many women were in a position to do that for themselves back then— but it was rejected by the Pope.

It was not until 1152 and Louis’ agreement because she had not produced a son that Eleanor was able to obtain an annulment on the grounds of their family relationship. Louis kept their daughters, but Eleanor’s lands were restored to her and Eleanor was free to move on, which she did almost immediately.

Two months later, despite the efforts of two other lords to abduct and marry her, Eleanor married the Duke of Normandy, who would become King Henry II of England in 1154.

Five sons— three of whom became kings—and three daughters secured the line of inheritance to the English throne before Eleanor and Henry grew apart and became estranged, their marriage complicated by Henry’s frequent affairs and numerous illegitimate children.

While the idea of courtly love was not new, Eleanor and her daughters brought the concept to life at Poitiers, where they and their courtiers discussed matters of love and chivalry and adjudicated both theoretical questions and disputes between lovers. This gave rise to the great popularity of courtly love literature in Europe.

Suspicion that Eleanor was encouraging one or more of their younger sons to rebel and possibly ultimately challenge him for the throne led Henry to summon Eleanor to meet him at Rouen in 1173, from whence he took her captive and kept her as his prisoner at either Winchester Castle or Sarum Castle, and then at various other locations, for the next sixteen years. 

Eleanor was released from her albeit comfortable imprisonment by her son Richard, who became king on Henry’s death in 1189. She returned to Westminster and was welcomed with oaths of loyalty from the lords and, although not officially given any position or title, went on to rule for several years on behalf of her son Richard the Lionheart during his extended absences from England, both while on Crusade and while being held hostage by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI. She was instrumental in raising the money needed and negotiating to secure Richard’s release. 

After John’s accession to the throne on the death of his brother, he sent Eleanor to Castile to bring back one of her granddaughters for an arranged marriage to secure a truce and alliance with Philip II of France. On her way there, Eleanor was kidnapped by Hugh IX of Lusignan who held her hostage, demanding land that his family had owned before selling it to Henry II be returned to him. An old hand at dealing with men who couldn’t think of a better way to solve their problems than to take someone captive and make demands before letting them go, and more than likely quite weary of men telling her what to do, she gave him what he wanted regardless of whether or not it was hers to give, negotiated her own release and went on her way.

That wasn’t the last of the trouble on her errand. On the way back, Eleanor and her granddaughter Blanche spent Easter at Bordeaux where they met a renowned soldier, Mercadier, who agreed to escort them back to Normandy. However, he was killed by the man-at-arms of one of his  rivals.  Shocked by his death, Eleanor retreated to Fontrevaud Abbey, committing her granddaughter to the care and escort of the Archbishop of Bordeaux. 

Despite ill health, Eleanor left Fontrevaud when hostilities once again broke out between England and France. She returned to Bordeaux to support John against the claims of her grandson Arthur, Duke of Brittany.

Not easily dissuaded, Arthur besieged her in the castle of Mirabeau until John arrived and captured Arthur, who was still only fifteen years old. One could be forgiven for suspecting he inherited some of his nerve from his grandmother.

Eleanor returned to Fontrevaud Abbey, where she died and was entombed beside her husband Henry and her son Richard in 1204. Her effigy has her reading a book, presumably a Bible. 

By the end of her life, she had been queen of both France and England, and become the mother of not only two kings of England and one of France, but also of several queens of European nations and provinces. Eleanor had led armies into battle on more than one occasion, and had been a leader of the Second Crusade.  

She was clearly a woman of great temerity and independence of spirit. Even though she very obviously lived in a man’s world, she would never settle for not having just a bit of it for herself and leaving her mark on it when she left. 

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