Eleanor of Aquitaine

views updated May 17 2018

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Bordeaux or Belin, France

Anjou, France

Queen of France and England

"Powerful, beautiful, indefatigable [unstoppable], sensuous [appealing to the senses], literary, an eagle soaring above mere mortals, mother of ten royal children she might indeed be. Some regarded her as the Demon mother who had once, in a bath, assumed the shape of a dragon."

—James Reston Jr., Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful and interesting people of the Middle Ages. That she accomplished so much at a time when women usually had little standing (power) in society is amazing. The wife of two kings, she gave birth to three more. Called the "grandmother of Europe" for all the royal lines she started or marriages she arranged, Eleanor was more than simply the power behind the throne. A duchess, or ruler, of the wealthy region of Aquitaine in southern France, Eleanor controlled a huge amount of land. She created a royal court at Poitiers, France, that sponsored such arts as music and poetry.

As queen she counseled her husbands and at times went to war against them. She was not the sort of woman to let fate control her. Instead, she gladly bid farewell to her ill-matched first husband, the king of France, and went head to head with her second husband, the fiery king of England. She helped raise armies for the Second Crusade (1147–49) and went along herself, dressed for battle. Eleanor lived a long and active life, traveling throughout Europe when it was more common for noblewomen to be hidden away in their castles. Though she lived in the twelfth century, she would also have fit in well in the twenty-first century.

An Aquitaine Heiress

Eleanor was born in 1122 in either Bordeaux or Belin, in southern France. She was the granddaughter of William IX of Aquitaine (1070–1127), a Crusader in the Holy Land during the First Crusade (1095–99), a religious war to free Jerusalem and the holy sites associated with Jesus from Islamic occupation. William brought back romantic tales of fighting and love in the Holy Land, which he set to verse and music. Among the first troubadours, or medieval noble poets of Europe, he ruled one of the most powerful and richest regions of France. During his lifetime, however, William IX paid more attention to the ladies and poetry than he did to keeping his duchy (region) intact. He went through two wives and finally took up with a married woman, whose daughter he married off to his own son, also named William. Upon the death of his father, William X (Eleanor's father) took over Aquitaine. His court was a very sophisticated (learned and cultured) one, where poets were sponsored, or encouraged to compose verse, and the idea of courtly, or polite, love for the ideal woman took hold. Eleanor was five when her father became duke of Aquitaine; she was his oldest child, and after the death of a brother, stood to inherit the duchy.

Eleanor was educated not only in poetry but also in the world of politics, for she would soon become the duchess. She went everywhere with her father, learning at his side. This childhood came to a sudden end in 1137 when William X died of food poisoning while he was making a pilgrimage (visit) to a European religious site. But William had already made plans for Eleanor that would take effect after his death. He knew the powerless status of a woman, and so he had his daughter put in the care of the French king Louis VI, or Louis the Fat. This king, who did not want to see the powerful lands of Aquitaine lost to France, immediately married Eleanor to his son and successor, Louis VII. This future king of France, however, had not been trained for royal duty. Before his older brother, Philip, was killed, Louis VII was planning to adopt a religious life. The strong-willed Eleanor and the stuffy, less active Louis were not a great match. The important thing at the time, however, was that Eleanor brought with her to the marriage the large region of Aquitaine.

Queen of France

In 1137 the couple had barely returned from their honeymoon when Louis the Fat died. Eleanor, who was only fifteen at the time, had in the space of one year become an orphan, the duchess of Aquitaine, a married woman, and the queen of France. Close to him in age yet more worldly than Louis, Eleanor became a powerful queen, advising her husband on political and religious matters. She ran into trouble with the church authorities when she pushed through her younger sister's marriage to an already married man. Eleanor talked Louis into backing her in this effort, and soon she had to deal with the powerful religious writer and preacher Bernard of Clairvaux (see entry), who opposed her. It was not until 1145 that Eleanor finally made peace with the church. That year she gave birth to her first child, a daughter she named Marie. Louis, however, had wanted a son to inherit the crown.

About this time, the Middle East forces of Islam were on the march against the Crusader states that had been set up after the First Crusade (1095–99). The powerful Turkish Muslim leader Zengi captured the Crusader city of Edessa in 1144. It was only a matter of time before the Muslims marched on Jerusalem itself. The current pope, Eugenius III, and Bernard of Clairvaux both preached a new Crusade, and Eleanor and Louis, having just patched things up with the church, answered the call. When the leaders of France gathered in the church at Vézelay in 1146 to listen to Bernard call for a new holy war, she knelt with the other nobles and knights and promised that they would fight the Muslims. For Eleanor this was not a matter of staying at home and waiting for her king to return. Instead, she gathered an army of three hundred noblewomen to join the men. Dressed in armor and riding horses, these women planned to take care of the wounded.

The Second Crusade got off to a miserable start. Despite his large army of twenty thousand soldiers, the German king Conrad III was quickly defeated by the Turks and lost most of his men. The French did not do much better, finally reaching the Crusader state of Antioch, where Eleanor's uncle, Raymond, ruled. This uncle, only a few years older than Eleanor, was a handsome, vital man, unlike Eleanor's husband. She openly complained about the king of France, protesting that although she thought she was marrying a man, what she got was a monk. Raymond was no monk. Soon rumors spread that the uncle and niece were romantically involved. When Raymond asked the French king to help him strike at the Muslims in their center of Aleppo, in Syria, and then retake Edessa, Louis refused, instead deciding to head straight for Jerusalem.

The Missing King

Unlike the First Crusade, a king, a queen, and an emperor actually took part in the Second Crusade. There was one person, however, who failed to show up for the Second Crusade. The legendary King Prester John supposedly tried to come to the aid of the Christians in the Holy Land but was unable to ford, or cross, the Tigris River with his army. Legend has it that he then took his army north because he had heard that the river froze in winter, and he and his troops could thus reach the other side by marching across the ice. He waited for several years, but no ice appeared. The weather was too warm, and his men began to die of fever in this strange climate. Finally, he had to return home to his kingdom, located somewhere in those regions of Asia not yet explored by westerners. Such, at any rate, was the tale told by Otto, bishop of Friesing, in 1145. Otto, in turn, had heard this story from others. It was the beginning of the tale of Prester John, who soon took on mythical importance in the West.

John was supposedly a Christian priest who ruled an enormously wealthy empire in Asia or perhaps Africa. His name appears in many forms: Priest John, Priester John, Presbyter John, and other similar-sounding titles. According to the stories that formed around him, he was an offspring of one of the Three Magi, or holy men, who brought gifts to Jesus when he was born. His distant kingdom had so many riches that, according to one version of the tale, he carried a solid-gold scepter (staff). According to another version, this same staff was carved from a large emerald. His was supposed to be the perfect Christian kingdom, and his people or subjects dearly loved Prester John, the perfect king. Unfortunately, he was unable to come to the aid of the Christians in the Second Crusade through no fault of his own. Thus the Crusaders had to go it alone. In the popular imagination the absence of this great Christian king explained the defeat of the Crusader army. Be that as it may, it was a convenient excuse at the time; many scholars have suggested that Prester John was invented to explain the terrible defeat of the Christian armies at the hands of the Muslims during the Second Crusade.

The legend of Prester John took on a life of its own, remaining in the minds of Europeans for several centuries. Letters addressed to the pope, supposedly from Prester John, even arrived in Rome, and the pope is said to have written back. Others claim that Prester John was actually a fictitious, or imaginary, combination of several real kings. Later, when the Mongols began moving out of Asia and attacking Islamic territories in the Middle East, Europeans thought these armies might be Prester John's Christians come to settle a score with the Muslims. By the fourteenth century Prester John's mythical kingdom had moved to Africa. Some maps even located it in present-day Ethiopia. Ironically, these tall tales of Prester John led some Europeans, like the explorer Marco Polo (c. 1254–1324), to develop an interest in Asia and attempt to make contact with the people living there.

When Eleanor learned of this refusal, she sided with her uncle against her husband and even began talking of leaving the king. She told Louis that she was going to stay in Antioch, but in the end the king kidnapped her and had her taken to Jerusalem. This was the beginning of the end of their marriage. Meanwhile, Crusader armies struck at Damascus, in Syria, where they were defeated. In 1149 Louis stayed in Jerusalem long enough to fight a bit and celebrate Easter, after which he and Eleanor sailed home to France on separate ships. Once again the couple tried to have a son, but when a second girl was born, the marriage was all but over. There was no such thing as divorce in the Middle Ages. Instead, Eleanor claimed that her bloodline and Louis's were too close, and in 1152 she had the marriage annulled, or officially cancelled, by the church. Two months later she remarried.

Queen of England

This time Eleanor married a much younger man known for his fiery and manly character. Henry Plantagenet, duke of Anjou, was eleven years younger than Eleanor and stood in line to inherit the English throne. To him, Eleanor, with her vast lands in Aquitaine, was a real prize despite their age difference. When Stephen, the current king of England, died in 1154, Henry became Henry II, king of England, and Eleanor was his queen. Thanks to his wife's land, Henry owned more of France than the king of France himself. Together Henry and Eleanor controlled the most powerful kingdom in the Christian West.

At first Eleanor and Henry were inseparable. She traveled with him throughout his lands, living much of the time in less-than-elegant conditions. In thirteen years she gave birth to eight children, five of them boys. But her husband soon showed that he could not be faithful, and his string of lovers and mistresses ruined their marriage. Eleanor left England in 1168 to return to her native Aquitaine, taking her favorite son, Richard I, the Lionheart (see entry), with her. There she turned away from politics for a time, enjoying the culture offered at her court. It is said that she was the originator, or founder, of what became known as "courts of love," where noblewomen would gather to judge the love poems recited by knights and other male nobles of the duchy.

Court life, however, was not enough to keep Eleanor's interest. She managed to persuade her absent husband to announce that his eldest son, who was also called Henry, would be the next king. He was crowned Henry III in 1170, though the father still held all the power. After three years, however, this son, his brother Richard I, and a third son named Geoffrey grew restless. Eleanor took their side against their father, and with the help of the French king they rose up against Henry II. The king of England quickly crushed this revolt and imprisoned his rebellious wife in various castles for the next sixteen years. These were hard times for Eleanor, who was used to being out in the world, traveling across Europe and even to the Holy Land. She survived this imprisonment, however, and was let go following the death of her husband in 1189. As Henry III had also died by this time, the crown went to Richard I, who freed his mother from her confinement. It was she, in fact, who arranged the celebrations for his coronation (crowning) in London.

During Richard's reign, Eleanor once again became a close adviser to a king. On his way home after fighting in the Third Crusade (1189–92) he was thrown in prison by his political rival, the Holy Roman Emperor. Eleanor managed to keep the kingdom together and fight off attempts by her youngest son, John, to steal the crown. She also arranged for the enormous ransom (payment for release of a prisoner) to be paid to the Holy Roman Emperor to free her son and personally delivered the money to Germany. When Richard I died suddenly in 1199, she stood behind her son John in the fight for the crown. He became king, although not a very good or kind one, yet Eleanor remained loyal to him. In her seventies she continued traveling around Europe arranging royal marriages. In her eighties she finally decided that it was time to slow down. She went to live at an abbey (religious institution for women) at Fontevrault, in the French region of Anjou, where she died in the spring of 1204. She was eighty-two, a very old age for a person living during the Middle Ages.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a woman far ahead of her time. She was not content simply to be the power behind her man. Instead, she took control herself, helping to recruit forces for the Second Crusade and to install her sons as kings of England. Much of the blame for the failure of the Second Crusade was put on her because of the huge supply train she needed for her three hundred female Crusaders. In reality, it was the infighting among the leaders of this Crusade, as well as poor planning, that were responsible for the failure. Eleanor went on to live a life full of adventure and personal sadness, outliving most of her children. A patron, or sponsor, of the arts as well as a powerful and beautiful woman, Eleanor was an early example of what women could accomplish in the world.

For More Information


"Eleanor of Aquitaine." In Historic World Leaders. Europe: A–K. Edited by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1994.

Gregory, Kristiana Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine. New York: Scholastic, 2002.

Meade, Marion. Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography. New York: Hawthorn, 1977.

Owen, D. D. R. Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen and Legend. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993.

Pernoud, Régine. Eleanor of Aquitaine. Translated by Peter Wiles. London: Collins, 1967.

Reston, James Jr. Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in theThird Crusade. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Seward, Desmond. Eleanor of Aquitaine. New York: Times Books, 1979.

Weir, Allison. Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.

Web Sites

"Eleanor of Aquitaine, 1122–1204." French-at-a-Touch.com.http://www.french-at-a-touch.com/French_History/eleanor_of_aquitaine.htm (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"Eleanor of Aquitaine." Notable Women Ancestors.http://www.rootsweb.com/~wa/aquit.html (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"Eleanor of Aquitaine." Women in World History.http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine2.html (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Troubadour's Daughter." The World of Royaltyhttp://www.royalty.nu/Europe/England/Angevin/Eleanor.html (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine." Sherwood Times.http://www.times1190.freeserve.co.uk/eleanor.htm (accessed on June 24, 2004).

"The Second Crusade." The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies.http://the-orb.net/textbooks/crusade/secondcru.html (accessed on April 24, 2004).

Eleanor of Aquitaine

views updated May 17 2018

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Born 1122

Died 1204

Queen of France and England

E leanor of Aquitaine was a rare individual indeed. As wife of Louis VII, she ruled France, only to divorce her husband and marry Henry of Anjou, who would later make her queen of England. Marriage may have gotten her into positions of power, but what Eleanor did with that power was her own special gift. Both shrewd and intelligent, she was a highly cultured woman who managed to stay atop the shifting political structures of Western Europe, and at the same time cultivated learning and the arts in her lands.

The court at Aquitaine

During her long and varied life, Eleanor often found herself (or in many cases, put herself) at the center of conflicts. It was perhaps a trait she learned from her father, Duke William X of Aquitaine in France. William dared to disagree with Bernard of Clairvaux (klayr-VOH; see entry), a religious leader who was perhaps the most powerful man in Western Europe—even more so than the pope, official head of the Catholic Church.

Besides the tendency to quarrel, an interest in the arts seemed to run in Eleanor's family. Her grandfather, William IX, became distinguished as a troubadour (TROO-buh-dohr), a type of poet in medieval France. Eleanor herself grew up surrounded by music and literature at her father's court, a French center of culture.

A powerful fifteen-year-old

In 1137, however, fifteen-year-old Eleanor was suddenly jolted from what might have been a quiet, easy life when her father died without a male heir. As his oldest child, Eleanor became not only duchess of Aquitaine, but countess of Poitou (pwah-TÜ). Any man who married her would control even more of France than the king did, and this put Eleanor in danger of kidnapping and forced marriage.

It so happened that before his death, William had asked the king to become Eleanor's guardian. Now King Louis VI (LOO-ee) took her under his wing in a way that also served his own interests, by arranging her marriage to his son, the future King Louis VII (c. 1120–1180; ruled 1137–1180). Shortly after the wedding, Louis VI died, making Eleanor—not yet sixteen years old—queen of France.

Queen of France

Louis VII seemed more suited to a career as a monk or priest than as king of France, and in fact he had been raised for a life in the church, and would never have become king if his older brother had not died in a riding accident. Thus Louis was not inclined to make trouble for the pope and other Catholic leaders, whereas Eleanor had a mind of her own.

Eleanor's younger sister Petronille (pet-roh-NEEL) was having an affair with Count Ralph of Vermandois (vayr-mun-DWAH), and she wanted to make an honest woman of herself by marrying him. The problem was that Ralph already had a wife, and divorce was not possible under church laws. The only way around this was to have a marriage annulled, or declared illegal, so Eleanor arranged this for her sister.

As it turned out, however, Ralph's former wife had powerful friends, not least of whom was the pope, who lashed out at France with all the power he had. This put Louis VII, a reluctant participant in the conflict, in a difficult position. Finally Bernard of Clairvaux stepped in and helped settle the dispute. He also advised Eleanor that if she would quit making trouble with the church, God would give her the thing for which she had long been hoping: a child.

The Second Crusade

Eleanor did stop quarreling with the church, and in 1145 she did give birth to a daughter, Marie. Shortly afterward, Bernard organized the Second Crusade (1147–49), an effort to win control of the Holy Land for Christian forces, and Louis took part as a means of winning back the favor of the church.

Eleanor went with him, and in the Syrian city of Antioch (AN-tee-ahk), an important crusader stronghold, she met her uncle, Raymond of Toulouse (tuh-LOOS). Raymond was only twelve years older than she, and they instantly became close. The nature of their relationship has long been disputed by historians; regardless of whether they became lovers, however, they were certainly close friends.

During their long hours talking, Raymond became the first person to learn of Eleanor's misgivings regarding her marriage. "I thought I had married a king," she told him, "but I find I have married a monk." Raymond suggested that she could obtain an annulment on the basis of consanguinity (kahn-sang-GWIN-i-tee)—blood relationship, or the fact that she and Louis were too closely related.

In fact medieval monarchs and nobles often married close relatives, but it made for a good excuse, and Eleanor announced to Louis that due to consanguinity and a desire to remain in Antioch with Raymond, she was not returning to France. Louis, however, forced her to return.

Divorce and remarriage

Despite the birth of a second daughter, not to mention help from the pope in sorting out their marital problems,

King John

Though he came from a distinguished family—son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, brother of Richard the Lion-Hearted—King John of England (1167–1216; ruled 1199–1216) was not a great man. Yet his very lack of greatness has benefited the world more than anything his more admirable relatives did: it was John's greediness and cruelty that caused the drafting of the Magna Carta (1215), one of the most important documents in the history of free government.

John was the youngest of Henry's sons, and in spite of the fact that from an early age he showed himself to be spiteful, childish, and domineering, he was his father's favorite. Henry had already promised most of his lands to his older sons, but he set about securing properties for John. The latter finally received dominion over Ireland, but mismanaged it so badly that he had to surrender control. In the meantime, Henry's attempts to grab land for John put him into conflict with his wife and other sons, who led a revolt against him. John himself joined in the revolt against his father, and this was a crushing blow to Henry, who died in 1189.

No sooner had Richard become king than he went away to take part in the Third Crusade (1189–92), leaving John as his heir if anything should happen to him. John lost no time in conspiring to take the throne, and when Richard heard about this, he tried to return from the crusade. On the way, he was kidnapped and taken prisoner in Austria, where he remained for two years. It is said that John actually sent letters to Richard's captors, asking them not to release him.

But the English nobility and their people, with whom Richard was very popular, raised the money for his ransom, and in 1194 Richard returned to England. Rather than deal harshly with John, however, Richard let him be. Five years later, in 1199, Richard died from an infected arrow wound, and John became undisputed king of England.

John proceeded to mismanage England as he once had Ireland, taxing the people so ferociously that many starved. Looking for a replacement, his nobles were willing to put their support behind John's nephew Arthur, count of Anjou, but in 1204 Arthur was murdered—some say by John himself. One person who claimed that John had committed the murder was the French king Philip, who used this as an excuse to take over most English holdings in France.

Forced back to England, John imposed even more heavy taxes on the people, and began robbing them of all their possessions as a way of adding to his fortunes. He also quarreled with the Roman Catholic Church, and eventually Pope Innocent III (see entry) placed a ban on all church activities—including weddings—in England. For six years, no church bells rang in the entire country.

This did not bother John, who helped himself to all lands formerly controlled by the church; but when he learned that France was about to launch an invasion against him, he turned to the pope for help. As a sign of repentance, he "gave" England to the pope, who could now demand huge taxes of the English people each year. By 1214, the church taxes alone were equal to nearly one-third of the nation's yearly income, and the burden became too much for the noblemen of England.

Lacking a replacement for John, the nobles decided they would set down some new rules. This they did in 1215 with the Magna Carta, or "Great Charter," a document containing sixty-three articles concerning the rights of the nobility. The noblemen forced John to sign it at a meeting in a meadow called Runnymeade along the banks of the Thames (TEMZ) River.

John had no choice but to sign the document, yet he spent the rest of his life—just one year, as it turned out—behaving just as he had before. Now, however, the English lords had a document spelling out their rights, and the obligations of the king. This led ultimately to the creation of Parliament, the body of representatives that today holds the real power in England. Thus the Magna Carta, originally designed to protect only the upper classes, became a model for government by the people, and later influenced the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Eleanor's marriage to Louis was doomed. In 1152, she left him, and soon afterward arranged to have her marriage annulled. As a woman possessing huge lands, however, she could not afford to remain unmarried for long; therefore just two months after the end of her first marriage, she married a man eleven years her junior, Henry, count of (ahn-ZHOO; 1133–1189).

Henry's mother Matilda was a grandchild of William the Conqueror (see entry), as was the reigning English king, Stephen. Stephen had usurped, or seized, the throne from Matilda, and Henry fought with him for control. The outcome was an agreement, the Treaty of Winchester (1153), which stated that when Stephen died, Henry would take the throne. Stephen died in 1154, and thus within two years, Eleanor went from being queen of France to queen of England.

Henry's accession to the English throne established the ruling House of Plantagenet (plan-TAJ-uh-net), destined to rule for nearly 250 years; and during much of that time, England and France would find themselves at war. The roots of the problem went back to the marriage of Henry and Eleanor, which combined the French duchies of Aquitaine and Anjou, and (following Henry's accession to the English throne) placed both of those territories under the rule of England. Thus the English royal house controlled more of France than the French crown did. Perhaps Eleanor could have eased things by asking the king's permission before marrying Henry—but since the king happened to be her ex-husband, she knew he would never give his consent.

Conflict between father and sons

Eleanor bore Henry numerous children over the years from 1153 to 1166, including four sons. During much of this time, Henry was away, overseeing his lands in France, and Eleanor ruled England as regent. Then in 1168, Henry returned full control of Aquitaine—the ruler of which he had become at the time of their marriage—to Eleanor, and she moved there.

The marriage with Henry had not turned out to be much happier than the one with Louis, though for opposite reasons. Certainly Eleanor could not accuse Henry of being monk-like: he was a lusty, battle-hardened warrior, an unfaithful husband and a selfish father.

In 1170, Eleanor persuaded Henry to follow a French custom and crown his eldest son Henry while he continued to reign. The father agreed to do so, but did not permit the son—who never lived to reign, and is known to history as Henry the Young King—to hold any power.

Eleanor became increasingly displeased with Henry's unwillingness to pass on the throne to one of their children. Therefore over the course of the 1170s and the early 1180s, she joined forces with Louis VII, who apparently let bygones be bygones, especially because he and Eleanor now had a mutual enemy. Together with her sons, they periodically waged war against Henry. But the king held on to power, and in 1186 he had Eleanor imprisoned in Salisbury Castle.

Richard and John

Eleanor spent three years in prison, gaining release upon Henry's death in 1189. For such a well-traveled and cultured person, those years of confinement were especially difficult—not to mention the fact that by now she was almost seventy years old. But Eleanor still had many good years left, and she devoted them to her sons—or rather to her eldest surviving son, Richard I (the Lion-Hearted; see entry).

Richard took the throne upon the death of his father, and Eleanor became his trusted (and very powerful) counselor. She oversaw Richard's affairs, arranging a beneficial marriage for him and in 1192 putting down a revolt led by another son, John (see box). When Richard was kidnapped following the Third Crusade, she ran the country, and it was she who delivered his ransom to Germany in the dead of winter, 1194. Therefore she was all the more devastated when Richard, having returned to England, died from an infected arrow wound in 1199.

This left John, who was as greedy and cruel as Richard was noble, on the throne. Though John was not Eleanor's first choice for king, he was all that she had left, and she supported him when Arthur of Anjou, one of her grandsons, tried to claim the throne. Despite her help, John proved a failure as a king, and lost most of the family's French possessions.

At least Aquitaine remained in Eleanor's control, and as her life drew to a close, she possessed little more than she had when it began. Still suffering from the loss of Richard, she went to live with the nuns at the abbey of Fontevrault (fawn-tuh-VROH), where her favorite son, Richard, and her second husband were buried. She died in the spring of 1204, at the age of eighty-two.

For More Information


Asimov, Isaac. The Shaping of England. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969.

Ayars, James Sterling. We Hold These Truths: From Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights. New York: Viking Press, 1977.

Brooks, Polly Schoyer. Queen Eleanor, Independent Spirit of the Medieval World: A Biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1983.

Davis, Mary Lee. Women Who Changed History: Five Famous Queens of Europe. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1975.

Kaplan, Zoë Coralnik. Eleanor of Aquitaine. Introduction by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Motion Pictures

The Lion in Winter. Columbia Tristar Home Video, 1968.

Web Sites

"Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England." [Online] Available http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Aegean/7545/Eleanor.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Female Hero: Eleanor of Aquitaine." Women in World History. [Online] Available http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine2.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Magna Carta." National Archives and Records Administration. [Online] Available http://www.nara.gov/exhall/charters/magnacarta/magmain.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

Eleanor of Aquitaine

views updated May 18 2018

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Queen of France and England


Eleanor’s Inheritance. The life of Eleanor of Aquitaine illustrates how the clever manipulation of family ties could enhance an aristocrat’s power in the Middle Ages. Although the several regions of twelfth-century France were nominally bound to the Capetian monarch in Paris, all but a few of the king’s vassals ruled their lands independently. The succession of the dukes of Aquitaine, the largest and most powerful of these regions, was therefore of great importance to the political balance of Western Europe. When William X of Aquitaine died in 1137 without a surviving male heir, his fifteen-year-old

daughter, Eleanor, inherited the duchy, thus beginning her career as one of the most politically influential women of the Middle Ages.

Queen of France. On his deathbed Eleanor’s father had entrusted her to the protection of King Louis VI, who promptly betrothed her to his son, the future Louis VII. When the elder Louis died in 1137, just a few days after the wedding, the teenaged Eleanor and Louis were crowned monarchs of a newly strengthened French kingdom. The temperament of the quiet and devout new king contrasted with that of his fiery wife, who had spent the last ten years not in a cloister, like her husband, but at the side of her well-traveled and worldly father. Louis VII was deeply impressed with Eleanor’s beauty and intelligence, and, since the young and inexperienced king was only a year older than his new queen, it was natural that she was able to exert great influence over him during the early years of his reign.

The Second Crusade. In 1147, responding to a papal bull encouraging France to defend Crusader holdings in the Holy Land, Louis VII traveled east to take part in the largely unsuccessful campaign now known as the Second Crusade. Eleanor, unwilling to be excluded from her husband’s affairs, insisted on going with him. The French company was met in Antioch by Eleanor’s charismatic uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, and, whether justified or not, rumors began to circulate that Raymond and Eleanor were having an affair. When a dispute between Raymond and Louis broke out, with Louis deciding to press on to Jerusalem rather than defend Antioch, Eleanor demanded that their marriage be annulled. Tensions between the French king and queen had existed even before this crusade, owing in part to the couple’s infertility: Eleanor had borne only one child, a daughter, in their first ten years of marriage. Eleanor was doubtless as unhappy as her husband about their lack of a male heir, since controlling a son would have been the surest way for her to secure her political influence. Then there were the temperamental differences between the two; Eleanor is said to have complained, “I married a monk, not a king.” Whatever the causes of their strife, by the time the two left for home in 1149—on separate ships—the dissolution of their marriage seemed inevitable. Divorce, of course, was not a canonical possibility, but annulments especially among the aristocracy were quite common in the Middle Ages. It had long been rumored that Eleanor and Louis were connected by distant ancestry, and their kinship in the fourth and fifth degrees was sufficient to allow an annulment on grounds of consanguinity. After an unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation following their return to France, Eleanor and Louis were finally separated in 1152.

Queen of England. After her virtual divorce from Louis VII, Eleanor regained control over her lands. Within two months she had secured a new alliance for Aquitaine with her marriage to Henry Plantagenet, who was not only lord of Normandy and Anjou in France but heir to the English throne. After the death of King Stephen in 1154, Eleanor and Henry II united their realms, becoming monarchs of the most powerful kingdom in western Christendom. Though her new husband was twelve years younger, Eleanor was not able to control him to the extent she had Louis VII. Eleanor’s resentment grew when Henry II began an open affair with the well-known beauty Rosamond, daughter of one of his knights. In early 1168 Eleanor, with her husband’s permission, left England and Normandy to establish a court at Poitiers.

Patroness of Art and Love. For at least two generations Eleanor’s family had been great patrons of the arts; her grandfather, himself a poet and musician, had been styled William “the Troubadour.” Eleanor carried on this tradition at Poitiers, which during these years became a meeting place for many of the greatest writers and troubadours of the twelfth century, including Bernart de Ventadour, Chretien de Troyes, Bertran de Born, and perhaps even Marie de France. Eleanor’s first daughter, by Louis VII, Marie de Champagne—to whom Chretien dedicated his famous romance of Lancelot—is believed to have come to her mother’s court as well, and the two are credited with founding the “courts of love,” tribunals in which noble ladies ruled on questions of romantic love and courtly etiquette. The best-known description of courtly love is Andreas Capellanus’s De Arte Honeste Amandi (The Art of Noble Love, circa 1185), the second book of which was based directly on the rulings of Eleanor and her daughter while at Poitiers.

Unsuccessful Rebellion. In the years before her move to Poitiers, Eleanor had given birth to three daughters and five sons by Henry. All the daughters were eventually wed to powerful kings or nobles from as far abroad as Sicily and Bavaria. Eleanor encouraged their sons to revolt against their father in 1173-1174. After the rebellion was put down, Henry II had Eleanor sent to his castle in Touraine. Unable to move from place to place without his permission, she spent the next sixteen years of her life in confinement at various castles.

Kings Richard and John. By the time of his death in 1189, Henry had been forced to acknowledge his eldest living son, Richard, as heir. The next year, Richard, later dubbed “the Lion-Hearted,” left for the Third Crusade, naming his mother as regent. The sixty-eight-year-old queen mother defended her favorite son’s lands against his brother John, who was plotting with Richard’s former ally Philip of France to depose his elder brother. After Richard’s return home from the Crusade in 1194, Eleanor retired for a time to the abbey of Fontevrault but entered politics again at Richard’s death in 1199. She helped secure the succession of her youngest son, John, serving as a powerful adviser and diplomat throughout the early years of his reign. Even at her advanced age she traveled throughout Europe preparing treaties and arranging marriages for her remaining relatives. Active to the end, Eleanor of Aquitaine died at Fontevrault in the spring of 1204.


Amy Ruth Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974).

Marion Meade, Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1977).

Desmond Seward, Eleanor of Aquitaine (New York: Times Books, 1979).

Eleanor of Aquitaine

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Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine (ca. 1122-1204) was queen of France from 1137 to 1152 and queen of England from 1154 to 1204. Her second marriage, which brought southwestern France to the English king, affected the relations of France and England for almost 300 years.

Eleanor was the elder daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and Aenor (Eleanor) of Châtellerault. William died on April 9, 1137. The marriage of his heiress was of great importance because Aquitaine was one of the largest fiefs of France. Probably in accord with her father's wish, Eleanor married Louis, son of King Louis VI (July 25, 1137); they were installed as rulers of Aquitaine at Poitiers (August 8) and crowned king and queen of France at Bourges on Christmas, Louis VI having died. The young king seems to have been fond of his beautiful wife, but Eleanor is said to have complained that she had married a monk and not a king.

In June 1147 Louis and Eleanor set out on a crusade, arriving at Antioch in March 1148. Here they quarreled, and the validity of their marriage was questioned. However, she and Louis reached home together. On March 21, 1152, their marriage was annulled on grounds of consanguinity. The King's wish for a male heir—Eleanor having borne two daughters—was probably the decisive reason.

Less than 2 months later Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, and soon to be king of England. They were crowned at Westminster on Dec. 19, 1154. Henry II was 11 years younger than his wife. Their marriage was a political match; he wanted her lands, and she needed a protector. Eleanor and Henry had eight children: William (1153-1156); Henry the "young king" (1155-1183); Matilda (1156-1189), who married Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony; Richard (1157-1199); Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany (1158-1186); Eleanor (1162-1214), who married Alfonso, King of Castile; Joanna (1165-1199), who married William ll, King of Sicily, and later Raymond, Count of Toulouse; and John (1167-1216).

Richard was regarded from an early age as heir to his mother's duchy. In 1168 she brought him to live there, maintaining a court centered at Poitiers. Though Richard was given the ducal title, Eleanor had both power and responsibility. Now she also had full opportunity to give patronage to poets and authors. This relatively happy period ended abruptly in 1173. Eleanor, goaded perhaps by Henry's unfaithfulness, allied with the king of France against him. Her young sons joined her; indeed, as the young Henry was already 18, he may have instigated the plot. King Henry crushed the rebels and forgave his sons but kept his wife in semi-imprisonment until he died.

With the accession to the English throne of her favorite son, Richard (called the "Lion-Hearted"), on Sept. 3, 1189, Eleanor resumed her royal position and regained control of her property. She arranged his coronation, and in the winter of 1190/1191 she traveled to Navarre to fetch his future wife, Berengaria, and escorted her to Sicily to join Richard before he left for Palestine. During his absence she worked with the Council of Regency in England, and she had the unpleasant task of helping to thwart the treachery of John, her youngest son. She received Richard's letters about his captivity and organized the collection of his ransom.

On Richard's sudden death (April 6, 1199), Eleanor supported John's claim to succeed to the English throne against that of her grandson Arthur of Brittany. She herself did homage to King Philip of France for Aquitaine, and she formally took control of the duchy.

In July 1202, when John and Philip were at war, Eleanor was besieged in the castle of Mirabeau by John's enemies, nominally led by her grandson Arthur. John defeated the besiegers and captured his nephew. His mother was able to spend her last months in freedom. She died on April 1, 1204, and was buried at the abbey of Fontevrault, where her effigy remains.

Further Reading

The best biography of Eleanor is Amy Ruth Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (1950). There are also Régine Pernoud's shorter and more romantic Eleanor of Aquitaine, translated by Peter Wiles (1967), and Curtis Howe Walker, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1950). These works must be used with caution because the sources do not reveal Eleanor's motives and opinions. □

Eleanor of Aquitaine

views updated Jun 11 2018

Eleanor of Aquitaine



Simplicity and Fine Taste.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of two kings and mother of two more, was born in 1122, the daughter of William X of Aquitaine, a large important duchy in southwestern France. At fifteen Eleanor married a relative soon to be King Louis VII (r. 1137–1180) of France but did not bear him male heirs, and he eventually divorced her in 1152 on the grounds of consanguinity (being too closely related). Eleanor remarried; with her new husband, Henry II of England (r. 1154–1189), count of Anjou and duke of Normandy, she had five sons. She brought to this marriage her lands of Aquitaine. In her roles as queen of France and queen of England, Eleanor was an important arbiter of taste, serving as a patron of the arts, rebuilding deteriorated religious houses, and financing the construction of the first church in the "gothic" style. She also supported manuscript illumination and fine book making and has been associated with the rise of courtly poetry, a literary form that focused attention on the beauty of women and their fashions. Though her son King John (r. 1199–1216) presided over a wealthy court that provided ample opportunities for extravagance of dress, Eleanor encouraged a rather plain style among the women of her court, demonstrating the importance of her influence. She died in 1204.


William Kibler, ed., Eleanor of Aquitaine: Patron and Politician (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976).

Bonnie Wheeler and John Karmi Parsons, eds., Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Eleanor of Aquitaine

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Eleanor of Aquitaine (c.1122–1204), queen of Henry II. Heiress to the vast duchy of Aquitaine, Eleanor first married Louis VII of France in 1137, but they were divorced in 1152, partly because they were temperamentally incompatible, but largely because Eleanor had produced only daughters. Aquitaine accordingly reverted to Eleanor. In 1152 she married Henry of Anjou, soon to be king of England, and over the next fifteen years bore him eight children. Their marital relations deteriorated, however, and this played a part in Eleanor's most significant decision in Henry's reign—to rebel against him in 1173 in support of her sons. Her plans misfired, she was captured by Henry, and until his death in 1189 was kept in close confinement, carefully watched, in England. On Richard I's accession, she was released and renewed her political life with relish, playing an important role during Richard's absence on crusade and then, on his death, crucially securing the loyalty of Aquitaine for John during the succession crisis of 1199–1200. She was very beautiful, very civilized, and a keen patron of the arts.

S. D. Lloyd

Eleanor of Aquitaine

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Eleanor of Aquitaine


French noblewoman and later queen who traveled to the Holy Land during the Second Crusade (1147-1149). Not only was she the best-known European woman to participate in a crusade—though not, of course, as a combatant—Eleanor also had the distinction of serving first as queen of France, and later of England. She married Louis VII of France and later divorced him to marry Henry of Anjou, who in 1154 became Henry II of England. Among their sons were Richard I (the Lion-Heart; 1157-1199) and King John of England (1167-1216).

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