Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204)

views updated

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204)

Europe's most famous medieval queen who wielded power and influence as queen of France and England, and was also an important patron of 12th-century troubadour poetry and courtly love literature. Pronunciation: ACK-ee-taine. Name variations: Aliénor.Born in 1122 in Bordeaux, France; died at the abbey of Fontevrault or Fontevraud, Anjou, France, on April 1, 1204; interred at Fontevraud Abbey, Maine-et-Loire, France; daughter of William X (b. 1099), duke of Aquitaine and count of Poitou, and Aénor of Châtellerault (d. 1130); sister ofAelith de Poitiers (c. 1123–?); married Louis VII, king of France (r. 1137–1180), in Bordeaux, in 1137 (marriage annulled 1152); married Henry Plantagenet, count of Anjou, later Henry II, king of England (r. 1154–1189), in 1152 (died in Chinon, 1189); children: (first marriage) Marie de Champagne (1145–1198); Alice (1150–c. 1197), countess of Blois; (second marriage) William (1153–1156); Henry (1155–1183), count of Anjou and duke of Normandy; Matilda of England (1156–1189); Richard I the Lionheart (1157–1199), king of England (r. 1189–1199); Geoffrey (1158–1186), duke of Brittany and earl of Richmond; Eleanor of Castile (1162–1214); Joanna of Sicily (1165–1199); John also known as John Lackland (1166–1216), king of England (r. 1199–1216).

Became queen of France at age 15 (1137); went on Second Crusade with Louis VII (1147); held influential literary court with her daughter Marie de Champagne; marriage to Louis annulled (1152); married Henry II of England (1152); incited her sons to rebel against Henry II (1173); imprisoned under "house arrest" (1173–89); governed as regent for Richard I (1189–94); traveled across Pyrenees at age 78 to obtain marriage alliance; died peacefully at abbey of Fontevrault (1204).

By the 12th century, the political power of medieval queens was beginning to decrease. Centralization of Europe's medieval kingdoms led to a growth of bureaucratic officers and institutions which contributed to a greater separation of the queen's household from the king's. Instead of coordinating and controlling the royal finances, as they had done in the past, medieval queens were increasingly pushed out of participating in the management of royal government. While this was true for most of Europe's royal wives, there was one exception: Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was born in 1122 at Bordeaux, the birthplace of European troubadours (medieval lyric poets) and the literature of courtly love. The daughter of William X of Aquitaine and Aénor of Châtellerault , Eleanor grew up surrounded by wealth and culture. Her grandfather, William IX, duke of Aquitaine, was one of the earliest troubadour poets on record, and Eleanor inherited not only his sarcastic wit and charm but also his love of poetry. In her later years, Eleanor was to be an extremely influential patron and protector of medieval poets. Little is known of Eleanor's mother who died when Eleanor was eight years old. Her father, however, had a significant impact on Eleanor's childhood. Tall, strong and quarrelsome, Duke William was—like his father before him—a well-educated, cultured man who patronized troubadours at his court. From her father, Eleanor inherited a strong will, a sense of independence and, more important, his lands. Most of her childhood was spent traveling through the duchy of Aquitaine with her father, where she was able to observe him interacting with the vassals and peasants who occupied some of the richest lands in France. Like all young women from the aristocracy, Eleanor was given an education. She was taught to read and write Latin as well as her own Provençal dialect. These were happy and influential years for her.

Aelith de Poitiers (c. 1123–?)

French noblewoman. Name variations: Petronilla. Born around 1123; death date unknown; daughter of William X, duke of Aquitaine, and Aénor of Châtellerault (d. 1130); sister of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204).

Aénor of Châtellerault (d. 1130)

Duchess of Aquitaine. Name variations: Aenor of Chatellerault; Anor; Aenor Aimery; Eleanor of Châtellerault. Born after 1107 (some sources cite 1103); died in Talmont, France, in 1130; daughter of Aimery, viscount of Châtellerault, and Dangereuse (mistress of William IX, duke of Aquitaine); married William X (1099–1137), duke of Aquitaine, in 1121; children: Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204); Aelith de Poitiers (born around 1123 and sometimes referred to as Petronilla); William de Poitiers (died in infancy, 1130).

Aénor of Châtellerault was the daughter of Dangereuse (La Maubergeonne) who had been abducted by William IX, duke of Aquitaine, and kept in a tower. She married William X, duke of Aquitaine, in 1121, and had two daughters: Eleanor of Aquitaine and Aelith de Poitiers . Aénor died when her children were quite young.

In 1137, however, Eleanor's life changed radically when her father died, at age 38, while on pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James at Compostella in Spain. Eleanor was now the richest heiress in Europe. The lands she inherited from her father stretched from the Pyrenees to the Loire and were larger than those held by the king of France. Her father had appointed the

French king, Louis VI, as her guardian, and King Louis knew that marriage to a woman such as Eleanor expanded not only a nobleman's territories but increased his economic and political power as well. Like virtually every other medieval noblewoman, 15-year-old Eleanor had very little choice as to the man she would marry. Shortly after her father's death, King Louis arranged for her betrothal to his own son, Louis (VII).

The king's son, unlike his father (who was popularly known as "Louis the Fat"), was a well-built, slender young man with blue eyes and long blond hair. Young Louis was the king's second son and consequently had been destined for a career in the church. After his older brother died from an accident, however, Louis was named as his father's successor and was removed from the monastery where he had spent his early childhood. Perhaps it was Louis' monastic upbringing which earned him the name "Louis the Pious." For much of the rest of his life, he was torn between his love for the quiet solitude of the cloister and his duty toward France. Humble and intelligent, he fell deeply in love with Eleanor as soon as he saw her. The young heiress was tall, gracious and regal, and her wit and charm easily captivated the 16-year-old prince. They were married soon after they met, on July 25, 1137, in the cathedral of Saint André at Bordeaux.

At 15, Eleanor of Aquitaine was now not only the richest landholder in Europe, but she was also the wife of the heir to the French throne. One month after her marriage, the old king died and she became queen of France. The newly crowned monarchs moved to Paris, where young King Louis continued his father's policy of extending royal authority throughout France. Eleanor's early years at the French royal court were spent learning Parisian French and listening to the lectures given by nearby university students. The first years of their marriage appeared happy, although Eleanor was becoming increasingly worried because she had not yet become pregnant. She was aware, as were all medieval queens, that one of her most important duties was to give birth to the next heir. She finally visited the king's confessor, Abbe Suger, who advised her to pray for an end to her barren state. Her prayers were answered in 1145 when she gave birth to a daughter, whom she christened Marie (de Champagne ), as thanks to the Virgin Mary who had so blessed her.

Shortly after, Pope Eugenius III asked King Louis to go on a crusade to the Holy Land. Louis, understandably, felt deeply about his duty to take up the cross and straightaway began to prepare for his journey. Eleanor also expressed a strong desire to participate, and, consequently, in June 1147 the king and queen left France for the Holy Land. It was not unusual for women to accompany their husbands on crusade, and, in the early expeditions, many women helped build fortifications, haul supplies and weapons, and some of them even fought on occasion. Nonetheless, Eleanor's company of 300 women soon gave rise to unfounded rumors and legends that likened them to the Amazons. The crusaders' first stop was Constantinople, where Eleanor was captivated by the bright clothes, the vitality, and the exotic sights, smells and sounds of Byzantine culture. Their next port of call was Antioch, where Eleanor's young uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, provided them with entertainment and protection.

An incomparable woman; beautiful yet gracious, strong-willed yet kind, unassuming yet sagacious.

—Roger of Devizes

Eleanor was feted by Raymond, and the time they spent together was thoroughly enjoyable for both. Her obvious preference for her uncle's company, however, inevitably led Louis to misinterpret their relationship, and rumors of an affair between the two did nothing to allay the king's suspicions. It was a difference in plans that finally led to an irrevocable breach between the king and queen. Raymond suggested that they combine forces and attempt to recover Montferrand from the Turks. Louis, however, refused to embark on an any military campaigns until he had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Eleanor sided with her uncle, and, when Louis angrily announced that he was proceeding to Jerusalem immediately, Eleanor refused to accompany him. Louis asserted his authority and, displaying his famous temper, forcibly dragged Eleanor from her uncle's palace.

Louis' behavior was entirely unacceptable to Eleanor, who refused to be bullied by anyone, and the couple were never close again. When they finally reached Jerusalem, the king's forces attempted to storm Damascus and failed. Beaten and dejected, Louis and Eleanor returned home to France in the spring of 1149. Although their marriage was clearly failing, they attempted a brief reconciliation, and in the summer of 1150 Eleanor gave birth to a second daughter, Alice . Her failure to provide a male heir to the throne, however, widened the rift between them, and they began to quarrel more frequently. The end finally came when they were granted an annulment on March 21, 1152, on the grounds of consanguinity. Eleanor's lands were returned to her, and, unlike the circumstances of her first marriage, she chose her second husband herself.

Her sights were set on Henry Plantagenet, count of Anjou and duke of Normandy (future Henry II of England), whom she had met the previous summer. Although she had made her decision, Eleanor was still in danger of being unable to carry it out. Medieval heiresses, especially rich ones like Eleanor, were in peril whenever they traveled about the countryside. Unscrupulous suitors had no qualms about capturing a rich heiress and forcing her into marriage. Eleanor herself narrowly escaped capture from no less than two overanxious swains when she returned home to Bordeaux shortly after her first marriage ended. She was successful in eluding them, however, and at age 29 married 18-year-old Henry Plantagenet in May 1152, two months after her annulment from Louis.

Although 11 years her junior, red-haired and blue-eyed Henry was her intellectual and physical equal. Throughout his life, he exhibited a relentless energy that suited his strong, stocky physique. Like Eleanor, he could read and write Latin as well as French and Provençal. With this marriage and their combined lands, they now controlled the entire area of Western France. When Henry succeeded Stephen of Blois as king of England in 1154, Eleanor was able to add queen of England to her illustrious list of titles.

Alice (1150–c. 1197)

Countess of Blois. Name variations: Alisa; Alix; Alice Capet. Born in 1150; died around 1197; daughter of Louis VII, king of France (r. 1137–1180), and Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204); sister of Marie de Champagne (1145–1198); married Thibaut or Theobald V, count of Blois, around 1164; children: Louis Blois; Isabel de Blois; and possibly Marguerite, countess of Blois (r. 1218–1230).

During the early years of their marriage, Eleanor was actively involved in political life. She and Henry traveled continuously in both France and England, crossing the Channel frequently to dispense justice throughout their sprawling empire. Henry was determined to restore law and order in England after the past 25 years of civil war, and both he and Eleanor worked to improve the efficiency of English government by creating new bureaucratic institutions. Eleanor acted as regent for her husband in England whenever he was in France, and, as the feudal lord of Aquitaine and Poitou, she assumed the governance of those lands for 65 years. Historian Amy Kelly has aptly summarized the first decade of their marriage:

They had founded a dynasty, established an empire, fortified its frontiers with strong castles, made it proof against arms, filled it with treasure, and enlivened it with learning and the arts. Abruptly, invincibly, they had altered the map, the balance of power, and the destiny of peoples.

During these busy years, Eleanor also fulfilled what was perhaps the most important task of a medieval queen: to produce an heir to the throne. Between 1152 and 1166, Eleanor gave birth to a child almost every year. Of the eight children from her marriage to Henry, only one did not survive into adulthood, while two of her sons became future kings (Richard the Lionheart and John), and two of her daughters future queens (Eleanor of Castile . and Joanna of Sicily ). She rarely saw her children during their early years, although she later grew to depend and look upon Richard as her favorite.

While she divided her time between France and England, Eleanor's favored residence was in her beloved Aquitaine which centered upon her court at Poitiers. Here, she established what became one of the most famous and influential cultural centers in 12th-century Europe. With her daughter Marie de Champagne, Eleanor gathered together a brilliant circle of poets and troubadours. Both mother and daughter were significant patrons of a new form of vernacular literature that emphasized love and chivalry while utilizing feudal and religious imagery. The literature of courtly love, as it came to be known, concentrated on the love of a young knight for a married noblewoman who, while ostensibly rejecting his amorous overtures, nonetheless imposes various trials upon him which he cheerfully endures in order to prove his love for her. Unlike the majority of medieval literature, courtly love exalted women and promoted the notion that love for a woman was not destructive (as church fathers taught) but was the inspiration for heroic deeds. Although courtly love literature was restricted to women of the upper classes, it provided an alternative to the misogyny which pervaded the majority of medieval literature. Eleanor and her daughter encouraged the development of this new literature and patronized some of the most famous 12th-century poets and troubadours including Bernard de Ventadour, Bertran de Born, Marie de France , and Chretien de Troyes. It was at Marie de Champagne's court that Andreas Capellanus formulated his code of rules for courtly love, the Ars Amandi (The Art of Love). According to the rule, men were required to act courteously, avoid vulgar language, dress well and be well-groomed, all of which were completely new ideas for the knightly class. The courts of Eleanor and Marie were centers of female influence where women held the balance of power. Their influence on European culture lasted well beyond the 12th century.

While Eleanor was successfully ruling over her lands in France, Henry II was faced with his own political problems which centered on his attempts to dominate the church in England. By 1170, the situation reached a breaking point when Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered at the altar of his own cathedral by four of Henry's officials. Relations between the queen and her husband had also begun to deteriorate after the birth of her last child, John, in 1166. Not only did the king begin to restrict her governing powers, but he publicly flaunted his adulterous relationship with his mistress, Rosamund Clifford . According to later medieval legend, Eleanor was supposed to have hired a sorcerer to drain the blood of her rival.

The king was also experiencing difficulty maintaining amicable relations with his sons. In 1169, he divided his vast empire among three of them (John, the youngest, was excluded, thus earning him the nickname "Lackland"), and in 1170 he crowned his eldest son Henry as king-elect. Unfortunately, young Henry reacted by complaining that his new title was an empty one and that his father was preventing him from assuming independent rule over his lands. Matters came to a head in 1173 when young Henry rebelled against his father with the full support of Eleanor and his two brothers, Richard and Geoffrey. The rebellion was quickly suppressed, and Henry II graciously pardoned his sons for their attempt to seize his crown. The king, however, was not willing to forgive Eleanor who had been captured, while dressed as a man, trying to escape. For a brief time, Henry considered divorcing her, but then he realized that he would lose her lands in Aquitaine and Poitou by taking such action. Failing to coerce her into retiring into a nunnery, he placed his 53-year-old wife in prison. For the next 15 years, Eleanor of Aquitaine was kept in close confinement (or "house arrest") in Salisbury Castle where she was allowed out periodically to attend family gatherings or to receive homage from her Aquitaine vassals.

Despite her situation, Henry was never able to break his wife's strong and independent spirit. His policy of playing his sons off against one another proved successful until 1186, when the aging king was no longer able to cope with their political maneuverings. In 1188, Richard allied himself with the French king Phillip II Augustus and by the summer of 1189 the king, tired and ill, was forced to capitulate to their demands. He died shortly after, a broken man.

For Eleanor, her husband's death signalled the end of her long imprisonment and the resurgence of her political power when she assumed the regency for her son Richard. An English chronicler described her position:

Queen Eleanor, who for many years had been under close guard, was entrusted with the power of acting as regent for her son. Indeed he issued instructions to the princes of the realm, almost in the style of a general edict, that the queen's word should be law in all matters.

Eleanor took her duties seriously and traveled throughout England transacting court and financial business, as well as receiving oaths of homage to her favorite son. As a former prisoner, one of her first acts as regent was to free all unjustly imprisoned English women and men.

Despite his great popularity, Richard the Lionheart spent virtually all of his ten-year reign outside England. One month after his coronation, he set off to fight in the Third Crusade, leaving Eleanor behind in England to rule in his absence. At 67, the aging queen had lost neither her boundless energy nor her political savvy. She arranged for the marriage of Richard to Berengaria of Navarre and personally went to retrieve the bride at Pamplona. Richard had now been away for three years, but on his way home to England he was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria who demanded a huge ransom for his release. Only a woman of Eleanor's fortitude and dedication would have been successful in coaxing the amount of money that was needed from Richard's already over-burdened English subjects. After obtaining the vast sum of money, the queen traveled in person to deliver it and accompany her son home. Celebrations for the king's return centered on his second coronation in 1194 which Eleanor had arranged. One month later, however, Richard left England for Normandy, leaving the archbishop of Canterbury at the head of the government. Eleanor accompanied her son to France, and neither of them ever set foot in England again.

Eleanor retired to her favorite abbey at Fontevrault where she lived a peaceful life for the next five years. Fontevrault was known as a safe-haven for widows and ill-used wives of the aristocracy, and throughout her life Eleanor supported the monastery with large gifts and endowments. This peaceful existence was disrupted in 1199 when Richard was wounded during a siege at Châlus. The elderly queen rushed to the deathbed of her favorite son and held him in her arms as he died. Grief-stricken, Eleanor was unable to mourn peacefully as she was concerned to secure the succession of her youngest son, John. Although Richard had designated John as his successor, John's right to the throne was challenged by his 12-year-old nephew Arthur, count of Brittany. Eleanor traveled throughout her French lands, ensuring support for John, and, with the support of his mother and the majority of the English and Norman barons, he was crowned king of England on May 27, 1199.

One year later, in an effort to secure the Angevin dynasty that she had been so influential in building, Eleanor arranged and supervised the marriage of her granddaughter, Blanche of Castile , to the French dauphin Louis (IX). In order to fulfill her goal, the 78-year-old queen crossed the Pyrenees in winter to fetch the young bride. Upon her return to France, she was still unable to rest peacefully as she was determined to defend Aquitaine against her grandson, Arthur of Brittany, who attempted to claim it for France. She successfully withstood a siege at Mirebeau until John appeared and finally took Arthur prisoner in 1202. Eleanor was finally able to retire to Fontevrault, where she died peacefully two years later in April 1204, at age 82.


Kelly, Amy. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. NY: Vintage Books, 1958.

Rosenberg, M.V. Eleanor of Aquitaine. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1937.

Seward, Desmond. Eleanor of Aquitaine. NY: Dorset Press, 1978.

suggested reading:

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

Warren, W.L. Henry II. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973.

related media:

King John by William Shakespeare.

The Lion in Winter (134 min.), film starring Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Peter O'Toole as Henry II, directed by Anthony Harvey, 1968.

Margaret McIntyre , Instructor in Women's History, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

About this article

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204)