Eleanor of Aquitaine: the worst royal mother-in-law?
She was one of the most powerful women in the Middle Ages, queen of both England and France and mother of two kings. She dominated the political arena during their reigns, but, asks Dr Gabrielle Storey, does that mean she dominated her son’s wives too?
Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of the most famous queens of medieval Europe. Since the chroniclers began to write about her, the only woman to be queen of both France and England has been surrounded by myths and legends, including scandals involving her alleged, though disproven, affairs with her future father-in-law Geoffrey of Anjou, and her uncle Raymond, prince of Antioch. As she is nearly always seen in the role of a ruling matriarch, what has not been thoroughly uncovered is her relationships with her daughters-in-law.
The notion that Eleanor of Aquitaine, as dowager queen, retained complete dominance over her sons’ wives has become fixed in public opinion, but was she really England’s worst mother-in-law?
My research focuses on the lives of Eleanor and her daughters-in-law Berengaria of Navarre and Isabella of Angoulême, and their roles as co-rulers with their husbands or sons and as potential competitors with one another. In particular, the relationship of Eleanor and Berengaria, one of England’s most neglected medieval queens – in part due to the fact she never visited England as queen consort – have remained obscured from public perception. Berengaria’s absence from the historical record has often been explained away by Eleanor’s dominance during the reign of her son Richard I, Berengaria’s husband.
Berengaria’s absence from the historical record has often been explained away by Eleanor’s dominance
As ever, things are more complex than they appear on the surface. The two women met in the spring of 1191, when Eleanor arrived at the Navarrese court to escort Berengaria to Sicily to meet her future husband. The marriage, it has been argued, occurred at Eleanor’s behest, although the importance of Navarre as an ally to the Angevins against the counts of Toulouse, whose lands abutted the Aquitanian border, cannot be underestimated. Their journey across the Alps and through Italy was largely uneventful, and Berengaria travelled onwards to Sicily as Eleanor returned to the Angevin domains.
Berengaria accompanied Richard as part of the Third Crusade, alongside his sister Joanna, former queen of Sicily. Their marriage on 12 May 1191, at Limassol, Cyprus, was a moment of symbolic significance. Berengaria was crowned the same day, thus marking her status as the new queen consort of England and displaying her potential for power and rule. While the events were recorded by the Angevin chroniclers, given the event was far outside the Anglosphere it had little real impact on the lives of those in the Angevin territories.
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We know little of the two queens’ activities during this time, but know that they travelled back to western Europe in 1193, as their presence is recorded in Rome where they witnessed a loan transaction, the only evidence of Berengaria’s political activity whilst queen consort. After this, it is assumed that she took up residence, possibly at Chinon, where she remained for the rest of her reign.
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Eleanor, on the other hand, was busy working with Richard’s councillors and government to ensure the running of the domains and to raise the ransom when Richard was captured by Leopold V, duke of Austria, and then sold as a captive to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. Berengaria may have been involved with the raising of these funds, however little evidence survives to support this.
Upon Richard’s return to England, he was re-crowned at Winchester Cathedral on 17 April 1194, with his mother by his side. This moment has been used by many historians to demonstrate Eleanor’s importance and dominance. It raises the question: why was this opportunity not used to show Berengaria to the English populace and demonstrate her importance as queen?
Eleanor’s continued rule across the Angevin domains is owed to many factors. It made political sense, given her lengthy experience as queen of both England and France, and duchess of Aquitaine, to leave her as a regent in England while Richard was on crusade. She was more capable of dealing with the fractious neighbours and nobility that resided in their territories, as well as Richard’s troublesome brother, John.
Her continued influence as dowager queen, in contrast to the perception that older royal women had lessened importance and power, was primarily due to her receipt of revenues apportioned to the queen consort and her status as duchess of Aquitaine. Without Eleanor, it was difficult to subdue the Aquitanian nobles, as Henry II, Eleanor’s second husband, had found to his cost.
The lack of evidence for Richard and Berengaria’s relationship, and the shortness of time they spent together, suggests the reason why they never produced an heir. It is also possible that marital disharmony was at play. The control of Richard over Berengaria politically, and his decision to position Eleanor as the most important woman in the land, ensured that Berengaria was left out from diplomatic affairs – not ostracised per se, but not intertwined with her marital family either.
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Berengaria came to prominence shortly after Richard’s death in 1199, whereby she began a 26-year battle for the income from her dower lands, granted upon her marriage for her subsistence both during and after her tenure as queen consort. She exchanged her Norman dower lands with the king of France, Philip Augustus, in 1204, for the patrimony of Le Mans, of which she later became known as ‘Lady’, though she rarely used the title in her charters. No evidence survives of her interactions with Eleanor after this point, but we know that they both attended Richard’s funeral at Fontevraud Abbey, Chinon.
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Other than her communications with the Plantagenets for the restitution of her queenly revenues, Berengaria appears to have had little interaction with her marital family in her dowager period, presumably content to have resided in and administer Le Mans. One economic obstacle was eventually removed with Eleanor’s death in 1204, but her sister-in-law, Isabella of Angoulême, was also owed queenly revenues and her husband, John, like his brother, did not focus on ruling with his wife.
So was Eleanor England’s worst royal mother-in-law? Her continued activities during Richard and John’s reigns as a virtual queen consort, rather than as a dowager queen, certainly pushed her daughters-in-law to the side, leaving them with little opportunity to exercise power without access to queenly revenues. While the personalities of historical figures remain forever unknown to us, much has been made previously of Eleanor being dominant and Berengaria being a timid or shadow figure by comparison.
The decisions made by Richard must also be held to account. He did little to ensure Berengaria had opportunities to shine as queen consort, neglecting her – as he did many of his kingly duties – to focus on being a military hero. With no income and little marital support, as well as disinterested natal and marital families, Berengaria merely endured her tenure as queen consort.
Eleanor viewed her daughters-in-law, Berengaria included, as part of the grand Angevin dynasty, and does not appear to have been especially kind or welcoming to them, lacking the maternal kindness she demonstrated to her own daughters. This is but one part of a gripping and enduring tale of the Angevin dynasty.
Dr Gabrielle Storey is a historian specialising in Angevin queenship, gender and sexuality. Her forthcoming books include a biography of Berengaria of Navarre and a comparative study of the Angevin mothers and daughters-in-law