The real Eleanor of Aquitaine: 5 myths about the medieval queen

Sara Cockerill explodes five of the myths that have grown up around one of medieval Europe's most remarkable women…

Eleanor of Aquitaine depicted in a 12th-century prayer book

The CV of Eleanor of Aquitaine (c1122–1204) is one you wouldn’t dare to make up. An heiress to half of France at 13, who became queen, first of France (as wife of Louis VII) and then of England (thanks to her marriage to Henry II). A survivor of battles on crusade, and in France of at least four abduction attempts. A wife divorced by Louis for barrenness, who bore at least 10 children. A mother of three kings (Henry the Young King, Richard I and John) and two queens, not to mention the great-grandmother of two saints. A reputed rebel against Henry, and his prisoner for 15 years, who ruled his lands for her sons. A woman who, at 80, commanded the defence of a castle against the attacks of her own grandson, Arthur of Brittany.

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Eleanor was truly one of the most remarkable women in medieval history. But she was also one of the most inaccurately portrayed, as the following examples demonstrate…


1

Why tales of Eleanor’s serial infidelity are wide of the mark

The image of Eleanor as a serially unfaithful sensualist underpins many portrayals of her. The two major accusations are that Eleanor was not just unfaithful to her first husband, Louis VII, but incestuously so. It’s claimed that she had an affair with her uncle Raymond of Antioch while on the Second Crusade and/or that she had slept with her second husband Henry II’s father, Geoffrey ‘the Handsome’ of Anjou – either on crusade or at court. Other later suggestions for the victims of Eleanor’s lusts are William Marshal (the knight and statesman who famously served five English kings), and the formidable Muslim warrior-king – and scourge of the crusaders – Saladin.

The accusation that comes nearest to having any foundation at all in the sources is the one relating to Raymond. But it is actually not until more than 30 years later that the allegation of infidelity was levelled at Eleanor – and then by chroniclers of questionable reliability working for Henry, who by this stage had imprisoned Eleanor and had an axe to grind. 

What seems to have happened is that Eleanor and Raymond spent rather too much time in family and political discussion, to the intense displeasure of Louis, who is known to have been jealous of his wife. Eleanor sided with her uncle over the crusade’s itinerary and fell out badly with Louis on that, his failures as a war leader – and possibly also as a husband. 

Eleanor of Aquitaine with Louis VII of France
Eleanor of Aquitaine with Louis VII of France, who had their marriage annulled on technical grounds, but in reality because she had borne him no sons, only two daughters. (Image by AKG Images)

Eleanor ultimately demanded an annulment of their marriage, to which she was technically entitled on the grounds of their close familial links. Louis flatly refused and constrained her to leave Antioch – in essence he kidnapped her. Unsurprisingly this could not be kept quiet and gave rise to much gossip, in which Eleanor’s name was inevitably – and without foundation – linked with that of Raymond in scandalous terms. 

The Geoffrey of Anjou story surfaces at just the time when Henry II was unsuccessfully seeking to divorce Eleanor – in the fall-out from her siding with their sons during the revolt of 1173–74 (see box 3) – and can be traced straight back to him. In short, it just doesn’t add up: Geoffrey was not on the crusade and no source at the time gives any whiff of such a scandal. 

The other candidates are delightful inventions of the later ‘Black Legend’, which surrounded Eleanor from early in the 13th century. The first, it seems, didn’t emerge until Elizabethan times, and ignores the limited time that Marshal was actually in the same location as Eleanor. As for Saladin, he was 10 years old when Eleanor was on crusade, and living in Damascus – which Eleanor never visited.

2

Did Eleanor put personal gain before her children?

Eleanor was a bad mother – that appears to be a universally acknowledged ‘truth’. She abandoned her daughters by Louis first to go on crusade and then because she was determined to secure an annulment from her first husband. She dumped her youngest two children by Henry in Fontevraud Abbey. Her sons’ rebellion against Henry was a consequence of her poor care. In fact, about the best thing that historians are prepared to say about Eleanor’s maternal qualities is that being a distant mother was a norm for her time and station.

But unpick the evidence and what do we see? The law as it stood dictated that Eleanor had no right to her own children after the annulment. Yet Marie and Alice, her daughters, both show some signs of retaining fond memories of Eleanor. Marie later befriended her half-siblings, while a work written by her chaplain features Eleanor. Alice’s daughter became one of the intimates of Eleanor’s old age.

The best thing that historians are prepared to say about Eleanor’s maternal qualities is that being a distant mother was a norm for her time

As for Eleanor’s children by Henry, the financial records demonstrate that she usually kept them with her, even as she travelled. The ‘abandonment’ of John and Joanna at Fontevraud is debatable. If it occurred at all, it is explained by security considerations – Eleanor’s rule in Poitou (in western France) came at a time when her vassals were up in arms and her military adviser there was murdered in front of her.

There’s no denying that the relationship between Eleanor’s sons was dysfunctional. Yet all of them provided clear evidence of their affection for their mother: her oldest surviving son, Young Henry, interceded for her on his deathbed; Richard I left her in charge of his empire while he was on crusade, and summoned her more than 100 miles to his deathbed; Geoffrey named a daughter for her – as did King John, whose most successful military venture was rescuing Eleanor from a siege.

Richard I and Joanna, queen of Sicily, greet French king Philip Augustus
Eleanor’s son Richard I and daughter Joanna, queen of Sicily, greet French king Philip Augustus. Eleanor was closer to her children than some historians have suggested, argues Sara Cockerill. (Image by Alamy)
3

There’s little evidence that Eleanor incited her sons’ revolt

The portrayal of Eleanor as a determined rebel against Henry II is a tenacious one, and dates from shortly after her sons’ ‘Great Revolt’ against their father in 1173–74. For 10 or so years after the failure of that rebellion, chroniclers suggested that Eleanor had supported or even incited it. In later years, writers, including Shakespeare, widely blamed Eleanor for leading her three rebellious sons – Henry the Young King; the future Richard I; and Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany – astray. 

Yet a raft of evidence suggests that Eleanor was far from central to the revolt. In the first place, the timeline of the rebellion does not fit this theory. It started with ‘the Young King’ and his associates, far from Eleanor’s powerbase in Poitou. Secondly those rebels who did hail from Poitou/Aquitaine were predominantly the same people who had seized every opportunity to make life difficult for Eleanor’s ‘foreign’ husbands in the past. 

The portrayal of Eleanor as a determined rebel against Henry II is a tenacious one

Finally, nowhere is there any clear account of Eleanor’s involvement in the rebellion – despite the fact that Henry had many authors in his pay, and a strong motivation to bolster his case for a divorce. There is no hint that – like the formidable Petronilla, Countess of Leicester – she rode into battle. In fact, the most reliable chroniclers’ careful wording suggests that they doubt tales of her active participation: they speak cagily in ‘it is said’ and ‘one hears’ terms. 

Even Henry’s own ‘pen for hire’, Peter of Blois, never accuses Eleanor of rebellion – or even of encouraging the uprising. His only complaint was that Eleanor remained in Poitou and didn’t rush to her husband’s aid. At most, the evidence suggests that, after the rebellion had started, Eleanor assisted her younger sons to escape Henry’s lands and then refused to deliver herself up to her husband.

4

The tales that Eleanor waged a lifelong war on the clergy seem decidedly shaky

For centuries, biographers have revelled in portraying Eleanor as a woman at odds with the patriarchy, particularly when that patriarchy took the form of the church. We’re told that she loathed Thomas Becket, berated Pope Celestine III, and drew criticism from prominent clergymen such as Bernard of Clairvaux.

Yet, in reality, Eleanor enjoyed close ties to distinguished churchmen throughout her life. Among them was Geoffrey de Loroux, archbishop of Bordeaux, who became Eleanor’s guardian on her father’s death, arranged her first marriage (and later annulment), and remained a key supporter until his own death. Meanwhile, contemporary records show that Eleanor corresponded with Bernard of Clairvaux amicably – he speaks of her “most famous generosity and kindness”.

There’s little reason to believe that Eleanor hated Becket. In fact, what evidence we do have suggests that she supported him to a limited extent – and certainly didn’t encourage her husband Henry in his dispute with the archbishop. She was also a correspondent of Cardinal Hyacinth Bobone, Becket’s most reliable supporter on the continent. On one occasion, Eleanor and her mother-in-law, Empress Matilda, jointly interceded with Henry on behalf of Becket’s allies.

There’s little reason to believe that Eleanor hated Becket. In fact, what evidence we do have suggests that she supported him to a limited extent

And what of claims of disagreements between Eleanor and Pope Celestine III? These rest on the so-called “Eleanor, by the wrath of God” letters, in which she apparently rebuked the pontiff. However, it has long been known that these letters are absent from the papal records. They were written, in fact, by Peter of Blois, probably as show pieces. Add to this the fact that Pope Celestine III was actually Eleanor’s friend, the aforementioned Hyacinth Bobone, and the case for this clash disappears in a puff of smoke.

In reality, Eleanor enjoyed good relations with the church, often describing herself in her correspondence with churchmen as “humble Queen of England”. When Henry sought a divorce from her, he had every reason to expect that the ecclesiastical authorities would mandate it. Yet instead, they set their face against him.

5

Eleanor’s life was remarkable – but far from unique

Eleanor of Aquitaine is often described as a woman beyond compare, a feminist heroine – to one scholar, the first heroine of the feminist movement. The popular consensus is that the power she exercised was unique, in an era when women’s roles were marginal, powerless – even servile. 

Over the past 50 years or so, however, this theory has been debunked thoroughly. Evidence has been building steadily that Eleanor was far less of an outlier than previous generations of historians have had us believe. If she is exceptional, it’s only in the amount of publicity that her story has generated over the past eight centuries. 

Eleanor of Aquitaine with Henry II
An illustration shows Eleanor with Henry II, who ceded power to his wife increasingly sparingly. (Image by Alamy)

Firstly, it wasn’t unusual for women to inherit vast tracts of land in the southern counties of France. And she was far from the only 12th-century queen to wield power in Europe and the Holy Land: her hostess on crusade was Melisende, the ruling queen of Jerusalem. At the time of Eleanor’s birth, Urraca of Léon called herself ‘Queen of all the Spains’, while Eleanor’s own cousin, Petronilla, would become queen of Aragon on the Iberian peninsula.

And, beyond the biographers’ stereotypes, it appears that Eleanor exercised little power during her time as queen of France. Even in her ‘own’ lands, her role was confined to merely confirming her husband Louis’ acts. 

It’s true that she had a lot more influence as the wife and queen of Henry II. But that influence was limited and supervised – even as regent she was hemmed in by Henry’s nominated ‘advisers’. Over time, Henry gradually whittled down the limited powers he’d ceded to her, until she was not even issuing confirmatory charters over her own lands.

All that changed, of course, when Henry died and his sons – first Richard, then John – sat upon the English throne. Eleanor ruled on Richard’s behalf during his long absences from England. And she helped secure John’s accession to the throne, and brokered deals for him in her lands, where he was not well known. 

But that doesn’t make Eleanor exceptional; in fact, it was quite normal for noble widows to assume such responsibilities. Widows routinely gained control of dower properties and were expected to manage them in their own right. There was also an expectation that they preside over their children’s affairs. The records, not just in the south of France – but in Normandy and England too – are replete with formidable dowagers exercising real power, often acting as de facto heads of the family. 

There has been a tendency to project back into Eleanor’s earlier life the same level of power that she enjoyed in her ‘golden years’ – when there is little evidence to sustain that theory. Eleanor was a remarkable woman. But the roles she performed through her long and eventful life were far from unconventional.   

Sara Cockerill is the author of Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France and England, Mother of Empires (Amberley, 2019). She will be discussing Eleanor with Dan Jones the HistoryExtra podcast

LISTEN: You can listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Eleanor of Aquitaine on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time 

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine