Eleanor of Aquitaine: the rebel queen?
What motivated Eleanor of Aquitaine to revolt against her husband? Historian Dr Gabrielle Storey examines the evidence
Eleanor of Aquitaine is a (in)famous name known to many, for a swathe of reasons. The only woman to be queen of England and France, mother to the quarrelsome Angevin brood that became the early Plantagenet kings of England through her marriage to Henry II, and to the daughters who became rulers across Europe (with an impressive array of additional daughters to follow).
Eleanor has also been dogged by scandal from her day until now. Her reputation has suffered from the pen of many a chronicler and historian who perceived her as overstepping the gendered societal boundaries of her time by exercising power. Her role in the 1173 rebellion against her husband, Henry II, is no exception, with the involvement of three of their four sons – Henry the Young King, Richard, count of Poitou, and Geoffrey, duke of Brittany – along with her ex-husband, Louis VII, king of France, and is one of the most well-documented events of her reign.
Prior to the 1173 rebellion, Henry and Eleanor had very much operated on a power-sharing dynamic
But was it really Eleanor who inspired the revolt? Henry and Eleanor’s relationship was certainly complex, having ruled over seven separate territories for the majority of their reigns. The campaigns into Wales and Ireland also added regions to the lists of domains under their authority that required an innovative approach to rulership.
I have previously documented models of co-rulership – that is, how a regnant monarch shared power with others in order to rule – and these others can be wives, siblings, children, or administrators and favourites in government. How monarchs shared power with another – or in some cases, didn’t – provides an insight into the personal and political partnerships of rulers. My previous research has underlined how Henry and Eleanor’s relationships embodied all three of these models. But what is important to underline here is that prior to the 1173 rebellion, Henry and Eleanor had very much operated on a power-sharing dynamic, where Eleanor shared her power as duchess of Aquitaine with Henry, and Henry shared the rulership of the kingdom of England, the duchy of Normandy, and the counties of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine, with her.
Beginnings of the rebellion
All appeared well until c1168, when Eleanor moved back to her homelands to focus on ruling Poitou. Aquitaine and Poitou had always proven difficult to control, answering largely to the authority of their duke or duchess rather than external rulers. In her native territory, Eleanor was able to rule with relatively little interference: Poitou was her county, not Henry’s, and even within the medieval context of a wife’s lands and properties being amassed under her husband’s control upon marriage, Henry knew that Eleanor had the upper hand in ruling Aquitaine and Poitou. Some have posited that Eleanor’s return coincided with a desire to be removed from Henry owing to his string of mistresses, the latest of which, Rosamund Clifford, appeared to have been more captivating than others before her. But a husband, especially a royal one, taking mistresses was not uncommon, and it feels unlikely that such a move would have entirely driven Eleanor to relocate, let alone rebel.
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Reasons of the heart – and the family – are plausibly behind Eleanor’s involvement in the rebellion
Instead, reasons of the heart – and the family – are plausibly behind Eleanor’s involvement in the rebellion. Eleanor and Henry had produced seven surviving children – Henry, Geoffrey, Richard, John, Matilda, Leonor, and Joan – all of whom needed lands to inherit or dowries to take to their new husbands. Even with as vast an amount of territories as the Angevin monarchs held, sorting out each inheritance portion was never going to be smooth sailing.
Traditionally the eldest son would inherit the largest and most prolific territories, in this case the kingdom of England, the duchy of Normandy, and the patrimony of the counties of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine. Richard would acquire Aquitaine and with it the county of Poitou, as the lands that Eleanor had brought to the marriage. The third son, Geoffrey, would receive the duchy of Brittany, but this left John, famously named ‘Lackland’, with nothing. Henry undoubtedly hoped the lands would be preserved as a unit, with the younger brothers doing homage to Henry the Young King; Eleanor was concerned that Aquitaine remain a distinct political unit.
Among these inheritance debates and proposals, was also the impatience of the princes who wanted to exercise power, something Henry II was reluctant to grant. The 1169 Montmirail agreement between Henry II and Louis VII regarding the partition of lands, as those that lay on the continent fell under the overlordship of the French king, satisfied most parties. However, Henry the Young King was frustrated at his lack of genuine power, and John would be left bereft of lands. Henry II looked to expand his territories further with the conquest of Ireland and an eye to obtaining its lordship for John’s inheritance in the 1170s. Henry also sought to remedy John’s lack of lands by acquiring a profitable marriage for him to the heiress of the county of Savoy, with John bringing 5,000 marks and the three castles of Chinon, Loudon, and Mirebeau, which fell within the territory of Henry the Young King. The marriage alliance fell through, however the promise of these castles sowed further discontent with Henry the Young King.
The lack of genuine power granted to Henry the Young King, and his time spent at the court of his wife’s family, that of Margaret of France and Louis VII, generated further discord between Henry and his father. The murder of Thomas Becket in 1170 had aggrieved Henry the Young King, who spent some of his formative years in the archbishop’s household. In February 1173, a further council was called by Henry II at Montferrat. The family moved to court at Limoges, where Raymond V, count of Toulouse, made peace with the male Angevin royals and performed homage to Henry II, Henry the Young King, and Richard, ignoring Eleanor’s claim as heiress to the county and her lordship over the region. If their relationship had already been on rocky ground prior to this event, the arrangement regarding Toulouse appears to have pushed Eleanor into further discontent.
A rebellion rises
The rebellion of Eleanor and her sons coincided with uprisings by the nobility across several of the domains, as well as the support of the kings of Scotland and France. The wide-ranging support for the rebellion cannot be understated: it was a genuine and very real threat to Henry’s power.
Henry the Young King fled to the French court in the spring of 1173, and gathered the support of dissatisfied nobles, though he failed to gain the allegiances of the papacy and many prelates in the Angevin realms. Richard and Geoffrey were quick to join their brother. Warfare broke out across Normandy and the Scottish frontier, with further uprisings in England, Brittany, Maine, and Poitou, though Eleanor’s Aquitanians and Gascon nobles did not join en masse.
Henry II made rapid advances across his territories, with success, and headed towards Poitou in the autumn of 1173. Eleanor fled Poitiers for Paris, but was captured en route to Chartres by Henry’s forces and was imprisoned in Chinon.
The king spent much of the next year continuing to suppress rebels across the domains, with their sons seeking a peace settlement only in September 1174. No such peace was to be granted to Eleanor however, who spent much of the next decade in comfortable, but nevertheless restricted, captivity, with some freedom of travel as the decade progressed.
Instigator or participant?
Eleanor’s role in the rebellion of 1173 has often been viewed as 1) a primary instigator and 2) as a discontented wife in the face of Henry’s extending control of power across the realm. However, both these concepts ignore the very real desire that Eleanor likely intervened in the rebellion to protect her sons: very much aware of Henry’s temper and strength of authority, Eleanor’s intervention was to ensure the survival of her sons and dynasty.
Personal differences aside, Eleanor was through and through a dynast: she had worked with Henry for the last two decades to ensure their power base would survive and pass to an heir, and was not about to let the discontent between father and sons destroy the family and the realm. It is entirely plausible that Eleanor was aware of the rebellion forming, but whether she instigated, namely to give the go ahead to her sons to rebel, is unclear.
Henry the Young King was certainly capable of plotting on his own machinations, and networking across the regions to gain support for the rebellion. But Eleanor’s support and own power bases would also be crucial, with the allegiance of her Aquitanian and Poitevin barons.
It is implausible that Eleanor and her sons sought to overthrow Henry, but instead to make their discontent abundantly clear
It was Eleanor’s love for her children and desire to protect them – alongside her political pragmatism – that drove her decision to rebel. Certainly, the risks were great. It is implausible that Eleanor and her sons sought to overthrow Henry, but instead to make their discontent abundantly clear and to seek a change in circumstances on all fronts.
Eleanor knew that she held a significant amount of power with Aquitaine, and wanted this power to be firmly acknowledged, even if she was viewed as less useful by Henry now that he had matured and was comfortable with ruling the realms alongside advisers. It has been viewed as implausible that the young sons had the knowledge and experience to lead the rebellion, but this does not conclusively mean Eleanor fomented the rebellion either. Eleanor’s choices were decisive: when she did rebel, it was with the knowledge that her partnership with Henry would change forever. The outcome of the rebellion resulted in Eleanor’s loss of power, however she would return to the political arena with more power and strength in her sons’ reigns than the last two decades of Henry’s had granted her.
Dr Gabrielle Storey is a historian of queenship, gender, and sexuality. Her biography of Berengaria of Navarre, queen of England, is due to be published with Routledge. She appears in the Channel 4 series Queens That Changed the World as an expert on Eleanor of Aquitaine
Gabrielle Storey is a historian, writer, and consultant specialising in medieval and public history. She is the editor of Memorialising Premodern Monarchs: Medias of Commemoration and Remembrance and the author of a forthcoming biography of Berengaria of Navarre, queen of England. She has also written several public and open access academic pieces related to Angevin queenship and gender and sexuality.
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