Eleanor of Aquitaine: the medieval queen who took on Europe’s most powerful men
Henry II and Richard I are among England's most celebrated kings. But when it came to resourcefulness, political nous and sheer staying power, neither were the equal of the woman that bound them, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Professor Lindy Grant examines the extraordinary and colourful life of one of the medieval world's most powerful women...
But Richard did a lot more than just free Eleanor from the house arrest under which she had languished for 15 years: he entrusted her with the governance of England while he secured his continental realms. And so the newly liberated queen-mother was soon progressing around the kingdom with a ‘regal’ court, judging cases and organising the release of prisoners – a traditional demonstration of magnanimity by a new ruler.
The contrast between Richard and his immediate predecessor as king couldn’t have been more stark. For it was Henry II, Richard’s father, who had imprisoned Eleanor, as a punishment for supporting their sons’ first rebellion against him.
While Henry locked Eleanor up, Richard gave her responsibility for his most prestigious territory at the delicate moment of the succession. So who was this woman who could inspire such faith, and such fear, in two of the most formidable men to wear the English crown?
Great affairs of state
Eleanor of Aquitaine lived an extraordinarily long, colourful and controversial life – one, to modern eyes at least, that has earned her a seat at medieval Europe’s top table. Her prominence can, to a large extent, be traced to her choice of husbands. She was married to two kings – Louis VII of France and Henry II of England – and, with the latter, produced three monarchs of England: Henry the Young King, Richard the Lionheart and King John.
Like most medieval queens, Eleanor’s influence was very much dependent on her relationship with the king – whether he was her son or husband. Yet she was no passive observer of the great affairs of state. She was fiery, highly ambitious, and intensely involved in raw power-politics for decades. She governed nations, sponsored rebellions and offered counsel to her sons in the final years of her long life, when most of her contemporaries had been dead for years. In short, she was one of the most influential figures in 12th-century Europe.
Given Eleanor’s huge and enduring influence – and her sex – it’s hardly surprising that she fascinated contemporary commentators. She commanded widespread admiration but was also regarded as sexually dangerous, even attracting what is often called a ‘black legend’.
Gervase of Canterbury called her “an extremely astute woman… but flighty”. Her grandfather, Duke William IX of Aquitaine, was one of the first French poets to compose the possibly Islamic-influenced ‘courtly love’ songs so beloved of the aristocracy. Perhaps this is what inspired the 13th‑century French chronicler, the Minstrel of Reims, to concoct an affair between Eleanor and the great Muslim leader Saladin.
Eleanor of Aquitaine’s was hardly a rags-to-riches story. She was born, around 1122–24, to Duke William X of Aquitaine who, as he had no surviving sons, named her as the heiress to the duchy in 1137. On his deathbed, William commended Eleanor to the protection of his overlord, the king of France, who promptly married her off to his own son and heir. Almost immediately, the old king followed William to the grave, and his son became king as Louis VII. Eleanor, perhaps barely into her teens, was now queen of France.
Though Louis adored Eleanor, he ceded little power to her, often issuing charters for Aquitaine with no reference to his young wife. He was, however, susceptible to her influence. In 1141, the Count of Vermandois, a cousin of the king, married Eleanor’s younger sister, Petronilla. But there was a problem: the count was already married to a niece of the Count of Champagne. The marriage was bigamous, a crime for which the newly weds were excommunicated.
If that wasn’t bad enough for Eleanor’s reputation, Louis promptly invaded Champagne and inadvertently burned down a church at Vitry along with the women and children who had taken refuge in it. Many assumed that Eleanor heavily influenced the king’s violent response.
This was not the only area where sex and politics made for a toxic mix. Eleanor failed to provide Louis VII with an heir – the most important duty of the queen. The writer of a life of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux claimed Eleanor sought the advice of the austere and unworldly Cistercian abbot as to how she might give birth to a son. Bernard advised her to pray, and to make peace between her husband and the Count of Champagne. It wasn’t long before Eleanor gave birth to her first child – but it was a daughter, not the desired son and heir.
In 1144, the Christian state of Edessa fell to Muslim forces and the pope called for a new crusade. Louis VII was quick to take the cross. When he set off in April 1147, he was accompanied by Eleanor and other ladies of the court. There was some contemporary criticism of the way that women and non-combatants slowed the crusading army’s pace. But the crusades were never just military enterprises. They were regarded as pilgrimages – and both Eleanor and Louis felt the need for penance.
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The crusade was a disaster. The Turks decimated Louis and Eleanor’s army in Asia Minor, and when the couple reached the court of Eleanor’s uncle, Raymond, prince of Antioch, trouble broke out again. Raymond wanted to concentrate on retaking Edessa; Louis insisted that they should march on to the Holy Land. Eleanor’s decision to support her uncle in the dispute made the faultlines in her marriage with Louis all too clear.
Louis was furious, and forced his wife to come with him. Rumours were soon spreading that Eleanor and her uncle had flirted outrageously, leaving Louis overcome with jealousy. Soon, relations between the two were so bad that Eleanor asked Louis for a divorce on the grounds that they were related within the degrees prohibited by the church.
In 1149, Louis and Eleanor returned to France via Rome. The pope, Eugenius III, did his best to reconcile the king and queen – according to John of Salisbury’s racy history of the papal court, the pope more or less tucked them in to bed together.
But the marriage was irretrievable. Fifteen years had produced nothing more useful than two daughters. Eleanor had first suggested divorce; it was Louis who now pursued it. He convoked a great council at Beaugency that annulled the union on the grounds of consanguinity. Eleanor headed for Poitiers. Her marriage had left her with an unenviable reputation: as a quarrelsome and perhaps inappropriately flirtatious wife, whose political influence might be baleful, and whose sister was a bigamist.
For all that, as Duchess of Aquitaine, she was a huge prize. Stretching from the Loire to the Pyrenees, Aquitaine was rich in resources: the wines, for which Bordeaux is still known, were already renowned; its long coast had important salt pans; Bordeaux and La Rochelle were major trading ports.
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Strength of personality
Marriage was in Eleanor’s interests too: she was conscious of her lineage, and she needed to provide a male heir to succeed her as Duke of Aquitaine. She seems to have made her own choice – Henry, the young Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, who had come to Louis’ court in August 1151. She sent for him as soon as she reached safety in Poitiers and, in May 1152, they were married in Poitiers Cathedral. Louis, as overlord of both Eleanor and Duke Henry, tried to prevent the marriage and to hold on to the duchy of Aquitaine. But he lacked the military resources to do either.
Henry was very different from Louis. Grandson of Henry I of England, and son of the Empress Matilda, he had, even as a young man, a powerful personality with a natural authority and decisiveness. In strength of personality, Eleanor and Henry were well matched. And Eleanor had no problem in providing this husband with an heir: they had at least five sons and three daughters.
In October 1154, Henry succeeded to the English throne, adding England to the continental domains that he ruled already: Normandy, Greater Anjou, and Aquitaine in right of his wife. The Duchess of Aquitaine was once again a queen-consort.
Chafing at the bit
Although Henry was a far more energetic and formidable ruler than Louis, Eleanor wielded more power during her second marriage than her first. Henry made little attempt to impose real authority over Aquitaine; his realm was enormous, and the king could not be everywhere at once. During the first 14 years of his reign, he often entrusted England to his queen to rule as his regent, while he concerned himself with his continental lands. In 1165–66, Eleanor governed Anjou for Henry. Then, in 1168, the king installed Eleanor at Poitiers, back in the duchy of her birth.
Henry may have been among Europe’s most powerful rulers, but by 1170 things were beginning to go wrong. He had to do penance for the murder of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in which he was implicated. And as his sons grew up they became power-hungry. Henry had the eldest, also Henry, crowned associate king of England in 1170, and gave Poitou and Brittany to Richard and Geoffrey respectively. But still the sons chafed under the father’s authority.
In April 1173, they broke out in open rebellion. Many of the aristocracy of the Angevin realms supported the young princes – the coming men – against the old king. Eleanor also sided with her sons against her husband; indeed most contemporary chroniclers thought she was instrumental in persuading them to revolt.
It seems that Eleanor too may have tired of Henry’s authoritarian ways. She probably wanted more freedom to rule Aquitaine. Perhaps she resented her husband’s many and increasing infidelities. Undoubtedly she begrudged his side-lining of her as queen.
Whatever her motivation, it was the greatest mistake of her life, for she was captured by Henry’s forces as she tried to escape from Poitou to the French court. Many had assumed that Henry was finished. As it turned out, this was far from the case.
But the old king did not humiliate his sons in victory. He came to terms with them, and they maintained an uneasy peace until the late 1180s. But he did not forgive the treachery of his queen. Eleanor spent the rest of his reign as his prisoner. She was kept under house arrest in appropriate luxury. Occasionally, Henry brought her to play the queenly role at one of his great courtly gatherings. But mainly she was kept far from the court. Politically, she was impotent. These must have been the most frustrating years of her life.
Richard’s accession in 1189 changed that. The effortless authority with which Eleanor secured the kingdom for her son reflects her political acumen and her considerable experience as a ruler. Eleanor held the great Angevin realm together when Richard was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria while returning from crusade in 1192.
As Richard endured captivity, his younger brother John plotted with the new king of France, Philip Augustus, to take the throne – until Eleanor arrived back in England and dealt with him. She raised the huge sum of 150,000 marks for Richard’s ransom and negotiated her son’s release, demanding help from the pope in a letter from “Eleanor, by the wrath of God, Queen of England”. Richard demonstrated his gratitude through the prominent role that he gave his mother at the coronation that marked his return in 1194.
At Richard’s death in 1199, it was Eleanor who assured the succession of John to the Angevin lands. John had a potential rival in his nephew Arthur, Count of Brittany, son of John’s older brother Geoffrey. But Richard had left his realm to John on his deathbed, and Eleanor supported his decision, rallying support for John in Anjou and Normandy. At one point, it appeared that Eleanor’s loyalty to John would cost her dear, for Arthur went on the offensive, placing her under siege at Mirabeau. But Eleanor was rescued by her son, who executed a brilliant forced march to save her. Arthur promptly disappeared into John’s dungeons.
Not content with championing her sons’ claims to the English throne, Eleanor also helped secure two marriages designed to strengthen their grip on power. Back in 1191, when King Richard had wed Berengaria of Navarre in 1191, it was Eleanor who accompanied Berengaria from her home kingdom to Sicily, where the marriage – which built an alliance with Navarre and protected Richard’s southernmost territories – took place.
Eleanor also played a starring role in the negotiations that would lead to a marriage linking King John’s England with Philip Augustus’s France. In 1200, as part of a treaty between the two nations, Philip insisted on the marriage of his own heir, the future Louis VIII, to one of John’s nieces, a daughter of the king of Castile. The niece would be, as one chronicler put it, “in her own person the guarantee of peace”. Since John had no direct heir at the time, it was a marriage on which the future of the Angevin realm might turn.
John sent Eleanor to Castile to finalise the negotiations with the king of Castile and his queen, Eleanor’s daughter. There Eleanor chose the most suitable of her granddaughters, and then accompanied her back across the Pyrenees and up through Aquitaine. Doubtless she acquainted the 12-year-old with the political vortex into which she would be thrown. She had chosen well. Blanche of Castile turned out to be one of the greatest queens of the Middle Ages, a woman whose appetite and aptitude for holding power was equal to Eleanor’s.
For the last decade of her life, Eleanor established herself at Fontevraud, a distinguished nunnery on the border of Anjou and Poitou. She did not become a nun, but lived in her own house within the precinct of the abbey. Henry lay buried in the nun’s choir. Richard had ordered his own burial there, and when he died, Eleanor brought his body to the abbey she now regarded as her home. Soon her daughter Joanna joined her father and brother in what was fast becoming a family mausoleum.
And then, in March 1204, at the age of 80 or 82, Eleanor was laid to rest there too. Her last months were clouded by news of the implosion of the Angevin realm at the hands of the king of France. It was a sad end to what was one of medieval Europe’s most remarkable – and, in many ways, triumphant – lives.
Five other women who changed the face of medieval Europe...Matilda of Scotland (c1080–1118)
Matilda was deeply trusted by her husband, Henry I, who usually left her to govern England while he dealt with Normandy. Of Scottish and Anglo-Saxon stock, she was a sophisticated patron of literature and the visual arts, and renowned for her piety, and her generous religious benefactions.
Empress Matilda (1102–67)
On the death of her brother in 1120, Matilda became the sole heir of her father – Henry I of England – who tried to ensure that she would succeed him. Her cousin Stephen of Blois seized the English throne on Henry’s death, and Matilda spent many years fighting for it, then – successfully – pursuing the claim of her son Henry to the crown. Henry II had great respect for his mother’s advice, and she governed Normandy for him until her death.
Matilda of Boulogne (c1105–52)
Heiress to the strategically important county of Boulogne, she was the wife of King Stephen and Eleanor’s immediate predecessor as queen of England. An educated cultural patron, Matilda proved a formidably effective queen after Stephen was captured in 1141.
Marie of Champagne (1145–98)
Alongside her husband, Henry the Liberal, Count of Champagne, Marie ran the most overtly literary court in western Europe. A highly effective political operator, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s eldest daughter governed the county of Champagne on three separate occasions.
Blanche of Castile (1188–1252)
Eleanor’s granddaughter was married to the heir to the French throne, the future Louis VIII. She and her husband tried unsuccessfully to take the English throne from King John in 1216–17. Louis VIII died in 1226 after a brief reign, leaving Blanche as regent for their young son, Louis IX (Saint Louis) until he came of age in 1234. She was widely regarded by contemporaries as a formidably effective queen regent, and as an important moral influence on her children.
Lindy Grant is professor of medieval history at the University of Reading, and the author of Blanche of Castile, Queen of France (Yale, 2016)
This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine