As the mother of ten children – nine of whom lived to adulthood and five who were crowned kings or queens – Eleanor of Aquitaine is rightly considered one of medieval Europe’s great matriarchs.

Eleanor’s sons tend to grab most of the limelight. However, her five daughters (Marie and Alix from her marriage to Louis VII of France; Matilda, Leonor and Joanna from her marriage to Henry II of England) were important political figures in western Europe in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. They were joined in an international female network by five other women whose role in Eleanor’s family has been greatly overlooked: her daughters-in-law, Margaret of France, Berengaria of Navarre, Constance of Brittany, Isabelle of Gloucester and Isabella of Angoulême.

Some of these women were close to one another, and some never met, but their lives all intersected, and they and their families played pivotal roles in some of the most famous episodes in Angevin royal history.

Take, for example, the capture, imprisonment and ransom of Richard the Lionheart in 1192–94. The efforts of his mother to secure his release are well known, but also intimately involved in the proceedings were his wife’s family, two of his sisters and one of his sisters-in-law.

Marie of France

Marie of France was the eldest of all Eleanor of Aquitaine’s children. After the separation of her parents, she was kept in France, where she was betrothed and then later married to Henry I, count of Champagne. Marie ruled Champagne for long periods, firstly as regent while her husband was in the Holy Land, then in the name of her underage son, Count Henry II, and again when he also departed on crusade.

Marie was in a delicate political position in the 1190s, being the half-sister of the king of England and of the king of France, Philip Augustus, but it was a tightrope she walked with aplomb.

It was due to her family connections that Henry II of Champagne, as a nephew of both Richard and Philip, was seen as an appropriate compromise candidate for the throne of Jerusalem, where he was crowned in 1192 in an effort to stop the English and French contingents from fighting amongst themselves. And it was to Marie that Richard wrote while he was in captivity, addressing her as “Countess, sister” and asking her to tell his nobles that “they are not men to rely on” if they do not help him in his hour of need. Richard’s one surviving brother – John – was one of those not to be relied on, but he felt he could trust his half-sister.

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Berengaria of Navarre

Illustration of Berengaria, Queen of England
Illustration of Berengaria, Queen of England (Picture from GettyImages)

Richard was at this time married to Berengaria, whom Eleanor had accompanied all the way from Navarre to Sicily before the royal wedding had finally taken place in Cyprus. Normally, a captured king or nobleman’s best ally would be his wife, who would negotiate or make ransom arrangements on his behalf, but Richard did not write to Berengaria at all. The nature of their marital relationship has been the subject of much speculation over the years, but what is important to note is that in making a strategic matrimonial alliance with Berengaria’s father, Sancho VI, Richard was connecting himself with a family, not just with a wife. Although Berengaria lived separately, she was still part of the system; one of the hostages sent to Germany as a pledge of good faith upon Richard’s release was the younger of her two brothers, Ferdinand of Navarre.


Another of the hostages sent in Richard’s stead was Otto of Brunswick, who was the son of his eldest full sister, Matilda. Matilda had been sent to Germany at the age of 11 to marry Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, who was a divorcee older than her father. Despite this inauspicious beginning to her adult life she had adapted, coped and forged a strong relationship with Henry, with whom she had a daughter and four sons.

Tomb of Henry the Lion and his wife Matilda at St. Blasii Cathedral Interior - Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, Germany
Tomb of Henry the Lion and his wife Matilda at St. Blasii Cathedral Interior - Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, Germany (Photo by GettyImages)

Matilda’s place in the family web was of the utmost importance when Henry the Lion fell out with his cousin, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and was exiled from Germany. He and Matilda travelled to Normandy and then England, to take shelter at Henry II’s court.

This gave Matilda the chance to introduce her sons to their royal grandparents and uncles, something that would stand them in good stead in later years. Richard, when he became king of England, would name Otto the earl of York, and there was talk that Otto might be designated his heir in the event of him having no children of his own. Richard could thank his sister for this relationship, and for having another high-profile international figure to act as a hostage for him when the need arose.

Constance of Brittany

Another family member who was closely involved in the ransom situation was the daughter of Richard’s late brother Geoffrey and his wife, Constance of Brittany. Constance, who as a child was the sole heiress to the duchy, had been betrothed to Geoffrey when she was just five years old, at which point she was taken from her parents to be brought up in the household of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was based in England, so Constance never saw either of her parents again. She very much resented her upbringing, and would kick back against both Eleanor and Henry II in later life.

Henry II
Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine's husband (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

As Constance took her place in the English royal nursery, her father was forced to abdicate in her favour; this meant that Henry II, as the guardian of the little girl who was now duchess in her own right, could rule her lands and enjoy her income. So much did Henry enjoy this that he delayed her actual wedding as long as possible, and Constance and Geoffrey were around 20 and 23 by the time it happened. This put Brittany under Geoffrey’s control, but he was careful to recognise his wife’s right, noting in his charters that he granted them with her consent.

Geoffrey’s unexpected death in 1186 left Constance with a three-year-old daughter, Eleanor, and she was also pregnant with what would turn out to be a son, Arthur. These children were in a perilous position: they were the heirs to Brittany through their mother, but via their paternal line they had a claim to the English crown. They were thus subject to several custody disputes as Constance fought to keep them out of the hands of Richard and of King Philip of France.

Despite the death of her husband, Constance was still a member of the Angevin network she despised, and it was with no reference to her that Richard offered little Eleanor’s hand in marriage to the son of Duke Leopold of Austria as part of his release arrangements. The nine-year-old was packed off to start her long journey but, as it happened, she would return unmarried; the proposed match fell through when Leopold died.

Constance got her daughter back, but her children were soon to be thrown into even greater danger when Richard himself died unexpectedly in 1199. In strictly hereditary terms Constance’s son Arthur was the next in line, but his right was disputed by John, Constance’s former brother-in-law and the youngest of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s children.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was faced with the choice of favouring her son or her grandson, and (perhaps with half an eye to Constance’s continuing dislike of the family she had been obliged to marry into), she chose John. While Arthur had his mother to fight for him he might have stood a chance, but when Constance suddenly died at the age of just 40, his tragic fate was sealed.

Constance had been a very unwilling member of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s family, much more so than any of the other daughters-in-law, but she still had her part to play in the events that unfolded.

The power network

Eleanor of Aquitaine's tomb
Eleanor of Aquitaine's tomb (Photo by GettyImages)

When we consider medieval kinship networks, we should remember those who married into a family, as well as those born into it – particularly the new female arrivals. These women, and many others, played vital roles as bridges between their birth family and the one they had married into, a task that required a considerable amount of political and diplomatic skill.

Given the very young ages at which some royal girls were betrothed, and that it was the custom for them to be sent to the lands of their future husbands to be brought up, a matriarch like Eleanor of Aquitaine might spend more time with her daughters-in-law as children than her own daughters.

This said, Eleanor’s daughters, despite their far-flung locations, also remained in her orbit. It is not uncommon, when we read of medieval royal girls, to hear that “she was married off at a young age to …”, as though that was the end of the story. But it wasn’t, of course, and for good reason: what would be the point of a strategic political marriage alliance if the parties never spoke to each other afterwards?