My history hero: Sarah Smith chooses Eleanor of Aquitaine (c1122–1204)
BBC broadcaster Sarah Smith chooses Eleanor of Aquitaine as a history hero
Eleanor of Aquitaine: in profile
Eleanor of Aquitaine was queen of France (1137–52) as Louis VII’s wife, and queen of England (1154–89) as wife of Henry II. She bore 10 children, among them two future English kings, Richard I and John. After participating in an unsuccessful revolt against her second husband, she was imprisoned for 16 years but lived to the age of about 82. She is buried at Fontevraud Abbey in the Loire Valley, France.
When did you first hear about Eleanor?
On an episode of In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 a few years ago. I’m a medieval history fan so she piqued my interest. I then read a series of historical novels about her by Elizabeth Chadwick, in which Eleanor is described as “the most powerful woman in the Middle Ages”.
What kind of person was she?
A strong personality, Eleanor was both a queen and a duchess (of Aquitaine) in her own right. She must also have been astonishingly resilient to have commanded the respect she did, and to survive some 16 years’ imprisonment. Lastly, she was purportedly a great beauty.
What made her a hero?
Eleanor was a remarkable woman in so many ways: married to two kings in turn, she served as queen of both France and England, and gave birth to two future kings. What’s more, she was somehow able to ensure that the most important people in Europe – monarchs, popes and aristocrats – dealt with her, a woman, on equal terms, which was practically unheard of at that time.
She was rather cruelly subjected to a myriad of rumours about her sex life – including claims of incest, adultery and dressing up as a man – which has always been the easiest way to slander women who dare to put themselves in the public arena. Yet she did not allow any of this to deflect from her sense of purpose. Eleanor was also remarkable for the longevity of her career, continuing to wield power into her later years. She must have had the most incredible self-belief to achieve all that she did – though she presumably believed that she was directed by God.
- On the podcast | Sara Cockerill and Dan Jones explore the life story of the remarkable medieval queen
Is there anything you don’t admire about Eleanor?
She made a dreadful mistake in backing her son, the younger Henry, against her own husband, Henry II, in the failed revolt of 1173–74. That was a serious lapse in judgment.
Can you see any parallels between her life and yours?
Not really – we live in such different ages – though there have been times when I’ve drawn inspiration from her resilience.
Does she deserve to be better known on this side of the English Channel?
Absolutely. I studied medieval history at university, and she was not on the syllabus in any shape or form.
What would you ask Eleanor if you could meet her?
Where her belief came from that women could and should be treated as equals.
Sarah Smith is a BBC journalist currently working the North America editor of BBC News
This content first appeared in the February 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
York Membery is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times among other publications. York, who lives in London, worked on the Mirror, Express and Times before turning freelance. He studied history at Cardiff University and the Institute of Historical Research, and has a History PhD from Maastricht University.
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