Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 – 1204)
One of the most notorious women of the Middle Ages was also one of the most famous queens of her day. She went from a vulnerable daughter of a French duke to one of the richest women in the world and the wife of two powerful European kings. In truth, Eleanor of Aquitaine was a modern-day fairy tale princess, who could be compared to many rich and beautiful queens that followed her. For many people, the Middle Ages could not be the same without her influence. Not only did she revolutionize Europe, but she also made some of the first feminist changes for women. Many people began to record what women were doing after her death, and this led to numerous other changes in favor towards women.
Eleanor was most likely born sometime around 1122 in France, and was the daughter of William X of Aquitaine and his wife, Aenor de Chatellerault. She was the eldest of their three children; her younger sister Petronilla was born sometime during 1125, and she also had a younger brother named William Aigret, who initially was the heir to the duchy of Aquitaine. Her father wanted Eleanor and Petronilla to have better educations than most women of the day, so they were educated in French, Latin, music, literature, and were also taught principle sports of the day, such as hawking and hunting. When she was a young child, Eleanor was expected to marry into a wealthy French family, but that all changed when she was eight years old. In 1130, Eleanor’s only brother William Aigret died in an accident at Talmont Castle in France. The emotional hurt grew even deeper when Eleanor’s mother also died suddenly. Following her mother’s death, Eleanor’s social standing was changed when she became the heiress to the duchies of Aquitaine, Gascony, and Poitou (this is where Eleanor lived during much of her childhood).
From then on, Eleanor was considered extremely vulnerable. Her father owned more land than the current King of France himself. She was a fair target for robbers and marriage negotiations, and her personality contributed largely to it. She was described by many as a strong-willed woman of virtue and charm, and very beautiful appearance. Her father’s problems in war and the church became a large part of Eleanor’s life. William X was excommunicated by Pope Innocent II, and also had many religious conflicts with various parts of France, including his own lands. Yet, Eleanor was a worldly woman who had a taste for luxury. Like her father and grandfather (William IX), she loved troubadours, poets, banquets, and masques. She loved much of her father’s company, and her wit and intelligence helped her perception improve. She very much enjoyed being with her father and sister, and no doubt enjoyed her standing as a rich heiress to a large amount of land.
When Eleanor was fifteen, in 1137, William X (who had by then resolved most of his problems with the Pope) wanted to journey on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela. Eleanor and Petronilla accompanied him as far as Bordeaux, and then they were sent to be with one of their father’s good friends, the Archbishop of Bordeaux. Their father, while still on his pilgrimage, ate contaminated fish and drank contaminated water, and died shortly before reaching Spain. The grief must have been very hard to bear, but Eleanor had little time to gain her composure. As her father’s heiress, she was pronouced the Countess of Poitou and Duchess of Aquitaine and Gascony (however, her title in many different places has been shortened to only the Duchess of Aquitaine), and was also one of the most eligible brides on the continent.
Her father had taken care of the matter of Eleanor’s potential marriage, however, before he died. He declared Eleanor and Petronilla’s guardian to be none other than the current King of France, Louis VI. Louis VI, also known as ‘Louis the Fat’ was at the time suffering from dysentery, and was not expected to live much longer by anyone, including himself. So, Louis VI, acting partially on the personal requests on Eleanor’s late father, agreed to marry Eleanor to his son and heir, Louis. The two were marred on July 25, 1137, at the Cathedral of Saint-Andre in Bordeaux. They were pronounced the Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine soon afterward. She was only a French princess for several days. On August 1, 1137, Louis the Fat died of his dysentery, and Eleanor and Louis were proclaimed the King and Queen of France.
Life as the Queen consort of France was both pleasant and disturbing for Eleanor, especially in the matter of her husband. Louis VII was not initally expected to be the King, and until his elder brother Philip died, he had pursued what the younger sons of kings and queens of the day often pursued: the Church. Louis had wanted to be a monk and had been trained in the career until Philip’s death, and he acted as a monk through his royal role and especially during his marriage to Eleanor. His policies told him not to have a lot of relation to his wife, and therefore, he did not often sleep with his wife. During their marriage, Eleanor and Louis had two daughters: Princess Marie (1145-1198) and Princess Alix (1150-1195). Marie became the wife of Count Henry I of Charlemagne, and had four children. Alix married Count Theodore IV of Blois, and had seven children. Shortly after Marie’s birth, Louis VII led a crusade (called the Second Crusade) to the Middle East, and Eleanor insisted on accompaning him. One legendary story is that Eleanor and her ladies dressed as Amazons during this crusade; however, this is a highly disputed topic among the leading historians.
Problems in the marriage shatoon began. Eleanor’s mother-in-law, the widowed Adelaide of Maurienne, encouraged Louis to divorce Eleanor because of her rich spending habits. In addition, Eleanor was frustrated with Louis because of his practices of a monk. Also, Louis believed that Eleanor was having an alleged affair with her uncle (although no evidence of anything more than a friendship between the two were discovered at the time nor since). Later, both of them were pursuing an annulment due to consanguinity (they were third cousins once removed), and the marriage was dissolved on March 21, 1152. Marie and Alix were still legitimate daughters according to the contract, and Louis VII gained custody of both of the princesses. Eleanor was also still the Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, and kept all of the lands she had inherited from her father by birth.
Eleanor, however, realized that the best thing for her was to have a husband after a kidnapping attempt on her way back to Aquitaine, so she appealed to Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, for marriage. On May 18, 1152, they married in a very low-key wedding that was believed not to have been nice enough for nobility of their rank. It is believed that she was closer to Henry than she had to Louis, and to Europe it was considered an odd match, as Eleanor and Henry’s degree of relation was the same as her relation with Louis, as well as the fact that Henry and Louis were bitter rivals. On October 25, 1154, Henry became the King of England, and Eleanor was acknowledged as the Queen of England a very short time later. Henry, however, was by no means faithful to Eleanor in any aspect of their marriage, and had many mistresses throughout his reign, one of which the famous Rosamund Clifford.
Henry and Eleanor had eight children together: Prince William of Poitiers (1153-1156), Prince Henry the Young King (1155-1183), Princess Matilda (1156-1189), Richard I (1157-1189), Prince Geoffrey (1158-1186), Princess Eleanor (1162-1214), Princess Joan (1165-1199), and John of England (1167-1216). Richard and John both became Kings of England after their father. Henry married Margaret of France and had one child that died young, Matilda married Henry Duke of Saxony and had ten children, Richard married Berengaria of Navarre and had no children, Geoffrey married Constance of Brittany and had three children, Eleanor married King Alfonso VIII of Castile and had twelve children, Joan married twice (King William of Sicily and Raymond of Toulouse) and four children between the marriages, and John also married twice (Isabella of Gloucester and Isabella of Angouleme) and had five children between the marriages.
For Eleanor, her second marriage was initially a happy marriage, but the scandals of her husband’s court eventually made her create her own private and refined court in her apartments. Her husband’s numerous affairs and qualms with the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Thomas Becket, certainly must have made her feel some kind of resentment. Although she had more in common with Henry than she had with Louis, the couple announced a separation. Eleanor left England to go back to Poitiers (this was the least known period of Eleanor’s life), and two of her sons, Geoffrey and Richard, accompanied her.It is believed by some historians that during that point in her life, Eleanor and her ladies participated in an activity known as ‘The Court of Love,’ where Eleanor and her ladies listened to the problems of distressed lovers and acted as a sort of jury, where they would answer questions about the rules of courtly love. While some say that Eleanor and the ladies created the practice, most believe that the practice was around a long time before Eleanor’s lifetime.
During Eleanor’s stay at Poitiers with Geoffrey and Richard, Eleanor’s elder son, Henry (who was known as ‘The Young King’ because he was crowned as a junior king during his father’s lifetime) launched a revolt against his father. He journeyed to Poitiers, and Eleanor encouraged Geoffrey and Richard to go back to England with Henry to go against their father (now known as Henry II). Between March and May of 1174, Eleanor later left Poitiers to return to Paris with her sons, but was arrested on the way and kept under house arrest for sixteen years. Henry II allowed the arrest because he was suspicious of Eleanor’s involvement in the revolt (which ended unsuccessfully in 1174). In 1183, Henry the Young King tried a revolt yet again, but caght dysentery. While he was dying, Henry was remorseful and begged for Henry II to free Eleanor, and said he was very distressed after all that he had done. The Young King died on June 11, 1183.
Although Eleanor was still under imprisonment for the rest of Henry II’s reign, she was given better treatment than she had prior to the Young King’s death. While his wife was under lock and key, Henry II was having numerous affairs. His famous mistress, Rosamund Clifford, had passed away in 1176, but that did not stop Henry II from continuing his unrestricted, fabulous life. Also in 1183, Henry II had perhaps his first relation after the 1174 revolt-Philip I of France (Eleanor’s first husband Louis’s child from a later marriage) insisted that some lands in Normandy belonged to Henry the Young King’s widowed wife, Margaret of France. Henry II, meanwhile, insisted that the lands really belonged to Eleanor and protested she should be allowed to claim them. This argument followed a trip for Eleanor to go to Normandy probably from late August to early September of 1183. This was perhaps the beginning of Eleanor’s freedom, as well as a turn for the better in her marriage with Henry II, although she was still not free.
Henry II died on July 6, 1189, and the next eldest son, Richard (who was also Eleanor’s uncontested favorite son) was unanimously declared king. Although Henry II was a very diplomatic and good king for England, Richard (who became Richard I) was a bellicose and warlike man, so much so that he was given the name ‘Richard the Lionheart’ for his bravery in battle. The newly widowed Eleanor was released immediately after Henry II’s death, and she promoted his reign in nearly every way that she could. On August 13, 1189, Richard sailed away from Barfleur to Portsmouth and launched what is called the Third Crusade. Eleanor was Queen Regent during his absence. When Richard I was captured and held for ransom, she negotiated with his captors and freed him. However, Richard I’s reign did not last nearly as long as his father, for he was killed by an arrow wound on April 6, 1199. His younger brother John became King of England following his death.
Eleanor spent the rest of her life promoting her son John (called John Lackland) as King, because he was unpopular with the English people. She picked one of her granddaughters, Blanche (one of her daughter Eleanor’s daughters) as a wife for Philip I of France’s heir. She was very unwell in the last years of her life, and also avoiding conspiracies from Arthur of Brittany, John’s great enemy, from taking control of England. In 1201, when Arthur and John declared war on one another, Eleanor declared undying support for John and returned to Poitiers to prevent Arthur from capturing it. After Arthur was captured, Eleanor went to Fontrevaud Abbey, where she finally died at age 82 in 1202. She was buried there as well, and had a magnificent tomb built for her.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was not only a magnificent queen (both in France and England), but also a feminist devoted to the cause to get women more involved in politics. Eleanor’s youth, beauty, wit, and emotion made her more than just a pretty face, and she is perhaps the most famous woman in the entire Middle Ages. Her marriage to Henry II began the Plantagenet dynasty in England, which began with Henry II’s coronation in 1154 and ended with the death of Richard III in 1485. Her morals, beauty, and elegance made her arguably one of the famous queens in the history of the world.
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