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Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine (Bordeaux, France, c.1127March 31, 1204 in Fontevrault, Anjou) was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Europe during the Middle Ages.


The eldest of three children, her father was William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and her mother was Aenor de Châtellerault, the daughter of Aimeric I, Vicomte of Chatellerault and a woman named Dangereuse. William and Aenor's marriage had been arranged by his father and her mother, as Dangereuse was the long-time mistress of William IX of Aquitaine, the Troubador. Eleanor was named after her mother and called Aliénor, which means other Aenor in the langue d'oc, but it became Eléanor in the northern langue d'oil and in English.

She was raised in one of Europe's most cultured courts, the birthplace of courtly love. She was highly educated for a woman of the time, and knew how to read, how to speak Latin, was well versed in music and literature, and enjoyed riding, hawking, and hunting. She became heiress to Aquitaine, the largest and richest of the provinces that would become modern France, when her brother, William Aigret, died as a baby.

Duke William X died on Good Friday in 1137 while on a pilgrimage to Spain. At about 14 years old, Eleanor was Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right and officially the most eligible heiress in Europe. These were the days when kidnapping an heiress was seen as a viable option for attaining a title, so William wrote up a will on the very day he died instructing that his daughter marry Louis VII of France, the heir to the French throne. The marriage, on July 22, 1137, brought to France the area from the river Loire to the Pyrenees: most of what is today the southwest of France. However, there was a catch: the land would remain independent of France, and Eleanor's eldest son would be both King of France and Duke of Aquitaine. Thus, her holdings would not be merged with France until the next generation. She also gave him a wedding present that is still in existence, a rock crystal vase that is on display at the Louvre. Within a month of their marriage, Louis VI had died, and Eleanor became Queen of France.

Something of a free spirit, Eleanor was not much liked by the staid northerners (particularly, according to contemporary sources, her mother-in-law), who thought her flighty and a bad influence. Her conduct was repeatedly criticized by Church elders (particularly Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Suger) as indecorous. The King himself, on the other hand, was madly in love with his beautiful and worldly wife and granted her every whim. Eleanor supported her sister Petronilla of Aquitaine when she illegally married Raoul of Vermandois; the incident started a war and caused conflict between Eleanor and Louis. She insisted on taking part in the Crusades as the feudal leader of the soldiers from her duchy. The story that she and her ladies dressed as Amazons is disputed by serious historians. However, her testimonial launch of the Second Crusade from Vézelay, the rumored location of Mary Magdalene's burial, dramatically emphasized the role of women in the campaign, with her, the Queen of France, as their leader.

The crusade itself was something of a disaster, both from a military viewpoint and in terms of the personal relationship of the royal couple. From a military standpoint, Louis was a weak and ineffectual military leader with no concept of maintaining troop discipline or morale, or of making informed and logical tactical decisions. The French army was betrayed by Manuel I Comnenus, Byzantine Emperor, who feared that their militaristic aims would jeopardize the tenuous safety of his empire. A particularly poor decision was to camp one night, in hostile territory, in a lush valley surrounded by tall peaks. Predictably, the Turks attacked and slaughtered as many as 7000 Crusaders. As this decision was made by Eleanor's servant, it was generally believed that it was really her directive. This did nothing for her popularity in Christendom.

Even before the crusade, Eleanor and Louis were becoming estranged, as vigor and piety clashed. Her Aquitiane family had won Antioch in the First Crusade, and it was ruled by her flamboyant uncle, Raymond of Antioch (rumored to be her lover). Clearly, she supported his desire to re-capture the nearby County of Edessa, the cause of the crusade. Louis was directed by the Church to visit Jerusalem instead. When Eleanor declared her intention to stand with Raymond and the Aquitaine forces, Louis had her brought out by force. Louis's long march to Jerusalem and back north debilitated his army, but Eleanor's imprisonment disheartened her Aquitaine knights, and the divided Crusade armies could not overcome the Muslim forces. For reasons unknown, likely the Germans' insistence on conquest, the crusade leaders targeted Damascus, an ally until the attack. Failing in this attempt, they retired to Jerusalem, and then home.

Perhaps some good came of this venture: while in the eastern Mediterranean, Eleanor learned about maritime conventions developing there that were the beginnings of what would become the field of admiralty law. She later introduced those conventions in her own lands, on the island of Oleron in 1160, and then into England. She was also instrumental in developing trade agreements with Constantinople and ports of trade in the Holy Lands.

When they passed through Rome on the way to Paris, Pope Eugene III tried to reconcile Eleanor and Louis. Eleanor conceived their second daughter, Alix Capet (their first was Marie de Champagne), but there was no saving the marriage. In 1152, it was annulled on the grounds of consanguinity. Her estates reverted to her and were no longer part of the French royal properties.

On May 18, 1152, six weeks after her annullment, Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Anjou, by whom she was pregnant with their son, William. She was about 10 years older than he, and related to him in the same degree as she had been to Louis. One of Eleanor's rumored lovers was Henry's own father, Geoffrey of Anjou, who, not surprisingly, advised him not to get involved with her. Over the next 13 years, she bore Henry four more sons and three daughters: Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, John, Matilda, Eleanor, and Joan.

Despite her reputation (which all the historical evidence shows was probably deserved), Eleanor was incensed by Henry's philandering; their son, William, and Henry's bastard son, Geoffrey, were born months apart.

Some time between 1168 and 1170, she instigated a separation, deciding to establish a new court in her own territory of Poitou. In Poitier, she reached the height of her powers creating the Court of Love. A small fragment of her codes and practices was written by Andreas Capellanus.

Henry concentrated on controlling his increasingly large empire, badgering Eleanor's subjects in attempts to control her patrimony of Aquitaine and her great court at Poitiers. Straining all civil bounds, Henry had Archbishop Thomas Becket murdered at the altar of the church in 1170. This aroused not only Eleanor's horror and contempt, but most of Europe's.

In 1173, aggrieved at his lack of power and egged on by his father's enemies, the younger Henry launched the Revolt of 1173-1174, joined by Richard and Geoffrey, and supported by several powerful English barons, as well as Louis VII and William I of Scotland. When Eleanor tried to join them, she was intercepted. Henry, who put down the rebellion, imprisoned her for the next 15 years, much of the time in various locations in England. About four miles from Shrewsbury and close by Haughmond Abbey is "Queen Eleanor's Bower," the remains of a triangular castle which is believed to have been one of her prisons.

Henry lost his great love, Rosamund Clifford, in 1176. He had met her in 1166 and begun the liaison in 1173, supposedly contemplating divorce from Eleanor. When Rosamund died, rumours flew that Eleanor poisoned her, but there is no evidence to support this.

Eleanor's tomb
Eleanor's tomb

In 1183, Henry the Young tried again. In debt and refused control of Normandy, he tried to ambush his father at Limoges. He was joined by troops sent by Geoffrey and Philip II of France. Henry's troops besieged the town, forcing his son to flee. Henry the Young wandered aimlessly through Aquitaine until he caught dysentery and died. The rebellion petered out.

Upon Henry's death in 1189, Eleanor helped her son Richard I to the throne, and he released her from prison. She ruled England as regent while Richard went off on the Third Crusade. She personally negotatied his ransom by going to Germany. She survived him and lived long enough to see her youngest son John on the throne.

Eleanor died in 1204 and was entombed in Fontevraud Abbey near her husband Henry and son Richard. Her tomb effigy shows her reading a Bible. She was the patroness of such literary figures as Wace, Benoît de Sainte-More , and Chrétien de Troyes.

In historical fiction

Eleanor and Henry are the main characters in the play The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman, which was made into a film starring Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn, and remade for televison in 2003 with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close.

The depiction of her in the film Becket is totally inaccurate.

She appears briefly in the BBC production Ivanhoe portrayed by Sian Phillips. She is also a major character in Thomas B. Costain's Below the Salt, and the subject of E. L. Konigsburg's children's book A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. Her later years are chronicled briefly in "Here be Dragons" by Sharon Kay Penman. The novel The Book of Eleanor by Pamela Kaufman tells the story of Eleanor's life from her own point of view.


  • Queen Eleanor: Independent Spirit of the Medieval World, Polly Schover Brooks (©1983) (for young readers)
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography, Marion Meade (©1977)
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, Amy Kelly (©1950)
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Mother Queen, Desmond Seward (©1978)
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life, Alison Weir (©1999)
  • Women of the Twelfth Century, Volume 1 : Eleanor of Aquitaine and Six Others, Georges Duby
Preceded by:
William X
Duchess of Aquitaine
with Louis and Henry I
Succeeded by:
Richard I
Raymond Countess of Poitiers
with Louis and Henry I

Last updated: 10-24-2005 20:28:45
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