In keeping with our theme of medieval British queens, let’s look into the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. And what a life she had! She was the wife of two kings and mother of three kings and she went on Crusade to the Holy Land.
Born c. 1122, most likely in Bordeaux in southwestern France, Eleanor was the oldest child of William X, Duke of Aquitaine. We know little of her childhood. Her brother and mother died when she was a young girl so Eleanor became the rightful heir of her father’s dukedom, one of the largest and richest in France at the time. Because she was wealthy and held large estates, she was a highly sought after marriage prize. The winner of this prize was the French Dauphin Louis whom she married in 1137. It was decided Eleanor would retain the rights to her inheritance free and clear of Louis and when her future son became King of the Franks, he would also inherit the Duchy of Aquitaine.
Shortly after her wedding day, Louis VII and Eleanor became King and Queen of France. It was not until 1145 that she had her first child and it was a girl, Marie. In that same year, the pious Louis was invited to go on Crusade to the Holy Land with the mission of converting the Infidels into Christians.
Eleanor took up this challenge, pledging to the Crusade and recruiting many people to go, including her ladies in waiting. In their travels to the Holy Land, they stopped in Constantinople and stayed with the Byzantine Emperor. They went on to Jerusalem and Damascus but due to Louis’ lack of authority and command, many disasters awaited the Crusaders.
By the time of their return to France, the marriage of Eleanor and Louis had completely broken down. When Eleanor’s second daughter, Alix, was born in 1151, Louis was ready for an annulment of the marriage. The annulment was final in 1152 with assurances by Louis that Eleanor could retain all of her inheritance. As soon as Eleanor returned to her Duchy, she sent word to Henry II, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, known to history as Henry Plantagenet, to come and marry her. Henry was the son of Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry I of England and therefore heir to the throne of England. Eight weeks after her annulment, Eleanor was married again and in October of 1154, Henry and Eleanor became King and Queen of England.
Over the next thirteen years, Eleanor had five sons and three daughters. Henry was unfaithful to Eleanor and their marriage was not a tranquil affair. By the time her youngest child was born, Henry was deeply involved with his favorite, Rosamund Clifford and the marriage was strained beyond repair. In 1167, Eleanor returned to her Duchy in Aquitaine and agreed to a separation from Henry.
In 1173, Eleanor’s eldest son, Henry, rebelled against King Henry II and she may have aided and abetted him along with her two other sons, Richard and Geoffrey in France. King Henry eventually had Eleanor arrested and in 1174 they returned to England. Because Henry feared any alliance between Eleanor and his sons, he kept Eleanor in captivity from 1173-1189. She was moved from castle to castle around England and not allowed to have much contact with her sons.
Eleanor and Henry’s eldest son rebelled against his father again in 1183 but lost and ended up contracting dysentery and dying. After this, Henry allowed Eleanor a trip to Normandy and some freedoms, although she was still under a guardian at all times. She even appeared at court with Henry on important occasions.
King Henry II died in July of 1189 and their son Richard, known as the Lionheart, became King of England. It is said his first order on becoming King was to send someone to release his mother from captivity. Eleanor rode to Westminster where the lords swore fealty to her in the King’s name. She ruled as Regent on behalf of King Richard I while he was out of the country and when he was on the Third Crusade. Richard was captured while trying to return home after the Crusade and held in prison in Germany. Eleanor went to Germany and negotiated the ransom required for his release. The ransom was raised, basically draining the wealth of England to do so.
Richard I died while Eleanor lived on into the reign of her youngest son, King John. John sent his aging mother on a mission to the Kingdom of Castile to choose one of her grand-daughters as a bride for the son of the King of France. Upon returning to France, Eleanor became ill. She decided to stay at the Benedictine abbey of Fontevraud.
In 1201, her son King John and the King of France were at war. Eleanor returned to Poitiers to help by keeping John’s enemies at bay and was besieged at Mirabeau castle. King John rescued her and she finally retired to Fontevraud. She died there in 1204 at the age of 82.
What an eventful life! Marriages, at least ten children, Crusades, wars and rebellions, captivity, travels all over Europe and finally, a life of contemplation in an abbey. There never has been another Queen like her.
Further reading: “Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England” by Ralph V. Turner, “Aliénor d’Aquitaine. La reine insoumise” by Jean Flori, “Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine” by Michael R. Evans