Deconstructing the Story of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Fourteenth century depiction of the marriage of King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine.  The image on the right shows Louis leaving for the Second Crusade.
Fourteenth century depiction of the marriage of King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine. The image on the right shows Louis leaving for the Second Crusade.

Everything you know about Eleanor of Aquitaine is wrong! Or so says Michael R. Evans, lecturer in medieval history at Central Michigan University. In his book “Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine”, he works to destroy the myths that surround the life of Eleanor.

He begins by defining the role of medieval queens and how Eleanor fits the image. During her reign as Queen of France, she does appear in charters governing France and her duchy of Aquitaine in tandem with her husband Louis VII. As Queen of England, she also appears in charters and in some chronicles. But she seems to work more alongside her husband Henry II as opposed to autonomously unless she was governing as regent in his absence. She definitely fulfills the customary medieval queen roles of mother, diplomat and intercessor during Henry’s reign and those of her sons Richard I and John.

Eleanor's uncle Raymond Of Poitiers welcoming Louis VII in Antioch from a fifteenth century manuscript
Eleanor’s uncle Raymond Of Poitiers welcoming Louis VII in Antioch from a fifteenth century manuscript

Evans talks about Eleanor and the creation of what he calls the “Black Legend” which came about through the chronicler’s descriptions of her scandalous behavior usually written with their own political agenda. This includes her supposed incest with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers, Prince of Antioch during the Second Crusade. These rumors didn’t really start until later chroniclers such as William of Tyre wrote about them. Incest allegations were never brought up during the annulment of the marriage between Eleanor and Louis. Although we will never really know for sure, the likelihood of incest between Eleanor and Raymond is negligible and the rumor was only brought up to discredit Eleanor for political reasons. It was standard operating procedure for writers to discredit medieval queens with accusations of sexual misconduct.

Most interesting is the legend that Eleanor and her ladies dressed as Amazons on their way to the Second Crusade. Evans explains how this legend originated. A Byzantine courtier named Niketas Choniates described in his “Historia” a woman who appeared with the crusader army as it passed through Constantinople in 1147. He mentions a campaign of Germans which included women riding on horseback, not sidesaddle as was customary but scandalously astride. These women were dressed in the garb of men and carried lances and weapons. He says they had a martial appearance and were “more mannish than the Amazons”. Choniates says one woman stood out in the crowd, giving the appearance of Penthesilea with embroidered gold around the hems and fringes of her garment. This woman was called Goldfoot (Chrysópous). Penthesilea was an Amazon queen from Greek mythology.

Miniature of Niketas Choniates from a fourtheenth century manuscript "Historia", Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. Hist. gr. 53*, fol. 1v
Miniature of Niketas Choniates from a fourtheenth century manuscript “Historia”, Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. Hist. gr. 53*, fol. 1v

Nowhere in this passage is the name of Eleanor mentioned. These women are not even French here as Choniates calls them German. He doesn’t say they were dressed specifically as Amazons. Eleanor’s visit to Constantinople was made before Choniates was even born so he didn’t actually witness these women in person. He wrote this nearly fifty years after 1147. From this it was assumed the woman Goldfoot was Eleanor and the legend grew from there. This was even expanded upon by later writers to say that Eleanor and other women dressed as Amazons in France before leaving on the Crusade.

Another part of the “Black Legend” is the accusation that Eleanor had Henry’s mistress Rosamund Clifford murdered. Eleanor was imprisoned and under guard at the time of Rosamund’s death. A chronicle from the fourteenth century mentions that Henry held Rosamund in a bower at Woodstock to keep her away from Eleanor’s vengeance but doesn’t mention Eleanor as her killer. The first reference of Eleanor being a murderer doesn’t occur until the mid-fourteenth “French Chronicle of London” which claims Eleanor bled Rosamund to death. A chronicle from the sixteenth century has Eleanor finding Rosamund in the labyrinthine bower with the aid of a silken thread. A later sixteenth century chronicle expands on the story saying Eleanor had a loyal knight obtain the silken thread and that Eleanor poisoned Rosamund as she pleaded for her life. And so the legend grew.

Image of William of Tyre writing his history, from a 13th century Old French translation
Image of William of Tyre writing his history, from a 13th century Old French translation

Historical evidence that Eleanor followed her grandfather in the troubadour tradition and administered cases of courtly love along with her daughter Marie just doesn’t exist. Evans says this legend had for the most part had died out until Amy Kelly’s biography “Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings” was published in 1950. She reinvigorated this fable and gave it new life.

Evans addresses the notion that Eleanor was from the south of France, spoke the Occitan dialect of French and brought southern culture to her husband Louis’ backward court in Paris. He convincingly argues that Eleanor lived and identified with the culture of Poitiers which was on the dividing line between the areas of France that spoke ‘langue d’oc’ and ‘langue d’oïl’. Evans believes she did not speak langue d’oc and did not convey any special culture of the south to the north when she married Louis. Since we don’t have any historical evidence about her education as a young girl, we don’t really know if she was exceptionally educated. There is also no evidence she was any greater patroness of the arts than other medieval noblewomen of the era.

Another legend about Eleanor focuses on her purported beauty. There are no written descriptions of Eleanor so we have no idea of her height, hair or eye color or skin tone. There are also no surviving visual depictions of Eleanor. Evans notes that most chronicles describe medieval queens as beautiful so this is not out of the ordinary.

To summarize:

We don’t really know what Eleanor looked like

Evidence that she committed incest with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers is negligible

She never dressed as an Amazon

There is no evidence she killed Henry’s mistress Rosamund Clifford

She never presided over cases of courtly love

She did not speak langue d’oc

These are only a few of the myths that Evans addresses and he argues that Eleanor is not really exceptional as far as medieval queens go but I’m not sure I can embrace this argument wholeheartedly. She was the Queen of France and the Queen of England and the mother of three kings:  Henry the Young King, Richard I and John. She also participated in the Second Crusade. She acted as diplomat and traveled Europe on missions for her sons and lived to an advanced age. But the fact that legends and myths about her life have erupted through the centuries and across different media speaks to the fact that people find her fascinating for many and varied reasons. Even without the mythology, I think what little we know of the story of her life is unique.

Further reading: “Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine” by Michael R. Evans

23 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Story of Eleanor of Aquitaine

  1. I believe that Eleanor had another son with Henry, Geoffrey who became Duc of Brittany…he was born in 1158 and died in 1186 after a fall from his horse…he is buried in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.


  2. Most interesting. May be she was not exceptional but she represents an educated woman of her times. And we have an idea of what she looked like from her tomb effigy in the Abbaye of Fontevraud in France where Elianor lies with her second husband, Henry II.


  3. I like your observation that male medieval historians would discredit medieval queens with accusations of sexual misconduct. I think that idea can still be found in our times, and, it’s not limited to historians or queens.


  4. Hi, just saw this article and I have never heard about what you or he called “Black Legend”, the problem with medieval times and even thereafter is that most of the writings concerning a prominent figure is historiography, which is not History… and most of the time historiography is propaganda for their patrons.What i can only assert is that she was married to king of France because she brought him the Great Duchy of Aquitaine which was by far bigger than the royal domain at that time and then he repudiated her on the ground they were related but the real fact is because she couldn’t bear him a son. Her daughter Mary of Champagne was the patron of Chrétien de Troyes who first wrote an elaborated story of king Arthur (gathering Wace and Monmouth) and coined the term romance which was to become roman (novel). It embedded courtly love as well as the myth of Arthur who would come back to save England and strangely enough the monks of Glastonbury found miraculously some remains that were supposed to be Arthur and Guinevere… this of course to install Henry Plantagenêt as a rightful king. Alienor was surely educated because she was a heiress contrary to women who were not as rich as her.


    • In this case, the author of the book is using the term “Black Legend” as an historical term referring to a deeply biased historigraphy which is written to distort the subject’s reputation, accentuating the negative in order to counteract their influence. Alienor was able to have sons with Henry II so there must have been another reason Louis repudiated her. And no one is disputing the fact that Alienor was educated.


    • ‘… she was married to king of France because she brought him the Great Duchy of Aquitaine.’

      I doubt that this holds chronologically. Eleanor was married to Louis VII of France pretty much immediately upon the death of her father, the Duke of Aquitaine, whose vast estate, including the Duchy of Aquitaine, she inherited as sole heir. A woman of her independent fortune was very unusual, and made her a target for enterprising kidnappers. Hence her rapid first marriage, advised and arranged by her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, Prince of Antioch.

      At the time, the French monarch was a minor figure, the Île-de-France, his domain, being about the size of modern-day Paris. As Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor was of a higher standing than he. And she retained the Dutchy of Aquitaine, duly delivering it to her second husband, Henry II of England. So in no sense did she ‘deliver’ it to Loius VII.


  5. Unfortunately, women in medieval history, were at the mercy of male court historians and clerical scribes. I think that women, throughout history, have been treated appallingly. Eleanor of Aquitaine is just a glaring example of that injustice.


  6. Very interesting! I hadn’t heard most of these myths – or rather, I’d heard of them but only as myths. The Amazons is a new one to me – one I almost wish were true! I wholeheartedly agree with you, that while Eleanor may not have been all that the myths claimed, it’s still not true to say she wasn’t an exceptional woman and queen of her time. We students of history today certainly want our imagination-catching historical figures to be larger than life, but they can definitely still be amazing and eye-opening without being tall tales.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for a most interesting article. I have read many books on Eleanor of the Aquitaine, including Eleanor of the Aquitaine and the Four Kings this article rather debunks some of what was written there. I will look for this book I would like to read it. It is always interesting to read what other writers when researching or fantasizing come up with. History buffs love it I think, keeps it so interesting. Thanks again, love your newsletter and the articles.

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    • I have just sent you an invitation to become a follower with the new e-mail address Liz. Please follow instructions and accept. Thanks for letting me know.


  8. The myths mentioned have long been de-bunked, so this book hardly seems earth-shaking. Surely no one nowadays seriously thought Eleanor murdered Rosamund or had an affair with her uncle? As you say, the fascination with Eleanor is that she ruled the Aquitaine in her own right and ruled England in Richard’s absence, raised his ransom etc. What she really did is much more interesting than the legends listed.


    • I realize these myths have been debunked Helena but I’m finding many people still don’t know this. I’m using this as a teachable moment. The book was only published in 2014 and he goes over all the sources. And yes, her real life IS much more interesting than the myths.


  9. Well that certainly is a lot to think about. I think that myths like these at some point reach a critical mass where they just start self-perpetuating. It would be interesting to trace how and when the fascination with Eleanor started and grew.

    Liked by 1 person

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