The Life and Times of the Notorious Medieval Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine

The Life and Times of the Notorious Medieval Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine is considered to have been one of the wealthiest and most powerful women of medieval Europe during the 12 th century. For a start, Eleanor was Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, which made her the most eligible bride on the continent at that time. Subsequently, she became the Queen of France, and then Queen of England. During her second marriage, she produced eight children, seven of whom survived till adulthood. Three of Eleanor’s sons became kings, whilst two of her daughters became queens. Eleanor wielded considerable political power as queen, and even as queen dowager after her husband’s death. Apart from that, Eleanor was also a generous patron of the arts. As one of the most outstanding women of the Middle Ages , Eleanor has appeared in various forms of popular culture over the centuries.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (Éléonore or Aliénor d’Aquitaine in French), known also as Eleanor of Guyenne, was born around 1124. Her birthplace is generally thought to have been Poitiers, in today’s west-central France. Eleanor was the eldest child of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and Aénor, Viscountess of Châtellerault. The marriage of William and Aénor is an interesting story in itself. Eleanor’s paternal grandfather, William IX, though a duke, is best remembered today as one of the earliest troubadours. He is, after all, the first poet in the Provençal language whose works have survived till this day. In any event, William ‘abducted’ Dangereuse, the wife of one of his vassals, Aimeric I, Viscount of Châtellerault, and made her his mistress. It was Dangereuse who suggested to the duke that his son, William, should be married to her daughter, Aénor. William agreed, and the two were married, which caused the resulting family relations to be somewhat convoluted.

Painting of Queen Eleanor by Frederick Sandys (1858) located in the National Museum Cardiff collection. ( Frederick Sandys / Public domain ).

Eleanor of Aquitaine Became Ruler of a Vast Territory at Fifteen

Eleanor’s father, William X, died of an illness in April 1137, whilst he was on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. As a consequence, Eleanor, who was around 15 years old at that time, inherited all his lands. In addition to Aquitaine, William also controlled Poitiers, Gascony, Limousin, and Auvergne. This meant that the Eleanor was now the ruler of a large chunk of France. It also meant that whoever married Eleanor would be her co-ruler over this vast territory. As he was on his deathbed, William named Louis VI (whose epithet was ‘the Fat’ or ‘the Fighter’), the King of France, as Eleanor’s guardian. At that time, the French king, who was severely obese, was bed-ridden, and close to death. Nevertheless, he managed to arrange the marriage of Eleanor to his son and heir, the future Louis VII of France.

The Tumultuous Marriage to Louis VII and becoming Queen of France

The betrothal was settled within hours of Louis gaining guardianship of Eleanor. The king sent an escort of 500 men to convey the news to the duchess, and to transport her to her new home. In July 1137, just months after William’s death, Eleanor and Louis, both of whom were around the same age, were married. This union strengthened the French crown, as it received a share of Aquitaine’s lands and wealth. Due to the conflicting personalities of Eleanor and Louis the marriage was not going to be easy. Whilst Eleanor was high-spirited, worldly, and strong-headed, Louis was quite the opposite. Monkish, pious, and meek, Louis is thought to have been raised for a life in the church. He only became king because his older brother Philip had died in 1131.

A week after the marriage, King Louis VI fell ill and died. As a consequence, Eleanor became the Queen of France, following the ascension of her husband. It seems that Eleanor had a difficult time adjusting to her new home. The royal court in Paris, as well as northern France, was more reserved and less sophisticated than Eleanor’s home in Aquitaine. Still, Eleanor and Louis were able to sustain their marriage until the 1140s when it took a turn for the worse.

14th-century representation of the wedding of Louis and Eleanor on the left, and Louis leaving for the crusade on the right. ( Public domain )

In 1142 Eleanor’s sister, Petronilla, was invited to the French court. Whist at court, Petronilla met Raoul I, Count of Vermandois, and the two began an affair. As the count was already married, he decided to repudiate his wife in order to marry the queen’s sister. Unfortunately Raoul’s wife was Eleanor of Champagne, the sister of Theobald II, Count of Champagne. The two siblings belonged to the powerful House of Blois, which meant that they would not allow Raoul to have his way that easily. Eleanor managed to convince the king to support her sister and Raoul, resulting in a war with the Count of Champagne. The war lasted two years and ended with the defeat of Theobald, but it left a huge impact on Louis and influenced the events of the coming years.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Second Crusade

In 1143, Louis personally led the assault on a small town called Vitry-en-Perthois. The town was burned down and as many as 1500 of its inhabitants lost their lives. These included those who sought refuge in a church. Louis felt extremely remorseful for his actions. When peace was restored, the king vowed to go on a crusade to atone for his sins. In 1147, the Second Crusade was launched in response to the fall of the County of Edessa to the Muslims in 1144. Louis took up the cross and served as one of the leaders of the expedition. Eleanor accompanied her husband on the crusade. As the bulk of the French force is said to have come from Aquitaine, Eleanor, as Duchess of Aquitaine, served as their leader.

Detail of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the stained-glass window of Poitiers Cathedral. Source: Danielclauzier / CC BY-SA

The Second Crusade ended in 1150, achieving little success in the Holy Land. Instead, the expedition caused further strain between Eleanor and Louis. It also gave critics the chance to criticize the queen. Rumors of her excesses began to spread and Eleanor was blamed for the crusade’s failure. One popular rumor claimed that Eleanor brought with her 300 ladies-in-waiting, whose caravan stretched for miles, impeding the army’s progress. There were also rumors about Eleanor’s apparent incestuous affair with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, Prince of Antioch, with whom she spent a great deal of time and listened to his council.

The rumor of incest also circulated because there were disagreements in strategy between Raymond and Louis. Whilst the former wanted to attack Aleppo, and proceed to Edessa, the latter intended to go to Jerusalem first. The queen openly sided with her uncle, going so far as to threaten to annul her marriage with Louis if the king refused to accept Raymond’s counsel. Louis defied his wife, forcing Eleanor to go with him to Jerusalem. It was not too difficult for rumormongers to depict this uncharacteristic behavior by Louis as a reaction to the queen’s infidelity.

Annulment of Marriage to Louis VII and Marriage to Henry Plantagenet

In any event, the Second Crusade was a failure. In 1149, Louis and Eleanor returned to France. The humiliating defeat of the crusade, in addition to the increasing tensions during their time in the Holy Land caused the couple to drift further apart. On top of that, Eleanor had failed to produce a male heir. In spite of efforts to reconcile the two, the marriage was eventually annulled. The Pope, Eugenius III, tried to play marriage counsellor, even threatening excommunication, but to no avail.

In 1152, a council of bishops at Beaugency nullified Louis and Eleanor’s marriage on the grounds of consanguinity. The couple’s two daughters stayed with Louis, whilst Eleanor retained her duchy.

Once again, Eleanor was the most eligible woman in Europe. Theobald V, Count of Blois, even tried to kidnap her! The former queen, however, had another man in mind: Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, and Duke of Normandy. The two had met when Henry and his father came to Paris in 1151 to negotiate a peace treaty with Louis. About two months after her divorce from Louis, Eleanor and Henry were married. In 1153, Henry crossed the English Channel and made a bid for the English throne. His campaign was successful, and in the following year, Henry was crowned King Henry II of England, making Eleanor Queen of England.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry Plantagenet and their children in a mural found the chapel of Saint Radegund in Chinon, France. ( Chinpat / CC BY-SA )

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of the Troubadours and Her Court of Love

The union of King Henry and Eleanor made them one of the most powerful couples in Europe. In addition to Eleanor’s lands, the couple also controlled England, Normandy, and Anjou. This marriage was also a fruitful one. Between 1153 and 1166, Henry and Eleanor had eight children, five sons and three daughters. Their eldest, William, died in childhood, but the rest of their children lived till adulthood. Although this meant that their dynasty was secured, Henry’s children would eventually rebel against him. For the time being, however, the rule of Henry and Eleanor was safe and sound, and they reigned unchallenged. This peace and prosperity also allowed Eleanor to become a patron of the arts.

Between 1168 and 1173, Eleanor held court in Poitiers, where she is said to have established the so-called ‘Court of Love’. Troubadours, who sang of chivalry and courtly love, were attracted to Eleanor’s court, and found a patron in the queen. We also know that at least four writers dedicated their works to Eleanor, indicating that they had received patronage from her. Thus, Eleanor’s court became a known as a center of culture, where music, poetry, and the arts flourished.

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Although Eleanor and Henry had a great start, relations between the two grew tense as the years went by. Their marriage, for example, was damaged by King Henry’s infidelity, and the king’s neglect of their children. As a matter of fact, Eleanor’s return to Aquitaine in 1168 was caused by the couple’s domestic problems. She took two of her sons with her, Richard and Geoffrey. Things broke down completely in 1173 when the couple’s eldest surviving son, Henry, plotted to overthrow his father, as he was unhappy about being excluded from power. The prince travelled to Aquitaine, and convinced Richard and Geoffrey to support his revolt. Eleanor is often thought to have supported her son’s revolt, though her reasons for doing so are unclear. Some have even argued that Eleanor instigated the revolt.

Family relations were never peaceful for Eleanor of Aquitaine. In this image by James William Edmund Doyle, Richard I pardons his brother Prince John at the behest of their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Imprisonment for Supporting a Revolt Against Her Husband King Henry II

The revolt was a failure, and the queen was captured. For the part she played in the revolt, Eleanor was imprisoned by her husband. She was confined under guard at various castles in Henry’s kingdom. Eleanor’s imprisonment only ended in 1189, when her husband died. The new king was Richard I (known also as Richard the Lionheart), Eleanor’s favorite son. With Richard on the throne, Eleanor wielded more political power than ever before. Her lands, which had been confiscated after the failed revolt, were returned to her. She was given a position in the government and actively prepared for her son’s coronation. When Richard was away crusading in the Holy Land , Eleanor ruled the kingdom as regent and prevented it from falling into the hands of her other son, John, who was plotting with the French king, Philip II Augustus. When Richard was captured by the Duke of Austria on his way home from the crusade, Eleanor collected his ransom, and went personally to escort her son back to England.

Richard died in 1199 and John became the new king. Eleanor was almost 80 years old by then, but was still actively involved in the kingdom’s politics. As an example, she was hoping to strengthen relations between the Plantagenets of England and the Capetians of France. Therefore, in 1200, Eleanor travelled to Castile to escort her granddaughter, Blanche of Castile, to France, where she was to marry the future French king, Louis VIII. In the same year, Eleanor helped her son John defend Anjou and Aquitaine from her grandson, Arthur of Brittany. Two years later, she defended Mirebeau from Arthur. The siege was lifted when King John arrived with a relief force. This was to be Eleanor’s last political action, as she retired to Fontevraud Abbey, in Anjou, soon after.

Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevraud Abbey, where she was buried next to her husband, Henry, and son, Richard. ( ElanorGamgee / CC BY 3.0 )

The legacy of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine died in 1204, and was buried in Fontevraud Abbey, next to her husband, Henry, and son, Richard. As one of the most remarkable women of the Middle Ages, Eleanor has been portrayed throughout the ages in various media. The queen is a character, for instance, in Shakespeare’s play King John , and appears in Donizetti’s opera, Rosmonda d’Inghilterra . In more recent times, Eleanor has appeared in various television series and films, one of the most famous being the 1968 film The Lion in Winter , in which the queen was portrayed by the American actress Katharine Hepburn.

A quick overview

The eldest daughter of William, Duke of Aquitaine, Eleanor was married to Louis VII, King of France. During the Second Crusade, her relationship with her husband soured, and in 1152, they officially divorced. Shortly afterward, she married Henry of Anjou, who in two years would become King Of England.

The royal couple had 8 children, five sons, and three daughters. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine remained heavily involved in the ruling of King Henry II's vast empire in France and England.

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In 1173, Henry's sons started a revolt against their father with Eleanor siding with her sons. Henry stifled the revolt and, as punishment for her involvement, confined her. Henry II died in 1189, and Richard II, the Lionhearted, became king.

Another of her sons, John, rose against Richard along with the King of France. Eleanor supported Richard. Later, when her grandson tried to claim the throne, she supported John. She died in 1204 at the age of 82.

This restless queen swept across the 12th century, changing the face of Europe.


The role she played

Endowed with intelligence, creative energy and a remarkably long life. Eleanor of Aquitaine played a major role in the 12th century, an impressive achievement given that medieval women were considered nothing more than chattel. Assets of brains and enterprise served her well in the chaos of the time unrelenting hostilities between Plantagenets and Capets, crusades and struggle between church and state. They equipped her to advance civility in a ruthless era by promoting the songs of troubadours and the ideals of courtly love. Even in a century of imposing personalities—the likes of Thomas Becket, Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abélard—Eleanor took center stage.

As the queen consort of King Louis VII of France and of King Henry II of England, and as the mother of King Richard I and King John, she held the spotlight, wielding power over the most important men of her time. She was the daughter and heir of the imperious William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers, who possessed the largest domains in northwest Europe, indeed larger than those held by the king of France. When her father died in 1137, she came into her inheritance and, complying with the dictates of a territorial agreement, at age 15 married the heir to the French throne. Barely a month after the wedding, King Louis VI died, thrusting Eleanor’s 16-year-old groom to the throne of France.

Eleanor found court life as queen of France stultifying. Her timid, sweet-tempered and devout husband exasperated her. Formed during her childhood at the court in Poitiers where she was rarely disciplined and always admired, her strong ego impelled Eleanor to create a lofty royal vision for herself, one that did not encompass the subordinate role as queen of France.

After a decade of marriage she was as beautiful and capricious as ever, but even more headstrong and domineering toward Louis. From 1147 to 1149 she accompanied him on the Second Crusade. According to Simon Schama in A History of Britain , while Louis took the cross to atone for his sins, “Eleanor went with him in a magnificent rather than penitential style,” adding, “Dismayed to discover that crusading was an arduous, pious business, she quickly developed an unhealthily warm relationship with her uncle, the slightly impious Raymond of Poitiers.” Raymond apparently ensconced at Antioch for the duration of the crusade, aroused Louis’jealousy, which caused an estrangement between Eleanor and Louis.

Though at one time Louis had adored his wife, after 15 years of marriage he was willing to let her go for the sake of the Capetian royal line. She had not borne him a son and heir, only two daughters. Eleanor, on cue, illuminated her predicament, explaining that her husband’s infrequent visits to her bed accounted for the fruitlessness of their union. In the end, the marriage was annulled on the convenient grounds of consanguinity: Eleanor and Louis were too closely related for the church to tolerate.

After her marriage

Following the dissolution of her marriage, Eleanor regained possession of Aquitaine and Poitou. This wealth combined with her loveliness attracted suitors well before the annulment was final, one of whom was Henry of Anjou (a domain bordering Poitou), soon to be known as Plantagenet. Most historians agree that Eleanor and Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry’s father, were sexually intimate before she met Henry. Schama notes, “It was rumored that Geoffrey of Anjou had personally verified Eleanor’s appetite for passion before recommending her to his son.” Be this as it may, 30-year-old Eleanor and 18-year-old Henry felt passionately attracted to one another. Henry’s unsurpassed physical courage and keen political acumen resonated with Eleanor’s ambition for power.

Schama writes, “Barely eight weeks after Eleanor’s divorce in May 1152, Henry stood at the altar beside this considerably older woman whom all contemporary accounts describe as a dark-eyed beauty, disconcertingly articulate, strong-minded and even jocular and not at all the modestly veiled damsel in the tower.” For her part, Eleanor was willing to look beyond her groom’s stocky frame, barrel chest and boyish freckles to his arrogant self-confidence and royal objectives. Though they may have had little in common because of the age difference, the pair shared similar backgrounds. “Their native worlds,” writes Schama, “were not all that far apart…knights astride brightly caparisoned chargers thudding into each other in the lists or obliging their overlords by burning down the opposition’s manors.”

(Via: Granger Collection, New York).

Two years after the wedding, Henry became King Henry II of England, and Eleanor his queen. Stretching from the Pyrenees in the south to the Cheviots in the north, their empire was indeed vast. Their Plantagenet offspring would rule England and parts of the Continent for the next 330 years, an era of insatiable royal ambition, family jealousies, and territorial overreach.

During a tempestuous marriage of nearly 40 years, Eleanor and Henry produced seven children who survived to adulthood, four of whom were sons. The oldest surviving son, known as the Young King Henry, died of dysentery at age 28 while leading troops in rebellion against his father. Another disloyal son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, died a mysterious death in Paris, also at age 28. Eleanor’s favorite son, Richard the Lionheart, and Henry’s favorite, John Lackland, would both, in turn, inherit the crown of England. Throughout her childbearing years, Eleanor participated in the administration of the realm, particularly in the management of her own domains, Aquitaine and Poitou.

Accounts of Eleanor’s activities at court in Poitiers reveal a softer side to this aggressive woman. Captivated by the romantic legend of King Arthur and stories of the knights of his Round Table, she filled the court with troubadours whose performances evoked King Arthur’s world—a milieu of chivalry and courtly love. The precepts of chivalry held that women were to be silent, passive goddesses to be approached with reverence. Perhaps the troubadours’ tales appealed to Eleanor because of their contrast to her callous life of action.

In an 1840 painting by Jean Baptiste Mauzaisse, young Louis VII, Eleanor’s first husband, takes the banner of St. Denis in 1147. The original hangs at Versailles.

Chivalry notwithstanding, circumstances anchored her in reality. Time after time her adult sons’ intermittent revolts against her husband lured her attention away from cultural pursuits. When her sons staged a rebellion in 1173 Eleanor gave them support in the form of troops and money. Indeed, some historians believe that Eleanor initiated the plot. She and Henry had long been estranged, the 12-year age difference proving an obstacle in the marriage. Eleanor resented Henry’s infidelities, particularly his blatant association with the fair Rosamund (a beauty much lauded by English poets). Yet more important than Eleanor’s resentment was her consummate ambition for personal power. She believed that with one of her sons on the throne, she herself would rule England.

Quest for power

The rebellion failed and King Henry II held the throne intact, and for her role in the drama, Eleanor was confined under guard at various castles throughout Henry’s kingdom. When her imprisonment ended with her husband’s death in 1189, Eleanor, undaunted at age 67, returned with a vengeance to public life. Schama points out that she greeted the death of Henry with dry eyes, and continues, “With Richard—a character formed by her own educated passions—finally seated on the throne, she could assert herself again in the business of state.”

Her opportunity came on the heels of King Richard’s coronation, an event she stage-crafted with the fullest measure of pageantry. The Third Crusade was underway and crusading fervor had enveloped England. Yet Eleanor viewed the rescue of the Holy Land from the Turks as a distraction from the business at hand the real concern, she believed, was not Saladin but the preservation of the House of Plantagenet, particularly in England. Against his mother’s advice, King Richard was determined to join the crusade, a decision undoubtedly fueled by childhood exposure in Poitiers to his mother’s world of chivalric idylls. Like an Arthurian knight, he would travel with courage and honor to rescue the besieged city of Jerusalem.

At Fontevrault Abbey, France, Eleanor’s tomb lies between those of her husband, Henry II, and her favorite son, Richard the Lionheart.

King Richard was away for five years, during which time his mother ruled England as administrator of the realm, simultaneously thwarting the intrigues of his brother John Lackland in his attempts to seize the throne. Participation in the crusade did not account for Richard’s entire absence. While returning from the Holy Land he was captured and taken prisoner by the Duke of Austria. Characteristically competent and resourceful, Eleanor not only collected her son’s considerable ransom but also made the formidable journey to Austria to escort him back to England. King Richard the Lionheart died in 1199 near Aquitaine, besieging a castle belonging to a rebellious vassal.

Because he died without an heir, Richard’s younger brother, and least capable of Henry and Eleanor’s brood, John was crowned king. From the outset of his reign, territorial wars against the Capetian rulers of France occupied King John. With typical political savvy, Eleanor resolved that her granddaughter Blanche should marry the son of the French king, thus initiating peace between the Plantagenets and Capets. Amazingly, in 1200 when she was nearly 80 years old she crossed the Pyrenees on horseback to fetch Blanche from the Court of Castile.

Still, her work was not completed. That same year, in order to secure King John’s continental possessions, Eleanor helped him to defend Anjou and Aquitaine against her grandson Arthur of Brittany (son of Geoffrey). Records show that in 1202 King John was again in his mother’s debt for holding Poitou against Arthur. But that apparently was her final curtain call. Following the battle, she retired to the monastery at Fontevrault in Anjou, where she died in 1204.

In the years immediately following her death, historians judged Eleanor harshly, spotlighting only her youthful indiscretions and ignoring the political wisdom and tenacity that marked the years of her maturity. The nuns of Fontevrault, however, wrote in their necrology, “She was beautiful and just, imposing and modest, humble and elegant.”


Eleanor's year of birth is not known precisely: a late 13th-century genealogy of her family listing her as 13 years old in the spring of 1137 provides the best evidence that Eleanor was perhaps born as late as 1124. [5] On the other hand, some chronicles mention a fidelity oath of some lords of Aquitaine on the occasion of Eleanor's fourteenth birthday in 1136. This, and her known age of 82 at her death make 1122 the most likely year of her birth. [6] Her parents almost certainly married in 1121. Her birthplace may have been Poitiers, Bordeaux, or Nieul-sur-l'Autise, where her mother and brother died when Eleanor was 6 or 8. [7]

Eleanor (or Aliénor) was the oldest of three children of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, whose glittering ducal court was renowned in early 12th-century Europe, and his wife, Aenor de Châtellerault, the daughter of Aimery I, Viscount of Châtellerault, and Dangereuse de l'Isle Bouchard, who was William IX's longtime mistress as well as Eleanor's maternal grandmother. Her parents' marriage had been arranged by Dangereuse with her paternal grandfather William IX.

Eleanor is said to have been named for her mother Aenor and called Aliénor from the Latin Alia Aenor, which means the other Aenor. It became Eléanor in the langues d'oïl of northern France and Eleanor in English. [4] There was, however, another prominent Eleanor before her—Eleanor of Normandy, an aunt of William the Conqueror, who lived a century earlier than Eleanor of Aquitaine. In Paris as the queen of France, she was called Helienordis, her honorific name as written in the Latin epistles.

By all accounts, Eleanor's father ensured that she had the best possible education. [8] Eleanor came to learn arithmetic, the constellations, and history. [4] She also learned domestic skills such as household management and the needle arts of embroidery, needlepoint, sewing, spinning, and weaving. [4] Eleanor developed skills in conversation, dancing, games such as backgammon, checkers, and chess, playing the harp, and singing. [4] Although her native tongue was Poitevin, she was taught to read and speak Latin, was well versed in music and literature, and schooled in riding, hawking, and hunting. [9] Eleanor was extroverted, lively, intelligent, and strong-willed. Her four-year-old brother William Aigret and their mother died at the castle of Talmont on Aquitaine's Atlantic coast in the spring of 1130. Eleanor became the heir presumptive to her father's domains. The Duchy of Aquitaine was the largest and richest province of France. Poitou, where Eleanor spent most of her childhood, and Aquitaine together was almost one-third the size of modern France. Eleanor had only one other legitimate sibling, a younger sister named Aelith (also called Petronilla). Her half-brother Joscelin was acknowledged by William X as a son, but not as his heir. The notion that she had another half-brother, William, has been discredited. [10] Later, during the first four years of Henry II's reign, her siblings joined Eleanor's royal household.

Inheritance Edit

In 1137 Duke William X left Poitiers for Bordeaux and took his daughters with him. Upon reaching Bordeaux, he left them in the charge of the archbishop of Bordeaux, one of his few loyal vassals. The duke then set out for the Shrine of Saint James of Compostela in the company of other pilgrims. However, he died on Good Friday of that year (9 April).

Eleanor, aged 12 to 15, then became the duchess of Aquitaine, and thus the most eligible heiress in Europe. As these were the days when kidnapping an heiress was seen as a viable option for obtaining a title, William dictated a will on the very day he died that bequeathed his domains to Eleanor and appointed King Louis VI of France as her guardian. [11] William requested of the king that he take care of both the lands and the duchess, and find her a suitable husband. [8] However, until a husband was found, the king had the legal right to Eleanor's lands. The duke also insisted to his companions that his death be kept a secret until Louis was informed the men were to journey from Saint James of Compostela across the Pyrenees as quickly as possible to call at Bordeaux to notify the archbishop, then to make all speed to Paris to inform the king.

The king of France, known as Louis the Fat, was also gravely ill at that time, suffering from a bout of dysentery from which he appeared unlikely to recover. Yet despite his impending death, Louis's mind remained clear. His eldest surviving son, Louis, had originally been destined for monastic life, but had become the heir apparent when the firstborn, Philip, died in a riding accident in 1131. [12]

The death of William, one of the king's most powerful vassals, made available the most desirable duchy in France. While presenting a solemn and dignified face to the grieving Aquitainian messengers, Louis exulted when they departed. Rather than act as guardian to the duchess and duchy, he decided to marry the duchess to his 17-year-old heir and bring Aquitaine under the control of the French crown, thereby greatly increasing the power and prominence of France and its ruling family, the House of Capet. Within hours, the king had arranged for his son Louis to be married to Eleanor, with Abbot Suger in charge of the wedding arrangements. Louis was sent to Bordeaux with an escort of 500 knights, along with Abbot Suger, Theobald II, Count of Champagne, and Count Ralph.

On 25 July 1137, Eleanor and Louis were married in the Cathedral of Saint-André in Bordeaux by the archbishop of Bordeaux. [8] Immediately after the wedding, the couple were enthroned as duke and duchess of Aquitaine. [8] It was agreed that the land would remain independent of France until Eleanor's oldest son became both king of France and duke of Aquitaine. Thus, her holdings would not be merged with France until the next generation. As a wedding present she gave Louis a rock crystal vase , currently on display at the Louvre. [8] [12] [13] Louis gave the vase to the Basilica of St Denis. This vase is the only object connected with Eleanor of Aquitaine that still survives. [14]

Louis's tenure as count of Poitou and duke of Aquitaine and Gascony lasted only a few days. Although he had been invested as such on 8 August 1137, a messenger gave him the news that Louis VI had died of dysentery on 1 August while he and Eleanor were making a tour of the provinces. He and Eleanor were anointed and crowned king and queen of France on Christmas Day of the same year. [8] [15]

Possessing a high-spirited nature, Eleanor was not popular with the staid northerners according to sources, Louis's mother Adelaide of Maurienne thought her flighty and a bad influence. She was not aided by memories of Constance of Arles, the Provençal wife of Robert II, tales of whose immodest dress and language were still told with horror. [a] Eleanor's conduct was repeatedly criticised by church elders, particularly Bernard of Clairvaux and Abbot Suger, as indecorous. The king was madly in love with his beautiful and worldly bride, however, and granted her every whim, even though her behaviour baffled and vexed him. Much money went into making the austere Cité Palace in Paris more comfortable for Eleanor's sake. [12]

Conflict Edit

Louis soon came into violent conflict with Pope Innocent II. In 1141, the Archbishopric of Bourges became vacant, and the king put forward as a candidate one of his chancellors, Cadurc, while vetoing the one suitable candidate, Pierre de la Chatre, who was promptly elected by the canons of Bourges and consecrated by the Pope. Louis accordingly bolted the gates of Bourges against the new bishop. The Pope, recalling similar attempts by William X to exile supporters of Innocent from Poitou and replace them with priests loyal to himself, blamed Eleanor, saying that Louis was only a child and should be taught manners. Outraged, Louis swore upon relics that so long as he lived Pierre should never enter Bourges. An interdict was thereupon imposed upon the king's lands, and Pierre was given refuge by Theobald II, Count of Champagne.

Louis became involved in a war with Count Theobald by permitting Raoul I, Count of Vermandois and seneschal of France, to repudiate his wife Eleanor of Blois, Theobald's sister, and to marry Petronilla of Aquitaine, Eleanor's sister. Eleanor urged Louis to support her sister's marriage to Count Raoul. Theobald had also offended Louis by siding with the Pope in the dispute over Bourges. The war lasted two years (1142–44) and ended with the occupation of Champagne by the royal army. Louis was personally involved in the assault and burning of the town of Vitry. More than a thousand people who sought refuge in the church there died in the flames. Horrified, and desiring an end to the war, Louis attempted to make peace with Theobald in exchange for his support in lifting the interdict on Raoul and Petronilla. This was duly lifted for long enough to allow Theobald's lands to be restored it was then lowered once more when Raoul refused to repudiate Petronilla, prompting Louis to return to Champagne and ravage it once more.

In June 1144, the king and queen visited the newly built monastic church at Saint-Denis. While there, the queen met with Bernard of Clairvaux, demanding that he use his influence with the Pope to have the excommunication of Petronilla and Raoul lifted, in exchange for which King Louis would make concessions in Champagne and recognise Pierre de la Chatre as archbishop of Bourges. Dismayed at her attitude, Bernard scolded Eleanor for her lack of penitence and interference in matters of state. In response, Eleanor broke down and meekly excused her behaviour, claiming to be bitter because of her lack of children (her only recorded pregnancy at that time was in about 1138, but she miscarried [16] [17] ). In response, Bernard became more kindly towards her: "My child, seek those things which make for peace. Cease to stir up the king against the Church, and urge upon him a better course of action. If you will promise to do this, I in return promise to entreat the merciful Lord to grant you offspring." In a matter of weeks, peace had returned to France: Theobald's provinces were returned and Pierre de la Chatre was installed as archbishop of Bourges. In April 1145, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter, Marie.

Louis, however, still burned with guilt over the massacre at Vitry and wished to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for his sins. In autumn 1145, Pope Eugene III requested that Louis lead a Crusade to the Middle East to rescue the Frankish states there from disaster. Accordingly, Louis declared on Christmas Day 1145 at Bourges his intention of going on a crusade.

Crusade Edit

Eleanor of Aquitaine also formally took up the cross symbolic of the Second Crusade during a sermon preached by Bernard of Clairvaux. In addition, she had been corresponding with her uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch, who was seeking further protection from the French crown against the Saracens. Eleanor recruited some of her royal ladies-in-waiting for the campaign as well as 300 non-noble Aquitainian vassals. 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 historians, sometimes confused with the account of King Conrad's train of ladies during this campaign in Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. She left for the Second Crusade from Vézelay, the rumoured location of Mary Magdalene's grave, in June 1147.

The Crusade itself achieved little. Louis was a weak and ineffectual military leader with no skill for maintaining troop discipline or morale, or of making informed and logical tactical decisions. In eastern Europe, the French army was at times hindered by Manuel I Comnenus, the Byzantine Emperor, who feared that the Crusade would jeopardise the tenuous safety of his empire. Notwithstanding, during their three-week stay at Constantinople, Louis was fêted and Eleanor was much admired. She was compared with Penthesilea, mythical queen of the Amazons, by the Greek historian Nicetas Choniates. He added that she gained the epithet chrysopous (golden-foot) from the cloth of gold that decorated and fringed her robe. Louis and Eleanor stayed in the Philopation palace just outside the city walls.

From the moment the Crusaders entered Asia Minor, things began to go badly. The king and queen were still optimistic —the Byzantine Emperor had told them that King Conrad III of Germany had won a great victory against a Turkish army when in fact the German army had been almost completely destroyed at Dorylaeum. However, while camping near Nicea, the remnants of the German army, including a dazed and sick Conrad III, staggered past the French camp, bringing news of their disaster. The French, with what remained of the Germans, then began to march in increasingly disorganised fashion towards Antioch. They were in high spirits on Christmas Eve, when they chose to camp in a lush valley near Ephesus. Here they were ambushed by a Turkish detachment, but the French proceeded to slaughter this detachment and appropriate their camp.

Louis then decided to cross the Phrygian mountains directly in the hope of reaching Raymond of Poitiers in Antioch more quickly. As they ascended the mountains, however, the army and the king and queen were horrified to discover the unburied corpses of the Germans killed earlier.

On the day set for the crossing of Mount Cadmus, Louis chose to take charge of the rear of the column, where the unarmed pilgrims and the baggage trains marched. The vanguard, with which Queen Eleanor marched, was commanded by her Aquitainian vassal, Geoffrey de Rancon. Unencumbered by baggage, they reached the summit of Cadmus, where Rancon had been ordered to make camp for the night. Rancon, however, chose to continue on, deciding in concert with Amadeus III, Count of Savoy, Louis's uncle, that a nearby plateau would make a better campsite. Such disobedience was reportedly common.

Accordingly, by mid-afternoon, the rear of the column —believing the day's march to be nearly at an end —was dawdling. This resulted in the army becoming separated, with some having already crossed the summit and others still approaching it. In the ensuing Battle of Mount Cadmus, the Turks, who had been following and feinting for many days, seized their opportunity and attacked those who had not yet crossed the summit. The French, both soldiers, and pilgrims, taken by surprise, were trapped. Those who tried to escape were caught and killed. Many men, horses, and much of the baggage were cast into the canyon below. The chronicler William of Tyre, writing between 1170 and 1184 and thus perhaps too long after the event to be considered historically accurate, placed the blame for this disaster firmly on the amount of baggage being carried, much of it reputedly belonging to Eleanor and her ladies, and the presence of non-combatants.

The king, having scorned royal apparel in favour of a simple pilgrim's tunic, escaped notice, unlike his bodyguards, whose skulls were brutally smashed and limbs severed. He reportedly "nimbly and bravely scaled a rock by making use of some tree roots which God had provided for his safety" and managed to survive the attack. Others were not so fortunate: "No aid came from Heaven, except that night fell." [18]

Official blame for the disaster was placed on Geoffrey de Rancon, who had made the decision to continue, and it was suggested that he be hanged, a suggestion which the king ignored. Since Geoffrey was Eleanor's vassal, many believed that it was she who had been ultimately responsible for the change in plan, and thus the massacre. This suspicion of responsibility did nothing for her popularity in Christendom. She was also blamed for the size of the baggage train and the fact that her Aquitanian soldiers had marched at the front and thus were not involved in the fight. Continuing on, the army became split, with the commoners marching towards Antioch and the royalty travelling by sea. When most of the land army arrived, the king and queen had a dispute. Some, such as John of Salisbury and William of Tyre, say Eleanor's reputation was sullied by rumours of an affair with her uncle Raymond. However, this rumour may have been a ruse, as Raymond, through Eleanor, had been trying to induce Louis to use his army to attack the actual Muslim encampment at nearby Aleppo, gateway to retaking Edessa, which had all along, by papal decree, been the main objective of the Crusade. Although this was perhaps a better military plan, Louis was not keen to fight in northern Syria. One of Louis's avowed Crusade goals was to journey in pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and he stated his intention to continue. Reputedly Eleanor then requested to stay with Raymond and brought up the matter of consanguinity —the fact that she and her husband, King Louis, were perhaps too closely related. Consanguinity was grounds for annulment in the medieval period. But rather than allowing her to stay, Louis took Eleanor from Antioch against her will and continued on to Jerusalem with his dwindling army. [19]

Louis's refusal and his forcing her to accompany him humiliated Eleanor, and she maintained a low profile for the rest of the crusade. Louis's subsequent siege of Damascus in 1148 with his remaining army, reinforced by Conrad and Baldwin III of Jerusalem, achieved little. Damascus was a major wealthy trading centre and was under normal circumstances a potential threat, but the rulers of Jerusalem had recently entered into a truce with the city, which they then forswore. It was a gamble that did not pay off, and whether through military error or betrayal, the Damascus campaign was a failure. Louis's long march to Jerusalem and back north, which Eleanor was forced to join, debilitated his army and disheartened her knights the divided Crusade armies could not overcome the Muslim forces, and the royal couple had to return home. The French royal family retreated to Jerusalem and then sailed to Rome and made their way back to Paris.

While in the eastern Mediterranean, Eleanor learned about maritime conventions developing there, which were the beginnings of what would become admiralty law. She introduced those conventions in her own lands on the island of Oléron in 1160 (with the "Rolls of Oléron") and later in England as well. She was also instrumental in developing trade agreements with Constantinople and ports of trade in the Holy Lands.

Annulment Edit

Even before the Crusade, Eleanor and Louis were becoming estranged, and their differences were only exacerbated while they were abroad. Eleanor's purported relationship with her uncle Raymond, [20] the ruler of Antioch, was a major source of discord. Eleanor supported her uncle's desire to re-capture the nearby County of Edessa, the objective of the Crusade. In addition, having been close to him in their youth, she now showed what was considered to be "excessive affection" towards her uncle. Raymond had plans to abduct Eleanor, to which she consented. [21]

Home, however, was not easily reached. Louis and Eleanor, on separate ships due to their disagreements, were first attacked in May 1149 by Byzantine ships. Although they escaped this attempt unharmed, stormy weather drove Eleanor's ship far to the south to the Barbary Coast and caused her to lose track of her husband. Neither was heard of for over two months. In mid-July, Eleanor's ship finally reached Palermo in Sicily, where she discovered that she and her husband had both been given up for dead. She was given shelter and food by servants of King Roger II of Sicily, until the king eventually reached Calabria, and she set out to meet him there. Later, at King Roger's court in Potenza, she learned of the death of her uncle Raymond, who had been beheaded by Muslim forces in the Holy Land. This news appears to have forced a change of plans, for instead of returning to France from Marseilles, they went to see Pope Eugene III in Tusculum, where he had been driven five months before by a revolt of the Commune of Rome.

Eugene did not, as Eleanor had hoped, grant an annulment. Instead, he attempted to reconcile Eleanor and Louis, confirming the legality of their marriage. He proclaimed that no word could be spoken against it, and that it might not be dissolved under any pretext. He even arranged for Eleanor and Louis to sleep in the same bed. [22] Thus was conceived their second child —not a son, but another daughter, Alix of France.

The marriage was now doomed. Still without a son and in danger of being left with no male heir, as well as facing substantial opposition to Eleanor from many of his barons and her own desire for annulment, Louis bowed to the inevitable. On 11 March 1152, they met at the royal castle of Beaugency to dissolve the marriage. Hugues de Toucy, archbishop of Sens, presided, and Louis and Eleanor were both present, as were the archbishop of Bordeaux and Rouen. Archbishop Samson of Reims acted for Eleanor.

On 21 March, the four archbishops, with the approval of Pope Eugene, granted an annulment on grounds of consanguinity within the fourth degree Eleanor was Louis' third cousin once removed, and shared common ancestry with Robert II of France. Their two daughters were, however, declared legitimate. Children born to a marriage that was later annulled were not at risk of being "bastardised," because "[w]here parties married in good faith, without knowledge of an impediment, . children of the marriage were legitimate." [Berman 228.] [ why? ] ) Custody of them was awarded to King Louis. Archbishop Samson received assurances from Louis that Eleanor's lands would be restored to her.

2. She was the most eligible woman in Europe

William X died in 1137 while on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, leaving his teenage daughter the title of Duchess of Aquitaine and with it a vast inheritance.

Within hours of the news of her father’s death reaching France, her marriage to Louis VII, son of the king of France, was arranged. The union brought the powerful house of Aquitaine under the royal banner.

Not long after the wedding, the king fell ill and died of dysentery. On Christmas Day that year, Louis VII and Eleanor were crowned King and Queen of France.

A Medieval Woman's Companion

A Victorian depiction imaging Eleanor

Eleanor was a French duchess. She later became queen of France, divorced her husband, and then became queen of England a short few months later. When it was all said and done, she held the titles of Duchess of Normandy, Duchess of Aquitaine, Countess of Anjou, Countess of Poitou, (former Queen of France), and Queen of England.

Some fun facts about her are:

  • She was the first female in 200 years to rule over her land of Aquitaine (Brooks 1).
  • When her father died, she became the richest heiress in ALL of western Europe (Brooks 13).
  • She was held under house arrest by both husbands for behaving “improperly” (meaning she acted of her own will and defied their commands).
  • It is thought that the modern version of the fairy-tale Queen Guinevere from the stories of King Arthur was modeled after Eleanor herself (Brooks 180).
  • She was a businesswoman, a patroness of music and poetry, mother of 10 children, a political leader, crusader, and a cunning strategist.
  • She lived from 1122-1204, which means she died at the age of 82. This was highly uncommon considering the average life expectancy for women during her time was in the 40s.

Everyone’s Favorite Topic: Food!

To understand a little more about Eleanor, we have to know a bit bout the time during which she grew up. And what better topic to start off with than food! It’s certainly the most important one, right?

The nobility during Eleanor’s lifetime used any chance they could to hold feasts! They used them for celebrations or a show of wealth when hosting the royal family or other members of court. Feasts were meant to be extravagant and a loud affair with music playing, much dancing, and people chatting, and it had plenty of mess to go along with all the noise.

Lords and ladies enjoying a banquet (Plain 51)

The hosts might serve food like oysters, different types of fish, and lobster. Guests munched on roast pork and venison cooked on a spit, different breads and vegetable pies, as well as duck, chicken, peacock, and even cranes (Brooks 15). The use of forks was not common during Eleanor’s time so men and women ate food with their hands, though sometimes they had the help of knives or spoons (Brooks 16).

The French most commonly drank wine with their food, while the English served both wine and beer. Drinking water was not an option. Too dirty! For dessert, they finished with different kinds of figs (you know, those things inside of Fig Newtons), fruits, and a variety of berries, accompanied by sweet tarts (no, not the candy) (Brooks 15).

What Did They Wear?

Lords and ladies most often wore clothes made out of soft wool or linen. (Fun fact: linen was most commonly used for underwear, by all classes, during the Middle Ages.) The more wealthy nobility and royalty might have clothes of silk embroidered with gold thread and cloaks outlined with fine furs and fastened with jeweled pins. Dyed clothes, especially red, were hard to come by and, therefore, very expensive. As a result, royalty and the richer clergymen, like archbishops, cardinals, and the pope, used red clothes to display their status (Plain 49).

Women of nobility often had sleeves of such length that they swept the floor and wore veils held down by gold circlets to cover their hair. Once married, they were not allowed to be seen in public without their hair covered because their hair was considered “to be a snare for the Devil” by the church (Brooks 27)!

Aquitainian women specifically were known for their high interest in fashion and heavy use of perfume, jewelry, rouge, and even eyeliner (Plain 49). Eleanor was definitely no exception! Below is an image of what Eleanor might have looked like and a description of one of her outfits:

19th century interpretation of Eleanor

“…a gown of pure silk with tight-fitting sleeves designed to show off her delicate wrists, as important as a slim ankle is today. Around her waist she wore a jeweled belt. Over her gown fell a long red velvet robe trimmed in fur its full sleeves with their wide openings tapered to points that almost touched the ground. Over her hair was a scarf called a wimple, held in place by her gold crown… Her wrists were laden with bracelets, and long pendants hung from her ears” (Brooks 27).

The land of Aquitaine (Gregory 178)

Eleanor grew up in the French duchy of Aquitaine until the age of fifteen. This land was over twice the size of the land owned by the French royal family, stretching from the Loire River to modern day Spain, which made her family wealthier and more powerful than even the king.

The palace at Poitiers (Weir 171)

The duchy received its name, which means land of waters, from the Roman settlers for its many rivers that created fertile and rich soil. This soil allowed for the abundant growth of raspberries, strawberries, and dark cherries, the thriving of sheep in the meadows, and the planting of “acres of vineyards, olive groves, and wheat fields” (Brooks 10).

From the window of her castle in Poitiers where she spent much of her childhood, she would have seen the lands, fields, and rivers rolling on for miles. She even often traveled them with her father which helped her prepare for the MANY times she would have to do it in the future.

A medieval depiction of the chateau de Poitiers and the surrounding land

Eleanor’s mother died when she was eight years old, which left her education in the hands of her father and tutors. From a very young age, Eleanor was headstrong and determined, intelligent and quick to learn. She had few restrictions on her behavior and actions, which likely encouraged her unyielding character.

She knew how to read and write, which was an uncommon achievement for medieval women. In these ways, her young life and education were unlike those of most noble girls during her time. However, like the other girls, Eleanor also learned how to sew, weave, and embroider. Her tutors taught her how play the harp, sing, and dance. She could also ride a horse better than any boy and “often preferred riding astride to the more ladylike sidesaddle” (Brooks 11).

Life in Paris

King Louis VII (Gregory 172)

At the age of 15, Eleanor married Louis VII of France and became queen just a short few months later. She immediately moved to Paris where she lived in an already hundreds of years old castle built by early Franks. The castle sat on a little island, called the Île de la Cité, in the middle of the Seine River.

The view from her window here was quite different from the one in Poitiers. On one side of the fortress, she would have seen streets crowded with merchants and lined with old wooden houses that cast shadows over all those that passed beneath. Goats and pigs strolled freely along the dusty roads and vendors yelled out the prices of their goods to passersby. Adding to their loud shouts were the sounds of creaky mill wheels and clanging church bells (Brooks 11). On the other side of her little island, she would have seen the college, “the most popular center of learning in western Europe and swarmed with students who came from all over to study there” (Brooks 20).

A more imaginative map of medieval Paris

Eleanor wasted no time in making her new cold, bare castle feel more like home. Some of her first acts as lady of the house were to liven up and beautify the dreary castle, much to the dismay and disapproval of her mother-in-law. She hung colorful tapestries on the walls, widened several of the narrow slits into windows, and had shutters attached to keep the air and precipitation out during the cold weather. She had masons build new fireplaces and even dismissed the master of the choir and then hired a different one after hearing how poorly trained the royal chapel was. She established new rules for the servants, insisting they behave more professionally, dress more sharply, clean their hands before serving food, and change the rugs on the floors more often since they were covered with animal droppings from birds and dogs, which left the place smelling like a zoo (Brooks 21-22).

Wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII A second depiction of her marriage to Louis

Life in England

Interpretation of Eleanor and Henry’s wedding

After 15 years of marriage, dissatisfied with her husband’s dull character and with the Parisian life, Eleanor wrote to the pope demanding an annulment and received both his approval and that of her husband to become a single woman once again and return to her home in Aquitaine. (This was not a common occurrence for women during Eleanor’s time. They often did not initiate divorce and even if they did, they might not have their demands granted or leave their marriage with much means of support. Eleanor, however, exited her marriage just as wealthy and desirable as she had entered it.)

Portrait of Henry II (Gregory 173)

However, being a rich, young, single woman without the protection of a male was very dangerous at that time. Anyone could kidnap Eleanor, force her into marriage, and take her land. Knowing this, she wasted no time in marrying again, having already chosen her new husband before divorcing her old one. This man would become King Henry II of England just 2 short years after their marriage, giving her another title of Queen of England.

England and London ca. 1300

As England’s new queen, naturally she had to move there. Once in England, Eleanor and her husband moved into a royal manor near the Thames River, as the battles between Empress Matilda and King Stephen had severely damaged the royal palace of Westminster. From her manor window, Eleanor had a view of the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral (Brooks 74).

In the winter, she saw young men “gliding on frozen ponds and marshes, using horses’ shinbones strapped to their boots for skates”(Brooks 74). On warmer days, she could see these same young men jousting down the river in small boats. She also would have seen plenty of ships making their way up and down the Thames, loading and unloading cargo at the docks. And just as Paris had its many smells, England too had its own stench of beer, wool, and fish (Brooks 74).

Portion of a map depicting London ca. 1252

Eleanor’s first acts as the English queen were much like those as the French queen. She would not live in a place that was not to her liking so she soon set out to make her home more to her taste, filling it with life and color. She brought with her a freer lifestyle uncommon in the English court, as well as new poets and musicians, who brought with them different styles and genres. She introduced her favored ideas of chivalry and romance that were so popular in Aquitaine, as well as even more fanciful tales of King Arthur and his beloved Queen Guinevere . Also as in Paris, she helped change the music performed in church, having the choirs sing in unfamiliar, but beautiful new harmonies (Brooks 79-80).

Depiction of medieval London ca. 1240

What set her apart?

Firstly, her education set apart from other women. Not every female could read and write, but Eleanor could do both.

She was allowed to rule over her land even after marriage. Often, if it so happened that a woman received her father’s land after his death, it would pass to her husband or son. While Eleanor’s land “officially” belonged to her husband, then sons, she was in charge of maintaining peace, traveling throughout the lands to speak with fiefs, visiting towns, business and land exchanges, and the upkeep of the castles.

Possibly Eleanor and Henry Eleanor on a hunting party

She had her own business importing French wine from Bordeaux to London. She actually owned the dock itself where the wine was unloaded from her land of Aquitaine (Brooks 79).

She was an astute politician. She was in charge of domestic affairs in England when her husband, and later her sons, were away. She played the biggest role when raising enough money to pay the ransom for her son Richard when he was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor.

Also, when her youngest son, John, became king of England and was losing much of the land his father had fought to obtain, it was Eleanor who, at the age of 75, was heading an army to defend his honor and his land (Castor 217). And it was she who helped secure a treaty between the French king and John so that he would not lose ALL of his land (Castor 219).

Eleanor and her musicians

She also changed court behavior: Eleanor helped popularize courtly love and the romanticized chivalrous knight that would live on in European courts hundreds of years after her death. She and her ladies formulated a code of conduct for the men of her court detailing how to behave like civilized young knights who “treat women with gentleness and respect” (Plain 34). It covered all sorts of topics like what gifts men and women could exchange or how men were to obey every command of a lady. She created these ideas, not because she needed a hobby or something to pass the time, but because she believed that women were superior to men and deserved such treatment. Since a young age, she lived by her belief that women had the right to make their own decisions and it showed through in the atmosphere of her court (Plain 34).

She was a lover and patroness of the arts, though she particularly liked poems and music about chivalric knights and courtly love. Here are a couple examples of poems composed for her:

Draws thoughts of all upon her

As sirens lure the witless mariners

Lady, I’m yours and yours shall be

Vowed to your service constantly,

This is the oath of fealty

I pledged to you this long time past.

As my first joy was all in you,

So shall my last be found there too,

So long as life in me shall last (Brooks 107).

High-born lady, excellent and valiant,

Ruled by right and justice,

Queen of beauty and largesse [generosity] (Brooks 81).

The Many Face of Eleanor

Eleanor’s story has been retold and remade many times. She had such a fascinating life and was involved in so many major events that she appears in a vast number of tales in both movies and books.

Drawing based off Eleanor’s effigy Eleanor’s effigy

A couple of the more popular films featuring pieces of Eleanor’s story are Robin Hood (you know, the one with Russell Crowe) and The Lion in Winter, based on a novel by the same name. If you would like to look at a list of all the movies and TV shows in which “she” makes an appearance, click here.

Eileen Atkins as Eleanor in Robin Hood Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter

If you are not interested in those, you have many novels to choose from as well! Sharon Kay Penman wrote several fictional stories about life in Eleanor’s court and recreates the danger and conspiracy that seemed to constantly encircle her.

Kristiana Gregory wrote a book from the point of view of a 15 year old Eleanor. Written in the style of a diary, she helps the reader imagine what it must have been like for young Eleanor, living without a mother and knowing she was one of the most wanted women in Europe. If you are looking for some exciting historical fiction reads, you can click here.

Here is a short documentary on Eleanor. It also includes the story of Empress Matilda, her mother-in-law. Eleanor’s story starts at 37:00.

Medieval history may not immediately intrigue and captivate you, but give this gal a chance and you will be hooked! Her story has murder, mystery, war, love affairs, combat, and much more! Who wouldn’t want to find out more about that?

Eleanor of Aquitaine Drama Series on the Way from Starz

Starz is developing a drama series based on best-selling author Alison Weir&lsquos acclaimed Eleanor of Aquitaine biography and novel. This will be the first installment of a slate featuring &ldquoExtraordinary Women of History.&rdquo Susie Conklin will serve as showrunner.

The slate comes to us from Starz, Lionsgate TV and Colin Callender&rsquos Golden Globe-winning Playground (Wolf Hall, Howard&rsquos End). Starz has acquired the rights to best-selling author and historian Alison Weir&rsquos acclaimed biography Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life and its companion novel Captive Queen (buy both at Amazon).

&ldquoThis slate of series will focus on lesser known but undeniably exceptional female historical figures while continuing the exploration of fierce characters in history,&rdquo said Christina Davis, President of Programming for Starz. &ldquoAlison Weir&rsquos novels are the perfect jumping off point for this collection of series from Playground, who are known for their sophisticated storytelling.&rdquo

&ldquoWe&rsquore excited to partner with Starz and Lionsgate to bring Alison Weir&rsquos acclaimed biography and novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine to television,&rdquo said Huff and Stern. &ldquoEleanor presided over a magnificent, progressive court filled with scandal and intrigue, and we&rsquore thrilled with Susie&rsquos bold and provocative take on this fascinating story.&rdquo

Added Conklin, &ldquoI&rsquom thrilled at the opportunity to bring Eleanor&rsquos story to life &ndash the drama and adventures she experienced are truly epic. I&rsquom also captivated at how a woman who lived over 800 years ago can be so strikingly modern. She&rsquos determined to live her life on her own terms, and the way she goes about that are extraordinary.&rdquo

Eleanor of Aquitaine defied the conventions of her time as a Queen of both England and France who wielded immense political influence over the kingdoms of men. She was a wife, mother and a fierce leader in an era when women were regarded as little more than chattels.

Eleanor&rsquos unwavering spirit saw her through many years of victories and defeats &ndash a marriage bound by duty, a passionate love affair, family alliances and betrayals, the grandeur of power and the desolation of imprisonment.

Originally published in 1999, Weir&rsquos Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life received widespread acclaim and ranks among the best-selling historical biographies of all time. The Boston Globe lauded the book as &ldquoan alluringly candid portrait&rdquo while the London Sunday Times called it a &ldquotriumphantly done, lively biography.&rdquo

Captive Queen followed in 2010 and was met with similar acclaim, with Publishers Weekly calling it &ldquovivid and surprisingly modern.&rdquo

Producer and writer Susie Conklin is known for her work on A Discovery of Witches, The Musketeers and Cranford television series.

Alison Weir is the biggest-selling female historian and the fifth best-selling historian in the United Kingdom. She has published 30 titles and sold more than 3 million books &ndash more than a million in the UK and 2.2 million in the US.

She is now working on two concurrent series of books: Six Tudor Queens, comprising six novels on the wives of Henry VIII (with associated e-books, above), and England&rsquos Medieval Queens, a quartet of historical works of non-fiction.

Senior Vice President of Original Programming Karen Bailey is the Starz executive overseeing Eleanor of Aquitaine. Senior Vice President of Lionsgate Television Jocelyn Sabo is overseeing the series on behalf of Lionsgate.

Are you guys excited for an Eleanor of Aquitaine series? Let us know in the comments or tweet us @vitalthrillscom.

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.

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

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

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

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.

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

Top facts you should know about Eleanor of Aquitaine

The 12th century was a fascinating time. Europe as we know it was yet to be formed, and there were power-struggles all across the continent.

With this in mind, it becomes even more amazing to find out about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who ruled both England and France and became of the most powerful people in Europe.

Here are some facts about the famous ruler that might surprise you!

1. She was put under house arrest

After her sons tried unsuccessfully to revolt against Henry in 1173, Eleanor was captured while attempting to escape to France.

She spent between 15 and 16 years under house arrest in various castles. She was permitted to show her face at special occasions but was otherwise kept invisible and powerless.

Eleanor was only fully freed by her son Richard after Henry’s death in 1189.

2. She outlived all of her husbands (and children)

Eleanor spent her last years as a nun at Fontevraud Abbey in France and died in her eighties on 31 March 1204.

She outlived all but two of her 11 children: King John of England (1166-1216) and Queen Eleanor of Castile (c. 1161-1214).

Her bones were interred in the abbey’s crypt, however, they were later exhumed and dispersed when the abbey was desecrated during the French Revolution.

3. Her appearance remains a mystery

It’s not hard to find contemporary accounts of Eleanor’s good looks. The French medieval poet Bernard de Ventadour declared her "gracious, lovely, the embodiment of charm," while Matthew Paris remarked on her "admirable beauty."

Curiously, though, in all these celebrations of her fine features, not one person wrote down what she actually looked like. Her hair color, eye color, height, and face all remain a mystery. No art that has been definitively linked to her survives other than the effigy on her tomb—and the degree to which that resembles Eleanor's looks is unclear.

4. Her first marriage was doomed to fail

The royal marriage didn’t last much longer, its tensions furthered by the fact that Eleanor had yet to give birth to a male heir. The marriage was finally annulled in 1152. (The pair were granted the annulment on the grounds of consanguinity—the fact that they were technically related.)

Eleanor kept her lands and was single again, but not for long. In May of that same year, she married Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. Two years later they were crowned the King and Queen of England.

5. She was a trailblazer from the start

When Eleanor came into her inheritance, she became the first and only woman to rule her own duchy. That alone would be enough of an achievement for most people, but Eleanor wasn’t satisfied. She’d go on to live a life that ran the gamut from inspirational and groundbreaking to heartrending and utterly tragic.

6. She was abducted

With her father’s death in 1137, Eleanor instantly entered the bewildering life of a bonafide world leader. The little girl became the Duchess of Aquitaine and was quickly placed under the “protection” of the King of France, “Louis the Fat.” The king wasted no time in pledging young Eleanor to be his son Louis’ bride.

As a sign of his goodwill and not at all an intimidating show of power, the king sent his son, along with 500 men, to propose to 13-year-old Eleanor and bring her to the French palace.

7. Her life in France was not pleasant

As though her forced marriage wasn’t bad enough, when Eleanor arrived in the French court, she had even more problems. Louis’ subjects detested the prince’s new bride, and Eleanor hated life at the French palace.

The King’s advisors despised Eleanor because she was an educated, opinionated woman. They feared her, so they made sure she felt too hopeless to act up.

8. Her years as a widow were her most powerful

Her son Richard, who became king following Henry's death, was the one who freed his mother. After her years of house arrest, she did not come out ready for retirement. Instead, she threw herself into preparing for the coronation of her son, who would be known as Richard the Lionheart.

Before he was crowned King of England, she journeyed all over his future kingdom to forge alliances and foster goodwill. When Richard set out on the Third Crusade, Eleanor took charge as regent, fending off her power-hungry son John. She even paid Richard's ransom when he was imprisoned by the duke of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor, traveling there herself to bring him home to England.

9. She was active during the crusades

When Louis VII answered the pope’s call for a Second Crusade to defend Jerusalem against the Muslims, Eleanor did not stay behind in France. Between 1147 and 1149, she traveled with her husband's party to Constantinople and then Jerusalem. (According to legend, she took along 300 ladies-in-waiting dressed as Amazons—but those tales have been debunked.)

Unfortunately, this was no romantic adventure for the royal couple. Louis and his headstrong queen were mismatched, and the strain between them culminated at the court of her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers at Antioch. Rumors of an incestuous infidelity between Eleanor of Aquitaine and her uncle, whose luxurious court thrilled her with its charms, darkened her reputation.

She also made waves with her defiant support of her uncle’s plans for the crusade he advised attacking Aleppo, while Louis preferred to continue to Jerusalem. Soon, Louis would force Eleanor to continue with him.

10. She was scapegoated

When it came time for the French people to explain the disaster of the second crusade, they didn’t blame Louis’ ineffective leadership. Instead, they pointed their fingers at Eleanor.

They said that Eleanor had encouraged other women to come along and distract their husbands on the crusade. If they hadn’t been there, the Holy War would have succeeded. Once again, everything was Eleanor’s fault.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (c.1122 – 1204)

Eleanor of Aquitaine © Eleanor was one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages. Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, she would go onto become queen-consort of France and later queen of England.

Eleanor was the elder daughter of William, tenth Duke of Aquitaine. The exact date of her birth is unknown, but she was raised in one of Europe's most cultured courts and given an excellent education. She later became an important patron of poets and writers.

The death of Eleanor's only brother, and of her father in 1137, left her with a vast inheritance. At just 15-years-old, she had suddenly become the most eligible heiress in Europe. That same year she married Louis, heir to Louis VI of France, who shortly afterwards became king as Louis VII. The couple had two daughters.

In 1147, Eleanor accompanied her husband on the Second Crusade, travelling to Constantinople and Jerusalem. The Crusade was a failure and relations between Eleanor and her husband, already poor, deteriorated even further. Eleanor's failure to produce a son contributed considerably to this tension, and in 1152 they were divorced.

Two months later Eleanor married Henry of Anjou, who in 1154 became king of England. The couple had five sons and three daughters. For nearly two decades, Eleanor played an active part in the running of Henry's empire, travelling backwards and forwards between their territories in England and France.

In 1173 two of Eleanor's sons involved her in a plot against their father, and as a result Henry imprisoned her. After Henry's death in 1189, his eldest son, Richard I, ordered his mother's release. Despite her age (now in her mid-sixties, which was considered elderly in the 12th century) Eleanor became very closely involved in government. In 1190, she acted as regent in England when Richard went to join the Third Crusade. She even played her part in negotiations for his release after he was taken prisoner in Germany on his way home.

In 1199, Richard died and was succeeded by Eleanor and Henry's youngest son, John. Eleanor's role in English affairs now ceased, although she continued to be closely involved in those of Aquitaine, where she spent her final years. She died on 31 March 1204 and was buried in the abbey church at Fontevrault next to Henry II.