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Brazen Candour: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

A Life Unimagined

One of my favorite queens is a woman so notorious that history has never forgotten her. She was born in 1122 as the eldest daughter of William, the tenth Duke of Aquitaine. Her name was Eleanor, and she would go down in history as a double queen and one of the most powerful women in medieval Europe.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, as she would come to be known, grew up in her father’s glittering twelfth century court in the largest and richest province in France. She enjoyed the luxuries of a privileged childhood, learning arithmetic, astronomy, and history in addition to domestic skills, conversation, dancing, games, playing the harp, and singing. She could also speak Latin, ride a horse, and go hawking and hunting.

At the age of eight, Eleanor’s mother and brother died, leaving her as the heir to her father’s domains. She would spend the next seven years at Aquitaine with her father. At the age of 15, Eleanor was taken to Bordeaux under the care of the Archbishop while her father went on a pilgrimage. Her father never returned, having died during the journey. Eleanor was now an orphan. But she was a rich orphan. She inherited the title Duchess of Aquitaine, making her the most eligible heiress in Europe.

An Onslaught of Suitors

A 14th-century representation of the wedding of Louis and Eleanor; at right, Louis leaving on Crusade.

A 14th-century representation of the wedding of Louis and Eleanor; at right, Louis leaving on Crusade.

To understand Eleanor’s mindset and her later actions, we need to consider one key fact about medieval life for women. Kidnapping was permissible. In fact, it was a very viable option when a man wanted to obtain an heiress as his bride, gaining her title and wealth.

Additionally, as Alison Weir explained in Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life, marriage brought troubles of its own:

In this martial world dominated by men, women had little place. The Church's teachings might underpin feudal morality, yet when it came to the practicalities of life, a ruthless pragmatism often came into play. Kings and noblemen married for political advantage, and women rarely had any say in how they or their wealth were to be disposed in marriage. Kings would sell off heiresses and rich widows to the highest bidder, for political or territorial advantage, and those who resisted were heavily fined.

Young girls of good birth were strictly reared, often in convents, and married off at fourteen or even earlier to suit their parents' or overlord's purposes. The betrothal of infants was not uncommon, despite the church's disapproval. It was a father's duty to bestow his daughters in marriage; if he was dead, his overlord or the King himself would act for him. Personal choice was rarely and issue.

Upon marriage, a girl's property and rights became invested in her husband, to whom she owed absolute obedience. Every husband had the right to enforce this duty in whichever way he thought fit--as Eleanor was to find out to her cost. Wife-beating was common, although the Church did at this time attempt to restrict the length of the rod that a husband might use.

Eleanor, only 15, now faced an onslaught of suitors, some of whom would love nothing more than to kidnap the young woman and claim Aquitaine. Luckily, Eleanor’s father had made provisions should he die on pilgrimage. Eleanor was left under the guardianship of King Louis VI of France. Though gravely ill at the time, the King saw his opportunity to fulfill his obligation in protecting Eleanor while gaining the coveted wealth of Aquitaine.

King Louis ordered that Eleanor marry his 17-year-old son, Prince Louis. It brought Aquitaine under the control of the French crown, increasing France’s power and prominence. Luckily, there were provisions that protected Eleanor: Aquitaine would only pass into the control of the French monarchy after it passed to Eleanor’s future sons.

Eleanor married Prince Louis on July 25, 1137, in the Cathedral of Saint-Andrew, and the couple became the Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine. As a wedding present, Eleanor gave Louis a rock crystal vase, which is currently on display at the Louvre. It is the only object connected to Eleanor that still survives.

Eleanor's grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine, gave her this rock crystal vase, which she gave to Louis as a wedding gift. He later donated it to the Abbey of Saint-Denis. This is the only surviving artifact known to have belonged to Eleanor.

Eleanor's grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine, gave her this rock crystal vase, which she gave to Louis as a wedding gift. He later donated it to the Abbey of Saint-Denis. This is the only surviving artifact known to have belonged to Eleanor.

All That is Gold Does not Glitter

Eleanor didn’t have much time to enjoy her new role as bride before being thrust onto the international stage. Within days of her marriage, she learned that the King of France had died. On Christmas Day in 1137, Eleanor was anointed and crowned Queen of France.

Eleanor faced a hard life as queen. She was unpopular with the northerners of France, who weren’t used to the glittering standards set at Aquitaine, and she was despised by her new mother-in-law, who criticized her as indecorous. Despite this, Louis was madly in love with her and granted her every whim, spending lavishly to make the palace a comfortable home for her.

In 1141, her husband came into violent conflict with the Pope, which resulted in outright war. The town of Vitry was burned and Louis’s troops murdered over a thousand people. Once the conflict had ended, Louis sought to atone for his sins. So he did what any medieval ruler would do: he went on Crusade.

Eleanor took up the cross with him, recruiting 300 of her own vassals for the campaign. She insisted on taking part in the Crusades as the leader of her soldiers, resulting in the legend that Eleanor and her ladies dressed as Amazons. Yet these Crusades achieved little. Eleanor repeatedly witnessed the massacres of French and German troops in the Holy Land.

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At one point, Eleanor went ahead with her soldiers across the mountains. Louis, who followed behind with his troops, became separated from her, mostly due to some disobedience by Eleanor’s generals, but rumors quickly spread that it was because of how much baggage Eleanor had brought with them on campaign. Louis’s soldiers were ambushed and massacred by the Turks, and Louis narrowly escaped because he was dressed as a pilgrim.

During the crusade, Eleanor became estranged from Louis and began to talk of an annulment. Louis would have none of it, and forced Eleanor to continue accompanying him on crusade. However, she didn’t come out at a total loss - her experiences in the Holy Land introduced her to maritime conventions that she would implement in Aquitaine and enabled her to begin trade agreements with Constantinople.

Eleanor and Louis traveled to Italy on the way home, where Eleanor met with the Pope to discuss the annulment of her marriage. The Pope would hear none of it. In fact, he went so far as to force Eleanor to sleep with Louis in a specially prepared bed - resulting in her pregnancy with her second daughter. The couple never had sons. After the daughter’s birth, Eleanor got her annulment in 1152 on the grounds that Louis and Eleanor were too closely related to be married. In fact, they were third cousins once removed, which made it a perfectly legal marriage. So we know that both Eleanor and Louis were simply done with each other.

To Wed a Lion

After her divorce, Eleanor again became the most eligible bachelorette in Europe, having retained her lands in Aquitaine due to provisions in her marriage contract. She faced repeated kidnapping attempts, including attempts by Theobald V, Count of Blois, and Geoffrey, Count of Nantes.

In response to these attempts, she sent a letter to Henry, the future king of England, asking him to marry her. His response was a resounding "yes." They married on May 18, 1152, "without the pomp and ceremony that befitted their rank."

Two years later, in 1154, Henry became King of England and Eleanor was crowned Queen of England. They inherited a turbulent kingdom. Aquitaine defied rule by Henry, and continued to answer only to Eleanor. Additionally, Henry repeatedly tried to claim Toulouse, which Eleanor had inherited from her grandmother, but his attempts failed.

Their marriage was also tumultuous, though this love-hate relationship was certainly productive when it came to heirs. Eleanor had eight children with Henry - five sons and three daughters - and also cared for Henry’s illegitimate children that he had during numerous affairs.

By 1167, Eleanor left Henry’s court and established her own court in Poitiers. Their separation was amicable, as Henry continued to provide protection for Eleanor during her travels, even acting as personal escort.

Inventor of Courtly Love

Palace of Poitiers, seat of the Counts of Poitou and Dukes of Aquitaine in the 10th through 12th centuries, where Eleanor's highly literate and artistic court inspired tales of Courts of Love.

Palace of Poitiers, seat of the Counts of Poitou and Dukes of Aquitaine in the 10th through 12th centuries, where Eleanor's highly literate and artistic court inspired tales of Courts of Love.

For five years, Eleanor ran her own court, though we know very little about it. It was rumored, by Henry’s court chroniclers, to be the “Court of Love,” full of troubadours, chivalry, and courtly love.

What we do know comes from Andreas Capellanus, a 12th-century author and contemporary of Eleanor who wrote De Amore ("About Love"). Andreas wrote De Amore at the request of Marie de Champagne, Eleanor's daughter with King Louis VII of France. She wanted the work to warn about the pitfalls of love, perhaps based on her own mother's trials in finding lasting love. Andreas's work is written like an academic lecture, discussing the definition of love, providing sample dialogues between members of different social classes, and outlining how romantic love should work between those social classes.

The final part of his work contains stories from actual courts of love presided over by noble women, like Eleanor and her daughter. In fact, some of his stories are directly from Eleanor's court and state that Eleanor, with her daughter and other noble women, would sit and listen to quarrels of lovers and act like a jury for questions on romantic love. Andreas's work records twenty-one cases heard by Eleanor, including one which asked whether true love could exist in marriage - to which the women replied, it wasn't very likely.

Andreas's work and Eleanor's court were instrumental in spreading the image of "courtly love." This ideal was quickly adopted by the troubadours, who spread it through song and poetry. This wasn't a coincidence. Eleanor herself was the granddaughter of a famous troubadour, William IX of Aquitaine, and had a great affinity for the wandering bards.

Scholars still debate the true nature of Andreas's work and whether it reflected reality. The work is the only evidence we have for courtly love and for Marie's stay with her mother at Poitiers. Also, given the work was written for the court of the king of France, where Eleanor wasn't popular, it's highly likely the work is more satirical and meant to mock Eleanor's court rather than record its true nature.

Regardless of truth, we do know that Eleanor spent five years managing her own court at Poitiers. Perhaps it was a time of relaxation - a relief from the troubles love had caused her, where her dreams of courtly love and adoring troubadours could be realized.

What Is Courtly Love?

Prisoner of Love

Despite this idyllic vision, Eleanor’s life was far from over.

In 1173, her son, called “young Henry,” defied his father and rebelled. He was forced to flee to Paris, where he conspired against his father with the French king, his brothers, and Eleanor. She was torn between a husband she no longer appeared to love and her children.

A year later, Eleanor was arrested by her husband. She was held prisoner in various locations over the next 16 years. During this time, young Henry died. Eleanor is said to have told the Pope that she was haunted by his memory. After his death, Eleanor did gain some freedoms, accompanying her husband on his travels and helping with the governance of the realm.

Freedom and Fatigue

Finally, in 1189, Eleanor’s husband died and she was freed by her son, King Richard I. She rode to Westminster, where she received oaths of fealty on behalf of her son. She ruled in Richard’s name, allowing him to go off on the Third Crusade while she managed the kingdom.

Eleanor and her son's relationship was amiable - perhaps even very loving. Compared to other relationships in her life, Eleanor's son was one of her greatest loves. This is evidenced by letters between them, and by Eleanor's reaction when Richard was captured in the Third Crusade, documented in a letter to Pope Celestine III:

I had determined to be silent, lest I be accused of insolence and presumption if the overflowing of my heart and the violence of my grief evoked some less cautious word against the prince of priests. Grief is not very different from illness: in the impetus of its fire it does not recognize lords, it does not fear colleagues, it does not respect or spare anyone, not even itself. Let no one be surprised, then, if the power of grief makes the words more harsh, for I lament a public loss while the private grief is unconsolably rooted in the depths of my spirit. (Source: Epistolae)

Another letter to Pope Celestine III revealed the true toll that not only the Crusade, but matters at home, was taking on 71-year-old Eleanor:

Pitiful and pitied by no one, why have I come to the ignominy of this detestable old age, who was ruler of two kingdoms, mother of two kings? My guts are torn from me, my family is carried off and removed from me. The young king [Henry +1183] and the count of Britanny [Geoffrey +1186] sleep in dust, and their most unhappy mother is compelled to be irremediably tormented by the memory of the dead. Two sons remain to my solace, who today survive to punish me, miserable and condemned. King Richard is held in chains. His brother, John, depletes his kingdom with iron [sword] and lays it waste with fire. In all things the Lord has turned cruel to me and attacked me with the harshness of his hand. (Source: Epistolae)

Eleanor personally negotiated Richard’s ransom when he was captured, and Richard credited her with the survival of his kingdom:

First to God and then to your serenity, sweetest mother, we give thanks as we can, though we can not suffice to actions so worthy of thanks, for your loyalty to us and the faithful care and diligence you give to our lands for peace and defense so devotedly and effectively. Indeed we have learned a lot and partly we also know that through the mercy of God and your counsel and help the defense of our lands is and will be in great part provided. (Source: Epistolae)

Eleanor survived into her eighties, witnessing the entirety of Richard’s reign and the beginning of her youngest son, King John’s, reign. She continued to be a major force in England and France, personally selecting the bride for Prince Louis of France from among her own descendants.

In 1201, she began to tire of her duties. Though continuing her support for John during a war with King Philip II, Eleanor spent much of her time in France at Fontevraud. Following the end of the war, Eleanor took the veil as a nun. She died three years later, having outlived all but two of her children and ruled as a queen of both England and France.

Eleanor's effigy at Fontevraud Abbey

Eleanor's effigy at Fontevraud Abbey

Questions & Answers

Question: How old were Eleanor and Henry when they married?

Answer: Eleanor was around age 30, while Henry was 19.

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