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Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Strong Woman in a Man's World

King David I of Scotland or Alba as it was known in ancient history was a king who became a saint.

Anthony Frederick Sandy's depiction of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Painted in 1858.

Anthony Frederick Sandy's depiction of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Painted in 1858.

Who was Eleanor of Aquitaine?

She was born in Poitiers, France circa 1122 to William, the 10th Duke of Aquitaine and his wife Aener of Chatellerault. Eleanor was raised in a cultured court. She received a comprehensive education which was unusual for females in that era. Her only brother William Aigret and her father Duke William passed away in 1137, and her mother the Duchess Aener died in 1138. The teenaged Eleanor became the Duchess of Aquitaine, Duchess of Gascony and Countess of Poitiers in her own right. She owned more land than King Louis VI of France (1081-1137). Again, this was unusual as titles and lands were traditionally awarded to a male relation and kings were prone to want to have the largest fortunes and property.

Queen of France and Crusader

Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most sought-after bride in Europe; pretty, witty and wealthy. Her marriage in 1137 to King Louis VII of France (1120-1180) produced two daughters, Marie in 1145 and Alix in 1151. Louis and Eleanor’s union began with adulation from Louis but this faded over time. Eleanor was spirited, he was reserved and pious. She was the more intelligent and persuaded Louis to act with the majesty and might that his people expected. Eleanor, Queen of France led armies into action and accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade in the Holy Land for two years from June 1147. The French limped home having spent an enormous sum of money and lives on the campaign to save Jerusalem from the Ottomans in the name of Pope Eugene III (1080-1153.)

Eleanor extremely boldly took the decision to petition the Pope to have her marriage annulled. Her dissatisfaction with Louis was amplified by their disagreements and negative results during the crusades. This was denied and she fell pregnant. Hopes for a male heir were dashed with Alix’s arrival in summer 1150.

Louis VII of France's royal seal.

Louis VII of France's royal seal.

Marriage to England's Henry II

Louis VII then applied to the Pope in 1152 for an annulment with the backing of his ministers. He was dismayed that Eleanor had not borne him a son and heir. Pope Eugene III granted the annulment. The king was given custody of the princesses and Eleanor had her extensive lands in Aquitaine restored to her.

Henry, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou (1133-1189) married Eleanor two months after the annulment of her first marriage. Henry was the eldest grandson of King Henry I of England (1068-1135) and inherited the title of Duke of Normandy from him. He was Count of Anjou through his father Geoffrey Plantagenet (1113-1151.) Henry ascended the English throne in 1154 as King Henry II with the death of the French-born king of England Stephen of Blois (c.1092-1154) who was a grandson of William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy.

Henry's marriage to Eleanor started well but it soon became a battle of wills between two intelligent, strong-willed rulers. Henry had several mistresses which irritated Eleanor rather than distressing her. The royal union brought five sons and three daughters. Sons Richard and John ruled England after Henry II. He allowed another son Henry, "The Young King" (1155-1183) to co-rule with him from 1170 but gave him little responsibility. Henry II survived him by six years.

France, Anjou and Aquitaine circa 1154

France, Anjou and Aquitaine circa 1154

Eleanor of Aquitaine Imprisoned by the King

For over two decades Henry and Eleanor ruled England, were part of the infamous Thomas a Beckett murder and managed their lands in mainland Europe. She patronised the arts and poetry prospered under her influence. The courtly love style of writing was keenly advocated by her.

Henry, Richard and Geoffrey, three of Henry and Eleanor’s sons, involved her in their unsuccessful 1173 plot against Henry II which obviously met with outrage from the elder Henry. The king had Eleanor arrested in France before she was incarcerated in the English castles of Winchester and Sarum between 1174 and 1889, his death. Oddly, he released her for several Christmases, which they spent together before he placed her back under lock and key.

Richard, Eleanor’s favourite son, became king on the 6th July 1189. He immediately issued orders for Eleanor to be set free but her amenable jailors had already released her. She returned to work in politics in England, looked after her estates in Aquitaine and ruled in Richard I’s name while he fought in the Third Crusade.

Eleanor's Determination Saves Kings Richard I and John

Eleanor was at the head of negotiations to have Richard I "The Lionheart" released when he was held captive in Germany on route from the Holy Land to England. This was achieved whilst she was considered an exceedingly old lady because she had reached her seventies. When Richard died in 1199 his brother John ascended to the throne. Nearly an octogenarian by this time, Eleanor trekked across the Pyrenees to ensure that her granddaughter Blanche of Castile married Louis VIII, King of France and protected the Plantagenet interests. She returned to Aquitaine to live out the remainder of her days.

As a mother, grandmother, queen dowager, duchess and countess, she had no time to rest. She supported King John’s military activities in neighbouring French territories and saw off challenges from Arthur of Brittany, her nephew. John's victories in French territories were ultimately achieved by Eleanor. Her experience and strategic thinking were enviable and admirable. She died on 1st April 1204. Henry II’s queen consort was laid to rest beside him and Richard I in the Fontevrault Abbey in Anjou.

The Lion in Winter

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage was excellently portrayed in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter starring Peter O’ Toole and Katherine Hepburn. It was based on James Goldman's 1966 play. If you haven't seen it, please watch it. It's a classic.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle


Joanne Hayle (author) from Wiltshire, U.K. on May 27, 2021:

You're welcome! Glad that you enjoyed the article.

Joanne Hayle (author) from Wiltshire, U.K. on May 27, 2021:

Thanks for your kind comment.

Joanne Hayle (author) from Wiltshire, U.K. on May 27, 2021:

Thanks Audrey for taking time to read this. I am glad you enjoyed it.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on May 26, 2021:

Thank you for introducing me to Eleanor of Aquitaine. I enjoyed learning about her life.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 25, 2021:

This is a very informative article. Though I’ve heard of Eleanor of Aquitaine, I knew little about her. Thank you for sharing the facts about her life.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on May 25, 2021:

Joanne, I have read her story, but your presentation surpassed anything I previously read. Great article, and thank you for giving it to us.

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