Eleanor of Aquitaine was born in 1124 in Poitiers. No one is sure of her birthdate as records weren’t exactly on the top of everyone’s list in the Middle Ages, but historians have found mention of her birth in 1124.
She was the heir to the Duchy of Aquitaine, which was unusual as it usually went to the men in the family and then filtered down to brothers/uncles etc., rather like today. However, her mother and four-year-old brother died, and so she became the heir after her father.
Her father died in 1137, and she became the Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right. The King of France, Louis VI, saw an opportunity to unite the largest duchy in France with his lands. The King in France did not own all the land in France; there were Duchies and Counties, rather like today who had their rulers and governments to pay homage and taxes to the king. Anyway, Louis seized the moment and married Eleanor to his son and then quite promptly died. Louis and his new queen were feted and adored by the French Court. Louis loved his wife and was willing to do pretty much what she wanted, which got him into trouble with his more experienced advisors.
One of the main things she is known for is participating in the tragic and unsuccessful Second Crusade. The crusades were a series of wars between Catholics and the Moors (Muslims in modern-day terms) to try and win back Jerusalem. Rumours flew regarding the relationship between Eleanor and her dashing Uncle Raymond, who had a lot of affection for her. They were together constantly, and she willingly let him abduct her during this crusade. When Eleanor eventually returned home and was reunited with Louis, she soon became pregnant with their second child. Eleanor gave birth to another daughter (both her daughters would grow up to be quite formidable women themselves, both having to look after large swathes of lands whilst their husbands fought wars). The Pope annulled their relationship due to no male heirs being born. The Pope agreed that Eleanor and Louis were third cousins once removed and deemed too close in relationship to fulfil God’s holy wishes. However, their daughters were named as legitimate but were left in the custody of their father to continue their education and upbringing.
Within days of the announcement of the annulment, Eleanor had gotten engaged again. This time to the man she would love, hate and eventually use her sons to overthrow him. The Duke of Normandy, who would later become Henry II of England, came to her aid when two French Lords tried to have her abducted so they could marry her off and steal her lands for themselves. The duke came to her aid as a good knight should and told her that she should just come to England and marry him instead.
She married him, and their marriage was stormy. Henry was not faithful to her, and whilst I have no doubt they shared some love for Eleanor, it soon turned to hatred. She bore Henry eight children; five sons and three daughters. Her daughters always seem to be forgotten as they are women but I’ll go through them quickly.
- Matilda, Duchess of Saxony – married a Duke, exiled due to a falling out he had with the Emperor of Rome, had 5 children, died at 33.
- Eleanor, Queen of Castile – married the King of Castile, had 12 (!) children, most of whom died young. She died of a broken heart just 28 days after her beloved husband Alfonso died
- Joan, Queen of Sicily – had two very successful marriages, one to the King of Sicily, and one to a Duke of Toulouse. By all accounts, she was quite formidable! Died in childbirth at 33, her son who died a few days after was baptised Richard, after her beloved brother.
By 1166 and after more than a few mishaps, Henry and Eleanor were falling out of favour with each other. Eleanor was escorted to her home county of Aquitaine by Henry and his army to see her two young sons Geoffrey and Richard, to safety. It is there that things rapidly went downhill for Henry. She called her son Henry to her, and there they plotted against the king. Henry rose against his father, and with his brothers’ help, they rode across France to Paris, gaining support as they went.
Eleanor was arrested and sent to exile in England – various castles held her as a royal prisoner. In this time, she grew distant from her sons, especially Richard and it was thought by those close to Eleanor that maybe she had finally realised the error of her ways (she hadn’t, she just realised life was more painless).
Eleanor survived her son Henry (1183), her husband Henry (1189) and her beloved Richard (1199) – she lasted into the reign of John, her youngest son. After a tragic and challenging trip to collect her granddaughter for a marriage to the French king’s son, she became exhausted and decided to retire to Fontrevaud, where she remained until she died in 1204. That is not the end, however!
I have adored and admired Eleanor for as long as I can remember; as a family, we went to Fontrevaud when I was tiny – around 3 or 4 and my mother wanted to try and see her effigy. As luck would have it, early in the 1990s, they’d just started excavating the tombs and had found Eleanor, Henry II and Richard. They were in the middle of excavating when we went there, so we didn’t see much, but I know my mum was excited to hear when the archaeologists had finished so we could back. We did, eventually going back in the summer of 2018 with my partner and our son. Mum and I were fascinated; nothing had changed from what she could remember. And it was so exciting to finally see Eleanor, Henry II, Richard I and his forgotten wife Berengaria (so forgotten I’ve been calling her Isabella for years!).
Eleanor didn’t give two hoots that in her day, she wasn’t meant to own land, plot against her husband and fight for her sons, country and lands (even at the age of around 77), and she was a bit of a battleaxe! She is the first woman from history that I remember being interested in and wanting to find about, so she must take the credit for my interest in history – although my mum, I’m sure, will dispute it!
This post is the first in my Women in History series. If there’s anyone, in particular, you want me to research and find out about to serialise, then please drop us a comment or an email, and I’ll look into her. This one is a bit choppy as I wasn’t sure how to do it! I’m sure with time; it’ll change into being a bit more streamlined and punchy.
Sources: I got a lot of this from the dreaded Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_of_Aquitaine
and the encyclopaedia Britannica website https://www.britannica.com/biography/Eleanor-of-Aquitaine