Eleanor of Aquitaine is considered by many to have been the most powerful and enlightened woman of her age, if not the entire medieval epoch. She was born in 1122 on Bordeaux in the country of Aquitaine,(1) having for a father the future duke of Aquitaine, William X, and her mother Aenor of Chatellerault.(2) In Aquitaine women had liberties rarely found elsewhere in Europe and they mixed freely with men.(3) Her personality, as she grew older, owed a lot to this atmosphere of civility.(4) The first man to exhort an enormous impression upon her was her grandfather, William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, known as the Troubadour (Guilhem loTrobador). "He was a man of extraordinary complexity, alternately idealistic and cynical, ruthless but impractical . . . Nevertheless contemporaries undoubtedly respected him as a mighty prince and a brave knight." (5) Her father, William X, was just as complex and colorful as his father, however known also for aggressiveness. He quarreled often with the church and his vassals. (6) As for her mother, little is known besides her name. She died when Eleanor was eight years old. (7) As a ruler, William X administered his lands and controlled his vassals from the back of his horse, constantly traveling and during many of those travels Eleanor accompanied him.
Her formal education included Latin as well as Provencal, the language of Aquitaine. On Good Friday 1137, in the city of Compostella while on pilgrimage, Duke William X passed away. After his death she had no choice but to turn to Louis VI, king of France. Soon after she was engaged to his only surviving son, Louis le Jeune. (8) On July 25, 1137 the couple was married in Bordeaux. At fifteen years old, Eleanor (according to contemporary sources) was a "beauty, tall, with a great figure that she kept well into old age." (9) She probably had blond hair and blue eyes, which at this time were considered marks of extraordinary good looks. After their wedding, on August 8, both Eleanor and Louis were consecrated duke and duchess of Aquitaine. News reached them during the betrothal banquet that Louis' father, king Louis VI had died a week earlier. (10) On December 25, 1137 Eleanor was crowned queen of France. The young couple seemed genuinely in love. She worked hard to make her court the most splendid in the west. She moved to Paris, an unimpressive city at this time with its still standing Roman ruins. The city was in the early stages of a gothic revival that would establish her as one of the most celebrated capitals in western Christendom. To the devout city Eleanor introduced customs from Aquitaine such as its language, respect for women, and fashion. The couple traveled together holding court in the cities and towns of the duchy. They learned from each other. She gained respect for Aristotelian logic, and enjoyed her husband's dissertations which he arranged in the palace gardens. He shared some of her pleasures such as hunting and tournaments, as well as her love for poetry. (11) "Masterful and fiercely energetic, Eleanor soon established almost complete control over her husband." (12)
After seven years of marriage Eleanor had yet to conceive, having had an earlier miscarriage. Around 1144 she finally gave birth to a girl named Marie who one day would become the countess of Champagne. (13) During those first seven years there were wars of conquests for Louis VII as well as problems with the most powerful cleric in the kingdom, Bernard of Clairvaux, who became Eleanor's most dangerous enemy. By this time her relationship with Louis showed signs of strain, especially when rumors surfaced about her and a famous troubadour from Aquitaine that had spent time in the royal court. She enjoyed flirting and loved romantic poems and all these accusations were probably unfounded. She also had failed to give the king a male heir. Despite these strains they still seemed to have been in love. (14) Unknown to them, events in the Middle East would take them on a journey that forever changed their lives. On December 24, 1144 Edessa fell to the Saracens and pope Eugenius III preached support for a second crusade. After some convincing speeches and heavy taxes to pay for the enterprise, the kings of Germany and France were ready for the march to the Holy Land. Even the pope crossed the Alps into France to bless the crusading force. On June 11, 1147 Louis and Eleanor, together with an army, left Saint-Denis and trekked through Bavaria, Hungary and into the Balkans. (15) Eleanor and her companions, servants and troubadours, proved too much of a distraction for the troops, and raised eyebrows with some of the chroniclers and clerics. (16) By October 4 they reached the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. The French crusaders were dazzled at the riches in food, fashions, precious metals, and art of the Byzantines. Eleanor immediately developed a taste for Byzantine clothing and probably bought back to France some of the eastern fashions. (17) In late October the French army marched into the hinterlands of Byzantium. Bad weather and effective attacks by the Turks decimated the crusaders. The remnants of the army- guided by the experienced Knights Templars- reached Attalia by early January. From there Louis hired ships hoping to make it to the Holy Land. He took with him only his immediate guards and family, leaving the rest of the army to manage by themselves as best as they could passage to the Holy Land. (18) After three weeks at sea while enduring heavy storms, the royal entourage arrived in Antioch where they were welcomed by the prince and his court.
The Antochian capital proved to be as dazzling to the French as Constantinople. Eleanor enjoyed her ten days in Antioch immensely, especially the prince, her long lost uncle Raymond of Poitiers. (19) Louis was angered by his wife's affections for her uncle. Raymond and Louis also disagreed on how to go about the crusade, Raymond wanted to attack Aleppo and perhaps recapture Edessa. In the meantime Louis wanted to go on to Jerusalem. Eleanor favored her uncle's plan and angrily opposed her husband. She went as far as to propose a divorce. (20) On the night of his departure, royal troops broke into the queen's quarters and carried her to the port. On advice from the regent in Paris, Louis decided to deal with Eleanor back in France. The rift between the couple would not be mended. (21) In Jerusalem, Louis joined an ill-fated attack on Damascus where the Crusaders suffered heavy losses. (22) Soon after Easter 1149, the royal couple left the holy land sailing in separate ships. The Byzantines, who were at war with Sicily, captured Eleanor's ship. The Sicilian navy re-captured her ship and she went to Palermo to recuperate. The extraordinary luxury of the Sicilian court left a lasting impression on the queen. (23)
After returning to Paris, Eleanor gave birth to a second child, also a girl (named Alix), in the summer of 1150. Her marriage to Louis was growing more stressed, despite interventions by the pope Eugenius and the abbot Suger, regent of France during the absence of the royal couple. (24) On August 1151, Geoffrey Plantaganet and his son, Henry, arrived in Paris where, after some negotiations, Henry paid homage for the duchy of Normandy. Eleanor was attracted to Henry and some kind of surreptitious arrangement with Henry must have been reached. (25) On March 21, 1152 the marriage of Louis and Eleanor was pronounced null and void on grounds that they were cousins (third cousins). The real reasons were the absence of a male heir; their incompatibilities and finally the enormous influence St. Bernard held on king Louis and his desire to remove Eleanor from the king's side. (26)
Accepting a marriage proposal from Duke Henry of Normandy made the previous summer; Eleanor re-married May 18, 1152, hardly eight weeks after the dissolution of her first marriage. (27) Henry had inherited Maine, Anjou and Touraine and his chance of taking England were very good. He was eighteen years old and Eleanor twenty-nine. Their marriage seemed to have been a happy one. He was in love with Eleanor and gave her all the children she wanted. (28) On January 1153 Henry sailed for England. Sometime during August Eleanor gave birth to her first son, named William in honor of her father and grandfather. Around Christmas of the same year Henry was proclaimed heir to the English throne after waging successful campaigns and gaining support from many English lords. (29) A year later, on December 19, 1154 Henry and Eleanor were crowned king and queen of England by the archbishop of Canterbury. (30) Henry II governed England on horseback, just like her father William X did in Normandy during his reign.
Eleanor frequently administered justice in his absence, "arbitrating in disputes over land and feudal dues, and presiding over law courts. She also kept a careful watch over certain tax receipts. Throughout she showed herself clear-headed and firm, indeed dictatorial." (31) For thirteen years Eleanor kept busy bearing children, five sons: (William died at the age of three), Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John plus three daughters: Matilda, Eleanor and Joanna. Her children would one day show the world where they came from as two of her daughters became queens and three of the sons kings. (32) While Henry II ruled England and his possessions on the continent through constant conflict with king Louis and restless Welsh princes and Brittany lords, Eleanor stood by his side, often ruling as regent on his absences. When Henry named Thomas Becket archbishop of Canterbury, a growing feud intensified between the secular and the clerics and Eleanor tried her best to mediate both sides. For Eleanor's ambition, the worse news came from France when it was learned that Louis' third wife finally gave him a male heir on August 22, 1165, the future king Phillip II Augustus, who one day would destroy the Angevin Empire of Henry II. (33)
Two years later, on December 24, 1167 Eleanor gave birth to the future king John; it was her last childbirth. Her childbearing years were over and her marriage to Henry began to decline. (34) Part of the downturn centered on Henry's sexual lust and especially his long affair with Rosemond Clifford. The following year Eleanor left England for Pontiou where she stayed happily for five years before returning to England. Rebel barons ambushed the queen and her protector, Patrick- Earl of Salisbury. The Earl was stabbed in the back and his nephew William came to his rescue. William was eventually subdued and Eleanor ransomed him. William became Marshall of England and the greatest knight of his age. (35) Her court at Poitiou became a center for tournaments and culture, visited by most of the established and highly respected troubadours and poets of the time including Chretien de Troyes, famous for the Arthurian literatures. (36) While in Poitou Eleanor began to secretly plot against Henry making sure that the lords of Aquitaine and Poitou's first loyalty was to her and not to the king. (37) For his part, Henry's actions did not garner him too many friends. On December 29, 1170 the most horrific crime against Christiandom was committed in the name of Henry II when four of his magnates (not knights as some believed) hacked Thomas Becket to death in the cathedral of Canterbury. Henry was not excommunicated but went through many humiliations and his power (to the delight of Eleanor) destabilized. (38) For several years she had been secretly planning a revolt against Henry. His kingdom harbored the most rebellious and unruly lords of any ruler in Western Europe and all she needed were trustworthy allies.
By 1173 she had the three trustworthiest allies she could find, her three oldest sons. (39) The revolt took place in 1173 and was led by Henry's eldest son also named Henry. Eleanor would benefit by getting back Aquitaine, which she intended to rule with her son Richard. Henry II suspected nothing of the revolt. On February 1173 father and son met as the young Henry demanded England, Normandy or Anjou for himself. Henry II began to suspect a conspiracy but his suspiciousness did not rise until the young Henry escaped one night towards England with the idea to raise it. At the last moment he turned around and instead headed for Paris to seek refuge in king Louis' court. The plot was doomed. (40) With the help of king Louis young Henry raised an army and throughout 1173 Henry II faced rebellion in all his possessions except Normandy. However, one by one he put down all of them and by the autumn of 1174 he had defeated the grand alliance and a peace conference took place at Gisors. Eleanor took refuge with her uncle, but when Henry II laid siege to the castle she escaped to Paris dressed as a nobleman. Shortly before reaching safety a group of Henry's knights intercepted her entourage and captured her. She spent a few months imprisoned in one of the towers of Henry's castle at Chinon in Touraine. (41) Henry's fury at Eleanor's treason knew no bounds. She spent the next fifteen years his prisoner, mostly in his castle at Winchester. Only briefly was she allowed to travel to Aquitaine where she gave her duchy to her son Richard. (42) On September 1180 her first husband, Louis VII, died of a stroke and his young son, Phillip II Augustus, was proclaimed king of France. (43)
Three years later, on June 1183, her son Henry and heir to the throne of England contracted dysentery and died. (44) On his deathbed, young Henry pleaded to his father for Eleanor's release. Her total freedom was not granted, but slowly she was allowed more and more access to the outside world, including a visit to Windsor to celebrate Christmas with king Henry and their sons, Richard and John. (45) In 1186 another son passed away: Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany. A few months later his wife gave birth to a son whom she named Arthur. (46) In June 1189, after an exhausting war against his son Richard and the king of France Henry II fell ill and died, fulfilling Eleanor's revenge. (47) Her imprisonment thus ended. While Richard was away in the continent Eleanor, under his blessing and against the royal justiciar, took control of the English realm enacting several laws including one that standardized the price of silver throughout the land. (48)
On September 3 1189 Richard was crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey in the presence of his adoring mother. (49) She was now sixty-seven, a very old woman for her times, but one who kept well. The following year Richard left for the Middle East on his joint crusade with king Phillip II stopping in Sicily and then Cyprus. In Sicily he reunited with his mother who had travel first to France, then Navarre were she made a deal with its king, Sancho the Wise, to have his daughter marry Richard. From there, Eleanor and her future daughter-in-law traveled over the Alps reaching Richard just before his departure. A few days later she returned home, stopping briefly in Rome during the coronation of the new pope, an old friend. She secured the Archbishopry of York for her son Geoffrey Plantaganet (thus removing him from the throne), obtained a legateship for the Archbishop of Rouen (to use it against the Chief Chancellor of England) and funds for her trips. (50) With Richard gone to the crusades, Eleanor took over the reign. Not an easy task considering that William Longchamp, the chancellor, was creating many enemies among the magnates, John was campaigning all over England as Richard's successor claiming that Richard will never return and finally Phillip, king of France, who returned early from the crusades on the excuse of being ill and who immediately began laying siege to Richard's lands in the continent. John gathered all the magnates for a council and William Longchamp was removed from office. Phillip invited John to France, with the intention of preparing him for the throne by offering him all the Plantaganet lands in the continent as well as his half sister for a wife. Eleanor re-gathered all the magnates for several councils and with their support successfully prevented John from leaving England and Phillip from besieging the lands of a man engaged in the crusades. (51) On his way to England from the crusades, Richard was captured by the Austrians and sent to the German Emperor to be bargained for ransom. Eleanor once again took control of the realm and ruled through the new justiciar, Walter of Contances. (52) She surrounded herself with able advisors such as Hubert Walter, who later became justiciar, and the archdeacon of Bath, Peter of Blois. (53)
She tried unsuccessfully to get the pope to intervene, but the eighty-year old pope, Celestine III, was too timid to respond. Phillip II ceased the opportunity to take Gisors and the Vexin from Richard. John finally crossed the channel and tried to arouse the rest of the Plantaganet lands to his banner. He failed. He then allied himself with Phillip. (54) Eleanor united barons and commoners and all seaports facing Flanders were defended. When John's mercenaries landed they were easily overwhelmed. John managed to escape and with some Welsh mercenaries took Windsor. The castle was immediately laid siege. Meanwhile a ransom for Richard's release was announced, 100,000 marks. Eleanor and her deputies raised taxes and emptied church coffers in an effort to come to the amount. (55) Originally, far less money was raised and several more levies were issued. Upon hearing that Richard could be set free soon, John slipped out of Windsor and arrived at Phillip's court. He tried to incite revolt, but Eleanor proved to be more powerful and better liked. His lands were confiscated and even Normandy refused to align itself with John. (56) By December, the ransom money was finally collected and immediately turned into silver.
Two hundred hostages were assembled in the ports of Dunwich, Ipswich and Orford. Eleanor was to accompanied the precious cargo to her son (57) The Emperor of Germany, Henry, vacillated on the agreement because Phillip and John both offered 100,000 marks to the Emperor if he kept Richard imprisoned a little longer, time to portioned his lands between them. Due to pressures from the German princes, whom Richard had befriended, Henry decided to go with the original agreement only if Richard accepted to become his vassal. Eleanor convinced Richard to go through this meaningless ceremony and finally on February 4, 1194 Richard was set free. They traveled down the Rhine, Richard making allies as he went. Finally on March 13, the king and his mother landed in England after an absence by Richard of more than four years. (58) On May 12, 1194 both Richard and Eleanor left England for Normandy. Neither would ever set foot in England again. (59) Through the influence of Eleanor, Richard forgave John and most of his lost lands restored. He remained loyal for the rest of Richard's reign. (60) Once on the continent, Eleanor retired to the abbey of Fontevrault, where she had spent countless peaceful moments in the past. (61) Because of it's location, close to the administrative center of Touraine and Anjou-Chinon, Eleanor could keep taps on current events and supervise her assistants. (62) In 1198, one of Eleanor's grandson's, Otto, was elected emperor of Germany and ruled as Otto IV of Brunswick. (63) The following year her worse fear materialized. During an assault on the garrison at Chalis on March 25, a crossbow bolt hit Richard in his shoulder. A piece of the bolt remained after the operation and gangrene quickly set in.
On April 6, 1199 Richard died in the arms of Eleanor. (64) Eleanor designated her son John as successor and with the help of William Marshall, archbishop Hubert Walter and John's half brother, archbishop Geoffrey Plantaganet, John became king instead of his nephew Arthur. (65) In supporting John, Eleanor kept control over Aquitaine and Poitou and could exhort influence over John, whereas with Arthur she would loose all her power to Arthur's mother, Constance. Constance, with the help of king Phillip of France, invaded Normandy, but Eleanor, on a grand tour of her lands, secured it all for John with the help of mercenaries. Constance fled and Arthur was placed under the custody of king Phillip. (66) Eleanor's grand tour took her to Londou, Poitiers, Niort, LaRochelle, Saintes, Bordeaux and many other towns. In five of them she issued charters releasing their feudal obligations and setting them up as corporations. Her purpose: to ensure loyalty to her and John. In July 1199 she performed a very distasteful task, paying homage to king Phillip for her lands (Poitou and Aquitaine), effectively blocking Arthur's claim to them, all in accordance to feudal law. (67) On December 1199, Eleanor headed to Spain to choose the best bride among her granddaughters for king Phillip's son. On her way she was captured by Hugh IX of Lusignan, who demanded over lordship of LaMarche. She consented and arrived in Castille in the middle of January 1200. (68) She chose the youngest granddaughter, named Blanca, over her older siblings on the account that her name sounded better on French ears than that of Urraca, the other candidate. Blanca turned out to be the right choice, as her son became Louis IX, better known as St. Louis. (69) She later changed her name to Blanche. On July 1202, Eleanor received news that Arthur would be invading Poitou and that she was the main price. Arthur learned she had stopped in the town of Mirebeau. She held out with a few troops in the town's citadel. She successfully bargained for time as two messengers slipped out, one headed to John, the other to the seneschal of Anjou, William of Les Roches. All the gates to the town were closed except one, left open in order for the besiegers to receive supplies. Within forty-eight hours John arrived and stormed the town, capturing everyone. King John promised not to put his captives to death. Within a few days several died of starvation, thus breaking his word. Then Arthur disappeared. Several stories have persisted that John himself murdered his nephew. Arthur's sister was also captured and sent to England where she was imprisoned in several castles until her death forty years later. (70) Slowly, all of Normandy was lost to king John, culminating in 1204 as the entire Norman heritage left by William the Conqueror was lost. (71)
Eleanor, after Mirebaur, retired to Poitou, which held against Phillip II. The king hesitated on invading, since not only was she not at war with him, but she was his vassal. John did nothing to help her. She returned to the nunnery of Fontevrault and on March 31, or April 1, 1204 passed away wearing the habit of the nuns. (72) Eleanor of Aquitaine was without a doubt the most colorful woman of her time, infatuated with power, always scheming to either achieve more of it or to maintain what she had. She loved the arts and thanks to her visits to the Middle East introduced some of its fashions to France and England. She was queen of England and France and ruled as regent several times with perhaps better success than her male counterparts. Her offspring became queens, kings, emperors and archbishops. As the nuns of Fontevrault so eloquently praised: "She enhanced the grandeur of her birth by the honesty of her life, the purity of her morals, the flower of her virtues; and in the conduct of her blameless life, she surpassed almost all the queens of the world." (73)
Notes: 1."Eleanor of Aquitaine- The Queen Mother" by Desmond Seward. Dorset Press. New York. 1978. pg 13 2.Ibid. pg 13 3.Ibid. pg 15 4. She called herself Alia-Anor. ("Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings" by Amy Kelly. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. 1950. pg. 6) 5. "Eleanor of Aquitaine" pg.16 6.Ibid. pg 17 7.Ibid. pg 18 8.Ibid. pgs 19-21 9.Ibid. pg. 21 10.Ibid. pgs 21-22 11.Ibid. pgs 27-29 12.Ibid. pg 30 13.Ibid. pgs 35-36 14.Ibid. pg. 37 15. "Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings" by Amy Kelly. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. 1950. pg. 37 16.Ibid. pages 38-39 17. "Eleanor of Aquitaine" pg. 45 18.Ibid. pgs 47-48 19.Ibid. pg. 49 20.Ibid. pg. 51 21.Ibid. pg. 52 22.Ibid. pg. 52 23.Ibid. pg. 53 24.Ibid. pg. 58 25. "Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings" pg. 77 26.Ibid. pages 79-80 27."Eleanor of Aquitaine" pg. 65 28.Ibid. pages. 69-70 29.Ibid. pages. 72-73 30.Ibid. pg. 79 31.Ibid. pg. 85 32.Ibid. pg. 90 33.Ibid. pg. 103 34.Ibid. pg. 107 35.Ibid. pg. 110 36.Ibid. pg. 110 37.Ibid. pg. 114 38.Ibid. pg. 120 39.Ibid. pg. 122 40.Ibid. pgs. 129-130 41."Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings" pages. 182-185 42.Ibid. pg. 139 43.Ibid. pg. 140 44.Ibid. pg. 141 45.Ibid. pg. 142 46.Ibid. pg. 144 47.Ibid. pg. 147 48.Ibid. pg. 152 49.Ibid. pg. 152 50.Ibid. pgs. 155-161 51.Ibid. pgs. 165-168 52.Ibid. pg. 171 53.Ibid. pg. 171 53.Ibid. pg. 173 54.Ibid. pages 174-176 55. "Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings" pg 305 56.Ibid. pg. 311 57."Eleanor of Aquitaine" pg 178 58.Ibid. pgs. 180-183 59.Ibid. pg. 189 60.Ibid. pg. 190 61.Ibid. pg. 197 62.Ibid. pg. 204 63."Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings" pages 336-337 64.Ibid. pages. 342-344 65."Eleanor of Aquitaine" pg 222 66.Ibid. pg. 223 67.Ibid. pg. 224 68.Ibid. pg. 233 69.Ibid. pg. 234 70.Ibid. pgs. 243-246 71.Ibid. pg. 253 72.Ibid. pg. 254 73."Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings" pg 387