Published on October 18th, 2014 | by Amy Lynne Hayes2
Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and Queen of England
She was born a duchess, twice made a queen, and birthed a dynasty. Reputed to be the most beautiful woman in all of Europe, she was certainly the most powerful.
The name Eleanor of Aquitaine conjures up images of a medieval lady riding boldly ahead of her knights, leading her people as their beloved queen. Indeed her popularity among her loyal followers is undisputed. But her tumultuous life wasn’t always on the ascent of the wheel of fortune.
As the eldest daughter of Duke William X of Aquitaine, Eleanor enjoyed special privileges right from birth. She became a duchess after her father’s death while barely more than a child. She was a duchess in her own right, meaning her title was not dependent on any male, a highly unusual position for a woman of the 12th century. Prior to his death, in order to protect his heiress from abduction and rival factions, her father named King Louis VI of France as Eleanor’s guardian. As such, he was able to arrange her marriage – to his own son, the Dauphin.
She married King Louis VII of France in July 1137, making Eleanor queen consort. The marriage began with promise, but disintegrated rapidly as Eleanor’s capricious nature clashed heavily with the religious factions of the time. Louis VII was a pious man, and was unable to cope with her capricious nature. In her opinion, the king proved to be a boring and controlling overlord. Eleanor accompanied her husband on the unsuccessful Second Crusade where tensions boiled over. The marriage was annulled in 1152, and produced only two daughters.
Upon gaining her freedom, Eleanor returned to Poitiers. She was not safe in her own lands though without male protection – two lords attempted to kidnap her along the way and force her into marriage to gain her title. Eleanor knew she needed another husband, and invited Henry, Duke of Normandy to marry her immediately. They were married in May 1152, two months after the annulment of her marriage to King Louis VII of France. The marriage caused quite a scandal, not only due to the proximity of her annulment. There was also a large age difference – Eleanor was 30-years old to Henry’s 18, a 12 year gap.
Henry, Duke of Normandy was the son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou. Through his lineage and the outcome of a longterm war in England, Henry became King Henry II of England in 1154, making Eleanor his queen. Once Queen of France, now Queen of England, still Duchess of Aquitaine. Their empire stretched from the north of England all the way to the Pyrenees.
Their marriage lasted 40 years, and produced eight children. Five sons and four daughters: William, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, John, Matilda, Eleanor and Joan. In spite of being blessed with multiple heirs and enough daughters to connect to almost every ruling family in Europe, the marriage was not always blissful. The passion between the two was said to be great, but that didn’t prevent Henry from being unfaithful to his queen. The queen overlooked the vast majority of these dalliances as being beneath her, with the exception of the king’s long-lasting infatuation with the fair Rosamund Clifford. By the time of Henry’s most notorious affair, the couple’s marriage was beyond repair.
Eleanor was not a queen content with sitting back and allowing her husband to rule all. Her own ambition was matched only by Henry’s, and she was his equal in both education and ability. Naturally, this rankled the self-important king and went against the grain of the role of women during this historic period. Aquitaine constantly proved to be a thorn in Henry’s side, as the quarrelsome subjects of that region would only answer to their duchess. The power struggle between ruler and country, king and queen, and eventually father and son would lead to the darkest period of Eleanor’s reign.
In 1167, Eleanor returned to her lands to set up her “Court of Love” in Poitiers. It was reported that her husband did nothing to prevent her going – Henry was deeply involved with Rosamund Clifford at the time, and the estrangement between the two monarchs was complete. Perhaps Henry hoped for an annulment from his marriage to Eleanor, which she refused to grant. She remained in Poitiers, presiding over her court of troubadours and courtiers and pursuing her cultural interests.
This family was not destined for smooth seas. While Eleanor was in Poitiers, her eldest son Henry and heir to the throne (William died as a toddler) revolted against his father. Henry the Young King chafed at the lack of true power and position granted by his father the king. Henry II preferred to keep all the power within his own grasp, making his sons restless and discontent. Conspiracy theories swirl about this time, and Eleanor reportedly took the side of her son.
This perceived betrayal by Eleanor led to her capture and imprisonment by her husband. She spent 16 years as a captive, held in isolation in England, away from her beloved Aquitaine. She was only released after Henry’s death and their son Richard ascended the throne. Richard was always Eleanor’s favorite, and one of his first actions as King Richard I of England was to release his beloved mother. She acted as regent when he went on crusade, and continued to help govern when her youngest son John inherited the throne.
Family factions continued to wage war for power, a propensity that would become synonymous with the Plantagenet dynasty the queen helped establish. Eleanor outlived all of her children, save for King John, and eventually retired as a nun to Fontevraud Abbey. She died in 1204 at the age of 82.
The Plantagenets would rule England during the High and Late Middle Ages, through the War of the Roses, all the way until Henry VII of England killed Richard III at the Battles of Bosworth and founded the Tudor dynasty in 1485. And though the English have long had a rivalry with France, it was Eleanor, a duchess of Aquitaine and former French queen that cemented this ruling family.