Queen of France and England, but at different times, Eleanor of Acquitaine became a powerful figure in 12th Century Western Europe. Praised or censored, loved or hated, noble or slandered as common, the truth about Eleanor of Acquitaine lies somewhere in the middle of how her friends and enemies perceived her.
I just finished reading a fascinating biography about this Medieval Queen and made a short list of the top ten things I think we should all know about Queen Eleanor. (The book is an older publication, 1967, entitled Eleanor of Acquitaine by Regine Pernoud, if you interested in a more in-depth biographical study.)
- Born in 1120 or 1122 A.D.
It’s not quite clear which year Eleanor was born according to the sources I’ve consulted, but having it narrowed down to a two year period is pretty good. Her father – the Duke of Acquitaine – governed an area larger than the actual holdings of the French crown in this period. Acquitaine had power, wealth, and culture beyond their feudal lord, the king of France.
She was born into an era when royal ruler wasn’t always strongly established and the lords and dukes often dictated the happenings of the land. During her lifetime, the power of monarchy in Western Europe rose and the kingdoms of France and England would solidify powers under her rule or watchful eye.
2. From Acquitaine
Where’s Acquitaine? In France. It was a land holding (duchy) expanding over western, central and southern France. When her father died in 1137, young Eleanor – with no brothers – became Duchess of Acquitaine and shortly thereafter married the very young French king, bringing her large territory under direct rule of the French throne as long as she was queen. Keep in mind, during the Middle Ages marriages tended to be for power, lands, and alliances.
Eleanor had the benefits of a good education and seemed to enjoy a life-long quest for knowledge and a love of books. In fact, the image at her tomb depicts her as a beautiful woman, gently holding a book; perhaps it symbolizes how her knowledge and wisdom gained through the years built her influence.
3. Married Louis VII of France
1137 – Eleanor of Acquitaine took her first steps into full public life when she married the crown price of France. Just after their marriage celebration, the prince’s father died and Eleanor’s husband became Louis VII of France. He had been the prince never destined for the throne, but his older brother had died in a hunting accident, and young Louis left his studies at a monastery to marry and take the throne.
Historical records suggest Queen Eleanor controlled much of her king’s early reign, often stumbling the royals into difficult or embarrassing situations. Both French royals were young, impressionable, and didn’t always listen to wise counsel. Still, primary sources suggest Louis VII loved his queen, and she used that affection to get what she wanted in the kingdom and court. (Eleanor and Louis eventually had two daughters. No sons.)
4. Went on a the Second Crusade
Queen Eleanor went with the king on the Second Crusade (1147-1149), officially traveling with the crusaders on the journey and bringing along a whole wagon train of clothes, tents, and luxuries for her royal (supposedly religious) excursion. She enjoyed visiting courts at Constantinople and Antioch; she may have even come under attack during one of the marches.
Ultimately, the Second Crusade failed to accomplish much militarily as the powers and armies of Europe mistrusted each other and quarreled. And all wasn’t well between the French king and queen; their quarrels became public, the queen asked for a marriage annulment, and the pope refused. The couple managed to patch up their relationship until 1152, when after no sons had been born to inherit the throne, King Louis agreed to a separation.
5. She remarried…a little too quickly?
Two months after Eleanor’s marriage to King Louis had been annulled, she married the Henry, Duke of Normandy, a powerful and unruly French subject. It was definitely a power match.
The Duke of Normandy had claims to the English throne and the English King Stephen named Henry his heir. By 1154, Eleanor was queen again, this time of England, and she added Acquitaine to England’s lands along with her husband’s Normandy, making England control of about half of modern-day France.
6. King Henry II of England’s Co-Ruler
Eleanor had eight children while Queen of England. Records from the era show that she traveled extensively throughout France and England, overseeing governmental issues, sending out decrees (sometimes in her own name), and promoting justice. King Henry was just as busy. Clearly, they ruled together, delighting in their ever-increasing power.
This power couple worked toward building a solid and semi-unified kingdom and as their children grew older, they looked at the other kingdoms of Europe, planning marriage alliances and acquisition of more land.
7. Patron of medieval arts and culture
Eleanor adored the arts, particularly song and stories. Throughout her life, she gathered troubadours at all her courts, and under her guiandance a revival and flourishing of Arthurian legends, romantic tales, and “courtly love” swept through Western Europe. Interestingly, many songs and poems were composed about Eleanor through this very movement she “sponsored,” leaving us to wonder if it was merely for art’s sake or if she liked the flattery and attention too!
In both England and France, Eleanor supported monasteries and religious shrines. She built castles and created colorful and vibrant court life wherever she lived.
8. An ambitious mother
Unfortunately, King Henry II didn’t stay faithful in his marriage to Eleanor. When he official flaunted his mistress, Queen Eleanor retreated to her court in France and stayed in that region almost exclusively. The king had made a series of mistakes in his affair; one of the most significant was angering his wife who was one of the most powerful women of her era.
Queen Eleanor didn’t pitch a tantrum (at least in the records we have!), but she didn’t accept King Henry’s infidelity passively. In France (still part of England’s rulings, remember) the English Queen raised her sons and daughters, plotting her revenge. It was along time in coming, but eventually her son Richard banded with Philip August of France (yes, Eleanor’s ex-husband’s son) and pushed King Henry II to realize he didn’t control the alliances and lands anymore.
When Henry died, Richard II came to power in England and England’s holdings in France. And Queen-Mother Eleanor was there to see his coronation.
9. Insisted on fairness and known for her trustworthiness
When Richard II came to the throne, she traveled through England and formally established common coinage and common weights and measures, hoping to help the country’s economy and reputation for fairness. She ruled somewhat alongside her son while he prepared for the Third Crusade.
As Richard returned from the Crusade, he was imprisoned and his youngest brother, John Lackland, tried to seize kingdom control. (John wasn’t Eleanor’s favorite son; he was rather spoiled and Henry II’s favorite.) When Richard’s adversaries demanded a ransom for his release, Eleanor got to work and oversaw the collection of the ransom throughout England and the English holdings in the France. (This is the same era as most Robin Hood tales, but in reality Queen Eleanor collected the ransom, not Robin of Locksley!) Eventually, Richard II was released and later reconciled with his rebellious brother, perhaps to safe his mother the difficulty of another open family feud.
10. Died in 1204
Richard II died before his mother, so Queen Eleanor saw her youngest son take the throne. She continued her powerful role in Europe well into her seventies, undertaking diplomatic journeys, holding courts, and arranging profitable marriages for her large and extended family. Sadly, she saw the England and English holdings in France she had worked so long to build and maintain fall to pieces, but did not live to see how wars between France and England would plague Europe for decades and centuries to come.
Queen Eleanor ruled the kingdoms of France and England, using her title from Acquitaine, her wealth, her knowledge, and her power to build kingdoms for her husbands and her sons. Through challenges, scandals, and triumphs a historic image of a queen emerges. She was far from perfect and at times hardly an ideal role model, but – historically speaking – she organized, fought, and politicized for power and her legacy extended far into Western European History.