Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine was born in 1122 to William X, duke of Aquitaine and count of Poitou, and Aenor, daughter of the viscountess of Châtellerault. At the death of her younger brother, Eleanor became the wealthy heiress of Aquitaine. Groomed by her father, she frequently accompanied him on trips throughout his lands as he administered justice and faced down rebellious vassals.

On his deathbed in April 1137, William entrusted her to his feudal lord, the Capetian monarch Louis VI, to arrange her marriage, which he did to his 17-year-old son and heir Prince Louis. When Louis VI died in August 1137 the young prince became King Louis VII of France and Eleanor his queen.

The two were ill-matched. Louis, as the second son, had originally been groomed for a career in the church. Eleanor had been raised in one of the most sophisticated households in all of Europe. Her grandfather William IX is credited with creating the literary genre of courtly love and had welcomed minstrels, poets, and troubadours to his court.

Eleanor was frequently able to convince Louis to intervene in affairs that concerned her own interests, to the detriment of the crown. All of this might not have mattered had Eleanor been able to provide Louis with a male heir who would have inherited the lands of both his parents. Unfortunately Eleanor bore Louis only two daughters, Marie and Alix.

The breaking point in their marriage occurred during the Second Crusade, which both Eleanor and Louis agreed to undertake in 1146 in response to the preaching of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Their goal was to rescue the crusader-state of Edessa that had fallen to the Muslims.

Presumably Eleanor’s offer of a thousand knights from Aquitaine and Poitou had helped to assuage misgivings about allowing her and numerous other noblewomen to accompany Louis and his warriors on their journey. In March 1148 the French army arrived at Antioch, just to the southwest of the kingdom of Edessa.

Here Louis and Eleanor were greeted by the queen’s uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, ruler of the principality. Rumors began to circulate about an affair between Eleanor and her uncle. When Louis rejected Raymond’s strategically sound plan of taking back Edessa in favor of marching on Jerusalem, Eleanor exploded against the king, and demanded that their marriage be annulled.

Although Louis wrenched her away from Antioch and forced her to march southward on Jerusalem, their marriage was over. The two boarded separate ships and sailed for home in 1149–50. In 1152 their marriage was annulled on grounds of consanguinity, and Eleanor regained control of her lands.

Later in 1152 she married the 18-year-old count of Anjou, Henry Plantagenet, whose extensive land holdings in France also included the duchy of Normandy and the counties of Maine and Touraine. Their marriage created a formidable counterweight to the authority and power of Louis VII of France. Moreover, in 1154 Henry made good his claim to the English throne through his mother Matilda.

In December 1154 Eleanor was crowned queen of England, consort to Henry II (1154–89) of the house of Plantagenet. Over the next 13 years Eleanor bore Henry five sons and three daughters, two of whom, Richard (1189–99) and John, (1199–1216) would rule England.

Initially Eleanor played a substantial role in administering their combined lands in France while Henry secured England, but as his power and authority grew, he had less use for his independent-minded queen. Disenchanted with Henry and perturbed by his numerous affairs, Eleanor left England with her two sons Richard and Geoffrey for Poitiers in 1168.

Here over the next several years she established a flourishing court that became a cultural center for troubadours and poets singing of courtly love. Meanwhile Richard and Geoffrey increasingly chaffed at their father’s unwillingness to give them real authority in ruling lands that they nominally held.

They joined their older brother Henry in revolting against Henry II in 1173, with Eleanor’s backing. Henry crushed this revolt, and for her part in it, he placed Eleanor under close house arrest in England for the next 16 years.

When Henry died in 1189 Eleanor resumed her active role in political and familial affairs. In 1189 her favorite son, Richard, became king of England, and when he departed on the Third Crusade in December of that year, he left Eleanor as regent in England. On his return from the crusade in 1192 Richard fell into the hands of his enemy the German emperor Henry VI (1190–97), and Eleanor took charge of raising his ransom and negotiating his release.

When Richard died in 1199 she supported her youngest son, John, as his successor, undertaking a diplomatic mission to the court of Castile, and coming to his aid when war broke out between him and Philip II Augustus, king of France, in 1201. She died in March 1204 at the age of 83 and is buried alongside Richard and Henry in the nunnery at Fontevrault in Anjou.