No blog on the medieval world would be complete without a post about Eleanor of Aquitaine. There are those who consider her the most enlightened woman of her time and others who think she was foolish and vengeful.
Born in 1122, she was the daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and Count of Poitiers. William’s lands where estimated to be equal or larger than the king of France. It is no surprise that when her father and brother died suddenly in 1137, she found herself married to Louis, later to become Louis VII of France.
By all accounts, the marriage went well at first. Eleanor gave Louis a daughter, but their relationship deteriorated when Eleanor joined him on the Second Crusade. The scandal started when the pair reached the Holy Land and Eleanor sided with her Uncle Raymond against Louis. Accounts written after the fact, by William of Tyre and John of Salisbury, claim that Eleanor had an affair with Raymond, but neither of these are firsthand accounts and both writers were known supporters of the French king, so it’s hard to believe that they are completely accurate.
It is known that Eleanor spoke out against her husband’s military decisions, and agreed openly with her uncle, an action that at the time was considered scandalous. I think the real problem was that Eleanor didn’t respect Louis as a military leader. She was a rich, powerful, opinionated woman and so instead of bending to her husband’s will, as was expected, she spoke out against him. She also blamed him for the death of Raymond who was killed by the Muslims soon after Louis’ withdrawal from the Holy Land. Louis, for his part was disappointed that Eleanor had failed to give him a son. In 1149 she appealed to Pope Eugene for a divorce, claiming they were too closely related to have ever married in the first place.
Unfortunately, the Pope refused to grant her an annulment. Claiming the marriage was sound, he attempted to reconcile the couple. Eleanor was virtually forced into Louis’ bed. This led to her giving birth to their second daughter in 1151. (It bothers me that she was forced to sleep with a man she hated, and that having a daughter was considered a shortcoming.) The fact that she had failed to provide Louis with a son marked the end of their marriage. The pope could no longer force them to stay together and in 1152 he granted their divorce, on the grounds of consanguinity. (They were too closely related.) But surprisingly their daughters were declared legitimate and Eleanor’s lands were returned to her.
Within eight weeks of her divorce Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, even though she was even more closely related to him than she was Louis. Henry became king of England in 1154. Their marriage seemed to go well for the first fourteen years or so. The couple had five sons and three daughters. And the always-active Eleanor played a role in running Henry’s kingdom. But her marriage turned hostile in 1166 when it became known that Henry had fallen in love with another woman, Rosamund Clifford.
In 1173 Henry’s son also named Henry, in a dispute over his inheritance, took up arms against his father, instigating a revolt. He was joined by his brothers, Richard and Geoffrey. Some say that this was Eleanor’s doing, in revenge for her husband’s affair, and others say that her sons came to her for help, and she couldn’t turn them away. It is known that relationships within the royal family were always acrimonious. Bickering and disagreements were commonplace, whatever the motivation, the revolt was short lived and doomed to fail. Henry the younger was defeated by his father. While on the run, he contracted dysentery and died. His final request was that his father would show his mother mercy. King Henry imprisoned Eleanor. She remained under guard until Henry II’s death in 1189.
Her second son, Richard, who was known as Richard the Lionheart, was crowned that same year and promptly declared Eleanor regent. He joined the Third Crusade and left, it is thought that he spent less than six months in England during his ten years as king. Eleanor, who was now in her late sixties, showed no signs of slowing down, she seemed to enjoy her time as head of state, and it is a role for which she was eminently suited.
On his return from the Holy Land, Richard was captured and held for ransom in Germany. Eleanor negotiated his release, despite the fact that her younger son, John, tried to pay the Germans to keep him imprisoned.
Richard died in 1199 in his mother’s arms after being shot in the arm during a siege. The wound turned gangrenous causing a long and painful death.
Now his younger brother, John, took the throne and Eleanor’s active role in English politics ended, although she was still a strong presence in Aquitaine, where she spent her final years. She died in 1204 having outlived eight of her ten children and was buried in Fontevrault next to her husband, Henry.
I have avoided mentioning her influence on culture and courtly love, mainly because scholars today have their doubts as to whether Eleanor’s Court of Love ever existed.
To me she seems to have been a take-no-prisoners kind of woman. She was strong-willed and obviously not afraid to speak her mind. And she clearly didn’t love her first husband because she didn’t care about humiliating him. There are those who have accused her of having affairs, but this is hard to prove, especially after eight hundred years. But she was a strong-minded, wealthy woman and powerful people don’t always follow the same rules as the rest of us.
There is no doubt in my mind that if Eleanor were alive today she would be a politician, captain of industry or military leader. She was educated, well-read, and articulate, things that for us are positive attributes but in the twelfth century these were attributes more suited to a man. Put simply, I believe she was a woman who was out of step with her time.
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