eleanor of aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Consort of France and England

July 05, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
Married at the age of 15, Eleanor of Aquitaine was queen consort of France and England. Many consider her to be the most powerful woman of 12th-century Europe.

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Early Life

Born c. 1122, Eleanor was the eldest daughter of William X, the duke of Aquitaine and count of Poitiers. William X held one of the largest domains in France—even larger than that held by the king of France himself. Due to her father’s enormous wealth, Eleanor “was raised in one of Europe's most cultured courts and given an excellent education,” the BBC reports.

Eleanor’s older brother died at a young age, followed by her father’s death on April 9, 1137, making Eleanor the heir of Aquitaine. At the young age of 15, she became “the most eligible heiress in Europe,” according to the BBC.

On July 25, 1137, Eleanor married Louis, the son of King Louis VI. The two were appointed rulers of Aquitaine at Poitiers on August 8, and then crowned king and queen of France on Christmas, following the death of Louis VI.

“The young king seems to have been fond of his beautiful wife, but Eleanor is said to have complained that she had married a monk and not a king,” according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography.

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Accomplishments

In 1147, Eleanor joined Louis on the Second Crusade to protect the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. Louis was jealous of Eleanor’s behavior around her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers.

The couple returned to France together but on March 21, 1152, their marriage was annulled. Eleanor had given birth to two daughters but Louis’ “wish for a male heir … was probably the decisive reason” for the end of their marriage, the Encyclopedia of World Biography reports.

As was feudal custom, Eleanor regained possession of Aquitaine. Less than two months later, she married Henry Plantagenet, count of Anjou and duke of Normandy. Henry became the king of England in 1154, ruling as Henry II. According to Women in World History Curriculum, “Their temperaments as well as their wealth in land were well matched.” As a result of their marriage, England, Normandy and western France were united.

Over the next 13 years, Eleanor bore Henry eight children: William, who died at the age of 3; Henry, called “the young king” by his father; Matilda; Richard, “the Lion-Heart”; Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany; Eleanor; Joanna; Raymond, Count of Toulouse; and John.

During her childbearing years, Eleanor played an active role in ruling the empire with her husband, and in managing her own domains. As a patron of poets and authors, Eleanor turned the court of Poitiers “into a centre of poetry and a model of courtly life and manners,” wrote medieval scholar Regine Pernoud for Encyclopedia Britannica.

But in 1173, the cultural renaissance flourishing at Poitiers came to an abrupt end. Eleanor, 10 years older than Henry II and tired of his unfaithfulness, led her three eldest sons in a rebellion against their father. “Eleanor may have hoped that her prize would have been the right to rule Aquitaine with her beloved third son Richard, and without Henry,” Women in World History Curriculum explains.

The revolt failed, however, and Henry II captured Eleanor and placed her in semi-imprisonment in England. When Henry died in 1189, Eleanor was released by order of her son Richard, now king of England. She resumed her active administrative role, working as regent in England while Richard joined the Third Crusade.

When Richard died suddenly in 1199, leaving no heir, he was succeeded by John, Eleanor and Henry’s youngest son. Nearly 80 years old, Eleanor continued to travel extensively. “Running from one end of Europe to another, she often risked her life in her efforts to maintain the loyalty of the English subjects, cement marriage alliances, and manage her army and estates,” according to Women in World History Curriculum.

In March or April of 1204, Eleanor died at the monastery at Fontevrault, Anjou. She was buried at the Fontevrault Abbey next to Henry II, where her effigy remains.

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Legacy

As Pernoud points out, Eleanor’s “contribution to England extended beyond her own lifetime; after the loss of Normandy (1204), it was her own ancestral lands and not the old Norman territories that remained loyal to England.” The nuns of Fontevrault wrote that she was a queen “who surpassed almost all the queens of the world.”

Aside from the effigy on her tomb in Fontevrault, the only contemporary image of Eleanor in existence may be a mural at the Chapel of Sainte-Radegonde in Chinon, France. The mural shows the queen in a royal procession, accompanied either by one of her daughters, her son John I or her daughter-in-law (the wife of Richard the Lion-Heart).

Another work of art related to Eleanor of Aquitaine also exists today: a rock crystal vase decorated with filigree gold mount. Eleanor inherited the vase from her grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine. She gave the vase as a gift to her first husband, Louis VII. Louis gave the vase to Abbot Suger, the abbot of Saint-Denis from 1122 to 1151 and adviser to the king. Suger created a collection of hardstone monted vases; the “Eleanor” vase is now on display in the Louvre Museum.

Perhaps the most well-known portrayal of Eleanor is that of Katharine Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter.” Hepburn won an Academy Award for her role in the 1968 film, and was a natural choice for the lead: According to Turner Classic Movies, Hepburn “was descended from Eleanor, tracing her lineage back to children from the monarch's marriages to both Henry and the king of France.”

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