She was the Queen of France, the Queen of England, and the Duchess of Aquitaine, where she was a ruler in her own right. At the time, Aquitaine was one of the largest and most powerful administrative regions in France. She married twice, had ten children, was imprisoned by one of her husbands for sixteen years, and still lived into old age as one of the most influential women of her time. Of all time.
A mere Pocket Profile cannot do her justice, so keep in mind we are simply reviewing the most notable points and there are many layers underneath.
The exact date of Eleanor’s birth is unknown, but it is estimated at some point in 1122. She was the elder daughter of William, tenth Duke of Aquitaine, and her playground was one of Europe’s most cultured courts. She was named for her mother, Aénor de Châtellerault. She was given not just an excellent education for a woman, but an outstanding education for anyone of the time. She learned – among other things – astronomy, arithmetic, Latin, household management, and history. An intelligent student, her “high-spirits” were often remarked on by visitors to the household.
In 1137, both her father and older brother died. She was just fifteen, but she had an enormous inheritance, vast lands, and a position that made her the most eligible heiress in Europe. She was left in the care of her guardian, King Louis VI of France, known as Louis the Fat.
King Louis VI looked around at all the territory Eleanor ruled and decided that it would be advantageous to incorporate it all under the Crown of France. Within hours of the news of her father’s death, Louis VI decreed Eleanor should marry his oldest living son. The son, also named Louis, had initially trained for an ecclesiastical career, but the death of his older brother made him the direct heir.
Young Louis dutifully headed to Bordeaux with an escort of 500 people. The entourage included his friend and mentor, Abbot Suger, who was to officiate the wedding. Eleanor – who didn’t have much choice in the matter, but required a safe harbor in a brutal world – was duly married to the heir of the kingdom. Shortly after the wedding Louis the Fat died, Louis-the-heir became Louis VII, and Eleanor was Queen of France.
Although the couple quickly had two daughters, it was far from any type of love match, or even a well-matched companionable one. Among other matters, Eleanor was thought to be too loud and too boisterous for the decorous French court, and she became impatient with her quiet, unprepossessing husband. In 1147, the King and Queen embarked on the Second Crusade. To say the bold Eleanor and devout, timid Louis were a poor team to lead a Crusade is an understatement. The King already blamed Eleanor for her failure to provide a son, and relations between the two became worse and worse. The couple were granted a divorce based on consanguinity in 1152, and as King, Louis retained custody of the two daughters.
All her lands and riches were returned to her, however, that made her a target for any man who wanted to take it from her. In a naked grab for land and power, Geoffrey, Count of Nantes, did attempt a kidnapping, but Eleanor escaped. She realized she needed to be married immediately, and eight weeks after her marriage to Louis VII ended she made arrangements to wed Henry of Anjou. He was Geoffrey of Nantes’s older brother and a much better prospect. In 1154, Henry became King of England and Eleanor was once again a Queen of a great land.
At the time of their marriage, Eleanor was about 30 and her new husband was 18, but their strong wills were equally matched. As Queen, Eleanor’s early education came in handy. Her husband was off hunting and often at war. She traveled frequently between the couple’s vast territories in France and England, tending to the myriad of administrative matters. Despite her travels and active role in government, she still had time to bear five sons and three daughters.
It was said that King Henry began an affair with one of the great beauties of the twelfth century, Rosamund Clifford, during the Queen’s final pregnancy in 1166. Rumors swirled around the relationship, not the least of which was that Eleanor lured the fair Rosamund into a maze and trapped her, making her choose death by either dagger or poison. The truth was that by 1176 the recorded year of Rosamund’s death, Eleanor was under house imprisonment. Murdering Rosamund would have been nearly impossible.
At some point in the pivotal year of 1173, two of Eleanor’s sons, with the support and influence of their mother, engineered a plot to depose their father. Her husband discovered the betrayal and had her imprisoned. In 1189, Eleanor’s son, King Richard I (Richard the Lionheart), released his mother. She was in her mid-sixties, but she immediately jumped back – some would say elbowed back – into active involvement in government. When Richard left the country for the Third Crusade, she acted as regent. When Richard was taken prisoner in Germany while returning from the Middle East, Eleanor negotiated the terms of his release.
Richard died in 1199, and Eleanor and Henry’s youngest son John ascended to the throne. Now 77, Eleanor released her grip on English affairs. She returned to Aquitaine, where she lived until her death in March 1204. She was buried in the abbey church at Fontevrault next to Henry II.
The legacy of Eleanor Aquitaine is vast. Was she always kind? No. Was she always righteous? No. Was she effective? For the most part, yes. Did she leave her mark? Oh, very much yes.