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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Riley

Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Queen of two nations

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

Crusader, queen, administrator and fireplace inventor, Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the 12th century's most influential women. Perhaps, she is remembered most for being the mother of two English kings but, she is so much more than that.

A 19th Century portrait of Eleanor SOURCE:MARY EVANS PICTURE LIBRARY

Eleanor was born sometime between 1122 and 1124 with unfortunately, little known of her early life. Eleanor’s father was the duke of Aquitaine but died when Eleanor was only fifteen years old, leaving young Eleanor to inherit the Duchy as her father had no sons who would have usually superseded Eleanor's claim. Aquitaine a semi autonomous region in southern France that was known for its fine climate and bountiful farmland, making the region one of the richer areas of Europe. Even before she became the Duchess, she was one of the most sort after spouses in France and In 1137, she was married to Louis VII of France, unfortunately, the marriage would not be a fruitful one. Louis wasn’t brought up to inherit the French throne as he was the second son of the previous king Louis VI. Expecting to have a career in the church, Louis put the Church above all else and his religion played a large role in his relationship with Eleanor. Eleanor is rumoured to have said something along the lines of ‘[Louis] is more of a monk than a king’ poking fun at the king’s piety. the young queen is credited with the invention of the built in fireplace as she is rumoured to have had them built when she was queen as she wasn’t used to the cold weather ion Northern France, coming from the much warmer south of the country.

The first few years of her marriage to Louis weren't fun for Eleanor as Louis was far more interested in attending mass than attending to his wife. The couple only had one child and, it was a daughter, Not great for medieval dynasties. Eleanor showed she was made from strong stuff when she joined her husband on the less than successful 2nd crusade (1147–1150) as this was more opportunity for her and Louis to conceive a son which for better or for worse, was the number one priority of 12th century marriages.Eleanor had a serious amount of influence over the Crusade, as her vassals made up the vast majority of the French forces, thus she was able to halt Louis in Antioch, stoping him from visiting Jerusalem which was his sole reason for taking part. By this point, Eleanor realised that her marriage wasn’t providing for her what she needed or wanted and requested an annulment. The request was denied by Louis as he most likely just didn’t want to lose Aquitaine rather than any actual love for his wife but, after rumours of an affair with her uncle, Raymond "The Handsome" of Antioch the royal couple weren't on speaking terms.

A 15th century CE painting by Jean Fouquet depicting the Second Crusaders (1147-49 CE), led by Louis VII and Conrad III, as they arrive at Constantinople. SOURCE: Ancient History Encyclopedia

The Crusade had driven a wedge between her and Louis and again, she requested an annulment. Still refusing, Louis turned to the one man who probably knew less about sex than him for help, the Pope. The Pope thought ‘you know what you need? Some heavenly ordained sex’ having a special bed provided for the royal couple with prayers and special herbs being used to invigorate them into producing sons but, that didn’t work. After years of boredom and unhappy marriage, Eleanor now demanded the ending of the marriage and it was finally annulled by the Pope, on the grounds of Consanguinity (being too closely related to your spouse) in 1152. Eleanor already had an eye on her next husband, the young Henry of Anjou, Son of the Empress Matilda and the man set to inherit the English Crown, along with the Duchy of Normandy (made Duke in 1150.) Just a few short months after her break up from Louis, Eleanor and Henry were married even though Henry was a closer relative to his new bride than Louis was, nether Eleanor or the Pope cared. Her marriage to Henry was not the happiest, eleven years older than her new husband and constant arguments put a strain on them but, she was able to still produce 8 children (that survived childhood) including two future kings of England. Eleanor played a very active role in English politics, when her new husband was off on the continent she was often left as regent in essence, running the country herself. Eleanor was a strong willed and powerful women and would continue to have political carrier well into the reigns of her Son’s, helping to keep the empire that her and Henry forged from collapsing under the absent reign of Richard and the disastrous years under John.

By 1167, Eleanor and Henry had separated and she was back in Aquitaine, where she formed a strong and stable court described as the ‘Court of Love’ where her, and her daughter Marie encouraged Chivalry and manners, something that would come to symbolise the French courts later. Art and literature flourished under Eleanor and in away, started her own mini renaissance 150 or so years before the Florentine one. Eleanor loved her children, and when in 1173, her eldest son Henry was in open rebellion against his father, she wasted little time in throwing her support behind the young prince. The rebellion went poorly and King Henry quickly arrested his wife and had her imprisoned until his death, in 1189. This wouldn't be the last time that Henry's sons would rebel against him, with Richard, Geoffrey and Henry the Younger all rising against the king over lack of influence or land, breaking the old kings Heart.

Upon the death of Henry II, Richard was now King as his older brothers, Henry and Geoffrey had both died. Quickly having his mother released from prison, Eleanor rushed to Westminster to receive the oaths of allegiance of many of the lords of the kingdom and would continue to rule as Regent, for the next 10 years. With Richard away on Crusade, Eleanor was the unofficial ruler of the now vast Angevin Empire helping the keep the regency council that was set up in the kings absence aligned and, keep Prince John form usurping the crown from his brother. When Richard was captured on his way back from the crusade, by Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, she was personally responsible for raising the now infamous 'Kings ransom' to secure her son's release. Eleanor would outlive her favourite son Richard, and would continue to have influence during John's doomed reign, traveling all over Europe well into her 70's attempting to secure alliances to help her inept son. On her way to Castile, to secure a marriage for one of her great niece's she was captured by Hugh IX of Lusignan but, was able to escape him and continue on with her mission, at the age of 77!

Eleanor's extraordinary life came to an end in 1204 but her memory and influence would continue through the ages. The fact that Eleanor birthed and bedded kings isn't the reason she is to be remembered. Her love of education and culture in a world in which religious suppression was paramount puts Eleanor firmly in the Pantheon of medieval rulers. Her ability to withstand the fury of her husband and the future disloyalty of her children made her a medieval force to be reckoned with. Described as a ‘she wolf’ (not the last queen to be called this unfortunate name) in a world fully controlled by men, Eleanor proved that her gender played no part in her ability to rule and carve out a future for her family.

Eleanor and Henry II's tombs in the royal abbey of Fontevraud, west of France SOURCE: Frank Perry / AFP

I hope you enjoyed this and would love to hear what you think, please leave me a comment and follow me on Instagram @chrisriley_ for more medieval history!

As always, thanks for Reading.

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