Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122-1204) was one of the most wealthy and powerful women of the Middle Ages. Queen Consort of both Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, she was also mother to Richard the Lionheart and John of England.
Frequently romanticised by historians fixated on her beauty, Eleanor demonstrated impressive political acumen and tenacity, influencing the politics, art, medieval literature and the perception of women in her age.
Here are 10 facts about the most remarkable woman in medieval history.
1. The exact circumstances of her birth are unknown
The year and location of Eleanor’s birth are not known precisely. She is believed to have been born around 1122 or 1124 in either Poitiers or Nieul-sur-l’Autise, in today’s south-western France.
Eleanor was the daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers. The duchy of Aquitaine was one of the largest estates in Europe – larger than those held by the French king.
Her father ensured that she was well educated in mathematics and astronomy, fluent in Latin and adept at the sports of kings such as hunting and equestrianism.
2. She was the most eligible woman in Europe
William X died in 1137 while on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, leaving his teenage daughter the title of Duchess of Aquitaine and with it a vast inheritance.
Within hours of the news of her father’s death reaching France, her marriage to Louis VII, son of the king of France, was arranged. The union brought the powerful house of Aquitaine under the royal banner.
Not long after the wedding, the king fell ill and died of dysentery. On Christmas Day that year, Louis VII and Eleanor were crowned King and Queen of France.
3. She accompanied Louis VII to fight in the Second Crusade
When Louis VII answered the pope’s call to fight in the Second Crusade, Eleanor persuaded her husband to allow her to join him as feudal leader of Aquitaine’s regiment.
Between 1147 and 1149, she travelled to Constantinople and then to Jerusalem. Legend has it that she disguised herself as an Amazon to lead troops into battle.
Louis was a weak and ineffectual military leader, and his campaign ultimately failed.
4. Her first marriage was annulled
Relations between the couple were strained; the two were a mismatched pair from the very start.
Louis was quiet and submissive. He was never meant to be king, and had led a sheltered life in the clergy until his older brother Philip’s death in 1131. Eleanor, on the other hand, was worldly and outspoken.
Rumours of an incestuous infidelity between Eleanor and her uncle Raymond, the ruler of Antioch, aroused Louis’ jealousy. Tensions only increased as Eleanor gave birth to two daughters but no male heir.
Their marriage was annulled in 1152 on the grounds of consanguinity – the fact that they were technically related as third cousins.
5. She married again to avoid being kidnapped
Eleanor’s wealth and power made her a target for kidnapping, which at the time was seen as a viable option for obtaining a title.
In 1152 she was kidnapped by Geoffrey of Anjou, but she managed to escape. The story goes that she sent an envoy to Geoffrey’s brother Henry, demanding that he marry her instead.
And so just 8 weeks after the dissolution of her first marriage, Eleanor was married to Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, in May 1152.
Two years later, they were crowned King and Queen of England. The couple had 5 sons and three daughters: William, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, John, Matilda, Eleanor and Joan.
6. She was a powerful queen of England
Once married and crowned queen, Eleanor refused to stay idle at home and instead travelled extensively to give the monarchy a presence across the kingdom.
While her husband was away, she played a key role in directing government and ecclesiastical affairs of the realm and particularly in managing her own domains.
7. She was a great patron of the arts
Eleanor was a great patron of the two dominant poetic movements of the time – the courtly love tradition and the historical matière de Bretagne, or “legends of Brittany”.
She was instrumental in turning the court of Poitiers into a centre of poetry, inspiring the works of Bernard de Ventadour, Marie de France and other influential Provencal poets.
Her daughter Marie would later become patron to Andreas Cappellanus and Chretien de Troyes, one of the most influential poets of courtly love and the Arthurian Legend.
8. She was placed under house arrest
After years of Henry II’s frequent absences and countless open affairs, the couple separated in 1167 and Eleanor moved to her homeland in Poitiers.
After her sons tried unsuccessfully to revolt against Henry in 1173, Eleanor was captured while attempting to escape to France.
She spent between 15 and 16 years under house arrest in various castles. She was permitted to show her face at special occasions but was otherwise kept invisible and powerless.
Eleanor was only fully freed by her son Richard after Henry’s death in 1189.
9. She played a key role in Richard the Lionheart’s reign
Even before her son’s coronation as King of England, Eleanor travelled all over the kingdom to forge alliances and foster goodwill.
When Richard set out on the Third Crusade, she was left in the charge of the country as regent – even taking charge in negotiations for his release after he was taken prisoner in Germany on his way home.
After Richard’s death in 1199, John became King of England. Although her official role in English affairs ceased, she continued to wield considerable influence.
10. She outlived all her husbands and most of her children
Eleanor spent her last years as a nun at Fontevraud Abbey in France, and died in her eighties on 31 March 1204.
She outlived all but two of her 11 children: King John of England (1166-1216) and Queen Eleanor of Castile (c. 1161-1214).
Her bones were interred in the abbey’s crypt, however they were later exhumed and dispersed when the abbey was desecrated during the French Revolution.
Upon her death, the nuns of Fontevrault wrote:
She was beautiful and just, imposing and modest, humble and elegant
And they described her as a queen
who surpassed almost all the queens of the world.