Eleanor of Aquitaine is remembered as the determined and powerful wife of Henry II. Yet she had such a command of England after Henry’s death that laws were made ‘by the order of Queen Eleanor, who at that time ruled England’.
Henry’s death by no means heralded Eleanor’s peaceful retirement. Instead, it welcomed her ‘golden years’ of industrious negotiation, long-awaited independence and an undisputed command of power.
Released at last
In July 1189, with the death of her estranged husband Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine was finally released from fifteen years of captivity.
She had been locked away by her husband since 1173, following her complicit involvement in her sons’ rebellions against Henry II. At this point, Eleanor was 49 – already deemed an elderly woman. By the time she regained her freedom she was 65 years old. Those around her must have been sure her life was about to draw to a close.
But Eleanor was always one to swim against the tide. Far from enjoying her elderly years in a reclusive peace, Eleanor would make up for lost time, exercising unprecedented power and building her reputation as the most remarkable woman in medieval history.
Our first official glimpse of Eleanor in this period was given to us by William Marshal. Marshal was dispatched with Richard I to free Eleanor from prison and appoint her as regent. He was surprised to find her already released, and unsurprisingly, ‘much happier than she had been used to be’. Another vignette from this period has her ‘progressing with a queenly court’.
It emerged that Eleanor had not awaited the official tidings, but had impressed her custodians with the advisability of liberating her. The likely reason for this is ironic: Eleanor had, via her captivity, become the member of the royal family with the most secure ties to England, and the most respect amongst its nobility.
Other members of royalty, who were not so restrained by captivity, had less of a presence in England. Henry had been prone to flying visits, and Richard had barely set foot in the country since his early teens.
‘Eleanor the Queen’
But to England, Eleanor was simply ‘the Queen’ – and she resumed that role seamlessly.
Her first task was to prepare the country to welcome the stranger who was their new king. Eleanor focused on undoing some of Henry’s most unpopular actions, all in Richard’s name, and ruthlessly playing on her emotional capital.
When she released a bunch of prisoners, a statement was made that personally understood the troubles of those imprisoned – a touch worthy of a modern PR adviser. A glorious coronation was planned, music composed at Eleanor’s command to proclaim Richard as the King who would welcome an era of peace and prosperity.
Her popularity is well evidenced by the fact that the planned exclusion of women from the coronation was relaxed in her favour ‘at the request of the nobles of England’.
Yet this initial flurry was a gentle start to the industrious and challenging period of Eleanor’s golden years. When Richard was due to depart on the Third Crusade, Eleanor was left in charge of the country – again not as Regent, but as ‘the Queen’.
Negotiations on the continent
Yet she was too important to leave in one place – Eleanor was also needed to reconcile Richard to her youngest son John. It was at her insistence that John (the only other member of the family with a real link to England) was not barred from the country.
It was Eleanor who was needed to negotiate Richard’s last-minute marriage to Berengaria of Navarre, travelling there personally to undertake this role.
And then of course, she had to bring Berengaria to Richard – who was by now in Sicily. So off Eleanor set, in the depths of winter, across the Alps and down the length of Italy.
One might expect such an effort to be rewarded by a period of break and recuperation – but so vital was Eleanor’s influence that she was required to turn straight about and head back for France just the day after she rendezvoused with Richard.
On her way she was present at the installation of the new Pope, from whom she obtained orders. This would enable her to take Henry II’s illegitimate son Geoffrey Fitzroy out of the political equation by forcibly installing him as Archbishop of York.
A time for brisk measures
Once returned, she fortified castles in France against the return of Richard’s former ally Philip Augustus – who was keen to take back custody of his sister Alys, Richard’s discarded fiancée. Eleanor kept hold of Alys – still a useful bargaining chip – moved to safety and superintended the local governor’s defiance of Philip.
She then moved to England where she held a series of meetings across the country, rallying support for Richard against John’s machinations. At the same time she enforced peace between Geoffrey Fitzroy and his neighbour the Bishop of Durham, by threatening to sequestrate their assets.
Similarly brisk measures brought to a swift end another church dispute between two bishops, which had left corpses rotting unburied in the streets of their dioceses. Eleanor held this precarious balance until 1192, when Richard commenced his return from crusade.
A precarious balance of power
Just as it must have seemed as if she could look forward to sharing power with her son, at Christmas 1192 came the news that Richard had been captured by vassals of the German Emperor, and was being held for ransom.
Once again the country looked to Eleanor. The record is clear – defensive measures taken at the time were done ‘by the order of Queen Eleanor, who at that time ruled England’. Under her direction John, who had looked to seize power, was forced to deliver up castles – again specifically to her.
The enormous ransom was collected following a council which Eleanor chaired, and every penny of it was locked up under her seal. When the time came to deliver it, Eleanor aged 69, set off over winter seas to Germany.
When the Emperor looked to set further terms late in the day, it was to Eleanor that Richard looked for advice. She was present when Richard performed homage to the Emperor and was finally released.
She travelled home with him – the pair processing in triumph through the city of London. Nor did her role end with Richard’s return. She remained at his side at the council which followed, his first progress and also at his second coronation in Winchester.
At this, her position on a raised dais facing the king must have given the impression that she was presiding over the ceremony. Only once Richard was truly secure in his reign in May 1194 did Eleanor, finally, leave England in his hands.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and England, Mother of Empires by Sara Cockerill will be released on 15 November 2019. Cockerill reassesses many myths which have arisen surrounding Eleanor’s life, making new ground on her relationship with the Church, her artistic patronage and relationships with her children. Published by Amberley Publishing.