Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122-1204) was Queen Consort to both Henry II of England and Louis VII of France. She was also mother to Richard the Lionheart and John of England, and is popularly remembered for her beauty and her immense power.
But how much of what we believe about Eleanor is actually true? It seems a whole host of myths and misconceptions pervade discussions of Eleanor’s life, from her physical appearance to the role she played in medieval Europe.
Here are 7 enduring myths about Eleanor of Aquitaine.
1. Eleanor yielded exceptional power throughout her life
This is plain wrong, and there is now a lot of scholarship to prove it. The evidence suggests that Eleanor wielded next to no power in her first marriage to Louis VII of France. In the early years of her second marriage to Henry II of England things got slightly better; she wielded power subject to supervision. The same was true when she presided over her own lands in the years 1168-1174. But otherwise, prior to her captivity, Eleanor wielded about as little power in her second marriage as her first.
At the same time (and in the years immediately before her rule) there were actually other women yielding more power than her – including both her mothers in law and Queen Melisende of Jerusalem. Eleanor did wield huge power in her later years, but that was as a widow, and the wielding of power by widows was a perfectly conventional situation in the medieval world.
2. Eleanor was exceptionally beautiful
Was Eleanor blonde, brunette, red-headed? Was she beautiful? We simply don’t know. There is no contemporaneous description of her looks by anyone who saw her. One slightly later source describes her as “very beautiful” and a German balladeer (who almost certainly never saw her) speaks about her desirability; but none of the strictly contemporary ones say a thing. The nearest we come is Richard of Devizes, writing when Eleanor was in her late 60s; he refers to her “beautiful yet chaste”. The problem is this occurs in a passage which may well be tongue in cheek.
The best evidence that Eleanor was beautiful is very second-hand: a troubadour did write droolingly about the beauty of her daughter Matilda (whom he did actually meet). Since Henry II was famously not fabulously handsome this might well suggest Matilda inherited her looks from her mother.
We do, of course, have Eleanor’s own “authorised portraits”: her tomb effigy, the window in Poitiers Cathedral and the Eleanor Psalter. But it’s hard to gain anything from the stylised tomb effigy – and the others show her as a woman embracing middle-age, wrinkles and all. Ultimately, the evidence best reflects Eleanor as a very good-looking woman, but not an exceptional beauty. Interestingly, she seems to have attracted devotion more for her personal qualities than her looks.
3. Eleanor presided over the Courts of Love
There were no ‘Courts of Love’, where women were said to rule over cases of romance based on medieval codes of chivalry. This is actually a joke that got out of control. There is no evidence Eleanor even met any of her fellow judges once they were adults. One Andrew the Chaplain, based at the Court of the Counts of Champagne, wrote a book in the mid-1180s (while Eleanor was imprisoned). It is full of “in-jokes” for a courtly audience.
One of said jokes is the Court of Love itself, which Andrew placed under the control of a range of women, many of whom never met at all – but all of whom had been in one way or another victims of the system of arranged marriages – and thus of the lack of female autonomy. This whole story stems from some scholars in the 20th century taking a spoof as being the real deal.
4. Eleanor dressed as an Amazon to aid crusade recruitment and rode bare-breasted into battle
Both of these delightful myths can be traced back to sources considerably after the event. There is not a whiff of them anywhere near the actual time. There is a mention in the chronicle of one Niketas Choniates (30 years after the crusade) of a woman with the crusaders who rode astride and was called by the Byzantines ‘Lady Goldenfoot’. But she wasn’t even with the French army; she was part of the German contingent.
As for the bare-breasted story… In the 1968 film The Lion in Winter – a production not renowned for its historical accuracy – Eleanor recounts the famous line: “I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn… but the troops were dazzled.” Hence, the myth was born.
5. Eleanor murdered Fair Rosamund
In fact, Eleanor was in prison when Fair Rosamund died in around 1176, not haring around the country offering poison to Henry’s latest mistress. No one even suggested this idea for centuries after Eleanor died. The facts: Henry seduced Rosamund when she was probably still in her teens, and kept her as his mistress for about a decade. Rosamund entered Godstow priory at about the time Henry II got another teenager – his ward (aka foster daughter) Ida de Tosny – pregnant. Rosamund died shortly after.
The story of beastly Elenor and Fair Rosamund was invented in the 13th century when foreign queens called Eleanor (especially Eleanor of Provence) were unpopular.
6. Eleanor’s favourite child was Richard, and she abandoned John
If there is one thing we all know about Eleanor, it is that Richard was her favourite child, right? Well, no. There is plenty of evidence that Eleanor was very proud of Richard, and she spent more time with him than her other sons for political reasons (he was made her heir in Aquitaine by Henry II). But there is no evidence he was her favourite. In fact, she opposed Richard in John’s favour on more than one occasion – notably in relation to John’s role while Richard was on crusade.
John’s childhood abandonment in Fontevraud is effectively a myth. He may have been at school there, but given that Eleanor was ruling a county prone to violent upheaval there were security reasons for this – and it was not far from her main residence. When imprisoned her chief jailer was also the man charged with John’s education. In both locations, she was likely to see John quite regularly and his later closeness to her suggests that they forged a very close bond. Actually, it is a fair bet that Eleanor was closer to her daughters than any of her sons.
7. Eleanor berated the Pope “by the wrath of God” for not helping her free Richard
The famous “Eleanor by the wrath of God, Queen of England” letters – in which Eleanor scolds the Pope for not aiding her in freeing Richard from captivity – were not written by Eleanor at all, but by ‘pen for hire’ Peter of Blois. He was not (as is often said) her secretary. They are not in the Vatican’s files; in other words, there is no evidence they were sent. Probably they were part of Peter’s marketing portfolio. They were found in his files and nowhere else.
Also, Pope Celestine (as Cardinal Bobone) had been a friend of Eleanor’s for years. She had met him repeatedly. She had corresponded with him, addressing him as a friend, speaking of the “sincerity of my affections”.
Sara Cockerill studied Law at Oxford University and practised as a barrister specialising in commercial law until 2017. Her lifelong interest in English history led to her spending her “spare time” researching the life of Eleanor of Castile – and then writing Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen, the first full length biography of Edward I’s beloved queen. As a long time admirer of Eleanor of Aquitaine, that great queen was the obvious next step… Sara continues to work in the legal world, and spends her time between London and the seaside.