Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful figures in 12th century Europe. In the course of her extraordinary life she married the kings of both France and England, participated in the Second Crusade, revolted against her husband and gave birth to ten children.
Eleanor’s political and personal achievements were varied, but a turning point for her, and for the history of High Medieval Europe, was her marriage to King Henry II of England. As husband and wife they ruled over an Anglo-French empire which spanned from the south of France to Scotland.
Her marriage to Henry II was sudden, but it endured for three and a half decades. A fascinating series of events and some secretive courting (while she was still married to her first husband) brought the two together.
The Duchess of Aquitaine
Born in 1122, Eleanor was the heir to her father’s duchy of Aquitaine. The duchy was one of the largest estates in Europe, covering much of the French European landmass we know today. The huge fiefdom stretched from the Loire to the Pyrenees.
This made Eleanor the most eligible heiress in Europe. She grew up in a household of great wealth, and in Aquitaine women were granted liberties which were not common across Europe. They could mix freely with men (in other courts and kingdoms they would have been strictly chaperoned), and Eleanor was granted a liberal education in Latin and Provencal (the language of Aquitaine itself).
Her wealth and upbringing made her a confident and accomplished young woman. After her father’s death, she inherited his lands in Aquitaine aged just 15. She was married to Louis le Jeune of France in 1137; before long Louis was crowned King of France.
Queen of France
As the Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor had developed a reputation for style, luxury and patronage of the arts. Her wealth, education and confidence made her court famous. When she became Queen of France, her cultural interests flourished: she introduced to Paris Aquitaine’s fashion, language and respect for women.
She also developed a strong relationship with King Louis VII, and the couple shared each other’s artistic interests. She indulged his passion for Aristotle, while he encouraged her love of poetry and hunting. She also bore him a daughter, Marie.
Their court poets, troubadours, were the best in all of Europe, and even warlike French knights were converted to Eleanor’s ways. One account relates how Eleanor set up a mock trial in which the ladies of the court judged French knights while they read love poetry and dressed in elaborate outfits.
In 1147, Eleanor travelled with King Louis on the Second Crusade, but there the marriage began to show signs of strains. Rumours circulated that the attractive and charismatic Eleanor was drawing unnaturally close to her long-lost uncle, Raymond of Poitiers.
Louis and Raymond disagreed over the best strategy to reclaim the Holy Land. Eleanor made the unpopular decision of siding with Raymond, and her reputation suffered as she had also not produced a male heir.
She was sent back to France from the Holy Land in disgrace in 1149.
When Eleanor and Louis returned to Paris in 1150, Eleanor gave birth to another daughter, Alix. King Louis and his queen had now been married for 13 years and their union had still not resulted in a son. Their marriage, once the envy of Christendom, was foundering.
In an attempt to restore stability to their family, Pope Eugene III and Abbot Suger intervened to try bring the two together. Neither of the religious leaders were successful.
In 1151, in the midst of these difficulties, Geoffrey Plantagenet and his son, Henry, travelled to Paris. They were present to negotiate over the duchy of Normandy, but their journey would change Eleanor’s life.
Geoffrey was a powerful figure as he was married to Empress Matilda, the daughter and heir of King Henry I of England. Geoffrey’s son Henry was 11 years younger than Eleanor, but had a strong claim to the throne of kingdom of England through Matilda.
During their stay at court more gossip circulated about Eleanor; this time it was whispered that she had struck up a relationship with Geoffrey, who was many years her senior. However, the rumours did not put off Henry. He ignored the hearsay about his father and made a dramatic arrangement with Eleanor.
In the midst of King Louis’ own court, Henry and Eleanor secretly agreed to marry. Eleanor prepared to break off her marriage with one of Europe’s most powerful men and elope with Henry.
Eleanor and Henry
In 1152 the failing marriage of Louis and Eleanor was annulled by the Pope on the grounds of consanguinity, since they were third cousins. Eleanor was now free to marry Henry, to whom she was (ironically) even more closely related.
Eleanor departed the French court for her home in March of that year. En route, Henry’s brother and another lord tried to kidnap her so they might marry her and claim the Aquitaine lands. Eleanor escape their clutches and reached Poitiers where she sent word for Henry to join her.
In May 1152, only two months after her annulment, Henry and Eleanor married in a modest ceremony at Poitiers cathedral. She then supported Henry as he campaigned in England and claimed the throne as part of the settlement between his mother, Matilda, and her cousin Stephen. Their Anglo-French domain was now vast, with territories in modern-day England, France, Wales and Ireland.
Eleanor’s marriage to King Henry II produced eight children: five sons and three daughters. Her residence in Poitiers became famous for developing the practice of ‘courtly love’, stylised and exaggerated displays of affection.
However, Eleanor and Henry had a tumultuous marriage. Henry was often adulterous, and his rule was not without difficulty: his troubles with the church led to the death of Thomas Beckett.
Eleanor too had her own schemes. In 1173 she joined with her son in a revolt against King Henry, and spent 16 years in prison as a consequence.
After King Henry’s death Eleanor lived on for many years, even ruling England as Queen Dowager while her son Richard the Lionheart was on crusade. She later defended Aquitaine and Anjou from her own grandson, organising the defence of the city of Mirebeau against his armies.
Eleanor was the mother to five monarchs, and her progeny became kings, queens, emperors and archbishops. She eventually lived into her 80s, a rare feat in the High Medieval period, dying in 1204.