What Happened to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Daughters?

Douglas Boyd

Middle Ages
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There are many books about medieval kings and some about their queens, but what’s so special about the princesses born into, or marrying into, the Plantagenet dynasty?

The chroniclers who documented the births and lives of medieval princes were celibate and misogynistic monks who showed little interest in the births of girls, which were often not even noted. So we know much about the sons of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II who founded the Plantagenet dynasty: Henry the Young King, Richard the Lionheart, Geoffrey of Brittany and Bad King John.

A 13th-century depiction of Henry II and his children, left to right: William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John.
A 13th-century depiction of Henry II and his children, left to right: William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John.

Of Eleanor’s little-documented daughters and granddaughters we catch only glimpses, dressed in silks and velvet, maybe wearing a crown on the day of their marriage to men often old enough to be their fathers and whose main interest was bloodshed, not family life.

While their brothers were raised to become knights and dukes and eventually kings, the princesses grew up knowing their destiny was to provide sons for their imposed husbands. They were often betrothed when little girls, to seal a treaty between their fathers and the husbands selected for them.

Although the Church theoretically ensured that conjugal relations did not start before puberty, many of them gave birth when barely 15 – at a time when puberty was later than today – although this was known to be a bad idea, with the baby liable to die and the immature mother liable to suffer the same fate.

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Princess Matilda

Eleanor’s first-born daughter Princess Matilda was sent off to Germany at the age of 11, to wed Duke Henry the Lion of Saxony, a warrior who had to kneel at the wedding, to bring his head down level with hers.

Previously known as Mathilde in France and Maud in England, she had to get used to being called Mechtilde. Giving birth within the year in a room with a number of male courtiers present as witnesses, she did not see the father for months. He was far away spending her dowry on a trip to Jerusalem.

Princess Eleanor

Matilda’s younger sister, named Eleanor after their mother, was betrothed at the age of 3 to Prince Friedrich, infant son of the German Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, but the boy died before a wedding could be arranged.

Five years later she was betrothed to King Alfonso VIII and married to him when only 12 years old, at which point she had to modify her name to the Spanish form Leonor.

Like Henry the Lion, Alfonso was also absent much of the time in the long-running war to drive the Moors back from the huge tracts of Spain they had ruled for 700 years, and which would cost the life of Eleanor’s son. She more than fulfilled her queenly duty, bearing 12 children by Alfonso.

Eleanor and Alfonso VIII
Alfonso VIII of Castile and Eleanor of Plantagenet delivering Castle of Uclés to the Master (“magister”) of the Order of Santiago Pedro Fernández.

As happened in those times, both sons and daughters died young. One who did not was christened Leonor after her mother and married at the age of 20 to King Chaime I of Aragon, known euphemistically as a homme de fembres because he spent most nights with other women.

After 9 frustrating years for Leonor, she was sent back to her father.

Princess Joanna

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s third daughter by Henry II, named Joanna, was barely 4 years old when she was betrothed to King William II of the regnu di sicilia – the Norman kingdom of Sicily. 10 years old when sent to Sicily for her wedding, she was a pawn in the struggle between Pope Alexander III and the German Empire, which ruled much of Italy.

If the wedding was a dazzling pageant of colour and luxury, her life in William II’s palace was lonely. He kept a harem of beautiful Christian and Muslim girls for his pleasure, and wanted Joanna only for her dowry.

A double seal of Princess Joanna (Joan). (Credit: Ealdgyth / CC).

Foreign princesses

The fate of foreign princesses marrying into the Plantagent family was similar. The French king Louis VII was tricked into sending his 9-year-old daughter Princess Alais to England, betrothed to Prince Richard. He was not interested in girls, so she ended, with no choice in the matter, in his father’s bed as one of Henry II’s many mistresses.

Alais spent 24 years as, effectively, a prisoner in a gilded cage before being sent back to France.

Sent abroad to strange lands with only a pair of handmaids who could speak their language and treated by their husbands’ courtiers with hostility as ‘that foreign girl’, a few of these child brides who had extraordinary toughness, political astuteness and very high intelligence later became regents when their husbands were away fighting.

Some also ruled great countries as regents for their sons after the father died, but the odds were stacked against them.

One such was Queen Leonor of Castile’s daughter Blanca, who was married at her grandmother’s insistence to the prince who became France’s King Louis VIII, and ruled the country as regent when he was on crusade, controlling also her son who came to the throne after her husband’s death.

blanche of castille
Blanca (Blanche) of Castile.

Many of the others suffered in silence as privileged prisoners in palaces, eventually discarded when their childbearing years were over.

Douglas Boyd is the author of published works that include fourteen volumes of French and Russian history. Plantagenet Princesses: The Daughters of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II is his latest book and was published on 11 March 2020, by Pen and Sword Publishing.

plantagenet-princesses

Tags: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Douglas Boyd