Duchess of Aquitaine and Queen of France
Although described as a great beauty by contemporary sources, we have no more distinctive descriptions of her, such as eye or hair color, though they were most likely blue and blonde, respectively (a combination considered desirable at the time she lived). At the age of 15, she was already more mature than her husband, Louis VII, then 16-year-old king of France.
Having been a favorite of of her grandfather William IX and taken around on journeys with her father, William X, Eleanor had learned much by experience and more by her remarkable education. For the time, her tutelage might be considered unparalleled, having learned constellations, latin, and many more courtly qualities of an Aquitainian lady.
Equipped with extensive knowledge and vivacious spirit, Eleanor found herself more than capable to exercise the freedom granted to her under the auspices of Southern France, where women and men were far more equal than in the North, considered to be barbarous by some troubadours. Although history speaks to her independent, strong-willed, and somewhat casual nature regarding sexual matters, she held all the grace and form of a worldly, feminine woman.
At this age, Eleanor, Queen of France was – in the most honest and simple sense – a passionate and fiery woman who yearned for all life had to offer and enjoyed what her station could afford.
Eleanor brought fashion from around Europe to her homes in France and England, often setting trends to the point she could easily be called a fashion icon. From one description by Polly Brooks, she wore red, velvet robes lined in fur. Beneath this was a gown of tight silks to reveal delicate wrists quickly disappearing behind a series of golden bracelets. She likely wore earrings, other jewelry, and even makeup to complete her outfits.
This habit of wearing makeup might have been a habit Eleanor acquired while in Byzantium. It was normal for women to decorate themselves with jewels and finery as befit their station. The church, however, did not approve of any woman doing such things, and Eleanor found herself on the wrong end of many rumors. Coupled with her “frivolous” exhibitions of free will, members of the Catholic church scorned her indirectly. Indeed, a quote from Desmond Steward’s “Eleanor of Aquitaine” shows us this spite:
… ‘with mincing steps, busts thrust forward, garnished and decorated in a fashion more fitting for temples, pulling trains of rich materials after them to raise clouds of dust.’ He [Abbot Bernard of Clairvoux] speaks of some who are not so much ornamented as laden with gold and silver and jewels and ‘everything else that accompanies queenly splendor.’ One cannot help suspecting that the last phrase refers to Eleanor herself.
Eleanor did not stop there, however, and surrounded herself with those after her grandfather William’s heart: the Troubadours. These were the poets who originated in Southern France and began the custom of courtly love (admiration from afar; nothing more than a chaste kiss might be shared between the poet and his lady). Given the reputation of those free-spirited souls who spoke so brazenly of love, and that Eleanor was always around them – being patron for their lyrics in courts of women – it is no wonder that rumors abounded about a wanton, sinful nature.
In truth, while Eleanor was said to have conversation as a libertine might, there is no evidence suggesting she was unfaithful to her French husband. Further, while it is believed she enjoyed flirting for its own sake, she took it no further than innocent – if risque – talk. And this is to be expected of a woman who was raised around the concept of “love from afar,” surrounding herself with poets and their poetry on the subject.
This did not stop Louis VII from throwing one of them out of court after singing songs that were a little too on-the-nose regarding Eleanor, who history tells us Louis genuinely, deeply loved. Amorous affection, however, is not sufficient to produce an heir, and after 14 years, the pair had only managed two daughters: Marie and Alice. We know that Eleanor – for whatever love she bore Louis – was frustrated with the King’s sexual appetite, once complaining that she “married a monk and not a king.”
(As an aside, Eleanor’s daughter, Marie, would go on to help inspire a certain troubadour’s stories about chivalry, adding to the Arthurian legends in ways we now take for granted. At Marie’s request, Chretien de Troyes, created and placed Lancelot into those that join Arthur’s exploits. Since then, Lancelot has become a symbol of courtly love and desire, but poses a hypocrisy. How can the most chivalrous knight be the same man that also commits adultery with his lord’s wife?)
Eventually, they divorced on grounds of consanguinity (too closely related by blood; common for royalty to prompt a convenient divorce at the time), and Eleanor was once again the most eligible woman in the land. She held the inheritances of Poitou and Aquitaine, lands that were highly sought after by both English and French (to say nothing of further wealth).
To Louis’ great surprise and anger, Eleanor would go on to marry one of the largest figures of the time: The young Henry II. She would be 29, he 18, and they found themselves happy for a spell. In him was the physical strength, political cunning, and sexual desire that we can reason she longed desired in a man.
It is a tragedy then, that Henry did not treat her as she expected from her years in Aquitaine (nor that this English King was so easily controlled as her former, Frenchman). Indeed, he took her inheritance and put her in a state of near-constant pregnancy over the next fifteen years while their marriage soured. The power she had constantly in her youth (and to some extent with Louis) was constantly checked by her husband. Henry’s close maintenance of this control – and Eleanor’s attempts to wrestle it back from the monarch – would almost undo the fledgling Angevin line.
Queen of the English
At first, life with Henry was splendid. Henry and Eleanor were happy with one another. She a fiery, cunning woman who held the respect of those Henry could not tame in Aquitaine; he, a beloved king and warrior who sped around his territories, personally overseeing many rebellions quelled. Both were each other’s equal, but where law (and culture) were concerned, Henry was master of the domain and Eleanor merely within it.
Eleanor would act as regent on occasion while Henry was away, but in time, realized that she lent only her name to official matters. The justicar held true power while the King was absent, and Eleanor merely an officiate to preside over taxation, laws, etc. Because of where she was, her sex, the King’s desire for control, Eleanor quickly found herself more a caged beauty than a willful, political actor in Henry’s eyes.
Henry certainly knew her worth, because he would often bring her to territories loyal to her name, Aquitaine and Poitiers. In a real sense, she was a symbol of peace between French and English powers, but to the Queen herself, felt like a token to be flashed whenever there was need. This mockery of power and pomp was something Eleanor would not stand for, and this once hopeful union would become dark in time.
It’s unclear if their sexual desires for one another ever waned, for though they had many disagreements, they at least had goodwill enough (and likely lust given their natures) to produce eight children. Five boys (William, Henry III, Geoffrey, Richard, and John) and three girls (Eleanor, Matilda, and Joanna).
Their first, William, died while only three, and though the others would grow to adulthood, Eleanor would outlive all but two of them – John and Joanna. It is through her sons that Eleanor would attempt to reclaim power, but her daughters became powerful in their own right, married to noble men with whom they shared more of a partnership than perhaps Henry and Eleanor had. There is rumor of a ninth child, but he is only mentioned by one biographer, so not much evidence exists to support the claim.
Henry III, the merciful and joyous son, ended up being an incredible socialite. Beautiful and loved for his lavishness, Henry spent much of his time carousing with knights’ in his mesnie (household) in a time when chivalry was paramount. He would join many of them in battle later on, including the famous Sir William Marshal who is notable in Eleanor’s life.
It was Eleanor that placed the Marshal and Henry together, perhaps because Eleanor could tell he would protect her son with utmost care or perhaps she was aware of his renown as a combatant in knightly tournaments. As a testament to her shrewd decision-making, Marshal never abandoned any king he served, being the preeminent example of chivalry for the age. He would go on to steadfastly serve her husband, three of her sons sons, and Eleanor’s grandson.
Henry III is often referred to as “the young King” (and Henry III, is actually his not-yet-born nephew) for various reasons, but one was that his father had named a successor while still alive, which had not been exercised yet. Further, his father had been strict with the lands and rights granted to his sons, but moreso Henry and John (nicknamed “Lackland” for it) than others. Henry II probably did this to avoid the confusion that arose in the years before he took power between Stephen of Blois and Matilda, but in reality, he caused more confusion.
Here were two Henrys. One ruling and the other publicly acknowledged as the heir – a monarch apparent. The latter had no real lands or means by which to pay the number of knights pledging themselves to him nor true power, which his father seemed to have kept for himself. This eventually caused a great distrust to grow between father and son until Henry revolted against the standing monarch. (Henry’s strict control of power against his family would be his undoing.)
Eleanor is believed to have stoked the fires of unrest between the two – all her sons and their father, in fact – which eventually culminated in a series of battles that the older king would win. They had French allies and mercenaries to support her sons’ troops, but in the end, the sheer tactical approach of the reigning Henry could not be matched. The king put down a civil war and imprisoned its ring leader, Eleanor.
Henry II, the young king, and her eldest son died while Eleanor was still imprisoned. Her husband would allow Eleanor out from time-to-time to make appearances still; ever the bird in a now-iron cage. It must have been cruel for the Queen to endure, so used to not only luxury but a wealth of stories and political opponents with which to sharpen her active mind. Here there was only the bible to read and the gaoler to speak with. Word of the world came from them and those who visited while she remained behind bars.
Being jailed by your husband must have been awful, and in Eleanor’s case, it lasted far too long. From roughly 1174 to 1189, she was a prisoner, allowed out in dealings with her sons or for certain celebrations (likely for appearances sake). When Henry did finally die, he must have felt utterly alone, for all the realm seemed to be moving to Richard’s side, and even his youngest son, John, had sided with his brother. Henry died shortly after receiving the news, and his body was stripped of its possessions before the warmth had left him.
Henry’s successor, Richard, was a charismatic, yet brutal man. He brooked no rebellions, and did not have the grace for conversation in most instances of betrayal, instead solving disputes at the tip of a sword. He was ruthlessly effective, and the English grew fond of him in no small part for his service as a warrior in the Holy Land.
It is interesting, then, that Richard is noted for having at least three instances of directly betraying his father for either his mother or the new French King, Phillip II. Phillip was crafty and able to pit son against father (much as how Louis had done with Eleanor’s help in the case of Henry III). It was Richard that chased Henry II down almost unto death, but was forestalled in his chase at the end of his father’s life.
Eleanor’s favorite was most certainly the red-haired Richard, and it is said that at this time in her life (all of 32 years old), she had no men other than Richard and he no women other than Eleanor. From that description, one might conclude an incestuous relationship was formed, but it was merely that Richard was a homosexual and his mother had no more sexual desires of men. She was concerned wholly on the dynasty she would leave behind.
That dynasty, however, would be challenged by King Phillip II of France, who was unmatched in political cunning save for Eleanor herself. While she and Richard lived, he could find no inroads into the Angevin empire, for Richard was the military genius of his time, and Eleanor most certainly the political counterpart.
The English might have ruled even greater areas of land if their stances in France could have been maintained with the longevity of both these figures. Bully and beauty would know sorrow again, and eventually the youngest son, John, would take over, proving that enough cowardice and paranoia could undo even Eleanor’s carefully-planned, dynastic aims.
Queen Regent and The Favorite Son
Richard went out to secure lands along the borders of France and Eleanor ruling as regent in her son’s stead while he was away. These and those of her son John’s were the years where she had reclaimed the power she long sought.
During the same year Richard became king, the Third Crusade had been called by Pope Gregory VII to reclaim those lands that had been lost by the Christians. Notably, the True Cross, carried into the battle at Hattin and subsequently captured, was a relic the church was eager to have returned (which they would never succeed in doing). Both Richard and Phillip went to wage war in the Holy Lands, with Richard taxing his people heavily to pay for the venture (this tax was dubbed “Saladin’s Tithe”).
Phillip would fall ill and come home early in the Third Crusade while Richard would gain notable glory in several battles. It was here that Richard solidified his place in history as a great military commander, able to push back Saladin’s advances – a formidable opponent and military man in his own right – and reclaim much of what was lost. Capable though he was, the Lionheart could not recapture Jerusalem itself.
With her late husband gone and Richard fighting far from home, Eleanor became regent, exercising all the power she had been denied. She held her position with all the grace that should be expected, proving that she could wield English magnates as If Richard was the military genius of his time, Eleanor may have well been the world’s political master.
But the journey back was hard for Richard, and he was imprisoned by Duke Leopold of Austria who then alerted his liege, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, Henry VI. Thankfully, the Emperor was in great need of money, and with a king in prison, he could command a king’s ransom. Eleanor and the magnates of the realm were able to squeeze yet more money out of the already crusade-taxed people to pay the total of what totals to 100,000 lbs of silver (today, this would amount to roughly $20 million).
Philip, meanwhile, was trying to maneuver both politically and militarily back in Western Europe. When news of Richard’s imprisonment reached the French King and John, it was only too easy to make a puppet ruler in John, who had long been sowing doubt that Richard would ever return home. John gave homage to Phillip and then went about conquering various places with mercenaries, all while trying to convince the magnates to recognize him as the legitimate heir to the English throne.
Eleanor’s response was to raise militia in various cities and told to capture John’s mercenaries, which they did successfully. The Queen Regent was able to outmaneuver John’s internal attempts at civil war both because she was so adept at governance and her youngest son woefully inept. Eleanor ever the immovable thorn in Philip’s side.
When Richard finally returned, John was made his ally again, and quickly crushed the rebellion against him, able to fight back Phillip’s forces that had made way into the English King’s lands. Richard would spend the rest of his rule engaged in constant warfare to hold on to the lands from Aquitaine to Normandy.
The English had been so heavily taxed and the coffers so low from war, crusades, and ransoms that when news of a great treasure made itself known, both Richard and the local Viscount Aimery of Limoges (Limoges being the capital of the region where this treasure was found) made claim to it. The Viscount was willing to give up half, but Richard wanted it all; one source says the Viscount “had made cause with Phillip Augustus” (Phillip II).
Naturally, Richard solved this problem as he solved so many others: with force. Here it is probably warranted, as it was his vassal who was trying to keep the treasure from his lord, Richard. He laid quick and effective siege to Châlus where the treasure was being held. Châlus was close to breaking when the unthinkable happened.
A single bolt from a lone crossbowmen, Peter Basilius, still taking potshots down below, managed to find its way to Richard’s neck. The King soon died from the wound. It is a senseless loss felt by all the English or any man who heard legend of “The Lionheart” for this battle-hardened monarch to be ended by such an small blow.
Queen Mother and Nun
With Richard gone, there was a question of who would be King. There was Arthur, Eleanor’s grandson by Geoffrey, and Count John, Richard’s younger brother. In the end, John was selected as the next King, and one would think all was well. Richard had created a solid defense along the borders of the Angevin realm, his mother was still capable at safeguarding state affairs, and William Marshal – who had become an extremely accomplished military commander by this time, dubbed Earl Marshal and later 1st Earl of Pembroke – served at his side.
But John was a cruel, cowardly, dishonorable man who left such a mark on history for his fumbling of every military and political task set before him, that no other English monarch since has taken the name “John.” In addition, his sister-in-law, Constance of Brittany (Geoffrey’s wife) among others had sided with Arthur and his claim to the throne, despite John being crowned King in England shortly after his escape from Chinon.
What followed shortly after was a back-and-forth between John and Constance of Brittany with Arthur, wherein John would win at Le Mans and push away the claimants to the throne. It was only because Eleanor spent much of her time here speeding around the kingdom of all the lands she had some sway in and the love of her people, that John maintained his position even while his nephew still vied for his seat.
The next series of actions would send the kingdom spiraling downward, to where even Eleanor could not hope to recover what was lost. Most of what happened were blunders at John’s hands, either because of his cruelty, greed, or lust, which his mother could not curtail.
And what lust! John made many enemies because of his proclivities, not the least of which was the marriage of Isabella of Angoulême, who John seduced at the age of fourteen (or younger), infuriating the Lusingians, for she was betrothed to one of their Lords.
During a conflict at Mirabeau (which he sped to because his mother was under attack by Arthur), he successfully captured many prisoners, with which he was barbaric. John would imprison, blind, and starve many of them. Once captured, Arthur, who was still a worrisome threat to his position as King, was imprisoned and later disappeared. (Some accounts state that John killed the boy. Ultimately, we don’t know, but various accounts lend credence to this claim).
With Arthur dead (missing, though the rumors must have ran rampant), the realm began to turn sharply against John despite his mother. Their love for her was great, and she was able to maintain some of what he continued to break, but eventually, she retired to the countryside.
Eleanor, tired and without the light of youth, made her way to blessed Fontevrault that she had long loved. It was a place where many women came to escape the pains of brutal men or lives made harsh by other means. Fontevrault was a nunnery Eleanor had long been patron for, providing it beneficiaries during Richard’s crusade in the Holy Land many years before.
In 1204, Eleanor died, and the world was worse for it; perhaps the English most of all.
John would go on to lose much of the lands gained and sustained under the Plantagenet rule, his taxation and mistreatment of Barons would ring about their wrath (spurring the Magna Carta), and ultimately destroyed what his mother attempted to wrest control of. Phillip II invaded, and gained control of all lands in France, save for Aquitaine (it fell to French rule at the end of the Hundred Years’ War).
No matter what list of character traits one might ascribe to Eleanor – passionate, cunning, volatile, intelligent, sinful, treasonous, vengeful – there can be no dispute that she was unique. The mother of England in the 12th century whose actions echo into today.
Eleanor Aquitaine: The Mother Queen of the Middle Ages (Desmond Seward)
Lancelot and the Cart (Chrétien de Troyes)
The Greatest Knight (Thomas Asbridge)
Queen Eleanor: Independent Spirit of the Medieval World (Polly Schoyer Brooks)