Eleanor of Aquitaine, a name that many will have heard yet may not be able to place. But then that’s not surprising for someone born in 1122, particularly if she’s a woman. The fact that Eleanor is even remembered today, therefore, is testament to the impact she had, and still has today. Some would say she was a fore runner of feminism. She was certainly a consort to powerful kings. However regardless of both those points, Eleanor of Aquitaine was undoubtedly a formidable force and her legacy is one that still paints a sheen on our lives now.
Eleanor’s early life…
Eleanor was born into a complicated family, which had troubadours, publicly flaunted mistresses, and courtly love to give it texture. It was a background that could only have served to add a joie de vivre to a woman who was fiercely intelligent and strong minded. So when her father died, and she became a powerful heiress at the age of fifteen, the scene was set for the medieval world to change forever.
Effectively orphaned, she became a ward of Louis VI of France. But within a short time she was married to his son, Louis VII, and swiftly found herself Queen of France. It was to be a challenging time for one with such a high spirited, yet worldly, approach to life. Bound to a meek and monkish man, this was not to be a match made in heaven.
Forerunner to modern day feminism…
Before long, Petronella, Eleanor’s sister, was brought to court. However, bearing in mind she was cut from the same cloth as her sister, it’s no surprise that ructions caused by Petronella’s wayward behaviour swiftly prompted Louis to set off to find peace via a crusade. It’s perhaps at this moment that Eleanor’s torch for the feminist approach was lit… Keen to support him, she rallied a thousand fighting vassals, an act which in itself was appreciated. The additional three hundred ladies who also joined them to tend the wounded, however, were a different matter. Dressed in armour and carrying lances, these women were of note wherever they went. They may not have fought at any point, but they certainly made their mark.
It’s believed it was during this crusade that Eleanor struck up a relationship with her uncle, Raymond. Raymond, having been appointed Prince of the City of Antioch, undeniably cut a dash in comparison to her husband. And although the relationship was doomed from the start, it did prompt her to eventually renounce her marriage to Louis on the basis of close family ties, so that by 1152 the pairing was over. Wielding her powerful position, an annulment was arranged and she swiftly enjoyed the return of her estates to her name.
Within a year, however, at the age of thirty, Eleanor then found herself married instead to a man eleven years her junior. Henry Plantagenet became her second husband, and within two years he had also become King of England.
The Plantagenet years…
Henry was a very different character to Louis VII. This was a coupling of two strong minds and it proved to be a stormy and tumultuous union. But despite this, it also produced a large number of children, amongst whom were Richard the Lionheart, and the infamous King John.
For Eleanor, these were troubled years. Much to her disgruntlement, Henry was not a good husband. And although his serial philandering added insult to injury, it was when he insisted on including his bastard son, Geoffrey, in court, that she decided to return to Aquitaine. Taking Richard with her, she left Henry to his mistresses and established her own court there once more.
Perhaps, given that distance was now placed between them, it’s no surprise that she found herself encouraging her disparate collection of sons to rise up in revolt against their father. This was, of course, a surprising act of defiance for a woman in such times, and not one that Henry would or could take lightly. As she attempted to join her sons in Paris, she was captured. And at the age of fifty, Eleanor found herself held prisoner for the next fifteen years by her husband.
Widowhood and beyond…
It was only the death of Henry in 1189 that Eleanor’s release was secured. Her favoured son, Richard, ensured this occurred, but then swiftly devoted his time to the Third Crusade, sadly to become an absentee king. This never dented Eleanor’s love for her son, however. She personally escorted his intended bride, Berengaria of Navarre, from Spain to Sicily. And when he was captured whilst returning from abroad, she negotiated his release and again personally delivered the ransom. When he was mortally wounded at the Siege of Chaluz, it was Eleanor who dashed to be with him, and he died in her arms.
With Richard dead, Eleanor had little choice but to switch her allegiance to another son. This time she chose John. An interesting choice for sure, for he was undoubtedly a more unsavoury character, but it appears she chose to support him over her grandson Arthur (Geoffrey’s heir), who was attempting to recover his inheritance from John. The bond between mother and son must have been a strong one, for Eleanor soon found herself in yet another scrape, besieged at Mirebeau Castle. And to his credit, it’s said that John dashed the eighty mile distance to help her in just two days.
Eventually, having led a life that could have filled many lifetimes, Eleanor ‘retired’ and took the veil. One can only surmise that having reached eighty years old, an astonishing feat, she simply sought some peace and solitude before her days ended. In 1204, she finally fell into a coma and passed away.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was laid to rest in the Abbey of Fontevraud, within the mausoleum already built for the Plantagenet’s, next to her husband, Henry, and her favourite son, Richard. The effigy of her prostrate form, studiously reading a book, is an image now familiar to many… despite the passing of time.