As the most romanticized queen within the entwined English/French histories; none were as complex and unconventional as the Duchess of Aquitaine and queen to Henry II of England. Eleanor of Aquitaine lived from c.1122 to 1204 through a particularly turbulent dynastic era with both the well-established Capetian French, and newly born Plantagenet English monarchies, struggling to keep the peace even from within their respective royal families. Known as one of the she-wolves of British history her actions stand out as remarkable against world that declared women the weaker and lesser minded sex despite the adventures of Empress Matilda occurring mere decades before her.
Not unusual for the time not a lot is known about this particular she-wolf, and women in general, other than the fictionalised or exaggerated stories that circulate her and those that familiar with her during all three tenures of royal or ducal titles she held. From the age of fifteen she was the Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers in her own right due to her father William X having sired no sons to succeed him and in the same year married the King of Franks Louis the VII, thus, becoming the controversial French queen to a quiet and disaffecting king of France. Despite there being initial affection between the royal couple they began to drift apart after Louis taking part in Second Crusade to protect Jerusalem from the Turks due to the apparent unseemly behaviour on Eleanor’s part. After the birth of two daughters and nearly fifteen years of marriage their union was formally annulled in March 1152 and Eleanor’s extensive lands were returned under the provision that she paid homage to the Kings of France as her overlord.
The next stage of the Duchess’ life is the part that remains the most infamous in history from her second marriage and the exploits of her children that ensured her previous history was pushed into obscurity. Within a year, despite the theory that she had sexual relations with his father Geoffrey, Eleanor was married to Henry Plantagenet who two years later became Henry II of England. Once the marriage was confirmed the couple retained the rights to England, through Henry’s grandfather Henry I, and the ducal titles to Anjou, Normandy, Aquitaine and Poitiers making their lands larger than the King of France’s territories. Their eight subsequent children were married across Europe’s various kingdoms and were responsible for the major upheavals in English history over the next hundred years. Two of her children Richard and John became kings of England continuing the Plantagenet dynasty and adding to their shared lands due to Richard I wife bringing with her the dukedom of Brittany furthering the land holdings in France. Eleanor’s daughters married across Spain, Bavaria, Saxony and Sicily all continuing their own individual dynasties across Europe.
Many romantic stories haunt Eleanor during this time; the substantial fable that still stands is the Rosamund tale the ghost of whom is still meant to walk the maze of Woodstock House. What is not known about her is her appearance and personal information due to there being virtually no official documents that are linked to her and no visual representation either. It is assumed that she took an extensive role in ruling England and despite her husband attempting to take control she had absolute control over her inherited lands. What is known is that some of her actions essentially ended with her estranged from Henry and isolating herself due to her siding with her children in their revolt against their father in 1173. She spent her life travelling widely between England, France and Spain (in collecting her granddaughter from Castile to marry the French king’s son) and was an accomplished rider meaning when she was captured on the route to Paris they had a difficult time keeping her in submission to her captors. In giving her children military help Henry had enough of having a strong-minded and competent of ruling wife and placed her in semi-house arrest for nearly eleven years that only ended on the death of Henry II in 1189. When her son Richard I came to the throne she took an even greater role in state by planning his coronation, acted as regent during his crusade to the Holy Land and raising the ransom for when Richard I was captured by the Duke of Austria.
Eleanor lived until the age of 82 and was able to see her youngest son King John ascend the English throne before retiring to Fontevrault Abbey in France. She died in this abbey and was buried there in 1204. Thankfully she did not survive long enough to see her son having to bow to the will of the English barons or see the loss of Normandy. However her territories stayed loyal to the English monarch for several years after her death due to how well she ran her territories. As the nuns of Fontevrault said in their obituaries:
“She was beautiful and just, imposing and modest, humble and elegant… who surpassed almost all the queens of the world.”
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Weir, A., Eleanor of Aquitaine: By Wrath of God, Queen of England (London, 2000).