Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England
Born: c. 1122
Died: March 31, 1204
Fontevraud, France (Age c. 82)
Eleanor of Aquitaine, the future Queen consort of France and England, was born the eldest child of William (son and heir of Duke William IX of Aquitaine) and his wife Aenor (a daughter of Viscount Aimery of Chatellerault, whose wife was, at the time, engaging in an affair with Duke William). The exact date of Eleanor’s birth is not known but evidence points to her being born at some point during the year 1122. Eleanor’s early life was undoubtedly a comfortable one and she was given a surprisingly thorough education for a woman, even one of noble stock. It was in 1130 though, that Eleanor’s life would change forever, for it was in this year that she lost both her mother and, more significantly, her younger brother. Upon the death of her brother, Eleanor became the sole heiress to the vast and wealthy duchy of Aquitaine.
The duchy, which was traditionally held as a fief of the King of France, consisted of an enormous swath of land that stretched from the county of Poitou in the north to the duchy of Gascony in the south. Aquitaine itself was widely considered to be near-independent of its overlord, paying only nominal homage to the King of France, and the situation within the duchy’s boundaries was no different. While the Dukes of Aquitaine also ruled as Dukes of Gascony and Counts of Poitou (with their government seats based in Bordeaux and Poitiers respectively), the other various counties within the duchy were each ruled by their own lord, most of whom had no desire to take orders from any supreme overlord, whether it be a duke or a king. For this reason, Aquitaine was notoriously difficult to govern and its dukes always struggled to unify their many rebellious vassals. This was the land that Eleanor was now set to inherit from her father, now Duke William X, upon the latter’s death.
Fortunately for the new heiress, Aquitaine was far more progressive than many of its neighbors and women were allowed to inherit land and rule it in their own name (though when an heiress was married, her husband would usually have a fair amount of authority over her lands). Even still though, Duke William wanted to make sure that his daughter did not fall victim to the chaotic politics within his lands and knew that only one man, King Louis VI of France, was powerful enough to protect the young heiress from having her inheritance stripped from her. Therefore, William gave his daughter over to Louis VI as a ward and proposed that she should ultimately marry the king’s son and heir, Prince Louis (though Aquitaine was not to be absorbed into the French royal demesne). In the spring of 1137, the duke went on a pilgrimage to Spain, where he drank some contaminated water, and died. At the very young age of fifteen, Eleanor was now Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right.
Upon hearing of Duke William’s death, Louis VI sent his son with a large retinue to Bordeaux, where Eleanor had been staying with the city’s archbishop, so that the two could be married. The wedding took place in July of that same year and Louis and Eleanor were duly crowned Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine and Gascony and Count and Countess of Poitou. Once the festivities had come to an end, the newlyweds departed Gascony to begin their new life together. While the couple was still on their way to Paris, they were informed of the death of Louis VI. The prince was now King Louis VII of France and Eleanor was his queen.
Despite their quick rise to power, the union between Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine was nothing close to a match made in heaven. While it is true that, in an age dominated by arranged marriages (in which kings and lords essentially traded their children for political gain), a man and a woman did not have to be completely compatible to be wed, this marriage was particularly mismatched. There is no doubt that King Louis loved his new wife dearly and would do anything to make her happy. But, Louis had virtually been raised by the church (he was indeed headed for an ecclesiastical career before the death of his elder brother made him heir to the throne) and was a youth of strict morals and piety, who was even taught that sexual activity should be solely reserved for purposes of procreation. Eleanor, on the other hand, was brought up in liberal Aquitaine where she developed an early interest in poetry and other romantic pursuits. As can be imagined, Eleanor felt more than a bit repressed within the decisively more conservative French court.
To the surprise of no one, the new queen began to attempt to gain influence over her docile husband and began to attack, and be attacked by, her competitors at court. These rivals consisted of powerful figures such as Abbot Suger (who was regarded as the king’s primary advisor, just as he had been for Louis VI); the queen mother, Adelaide; and a whole slew of French noblemen and ecclesiastics, all of whom felt that the king was being led astray by his haughty and overly-extravagant wife. King Louis, not wanting his contemporaries to believe that he was a man led by a mere woman (even if she was arguably the most powerful woman in Europe at the time), intended to flex his muscles on the battlefield by laying claim to the county of Toulouse (to the south east of Gascony), through right of his wife, in the spring of 1141. Eleanor did have a claim to the county through her grandmother, Philippa, a daughter of the late Count William IV. Louis, however, was no general and the Toulouse campaign ended in total failure, forcing the king to retreat in utter humiliation.
The next major dramatic scene in the lives of the royal couple came when Eleanor’s sister, Petronilla, began an illicit affair with Count Raoul of Vermandois. Raoul was married to the sister of Count Theobald of Champagne, one of Louis’ most powerful vassals. When Louis did his part in annulling the marriage between Raoul and his wife, he gained the enmity of Count Theobald, who then preceded to inform the Pope of the French king’s actions. Infuriated, Louis (who had already been placed under an interdict for supporting a rival candidate for the archbishopric of Bourges) sent an army into Champagne, which caused mass amounts of destruction and committed a countless number of atrocities. Louis himself then led another army into the county which burned the town of Vitry-sur-Marne to the ground, killing over a thousand innocent men, women and children. The incident would go on to haunt Louis for years to come and many of the king’s advisors could not help but think that he was being led horribly astray by Eleanor and her adulteress sister. Therefore, it was not terribly difficult to convince the young king to begin taking the advice of his wiser and more experienced counselors and, by the end of 1143, the quarrel between Louis and the Pope was resolved.
The conflict between Louis and Count Theobald, however, continued. Eleanor made an effort to intervene in the affair by confronting one of her mortal enemies, Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (better known to history as St. Bernard). The queen claimed that she would urge her husband to make peace with Theobald in exchange for Bernard urging the Pope to recognize her sister’s marriage as valid. Bernard was furious that a woman was attempting to exert such power and reduced Eleanor to tears, after which, the latter was humbled and agreed not to interfere in the matter further. As a result, Bernard and Suger were able to conclude a peace treaty between Louis and Count Theobald.
In the years following the end of the Franco-Champagne conflict, both Louis and Eleanor focused their attentions almost exclusively on preparations to go on crusade to the Holy Land, which was under a constant threat of Muslim invasion. While their individual reasons for wanting to go on crusade were undoubtedly of a different nature, the king and queen showed equal enthusiasm for the journey and, by 1146, they began recruiting lords and commons alike to join them. Having gained an adequate number of fellow crusaders, Louis and Eleanor departed for the Holy Land in June 1147.
While the First Crusade to the Holy Land (1096-99) had been nothing short of a complete success for the Christians, it seems that the Second Crusade was destined, from the very beginning, to be an utter failure, both militarily and personally, for King Louis VII. The journey to the Holy Land (or, Outremer, as the region was frequently called) did not get off to the greatest of starts as Louis’ unruly army marched across Europe and into modern-day Turkey, plundering, killing and, in many cases, deserting along the way. Eleanor, who travelled in a separate procession, slowed down progress significantly by her extremely lengthy (and extravagant) baggage train, which was by no means appropriate for a journey that was supposed to be a humble one. In January 1148, when the French army was travelling through the Byzantine empire (and swiftly approaching their ultimate destination), they were ambushed and defeated in dominating fashion by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Mount Cadmus. Thousands of crusaders were killed at the battle (with Louis coming very close to being one of them) and the French were forced to finish their journey by sea.
Louis and Eleanor finally arrived in the principality of Antioch (one of four Christian states formed after the First Crusade), which was ruled by Raymond of Poitiers, Eleanor’s uncle, two months later. It was in Antioch that the crusade took a more personal turn for Louis. Eleanor and Prince Raymond were spending so much time together that the king automatically assumed that they must be engaging in an adulterous (and incestuous) affair. Louis bringing these accusations out into the open more or less assured that Raymond would be lost as a dependable ally and Eleanor, greatly offended, pushed Louis for an annulment to their marriage. While Eleanor claimed that the reasons why she wanted the annulment were based upon the grounds of consanguinity (both the king and queen were descendants of King Robert I of France), it was adamantly clear that she had felt emotionally distant from her overly-pious husband for quite some time. Extremely hurt but not wanting to seem completely servile to the desires of his wife, Louis forced Eleanor to leave Antioch and join him on his journey towards Jerusalem.
For the remainder of the crusade, Eleanor was, for all intents and purposes, a non-entity. Louis did indeed travel to Jerusalem, but he did not find much enthusiasm amongst his fellow Christians for his proposal to lay siege to the Muslim stronghold of Damascus. The siege did occur, but lasted for less than a week and turned out to be a complete and utter failure for the crusaders. By the spring of 1149, the Crusade was, thankfully, at an end and Louis and Eleanor departed the Holy Land. After Eleanor’s ship was nearly taken by Greek pirates at sea, her and Louis met in Sicily and eventually travelled to Rome, where they were welcomed by Pope Eugenius. The Pope informed the king and queen that he would not grant them an annulment for the marriage and insisted they reconcile their differences. This strategy seems to have been temporarily effective because Eleanor became pregnant with what was to be the couple’s second daughter at some point during the following months. The two departed Rome soon after and, after an absence of nearly two years, Louis and Eleanor finally arrived home to France in November 1149.
In the months that proceeded the royal couple’s return to Paris, their relationship was again in a steady decline, making it clear that the Pope’s efforts at bringing about a reconciliation between them had been nothing more than a quick fix that was not meant to last. It appears that, at this point, the only person keeping the marriage afloat was the king’s erstwhile right-hand man, Abbot Suger, who advised Louis that it would be foolish give up Eleanor’s vast lands and risk having them fall into the hands of one of his rivals (and also disinheriting the couple’s daughters in the process). But, the combination of Eleanor’s failure to produce a son and heir to the French throne and the death of Suger in January 1151 seems to have sealed the union’s fate and steps towards an annulment proceeded in earnest from this point on, even if Louis still held a great deal of affection for his wife. By the fall of 1151, it was becoming clear that Eleanor had an alternative husband in mind in the person of Henry Plantagenet.
Henry was arguably the greatest up-and-coming lord within Europe. He was already Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou and also held a significant claim to the throne of England through his mother, the Empress Matilda. There were certainly issues to a marriage between Eleanor and Henry: Firstly, Eleanor was eleven years Henry’s senior (the duke was indeed still a teenager when he and Eleanor met) and, while it was common for a woman to be forced to marry a man two to three times her own age for political reasons, it was far more rare for the age gap to be reversed. Secondly, Eleanor and Henry were both great-great grandchildren of Robert I of France (making them fourth cousins) and were therefore similarly within the forbidden boundaries of consanguinity as Eleanor and Louis. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, it was rumored (and was most likely true) that Eleanor had, several years earlier, engaged in an illicit affair with Henry’s own father (who was recently deceased), Count Geoffrey of Anjou. All of these obstacles, however, could not hide the fact that both Eleanor and Henry were powerful, energetic people who shared a common hunger for sex and adventure, indeed a stark contrast from the bland, seemingly loveless marriage that Eleanor had been trapped in with Louis. In March 1152, the annulment between Eleanor and Louis was finally concluded (on grounds of consanguinity) and both were now free to pursue spouses who were more to their liking.
Two months after her divorce from Louis was finalized, Eleanor and Henry were married in a modest ceremony in Poitiers, making them Duke and Duchess of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony and Count and Countess of Anjou, Maine, Touraine (all three made up the ancestral Angevin inheritance) and Poitou. As can be imagined, when King Louis found out about the secret marriage, he was blinded by rage. Not only had the woman he loved remarried, but she had bound herself to one of his primary rivals and, together, their lands were significantly larger than the French royal demesne. The French king promptly led an army into Angevin territory to avenge the disrespect that had been handed to him, but was unsuccessful and forced to retreat and agree to a truce with Henry, who was by far the better general.
With this threat subdued, Henry was finally free to pursue his claim to the throne of England. In early 1153, he arrived in the island kingdom. By the year’s end, he had forced King Stephen to acknowledge him as heir to the throne. After winning this major victory, Henry rejoined Eleanor back in Poitou where the couple would not remain for very long. In October, King Stephen died. Two months later, Henry and Eleanor were crowned King and Queen of England, making them the heads of a powerful and vast empire which stretched from the Scottish border in the north to the Spanish border in the south.
King Henry was to quickly prove to his wife and queen that their marriage was to be very different than Eleanor’s previous union to Louis VII. While Henry never doubted the fact that his wife was a powerful, capable and intelligent woman (he displayed this by appointing her regent during his absence, at various points during the early part of the reign, in England, Normandy, Anjou and, of course, Aquitaine), the king made it crystal clear that he was the man in charge and would be ruled by no woman, no matter how highly he thought of her. It appears that Eleanor’s primary role during the first fifteen years or so of her marriage to Henry was that of child-bearer and heir provider. While Eleanor had only provided the saintly Louis VII with two daughters in their fifteen years of marriage, it is obvious that the bed which she and King Henry shared was much more active. During the years 1153 – 67 Eleanor provided her husband with eight children: three girls (Matilda, Eleanor and Joan) and, more importantly in terms of the royal succession, five boys (William [who died young], Henry, Richard, Geoffrey and John).
The king and queen had no worries about their descendents ruling over the vast Angevin empire (in some form or another) for many years to come. Overall though, despite her time served as regent and the many progresses she took with her husband, Eleanor’s marriage to Henry was fairly uneventful (at least for her). Eleanor had grown accustomed to playing a substantial role in politics and maintaining firm control over the passive and docile Louis VII. With Henry II, the queen was reduced to a subordinate role in government and was not even able to assert any great amount of authority over her own lands. She had little or no involvement in the Becket Affair, the continuing conflict with Louis VII or any of the other major events of the early part of the reign (which also included Henry laying claim to the county of Toulouse, in Eleanor’s name, just as Louis VII had done) and most certainly did not exert any great deal of influence over her husband’s decision making. As can be imagined , this suffocating existence would not be tolerated indefinitely by a woman of such strong character and, as seemed inevitable, Eleanor began to grow anxious and to resent the man that she had once loved so dearly.
In early 1169, when Henry II decided to announce how he planned on dividing up his empire upon his death, he made the grave mistake of informing his sons on what their inheritance was to be, but giving them no significant incomes or responsibilities to go along with their new positions. Over the next four years, the king’s eldest surviving son, Henry the Young King (crowned in 1170, during his father’s lifetime, in the tradition of the Kings of France), grew more and more resentful of his father for the former’s lack of wealth and prestige, despite the fact that he was now an anointed monarch and heir to England, Normandy and Anjou. The Young King’s disgruntlement with his father appeared to be the prime opportunity for both Eleanor and Louis VII to take their revenge on Henry II.
It had become blatantly obvious by the 1170s that Henry and Eleanor had grown apart and that both had developed a sort of hatred for one another. The perfect match had, apparently, been too perfect and the king and queen were too similar in their demeanors. Henry, as the male, felt that he was automatically superior to his wife. This may have been a good enough arrangement in most royal marriages but Eleanor, as the most powerful woman in Europe, was not prepared to accept it. Louis VII’s motives are just as clear, being that his kingdom was dwarfed by Henry’s massive empire (despite being the latter’s overlord for his continental possessions) and he could not seem to extend his influence beyond the French royal demesne. Therefore, it came as no surprise whatsoever that Eleanor and her former husband threw their support behind the Young King when he openly rebelled against his father in the spring of 1173. Unfortunately for Eleanor, she was not meant to play a part in the “Great War.” As the queen was attempting, disguised in men’s clothing, to travel from Poitou to the French court at Paris to join her sons (the Young King had convinced his younger brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, that they too were victims of their father’s avarice, and should therefore join him in rebellion), she was intercepted by the Old King’s men and promptly imprisoned and kept under strict surveillance.
It is not clear where exactly Eleanor spent the next year, but it is likely that she was transported to various different castles within her husband’s domains before being shipped to England in July 1174 where she spent most of her captivity between Winchester and Sarum castles. By September of that year, Henry II finally crushed the rebellion decisively and forced his sons and their allies to agree to peace terms with him. Surprisingly, the king dealt with his sons mildly, even agreeing to provide them with sizable incomes to maintain their statuses as heirs to parts of the Angevin empire (though he made sure they knew that he – Henry II – was their supreme lord for as long as there was breath in his body). It appears that Eleanor was the only member of the royal family to suffer any real consequences in the wake of the Great War, and she was indeed to remain a prisoner (to some extent) for the remainder of her husband’s life.
If Eleanor’s life before 1173 was looked at as painfully uneventful, then her sixteen years of imprisonment must have been nothing short of excruciating. No truly noteworthy events occurred during the first ten years of Eleanor’s captivity, which involved her directly, with the possible exception of King Henry’s attempt to have their marriage annulled in around 1175. Henry’s purpose for this seems to have been so that he may be free to marry Alice, the daughter of Louis VII who had actually been betrothed to Prince Richard (Henry and Eleanor’s second surviving son), for nearly twenty years. The king had been having a sexual relationship with Alice for some time now and did not want to return her, despite the fact that her son seemed to have no interest in marrying her himself as he was supposed to under the terms of the treaty agreed to at the time, because it would lose him the disputed area of the Vexin, which had been designated as Alice’s dowry. Henry’s attempts at an annulment though, would fall on deaf ears with the Pope and it seems that, in the end, the king realized that it would make no sense whatsoever to give up Aquitaine just to be rid of his wife who was now a complete non-entity in Angevin politics.
It was not until after the death of Henry the Young King in 1183 (after yet another brief rebellion against his father’s rule) that Henry II began to loosen his restraint on Eleanor’s person and her captivity grew far more pleasant. At this point the queen was given more freedom to move about (though still under fairly strict watch by the king’s men) and was awarded a larger allowance which allowed her to keep a bigger household. Henry seems to have given his wife more freedom only so he could use her for his own benefit. For example, shortly after the Young King died, Philip II of France (the son of Louis VII, who had died in 1180) claimed several castles in Normandy in the name of the Young King’s widow Margaret, the French king’s half-sister. To counter Philip’s claim, Henry stated that he had actually awarded custody of the castles in question to his wife and brought her over to Normandy to confirm this.
In the spring of 1185, when Henry and Prince Richard (who was now the most logical heir to the Angevin empire, though he was not yet confirmed in this status) were quarreling over the future of Aquitaine (the king wanted his youngest son John to inherit the duchy since Richard would now have England, Normandy and Anjou), the king brought Eleanor to their son in Poitou and forced him to hand control of the entire duchy over to her, since it was legally hers by birthright. Loving his mother unconditionally, Richard followed his father’s orders without any major quarrels (even though Eleanor still did not play any major part in the day to day governing of the duchy). Though allowed to move about more freely, Eleanor’s role for the remainder of the reign was destined to be one of convenience for her husband. All of this changed in July 1189 when Henry II, after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of Prince Richard and King Philip, finally succumbed to one of his various ailments and died at the age of fifty-six. His eldest son succeeded him as King of England as Richard I and it was under this king’s rule that Eleanor would finally get the opportunity to flourish.
One of King Richard’s very first priorities after his father’s death was to release his mother, now sixty-seven years of age, from her long captivity. When the new king’s messenger arrived in England, it was discovered that the queen mother’s jailers had already heard about King Henry’s passing and set her free. Eleanor was informed that, while her son was consolidating his power on the continent, she was to act as regent in England. The queen mother immediately and hastily began to spread word to the English people that they had a new king, receiving homage on her son’s behalf from the nobility, going on progress throughout the kingdom and putting into effect new laws in the realm, while loosening other harsher edicts left over from her husband’s reign. By the time Richard arrived in his island kingdom for his coronation (in the month following King Henry’s death), Eleanor had succeeded in popularizing her favorite son with his new subjects (a task that was necessary considering the fact that, despite being born in Oxford, Richard spoke very little English and spent most of his life on the continent, making him, for all intents and purposes, a foreigner in his own place of birth). Eleanor then played a major role in the new king’s grandiose coronation ceremony, supposedly being the only woman to attend the event, and advised her son on various governmental matters that needed tending to.
These matters, however, meant very little to Richard, who was in full preparation mode to take part in the Third Crusade to the Holy Land. The king appointed various ministers (most significantly Bishop William Longchamp of Ely, the royal chancellor) to govern his kingdom in his absence and departed to the continent in December 1189. Though Eleanor was not given any official responsibilities, there seems to have been some sort of understanding that she would have a fair amount of sway on politics while her son was away. Not long after his departure from England, Richard (who was now securing his position in his continental lands before leaving for the Middle East) summoned his mother to Normandy. It was here that the king announced that his intentions were to ban his ambitious younger brother John (whom he clearly did not trust) from England for a period of three years. In what would turn out to be one of her more regrettable acts, Eleanor took pity on her youngest child and convinced Richard not to go through with the sentence. Time would tell that the king was correct in his suspicions towards his brother. It was also most likely under his mother’s advisement that Richard decided, around this time, to formally break his engagement to the French king’s sister Alice in favor of Berengaria, a daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre. As King Richard departed towards the Holy Land in June 1190, Eleanor took steps to make sure that the latter marriage would happen with as few complications as possible.
Eleanor then proceeded to travel to the small kingdom of Navarre, retrieve her future daughter-in-law and set sail for the island kingdom of Sicily, where the crusaders were staying at the time as guests of King Tancred, so that that Richard and Berengaria could be united and ultimately married. However, when Eleanor and Berengaria arrived at the coastal town of Messina, where Richard was stationed, they were rudely denied entry with the excuse that their entourage was too large for the city to accommodate. An outraged King Richard confronted King Tancred about the situation and found out that King Philip (who was also present in Sicily) had been falsely informing the Sicilian monarch that he – Richard – had plans of depriving him of his kingdom. It appeared that Philip’s sources had informed him that Richard had no intention of marrying his sister Alice and had already become betrothed to another and the French king was taking every step, no matter how treacherous, to ruin the proposed union. Richard convinced Tancred that he had nothing to fear from him and informed Philip that a marriage between him and Alice would not work, due to the princess’s past affair with Henry II. Only when Philip begrudgingly accepted the truth and formally ended the betrothal between his sister and the English king were Eleanor and Berengaria allowed to join Richard on land in Sicily. The French king, angry and humiliated, departed the island the day before the royal ladies arrived.
Unfortunately, Eleanor was only able to remain with her son in Sicily for a few days before being dispatched to Normandy to keep an eye on the increasingly fragile situation in England. Apparently, Bishop Longchamp had been ruling the kingdom tyrannically and unjustly. In an attempt to boost his own popularity, Eleanor’s son John fervently opposed the chancellor’s policies and set himself up as a champion of the English people, also spreading rumors that Richard was never to return alive from the Holy Land and that he – John – was the best man to succeed him as king. When John succeeded in having Longchamp deposed and exiled to the continent, the chancellor requested the aid of Eleanor and was promptly turned away. This caused the desperate bishop to turn to the French court for assistance. Two Roman cardinals attempted to gain an audience with the queen mother to plead Longchamp’s case, but failed without being admitted to Eleanor’s presence.
Meanwhile, John, who was now being egged on by King Philip (lately returned from the crusade) with the promise of being acknowledged King of England in place of Richard, was on the verge of joining the French king to aid him in his conquest of Normandy. Eleanor, however, acted swiftly and confronted her son in England, ultimately persuading him to drop his foolish ambitions and swear allegiance to his brother, the rightful king. John though, would not remain quiet for long and began to become restless again when Bishop Longchamp bought his way back into England. In the end, thanks to Eleanor’s intercession, the crisis was, once again, diverted. But, it was clear that Richard needed to return from crusade to take control of his vast empire and was duly informed of the situation by his mother. Richard indeed departed the Holy Land in October 1192, but suffered a major setback when he was taken prisoner on the return journey by Duke Leopold of Austria, one of his mortal enemies.
As word of Richard’s capture spread (and the haggling for his ransom, led by Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, began), John and King Philip once again began plotting to usurp his lands. Eleanor, who was of course distraught when she heard of her son’s plight, took control of the Angevin empire and did all she could to make sure Richard’s subjects remained loyal to him during his captivity. As Philip invaded Normandy, John sent an army of mercenaries to England, which was repelled by Eleanor and her forces, prompting John to agree to a peace accord with his mother, temporarily neutralizing him in the process. Even after bringing her younger son to heal, Eleanor’s problems were far from over as she faced the daunting task of coming up with the money and hostages that were necessary to ransom Richard. In order to achieve this goal, Eleanor was forced to impose heavy taxes on Richard’s subjects throughout the entire Angevin empire.
Having attained as much cash as she could possibly have hoped for, Eleanor travelled to Germany personally to retrieve her son. After several days of intense bargaining with the emperor, the terms of Richard’s release were finally agreed upon (to say that they were extremely humiliating for the English king would be the understatement of the century). This being done, Richard and Eleanor departed the empire and arrived back in England by March 1194. The king was aided by his mother in taking care of various affairs within his kingdom before they were both forced to travel back to the continent to deal with King Philip, who had been ravaging Richard’s lands during the latter’s captivity. Before dealing with the French king, Richard wished to cut his recalcitrant little brother John down to size and forced him to beg for forgiveness. It is believed that Eleanor, yet again, urged the king to deal mercifully with her youngest son.
After this event, Eleanor began to involve herself less and less in public matters and, at the age of seventy-two, most likely felt she deserved to enjoy her golden years in peace. For the remaining six years of Richard’s life and reign, Eleanor spent the majority of her time at the abbey of Fontevrault, where she lived as an honored guest. While she still advised her son on certain matters, Eleanor was very much a background figure at this point. Unfortunately, Eleanor’s life in politics would prove to be far from over and her peaceful existence at Fontevrault abbey would be disturbed when King Richard was fatally wounded while taking part in a small siege in the Limousin in April 1199. Eleanor rushed to the side of her favorite son while he was on his deathbed and was present when the king exited the world, after naming his brother John as the heir to the Angevin empire.
The queen mother now threw her full support behind her youngest son, as opposed to his primary rival claimant Arthur, Duke of Brittany (a boy of eleven), the posthumously-born son of her deceased son Geoffrey, who had the backing of the French king and number of barons within the Angevin empire, the latter of whom would have been all too happy to have a child as their new ruler so they may maintain their autonomy with greater ease. While John needed little support for his succession in England and Normandy, where he was virtually unopposed, Eleanor personally saw to it that Anjou and Aquitaine ultimately swore allegiance to him as their rightful leader as well, and the seventy-seven year old travelled tirelessly throughout these regions to assure that the transfer of power went as smoothly as possible for her only remaining son. Due to a combination of Eleanor’s tireless efforts on her son’s behalf and the French king’s unwillingness to go to war at the current time, John’s position as supreme ruler of the Angevin empire was considerably more secure and, in May 1200, he and Philip agreed to the Treaty of Le Goulet. As a stipulation of the treaty, a niece of John’s was to marry Philip’s son and heir, Prince Louis. Eleanor herself travelled the difficult journey to Castile to retrieve her granddaughter Blanche and deliver her to the French prince for her wedding.
Unfortunately, Eleanor’s youngest son did not possess the wherewithal that his brother and predecessor did and, no sooner had the quarrel with Philip been patched up than did John began a new one. This time, John made an enemy of Hugh le Brun, a powerful Poitevan nobleman of the Lusignan dynasty, by marrying the latter’s intended bride Isabella, the young daughter of the Count of Angouleme. Over the following two years, the Lusignans family’s hatred for John grew until, in the spring of 1202, it boiled over and they joined forces with John’s nephew Arthur and King Philip in an alliance against the English king. War was formally renewed when John refused to answer to a French justice court (which he was summoned to as Count of Poitou to defend himself against the Lusignans’ complaints). Philip invaded Normandy and intended to award Anjou and Poitou to Arthur. Eleanor, now an octogenarian, immediately sprung into action on her son’s behalf and marched, with a small army, towards Poitiers (the capital of Poitou) in an attempt to prevent John’s enemies from taking possession of it. But, as the queen mother and her entourage were lodging at the castle of Mirebeau on their travels, they found themselves trapped and besieged by the armies of Hugh le Brun and, more significantly, Eleanor’s own grandson Arthur.
In a move of uncharacteristic decisiveness, John and his army marched at an incredible speed to his mother’s place of captivity and took the rebel army by complete surprise. The king easily defeated his enemies at the Battle of Mirebeau and took Arthur, Hugh le Brun and a whole slew of other barons and knights captive, freeing Eleanor in the process. Genuinely believing that her son’s position was again secure, Eleanor once more retired to Fontevrault abbey, where she supposedly became a nun. John, unfortunately, was not able to capitalize on his success at Mirebeau and, after the mysterious death of Arthur in the spring of 1203, King Philip put even more pressure on his English counterpart and began to make substantial progress on dismantling the Angevin empire and becoming its direct overlord. At this point, the queen mother was too old and frail to aid her son any further and, on April 1, 1204, Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine and former Queen Consort of France and England, died at the ripe old age of eighty-two.
Assessment and Analysis
When looking at the life and career of Eleanor of Aquitaine, it is difficult to make the case against the opinion that she was one of the most dominating females of the medieval world (and most certainly within Europe). To rule over a vast and troublesome duchy such as Aquitaine, and to be able to gain the respect of some of the most powerful and influential noblemen of the age, was a feat that was nothing short of astonishing a world that was overwhelmingly dominated by males, and to an even greater extent than during the Tudor dynasty, four hundred years later, when England saw two successive female monarchs.
While it certainly cannot be argued that Eleanor possessed a strong character, it would not be fair not to state that a large amount of her success can, and must, be attributed to sheer luck. For example, Eleanor was lucky, as macabre as it may sound, that her brother died young and without issue. This allowed Eleanor, as her father’s eldest daughter, to be the most obvious heir to his lands. That being established, the future duchess was also fortunate to grown up in a land such as Aquitaine, which was considerably more progressive than its neighbors and therefore far less likely to reject a female ruler any more than they would the rule of a man. Perhaps Eleanor’s most significant advantage was that her father, Duke William X, made sure that his daughter and heir was well taken care of in case he died young and suddenly (which is exactly what would happen. Leaving his daughter and heiress as a ward of the powerful Louis VI of France, and setting up a betrothal to the king’s heir, proved to be a wise move for Duke William. The king of France was most likely the only man in Europe who could have protected Eleanor’s inheritance from the many rebellious vassals within her duchy and assure that she did not fall victim to their avaricious grasp.
When Eleanor entered married life, she proved that she was to be defined, at least for the time being, by her husband. While she was married to the passive and seemingly clueless Louis VII, for example, Eleanor possessed a vast amount of influence at court and made her husband look foolish on many occasions by contradicting him and his more learned advisers. In the end it was clearly Eleanor who decided that the marriage was over. The situation was nearly the complete reciprocal when Eleanor married the soon-to-be King Henry II of England. Henry possessed a personality that was worlds more aggressive and forceful than that of Louis VII, and he would be ruled by no woman. Despite the great deal of respect and admiration the English king had for his wife, he made it known from the beginning that she was nothing more than an occasional regent and the mother of his children and heirs. When Eleanor attempted to change this arrangement (during the Great War), she was effortlessly put in her place a made to remain a prisoner for the remainder of her life.
It was only when her dominant husband passed away in 1189 that Eleanor was truly able to shine. When she was released from captivity, Eleanor was around sixty-seven years old, but it could hardly be believed. She wielded great power in the Angevin empire while her son Richard was on away on crusade and during his captivity. When her youngest son took the throne, Eleanor was seventy-seven, yet it was she who, more so than anyone else, assured that John’s succession went smoothly. It must be wondered as to what drove a woman of such advanced age to accomplish such seemingly insurmountable feats. The answer, we must believe, lies in her basic character and, for that reason her achievements as a woman in a man’s world cannot be attributed to luck alone.
Finally, no assessment of Eleanor of
Aquitaine would be complete without touching on her contribution to the cause
of feminism. Perhaps the only woman that rivaled Eleanor during her lifetime in
sheer capability and strength of character was her second mother-in-law, the
Empress Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I and the mother of King Henry II.
Eleanor’s first mother-in-law, Queen Adelaide (the mother of Louis VII of
France), was certainly a force to be reckoned with, but it does not seem as if
Eleanor had any major trouble in brushing her aside when the latter became
Queen of France. Matilda, on the other hand, remained a strong influence on her
son until the day she died, an influence that Eleanor did not even come close
to achieving over the powerful Henry II. This fact being established, it must
be mentioned that even the great Empress Matilda was not able to gain enough
respect to rule the kingdom, England, that her father had left her with, while
Eleanor, until the her last breath departed her body, remained a force within
Aquitainian politics. This is certainly proven by the fact that, upon her death
in 1204, many of her vassals almost immediately deserted her son John,
resulting in the ultimate fall of the once vast Angevin empire.
Eleanor was indeed an impressive figure of the Middle Ages, both influentially and physically. In an age where the infant mortality rate was so incredibly high, Eleanor was able to give birth to ten healthy children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. When even a single pregnancy could very well be a death sentence for a woman, Eleanor not only survived all of her pregnancies, but thrived physically, living to the impressive age of eighty-two and outliving all of two of her ten children. Above all though, Eleanor was, and still is, a shining beacon of hope of all women who wish to be successful above their male counterparts. It would be naïve to think that future powerful women, from Queen Elizabeth I; to Queen Victoria; to Margaret Thatcher, and others, did not look upon the great Eleanor of Aquitaine with the utmost amount of awe and inspiration, referring to her as a prime example that a woman could wield just as much influence, or more, than any man.
Alison Weir, Eleanor of Aquitaine