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Eleanor of Aquitaine

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Eleanor of Aquitaine’s long and colourful life saw her become the holder of large lands in France, then Queen Consort of France, Queen Consort of England, an active participant in rebellion, mother to two English kings, and arguably the most powerful women in twelfth century Europe.

Youth and Queen Consort of France

Eleanor was born c. 1122 to William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers. This made him one of the most powerful men in France, and when William died in 1137 Eleanor inherited this domain. William X might have nominated Eleanor as his heir, but Eleanor was still a woman at risk, and so William had arranged for the King of France to find her a husband. He swiftly concluded a marriage with his son and chief heir, Louis. Within a month this man had become king. Eleanor’s lively court introduced southern culture to northern France, and upset more than one churchman, although she did attend religious debates. Ten years later the couple left for the Second Crusade, where Louis was seeking redemption, and Eleanor was seeking to aid her uncle, who ruled Antioch. Eleanor also organised military support, funds from her realms, and a group of women to risk the adventure with her.

Critics and enemies soon found ways to slander Eleanor’s conduct, blaming her for military defeat, for lascivious conduct, for disobeying her husband and arguing for her knights to fight for a different plan to Louis’. She may even have been arrested at this point to coerce her, and the crusade failed. By 1152 her husband had become an ascetic distant from the more socially active Eleanor – Louis had been raised for a life in the church - and this was coupled with considerations about the lack of a male heir – Eleanor and Louis had produced two surviving daughters – to lead the king to divorce her. Eleanor thus regained full control of Aquitaine, where she had continued to read and seal charters.

Queen Consort of England

About two months after her divorce Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, the Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, and a man with a strong claim on the English throne. By 1154 Henry had indeed become Henry II of England – Eleanor had ruled Aquitaine while he had been securing the throne - and Eleanor was now Queen Consort of her second nation (although still very much in charge of her inheritance). The large estates that Henry had inherited, conquered, and bought into the family via his marriage to Eleanor, which included large tracts of western France, have since been labelled the Angevin Empire. Eleanor might have been spurned by France partly for bearing no male heirs, but she soon gave birth to eight children with Henry II, including William (died aged 3), Henry (died crowned co-King of England), Richard the Lionheart (King of England), Geoffrey (Duke of Britanny) and John (King of England). The daughters were married into Europe’s aristocracy.

Ruler of Aquitaine and Rebellion

Eleanor was an active ruler of Aquitaine, keeping an eye on the government there, and she patronised culture to the extent of turning Poitiers into one of the most important courts of the era for poetry and courtly ideals. However, the idea of Eleanor as exemplar of ‘courtly love’ are overstated, if not mythical. She also acted as regent of England, and ruffled conservative feathers with her court just as she had in France. By the mid-1160s she and Henry had fallen out, and she was back in Aquitaine.

In 1173 Henry II’s sons rebelled against him. Eleanor did the same, organising troops, rejecting her husband, and probably influencing her son’s decisions. Historians aren’t really sure why she followed this route, some claiming she was angered by Henry’s infidelities, other citing the more pragmatic concern that Aquitaine was being subsumed into just an English territory. Whatever the case, Eleanor took up arms and supported her sons. Henry won the war, and a captured Eleanor was imprisoned after rejecting at offer to give up her lands and become an Abbess. She was granted some freedom to help settle a dispute between her sons and husband over Aquitaine, giving her titles to Richard, but he was later ordered to hand the Duchy back to his mother, which he did. However, while Eleanor was now probably freer, she was under close confinement until Henry died.

Mother of the King

With Henry’s death, Eleanor helped her son Richard take the English throne, by securing several treasuries and receiving oaths of loyalty to them both. Richard was desperate to go on crusade, and Eleanor assumed an even larger role in politics and administration as Dowager Queen of England, helping to maintain the integrity of Richard’s lands while he was away in the face of her other son John and the French. Despite Richard’s marriage, which she helped arrange, it was Eleanor who continued as the only real Queen of England. She also helped raise money for Richard’s ransom. However, when Richard returned she settled in an Abbey.

When Richard died in 1199 Eleanor still held Aquitaine, and she negotiated with her son John, the new King of England, to give it to him on the condition he held it from her for as long as she lived. She also negotiated the retention of her rights as Queen of England. Eleanor soon set off to retrieve her granddaughter Blanche from Castile to marry her to a French prince and try to secure peace between the John and the French king. Eleanor feared the latter would seize the Angevin domains, and she was proved right. Equally, Eleanor helped in the defence of these lands against her grandson, Arthur of Brittany. In 1202 she was put under siege by Arthur, but held out until John arrived.

Eleanor now retired full time to a monastery, where she died in 1204.

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