Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Medieval Queens in the Family Tree - Eleanor of Aquitaine

 Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204)

Eleanor of Aquitaine was initially the wife of Louis VII of France. She later married King Henry II of England.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was probably born around 1122 - no definite information has been found. Her father was William X, Duke of Aquitaine, the area south of Normandy and the largest province in France. Her mother was Aénor de Châtellerault.

Eleanor's mother and brother died in 1130. Her father ensured that she had the best possible education including  learning arithmetic, the constellations, and history as well as domestic skills such as household management plus embroidery, needlepoint, sewing, spinning, and weaving.  Eleanor also developed skills in conversation, dancing, games such as backgammon, checkers, and chess, playing the harp, singing and literature. Eleanor was also taught to read and speak Latin and was taught the skills of riding, hawking, and hunting. Not surprisingly, Eleanor was said to be extroverted, lively, intelligent, and strong-willed.

When Eleanor's father died in April 1137, Eleanor became Duchess of Aquitaine. Louis VI became her guardian and three months later married the the young girl to his son. This meant that Aquitaine came under control of the French King. Later that year the French king died and his son became King Louis VII while Eleanor became Queen of France. Eleanor and Louis VII had two daughters during their marriage.


The Crusades were a series of wars between Christians and Muslims to gain control of religious sites considered important to both groups. Between the years 1096 and 1291 there were eight crusade expeditions. European leaders often felt it was their duty to become involved in a crusade.

On Christmas Day 1145, Louis VII announced his intention to go on a crusade to the Middle East. Eleanor of Aquitaine announced that she would go too with soldiers under her command from the duchy of Aquitaine. They left in June 1147. Louis VII proved to be an ineffectual military leader with little discipline over his troops. Eleanor and Louis spent three weeks in Constantinople where Eleanor was compared with a mythical Queen of the Amazons. As a military exercise the French involvement in the Second Crusade was not particularly successful. The French army was divided and although they reached the outskirts of Jerusalem and then went on to Damascus, little was to be achieved. The French army was disheartened and Louis returned to Jerusalem and back to France via Rome.

While on crusade, Eleanor observed and learned about maritime conventions that later became admiralty law. She introduced these conventions on islands in Aquitaine and later in England when she became Queen of that country.

Anulment of the marriage

Before they left for the Crusade the relationship between Eleanor and Louis was fractured and the relationship worsened in the years they were absent from France. On the return journey they travelled in different ships which became separated during a storm and it was several months before they met again.

Back in France in 1152 Louis agreed that the marriage should be annulled as he needed a male heir and he and Eleanor had only produced two daughters. On 21 March 1152 four bishops met and agreed to anul the marriage as it was decided that Louis and Eleanor should not have married as they were distant cousins with a common ancestor in Robert II of France. King Louis kept custody of his daughters while Eleanor was once again sole ruler of Aquitaine. Eleanor had been Queen of France for 15 years. She was now probably 30 years old.

Marriage to Henry II

On 18 May 1852 Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry, the son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou. Henry was eleven years younger than his wife. It was definitely a marriage of convenience as Eleanor needed a husband and Henry needed a wife to produce male heirs. Those arranging the marriage ignored the fact that Eleanor and Henry also shared common ancestors.

Eleanor and Henry had eight children - William, Henry, Matilda, Richard, Geoffrey, Leonora, Joan and John.   Henry also had other children outside the marriage.

On 25 October 1854 Henry was crowned Henry II of England. Eleanor was crowned Queen of England on 19 December 1154.

Henry hoped to take over Aquitaine but the nobles there supported only his wife as ruler of the duchy. Meanwhile the relationship between Henry and his wife deteriorated and in 1167 Eleanor decided to return to Aquitaine via Argentan in Normandy. Henry escorted her for part of the journey so did not appear to be worried about her departure. Eleanor remained in Poitiers, Aquitaine, from 1168 to 1173. While in Poitiers Eleanor is said to have refined the behaviour of palace life with the introduction of troubadors, chivalry and courtly love.

Between 1173 and 1174 Henry and Eleanor's son, Henry, staged a revolt against his father and Richard and Geofrey, two of his younger brothers who had been living with their mother, were encouraged to join him. Eleanor did not discourage her sons in this venture and probably asisted them.

Around April 1174, Eleanor was arrested by Henry's soldiers and taken to her husband who was at Rouen. On 8 July they left France on a ship to England where Eleanor was imprisoned in various castles throughout the country for the next 16 years. She was allowed out for special occasions such as Christmas.

In 1183 King Henry's son, Henry, led a revolt against his father in Normanby but was unsuccessful. In June 1183 the young Henry caught dysentry. Before he died he begged his father to release his mother from imprisonment. After the death of the prince there was a dispute about Normandy which King Henry decided belonged to his wife. Eleanor was allowed supervised release to spend time in Normandy.

After returning to England in ealry 1184 Eleanor often accompanied her husband when he travelled around England and sometimes assisted him with government business. However she remained closely supervised making it clear to her that she was not free.

After the death of Henry II

Then on 6 July 1189 Henry II died. Eleanor's son Richard became King Richard I. Richard ordered that his mother should be released from imprisonment and Eleanor initially ruled England in the name of her son. On 13 August 1189 Richard I left France to visit England. 

Richard I was absent from England between 1190 and 1194, with the Third Crusade followed by two years as a prisoner until a huge ransom could be paid to Henry VI, Emperor of Germany. The money for the release of King Richard was raised from English funds.

During King Richard's absence, a Council of Regency with a Chief Justciar ruled England though Eleanor worked behind the scenes to raise the ranson money. She still exercised much influence over the affairs of England. She also wrote numerous letters to the Pope about Richard's imprisonment. King Richard returned to France where he died on 6 April 1199.

When her yougest son, John, became King of England, Eleanor remained in the background of royal politics including travelling to France to select from family members a future wife for the son of Philip II of France. This proved to be a dangerous journey for Eleanor who faced ambush  and spent a short time in captivity until a ransom was paid.  In 1201 Eleanor supported King John when war broke out between England and the French.

Eleanor returned to Fontevraud to join the abbey as a nun. She died at Fontevraud Abbey 1 April 1204 and was buried in the abbey next to her husband (King Henry II) and her son (KIng Richard I). Eleanor was probably 82 when she died.

Tomb effigies of Eleanor and Henry II at Fontevraud Abbey
  Tomb effigies of Eleanor and Henry II at Fontevraud Abbey

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