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Eleanor of Aquitaine: a life of love and leadership

The noblewoman led a long, extraordinarily eventful life of achievement, writes Jane Hanks

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122- 1204) lived to be 82 years old, which at that time was remarkable in itself, but what she did with her life was even more remarkable.

A wealthy and powerful women in her own right, she first married King Louis VII of France and had two daughters but eight weeks after she got that marriage annulled, she married another cousin, 11 years her junior, King Henry II of England, with whom she had five sons and three more daughters.

Three of her sons became kings (Henry the Young King, Richard the Lionheart, and King John), and two of her daughters became queens (Queen Eleanor of Castile, and Queen Joan of Sicily); she led countless armies into battle, went on crusades; was a noted patron of the arts; was imprisoned for 16 years for inciting rebellion against her second husband; outlived all her children except John and Eleanor, and finally, in her late 70s, took the veil.

The precise dates are uncertain (but accurate to within one to two years) but the main facts of her life are indisputable. Her true personality is less clear and although it is commonly agreed that she was probably very beautiful, no-one even knows if she was blonde or brunette.

Born into a rich, powerful family, Eleanor became the Duchess of Aquitaine upon the death of her father in 1137, meaning that at the age of 13, she was not only fabulously rich, but was the nominal ruler of a massive part of south-western and central France.

She was in serious danger of being kidnapped and forcibly married for her inheritance. Within weeks, she married the 17 year-old son of her guardian, King Louis VI of France, who died later that same year, leaving the throne to Eleanor’s new husband, who then became King Louis VII. Between them, the two teenagers ruled an area covering most of what is today modern France.

The marriage started off well. Eleanor was lively, beautiful and fun. Perhaps too lively for her era. She accompanied Louis on a long and perilous journey across Europe and the Middle East as part of the Second Crusade 1945-1949). There were battles, kidnap attempts, long journeys on horseback, by foot and boat; they repeatedly escaped death by inches; they were even briefly imprisoned, but by the time their disastrous journey was over the marriage had broken down.

Finally back in France, Eleanor applied to the Pope for an annulment on the grounds that as distant cousins she and Louis were too closely related. She ruled a vast area, she was incredibly wealthy; her husband refused to consider an annulment, and the Pope convinced her to try again. The result was the conception of their second daughter, but after the birth the need for a son overrode her wealth, and in 1152 Louis VII agreed to end the marriage.

Eleanor’s two daughters remained with their father, but Eleanor retained her lands and her fortune, making her yet again extremely vulnerable to being kidnapped and forcibly married. Within two months she had married another cousin, Henry II, Duke of Normandy (and heir to the throne of England). She was 28, at the height of her beauty and physical strength. Two years later, in 1154, Henry II was crowned king of England and once again she was the queen of a mighty realm.

The couple had eight children together over the next 13 years, during which time Henry also fathered several other children with his numerous mistresses. Politically, the times were tumultuous; territory in Europe was still being literally fought over, international allegiances being made and broken, thrones disputed... life itself was uncertain.

By 1166, Eleanor and Henry’s marriage was falling apart. He was flaunting Rosamund Clifford at court, and in 1167 Eleanor packed up her personal possessions and moved back to France. In 1168, in Poitiers, then the capital of Aquitaine, she established her own court, independent of any other authority. She was 44, and finally in charge of her own lands.

In 1173, however, her disgruntled son Henry launched a revolt against his father, and Eleanor encouraged him. Her sons Richard and Geoffrey (who had been living with their mother) joined in and might even have encouraged the lords of the south to join in.

Whatever the precise details, she publicly supported the revolt against her own husband. Reluctantly he arrested her, and in 1174 took her back to England and imprisoned her.

Henry’s mistress Rosamund died in 1176, and some said Eleanor was responsible. In 1183, Eleanor’s son Henry again rebelled against his father, aided and abetted by his brother Geoffrey, but was again vanquished, and a few months later he died of dysentery. Henry II claimed that his inherited lands in Normandy reverted to his mother, but the king of France, who by that time was Philip II (ie the son of Eleanor’s first husband with his third wife) said the lands belonged to young Henry’s widow, who just happened to be his half-sister.

Eleanor was summoned to Normandy to sort it out. It was a slackening of her imprisonment, but not the end of it. A custodian dogged her every footstep. But over the next few years Eleanor travelled with her husband and was associated with his government of the realm.

She was 65 when she was finally freed upon the death of her husband in 1189. Her son, Richard the Lionheart, inherited the throne and for a large part of his reign while he was abroad quelling the French, taking part in the crusades, or being held prisoner for ransom, she unofficially ruled England.

In 1199, when Eleanor was around 76, her son John succeeded his brother to the throne.

She was far from taking a back seat, however. In order to cement a truce between France and England, a marriage was arranged between the heir to the French throne and one of Eleanor’s granddaughters (from her daughter Eleanor who was queen of Castile).

So she set off to Spain to choose a bride for her first husband’s grandson. On the way she was captured and held ransom. She paid her way out, arrived in Spain, selected her granddaughter Blanche as the bride and in 1200 set off to England, travelling by easy stages. It was too much for her, however. She was tired, ill and dispirited.

She never made it back to England. Blanche continued without her and Eleanor stayed in France. The struggle over territory continued. Her grandson Arthur (Geoffrey’s son) was John’s rival for the throne of England and Philip II was John’s confirmed enemy.

In 1201, war broke out between Philip and John, Arthur tried to capture Eleanor and take control of her lands, her son John galloped to her rescue and captured Arthur, who was, after all, her grandson...

Eleanor had spent her life embroiled in politics and power-broking, travelling, ruling over courts, and bearing children. It was enough. Her health was failing and she was tired. She retired to Fontevraud Abbey, where her second husband Henry II of England, and her son Richard the Lionheart, were entombed, and took the veil. She died there in 1204, and was entombed beside them.

Her legacy was immense, says Laurent Védrine, the director of the Musée d’Aquitaine. “She was responsible for a major rapprochement between England, France and Aquitaine. Wine was a major export from Bordeaux to England, which led to all kinds of economic, artistic and cultural exchanges. England also had links with Porto, another wine exporting city, and therefore links were formed between Bordeaux and Porto.” Alabaster was imported from England to Aquitaine, and the museum has a collection of alabaster artefacts dating from the period.  

There is no museum dedicated to Eleanor of Aquitaine, mainly because so little remains in terms of her belongings. There is no jewellery, no clothes or books, no furniture, ornaments of glassware.

There is a vase in the Paris Louvre, which she gave to her first husband as a wedding present. It is made of rock crystal covered with a finely-worked, filigree gold mounting. It is the only existing item which she once owned or touched.

The Abbaye Royale at Fontevraud still contains the intricately carved tombstones of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II of England, and Richard the Lionheart, along with other family members, but the abbey has been through so many changes, including being used as a prison from 1804-1963, that there is no trace of their mortal remains.

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