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Eleanor of Aquitaine

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Biography: Eleanor Of Aquitaine (1122-1204) was a major figure in the middle ages and a prominent figure in women's history. Born the Duchess of Aquitaine, she would eventually become Queen of England.

The eldest daughter of the William, Duke of Aquitaine, she was married to Louis VII, King of France. During the Second Crusade, her relationship with her husband soured, and in 1152, they officially divorced. Shortly afterward, she married Henry of Anjou, who in two years would become King Of England. The royal couple had 8 children, five sons and three daughters. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine remained heavily involved in the ruling of King Henry II's vast empire in France and England.

In 1173, Henry's sons started a revolt against their father with Eleanor siding with her sons. Henry stifled the revolt and, as punishment for her involvement, confined her. Henry II died in 1189, and Richard II, the Lionhearted, became king.

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Another of her sons, John, rose against Richard along with the King of France. Eleanor supported Richard. Later, when her grandson tried to claim the throne, she supported John. She died in 1204 at the age of 82.

* * *

Information in this article includes biographical information, facts, her accomplishments, and her relationships with King Louis VII and King Henry II.

* * *

Endowed with intelligence, creative energy and a remarkably long life, Eleanor of Aquitaine played a major role in the 12th century, an impressive achievement given that medieval women were considered nothing more than chattel. Assets of brains and enterprise served her well in the chaos of the time — unrelenting hostilities between Plantagenets and Capets, crusades and struggle between church and state. They equipped her to advance civility in a ruthless era by promoting the songs of troubadours and the ideals of courtly love. Even in a century of imposing personalities — the likes of Thomas Becket, Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abélard — Eleanor took center stage.

As the queen consort of King Louis VII of France and of King Henry II of England, and as the mother of King Richard I and King John, she held the spotlight, wielding power over the most important men of her time. She was the daughter and heir of the imperious William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers, who possessed the largest domains in northwest Europe, indeed larger than those held by the king of France. When her father died in 1137, she came into her inheritance and, complying with the dictates of a territorial agreement, at age 15 married the heir to the French throne. Barely a month after the wedding, King Louis VI died, thrusting Eleanor's 16-year-old groom to the throne of France.

Eleanor found court life as queen of France stultifying. Her timid, sweet-tempered and devout husband exasperated her. Formed during her childhood at the court in Poitiers where she was rarely disciplined and always admired, her strong ego impelled Eleanor to create a lofty royal vision for herself, one that did not encompass the subordinate role as queen of France.

After a decade of marriage she was as beautiful and capricious as ever, but even more headstrong and domineering toward Louis. From 1147 to 1149 she accompanied him on the Second Crusade. According to Simon Schama in A History of Britain, while Louis took the cross to atone for his sins, 'Eleanor went with him in a magnificent rather than penitential style,' adding, 'Dismayed to discover that crusading was an arduous, pious business, she quickly developed an unhealthily warm relationship with her uncle, the slightly impious Raymond of Poitiers.' Raymond, apparently ensconced at Antioch for the duration of the crusade, aroused Louis' jealousy, which caused an estrangement between Eleanor and Louis.

Though at one time Louis had adored his wife, after 15 years of marriage he was willing to let her go for the sake of the Capetian royal line. She had not borne him a son and heir, only two daughters. Eleanor, on cue, illuminated her predicament, explaining that her husband's infrequent visits to her bed accounted for the fruitlessness of their union. In the end, the marriage was annulled on the convenient grounds of consanguinity: Eleanor and Louis were too closely related for the church to tolerate.

Following the dissolution of her marriage, Eleanor regained possession of Aquitaine and Poitou. This wealth combined with her loveliness attracted suitors well before the annulment was final, one of whom was Henry of Anjou (a domain bordering Poitou), soon to be known as Plantagenet. Most historians agree that Eleanor and Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry's father, were sexually intimate before she met Henry. Schama notes, 'It was rumored that Geoffrey of Anjou had personally verified Eleanor's appetite for passion before recommending her to his son.' Be this as it may, 30-year-old Eleanor and 18-year-old Henry felt passionately attracted to one another. Henry's unsurpassed physical courage and keen political acumen resonated with Eleanor's ambition for power.

Schama writes, 'Barely eight weeks after Eleanor's divorce in May 1152, Henry stood at the altar beside this considerably older woman whom all contemporary accounts describe as a dark-eyed beauty, disconcertingly articulate, strong-minded and even jocular and not at all the modestly veiled damsel in the tower.' For her part, Eleanor was willing to look beyond her groom's stocky frame, barrel chest and boyish freckles to his arrogant self-confidence and royal objectives. Though they may have had little in common because of the age difference, the pair shared similar backgrounds. 'Their native worlds,' writes Schama, 'were not all that far apart…knights astride brightly caparisoned chargers thudding into each other in the lists or obliging their overlords by burning down the opposition's manors.'

Two years after the wedding, Henry became King Henry II of England, and Eleanor his queen. Stretching from the Pyrenees in the south to the Cheviots in the north, their empire was indeed vast. Their Plantagenet offspring would rule England and parts of the Continent for the next 330 years, an era of insatiable royal ambition, family jealousies and territorial overreach.

During a tempestuous marriage of nearly 40 years, Eleanor and Henry produced seven children who survived to adulthood, four of whom were sons. The oldest surviving son, known as the Young King Henry, died of dysentery at age 28 while leading troops in rebellion against his father. Another disloyal son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, died a mysterious death in Paris, also at age 28. Eleanor's favorite son, Richard the Lionheart, and Henry's favorite, John Lackland, would both in turn inherit the crown of England. Throughout her childbearing years, Eleanor participated in the administration of the realm, particularly in the management of her own domains, Aquitaine and Poitou.

Accounts of Eleanor's activities at court in Poitiers reveal a softer side to this aggressive woman. Captivated by the romantic legend of King Arthur and stories of the knights of his Round Table, she filled the court with troubadours whose performances evoked King Arthur's world — a milieu of chivalry and courtly love. The precepts of chivalry held that women were to be silent, passive goddesses to be approached with reverence. Perhaps the troubadours' tales appealed to Eleanor because of their contrast to her callous life of action.

Chivalry notwithstanding, circumstances anchored her in reality. Time after time her adult sons' intermittent revolts against her husband lured her attention away from cultural pursuits. When her sons staged a rebellion in 1173 Eleanor gave them support in the form of troops and money. Indeed, some historians believe that Eleanor initiated the plot. She and Henry had long been estranged, the 12-year age difference proving an obstacle in the marriage. Eleanor resented Henry's infidelities, particularly his blatant association with the fair Rosamund (a beauty much lauded by English poets). Yet more important than Eleanor's resentment was her consummate ambition for personal power. She believed that with one of her sons on the throne, she herself would rule England.

The rebellion failed and King Henry II held the throne intact, and for her role in the drama Eleanor was confined under guard at various castles throughout Henry's kingdom. When her imprisonment ended with her husband's death in 1189, Eleanor, undaunted at age 67, returned with a vengeance to public life. Schama points out that she greeted the death of Henry with dry eyes, and continues, 'With Richard — a character formed by her own educated passions — finally seated on the throne, she could assert herself again in the business of state.'

Her opportunity came on the heels of King Richard's coronation, an event she stage-crafted with the fullest measure of pageantry. The Third Crusade was underway and crusading fervor had enveloped England. Yet Eleanor viewed the rescue of the Holy Land from the Turks as a distraction from the business at hand; the real concern, she believed, was not Saladin but the preservation of the House of Plantagenet, particularly in England. Against his mother's advice, King Richard was determined to join the crusade, a decision undoubtedly fueled by childhood exposure in Poitiers to his mother's world of chivalric idylls. Like an Arthurian knight, he would travel with courage and honor to rescue the besieged city of Jerusalem.

King Richard was away for five years, during which time his mother ruled England as administrator of the realm, simultaneously thwarting the intrigues of his brother John Lackland in his attempts to seize the throne. Participation in the crusade did not account for Richard's entire absence. While returning from the Holy Land he was captured and taken prisoner by the Duke of Austria. Characteristically competent and resourceful, Eleanor not only collected her son's considerable ransom but also made the formidable journey to Austria to escort him back to England. King Richard the Lionheart died in 1199 near Aquitaine, besieging a castle belonging to a rebellious vassal.

Because he died without an heir, Richard's younger brother, and least capable of Henry and Eleanor's brood, John was crowned king. From the outset of his reign, territorial wars against the Capetian rulers of France occupied King John. With typical political savvy Eleanor resolved that her granddaughter Blanche should marry the son of the French king, thus initiating peace between the Plantagenets and Capets. Amazingly, in 1200 when she was nearly 80 years old she crossed the Pyrenees on horseback to fetch Blanche from the Court of Castile.

Still her work was not completed. That same year, in order to secure King John's continental possessions, Eleanor helped him to defend Anjou and Aquitaine against her grandson Arthur of Brittany (son of Geoffrey). Records show that in 1202 King John was again in his mother's debt for holding Poitou against Arthur. But that apparently was her final curtain call. Following the battle she retired to the monastery at Fontevrault in Anjou, where she died in 1204.

In the years immediately following her death, historians judged Eleanor harshly, spotlighting only her youthful indiscretions and ignoring the political wisdom and tenacity that marked the years of her maturity. The nuns of Fontevrault, however, wrote in their necrology, 'She was beautiful and just, imposing and modest, humble and elegant.'


This article was written by Katherine Bailey and originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of British Heritage. For more great articles, subscribe to British Heritage magazine today!


57 Responses to “Eleanor of Aquitaine”


  1. 1
    Random School Girl says:

    You should include a bibliography to say where you got this information from, because (1): Your website may not be as trusted and people won't use it unless they know where you got it from, and (2): High schoolers–like me–need to know where you acquired this information (partly so I can use it for a project, and partly because I'm being asked questions about the sources I used, and you're one of them, so that would help me out a lot [and lots of other kids, too, I'm sure]). Thanks!

    • 1.1
      Purple123 says:

      YEAH I FOUND THE AUTHOR AND PAGE NUMBERS TO THE ARTICLE!!! The Author is Bailey, Katherine (Katherine Bailey) pgs 28-34

      • 1.1.1
        ashela says:

        nope!

      • 1.1.2
        Ahmad says:

        An ISBN # would be fantastic! Thank u

      • 1.1.3
        Ahmad says:

        And btw, I attend the University of Michigan. I like your reply. Solid argument high schooler… keep it up Genius'!

      • 1.1.4
        Michelle says:

        The author IS Katherine Bailey for the record and if the editors of this website would give more background information on the original source (like where Katherine got her information) that would be fantastic. I'm also using this website as a source for my project and it is something that would greatly help me.

  2. 2
    kenziee says:

    i agree with Random School Girl. i found this website very helpful but i also need a bibliography so i know where the information came from because it is one of the requirements. [for the futur do you mind puttingg a bibliography?] THANKS HEAPS. :)

  3. 3
    lilprincess says:

    You should write about her life outside of royalty, like her children what ports she played and what she loved and her personal belongings, these are the juicy little things every project needs to get an 100% or an A or whatever your school does, Im only a middle-schooler and on my project I have to write the most irrelevent things about this quenn but I can't find ant website to give me this information, please consider this!! {{{{{{{{{desperate school girl]]]]]]]]]]]]]

    • 3.1
      Jackie says:

      department.kings.edu/womens_history/eleanor.html

    • 3.2
      kittycat says:

      i agree with lilprincess. i'm also in middle school and i have to write about her children and things outside of royalty. please write things outside of royalty!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. 4
    no-name says:

    Um…well I agree with the top three people. I am home schooled, even so though I Would definately like you to say how/where you got the information because otherwise it is not exactlywhat you can call reliable. Plus if I am going to do a biography on Eleanor I have to be 100% sure that this is a reliable source w/reliable info.

  5. 5
    school girl doin work on your siteee says:

    i am using eleanor as my HPY thing and u need to put a bibliography. psh yeah u do cuz i cant find who wrote dis article so put a bibliography!

  6. 6
    Asia says:

    I love history. And reading aboout Eleanor of Aquitaine, is very interesting!!!!!!!!! whoaoooooooo!!!!!!!!

    • 6.1
      G.T School Gurl says:

      I am in GT(gifted and talented), and this website really helped me. Thanks!
      ~G.T School Gurl~

  7. 7
    6' 2" girl finishing late night school hw says:

    I really do love this site. because it so fun.!!!!!

  8. 8
    steffaniek.xo says:

    please please please publish a bibliography!!! :)) im doing a mega assignment on eleanor of aquitaine and i really need the reference points…thank you

  9. 9
    Amanda says:

    Im conducting research on a book called The Book Of ELEANOR ~ A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine~.
    Also on the book called The Queen of the South.
    I cant remember which of the two books it was but I happend to run accross my family name. Can you tell me at all if there was Bowden's in the 12th Century?

  10. 10
    Ana says:

    … <>

    This is a reprinting of a magazine article… as a history major and a college student I've noticed that not everyone puts a bibliography on their websites but it's probably in their magazine… might want to source it as a web page if you're using it for school work… and not copy and paste it as your own.

  11. 11

    [...] one of the greatest women who ever lived: Eleanor of Aquitaine, the female personality who transformed the face of Love. Believe it or not, Romantic love is [...]

  12. 12
    Horseluvr says:

    who was this article written by??? I need to this information, but it does not say. please help ASAP!!! thanksss?

  13. 13
    Awesome Crazy Procrastinator says:

    i agree. i hve a HUGMONGO skool project and i really need a bibliograpy! this is good stuff but help!!! :) thx

    • 13.1
      Purple123 says:

      tell me about! I have a rough draft of a reseacrch paper that is due tomorrow!!! And I had 3 weeks to do this project!!!!

  14. 14
    Awesome Crazy Procrastinator says:

    When did you write this? i need more information on eleanor's childhood,

  15. 15
    school girl says:

    Bibliography please! thanks!!!

  16. 16
    procrastinating school girl says:

    great! Very helpful, thanks! You'll be in my citations for my research paper!

  17. 17
    dillvall says:

    i enjoy hearing about her she waa a very special person

  18. 18
    Dillon valley says:

    i cant find any good info on this person asking for more info please

  19. 19
    phoebe says:

    i found this article long and somewhat biased towards the men in eleanors life. it seems that whoever wrote this resents her strength and intelligence that allowed her to prevail through all the turmoil of her long life. this is a woman who still has the power to command respect, very impressive for a female living in medieval times.

  20. 20
  21. 21
    jade says:

    hey i thought it was somewhat useful but i want more info on what she did more.

  22. 22
    jade says:

    all the peeps who need a biography ,just put www,historynet.com .well thats what i would do if i had a project aculy im doing a talk about her ,i hate oral talks and i have to do one on tuesday :(

  23. 23
    deborah symonds says:

    For all of you students out there googling your projects for school — material on the web is usually out of date, unsubstantiated, and rather poor. This article is generally accurate, much of it coming from the historian Simon Schama, apparently. But it has not been written by anyone familiar with women's history, and is inaccurate about women in this period, but it is colorful and easy to read. Real research is done with books — then you know who said it! You can probably trace this material across the web by pasting a ten word string into any search engine. Good luck with finding anything accurate online.

  24. 24
    sooz says:

    This is a dreadful, inaccurate article that makes biased assumptions based on pure hearsay and has not been sufficiently researched. Simon Schama is not a historian specialising in the Middle Ages and quite frankly does not have a clue. The evidence for Eleanor's liaisons comes from gossip of the time, written long after the events and by monks with axes to grind against her and who were known to have been untruthful elsewhere. Gerald of Wales and Walter Map are not to be taken as serious sources. There is NOT ONE SINGLE contemporary description of Eleanor of Aquitaine anywhere so how on earth Schama can say "all contemporary accounts describe as a dark-eyed beauty" is beyond belief. Utter, utter rot. I suggest Eleanor of Aquitaine, Lord and Lady by Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons for further reading. Some of the other biographies, notably Alison Weir's, are sadly lacking in the accuracy department too.

  25. 25
    Ellie says:

    I'm doing a project on her and like I barely understand a word. I'm confused. If you know anything please tell me!!! Oh and do it in words I can understand!!!!

  26. 26
    Ms. Love in Oregon says:

    These school kids are trying to do too much through the web and not enough actual reading on their own

    I suggest one of several authors who writes prolifically about this type of history with tons of (imagined) fictional history details, and under many pseudonyms so plenty to read:

    Look up Jean Plaidy and you can get tons of reading material. And in every one of her books she cites the books she read as a bibliography so you have about twenty per book, i.e. per historical figure, to read more about your assigned historical person and it is fun fun reading

  27. 27
    WARRIORCATX3 says:

    Yaaaayyyy this helps my school work!! 8DDD

  28. 28
    chick says:

    ashum

  29. 29
    home schooler says:

    It would be realy helpfull if you had foot notes and a bibliography. I would realy like to use this site becuase alot of the stuff in here I've heard a little about so it looks like it's a trustworthy acount of her life, but I need to realy know before I use it. Other than that I liked it. :)

  30. 30
    Purple123 says:

    I have already put this info in a research paper! I need a bibliography!!! This was very helpful, but now I can't use any of the info!

  31. 31
    MEGAASSIGNMENT233 says:

    THis is great massive assignment checkpoint due tommorow and havent done any (scared) this has better info than wikipedia great thnxxxx heeeeeepssssxx

  32. 32
    Manny says:

    So eleanor's power was equal to a king or not

  33. 33
    jamine says:

    thanksssssssss it helps me with my ss classes but try to find the day she was born and when she died

  34. 34
    ali says:

    what historical even made elanor of aquitaine famous

  35. 35
    amazed and ... says:

    wow, have you people not heard of actual books, hard copied pages that come with references and the name of authors. Yes this page of Eleanor of Aquitaine is interesting but you should have been taught that if a web site can not cite it's references or includes an author etc DONT USE IT

  36. 36
    Ice says:

    great thank you!!! My history has defo inproved!!!

  37. 37

    [...] Weider History Network “Biography: Eleanor of Aquitaine.”HistoryNet. 9 April 2012. Web. http://www.historynet.com/eleanor-of-aquitaine.htm [...]

  38. 38
    Holly says:

    She had eight children with henry, five of them male. It says so on almost every other website and in my textbook.

  39. 39

    [...] is another excellent website that has a chronological ordering of her life, acting somewhat as a timeline with great [...]

  40. 40
    WHAT UP says:

    WHAT A AMAZING PIECE OF WRITING ELEANOR OF AQUAITAINE IS ONE OF THE MOST GREAT PEOPLE THAT EVER LIVED I WANT TO READ ABOUT HER LIFE AGAIN.

  41. 41
    Daniellalovesu!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! says:

    i think this link doesnt have enough info

  42. 42
    hello says:

    hello

  43. 43
    allison says:

    good i think though i am under 10 i agree with 41 make it longer you should make th biography much longer i know you want to save the good stuff for the real thing but make it longer

  44. 44
    RANDOM STUDENT says:

    Please use a bibliography i need to know where you got this info from as i am using it in a project for school and this website is important for my project please put a BIBLIOGRAPHY in!!!!!!!!!

  45. 45
    spiderman says:

    this is some good stuff

  46. 46
    Amanda says:

    U ARE SO WRONG



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