10 Things that Prove Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Not to Be Messed With

10 Things that Prove Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Not to Be Messed With

Jennifer Conerly - December 28, 2017

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most captivating figures of the medieval period. In a time when women were meant to be seen and not heard, Eleanor of Aquitaine became one of the most famous – or infamous – women in Europe. What we know about much of Eleanor of Aquitaine has been painted in legend, yet her life was scandalous for a medieval woman. She became a Crusader; she committed treason; she spent sixteen years in prison; she started a rebellion, and she stopped one.

Even though she was a duchess in her own right, her first husband’s advisors and her second husband’s controlling nature limited her power. She struggled against these boundaries to become one of the most influential women of the Middle Ages. Her volatile second marriage to Henry II created the Angevin Empire, which comprised of most of the British Isles and half of modern-day France. Their descendants are some of the most famous Plantagenet kings of the medieval period, such as Richard the Lionheart, King John, and Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots.

10 Things that Prove Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Not to Be Messed With
Depiction of William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, from a 13th century songbook. William was Eleanor of Aquitaine’s grandfather, and he was known as a troubadour, a lyric poet in the Occitan language spoken in southern France in the Middle Ages. His work is the earliest examples of troubadour poetry that still survives today. Wikipedia.

She Was Born Because of a Scandalous Love Affair

Eleanor was raised in the Aquitaine court where courtly love was the norm and men and woman conducted affairs in the open, even her own grandparents. Her grandfather, Duke William IX of Aquitaine was married to Philippa of Toulouse, but he took Dangereuse, the wife of one of his vassals, as his official mistress, and they weren’t shy about their love affair.

Duke William IX shamelessly flaunted his mistress, and he even brought her to live with him in his castle, a move that got him in trouble with the Church. William was excommunicated for his affair, but he cemented it by threatening the lives of the bishops who enforced his excommunication. Dangereuse was William’s mistress for the rest of their lives, but William IX wasn’t known for his fidelity. To keep her position, Dangereuse made sure to tie herself permanently to the royal family: she married her daughter Aenor to William’s son, the future William X of Aquitaine. William and Aenor had three children: a son who died young and two daughters, Petronilla and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

10 Things that Prove Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Not to Be Messed With
Palais de Justice, Poitiers, Poitou-Charentes, France. The Palace of Poitiers was the center of the Aquitaine court from the 10th-12th centuries, and it was where Eleanor was raised and held her own court as Duchess of Aquitaine. Photographed by Christophe Finot, 2007. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APoitiers_-_Palais_de_Justice_2.jpg

People Liked to Try to Kidnap Her

Modern-day France looked much different in the medieval period: it was dominated by other vassal states that owed their allegiance to the French king while ruling themselves. Eleanor’s father William X didn’t have any surviving sons, so the duchy transferred to her when he died. Eleanor’s inheritance, which made up 25% of modern-day France, made her one of the most eligible women in the medieval period.

Wealthy, unmarried heiresses were ripe for kidnapping in the medieval world: a rich man or ruler could kidnap them and force them into marriage, often by raping them, to claim their inheritance. Medieval literature is filled with the “maiden in the tower” stories that resulted in a knight or lord kidnapping the maiden out of captivity and marrying her, romanticizing the kidnapping and rape that actually occurred to wealthy women of the age.

The king of France, Louis VI, wanted an alliance with Aquitaine: it would increase his landholdings and his wealth. Eleanor’s marriage to the future Louis VII would produce heirs to the French throne, and it would provide France with the wealth and power it needed. William X knew the danger his daughter faced without a marriage contract. When they were children, Eleanor and the future Louis VII became engaged. Soon after her father’s death on pilgrimage in 1137, Eleanor and Louis were married, and within a month of their wedding, Louis VI died, making the teenage newlyweds king and queen of France.

After many years of unhappiness and the birth of two daughters, Louis VII and Eleanor annulled their marriage, and her lands of Aquitaine reverted back to her. After her annulment, on her way home to Poiters, the seat of power of Aquitaine, she managed to escape not one, but TWO captors: Theobald, Count of Blois and Geoffrey Plantagenet, anxious to obtain her wealth and lands. To protect herself from future kidnapping, and to increase her own power, she chose to marry Henry Plantagenet, duke of Normandy and Anjou and the heir to the English throne, the brother of one of her potential kidnappers.

10 Things that Prove Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Not to Be Messed With
A 14th century illustration that depicts Eleanor’s marriage to Louis VII on the left and Louis VII leaving on Crusade on the right. Les Chroniques de Saint-Denis. Unknown artist. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic-art/182258/109827/Eleanor-of-Aquitaine-marrying-Louis-VII-in-1137-and-Louis. Wikimedia Commons.

The French Hated Her As Their Queen

Louis VII was happy with his new wife, but he was the only one. The marriage was doomed from the start: the French court was calm and reserved, while the court of Aquitaine was more open, free, and liberating. She was too outspoken and opinionated for a queen of France, incurring the wrath of both the pope and Louis’ advisors. The king’s advisors hated the influence that Eleanor had over her husband, and they took every opportunity to remind her that she was an outsider. They blamed her for everything, whether it was her fault or not.

The French court resisted her attempts to import Aquitaine customs and refinements, and Louis’ advisors attacked Eleanor and her ladies for wearing luxurious clothes and jewelry. In 1141, Louis VII came into open conflict with Pope Innocent II when they disagreed on who should occupy a vacant religious post. The furious Pope blamed Eleanor for Louis’ behavior and of being an undue influence on him.

The king’s advisors resented Eleanor’s influence again in the scandal involving her sister Petronilla and Louis’ cousin Raoul, the Count of Vermandois. Raoul and Petronilla had fallen in love and wanted to get married. There was only one problem: Raoul was already married to the sister of one of Louis’ vassals, Theobald, the Count of Champagne. Raoul divorced his wife and married Petronilla, and Eleanor pressured Louis to publicly approve the marriage.

A furious Theobald wrote to the Pope and got the newlyweds excommunicated, and the tensions between France and Champagne led to war, resulting in the deadly massacre at Vitry-le-François where 1,000 people burned to death taking shelter in a church that caught on fire. Eleanor tried to intervene, urging Bernard of Clairvaux, a high-ranking religious official, to convince the Pope to drop the excommunication order against Petronilla and Raoul, but Clairvaux demeaned her for interfering in state matters. She backed off, but this wouldn’t be the first or last time that Eleanor would engage in behavior that was not deemed proper for a medieval woman.

10 Things that Prove Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Not to Be Messed With
A 13th century artistic representation of the Siege of Damascus. The failure to take Damascus was the end of the Second Crusade, and was a monumental failure for the French. Unknown artist, 13th century. Wikimedia Commons.

She Was a Crusader

Eleanor was a well-traveled woman, and she even went on a crusade in a time when most women were confined to the home. Edessa, one of the first Christian states founded in the Holy Land after the First Crusade, fell to Turkish Zengi forces in December 1144, beginning the push for another crusade. The Second Crusade was the first one in which European monarchs actively participated, both Louis VII and Conrad III of Germany both led forces to the Holy Land.

Louis’ involvement in the Crusade was a deeply personal one. His elder brother, Philip, the one who was meant to be king, expressed a desire to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. After Philip’s death, the deeply religious Louis promised to go to the Holy Land in his brother’s place. The French king also wanted to make amends and seek God’s forgiveness for the massacre at Vitry, and when Edessa fell, it gave Louis more of a reason to go on crusade. In a public ceremony, Louis vowed to go on crusade and Eleanor swore to contribute her own knights.

Going on crusade was rare for a woman, much less a queen. Other aristocratic women joined their husbands to the Holy Land, following Eleanor’s example. Eleanor’s enemies blamed her for the failure of the Second Crusade by inciting more women to go on crusade, supposedly distracting from the holy cause. Still, she wasn’t pleased that the French were involved, despite her husband’s religious fervor.

Eleanor believed the crusade would be a strain of money and resources the country didn’t need. She proved to be right: it was a resounding failure, and it bled the French treasury dry. By the end of the Crusade, Eleanor’s relationship with Louis had completely broken down, to the point where they weren’t even speaking. They took separate ships home, first stopping to see the pope to attempt to get their marriage annulled.

10 Things that Prove Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Not to Be Messed With
A 15th century image of Raymond of Poitiers Welcoming Louis VII to Antioch. By Jean Colombe and Sebastien Marmerot, in the Passages d’Outremer. Wikimedia Commons.

She May Have Cheated on Her First Husband…with Her Uncle

Eleanor wasn’t well-liked when she was the queen of France, and the rumor mill attacked her in full force. As queen, who was responsible for the legitimacy of the succession, contemporary writers and commentators regularly called her fidelity into question. Most of the rumors, like that she was the mistress of the twelfth-century Muslim Crusader Saladin, were laughable. However, it was her rumored affair with her uncle, Raymond of Antioch, that ruined her reputation and possibly her marriage.

When Louis and Eleanor arrived in Antioch on the Second Crusade, Raymond welcomed them into the city. Raymond had been raised in the same court as she had, so Eleanor may have found Raymond’s company refreshing, compared to her ascetic husband. There have been many suggestions and explanations over the centuries to explain the relationship between Eleanor and Raymond that range from a full-blown affair to a cultural difference between the reserved French and the more open and loving Aquitaine.

As the rumors about the inappropriate relationship between Eleanor and Raymond, she found herself in the middle of a disagreement between Louis and Raymond on military matters. Raymond wanted to use Louis’ forces to launch a joint attack on Aleppo, with the goal of retaking Edessa. Eleanor agreed with her uncle and tried to convince her husband that it was a good idea. Louis refused; he had come to the Holy Land to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which is where he was going.

Eleanor requested to stay with her uncle in Antioch; in a sense, she was choosing her uncle over her husband. There was no way Louis was going to let that happen: he had already heard of the rumors of Eleanor’s relationship with her uncle. The French king refused to let his wife stay in Antioch and forced her to come with him to Jerusalem. Along the way, Louis and Conrad III’s forces attacked Damascus, which was a huge disaster, ending the Second Crusade.

The relationship between Eleanor and Louis had deteriorated to the point that Louis finally agreed to an annulment, but this may have been a way for Louis to get out of his marriage to a woman who had only given him two daughters in fifteen years. Interestingly enough, at the papal court that decided on the validity of Eleanor’s marriage to Louis, the rumors of her incestuous behavior with her uncle were not mentioned at all.

10 Things that Prove Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Not to Be Messed With
The Duchy of Aquitaine. When Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, the Duke of Normandy, she brought with her the rich, fertile duchy of Aquitaine, making up most of the south of what would become France. When Henry inherited the throne of England from his mother’s cousin, King Stephen of England (also known as Stephen of Blois), the new Angevin Empire consisted of England (including part of Ireland and Wales) and half of France. Wikimedia Commons.

Her Second Marriage Created a Scandal…and an Empire

The pope agreed to annul Eleanor and Louis’ marriage in March 1152 because they were third cousins, too closely related for the Church to be comfortable with it. Eleanor got Aquitaine back, and she was a wealthy heiress again. Knowing she needed protection, she quickly contacted Henry, the duke of Normandy and Anjou, and asked him to marry her. Henry may have been considering this move himself, and he jumped at the chance to marry one of the most eligible women in the kingdom.

Eleanor’s choice for her second husband was a problem: as the rulers of French vassal states, Henry and Eleanor needed permission to marry from the king of France, and there was little chance that Louis was going to approve the marriage. Henry and Eleanor married quickly, less than two months after her annulment, in a clandestine marriage that was hastily done and nowhere near the ceremony that was considered proper for two people of their stations.

Considering the speed by which she married Henry, it indicates that, when she met Henry when he visited the French court in 1151, Eleanor and Henry came to an understanding during his visit that if her annulment came through, they could marry: the medieval version of “I’ll call you.” The speed of Eleanor’s second marriage implies that she knew he needed a wife, she needed protection, and the combination of their lands was a lucrative power play.

Becoming even more powerful when he became king of England in 1154, Henry’s marriage to Eleanor created the Angevin Empire, which included Henry’s lands in England, Normandy, and Anjou, as well as Eleanor’s lands in Aquitaine. The newlyweds now had more lands than the king of France, and their descendants would rule England for the next three hundred years.

Louis was furious over the marriage. His marriage to Eleanor had been annulled on grounds of consanguinity, but Henry and Eleanor were even more closely related: they were second cousins. Joined by other French vassals who were just as threatened by Henry’s increased wealth and lands, Louis VII declared war on both Henry and Eleanor for marrying without his permission; much like the Second Crusade, it ended in a humiliating defeat for the French king.

10 Things that Prove Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Not to Be Messed With
Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart) at his coronation. Unknown artist, 13th century. Wikimedia Commons.

She Survived Childbirth Ten Times, a Major Victory in the Medieval World

Eleanor’s contributions of wealth and prestige should have made her an equal partner in her marriage to Henry, but she was still his wife, and she needed to produce heirs. After a disappointing turn as the queen of France who didn’t produce any legitimate male heirs, Eleanor had eight children with Henry; five of them were sons, which must have been a thorn in Louis’ side.

The medieval age wasn’t a good time to live in: the life expectancy was low, and the child mortality rate was high. Eleanor of Aquitaine seems to be the exception: she lived into her 80s, having ten children by both of her husbands, and nine of them lived to be adults.

Much like her experience with her first husband, and despite the potential for great wealth and power that her new marriage had, Eleanor lost her power as soon as she became queen, even over her own lands. Both Louis and Henry fought over the rights to her lands of Aquitaine until 1157. Over the next ten years, Henry acted as duke of Aquitaine without Eleanor’s approval or her contributions.

Henry was power-hungry: her sophistication and reputation as a former queen meant nothing to him. Eleanor ruled by his side, but she made no real decisions. She didn’t get control over Aquitaine back until 1168, after she couldn’t have children anymore, further indicating that her value to him was as a wife and mother to future kings. Her reputation as a powerful ruler that we have of her today didn’t begin until she was in her later years during the reigns of her sons Richard and John.

10 Things that Prove Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Not to Be Messed With
The 12th century wall fresco at the chapel of Sainte-Radegonde. There are many theories of what this fresco depicts, one of them being that it is Eleanor of Aquitaine’s arrest. http://www.eleanorofaquitaine.net/More/Entries/1199/4/1_The_Famous_Sainte-Radegonde_Wall_Painting.html

She Committed Treason

Eleanor’s second marriage had been as unsatisfying as her first; she lost most of her power, and Henry was incapable of fidelity, even making her raise one of his illegitimate sons. Eleanor soon tired of her husband’s philandering and his autocratic rule, so she used the only thing she could against him: their children.

Fed up with playing secondary roles in the areas where they would rule one day, Eleanor’s three oldest sons, Henry, Richard, and Geoffrey, plotted a revolt against their father, with their mother’s support and blessing. A letter from the Archbishop of Rouen shames her for pushing her sons in rebellion against their father, indicating that she was the real power behind it. She united her sons against their father and she used the discontent in the southern Angevin lands by offering her sons as an alternative.

When the uprising against their father failed, Henry II discovered Eleanor’s involvement, so she fled to France, wearing men’s clothes to disguise herself. She was captured in 1173, and she was brought to Henry. He was furious with his wife, but he wasn’t stupid: Henry knew that arresting Eleanor would open him up to attack from Aquitaine and other European powers. He didn’t announce that she had been taken prisoner, and he kept her under house arrest at isolated castles in England for sixteen years. She only had one servant, and a receipt for their clothes and bed linens shows that they had to wear the same clothes and share a bed.

Henry only released Eleanor from prison when he needed her: she was released during holidays, and he used her to settle a land dispute in 1183. Eleanor’s oldest son Henry the Young King married King Philip II of France’s sister, and when the Young King died, Philip pushed Henry II to give his sister her dead husband’s lands in Normandy. Henry II insisted that they belonged to Eleanor since the death of their son, so Henry sent Eleanor to Normandy to rule there in his name.

The next year, in 1184, Henry forced Eleanor to return to England, but he did not reduce her to total isolation again. Henry realized that his hold on power relied on having Eleanor at his side, but she was heavily supervised and could not do anything without permission The queen of the Angevin empire even had a jailer that restricted her movements.

10 Things that Prove Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Not to Be Messed With
The seal of Eleanor of Aquitaine that she used on all official documents. Eleanor was known by many titles in her life, including Eleanor, by the Grace of God, Queen of the English, Duchess of the Normans. Wikimedia Commons.

She Was a Royal Diplomat and de-facto Queen of England

When Henry II died in 1189, Richard the Lionheart became king of England and he released his mother from prison. After sixteen years of confinement, Eleanor was still as vibrant and active as she always had been. She was in her late sixties, and she became the most important woman in the realm by becoming a valued advisor, diplomat, and regent in the reigns of both of her sons who succeeded to the throne, Richard and John.

Richard trusted his mother in many aspects of his government. He was not in England when his father died, passing the crown to him, so Eleanor served as regent until he could get there. She stood in for her son as the important lords and nobles came to pay homage to their new king. Richard sent Eleanor to Navarre to collect his bride Berengaria, showing how highly he valued her.

When Richard left England in the beginning of the 1190s to go on the Third Crusade, he left Eleanor and a regency council in charge of the government. Although she didn’t have an official post, she was one of the most powerful women and influential figures of the realm. Eleanor proved to be a brilliant multitasker: she influenced the regency council, and she managed to stem her son John’s grasp for power in his brother’s absence. When Richard was taken prisoner on his way home from the Crusades, Eleanor raised the ransom money and traveled to Germany herself to negotiate her son’s release. After returning home, she reconciled her sons to each other in May 1194.

By 1199, when she was almost eighty years old, Richard had died and her youngest son John became king of England. The new king signed a peace treaty with King Philip II of France that ended the hostilities between the two countries and arranged a marriage between one of John’s nieces by his sister Eleanor of Castile to Philip’s son Louis. John sent his mother to Castile to choose Louis’ new bride. This diplomatic move turned out well for Eleanor’s granddaughter, Blanca: she became a powerful royal consort to her husband, Louis VIII, and a very influential queen regent to her son, Louis IX.

10 Things that Prove Eleanor of Aquitaine Was Not to Be Messed With
Prince Arthur, duke of Brittany, and his captor, Hugh de Burgh. Painting by William Frederick Yeames, 1882. Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester, UK. Wikimedia Commons.

Her Grandson Tried to Kidnap Her

Many years after Eleanor supported her sons’ rebellion against their father, she helped stop one against her son John. The rival: her grandson! Richard the Lionheart had no children, so his crown should have passed to his younger brother Geoffrey, but he died before Richard did. According to the laws of succession, the throne should have passed to Geoffrey’s young son Arthur. However, in response to the tensions between Richard and his brother John, who tried to take power in Richard’s absence in the Crusades, Richard made John his heir instead as a peace offering. There may also be a more logical explanation in Richard’s choice of successor: Arthur was a young boy, and he was too young to be a king.

In 1201, Arthur was a teenager, but he collected support from the dukes of Maine, Anjou, and Tourraine for his bid for the English throne. Eleanor, sick, tired, and almost eighty years old, took one of Richard’s most loyal lieutenants, Mercadier, and attacked Angers, Anjou, forcing Arthur to flee. Eleanor ordered that her soldiers sack the city and the surrounding areas as a lesson to those who would deny their king. She was staying in Mirebeau Castle in Poiters when Arthur and Hugh de Lusignan attacked it to kidnap her.

When John heard that Arthur had attacked his mother, the boy duke’s own grandmother, the king and his forces moved south, stopped the siege, and took Arthur prisoner. Originally imprisoned in Chateau de Falaise in Normandy, and guarded by a man named Hubert de Burgh, Arthur was soon moved to Rouen Castle. There is no record of Arthur after 1203, so it is presumed that he either died or John had him murdered.

After the excitement of being the center of a rebellion between her son and her grandson, Eleanor’s fast-jetting lifestyle had begun to catch up with her. She retired to live out the rest of her days in seclusion at Fontevraud Abbey, which had deep connections to Henry II’s family. Eleanor died soon afterward, the end of a life truly lived. She was buried next to her husband and her son Richard; in what may or may not have been a final act of defiance, she ordered that her tomb effigy be built a few inches higher than her second husband’s. When she died, only two of her ten children were still alive.