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

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

Jennifer Conerly - December 28, 2017

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.

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