Eleanor of Aquitaine is considered one of the most powerful women in Medieval Europe,¬†becoming the Duchess of Aquitaine aged 15. Due to her vast inheritance she was¬†considered one of the most desirable women of her time, and the same year she inherited¬†Aquitaine, she married the heir to the King of France, the future Louis VII. Eleanor was¬†married to Louis for 15 years and during that time Eleanor joined him on the second¬†crusade, which included travel to Constantinople, and Antioch. Their marriage only¬†produced two daughters, and this was certainly a factor in their marriage breaking down.¬†Unlike Aquitaine, France could not be ruled by a woman, and Louis annulled his marriage¬†to Eleanor in the hopes of remarrying and producing sons for the throne of France.¬†Ironically Eleanor‚Äôs next union, to the 19 year old Henry of Anjou (the future Henry II of¬†England), was extremely fruitful and produced 5 sons and 3 daughters. Their marriage¬†created an empire which stretched from the border with Scotland to the Pyrenees.
Henry II was a strong ruler who did not appreciate a strong wife who had an opinion on his¬†decisions, and while their early years were reasonably cohesive, things began to¬†deteriorate between them as their sons grew up and began to fight against the restraints of¬†Henry. Henry II had crowned their eldest son while he was still alive (known as Henry the¬†young king) in the hope that it would provide some stability after he died. This was¬†because when his grandfather (Henry I) died, England was plunged into civil war between¬†his mother Matilda and her cousin Stephen, and he wanted to prevent anything like that¬†happening. However, Henry only allowed his son the title with none of the responsibility¬†and this is where the problems began. Henry the young king resented this, and was soon¬†joined by his younger brothers in openly rebelling against their father. Eleanor not only¬†took her sons’ side in this endeavour but actively supported them. However her gamble¬†didn‚Äôt pay off, and Henry caught her and imprisoned her for 15 years, until his death.
Eleanor was the mother of two kings of England; King Richard I and King John, both of¬†whom trusted her and utilised her experience and advice. When Richard left on the¬†crusade, he left Eleanor as regent and she was responsible for organising his marriage to¬†Berengaria of Navarre and of raising money and paying his ransom when he was captured¬†in Germany on the way back from crusade. While her support for John against his nephew¬†(from an older brother Geoffrey) Arthur of Brittany certainly helped John become King after¬†Richard‚Äôs death.
In a world that was dominated by men, Eleanor proved a formidable, intelligent and¬†capable woman who her sons appreciated, even if her husbands didn‚Äôt.
If you are interesting learning more about Eleanor of Aquitaine I would recommend the¬†following:
Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England,¬†by Alison Weir
BBC Radio 4’s ¬†In Our Time:¬†Eleanor of Aquitaine.¬†
Girl Museum Inc.