Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the church of Fontevraud Abbey. Photo by Adam Bishop.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (c.1122-1204) is considered one of the most powerful women in Medieval Europe, and became Duchess of Aquitaine at age 15. Due to her vast inheritance she was 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. During that time Eleanor joined him on the second crusade, which included travel to Constantinople and Antioch. Their union 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, so Louis annulled his marriage to Eleanor in the hopes of remarrying and producing sons for the throne of France. Ironically Eleanor’s 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. Eleanor and Henry’s marriage created an empire which stretched from the border with Scotland to the Pyrenees.

Henry II was a strong ruler who did not appreciate an equally strong wife with 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 that happening again. However, Henry gave his son the title with none of the responsibility, and this is where 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, but actively supported them. However her gamble didn’t pay off, and Henry caught 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 crusade, he left Eleanor as regent. She was responsible for organising his marriage to Berengaria of Navarre, and for raising money and paying his ransom when he was captured in Germany on the way back from crusade. Her support for John against his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, certainly helped John become king after Richard’s 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 did not.

For a fictional view of Eleanor and Henry’s scheming, watch Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor in The Lion in Winter.

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