A duchess, Queen of France, Queen of England, and Queen Mother all rolled into one. That’s Eleanor of Aquitaine. And in twelfth century Western Europe, she’s the woman to be.
The name Eleanor of Aquitaine lets us in on a little secrete because it’s more than her name; it’s her title, indicating she owned land. The dates indicate she owned this land until the day she died. Pretty impressive for a woman who was considered property herself. But of course her ability to astound the masses did not stop there. Not only did Eleanor retain ownership of this land until she died, but she kept it from not one but two kings. Total. Boss.
Her first husband, King Louis VII of France, was considered a bit of a fool when it came to Eleanor. He married a woman who gave him two daughters and no sons, allegedly had an affair, and most importantly kept her land when she left him. What a bonehead. How could he possibly be trusted to run an entire country if he couldn’t keep his woman in check? Goodness, how dare Eleanor be such a difficult wife? After all, she had married a very regal and bearded man with the strange obsession of holding a staff in all of his paintings. Of course she would need to refrain from scandals started by other people. And obviously she would need to give Louis a son, which she clearly had total control over. And all this business with keeping her own lands so if something should happen she could still collect money from her tenants and have some power and leverage to make it in the world. Like what’s up with that? Get it together Eleanor.
She (kinda) Fought In The Crusades
So what exactly made Eleanor of Aquitaine such a problem causer at the French court? First, lets discuss her flat-out moxy which led to rumors of that dreaded affair I mentioned earlier. Around 1144, Pope Eugenius called for a Second Crusade. King Louis was all over that shit. What no one expected was that Eleanor was game as well. After Louis took the cross, pledging to take part in the Second Crusade in the name of God, Eleanor took up the cross to do the same thing herself. And then she didn’t even do so as his wife! She pledged her allegiance to the big guy upstairs under her own title, Duchess of Aquitaine. Did you feel that? It was your mind being blown.
Eleanor’s act of badassery inspired other noble women to follow her lead; and now the Second Crusade had a whole ban of women joining the army on horseback, dressed like Amazons (reportedly), ready to tend to the wounded. Oh, plus all their baggage. And all their servants.
Though Eleanor was able to romp around the crusades in all her Amazonian glory, the adventure took a bit of a bad turn for the Catholics. To escape some of the Muslim winning streak, Louis, Eleanor, and the French army took a break from fighting in the walled city of Antioch. And what did Eleanor find within these walls? Paradise. It just so happened Eleanor’s Uncle Raymond was the Prince of Antioch and ran it just like Aquitaine. Eleanor was in heaven. So much so, that she didn’t want to actually leave.
Louis on the other hand was displeased by Eleanor’s growing level of comfort with Prince Raymond, the most glorious prince of all princes. Brooding in his jealousy, Louis stumbled across a genius plan. The Christians needed to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims. That was the whole reason he’d signed up for this. But Jerusalem was also far away from Antioch. The sooner Louis and Eleanor left for Jerusalem, the sooner she could styp paying attention to Raymond and start telling Louis how wonderful he is again. Perfect plan! Or it would have been, but Raymond decided trying to take Jerusalem was a terrible idea and Eleanor had the gall to take Raymond’s side! The following argument went something like this:
“Eleanor, you’re coming to Jerusalem with me.”
“No way loser, you go to Jerusalem, I’m staying here.”
“As your husband I command you to come to Jerusalem.” (Insert red, angry, face here).
“You’re not the boss of me. I’m not going anywhere! Besides, we aren’t even legally married. You’re too closely related to me.”
And so the severe animosity that would haunt the rest of their marriage was born!
She Turned The French Court Upside Down
Now, onto the affair! This alleged affair of Eleanor’s was no run of the mill ordeal. (Honestly, would you expect any less from Eleanor at this point?) She supposedly had the affair with her Uncle Raymond (totally gross, even for Medieval times). In later accounts, Eleanor’s affair was with the Saladin, a highly revered Muslim leader who peacefully took Jerusalem back from the Christians, instead. And in some very late accounts, the affair was with a random sultan.
Personally, I speculate that the rumors about the affair were spread as an attack on Eleanor and Louis VII because she had yet to provide sons, only daughters, and always had “Aquitaine” at the end of her name. The unproven affair was detrimental to Louis because he couldn’t keep his wife under control which made him look weak to his court and his country. It also meant Eleanor could now never give Louis a legitimate son, leaving no heir to the throne, and giving no lands to France. Why could Eleanor now never give Louis a legitimate son you ask? Because Eleanor was accused of having an affair, the legitimacy of any future children would be questioned. If Eleanor possibly cheated once, who’s to say she wouldn’t possibly cheat again? Eleanor was proving to be quite the loose cannon.
She Dropped Her Dead Weight…
Sounds like the makings for a Medieval annulment right? And it was! Only events didn’t go down quite how one would think. Eleanor was the one withholding her land, and she was the one who may or may not have had an affair. Plus, according to Medieval science, it was one-hundred-percent Eleanor’s fault Louis still didn’t have a son, because women controlled the sex of the baby. Louis had every right to demand an annulment. Only he didn’t; Eleanor did. Following the disaster of their Jerusalem trip, Eleanor petitioned for a divorce on the grounds of consanguinity, alleging that she and her husband were too closely related for the marriage to be legal. She was the one to request and receive permission to make the annulment official. A supposed adulteress just left the King of France. Eleanor would walk away from Louis, lands in tact, off to find power and protection elsewhere.
What happened to the kids? Somewhere in all the hoopla during Eleanor’s marriage to Louis, Eleanor managed to give birth to two beautiful daughters. With no epidural. That alone makes Eleanor a champion. When Eleanor left Louis she had to leave her daughters, Marie, 6 and Alix, 1, behind. For many modern readers, this is a problem. But considering her circumstances, Eleanor did what was best for her children. Leaving them both with Louis would allow both girls to continue living at court with titles and good marriage prospects. Had Eleanor taken the girls with her when she left, their fate almost certainly would not have been the same. Most men who could give Eleanor a good life probably wouldn’t marry her if she had kept her children. Coming equiped with children would mean prospective suitors would understand they’d be financially responsible for Eleanor as well as children that weren’t even theirs.
And Then She Upgraded
With no children to support and land of her own, why did Eleanor even have to get remarried, let alone quickly? Eleanor’s lands allowed her to generate an income, giving her more leverage than the average medieval woman, but she still needed the safety and security provided by marriage. As a female landowner of valuable territory, it was quite dangerous for Eleanor to live without the legal and political protection of a husband. In a heavily patriarchal society, Eleanor could not truly be safe without a husband. She had no real rights of her own. So she immediately re-married to none other than Louis’s arch nemesis, Henry of Anjou! Total coincidence I’m sure. By 1154, Henry of Anjou became Henry II, King of England, making Eleanor a queen once again. However, Eleanor seemed to have great dislike for Henry.
She Incited Rebellion
Nineteen years into her queenhood, and after producing eight children for Henry (again, with no epidural) Eleanor seemed to have had enough of him. So she decided to capitalize on tensions between her sons and their father, along with tensions between England and France. The two countries were always mad at each other; one forever trying to take over the other. Eleanor was all too happy to help France ally itself with her sons Richard, Henry, and Geoffrey, in a rebellion against Henry II. Nothing sounds sweeter over breakfast than, “Sorry honey, I just didn’t want you in power anymore, so I teamed up with your own flesh and blood along with your arch nemesis to try and overthrow and possibly kill you. Pass the bacon?” Unfortunately for most involved, King Henry II defeated the revolt and did not take kindly to Eleanor’s involvement. As punishment, he locked her away in the medieval equivalent of solitary confinement. For sixteen years.
In 1189, Henry II died and his son Richard became Richard I, King of England, better known as Richard the Lionheart. Having a close relationship with his mother, Richard immediately released her from confinement and made her Queen Mother. Though he’d finally received the title he’d fought so hard for in 1157, Richard was only actually in England for about six months of his nine-and-a-half year reign. For the rest of his time as king, Richard was off fighting in the Third Crusade, leaving Eleanor in charge. Even after he took a break from the fighting and married, giving England a queen, Eleanor still ran the monarchy. Now that’s confidence in your mother.
She Ruled On Her Own
Eleanor’s charge of England was so impressive because it wasn’t purely ceremonial. Eleanor, a single woman with a scandalous history, really was ruling England in her son’s absence. The extent of Eleanor’s power really showed after Richard’s imprisonment in the crusades. Eleanor was able to do two really cool things that firmly displayed how powerful she actually was. She 1.) appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury, and 2.) wrote to the Pope about the release of Richard from prison. Yes, I know today those things probably sound really boring and inconsequential, but don’t worry, I’ll show you how awesome they really are.
Back in the medieval day, the Catholic Church was a huge deal. The Church was beyond powerful and moving up within it tended to be more a political power grab than anything else. Since the Church was so powerful and heavily tied to the State, some appointments within the church could only be made by that country’s king. In England’s case, Richard. But remember earlier when I mentioned the little tiny problem with Richard being captured and imprisoned while out of the country? Well turns out it’s pretty impossible to do any of your kingly duties yourself when you aren’t around and are currently being held for ransom. Funny how that works, isn’t it? Anyway, the Bishop of Salisbury wanted promoted to Archbishop of Canterbury, and someone had to make it happen. So Richard flat out begged his mother in a letter to bump the Bishop of Salisbury up to Archbishop of Canterbury. Let’s break that down: The King of England has just begged his mother, a woman, to perform a duty only the King himself had the authority to do. So when Eleanor inevitably promoted the Bishop to Archbishop upon her son’s request, she did so with the power of a king.
She Went Directly To The Pope
As if turning the Bishop of Salisbury into the Archbishop of Canterbury wasn’t enough to display Eleanor’s power, wait ‘til you see what happens with the Pope. Not only was Eleanor powerful enough to know she could contact the Pope directly, arguably one of the most powerful men in Western Europe at the time, but she knew she held enough clout to ask him for money.
The coolest part about Eleanor’s letter to the Pope is how she talked to him. Instead of flaunting her power and demanding the Pope secure the funds to free Richard, she approached the Pope as a mother. This distinction is extremely important. While cases of medieval women wielding power can be found, it was by no means common. In fact, it was widely frowned upon. Women were to be nothing more than silent property. They didn’t have the brains, strength, or stamina to hold power. Women were supposed to be obedient wives and produce heirs. So it was as a mother that Eleanor approached the Pope, hoping this tactic would increase the Pope’s likelihood of paying for Richard’s release, and knowing a brazen show of power would certainly cause her demise.
Sadly, Eleanor’s pleading with the Pope proved fruitless. Richard died while still in prison. When his brother John took the throne, he mostly cast his mother aside. Eleanor of Aquitaine died in 1204 in Poitiers, France. By the time of her death she had become one of Western Europe’s most powerful medieval women. But unlike the stars of many other medieval tales, Eleanor was equally, if not more, fascinating than the legends she became.
Danielle Lowery is a recent graduate of Chatham University with a BA in History. Her previous work has been published in the Minor Bird and Zingara Poetry Pick. She has upcoming work in Quail Bell. In her spare time, Danielle’s a total nerd who loves hiking and all things book.