Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the leading figures in both English and French history, as queen consort, as regent, and as a political force in her time. Born in the French region of Aquitaine, she would go on to marry 2 kings and give birth to 3 more.
At a time when women had little power on their own, she was was able to carve out her own destiny. Life was not easy for her, with many personal losses and ill-fated decisions.
Reputed for her intelligence as well as her beauty, few women in history can compare to how influential she was in the world. Today, Eleanor of Aquitaine remains one of France’s most compelling and enigmatic female figures.
So let’s find out a few facts about Eleanor’s history, personal life, family, accomplishments, and more. Allons-y!
1. She was born in 1122.
Eleanor (or Aliénor as she was known in French) was born around 1122 in the town of Poitiers, as the oldest daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine and his wife, Aenor de Châtellerault.
She had one younger brother, William and a younger sister named Aelith. The Duchy of Aquitaine at the time was the largest and richest province of France, and almost 1/3 the size of modern day France.
2. Her younger brother died, making her heir.
When Eleanor was 8, her younger brother William and their mother died. She had a half brother Joscelin, who was born out of wedlock and acknowledged by her father William X as a son, but he was not his heir. Young Eleanor was now her father’s presumed heir, as the eldest legitimate daughter.
3. She was well educated.
Eleanor’s father ensured that she and her siblings had the best possible education. Eleanor learnt arithmetic, the constellations, and history, along with playing games and household skills. She was said to be a lively and energetic child, and this continued into her adulthood.
4. She inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine at 14 years old.
In 1137, William went on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage with his daughters, but died during the trip. Fourteen-year old Eleanor was now the Duchess of Aquitaine and King Louis VI of France (Louis the fat) was her guardian.
Along with being quite physically beautiful, she was also the richest and most eligible bride in Europe.
5. She married the future King of France, Louis VII.
As long as the King was Eleanor’s guardian and she remained unmarried, the King had access to her lands. However, King Louis VI was ill and overweight and knew that he didn’t have much time left.
Beautiful and wealthy, she was quickly married off to his son and heir, the future King Louis VII of the House of Capet. It was agreed that Aquitaine would remain independent of France, until Eleanor’s oldest son became both king of France and duke of Aquitaine. Thus, her holdings would not be merged with France until the next generation.
6. She became Queen of France in 1137.
Louis VII and Eleanor were anointed and crowned King and Queen of France on Christmas Day of 1137 in the town of Bourgues. Initially, the king was madly in love with his beautiful and worldly bride.
Much money went into making the austere Palais de la Cité on Ile de la Cité in Paris more comfortable for her. Eleanor was known to have expensive tastes, being one of the richest women in the land.
7. She and Louis VII had 2 daughters but no sons.
Eleanor and Louis VII’s marriage was not a success. He was meant to join the clergy, and only became King because his older brother had died.
After 15 years of marriage, the couple had two daughters Marie and Alix, but no sons. Eleanor had suffered many miscarriages. In addition, Louis was a weak and ineffectual King and Eleanor was not happy.
8. Eleanor and the French King went on the Second crusade.
In 1145, Pope Eugene III requested that King Louis lead a Crusade to the Middle East, 50 years after the First Crusade. Louis VII agreed, wanting to atone for his sins.
Eleanor also formally took up the cross symbolic of the Second Crusade. She insisted on taking part in the Crusades as the feudal leader of the soldiers from her duchy of Aquitaine.
Their trip was a bit of a disaster. Louis was a poor military leader with no skill for maintaining troop discipline or morale, and was rapidly losing troops in battles on the way to Jerusalem.
In addition, with all the wives and their paraphernalia accompanying them, the French army was encumbered with a large convoy.
9. Her marriage to the King of France was annulled.
Following their return of the Second Crusade, unhappy Eleanor brought up the idea that their marriage should be annulled on the basis that they were too closely related, and Louis agreed. Travelling in separate ships from the crusade, they went to see Pope Eugene III to ask for an annulment.
After much reluctance by the Pope, the marriage was annulled on 21 March 1152 on the grounds of consanguinity within the fourth degree. Their daughters were declared legitimate, custody was awarded to Louis, and Eleanor’s lands were restored to her. She was once again one of the most eligible brides in Europe.
10. She proposed marriage to the future King Henry II of England.
Now 30 years old, clever Alienor took her fate into her own hands. As soon as her annulment was granted, she travelled to her stronghold of Poitiers.
Once there, she sent a message to future King Henry II of England and told him to come to Poitiers and marry her. He was the grandson of William the Conquerer and thus also the Duke of Normandy, whose lands were adjoining Eleanor’s Aquitaine in France.
Also known as Henry Plantagenet, Henry II was 10 years younger than Eleanor. She was even more closely related to Henry even more closely than she had been to Louis, since she and Henry were 3rd cousin.
Nevertheless, Henry II rushed to Poitiers. On 18 May 1152, eight weeks after her annulment, Eleanor married Henry “without the pomp and ceremony that befitted their rank”.
11. She became Queen of England.
On 25 October 1154, Henry became king of England. Now heavily pregnant, Eleanor was crowned Queen of England by the Archbishop of Canterbury, although she was perhaps not anointed since she had been anointed Queen in France already.
12. She had 8 children with her second husband.
In the thirteen years that followed, Alienor and English King Henry II had 5 sons and 3 daughters. Among her children included the future King Richard the Lionheart of England and (evil) King John of Robinhood and Magna Carter fame.
However, Henry II was not a faithful husband, and had many children out of wedlock as well. Eleanor barely tolerated it.
13. Her duchy of Aquitaine became part of Britain and the Angevin Empire.
As her duchy of Aquitaine remained in her name, by combining Normandy and Aquitaine, almost 1/2 of France went under the rule of the English King. This was called the Angevin Empire.
In addition, she and her royal court would bring with them their culture of food wine, as well as easy access to Bordeaux’s vineyards.
Her ex-husband French King Louis VII was not pleased, but there was little he could do. He did marry again as well, and married one of his daughters from his 2nd marriage to one of Eleanor’s sons.
14. Her 2nd husband had her imprisoned for 16 years.
As prosperous as their marriage was, Henry II and Eleanor eventually became estranged. By this time, Henry II controlled England, large parts of Wales, the eastern half of Ireland and the western half of France.
He decided that he would divide up his empire among 3 of his oldest sons:
- Henry the Younger receiving England and Normandy,
- Richard being given the Duchy of Aquitaine, and
- Geoffrey acquiring Brittany
His eldest sons were unhappy that they had little actual power, and tried to lead a revolt against their father. In addition, her youngest son Jean (John) was given no land and was known as Jean sans terre, meaning “John without land”.
Eleanor supported her sons over her husband, and so was imprisoned by him in 1173. She was not released until 6 July 1189, when her husband Henry II died while in battle in France.
15. Her children were married to nobility across Europe.
Even though Eleanor was imprisoned, her children were contracted to good marriages:
- William (Guillaume) Plantagenêt – died in infancy.
- Henry the Younger – who married Marguerite, daughter of French King Louis VII (Eleanor’s ex-husband). Henry died at the age of 28.
- Matilda – married Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria.
- Richard the Lionheart, King of England.
- Geoffroy, Duke of Brittany by his marriage in 1181 to the Duchess Constance of Brittany.
- Eleanor – married King Alfonso VIII of Castile.
- Jeanne – married Guillaume II (1154-1189) King of Sicily.
- John (Jean sans Terre), King of England – who married Isabelle d’Angoulême
16. She became Regent on behalf of her son, King Richard of Lionheart.
By the time her husband died, her two eldest sons had died prematurely, so it was her third son and favorite, Richard I, who ascended the throne. He would go on to be known as Richard the Lionheart.
As queen dowager, Eleanor acted as regent while King Richard went on the Third Crusade. However, Richard did not have much luck during the Third Crusade and was imprisoned for several years by Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor. Eleanor was devastated and did everything she could to get him out.
She raised a ransom of 150,000 marks for Richard to be set free (while her youngest son John offered a ransom to the Holy Roman Emperor for Richard to continue to be held captive).
Eleanor managed to secure Richard’s release, however he then waged a new war against King Philip II of France, the son of her ex-husband. During one of these battles Richard died, and Eleanor was once again devastated.
17. She continued being involved in the court of her son King John.
With 4 of her sons dead, her youngest son John would become King of England and Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine. Eleanor continued to play an active role as his advisor.
To resolve the conflicts over land in France, in 1199, under the terms of a truce between French King Philip II and English King John, it was agreed that Philip’s 12-year-old son would marry one of Eleanor’s granddaughters.
Eleanor chose her granddaughter Blanche of Castille who was also 12 years old as the bride. During the voyage with Blanche, the now aged Eleanor fell ill.
Blanche would go on to marry Louis VIII and eventually became the mother of Saint King Louis IX, one of the most famous saints in France.
18. She died at the age of 82.
After falling ill, Eleanor retired in 1200 to the Abbey of Fontevraud in the Loire Valley and became a nun. The peace between her son King John and French King Philippe would not last.
At one point during her time there, another one of her grandsons, Arthur de Bretagne had laid seige to Fontevraud, hoping to pressure John into ceding more territory. Eleanor managed to escape to Poitiers, and eventually died in 1204 at the age of 82.
19. She is buried in at Fontevraud Abbey.
Eleanor was buried in Fontevraud Abbey, next to the her husband King Henry II of England and her son Richard the Lionheart. Her descendants and would continue through the House of Plantagenets, and given the intermarriages of the day, continue to rule through the monarchies across Europe.
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about other famous female historical figures from France. A bientôt!