Eleanor, Unknown Artist

A high-spirited woman of unimaginable breadth, Eleanor of Aquitaine, married Henry II of England and together they created a vast domain stretching from the Pyrenees in the south, to Scotland in the north. An accomplished traveler and horsewoman, Eleanor traversed this domain and beyond, into Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Reggio. Ambitious, worldly, and politically astute, she navigated a pathway for herself and her children through a male-dominated world that reverenced war and religion. She birthed ten children and filled her courts with young people, high-ranking clerics, music, poetry, beauty, and fun. She outlived two husbands and eight of her ten children. Her extraordinarily bold life echoed for centuries thereafter in her descendants who became kings, queens, dukes, and countesses.

Eleanor was born around 1124 to the Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine. The Aquitaine Duchy comprised a rich region equaling about half of what is modern day France and proliferated in diverse customs. Eleanor’s youth abounded in beauty, religion, education, music, and worldly exposure―her grandfather, William IX, was a ribald troubadour. When Eleanor was six, her mother and brother both died and at age 13, her father died en route to a crusade. Suddenly, Eleanor became Duchess of Aquitaine―a vulnerable position for an unmarried girl at risk of being raped by a knight intent upon enriching himself with the prize Aquitaine.

A swift union was made with young Louis VII of France [hereinafter Louis]. Upon the newly weds’ return to Paris, they were crowned King and Queen. As a boy, Louis had been promised to the Church, but when his older brother died, he was thrust into the role of heir. Nevertheless the Church remained his first love and in 14 years of marriage with Eleanor, only two daughters resulted, Marie and Alice. Although apparently smitten with Eleanor—supposedly a beautiful woman (although no first-hand accounts exist)—Louis deeply feared the temptation of lust more.

When Edessa fell to the Muslims in 1144, Eleanor and Louis eagerly joined the Second Crusade. The rigors of the journey were enormous, caravanning thousands to Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Louis exhibited weakness as a military leader and after nearly losing their lives crossing Mount Cadmus, Eleanor threatened to stay in Antioch with her charismatic uncle Raymond and seek a divorce. In a jealous rage, Louis had her seized and supervised thereafter. The whole Crusade ended in utter failure.

Back in France, Louis and his advisors believed the Queen incapable of birthing a male heir and agreed to grant an annulment, ostensibly on the basis of consanguinity. In gaining her freedom Eleanor had to face the law’s stark reality that required her to abandon Marie and Alice into Louis’ custody. And having her dowry, the Aquitaine, returned to her called for finding a marriageable suitor right away.

Fortuitously, as she contemplated her situation, Louis had invited the 18 year old Henry FitzEmpress [hereinafter Henry] and his father, Geoffrey of Anjou, to court for peace discussions. The lands of Anjou bordered Eleanor’s realm and with Henry’s magnetism, intelligence, and military prowess, Eleanor believed an alliance with him would offer significant advantages. In May 1151, just three months after her divorce and return to Poitier, she married Henry.

Henry was the son of Empress Matilda—a woman denied the English crown because of her gender. After years of bloody wars, the usurper King Stephen, named Henry his heir shortly before dying. On December 19, 1154, to widespread approval and relief, England coronated King Henry II and Eleanor his Queen.

Initially the couple seemed a good match. Both were energetic, ambitious, and enjoyed sex. Within the first five years, Eleanor gave birth to three children. She birthed William, who died as a toddler, Henry [hereinafter Young Henry], and Matilda.

Ratifying her position, Eleanor’s official seal proclaimed on one side―Queen of England, by the grace of God, Duchess of the Normans―and on the other side―Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Anjou. Daily she engaged in deciding settlements in local courts and confirming Henry’s writs from abroad. When she toured Aquitaine with Henry, she saw him imposing foreign norms and excessive penalties without heeding cultural differences. Apparently he had no interest in Eleanor’s input for her name disappears from her own Duchy’s charters for the next decade.

For the next ten years, Eleanor enthusiastically threw herself into her duties, frequently acting as England’s regent―always with Henry’s advisors close by. In adapting to and understanding her new country and its inhabitants, Eleanor spent summers crisscrossing England―exceeding the outreach of all previous queens. She funded a ‘Queen’s hospital’ and one story recounts a hungry orphan boy she rescued from the roadside and placed in an abbey for education. In this busy decade, she was pregnant over a third of the time and birthed five more children―Richard, Geoffrey, Leonor, Joanna, and John.

She headed a household preparing young people for eminent positions and employed a large contingent of talented clerics. One household cleric provided three ivory dice annually―giving a view of an Eleanor who enjoyed games. She filled her court with music and poetry, all later valued by her children.

At their annual Christmas gathering in 1160, the couple agreed to move their six year old son, Young Henry, into Thomas Becket’s household to begin formal education. For the last 14 years Becket and Henry had been inseparable companions. Becket held the high position of Lord Chancellor and over the years Henry had trusted him implicitly.

In 1162, Henry appointed Becket to replace the deceased Archbishop of Canterbury―believing such a move would give him a strong ally in both Church and state. In an about face, Becket abdicated his chancellorship and consecrated himself to the life of an ascetic priest. This seemed unfathomable to Henry and perhaps signaled the onset of Henry’s undoing―his rages against Becket grew more violent and his dalliances with young girls grew more frequent.

Blossoming into more than a fling, all of England heard about Henry’s affair with the 20 year old beauty, Rosamund Clifford―the only woman for whom he recorded his love. In 1165, Eleanor and Henry did not meet for Christmas. With grave concerns, Eleanor sought the counsel of Abbess Hildegarde of Bingen whose reply essentially advised her to trust in God.

A delight for her in the midst of the turmoil was the matchmaking of her children. Her two daughters by King Louis had married well. Marie became the Countess of Champagne and Alice the Countess of Blois. In other pairings, King Louis promised his daughter Alys to Henry and Eleanor’s son Richard. To secure his southern border, Henry betrothed their daughter, Leonor, to Alfonso VII of Castile. Most were still children and girls surrendered into the custody of the male’s family. Eleanor prepared their daughter Matilda for her wedding to the Duke of Saxony and Bavaria. Once Matilda left for Germany, Eleanor departed England with her younger children for Poitou. With Henry occupied elsewhere, the two semi-formally separated.

Henry’s prideful battles with Becket became ever more obsessive, putting him and his country in jeopardy with the Pope. In December 1170, during a meeting with bishops and knights, Henry pontificated about Becket’s transgressions as four knights slipped out and rode to Canterbury and brutally assassinated Becket on the Cathedral floor. Instantly Becket became martyred and shortly thereafter canonized as a saint. Blame for Becket’s death landed squarely on Henry, for which he finally did public penance.

After suffering what he considered betrayals by both Becket and Eleanor, Henry refused to grant his sons any authority. Young Henry was heir to the English throne, but even while Henry was in Ireland avoiding the Pope, he refused to empower Young Henry with castles, land, or dominion. Likewise, their son Geoffrey had been made Duke of Brittany, but Henry retained control through administrators. In contrast, Eleanor shared power with Richard, who had always been designated as her heir in Aquitaine and she installed him as Count of Poitiers. Henry then began grooming their youngest, John, as his favorite―granting him castles that fell within the other brothers’ claimed territories and upsetting everyone.

Frustrated with his lack of authority, Young Henry decamped to Paris with rebellion in his heart and received the protection of King Louis. With both Richard and Geoffrey ready to revolt as well and Eleanor fearing for their safety, she arranged for their hasty departure to Paris. Perhaps Eleanor should have left as well. Henry seized her as a hostage for his sons, moved her to England, and for the next 10 years imprisoned her. Although she was kept well, captivity cost her dearly―depriving her of access to her sons, her subjects, the news of events, her revenues, and the ability to defend against chroniclers blaming her for the insurrection.

Eleanor, Unknown artist

Henry wanted to divorce Eleanor but was unwilling to return the prized Aquitaine. Instead, he pressed her to take the veil and sequester at the Abbey of our Lady of Fontevraud. She had to appeal to the Archbishop of Rouen to prevent her being forced into the convent. She did gain a sweet interlude with her daughter Joanna as she helped prepare her for her betrothal to the King of Sicily.

With his sons defying him and public support continuing to sour over his failure to go on crusade to atone for Becket’s death, Henry became ever more salacious. He had an affair with one of Rosamund’s cousins, near the time of Rosamund’s death. Then, unbelievably he bedded the 16 year old Alys of France―placed in his custody as a child until she reached a marriageable age to wed Richard.

In June 1183, both parents suffered with the news that Young Henry had died from dysentery. Still alienated from his son, Henry had refused to travel to his bedside when summoned. As a dying wish, Young Henry beseeched his father to treat his mother mercifully. Feeling heartbroken and guilty, Henry did release Eleanor from prison but kept her under strict surveillance thereafter.

Allowed to return to her Duchy, Eleanor spent a blissful summer with her daughter Matilda and her grandchildren, whom Matilda left in her care when she returned to Germany. But more heartache arrived with the death of son Geoffrey in August 1186 and less than three years later, Matilda died in Germany.

Only Richard and John remained of the boys. Pitting the two against one another, Henry threatened to turn Richard’s lands over to John—a critical mistake. Richard’s facing down the repetitive uprisings in the Aquitaine had matured him into an accomplished warrior. On the other hand, Henry’s health was failing―he was overweight, had a chronic leg injury, and a debilitating anal fistula making it difficult to sit a horse. Unable to fight anymore, Richard forced Henry to name him as his successor. It appears Henry simply gave up after that and on July 6, 1189, he died. He was buried at Fontevraud.

Although Eleanor certainly had regrets over Henry’s death, she enthusiastically embraced the future as Richard I was crowned King of England on September 1189. With Richard’s blessing and the approval of the people, she confidently began presiding in England with full authority as Queen. In her first official act she released prisoners who had been jailed by Henry’s excessive sentences. She began standardizing weights, measures, and coinage―officially enacted in 1196. She progressed through the country issuing charters and promoting Richard. With her substantial finances restored, she made land grants in exchange for money pledges to Richard’s avowed crusade.

As he prepared for his campaign, marriage and begetting an heir came to the forefront of concerns.  As both Eleanor and Richard knew Henry had bedded the original betrothed, Alys of France, they decided instead on Berengaria of Navarre. Eleanor (age 67) set off to Navarre, conducting business as she went. Still an intrepid traveler, Eleanor and Berengaria traversed the windswept Pyrenees, the freezing Alps, and made their way to the tip of Italy to meet up with Richard in Reggio. There Eleanor happily reunited with her daughter Joanna, who had left Sicily upon the death of her husband. Joanna stepped in as Berengaria’s chaperone while Eleanor hastened back to England where John was asserting himself.

Richard won battles and finalized a treaty with the Muslim leader, Saladin. Through military prowess he gained the name Richard the Lionheart―although his brutality could not be denied. But going home, he was captured and ransomed. For months, Eleanor worked tirelessly to raise the exorbitant ransom. Finally, with sealed chests in tow, she set out on yet another winter passage, this time to Germany to retrieve the King. With success, on March 1194, Richard and Eleanor re-entered London to universal rejoicing. Then, Eleanor set about reconciling her two sons.

Eleanor’s Psalter

Settling in at Fontevraud, Eleanor built an abbey wall, a new kitchen, and a private chapel. She continued to grant charters and engage in diplomatic affairs. In the late 1190’s, her two eldest daughters Marie of Champagne and Alice of Blois, died. Then in early April 1199, Eleanor received word that Richard was dying. While fighting in Limoges an arrow had struck his shoulder, he neglected the wound, and gangrene set in. Realizing death was imminent, he sent for his mother. Through a forced march of 100 miles, Eleanor arrived to be by his side at death.

As miserable as Eleanor may have felt, she had little time to mourn because John’s succession to the throne was being challenged. The contender was Arthur of Brittany [Eleanor’s grandson]. Eleanor believed John best suited to rule England as he had spent his youth with Henry there and had strong ties.

Because John was little known in the regions of Poitou, Eleanor proceeded to do for John what she had done for Richard in England. She traveled to major cities, obtaining pledges of loyalty and military aid for him. She recognized John as her heir and ceded Poitou to him. She strived to fill in for where John was weak.

In 1199, John I was crowned King of England. That same year Eleanor’s daughter Joanna arrived in Fontevraud, seeking refuge from a disastrous second marriage. Pregnant and ill, she begged to be veiled. Sensing Joanna’s frailty, Eleanor persuaded the committee to allow it and then witnessed both mother and baby die.

When France’s King Philip (Louis’ heir), proposed a betrothal of his son to the daughter of Leonor and Alfonso VIII of Castile, Eleanor agreed to facilitate the match and set off for Castile. After so many years apart, Eleanor spent a joyful two months with her daughter Leonor and her grandchildren. Eleanor returned with Blanche, who married the future Louis VIII and like her grandmother, became Queen of France.

By 1201, Eleanor’s health started to fail but she rallied herself to tour parts of the Poitevin territories to support John. Isabelle of Angouleme caught his eye and he married her, even though she had been promised to another and it caused disfavor among subjects. More troubles arose when Arthur (Eleanor’s aspiring grandson) trapped her at Mirebeau castle. John put down the uprising and captured Arthur. Although John proved to be an able administrator, he was a weak politician and like his father, tended toward excessive punishments. After capture, Arthur simply disappeared, many believing John ordered him killed, making John even more unpopular. Eleanor, becoming more feeble, would have been aware of John’s unraveling and by the end of 1203, surely heard of the fall of Normandy to the French, and their subsequent capture of Anjou and Loire.

Eleanor’s Effigy

Eleanor died on April 1, 1204, at age 80. Even in death she shaped a new pathway. Her effigy, raised beside those of Henry II and Richard I, depicted her holding a book. It represented the first time a medieval carving characterized a lay woman with a book.

Shattered by the loss and no longer able to rely on her guidance, John lost most of the remaining territory in France. In 1214, Eleanor’s remaining daughter, Leonor of Castile died. In England, rebellious barons forced John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, lessening his sovereign power. John died in 1216, leaving his son Henry III as King of England. Eleanor and Henry’s progeny as English kings endured until 1485.

Eleanor’s daughters made remarkable contributions to Europe’s rulers as well. Leonor of Castile’s line continued up to and beyond Queen Isabella of Castile. In France, Leonor’s daughter Blanche produced a line of French kings that returned to England in the person of Isabella, the Queen of Edward II and mother of England’s renowned King Edward III.

Matilda’s son Otto became king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. Matilda’s son William, whom Eleanor helped raise, engendered the dukes of Brunswick, which ultimately produced King George I of England.

Eleanor’s eldest daughter via Louis, Marie, proved a capable ruler as Regent of Champagne. Her court developed into the major center for chivalric themes. Her descendants succeeded as kings of Cyprus and Navarre.

As a bold player on the medieval stage of her day, Eleanor demonstrated enormous flair as a diplomat, traveler, mother, and devotional person—even though 10 of her years were spent in prison. Had Henry authentically co-ruled with her, the history of their reign might have unfolded in a more reasoned and harmonious way for everyone. Nevertheless, she made a contribution that cannot be underestimated or perhaps ever fully understood.
Primary Source:
Cockerill, Sara, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Amberley Publishing, 2019.
Secondary Book Sources:
Kelly, Amy, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, Harvard University Press, 1950.
Meade, Marion, Eleanor of Aquitaine, A Biography, Penguin Books, 1977.
Penman, Sharon Kay, When Christ and His Saints Slept, Ballantine Books, 2009.
Weir, Alison, Captive Queen (novel), Ballantine Books, 2010.
Wickham, Chris, Medieval Europe, Yale University Press, 2016.
Other Sources:
Paxton, Jennifer Professor, The Story of Medieval England: From King Arthur to the Tudor Conquest, The Great Courses, 2010.
The Lion In Winter (film), Dir. Anthony Harvey, Screenwriter James Goldman, (1968)


  1. far out justine you did it again! 80 was very old in those days.

  2. Sky Power says:

    Fascinating story, and good writing, Justine. I am glad you chose to write about Eleanor of Aquitaine. What a strong, accomplished woman, and she prevailed in spite of her two husbands, especially Henry II; and giving birth to and raising ten children. Thank you for sharing the details of her significant life.

  3. Robin says:

    Another fabulous story of an amazing woman. You make history come alive! I love how you went on to describe what her children did and the impact they had on so many thrones. Thank you!

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