She is identified as Eleanor, by the Grace of God, Queen of the English, Duchess of the Normans. The legend on the reverse calls her Eleanor, Duchess of the Aquitanians and Countess of the Angevins.
I’m sure all of my worldly, intelligent readers have seen “The Lion in Winter,” the 1968 movie starring Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. If you haven’t you really need to get out more. The film based on a Broadway play also starred Anthony Hopkins in his debut in a major role and a young Timothy Dalton in his film debut. Katherine Hepburn won a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance.
So who was Eleanor, a woman who is still written about 800 years after her passing?
She was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the world during the High Middle Ages, Queen Consort to the King of France, the King of England and Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right. She bore 8 children, 5 sons and 3 daughters to the King of England and 2 daughters to the King of France. Three of her sons became Kings. A patron of noted literary figures of the time, she led armies on several occasions and was a leader of the Second Crusade and served as Regent for her son Richard the Lionhearted.
Quite the woman.
Eleanor (or Aliénor) was the oldest of three children of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, whose glittering ducal court was renowned in early 12th-century Europe, and his wife, Aenor de Châtellerault, the daughter of Aimery I, Viscount of Châtellerault.
She was most likely born in 1122 and is is said to have been named for her mother Aenor and called Aliénor from the Latin meaning the other Aenor. Her mother died when Eleanor was 8 years old.
By all accounts, Eleanor’s father ensured that she had the best possible education; mathematics, history, languages including Latin. She was skilled in horsemanship, hawking and archery. When her four-year-old brother William Aigret and their mother died on Aquitaine’s Atlantic coast in the spring of 1130, the intelligent and high spirited Eleanor became the heir presumptive to her father’s domains.
The Duchy of Aquitaine was the largest and richest province of France, almost one-third the size of modern France. Eleanor had only one other legitimate sibling, a younger sister. Her half-brother Joscelin was acknowledged by William X as a son, but not as his heir.
Upon the death of her father on a pilgrimage, Eleanor, age 15 became the duchess of Aquitaine, and thus the most eligible heiress in Europe. As these were the days when kidnapping an heiress was seen as a viable option for obtaining a title, William dictated a will on the very day he died that bequeathed his domains to Eleanor and appointed King Louis VI of France (known to history as Louis the Fat) as her guardian. William requested of the king that he take care of both the lands and the duchess, and find her a suitable husband. However, until a husband was found, the king had the legal right to Eleanor’s lands. The duke also insisted to his companions that his death be kept a secret until Louis was informed.
The death of William, one of the king’s most powerful vassals, made available the most desirable duchy in France. While presenting a solemn and dignified face to the grieving Aquitainian messengers, Louis exulted when they departed. Rather than act as guardian to the duchess and duchy, he decided to marry the duchess to his 17-year-old heir Louis and bring Aquitaine under the control of the French crown, thereby greatly increasing the power and prominence of France.
Within hours, the king had arranged for Prince Louis to be married to Eleanor; Louis was sent to Bordeaux with an escort of 500 knights On 25 July 1137 Eleanor and Louis were married. The were immediately installed as the Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine.
However there was a catch.
Eleanor’s lands would not pass to the French Crown until a future son of the union ascended to the throne of France. Eleanor’s inheritance would not pass until the next generation.
Within days of the marriage the King died of dysentery and his son Louis and Eleanor were crowned King and Queen of France on Christmas Day. Eleanor was not popular with the French – she was seen as “indecorous” and immodest in dress and language. The king however was madly in love with his beautiful and worldly bride and granted her every whim, even though her behavior baffled and vexed him.
During her reign as Queen, Eleanor insisted on accompanying Louis on the Second Crusade as commander of her own troops and vassals from the Aquitaine. The Crusade accomplished little but while in the eastern Mediterranean, Eleanor learned about maritime conventions developing there, which were the beginnings of what would become admiralty law. She introduced those conventions in her own lands and later in England as well. She was also instrumental in developing trade agreements with Constantinople and ports of trade in the Holy Lands.
By this time the marriage of Louis and Eleanor was on the rocks. Louis suspected she was having an affair with her uncle Raymond, who was eventually beheaded by the Muslims in the holy land.
And she had not borne him a son. Only two daughters. On March 11, 1152 the marriage was annulled.
Eight weeks after her annulment Eleanor, who survived two kidnapping attempts in the interim married the Duke of Normandy, young Henry Plantagenet.
On 25 October 1154, Henry became king of England. Eleanor was crowned queen of England by the archbishop of Canterbury on 19 December 1154. Over the next 13 years, she bore Henry five sons and three daughters: William, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, John, Matilda, Eleanor, and Joan.
Eleanor’s marriage to Henry was reputed to be tumultuous and argumentative, although sufficiently cooperative to produce at least eight pregnancies. Henry was by no means faithful to his wife and had a reputation for philandering.
During the period from Henry’s accession to the birth of Eleanor’s youngest son John, affairs in the kingdom were turbulent: Aquitaine, as was the norm, defied the authority of Henry as Eleanor’s husband and answered only to their duchess. A bitter feud arose between the king and Thomas Becket, initially his chancellor and closest adviser and later the archbishop of Canterbury. It is certain that by late 1166, Henry’s notorious affair with Rosamund Clifford had become known, and Eleanor’s marriage to Henry appears to have become terminally strained.
The couple separated and Eleanor returned to her own city of Poitiers and took charge of her lands. Eleanor’s court in Poitiers was the “Court of Love” where Eleanor and her daughter Marie meshed and encouraged the ideas of troubadours, chivalry, and courtly love into a single court. It may have been largely to teach manners, something the French courts would be known for in later generations.
There is no claim that Eleanor invented courtly love, for it was a concept that had begun to grow before Eleanor’s court arose. All that can be said is that her court at Poitiers was most likely a catalyst for the increased popularity of courtly love literature in the Western European regions.
In March 1173 Eleanor’s son Henry rose in revolt against King Henry and enticed his younger brothers Richard and Geoffrey to join him in revolt. Upon leaving Poitiers Eleanor and son Henry were arrested, sent to Rouen and then to England where she was immediately imprisoned. She spent the next 16 years locked up in various locations.
Henry tried again to overthrow his father in 1183 along with his brothers but failed and died soon after from dysentery. Before doing so he begged the King to show mercy to his mother and his brothers. Henry did grant her more freedom of movement, though still under supervision and began frequently traveling with her.
Henry II Plantagenet died on July 6, 1189 and was succeeded by the undisputed heir Richard who immediately freed his mother. She rode in triumph to Westminster Abbey where she received the oaths of fealty from many lords and clergy on behalf of the King. Richard immediately left for the holy land on the Third Crusade and was absent for several years, until ransomed from the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, during which time Eleanor had great influence over affairs in England and the supervision of Prince John who eventually became King after the death of Richard.
Eleanor survived Richard’s demise and well into John’s reign. She died in 1204 and was entombed in Fontevraud Abbey next to her husband Henry and her son Richard. Her tomb effigy shows her reading a Bible and is decorated with magnificent jewelry. By the time of her death she had outlived all of her children except for King John of England and Eleanor, who became Queen of Castile. She was 82 years old.
Contemporary sources praise Eleanor’s beauty. Even in an era when ladies of the nobility were excessively praised, their praise of her was undoubtedly sincere. When she was young, she was described as perpulchra – more than beautiful – “gracious, lovely, the embodiment of charm,” extolling her “lovely eyes and noble countenance, one meant to crown the state of any king.”
Yet no one left a full description of her. We do not know the color of her eyes.
After her death King John lost most of the territory annexed by his father, was forced by his barons to sign the Magna Carta and became the immortal King in “Robin Hood.”