Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine (ca. 1122-1204) was queen of France from 1137 to 1152 and queen of England from 1154 to 1204. Her second marriage, which brought southwestern France to the English king, affected the relations of France and England for almost 300 years.

Eleanor was the elder daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and Aenor (Eleanor) of Châtellerault. William died on April 9, 1137. The marriage of his heiress was of great importance because Aquitaine was one of the largest fiefs of France. Probably in accord with her father's wish, Eleanor married Louis, son of King Louis VI (July 25, 1137); they were installed as rulers of Aquitaine at Poitiers (August 8) and crowned king and queen of France at Bourges on Christmas, Louis VI having died. The young king seems to have been fond of his beautiful wife, but Eleanor is said to have complained that she had married a monk and not a king.

In June 1147 Louis and Eleanor set out on a crusade, arriving at Antioch in March 1148. Here they quarreled, and the validity of their marriage was questioned. However, she and Louis reached home together. On March 21, 1152, their marriage was annulled on grounds of consanguinity. The King's wish for a male heir—Eleanor having borne two daughters—was probably the decisive reason.

Less than 2 months later Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, and soon to be king of England. They were crowned at Westminster on Dec. 19, 1154. Henry II was 11 years younger than his wife. Their marriage was a political match; he wanted her lands, and she needed a protector. Eleanor and Henry had eight children: William (1153-1156); Henry the "young king" (1155-1183); Matilda (1156-1189), who married Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony; Richard (1157-1199); Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany (1158-1186); Eleanor (1162-1214), who married Alfonso, King of Castile; Joanna (1165-1199), who married William ll, King of Sicily, and later Raymond, Count of Toulouse; and John (1167-1216).

Richard was regarded from an early age as heir to his mother's duchy. In 1168 she brought him to live there, maintaining a court centered at Poitiers. Though Richard was given the ducal title, Eleanor had both power and responsibility. Now she also had full opportunity to give patronage to poets and authors. This relatively happy period ended abruptly in 1173. Eleanor, goaded perhaps by Henry's unfaithfulness, allied with the king of France against him. Her young sons joined her; indeed, as the young Henry was already 18, he may have instigated the plot. King Henry crushed the rebels and forgave his sons but kept his wife in semi-imprisonment until he died.

With the accession to the English throne of her favorite son, Richard (called the "Lion-Hearted"), on Sept. 3, 1189, Eleanor resumed her royal position and regained control of her property. She arranged his coronation, and in the winter of 1190/1191 she traveled to Navarre to fetch his future wife, Berengaria, and escorted her to Sicily to join Richard before he left for Palestine. During his absence she worked with the Council of Regency in England, and she had the unpleasant task of helping to thwart the treachery of John, her youngest son. She received Richard's letters about his captivity and organized the collection of his ransom.

On Richard's sudden death (April 6, 1199), Eleanor supported John's claim to succeed to the English throne against that of her grandson Arthur of Brittany. She herself did homage to King Philip of France for Aquitaine, and she formally took control of the duchy.

In July 1202, when John and Philip were at war, Eleanor was besieged in the castle of Mirabeau by John's enemies, nominally led by her grandson Arthur. John defeated the besiegers and captured his nephew. His mother was able to spend her last months in freedom. She died on April 1, 1204, and was buried at the abbey of Fontevrault, where her effigy remains.

Further Reading on Eleanor of Aquitaine

The best biography of Eleanor is Amy Ruth Kelly, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (1950). There are also Régine Pernoud's shorter and more romantic Eleanor of Aquitaine, translated by Peter Wiles (1967), and Curtis Howe Walker, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1950). These works must be used with caution because the sources do not reveal Eleanor's motives and opinions.

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