Eleanor of Aquitaine

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Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful women in Europe during the 12th Century. Queen to two powerful kings, she wielded power in her own right and had more than one son who became a famous king of England.

Eleanor was born in 1122. Her father was William, 10th Duke of Aquitaine. At that time, Aquitaine was a large and powerful part of what is now France. Her father was very wealthy, and Eleanor, as a result, had a broad and cultured education. She learned traditionally domestic skills like sewing and spinning and weaving and embroidery. She mastered French and Latin and made quite a study of music and literature.

An avid horsewoman, she enjoyed hawking and hunting as well. As both of her future husbands would later discover, she was opinionated and free-spirited. She had a tremendous energy and an iron constitution. She experienced much grief and disappointment in her life (and great joy as well) but was not often under the weather.

When she was 15, she married King Louis VII. She was Queen Eleanor of France for 15 years. During this reign, she played a large part in securing money and troops for Europeans fighting in the Second Crusade, in 1145. She even accompanied the troops, including her husband, for a time. As did other Crusades, this one did not have the effect desired by the Crusaders.

Eleanor and Louis had two daughters but no son. Louis wanted a son to succeed him on the French throne, and the couple agreed to get an annulment (permission from the Catholic Church to separate). The Church granted the annulment in 1152; as a result, the two daughters lived with their father and Eleanor regained sole control of the large, powerful land of Aquitaine.

Within a very short time, Eleanor was again to be married, this time to the King of England, although he wasn’t king at the time the two were married. He was Henry, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou. He was 11 years younger than she was, and they were third cousins.

Henry’s grandfather was King Henry I. This Henry did not have a male heir because his son had died; just before he died, Henry declared his daughter Matilda to be his heir, intending her to be Queen of England. Matilda married a French nobleman and was, before that, married to Henry V, the future Holy Roman Emperor. Matilda is often referred to as Empress Matilda or Queen Maud. Her son was the Henry that became King Henry II and married Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Matilda did not become Queen of England. Her cousin Stephen, with broad support, became king and was on the throne for 19 years; most of that time, known as The Anarchy, was spent in a struggle for supremacy with the Empress Matilda. When he died, Henry, Matilda’s son, was crowned king. This was in 1154.

Eleanor and Henry were both strong-willed, and they often had differing opinions on the issues of the day. They often spent time apart, whether because Henry was away on campaign in his struggles to subdue Wales and France or because they were having one of their frequent disagreements and both agreed that it was better if they separated for a time.

They did agree that the king needed a son as heir, however, and they ended up having eight children in a span of 14 years: sons William, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John and daughters Matilda, Eleanor, and Joan. Richard and John went on to become King of England.

Relations between Henry and Eleanor became severely strained; and when three of their sons rose up against their father, Eleanor joined their cause. The king put down the rebellion and imprisoned the queen. She lived “behind bars” in a number of castles for more than a decade, then joined the king on some of his travels to her native lands, always under the equivalent of “house arrest.”

Henry II died in 1189. His oldest son, William, had died in infancy. The king’s second-oldest son, Henry, had predeceased him, and so the king’s third-born son, Richard, became King, inheriting rule of the vast Angevin Empire. One of Richard’s first acts as king was to remove all vestiges of captivity from his mother, Eleanor. Later that same year, when Richard went off on yet another Crusade (the Third), Eleanor ruled England in his name, as regent. When Richard was captured on his way home after the Crusade, she went to Germany to negotiate his ransom and safe return.

When Richard died and John became king, Eleanor embarked on an extensive series of travels, to France and Spain. When yet another war between England and France began, Eleanor took holy vows as a nun. She died in 1204. The figure atop her tomb depicts her holding a Bible.

Eleanor of Aquitaine is remembered as an iron-willed, powerful woman at a time when men held most of the power. Some stories say that she cultivated a Court of Love in France, encouraging troubadours to sing songs of love and knights to embrace chivalry and courtly love. The timing of this activity was said to be in the 1160s and 1170s, when stories of King Arthur were growing in popularity in England and France.

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