Eleanor of Aquitaine

19 October 2015

Eleanor of Aquitaine.

If Eleanor of Aquitaine was alive today, she would forever be on the front pages of national newspapers and magazines and no doubt constantly trending on twitter. For this was a woman who enjoyed incredible power, good looks and amazing wealth. Duchess of Aquitaine, Countess of Poitou, and ultimately Queen of France and England, Eleanor was a truly remarkable woman.

Eleanor of Aquitaine led her own troops on the Second Crusade, spent 15 years in prison and delivered the ransom money to ensure the release of one of her sons. Despite her life of extreme highs and lows, Eleanor lived into her 80s – outliving all but two of her 10 children (who included Richard the Lionheart) . But before we delve deeper into the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, let’s take a moment to set the scene…

For those unfamiliar with the geography of France, Aquitaine lies in the south west corner – the northern part of which includes the Dordogne. (Close to Les Milandes there are numerous Chateaux which date back to the Middle Ages and the reign of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Chateau de Castelnaud and Chateau de Beynac are both well worth a visit.)

Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Chateau de Castelnaud

Chateau de Castelnaud

Back in the 1100s, thanks to salt and wine, Aquitaine had a thriving economy.

Eleanor of Aquitaine – A woman in demand

Daughter of the tenth Duke of Aquitaine, Eleanor was born (her exact date of birth is unknown) into an extremely wealthy household. Very well educated and described by many as, ‘more than beautiful’, Eleanor was never going to be short of suitors. (The Aquitaines had a favourite saying, ‘No good ever came from a king who lives north of the Loire.’) When her only brother and father died, she became one of the Western world’s richest and most desirable heiresses.

Just a young teenager, Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis, who soon after became king. During 15 years of marriage she had two daughters; Marie and Alix. Eleanor accompanied Louis on the disastrous Second Crusade (allegedly commanding her own troops). The couple divorced in 1152. (It was alleged that Eleanor indulged in an affair or two and found Louis too meek and boring, but it was probably her ‘failure’ to produce a son which ultimately brought about the end of this union.) By this time Eleanor had also built a reputation for causing scandal and political chaos in France. Louis gained custody of the two girls, while Eleanor retained the still wealthy lands of Aquitaine.

A stormy second marriage for Eleanor of Aquitaine

No longer afforded the protection of the French Crown, Eleanor was in a perilous position and found herself pursued by kidnappers. She had no time to let the grass grow under her feet. Riding hard for Poitiers, she knew that she needed to marry well to secure her survival. Just six weeks after her annulment, Eleanor married the young Henry Plantagenet.

Aged 19, Henry was much younger than Eleanor, but an equally strong character who was used to getting his own way. This was to be a stormy union and one which Henry’s own father advised against. The marriage transformed the map of France. Henry already controlled Anjou, Maine, Normandy and Touraine and this could now be fused with Aquitaine. This combined area was vast.

Far from being a faithful husband, Henry engaged in a number of extra marital affairs. The resulting children, (much to Eleanor’s understandable chagrin) were often integrated into court life. Despite all this, Eleanor and Henry had 8 children of their own – 5 boys and 3 girls – which included Richard (‘the Lionheart’) and John. Both would reign as King of England.

As her sons grew, so did Eleanor’s dislike of her husband. This eventually culminated in Eleanor leading three of her sons in a rebellion against Henry. This act of aggression by a queen against her king was unheard of (but not uncommon amongst sons) and ultimately proved unsuccessful. Eleanor was captured on the road from Poitiers to Paris while disguised as a man. Aged 50, Eleanor would spend the next 15 years of her life in various fortified buildings. She would not enjoy freedom until her husband’s death. Meanwhile, her sons were forgiven and various castles and money were bestowed upon them. All this would break a lesser woman, but not Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor on her way to captivity

(The 1968 film, ‘The Lion in Winter’ starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn and Anthony Hopkins, depicts the time when Eleanor was held captive and is well worth a watch…)

Feisty and fearless to the end

In 1189 Henry died and Eleanor’s favourite son, Richard the Lionheart, became king. One of Richard’s first acts was to release his mother. Eleanor’s stock was on the rise once again.

Three years later, while returning from the Holy Land, Richard was captured in Vienna by Duke Leopold of Austria. He was subsequently turned over to the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and a ransom of 100,000 marks (around £65,000) was demanded. To put this in context, soldiers at the time were paid two pence a day. The ransom was equivalent to three times the total royal income of England (and worth about £2 billion in today’s money!) Eleanor not only campaigned tirelessly for Richard’s release, but she ultimately delivered the ransom.

So, time to take it easy and enjoy her old age? Oh no. When Richard was fatally wounded at the Siege of Chaluz Eleanor rushed to be with him and he died in her arms. (It would be a mild understatement to say that the French and English haven’t always seen eye-to-eye. Even before the Hundred Years’ War, the Dordogne River formed the border between the French and English kingdoms – hence the building of Castelnaud and Beynac.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and Beynac

Chateau de Beynac from the river

Another building well worth a visit and just 20 minutes from Les Milandes is the Chapel of Saint Martin at Limeuil. Richard instructed this to be built and it was dedicated to Thomas à Becket who was murdered, allegedly, on the orders of Henry II.)

Sorry I digress, on with the story…

Still politically astute, Eleanor was then involved in the terms of an uneasy truce between England and France. While travelling to escort a bride for the son of King Philip Augustus II of France, Eleanor was ambushed and held captive by Hugh IX of Lusignan. Eleanor secured her own release and continued across the Pyrenees. Quite a feat for any traveller, let alone a woman now in her late seventies!

Her incredible fortitude came to the fore once again when her grandson, Arthur of Brittany, besieged her at Mirebeau Castle. Eleanor valiantly held the castle on behalf of her son King John. The delaying tactics Eleanor employed gave John time to come to the aid of his mother and take Arthur prisoner.

After a life of adventure and intrigue, Eleanor retreated to her favourite religious house, the abbey of Fontevrault. She died here in 1204, aged over 80. In this mausoleum of the early Plantagenets, Eleanor of Aquitaine is buried beside her husband, Henry II and her beloved son, Richard. In a nod of appreciation to her learning and education, the effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine depicts her reading a book. Her own story is one that should live on and on.