She held many titles throughout her long life. Eleanor was born in the duchy of Aquitaine, France, in 1122. Her father, William X, was the Duke of Aquitaine and the Count of Poitiers. Through these titles, William controlled vast estates and possessed immense political power. A cultured man, William ensured that his daughter was well educated. Under her father’s tutelage, Eleanor was groomed to become his heir since he didn’t have a son.
Duchess of Aquitaine
In 1137, William X died. Eleanor inherited her father’s dukedom and became the Duchess of Aquitaine. As a result of this inheritance, she was the most eligible woman in Europe. Before his death, William had entrusted the French king, Louis VI, to act as his daughter’s guardian. Realizing how valuable Eleanor was, the king hastily betrothed her to his son, Prince Louis. The duchess and prince were quickly married in July 1137.
Queen of France
Eleanor wouldn’t have to wait long to become queen. Shortly after her wedding, Louis VI became ill and died. Prince Louis became King Louis VII, and Eleanor became queen. Louis was fond of his new wife and was taken in by her beauty. However, Eleanor didn’t reciprocate his feelings.
During the early years of Louis VII’s reign, the young king made many ill-advised decisions. These decisions would gradually put him at odds with both his nobles and the pope himself. During a particularly disastrous military campaign in Vitry, French soldiers slaughtered hundreds of civilians in the town. When the remaining survivors took refuge in a nearby church, it was burned down with them inside. Louis was widely condemned for this atrocity and was plagued with guilt over his troop’s actions.
The Second Crusade
In 1145, the pope called on European Christians to once more fight a crusade in the Holy Land. Seeking redemption for Vitry, Louis VII readily joined. In 1147, Eleanor would accompany her husband on his journey to Jerusalem. As the couple traveled, their relationship began to become more strained. At Antioch, it was rumored that Eleanor had become romantically involved with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers. When Louis heard of this, he was enraged and began distrusting his wife.
After arriving in the Holy Land, Louis VII’s military efforts in the crusade would end miserably. Having failed to accomplish his intended goals, Louis would eventually abandon Jerusalem. Eleanor protested against leaving but departed with the king in 1148. The stress of the journey and the military failures in Jerusalem proved to be a breaking point in the royal union. By the time they returned to France, both the king and queen sought an end to their marriage.
Queen of England
In March 1152, Louis VII and Eleanor were granted an annulment from the pope. The couple’s two daughters were left in the king’s custody. Eleanor would return to Aquitaine, but she had once again become the most eligible woman in Europe. Many French noblemen aggressively attempted to marry her for her estates, but Eleanor was able to resist their attempts. After two months of fending off advances, Eleanor decided to marry the powerful Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy. This marriage would have significant repercussions on European politics.
In 1154, King Stephen of England died. As the grandson of Henry I of England, Henry Plantagenet was the next in line to inherit the throne. When Henry became King Henry II, his French possessions of Normandy and Anjou were combined with Eleanor’s Aquitaine. The unification of all these lands in western France resulted in the creation of the Angevin Empire. Due to this, France was overshadowed by the empire and would be dominated by the English for the next several decades.
Eleanor’s second marriage to Henry II would initially prove to be more successful than her first. In addition to her two children by Louis VII, the queen would have an additional eight by Henry. Five of these children were sons: William, Henry (the younger), Richard, Geoffery, and John. William would die young, but the other four would grow into adulthood.
At the English court, Eleanor took a hands-on approach to ruling. She proved to be a competent administrator in England and was very active in ruling Aquitaine. The queen was also an adamant promoter of culture in both England and her French estates. Eleanor spearheaded a poetic movement while transforming the court at Poitiers into her cultural ideal. Despite her efforts, the queen’s involvement in such activities would begin to decline as the political situation in England changed.
The Prince’s Revolt
Since 1167, Eleanor and Henry II had begun living separately. After giving birth to their final child, John, Eleanor moved back to France to live in Poitiers. By 1173, Eleanor’s marriage to Henry had become strained. The king and queen were known to argue, but the breaking point in their marriage was Henry’s many infidelities. The king openly cheated on his wife, which greatly angered Eleanor.
The queen wasn’t the only one being alienated by Henry II’s actions. Power-hungry and controlling, the king resisted handing over any political power to his sons. Frustrated by their father’s stubbornness, the princes rebelled in 1173. Eleanor secretly supported their efforts against Henry by providing military aid. The king’s forces would eventually defeat the prince’s revolt. In retaliation, Henry imprisoned his wife in England, thus ending her political and cultural activities.
Release From Prison
In 1189, Henry II died. Upon his death, his estranged son, Richard, was crowned King Richard I of England. One of Richard’s initial actions was to release his mother from her confinement. After sixteen years as a prisoner, Eleanor was once again able to participate in politics. Since Richard spent the majority of his reign fighting in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade, Eleanor was left in charge of England.
During her son’s absence, the dowager queen was an adept administrator. Eleanor was able to maintain the stability of the Angevin Empire against the French king, Philip II, prevented Richard I’s brother John from attempting to take the throne, and paid the ransom for Richard’s release after his capture in the Holy Roman Empire. In 1199, Richard would die fighting in France. Since he didn’t have an heir, John succeeded him. Eleanor would continue in her administrative role during his reign.
By 1200, Eleanor was nearly 80-years-old. Despite her advanced age, she was still very active in politics. During her final years, Eleanor focused on maintaining control over the Angevin Empire. John was an incompetent ruler, and his lack of military success against the French threatened the empire. To maintain peace, Eleanor married her granddaughter Blanche to the French king’s heir. When her grandson, Arthur of Brittany, threatened England’s French holdings, Eleanor personally took part in directing their defense.
On April 1, 1204, Eleanor died in Anjou, France. Throughout her long life, she was a duchess, French queen, English queen, and dowager queen of England. Regardless of her titles, Eleanor always remained an influential woman in politics. Her intelligence and strong will made her a highly adept administrator who left a lasting impact on England. After she died, her French estates would continue to be loyal to England until the fall of the Angevin Empire in 1216.
Bradbury, J. (2010). The Capetians: Kings of France, 987-1328. London: Hambledon Continuum.
Jones, D. (2012). The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England. New York: Viking Peguin Books.
Pernoud, R. (2019, August 29). Eleanor of Aquitaine. Retrieved November 14, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Eleanor-of-Aquitaine.