Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Queen Who Chose Her Kings

Arguably one of the most influential medieval women, Eleanor of Aquitaine married two kings, led her knights and Amazons on crusade, and was locked away in a castle.

Feb 4, 2021By Monique Galloway, BA Archaeology
queen eleanor of aquitaine
Details from La Belle Dame sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee, ca. 1901; and Queen Eleanor by Frederick Sandys, 1858


Eleanor of Aquitaine (ca. 1122-1204) became the Duchess of Aquitaine and wife of the King of France at 15. By 30, she was married to the future King of England. She commanded armies, went on crusades, was held prisoner for 16 years, and ruled England as regent into her 70s. Her story is the stuff of legend and fairy tales.


She was a powerful woman in her own right, and she exercised her power when she could. For this, she was vilified, accused of sexual impropriety, and called a She-Wolf. But she has also been remembered as the woman at the center of the Court of Love and the culture of chivalry that would profoundly influence the arts of Europe. She was the classic rebel queen. 


Duchess Eleanor Of Aquitaine And Gascony, Countess Of Poitiers

Saint William of Aquitaine by Simon Vouet, before 1649, via Art UK


Eleanor was the daughter of William X “The Saint” (1099-1137), Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony and Count of Poitiers. Both her father’s and grandfather’s courts were renowned throughout Europe as sophisticated centers of the arts. They encouraged the new ideas of chivalry and the culture which went along with it. These new artists were known as Troubadours, and they were mainly poets and musicians. Some of the poetry by her Grandfather, William IX, “The Troubadour” (1071-1126), is still recited today. Much of the music and poetry has been lost to Victorian censorship. Medieval poetry and song were apparently too bawdy and crude for their refined tastes. 


William’s father, William IX, took part in the First Crusade and, on his return, abducted Viscountess Dangeruse of Chatellerault (1079-1151) and was excommunicated for the second time as a result. She was already married with children, including daughter Aenor of Chatellerault (ca. 1102-1130), and may have been agreeable to the abduction. 


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Eleanor of Aquitaine’s father married his step-sister, Aenor, and they had four children. Only Eleanor and her younger sister Petronilla survived childhood, and they lost their mother when they were very young.


Early Chivalry

La Belle Dame sans Merci by Sir Frank Dicksee, ca. 1901, via Bristol Museum & Art Gallery


The girls received an excellent education, much better than many boys of their station, and they could read, an accomplishment not many kings of the time could boast. Eleanor of Aquitaine grew up surrounded by musicians and poets, all engrossed in the new idea of chivalry and the nobler qualities of the Knighthood. By all accounts, she was very attractive, and the attention she received from these troubadours as she grew left an impression on her (you can read more on this here).  She was intelligent, lively, and surrounded by the ideas of romantic courtly love.


The ideals of chivalry were first introduced by the Pope at this time to control the violence of knights. It would challenge the indiscriminate violent behavior of the warrior class into one of noble behavior and finer sensibilities, the knights. Ironically, the knights who surrounded the women of Eleanor’s family displayed very unchivalrous behavior. One kidnapped her grandmother, another would lock Eleanor up for 16 years, and a nobleman 35 years older than Petronilla and already married would seduce her, sparking a war. The ideals of chivalry for these men and the reality of their actions were very different. The restrictions of gender imbalance at the time would plague Eleanor for life.  


Crusader Queen Of France 

Eleanor of Aquitaine marrying Louis VII in 1137, from Les Chroniques de Saint-Denis, late 14th century, via the University of Iowa, Iowa City


When Eleanor of Aquitaine was 15, her father died on pilgrimage, and he entrusted both his daughters to the care of French King Louis VI “The Fat” (1081-1137). Eleanor became the most eligible woman in Europe, and the king would not let his prize go. She had huge tracts of land in France, so the king betrothed her to his son, Prince Louis, who was already crowned. Aquitaine was ahead of Paris in everything; economic activity, culture, manufacturing, and trade. It was also much larger than Louis’ kingdom, and it was a valuable acquisition for the French Throne.


They were married in July 1137 and a week after the king died, making her husband King Louis VII of France at 18. Louis was the second son and was bound for the church when his elder brother Phillip was killed in a riding accident. He would become known as Louis the Pious. 


Eleanor was childless for the first eight years of her marriage, something that was of great concern. She occupied her time with renovating Louis’s castles and is said to have installed the first indoor fireplaces into the walls. After the warmth of her home in Southern France, Paris winters must have been a shock. She also encouraged the arts, a pastime that she would continue for life. During her life, Eleanor remained involved with the ruling of her lands and took great interest in them.


For a young girl brought in a court full of the adventurous, breathtaking tales of romantic courtly love, the pious Louis was a disappointment. While she complained she was married to a monk, they did have two daughters, Marie, born 1145, and Alix, born 1150. 


The Second Crusade

Louis VII Taking the Standard at Saint Denis in 1147 by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse, 1840, via Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles


When Louis announced he was going on crusade, Eleanor of Aquitaine insisted on accompanying him. She was beginning to show her spirit to determine her own fate and reject the restrictive gender norms of her era.    


She took up the cross as the Duchess of Aquitaine, not the Queen of France, in a ceremony conducted by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in Burgundy. She would lead her own knights on the Second Crusade. Her example inspired other noblewomen. These “Amazons,” as they would be called, had their own armor made and rode their horses astride. Pious Louis took a vow of Chastity for the duration of the crusade, possibly with Eleanor rolling her eyes in the background. 


In 1147, the king and queen arrived in Constantinople and attended a service in the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia. While there, they learned that the emperor of the Byzantines had made a truce with the Turks and requested Louis turn over any territories he conquered. This led to distrust between the leaders, and the French left the city-bound for Jerusalem.  


On the journey south, they met up with King Conrad III of Germany, wounded in a recent battle and soundly defeated. The company arrived in Ephesus in December, where Conrad left the crusade. Eleanor and Louis moved on but with a lack of provisions and being harried constantly by the Muslim defenders, and they turned for the coast to ship to Antioch. Another disaster struck, there was not enough shipping available, and Louis abandoned more than 3000 of his men who were forced to convert to Islam to survive. 


Raymond of Poitiers Welcoming Louis VII in Antioch, from the Passages d’Outremer by Jean Colombe and Sebastien Marmerot, 15th century


Antioch was ruled by Eleanor’s uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, a handsome, interesting, educated man only a little older than Eleanor. They formed an instant connection that became the subject of innuendo and speculation, especially after Eleanor declared she wanted an annulment. Furious, Louis arrested her, forcing her to leave Antioch and continue on with him to Jerusalem. 


The crusade was a disaster and after being defeated at Damascus, Louis returned home dragging his reluctant wife with him. She bore him their second daughter Alix (or Alice) in 1150, but the marriage was disastrous. Louis agreed to an annulment as he wanted sons and blamed Eleanor for not delivering them after 15 years of marriage. Soon, however, she would become the mother of five sons. 


Queen Eleanor Of England

Henry II by the British School, possibly after John de Critz, 1618-20, via the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London; with Queen Eleanor by Frederick Sandys, 1858, via National Museum Wales


In March 1152 Eleanor of Aquitaine, single again and traveling to Poitiers, escaped from an abduction attempt by Geoffrey, Count of Nantes, and Theobald V, Count of Blois. Geoffrey was the brother of Henry, Duke of Normandy, a much better proposition. She sent an envoy to the much younger Henry with her own proposal and they were married in May. She was 30, experienced in war and politics, and very powerful in her own right.


She would have been well aware that Henry had a strong claim to the Throne of England. But 20 years of The Anarchy, a civil war over the English Throne, didn’t guarantee he would become king. Henry invaded England in 1153 and King Stephen I was forced to sign the Treaty of Winchester, making Henry his successor. Stephen died the year after and Henry inherited a kingdom in chaos. England was broke and lawless. The nobility had been fighting among itself for twenty years and not all the Barons had laid down their arms.


Henry’s first action was to take back control of England, his temperament was suited to this task, but his controlling nature would cost him dearly in later years. This included an incident that would undo all the good Henry had achieved; the murder of Thomas Becket at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral by Henry’s knights.  


Eleanor The Mother

Detail from the Genealogical roll of the kings of England depicting the children of Henry II:  William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joanna, John, ca. 1300-1700, via the British Library, London


Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life as Queen of England was one of being perpetually pregnant. She gave birth to her first son a year after her marriage, but baby William died young. From then until 1166, Eleanor had another seven children. Altogether, she gave Henry five sons and three daughters: William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joanna, and John. 


Unsurprisingly, there is little record of Eleanor’s influence in English politics other than her opposition to the appointment of Becket at this time. In this, she was supported by her mother-in-law, Empress Matilda, who was not afraid to fight


Queen Eleanor and the Fair Rosamund by Evelyn De Morgan, ca. 1901, via the De Morgan Collection


In 1167, Eleanor left England with baby John for her home in Aquitaine. Historians have speculated that she was jealous as Henry was unfaithful, but this behavior was not unusual for noblemen at the time. However, by then she had borne ten children and had been either pregnant or with a tiny baby for seventeen years continuously. It’s plausible that now in her 40s, she decided she had finished having children and arguing with her husband.


The imagined conflict between Eleanor and one of Henry’s favorite mistresses, Rosamund Clifford would fire the creativity of artists for centuries.


The Court Of Love 

God Speed by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900, via Sotheby’s 


Back home in beautiful Aquitaine Eleanor could encourage the arts, enjoy the Troubadours, the weather and the food were much better, and she was the queen of her domain. Or so she thought. She discovered that Henry had mortgaged Aquitaine to pay for his wars and was furious. Aquitaine was hers and Henry had not consulted her. So when her sons rebelled against Henry, she supported them. Eleanor made her decisions based on her dynastic control of Aquitaine and her other lands, regardless of whether those decisions were in accord with her royal husbands.  


Under Eleanor, Aquitaine gained a reputation throughout Europe as “The Court of Love,” due to the judgments of Eleanor, her daughters, and ladies would make about the intricacies of romantic love. The songs, poetry, and stories composed there would echo down the generations becoming part of European culture. While any artworks she may have collected have been lost, she began a tradition of patronage that would be followed by later queens.  


One of the major aspects of chivalry, ‘the pure, caste love of a high born lady,’ would be revived in England when another two powerful queens took the Throne. Under Elizabeth I with her image of Gloriana, and again in the artistic revival during the Victorian era with the Pre-Raphaelite painters


Eleanor, Rebel Queen

Donor Portrait in Psalter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, ca. 1185, via the National Library of the Netherlands, The Hague


King Henry II decided to follow the French tradition of coronating his successor so son Henry was crowned on the 14th June 1170. He was called ‘Henry the Young King’ to differentiate him from his father. This move caused controversy, the Kings of England were crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was Thomas Becket. Young Henry was crowned by the Archbishop of York, whom Becket promptly excommunicated along with all the other clergy involved. King Henry’s knights murdered Becket later that year. 


Young Henry rebelled in 1173. He was joined by his brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, encouraged by Eleanor of Aquitaine and her ex-husband, Louis VII of France, and supported by disgruntled Nobles. ‘The Great Revolt’ would last for 18 months ending in the defeat of the sons. They were forgiven by Henry, but Eleanor wasn’t and she was arrested and taken back to England. There, Henry locked her up for the remainder of his life. Their son Richard would take over the ruling of Aquitaine and be recognized as Duke by his father in 1179.


Young King Henry led another rebellion this time against brother Richard and died of dysentery on campaign in 1183. Three years later, son Geoffrey was killed in a jousting tournament, leaving Richard as the heir apparent, but Henry would not confirm this leading to another war. In the meantime, Saladin had retaken Jerusalem and the Pope called for another crusade. Richard and King Phillip Augustus of France offered terms and Richard was confirmed as the next King of England. Henry died soon after.


Eleanor Of Aquitaine, The Regent Queen Mother

Portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine, via British Heritage Travel 


As soon as King Henry died, Richard sent word to free his mother. Eleanor of Aquitaine took over the ruling of England as regent while Richard went on crusade. Richard the Lionhearted has been remembered as one of England’s greatest kings but effectively left his ten-year reign to Eleanor. Considering the plight of the country, it was a huge and thankless burden. 


After all the wars Henry fought, England was broke. Richard saw the country as just a source of revenue and spent only six months in the country during his reign. He made the economic situation of England even worse when he was captured on his return from the crusade. The Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI demanded a ransom that was more than the total income of England for four years. Eleanor raised the money by heavy taxation and confiscating the gold and silver of the churches. 


Soon after Richard was released, he went on a campaign in France where he died from a wound inflicted by a crossbow bolt in 1199. John became King of England and like his father, inherited a kingdom in revolt due to the heavy taxation caused by Richard’s wars and ransom. His reign was not popular. 


During this time, Eleanor remained a power behind the throne and acted as an envoy. She was around 78 years old when she escorted her and Henry’s grand-daughter Blanche from the Pyrenees to the French Court to marry the Dauphin of France. This must have brought back memories of her trip to the French Court six decades earlier.   


She retired to the Abbey of Fontevraud, where she died in 1204. She outlived two husbands and eight of her ten children. She had 51 grandchildren and her descendants would rule Europe for centuries. 


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By Monique GallowayBA ArchaeologyI’m a former Australian soldier and historical archaeologist with a degree from the University of Sydney. After almost 20 years as a practicing archaeologist I now live in Cambodia and was running a social enterprise to help improve lives here. I have a special interest in the layers of history of a site and evidence of subversion, especially ancient graffiti on monuments.