Eleanor of Aquitaine has become synonymous with the image of a powerful medieval woman. Volumes have been written about her extraordinary political influence, with the oldest dating as far back as when she was alive. Though historians continue to debate the nature of her rule, it’s clear that she was one of the most influential women of her time.
Eleanor’s early life prepared her for the tense European political landscape. Her father was William, Duke of Aquitaine, one of the strongest nobles in western Europe. He ensured that his eldest daughter received a strong education in politics and the arts, and his death in A.D./C.E. 1137 required her to put her education to use. That same year she married Prince Louis, the heir to the French throne, in whose company she rapidly gained a reputation for her brilliance, worldliness, and independence. As part of the marriage agreement, she retained control over her newly-inherited Duchy of Aquitaine, further cementing her independence and political clout. Soon the French king, Louis VI, died, Eleanor and her husband became the new monarchs of France, yet Aquitaine remained a sovereign territory under Eleanor.
When Louis VII joined the Second Crusade, Eleanor joined him and proved her exceptional power. Rather than allow her husband to assume command of the soldiers from Aquitaine, Eleanor insisted on leading them herself, an unprecedented act in French history. Throughout the campaign, she asserted her status as an independent duchess, arguing with Louis over suitable objectives and military decisions. Their disagreements strained their relationship, and after Eleanor gave birth to a second daughter when the couple returned to Europe, they decided to annul their marriage.
With the annulment, Eleanor became the supreme independent landowner in France. She dodged two aggressive suitors’ attempts to kidnap her during her journey back to Aquitaine. Shortly after her arrival home in 1152, she sent for Henry, Duke of Normandy, to marry her immediately. It was both an expression of her autonomy and a strategic choice; when Henry became King Henry II of England in 1154, Eleanor retained control of Aquitaine in her new role as England’s queen, and Louis lost a significant portion of his kingdom to the growing English empire.
As the English queen, Eleanor continued to exert her power in royal politics. For much of the mid-twelfth century, she oversaw her French vassals and helped Henry arrange suitable marriages for their children. She personally handled the education of her third son, Richard (who would become king in 1189), raising him in Aquitaine away from Henry’s influence.
When Eleanor’s and Henry’s eldest living son, Henry, revolted in 1173, Eleanor’s willful independence again came to the fore. She encouraged Richard and Geoffrey, her fourth son, to join their brother. Soon thereafter, she and some of her vassals joined the Great Revolt, possibly, as history writer Dan Jones argues in The Plantagenets, because Henry had been ignoring her status as a sovereign duchess and dealing directly with her vassals. During the conflict, Henry captured Eleanor and imprisoned her; however, she remained a tremendous political force even after the revolt’s failure. She and Henry spent much of the rest of their marriage fighting over who would be the heir to the English throne.
Henry died in 1189, but the aging Eleanor’s political involvement persisted for the next fifteen years. During Richard’s participation in the Third Crusade, she ruled England in his place and prevented a rebellion from John, her youngest son who would inherit the throne in 1199. When Richard was captured on his journey home, she led the efforts to raise his ransom. Until her death in 1204, she was an active participant in England’s politics, advising her children, arranging marriages, and helping to quash rebellions.
Among medieval women, Eleanor was one of the most remarkable. Despite marrying two kings, she managed to preserve her territory’s independence until her death. She also displayed political cunning and ambition in the way she defied both of her husbands, boldly establishing herself as formidable lady. On campaign her command of armies was unique, while on the throne her command of diplomacy was unparalleled, undeniably making her a medieval mold-breaker.
This is part two of a Women’s History Month series on famous medieval women. Part One can be found here.