This article was written by Kelly.
Eleanor of Aquitaine is often remembered as one of two things: the sassy consort of King Henry II of England or Richard the Lionheart’s valiant mother. While neither of these descriptions is wrong – they fall short in illustrating the magnanimity of this 12th century Queen. Eleanor of Aquitaine was a warrior at heart, and even though imprisoned for more than a decade, she continued to burn bright amidst all malevolent machinations against her person.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was a duchess with extensive lands that were inherited after her father’s untimely death during a pilgrimage. Eleanor quickly became the richest heiress in Europe and the most eligible marriage prospect. Many matches were set for Eleanor, but of course, the bar was never too high. Eventually, in 1137, Eleanor and Louis VII were married. While most marriages, especially between royals, are often tinged with stress over position, politics, and securing an “heir and a spare”, this marriage was wrought with problems. Eleanor, headstrong and educated well by her father’s indulgence, was not the meek queen that Louis would have hoped for. In fact, so intelligent, cunning, and witty was she that Eleanor often found herself as the driving force behind many of France’s political movements. Most notably was the Crusade.
In one first-hand account, which highlights both Eleanor’s willingness to spring to action and her temperament, a courtier recounts
“At Christmas court, Eleanor sat impatiently at Louis’s side as he addressed the assembled barons and prelates and revealed ‘the secret in his heart.’ At once she [Eleanor] could see that he was going about the announcement in precisely the wrong manner…”1
Goodbye France, Hello England
Headstrong and disturbed at the consanguinity of her and Louis’s relationship, Eleanor found herself in an even more difficult decision after her reputation became sullied by rumours and her failing popularity with Christendom – no doubt due to the ongoing conflicts with Pope Innocent II. With the heavy atmosphere of diplomatic failure, estrangement from her husband, and inherent affinity for her beloved Aquitaine, Eleanor eventually called it “quits” with her husband. Eleanor, who had already been estranged from her husband, finally managed a divorce (her first plea for a divorce was not met with success) after she reminded Louis that her great personal wealth was irrelevant if there were no heirs to inherit the throne.
It is hard to imagine what Eleanor must have been feeling at this moment. We know that in the future, Eleanor becomes a force to be reckoned with in England; however, her period in France is often overlooked. It is possible that periods such as this became a learning experience for Eleanor in her future endeavours. During moments such as these, we see the true resolve of Eleanor as she faced separation from her daughters, tension with the Pope, and estrangement from the French court but maintained her polished grace. Upon returning to Poitiers, Eleanor was forced to quickly solidify an alliance with Henry, Duke of Normandy, to save her from the machinations of other nobles. Eleanor’s quick action and wit lead her to become the next Queen of England, a role that left her in the history books as one of Europe’s most prominent and talked about Queens. While speculation is the only recourse for events so far in the past, there is one truth amongst these facts: Eleanor of Aquitaine was a medieval phoenix – eager to rise from the ashes of her enduring impediments.
Freedom is often an inherent right that we forget to acknowledge in the 21st century, but history has shown us that royal women are almost always allowed little to no freedom from the moment they are born into this world. While males are heirs, royal women are bargaining chips on the international stage – expensive pawns at the beck of their lord father. In a completely patriarchal era, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s remarkable commitment to her instincts remains inspiring a millennium later.