Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Beyoncé of 12th century Europe


Eleanor of Aquitaine (daughter of the tenth Duke of Aquitaine, William), is readily recognised by a horde of historians as one of the most powerful women operating on the continent and in Great Britain during the Medieval period. After her father’s death she became Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, and went onto gain the title of queen-consort of France, following her marriage to Louis VII of France. After their vicious annulment, she would go on to marry her previous husband’s vassal and fifth Anglo-Norman king of England, Henry II.

Following the death of both her brother and father, Eleanor received, at 15, the most desirable inheritance seen across the continent. Accordingly, her role in international politics monumentally shifted for forever as she became “the most eligible heiress in Europe”. She married Louis in 1137 (the same year as her father’s death) and from this moment she became a pawn in the great power struggle between the Capetians and the aforementioned Anglo-Normans. Yet, while it is necessary to appreciate her inheritance as one of the main factors in contributing to her imperative position, her character and resoluteness alongside her political acuteness, meant that she quickly gained unprecedented amounts of power and was highly revered both in England and across the rest of the continent.

The second crusade took place between 1147-1149 and was launched as a direct result of the fall of the County of Edessa (in present day Turkey). Eleanor accompanied her husband on his campaigning mission. The crusade was a categoric failure and it is this incident which is often attributed to the eventual break down of the medieval equivalent to Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Some contemporaries, most notably that of John of Salisbury and William of Tyre, credited the fall of pair as a direct result of the sullying of Eleanor’s reputation by rumours of an affair with her uncle Raymond. However, these rumours may have been a ruse, as Raymond, through Eleanor, had been trying to persuade Louis to use a different strategy in achieving the overall papal aim of re-capturing Edessa. Eleanor had wished to accompany Raymond, to which Louis refused and as a result greatly humiliated the queen in taking her against her will and forcing her to accompany him.  In addition, Eleanor’s failure to produce a male heir (only giving birth to two daughters across their sixteen-year marriage) further contributed to the growing tension between the pair. They were divorced in 1152.

A mere two months later Eleanor married Henry of Anjou “without the pomp and ceremony that befitted their rank.”, who would become King of England in 1154. Eleanor was crowned queen of England by the archbishop of Canterbury on 19 December 1154. Over the next 13 years, she bore Henry five sons and three daughters – a real kick in the teeth for the recently abandoned French king.  If Louis and Eleanor were Yoncé and Jay-Z, Henry and Eleanor were akin to KKW and Kanye (well, with Henry’s rampant infidelity, maybe they should be downgraded to Kourt and Scott or even Khloe and Tristan- I don’t know). Regardless, Eleanor played an active and itinerant role in Henry’s ‘empire’ for almost 20 years.

While contemporary chroniclers and members of the higher nobility may argue that the eventual collapse of the marriage between Henry and Eleanor can be attributed to Eleanor’s frustration with Henry’s known lack of loyalty to his wife, for me, it is more likely that Eleanor became more frustrated with her lack of power given to her by her husband, which in turn drove her to support her sons in the Great Rebellion of 1173-1174.

In March 1173, aggrieved at his lack of power and spurred on by Henry’s enemies, his son, Young Henry, launched a revolt against his father. He fled to Paris, whereby “the younger Henry, devising evil against his father from every side by the advice of the French king, went secretly into Aquitaine where his two youthful brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, were living with their mother, and with her connivance, so it is said, he incited them to join him.” As recorded her, Eleanor played a vital role in orchestrating the rebellion and encouraging her sons to defy their father. Furthermore, once her sons had left for Paris, it is probable to believe that Eleanor may have encouraged the lords of the south to rise up and support them. Between the end of March and the beginning of May Eleanor left Poiters, was arrested and brought the king at Rouen. The king then took decisive action and imprisoned his wife for the next 16 years.

Henry lost the woman reputed to be his great love, Rosamund Clifford, in 1176. While he had many affairs, on a whole he tended to keep them undisclosed whereas, with Rosamund it was different- he flaunted her. He may have done so to provoke Eleanor into seeking an annulment, but if so, the queen disappointed him. Nevertheless, rumours persisted, perhaps assisted by Henry’s camp, that Eleanor had poisoned her.

After Henry’s ignominious death in 1189, his now eldest son, Richard I (following the unexpected death of Young Henry in June 1183), ordered his mother’s release. Despite her age (now in her mid-sixties) Eleanor became very closely involved in government., acting as regent in England in 1190 when Richard went to join the Third Crusade, and played a vital role in the negotiations for his release after he was taken prisoner in Germany.

In 1199, Richard died and was succeeded by Eleanor and Henry’s youngest son, (Bad King) John. Eleanor’s role in English affairs now concluded, yet she persisted to be closely associated with the issues within Aquitaine, where she spent her final years.

She died on 31 March 1204 and was buried in the abbey at Fontevrault next to her estranged husband, Henry II. She was a truly influential, decisive, and head-strong woman.