Into the era of the feudal lord and knightly chivalry in ca. 1122, a baby girl was born at Poitiers to William X of Poitiers and Aenor of Chatellerault. This infant would grow to be a woman who would become renowned. For over eight hundred years, she has been the subject of undying curiosity. There have been literary tributes to her in the form of books and plays. Over the past ten years, she has had more than five biographies written about her. She is as mysterious and captivating today as she was eight hundred years ago. This phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that this woman lived for some eighty years in a period when many women did not survive childbirth. If her lifetime achievements were to be measured by her survival of childbirth alone, her ten children would be achievements worth today’s honorary lifetime achievement award. Three of her sons would grow to be kings, all in her lifetime. Her other surviving children “affected the fortunes of France, Champagne, Brittany, Toulouse, Spain, the Empire, and Sicily” (Brown, pg 2). Clearly, her lineage did her own persevering character ample justice. In her lifetime, she was the queen of both France and England. She traveled the world and braved a religious Crusade.
Very often, she has been acknowledged as the mother of the courts of love, and as a romantic heroine. Historians and writers alike have tried to recreate, and bring her to life to contemporary readers. To them she is queen, mother, and legend. This woman indeed remains all of these things, today. This woman was Eleanor of Aquitaine. Three works, Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen and Legend, by D.D.R. Owen, Eleanor of Aquitaine: a Life, by Alison Weir, and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady, edited by Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, allow the reader to better understand the many sides of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Her Childhood and Adolescence
Coat of Arms of Aquitaine
Not much is known about Eleanor’s childhood and early adolescent years. In his biography of Eleanor, Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen and Legend , D. D. R. Owen sets a background for Eleanor’s upbringing in Aquitaine as one rich in culture and powerful lineage. The Aquitaine court under William X’s rule is one that “was frequented by some of the early troubadours, including Cercamon and Macabru…professional storytellers passed that way” (Owen, pg 10). Aquitaine emerges in this account as a center for cultural and artistic cultivation, more focused on the latter than on the exclusively Catholic doctrine dominating and restricting much of Europe at the time. The countries that were deeply influenced by religion never evolved as much as Aquitaine in cultural and aesthetic matters. Owen uses these ideas to explain Eleanor’s interest in later life in art and culture; one can imagine that Eleanor was also not too preoccupied with religion, but rather indulged in the many riches accessible to her. More explicitly, a keen sense in wardrobe was probably Eleanor’s preference over religious matters: “No doubt as a young girl she would have thrilled more to a new delicacy for the table or gown for her wardrobe than to a new proposition from a theologian” (Owen, pg 12). Clearly, the court in which she grew up would have instilled some humanistic and aesthetic foundations in Eleanor. It is safe to presume, however, that Eleanor’s upbringing was not the only influence in her development that made her so opinionated and refined as an adult. We must also recognize that Eleanor’s eventful life also had much to do with her character.
Culture and aesthetics aside, it is important to note that Eleanor’s life was never to be all fun and games. She was born into a wealthy household, but also into very tumultuous times. In the feudal era, just being born a wealthy woman was not enough to be sheltered from the crude reality of forced political marriages. Women had little to say when it came to their marital decisions. In fact, they had nothing to say about their marriages. Most marriages were political arrangements made between noblemen. The political initiative to marry noblewomen was that through marriage to them, these noblemen would also gain the rights to their wealth and property. Young Eleanor was not to be left out of this vicious cycle. In 1137, when she was just13 years old, her father’s death brought upon her the inheritance of Poitou and Aquitaine. The land mass was estimated to be “wealthier than the domain of its overlord, the King of France” (Weir, pg 5). Eleanor was, by no means overlooked as a jewel in a treasure chest of young and eligible political pawns. Just three months after her father’s death, in late July, she was walking down the aisle to marry sixteen-year-old Louis VII of France, the boy who was to be the next king of France. However traumatic this turn of events would seem for a child, “The move was advantageous to both Eleanor and Louis. The marriage brought to Eleanor, who was just thirteen, assurance of support against the restless lords of Aquitaine, whereas Louis gained authority in a rich region that had been exempt from French control and also the prospect of the territory’s eventual incorporation into the realm of France” (Brown, pg 6). On August 1, one month after the couple’s marriage, Louis’s father died, and they were crowned king and queen of France.
Mother to two girls and the King of France
As Queen of France, Eleanor was living a life of sheer luxury. She was not lacking in wealth, culture or power, and her husband “loved the Queen almost beyond reason” (Weir, pg 30). The young queen was forced to adapt to a new role in life as devoted wife to her husband, who was a “man of warm devotion to God, of extraordinary lenity to his subjects and a notable reverence for the clergy, but he was rather more credulous than befits the king and prone to listen to advice that was unworthy of him” (Weir, pg 31). Eleanor quickly took advantage of these facts and manipulated her husband quite well, almost taking a motherly role with him. This was a sure way for Eleanor to be making enemies in the French court, namely Louis’s advisors, his mother Adelaide, and other court officials: “The headstrong Eleanor thought it was equally natural for Louis to seek advice from her. What she lacked in judgment she more than compensated for in enthusiasm and impetuosity, and many older people at the court looked on in alarm as it became evident how much influence she exerted on her idealistic young husband” (Weir, pg 32). It was clear that Eleanor knew how to manipulate her husband with her charm and her strong character. She was not afraid to make enemies in the court, as long as she was in control. She was a clear threat to the stability of the court. She had no qualms about asserting her rights to advise the king, even when it came to political matters.
When her sister Petronilla, got involved with Louis’ married seneschal Raoul. Raoul wanted to get an annulment from his wife to marry Eleanor’s sister; the church would not grant him this. It remains quite clear that Louis was “almost certainly pressured by Eleanor” (Weir, pg 39) to get involved in this situation, which should have been a matter for the officials of the church rather than for a head of government. Louis’s intervention resulted in the pillaging of Champagne and burning of the Vitry church in 1142-3, after the Church refused to cooperate. The bloodbath would be a lingering stain on Louis’s reputation. As for Eleanor, she was quite content with this turn of events. Her sole interest in the affair was to “support the lovers from the first; she wanted to indulge her sister’s desire to marry Raoul and encouraged him to have his existing marriage annulled” (Weir pg 39). Her motherly domination over the meek Louis enabled her to influence his opinions when she saw fit. Nevertheless, motherly dominance and wealthy inheritance were not enough to ensure her a lifelong role as queen of France. She would have to give birth to a male heir…
This was not, however to be the couple’s future. Eleanor would never produce French male heirs. Despite much effort, the anticipation of male heirs would only result in the birth of Marie in 1145 and the subsequent birth of Alice in 1150. Soon after, Louis declared that he was taking the cross. This meant that he was expected to go on a holy crusade to conquer peoples not of Catholic religion, that also were a direct threat to the Roman Empire. Louis’s decision to go on the crusade, and to take Eleanor along with him, would only make marital relations worse for the young couple. Eleanor’s and Louis’s joint involvement and travel in the Holy Crusade between 1147 and 1149, made it even more evident that their union was more star- crossed than blessed. Eleanor’s jovial spirit, mixed with her almost inappropriate relationship with her uncle Raymond, infuriated Louis into jealousy. Both were becoming increasingly distant from each other, and Eleanor began contesting her marriage to Louis on the grounds of consanguinity. It was not until 1152 that the Pope granted them an annulment, due to Eleanor’s inability to produce a male heir on technical grounds of consanguinity between Eleanor and Louis. Eleanor’s wish for annulment was granted, but she would have to pay the price of leaving her two daughters Marie and Alice, in France. Although they were not male heirs, the two girls were still powerful political pawns, which could be married off in the future to secure alliances and lands. This marked the end of Eleanor’s rendezvous with French life. She now headed back to her hometown of Poitiers, stripped of motherly duties and the crown.
Henry of Anjou and Eleanor the Birthing Machine
It would seem that Eleanor had grown tired of having to answer to a husband while simultaneously mothering him, after she renounced these roles through the annulment of her marriage to Louis. However, just two months later, in May 1152, Eleanor (whether by her own choice or by political pressure to do so) married Henry Plantagenet. Historians believe that, in actuality, Eleanor was in love with the young Duke, and that she was “favourably impressed by Henry’s personality and the evident culture of the young knight” (Owen, pg 30). Irony would have it that Eleanor married a man who was just as close a blood relation as her latter husband had been. To make matters more awkward, Henry was a staggering eleven years younger than Eleanor was! Nonetheless, it appeared to be a match made in heaven for these two, who shared zealous hunger for power. Eleanor was a qualified bride for Henry, as she had “efficiency in managing the affairs of her own lands…and her experience ranged far beyond domestic concerns, involved as she had been as Queen of France with matters of state within and without Louis’s own realm” (Owen, pg 37). The marriage also secured Henry’s control over Aquitaine. What was different this time around for Eleanor, was that she indeed could not mother Henry as she had her previous husband; he would not allow her so much influence.
Eleanor, in turn, spent her best years giving birth to their nine children. Henry took care of most of the political matters while Eleanor stayed in residence with the children. Their first son, William, was born in 1153 and died only three years later in 1156. From this point on, Eleanor would successively give birth to a child at an average rate of every year with longer breaks between children at the end of her birthing years. In February of 1155, Eleanor gave birth to Henry; in June 1156, she gave birth to Matilda; in September 1157, she had Richard; September 1158 brought along Geoffrey; in September 1161, Eleanor had Eleanor; in May 1165, she gave birth to Joanna; and lastly she gave birth to John in December of 1166. For some ninety months, this woman was pregnant and too much incapacitated to travel. This kept her out of political affairs, except when acting as regent in Henry’s absence, and allowed Henry almost exclusive control of her territory. Eleanor was a devoted mother to her children. She would play a pivotal role in all her children’s royal careers, especially in those of Richard the Lionhearted and John Lackland.
Eleanor in the role of advisor for Richard
The focus will now shift to Eleanor and her interaction with her two sons Richard and John during their adult years. Eleanor was unlike most aging medieval wives of royalty. She had her greatest surge of energy and power while aging, and demonstrated her most maternal behavior yet: she devoted her physical and political strength, as well as her intellect, to secure their inheritances and preserve their possessions. Instead of conforming to the norm and taking the veil at Fontevrault after the death of her husband, Henry, Eleanor was a rising force to be reckoned with in the political stratosphere of England. It has often been said of Eleanor that she was somewhat of a coquettish woman, who only partook in presiding over the “Courts of Love”. If anything disputes this statement, it is the period of Eleanor’s widowhood between Richard’s rule and John’s rule.
It is very evident just how much positive influence Eleanor had on her sons, when one looks at the generosity with which they treated her: “During their reigns, she took precedence over their wives, enjoying a queen-regnant’s perquisites.” (Turner, pg 78). Even after their marriages, Eleanor still received “queen’s gold,” or a portion of all the taxes that the kings collected during each of their reigns, respectively. She was supplied with an entourage of her own and always traveled in great luxury. “In preparation of the queen-mother’s participation in the coronation festivities, over £100 was spent on clothing, furs, horse-harness and other items for her and her entourage” (Turner, pg 78). During his reign as king, Richard did not grant his wife Berengaria of Navarre, possession of Eleanor’s dower lands Normandy and Poitou. Unconventionally, Eleanor was allowed to keep this property as her own until she died. Both John and Richard made it a point to allow their mother the freedom she had been deprived of while she was imprisoned by Henry.
Following the death of Henry in July of 1189, Richard was crowned in September of 1189. Richard made it his first priority to free Eleanor from captivity. His first move to grant Eleanor power was to release her from prison. He trusted her to hold England for him while he set out on political journey to France. This would become a routine way of life for Eleanor, and she would be allowed by Richard to exercise power in many other forms. Though her only position was queen-mother , and she was not technically empowered to be a regent, “she traversed the kingdom and dispatched royal representatives to the counties to release captives imprisoned for offenses against forest law, or those held by the king’s will and not by the law of the realm” (Turner, pg 79). Quite clearly, this was the peak of Eleanor’s fruitful life, when she was allowed to exercise power without the restraint of a husband, but with the protection of a powerful man.
Her superb ability to govern the kingdom would become even more evident when Richard was captured by the Duke Leopold of Austria in 1193 while returning from his political voyage. Not sure if Richard would ever come home, and faced with young John as a looming threat to Richard’s throne, Eleanor was left to mediate and keep her kingdom unified: “Despite having been assigned no official role, Eleanor set aside her personal sorrow and assumed the control of the government of Richard’s kingdom in his absence…The Queen, who was now exceedingly respected and beloved, ruled England with great wisdom and popularity” (Weir, pg 281). Eleanor’s fears that John would be hungry for power proved to be quite astute. John took this advantage of his brother’s captivity to start a military campaign with King Phillip of France against the throne. He traveled to France and conspired with King Phillip to create an army that would rise against Richard in his absence. Eleanor retaliated by exacting “new oaths of allegiance to the King from the lords and clergy” (Weir, pg 281). She also went so far as to write letters to the Pope Celestine, to implore that he send a crusader to Austria to free Richard. The letter is one of the very few preserved to give us a glimpse of Eleanor and her love of her sons:
O holiest Pope, a cursed distance between us prevents me from addressing you in person, but I must give vent to my grief a little, and who shall assist me to write my words?...Who may allow me to die for you, my son? Mother of mercy, look upon a mother so wretched, or else, if your Son, an unexhausted source of mercy, requires from my son the sins of the mother, then let Him exact complete vengeance on me, for I am the only one to offend, and let Him punish me, for I am the irreverent one. Do not let Him smile over the punishment of an innocent person. Let He who now bruises me take up His hand and slay me. Let this be my consolation-that in burdening me with grief, He does not spare me…Two sons yet survive to my comfort, who now live only to distress me, a miserable and condemned creature. King Richard is detained in bonds, and his brother John depopulates the captive’s kingdom with the sword and lays it to waste with fire. In all things the Lord has become cruel towards me, turning His heavy hand against me. His anger is so against me that even my sons fight against each other, if indeed it can be called a fight in which one languishes in bonds and the other, adding grief upon grief, tries by cruel tyranny to usurp the exile’s kingdom (Weir pg 283-4).
The letter, though by all accounts moving, did not get the reaction from the Pope that Eleanor had wanted. The Pope was aware that “as a result of this recent schism, the standing of the papacy was poor, and any representations he might make on Richard’s behalf to the Emperor would be treated with contempt” (Weir pg 287). The vigor that we see in Eleanor’s letter was not only limited to paper. She was devoted to freeing Richard by any means. When the Emperor of Austria demanded a ransom of grandiose proportions for the freedom of Richard and some two hundred noble hostages, Eleanor set to work. She exercised her power yet again by issuing everyone in the country a tax to raise the money: “No subject rich or poor was overlooked” (Weir, pg 292). However, the King’s loyal servants gave willingly, and soon even King Phillip of France saw that his and John’s scheme would be to no avail. After almost three years of captivity, on February 4, 1194, “the ransom and hostages had been handed over; Richard was formally released and restored to his mother and freedom. Eleanor was so overcome with emotion, that she broke down in tears” (Weir, pg 297). For years to come, while Richard reigned, Eleanor would be by his side, serving as his counselor and partner-in-rule. Ultimately, she would be the one who would mediate the feud between Richard and John in 1195. As always, Eleanor remained a mother to her children and was able to forgive any wrong.
Was she or was she not?
Throughout the centuries a historical debate has arisen between various historians as to whether Eleanor was the mother of the courts of love. It is true that Eleanor took up residence in Poitiers around 1170 and set up her own court. During this time, it is believed that Eleanor ran this court in the manner of her Aquitainian predecessors. Some historians still believe “that Eleanor encouraged troubadours and poets to come to her court and receive the benefits of her patronage” still exist today (Weir, pg 175).
The idea that Eleanor presided over “The Courts of Love” is now seen as a “literary conceit invented between 1174 and 1196 by Andreas Capellanus for the purposes of his treatise on courtoisie, called Tractus de amore et de amoris remedio ” (Weir, pg 175). In his courtoisie, Andreas Capellanus created an image of Eleanor and her female followers, who included Marie de Champagne (her daughter) and a plethora of other distinguished women, presiding over a court that ruled on matters of love. Most contemporary historians agree that there was “no evidence for Marie’s presence at Poitiers; and whatever grains of truth there may be in the romantic picture of Eleanor’s court as a center of civilized dalliance, we may be sure that she had not lost her devotion to more serious matters” (Owen, pg 65). It may seem that Eleanor’s position as “Queen of Courtly Love” became her glorification, but it remains quite sure that Eleanor’s reign in the courts of love was more legend and fluff than reality.
Eleanor of Aquitaine continues to captivate people around the world. Famous plays, such as James Goldman’s Lion in Winter and Catherine Muschamp’s Mother of the Pride, allow audiences to meet the literary interpretations of Eleanor in a romantic take on her life. Historians have tried to capture the essence that was Eleanor for decades. Though their conclusions about Eleanor may not dovetail, the popularity of biographical works such as Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen and Legend , by D.D.R. Owen, Eleanor of Aquitaine: a Life, by Alison Weir, and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady, edited by Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons tell us just how much Eleanor has influenced us today. She has become famous, in her own right, and reverence is owed to her, even today. She deserves this reverence for her strength in ruling as a woman in a man’s world, her dedication to her sons and the many births she survived, and her influential style and culture. A woman ahead of her times, she has been analyzed by many historians, who could not sometimes help but mix Eleanor’s historical person with a romantic interpretation themselves. From these analyses, one learns that, in the end, Eleanor was simply human. She was no different than we are as woman today. In fact, she embodies the modern mother quite well. Like the modern woman, Eleanor was not to be made submissive to her husband easily; she worked hard to establish her career, but also felt success through the success of her children. Eleanor of Aquitaine: woman. What a woman she was!!