Eleanor of Aquitaine

The Power of Eleanor

According to Curtis Howe Walker, "Romance offers no more brilliant picture than does the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of two powerful medieval monarchs, and mother of two more -- one of them a villain, the other, the most famous warrior of his time" (1950, p. 2). This author points out the Eleanor lived during a formative period in history, and she was inextricably entwined with the great personages of her era. These relationships "plunged her into adventure after adventure, and led her from one extremity of the known world to the other. And hers was a long life. She made her first entrance on the public stage as a bride at the age of fifteen, and held her place upon it for three score years. After her last dramatic act, the defense of a besieged castle, she made her exit at the age of eighty-two." To better understand this fascinating character from European history, this paper provides an overview and brief biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, an examination of the degree of her power as queen of England and France (because she was still ruler of Aquitaine), her power compared to the kings, the limits of her power, and the things she did with her power. A summary of the research is provided in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview. Eleanor of Aquitaine, also called Eleanor of Guyenne, French eleonore, or Alienor, D'aquitaine, or De Guyenne, was queen consort of both Louis VII of France (from 1137-52) and Henry II of England (from 1152-1204); she was also mother of Richard I the Lion-Heart and John of England. Eleanor was born around 1122 and died April 1, 1204, in Fontevrault, Anjou, France. During this period in history, the lives of elite women such as queens, princesses, and the daughters and wives of great magnates, in high medieval France and England were, to a considerable degree, shaped by marriage from their very earliest years. "Marriage plans influenced girls' early education, place of residence, and treatment. The marriage ceremony itself, which often took place when a girl was twelve years old, and sometimes even earlier, functioned as a symbolic rite of passage into adulthood."

While the precise age at which such elite females were regarded as adults, this transition into adulthood was largely dependent on a woman's personal abilities and education. Marriage, such as in Eleanor's case, was likely to happen earlier in a woman's life if her husband possessed land, position, and authority at the time of their marriage, or if a woman had been educated as a child at the court of her spouse. According to Teresa Santerre Hobby, "Men's fear of strong women such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose husband locked her away, and Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake as a heretic," was based on that fact that women enjoyed the more power when their husbands were gone:

Not only queens and amazons such as Eleanor and Joan had increased power during fifteenth-century Europe. Widows, who were most frequently burned as witches, had the most power because they took over their dead husbands' fields, craftsmen's wives inherited shops, tools, and apprentices, and landowner's widows discovered the opportunities as well as problems, of management responsibility. Some widows used their wealth to attract youthful suitors. Others, more materialistic or less romantic, used remarriage to increase their wealth (emphasis added).

These points were clearly not lost on Eleanor, and her ability to acquire power was almost unrivaled by her peers; these issues are discussed further below.

Eleanor and Power. According to Black's Law Dictionary, "power" refers to "The right, ability, authority, or faculty of doing something," and one of the first things that emerges from research on this historical figure is the consistent application of the term "powerful" to her long life (some of her biographers add the words "and dangerous" as well). This appellation is well-deserved, but Eleanor was not unique among her contemporaries in becoming a powerful woman. For example, Stoertz points out that the positions of respect and authority enjoyed by many of the adult elite women of the era were generally earned through time and experience. "In France and England, women often ruled territories and even kingdoms upon the absence or death of husbands. Women usually possessed their own households and circles of patronage, and it was widely recognized that women had considerable influence over their husbands (emphasis added)." In his essay, "Eleanor of Aquitaine Marries Henry of Anjou: May 18th, 1152," Richard Cavendish suggests that, "Two more strong-minded, forceful and determined people could hardly have been matched. Eleanor, who was about thirty, had already been queen of France for fifteen years through her first marriage and by her second she would soon be queen of England." Eleanor was the daughter and heiress of William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou; she was also "beautiful, wanton, capricious, sophisticated, highly intelligent and accustomed to having her own way."

Following William's death in 1137, Eleanor inherited her father's valuable estates. Her first husband was Louis VII of France, and they had two daughters together. Eleanor even traveled with her first husband on the Second Crusade, but Eleanor ultimately proved too powerful for him. According to one biographer, "Eleanor's conduct during this expedition, especially at the court of her uncle Raymond of Poitiers at Antioch, aroused Louis's jealousy and marked the beginning of their estrangement." Frustrated from being constantly ordered around by Eleanor, combined with her apparent inability or unwillingness to provide him with a male heir, their marriage was annulled in March 1152 on the grounds of consanguinity.

This annulment actually represented a major career advancement for Eleanor, since Aquitaine and Poitou reverted to her power once again. According to Nick Barratt, Henry II was the son of the Empress Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou, and was the nominal ruler of lands extending from the borders of Scotland to the Pyrenees. This author reports that Geoffrey had inherited England partly through conquest and partly through his mother's birthright as daughter of Henry I. Normandy had been conquered by his father and Henry had been invested as duke of Normandy at some time between November 1149 and March 1150, and he also inherited Anjou on Count Geoffrey's death in 1151. Barratt suggests that, "Perhaps the most audacious acquisition was the strategically important duchy of Acquitaine when Henry married its heiress Eleanor in 1152. This was a gamble; not only was Eleanor eleven years older than the nineteen-year-old Henry, but also she was the repudiated wife of Louis VII, king of France. One of the grounds for the annulment was that she had failed to produce a male heir, a serious issue when dynastic continuity depended on a brood of healthy sons."

Just two months after their annulment, Eleanor took her fabulous dowry and good looks with her to Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy; Cavendish points out that Eleanor was just as closely related to Henry as she had been to Louis. Cavendish writes that Eleanor's new husband was nothing like her first. "Henry was nineteen years old, bull-necked, stocky and freckled, a man of electric energy and ferocious impatience, compelling charm and an ungovernable temper. He was ruthless when crossed and some of his contemporaries uneasily credited the story that his family, the Plantagenets, were descended from the Devil -- a tale that the Plantagenets themselves delighted to encourage." Eleanor's marriage to Henry was not without controversy, and rumors abounded that the couple had anticipated the ceremony and that Eleanor had perhaps gotten to know her new husband's late father more intimately than she should have before the marriage.

When the French archbishops had formally annulled her marriage on March 21, 1152, Eleanor left the royal castle at Beaugency on the Loire, near Orleans. After successfully avoiding an attempt to capture her by the Count of Blois, Eleanor boarded a river barge with her guards and safely traveled the rest of the way to Tours. According to Cavendish, "Warned just in time, she avoided an ambush set by Henry's young brother Geoffrey, who hoped to advance his ambitions by marrying her himself, and arrived safely at her own capital of Poitiers." According to Carolyn Anderson, Geoffrey of Anjou was ambitious to acquire new land, titles, and conquest; however, in the Norman world, gaining these meant that someone else would lose them. "Geoffrey campaigned in Normandy," Anderson says, "wresting it from Stephen's forces, adventured in Boulogne, with varying success, and eventually allied Aquitaine to this burgeoning empire by marrying his son to Eleanor of Aquitaine."

Upon her arrival, Eleanor immediately took steps to consolidate her power by summoning Henry to come and marry her and by compelling her principal vassals to renew their vows of allegiance to her as Duchess of Aquitaine. After Henry joined her in Poitiers, they were married in the cathedral on Whit Sunday in a simple ceremony without theā€¦