How Eleanor of Aquitaine Worked

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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert, and joining me today is Sarah Dowdey. How are you, Sarah?

Sarah: I'm doing well, Katie. How are you?

Katie: Good. We had a reader request for today's topic, from Alexandria and Vanessa, and her name is Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was a very busy lady in her 82 years of life.

Sarah: She was extremely busy, and we should say, she was living in the 12th Century, so 82 is an impressive feat of its own.

Katie: It's also hard, because there's not a lot of source material to go from - not a lot of primary sources from the time, or at least not concerning women, because no one cared to record what the women were doing. So, what we're doing is piecing together the little that we have -

Sarah: Varied accounts.

Katie: Exactly. So, Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most powerful woman in 12th Century Europe according to lots of accounts. She was also beautiful and rich and has been described as vital, lively, headstrong, energetic and intelligent.

Sarah: She was the sole heir of the Duke of Aquitaine. His son died very young, so she was in a very powerful position from childhood. This made her a pretty desirable match for the bachelors of Europe.

Katie: Right. Her full title was Countess of Poitou and Duchess of Aquitaine and Gascony, but that's a bit of a mouthful, so she's usually known as -

Sarah: That's a lot of land, basically.

Katie: It is a lot of land. Her father, William X, Duke of Aquitaine, possessed the largest domains in Northwest Europe. He owned more land than the king of France. So, that's pretty impressive. She also had a sister whose name I very much enjoy, Petronilla, and a brother William Aigret, the one who died young, as Sarah had said. Some interesting history about her family, in the year 1130, Bernard of Clairvaux told her father, William X, that God disapproved of him because he was supporting the Antipope Anacletus against Pope Innocent II. So, the Pope excommunicated him and one day, when Bernard was preaching against William in a church, William burst in and he was armed and prepared to take Bernard out. Bernard held up the bread and wine, William had some sort of a fit and foamed at the mouth and fell down on the ground and decided that was God telling him to change his mind.

Sarah: Back off.

Katie: So, he did.

Sarah: Yeah. And in addition to having fits, William was also pretty interested in educating his daughters. He had them instructed in Latin and they grew up in a very sophisticated court. We tend to think of any countesses or dukes or whatnot being sophisticated, but in 12th Century Europe, that's definitely not the case. Some of these people are slightly separated from being pretty crude.

Katie: But in their court, they had troubadours and extended patronage to poets. Eleanor herself loved silk gowns embroidered in gold thread and lots of jewelry. She definitely had a taste for luxury. And when her mother and her brother died in 1130, that's when Eleanor became the heiress of all of this land. So, her father had vassals swear fealty to Eleanor on her 14th birthday and he made her the ward of Louis VI who was the king of France at the time.

Sarah: Not long after that, her father goes on a pilgrimage to Spain and drinks contaminated water and ends up dying. He actually made a will earlier in the day kind of looking out for his daughter asking that she would be brought to Louis quickly before his death was announced, because in this time, it was pretty common for an heiress to just be kidnapped for lands. So, if people knew about his death, his daughter was going to be in great danger.

Katie: Right. So, he specified that he was going to make Louis VI her guardian and also that he wanted his dau ghter to marry Louis VI's son. He also specified - which is the interesting part - that Eleanor's lands were to be her own and they would be inherited by her heirs. So, her land wasn't going to be swallowed up as part of the kingdom of France. She was going to keep properties like Aquitaine.

Sarah: Yeah. So, she marries Louis VII at age 15 in 1137. She wore red.

Katie: I liked that detail, yes, she had 1000 guests. Shortly thereafter - which reminds me of Marie Antoinette - Louis VI died of dysentery. This is less than a month after their wedding, and the new couple became the king and queen of France.

Sarah: So, at 15, she's queen.

Katie: Shoved right into the spotlight. Life at the French court was a little bit different. They didn't have a literary tradition. They didn't have a lot of entertainment. She brought in some troubadours and tried to improve court manners but was generally very bored, and in the French court, the queen has no power.

Sarah: Also, Louis was kind of the different husband. He had been a younger son, so he wasn't destined to be king. He'd actually been trained as a monk. So, he was very pious and he was besotted by his wife but kind of naïve, too.

Katie: Naïve would be a good word for him and also devoted to God and not so much to secular life. One problem in their marriage was that Louis didn't sleep with her very often. Because he was a monk or was trained as a monk, he abided by rules that said you weren't supposed to have sexual relations with your wife on Sundays, holy days, feast days, during lent, during pregnancy or during that time of the month.

Sarah: So, this is a problem when you're trying to produce an heir to the French throne.

Katie: He needed a male heir and wasn't visiting her bed all that often. So, this will come up later as an issue.

Sarah: Once again, sounds kind of Marie Antoinette -

Katie: Exactly. And his advisor tried to curb Eleanor's power. So, the only time she ever got to sway his opinion was in private. That changed the French court, because before that, queens at least had a little more power. But after this, that became more of a tradition to let the queen have her say in private, but in public, she just had a role that was decorative. Her mother-in-law thought Eleanor spent too much money and shouldn't use makeup and wasn't very pious. Fashions at the court at the time were a little nuts - lots of fine wool and silk and fine linen and piles of jewelry.

Sarah: She was about to prove her piety though with a crusade plan.

Katie: She decided to go along when Louis went, and she and her ladies dressed as amazons, it's said, and wore red boots. We were reading one book by Alison Weir about Eleanor of Aquitaine that said it was actually a credible account. Historians have been arguing this one for a while.

Sarah: The amazon costumes?

Katie: Um-hum. She says she thinks the amazon thing could have happened, and there were at least 300 women along with Eleanor, so they must have made quite the spectacle.

Sarah: Yeah. During that time, her marriage to Louis was already kind of on the rocks, but things started to take a turn for the worse. There were some rumors that she might have cheated on her husband with her uncle, Raymond, at Antioch. And she and her husband were no longer sleeping together.

Katie: No. Also, she sided with Raymond against Louis. Raymond had said that they should try to capture Odessa and Louis said they should try and capture Jerusalem, and siding with him really upset Louis. When he got upset with her, this was when she brought up the fact that they were related. They'd known this for a long time, but consanguinity within certain degrees wasn't allowed.

Sarah: They're not really closely related but enough for it to give grounds for an annulment.

Katie: Which is what she wanted which upset Louis quite a bit, and he actually took her out of the city at midnight and wouldn't let her say goodbye to Raymond, and they went home. But to the pope - Pope Eugenius wouldn't give them an annulment, so they stayed together. They had two daughters, but they had no heir in the years to come, so then they thought that perhaps God really did disapprove of their marriage because not having a son and a male heir was seen as celestial disapproval.

Sarah: Yeah. So, they did get their marriage annulled in 1152, and in accordance with her father's will and the terms of their marriage, she gets her land back.

Katie: Exactly. So, she could go back to Aquitaine if she wanted to. But of course, as the great heiress, she was now prey again and at risk. People seriously tried to abduct her on her way home, so she needed someone to protect her in a marriage and protect her land and her interests. But she also wanted someone she was more compatible with than she was with Louis, because they didn't have a lot in common. So, enter Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy.

Sarah: Eleanor essentially proposes to Henry, sends him a note. They had met before while she was married and there were rumors that she'd actually had a sexual relationship with Henry's father, Geoffrey of Anjou, before she met his son.

Katie: My favorite rumor about their family is that Henry supposedly had a diabolical anestrous Melusine who was said to be the devil's daughter.

Sarah: Imagine their family tree, some flames drawn around her.

Katie: People thought their family had a bit of deviltry to it. He had red hair. He was into diets and fasting. He was unpretentious, literate, forceful and complex. He also had quite the temper and quite the sex drive. He was a womanizer and had lots of illegitimate children.

Sarah: So, they get married in 1152, same year as the annulment, it's just a couple months later. The odd thing here is they're just as related as Eleanor and Louis were.

Katie: Right. The same degrees of relation! Also, they were supposed to - as Louis' vassals - he was the king of France - ask him if they could get married, but they knew he wouldn't give permission, so they just went ahead and did it which was an extremely provocative act. He could've started a war with them if he'd wanted. Henry was also Louis' arch rival. He had about the same amount of power and land.

Sarah: Shortly after their marriage, Henry is crowned king of England at Westminster and this starts the rule of the Plantagenets who go on for the next 330 years in parts of the continent. They die out in England with Richard III, actually. The Tudors take over.

Katie: Henry was a good governor. He was a good king of England. He finally brought peace to the land. Although he might not have been the best husband, he was good at being king.

Sarah: He had a very messy family life as we will see.

Katie: During this time, Eleanor didn't have much of a role. He didn't give her much of one. So, she did what she could within the parameters of her power. She gave a lot of money to the Abbey at Fontevraud and she was the patroness to poets and troubadours, and she had her own little court. His court was really chaotic and messy and disgusting, like you'd mentioned they could be. So, she had her private rooms -

Sarah: Her refined court.

Katie: Exactly - which she kept very luxurious. Her only rule was that men had to have kempt hair before her. If they came before her unkempt, they had to leave. Fair enough, Eleanor. Eleanor and Henry were married for about 40 years, and they had lots of children.

Sarah: Several of whom go on to be kings.

Katie: They had a tumultuous relationship and very rebellious children.

Sarah: Quite literally rebellious.

Katie: As in the staged actual rebellions against their father and their other siblings. Henry was not even remotely faithful to Eleanor through any of these years, and he started his affair with Rosamund de Clifford in 1165, and her name would appear in stories and verse for centuries. People were really interested in the idea of Rosamund, and she'll come up later as well. But in 1168, the marriage had started to go to pot and Eleanor initiated a separation. No one knows why. People have said it was because he was unfaithful, but reading Weir's book, she was saying she didn't think that was a credible explanation. It may just have been that she was tired and the marriage hadn't gone very well, and things were starting to go downhill and she moved back to Aquitaine and set up a court at Poitier.

Sarah: At this point, though, things are still fairly amicable between them. In 1168, Henry sets up the Treaty of Montmirial and kind of splits up his domain between all his different sons which was an odd thing to do. He had every right to leave all of his extensive lands to his eldest son. But he might have not thought they were capable of managing it all. Regardless, he leaves Aquitaine to his son Richard, who is Eleanor's favorite. So, things are still workable between them. Then in 1170, Eleanor was in Normandy at the time with her eldest son, also called Henry, and her husband Henry - Henry II - decides it's time for his son to become king. That sounds odd to us now. We're used to children succeeding their parents after they've died, but it was actually a French custom to crown the heir while the father was still alive. But the pope isn't okay with this, because it's the Archbishop of Canterbury's role to crown the king, and this is Thomas Becket and he's on the outs with Henry at this time.

Katie: They used to be best friends and had a falling out over which things were never the same after that.

Sarah: No, definitely not. But Henry goes ahead and crowns his son, who now goes by "the young king" and the young king is really popular. He's extremely good looking. He was supposed to have taken after his mother, strongly, but he's really contemptuous of his father. He's really stubborn. He's kind of jealous of his younger brothers who have their own duchies. He doesn't have any of his own political power. He's destined to be king of England. He kind of is. He's the junior king now. But he doesn't have any of his own political power.

Katie: He was kind of spoiled, wasn't he? You were mentioning they were very indulged as kids.

Sarah: He was very spoiled. Both parents really doted on the children but kind of in an unfortunate spin on it, they'd pit the children against the other parent.

Katie: Because that always works out well.

Sarah: Yeah. Eleanor especially is considered to have worked on turning her kids against their father and inspiring their ambitions to take over their political control a little early in life.

Katie: Speaking of political maneuvers, around this time, Becket is murdered at Canterbury and it's very violent.

Sarah: And Weir kind of put forth a hypothesis that this might be around the time when Eleanor really can't stand her husband.

Katie: She started to hate him at some point and there was a switch.

Sarah: Something happens.

Katie: And no one quite knows when it is, but I think that's a pretty -

Sarah: It goes from an amicable separation to inciting her children to rebel against their father.

Katie: Right. So, was he involved with the murder?

Sarah: He claimed he wasn't, and he was extremely remorseful about the whole thing.

Katie: But there are all these rumors.

Sarah: To say what level of intrigue - he said his lords misunderstood words against Becket.

Katie: But in 1172, Eleanor starts her own maneuvers and has Richard invested as the Duke of Aquitaine. She calls him "the great one." He is her beloved, the favorite son, and she will do anything she can to help him.

Sarah: Around this same time, King Louis of France, his daughter is married to the young king, starts to talk to young Henry also stirring up trouble saying, "You should maybe go for some political power."

Katie: It's not enough to just be the young king.

Sarah: Exactly. So, by 1173, Eleanor is backing up her sons and everybody's ready for a rebellion. But Henry II hasn't even suspected his wife is involved. It's pretty inconceivable that a wife would incite her children to do this. So, it's not even on his radar. But he's starting to keep a pretty close eye on the young king and actually keeps him close by his side until he escapes to Paris. At that point, Henry knows that King Louis is in league with the young king.

Katie: Right. So, his wife's ex-husband is in league with his son. That's really nice for Henry II.

Sarah: Finally, Henry II starts to suspect Eleanor has a role in this. He's a pretty smart guy. Everything is just a little too well arranged for her to not be involved. He commands the Archbishop of Rouen to remind her of her wifely duties. He sends her this long letter. There's no evidence she ever replied. But she gets a little concerned and decides that the safest place for her to be is in Louis' court, her old husband's. So, she dresses in men's clothing, rides a horse astride to Paris, but on the way, she's apprehended by Henry's men and sent to the king.

Katie: And this marks a period in her life that's not so great for Eleanor. Henry didn't make any sort of public announcement about it, but he put her in a fortress and had her guarded for the rest of his life. So, she was a prisoner for the rest of her husband's life.

Sarah: Yeah. The rebellion doesn't even end up going very well. There's little open warfare even though a lot of towns are plundered and Henry's sons seem very intent on destroying their father's land. As the tide begins to turn and Henry II looks like he's going to win, come out on top in this rebellion, his enemies start to sue for peace, but he's still convinced that he's not going to have total victory and peace until he atones for Becket's murder and makes proper penance. This isn't to say he was admitting involvement in it but just to atone for he and Becket's estrangement. So, he actually goes to Canterbury and does extreme penance, starves himself, gets flogged by monks, and literally the next day, things look up and there ends up being peace in England. And he's really generous about the fact that his sons were treasonous. He gives them land, still no power, so it's likely they're not going to be satisfied. The only person who he won't give amnesty to is Eleanor.

Katie: But he doesn't quite feel the same about his sons after that. His old favorites are no longer his favorites. The littlest boy is his favorite one and also his illegitimate son, Geoffrey, who stood by him.

Sarah: So, Eleanor is going to stay in prison, it looks like.

Katie: And she's not allowed to talk to the kids because she might incite them to rebel again.

Sarah: But prison isn't quite as bad as it sounds. She's staying in nice households and has a small retinue, very small.

Katie: But Henry begins living openly with his mistress, the aforementioned Rosamund de Clifford, which had to be a bit of a slap in the face to Eleanor.

Sarah: Yeah. And by 1175, he's starting to think about having the marriage annulled. But there's a problem with that. Eleanor is not interested.

Katie: No. She's already had one annulment. I think she's done with the whole annulment thing.

Sarah: It's a good deal for him. He considers forcing her, basically, to take the veil, become a nun, in which case, he wouldn't have to surrender her lands under the contract to marriage and it would be an easier deal than an annulment which brings up a lot of messy facts about their history.

Katie: Right. And you had to get a lot of people involved for an annulment. But she doesn't wan t to give up her crown and her position of power, even if she doesn't have much at the time. She also said she didn't have a calling to be a nun. So, she appealed to the Archbishop and said, "You can't let my husband force me into being something that I'm not - into being a nun," which is something she respected and believed you needed a vocation for.

Sarah: Yeah. Rosamund, however, does end up in a nunnery around the same time, because she's sick and basically that was the place to go.

Katie: The king made her a very nice tomb, and there was a myth that's been going on in history for a very long time that Eleanor murdered her. But she didn't.

Sarah: Not true. Eleanor was imprisoned, and as we said earlier, she had very little contact with anybody because the king was so concerned about her influence.

Katie: So, she didn't have a lot of time or space to go around murdering mistresses. The bishop made Rosamund's tomb be removed - because she was a mistress - in the following years. There's more familial strife going on in the years. They never did have a very peaceful family life, and the young king dies of dysentery. Henry II was scared to go visit him while he was dying because he was afraid there would be some sort of trap set, which, knowing his sons, would make sense. But he sent a ring as a token of his love, and on his death bed, the young king pleads for mercy for his mother.

Sarah: Yeah. And Eleanor actually - when she's brought news of the death of her son, she actually says that she had a dream about it and even dreamt of the ring which she wouldn't have known about - kind of a strange supernatural tale. After the young king dies, Richard starts getting a little risky again in regards to rebellion and John, the youngest son, backs Richard. As we said earlier, John is Henry's favorite legitimate son who has always been most invested in him. When Henry finds out that John is supporting his brother, he just sort of loses his will to live. He's already sick, but he dies shortly thereafter.

Katie: And he's been betrayed by his entire family one-by-one at this point.

Sarah: Except for his illegitimate son, Geoffrey.

Katie: Who was allowed to stay at court. So, Henry II dies in 1189. Richard I becomes king and his first thing is to release his mother.

Sarah: Actually, he comes back to England and finds out that his mother has already been released because his handlers know this is her favorite son and they go ahead and take care of business before they even hear from him. And then she spends time kind of acting as a cheerleader for her son almost. He's been living in Aquitaine almost his whole life. He's not well known there and just sort of bolstering his reputation.

Katie: Right. PR from Eleanor! But Richard I bleeds England dry with crusades and war. He's not a good governor like Henry was.

Sarah: There are still family problems.

Katie: The brothers are still fighting.

Sarah: John is nipping at Richard now. Richard, when he goes away on a crusade, he actually ends up kidnapped in Austria - and this is just to show how low John kind of goes here - John raises money for the ransom from his tenants and then he ends up using it himself for rebellious purposes. But Eleanor is diligent. She raises the king's ransom and brings Richard back.

Katie: John and Richard eventually do make up in Normandy, because Eleanor's mediating between them and making it happen. John kind of keeps a low profile over the next few years. He's done for a time with all the strife.

Sarah: Richard ends up dying though, so it's kind of a lost cause. He dies with no heirs. He's shot by an arrow by Bertram de Gurdun who had a family grudge against him for killing his brothers and father. Richard is on his death bed with this horrible infected arrow wound and is so impressed by this man's story that he actually pardons him - the guy who shot him - lets him go. After his death, the pardon is dropped.

Katie: But he tried. During this time, Eleanor had withdrawn to the Abbey at Fontevraud. She wasn't a nun there. She was a guest. She'd sort of turned it into a place for aristocratic women to go. But she was still involved in politics. She was very much behind the scenes moving pieces around.

Sarah: But after Richard dies, she has to fully invest herself in public life again to help John actually claim the crown, because he's not the automatic shoe-in that it seems like he would be. Geoffrey, who was illegitimate - his son is actually a contender.

Katie: Yeah, we don't really understand this part. We're a little fuzzy here, so if you all know why this is, please send us an email.

Sarah: Why this other guy was a legitimate contender.

Katie: But at one point Arthur, Geoffrey's son, tries to kidnap Eleanor who is, after all, his grandmother, and welcomed his father - the illegitimate son - into court. So, that was quite a moment of ingratitude.

Sarah: John's still having trouble with Philip of France though, but they eventually work it out. Philip was initially supporting Arthur on the provision that Philip's heir Louis be married to one of John's Castilian nieces, one of his sisters' daughters, they can work out a peace. So, Eleanor, who is 80 years old at this point, goes to fetch her granddaughter. There are two to choose from, and this is kind of a great story, there are two equally beautiful and dignified daughters and one would assume she'd pick the elder, but she doesn't because her name is Urraca and she doesn't think that the French are going to stand for having a queen named Urraca, so she goes for Blanche. It proved to be a good choice. Blanche ends up to be a very formidable queen, has many children - who knows, maybe the problem wasn't the name so much as Eleanor seeing some promise in her younger granddaughter.

Katie: And I think we learned a lesson about baby names there.

Sarah: Yeah. If you want your daughter to be queen, go for a standard name I guess.

Katie: But Eleanor, at this point, is very tired, being 82 and having been on the scene in political intrigue for so long and she retires to Fontevraud once again. The nuns say of her after her death that she was beautiful and just, imposing and modest, humble and elegant, and they also said she was a queen who surpassed almost all the queens of the world. She died in 1204. So, if you'd like to learn more about the Middle Ages and the crusades, please check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog and try our webpage at

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