Eleanor of Aquitaine held the titles of duchess of Aquitaine, queen of France, and queen of England. She was known for her beauty and intelligence, influencing our ideas about romantic love and relationships to the present day.
Eleanor was the oldest daughter of Duke Guillame X Duke of Aquitaine and his wife Anor. She had one younger sister, Petronilla, and one younger brother, Agret. Aquitaine was the epicenter of European culture, and Eleanor had rare access to education. She was an engaged and intelligent student. Her mother, younger brother, and father all died when she was young, and at the age of fifteen she inherited Aquitaine, land area that was larger than the official land of the king of France. At this time she also married Prince Louis Capet of France. Shortly afterwards his father King Louis “The Fat” died from food poisoning and the teenagers became monarchs.
Louis had been prepared for a career in the Church, but became the heir to the throne when his older brother died. Meek and pious, he was an odd match for the lively and inquisitive Eleanor.
In 1141, at age 19, Eleanor offered one thousand vassals in support of the Second Crusade, led by her religious husband. She also insisted on accompanying Louis with some 300 women. Eleanor intended for her women to be nursemaids, caring for the sick and wounded. It seems Eleanor was supporting her husband, but the legends surrounding her women suggest she may have had more ironic intentions in mind. The women allegedly dressed in the fashion of the Amazons, the legendary army of women. They rode white horses and carried arms (which they did not use) and attempted to rally troops. It is interesting to note that it was after this crusade the church barred women from accompanying the crusaders in any capacity, something Louis supported. One wonders about the intentions of Eleanor’s crusade-perhaps she was staking a claim for dominance in the relationship. Perhaps she found a way to reintegrate classical, “pagan” ideas and wanted to spread them. Perhaps she meant to represent nurture, as a protest to violence. Whatever her motives, the crusades became the turning point for the royal couple’s relationship.
In Antioch, Eleanor deepened her friendship with her uncle Raymond, who was young and charismatic. They were so close that rumors spread of an affair. Raymond had more military prowess than Louis, and suggested that the Christians focus on protecting their existing presence in the Middle East, but Louis insisted on conquering Jerusalem. Louis’ plan required more time and resources, and was likely to be more violent. Eleanor advocated Raymond’s plan, and (jealous?) indignant Louis insisted she come with him to Israel. It was at this time that the young queen showed public disdain for Louis. Their marriage was illegal, she claimed, unrecognized by God, and therefore should be annulled. While many wondered if Eleanor had had sex with her uncle, she began protesting her marriage on the grounds that it was incestuous. She and Louis were relatives, as many nobles were, and their relationship was close enough to fall under the umbrella of consanguinity in the powerful eyes of the church.
Louis forcibly took Eleanor further on his crusade, which was, as Raymond had predicted, a disaster. The couple pleaded with the Pope for a divorce, but it was denied. He instead recommended they live as any other husband and wife, and the couple had two daughters. In spite of the children and other appearances of unity, both parties knew that the relationship was dissolved. Finally, in 1152, the marriage was annulled.
Thirty year old Eleanor would then marry someone much younger than herself-Henry of Anjou, who became Henry II, King of England. Once again, Eleanor found herself a queen. While Henry and Eleanor never divorced, and their marriage resulted in a large brood of eight children to her first marriages two, their relationship was equally tempestuous, if not more so. Rumors may have risen about Eleanor and Louis, but Henry was openly unfaithful to Eleanor. He even seduced one of his future daughters in law.
In 1169, Henry and Eleanor agreed that Eleanor should focus on managing the duchy at Aquitaine. Eleanor cooperated with Henry in the interest of their children, but remained largely independent in her views and responsibilities. She celebrated the glory of Aquitaine, working to keep it relatively sovereign. Eleanor once again established Aquitaine as a cultural center. Her oldest daughter Marie, now a countess, joined her to sponsor artists and intellectuals such as Chrétien De Troyes, who some believe was in love with Marie. Marie also wrote the famous “Code of Love” which included many feminist ideals not generally practiced at the time. Eleanor sponsored a corresponding “Court of Love” where she and other women would arbitrate romantic disputes. Their rulings influenced art and poetry, popularizing and legitimizing romantic and erotic love. The women at Aquitaine influenced these ideas in such a way that many of our current ideas about love and sex to this day; ideas like the importance of loyalty, the relation of intimacy to sex, etc.
In 1173, Eleanor’s sons revolted against their father. She supported them, and Henry imprisoned her in London for 16 years. She was released at his death. Eleanor spent her final years in Aquitaine playing matchmaker for her children and grandchildren. She had been wife to two kings, mother of two kings, and influenced art until the present day. She had traveled widely for her time. She was a model for feminine power and independence, and still is. Eleanor’s fighting spirit kept her busy and active until her death in 1204. She was eighty-two years old.