Eleanor of Aquitaine: The first feminist


Re-publishing this birthday post from last year. We can all pretend I just turned 40 (again) 😉

June 14, 2016 – Alexandria, VA

For my 40th birthday post, few things give me more pleasure than to write about my all-time favorite historical personage, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Those of you who know me well know that I’ve studied Eleanor’s life since I was about 15 years old. She was an exceptional woman during a time period in which women rarely stood out.

I call her the first feminist because, although she was certainly not the first strong woman of historical record (think: Cleopatra, another of my favorite historical women), she embodies female empowerment, having exercised an incredible amount of authority in a male-dominated environment.

Eleanor was born around 1122, the oldest of two daughters of the Duke of Aquitaine. The evidence reflects that she was very close to her younger sister. Aquitaine was a large duchy in what is now southwestern France:


When it became clear that Eleanor’s father would have no more children, she was groomed to take over the duchy. Since it was pretty much unheard of during the time for a woman to rule in her own right, Eleanor’s father arranged for her to marry Louis, the son of the French king. Eleanor and Louis married in 1137; Eleanor was 15 years old. That year, they became king and queen of France.

Eleanor and Louis never got along. Eleanor was stubborn, strong-willed, and opinionated. Louis had never expected to inherit the French throne; he had been prepared for the monastery while his older brother had been prepared to rule. However, his brother died unexpectedly in a horse riding accident, leaving Louis heir. Louis would have preferred the quiet contemplation of the monastery to being the king of France.

Eleanor dominated her meek first husband. When Louis decided to go on the Second Crusade, Eleanor insisted on accompanying him and took an entourage of ladies with her. This was not a great idea, since the men were distracted with ensuring the safety of the ladies. Not to mention, this cost the French taxpayers more money. It was during this crusade that Eleanor’s and Louis’ marriage deteriorated to the point of irreparability. In fact, on the way home from the disastrous crusade, they stopped by Rome to see the Pope, and Eleanor asked for an annulment.

Eleanor and Louis had two daughters over the course of their fifteen-year marriage. The marriage was not working due to their conflicting personalities, and Eleanor badly wanted out. She persuaded Louis to ask the Pope to dissolve their marriage, which he did based on the fact that they were distantly related.

Little did Louis know that Eleanor had already strategized to marry a second time. As queen, at the French Court she had met Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. The two planned to marry as soon as her marriage to Louis was dissolved. Eleanor shrewdly made sure that her territories of Poitou and Aquitaine were returned to her, in her name only, upon her marriage ending.

In her fascinating book on Eleanor, Alison Weir describes how Eleanor left Paris as soon as her marriage was terminated, and rushed to Aquitaine with an entourage of soldiers, pursued by several counts who wanted to force her into marriage, thereby acquiring her vast territory and wealth. In fact, Eleanor avoided an ambush set by Henry’s younger brother, who hoped to marry her to obtain her lands.

Alison Weir points out in her book that, during the short time between Eleanor’s annulment and her marriage to Henry, Eleanor took full advantage of her independence and issued several edicts and orders in her name as Duchess of Aquitaine. It must have angered her that she was unable to rule her territory by herself.

Eleanor and Henry married quickly in a simple ceremony mere weeks after her marriage to Louis was annulled. Eleanor was 30 years old; Henry was 19. They were truly a powerhouse team. Henry was count of Anjou and duke of Normandy, which occupied a large area of what is now northwestern France. Unlike Louis, Henry was fiery, ambitious, and an excellent leader. He was also a redhead, and the evidence suggests that Eleanor had red hair too, so you can imagine what that must have been like. Eleanor and Henry were both stubborn, which caused serious conflict later in their marriage.


Eleanor and Henry had ten children over the next fourteen years (two died young), strongly suggesting that they had significant physical chemistry. Eleanor had her last child, John (yes, the King John who signed the Magna Carta, the basis for the American constitutional government), when she was about 44 years old.

I also think that Eleanor really loved Henry, which would explain why she was so angry at his having several mistresses.

Eleanor’s and Henry’s lands spanned at least half of modern-day France. Further, their hasty marriage was an insult (and a shock!) to Louis. First, the marriage was between two of his feudal vassals; ergo, technically he would have had a say in it. Second, it threatened the inheritance of his daughters with Eleanor, since they had claims to Aquitaine and Poitou through their mother. But Eleanor was never much of a rule follower. To add further insult, in 1154 Eleanor and Henry became king and queen of England.

Henry had a claim to the English throne through his mother, Matilda, to whom he was very close. Indeed, it was Matilda who taught Henry most of what he knew about statesmanship and governing. Matilda was direct in line to inherit the English throne, but was passed over largely because she had grown up in the German court, and was considered a foreigner (Matilda had eventually married the German emperor and, after he died, married Henry’s father, Geoffrey of Anjou). When Matilda’s father (Henry I of England) died, he had planned for her to become queen of England. However, the English barons were against it, instead accepting Stephen, her cousin, as king.

Henry had always sought to reclaim his familial birthright. After skirmishing with Stephen, they agreed that Henry would be his heir. When Stephen died unexpectedly in 1154, Henry became king at 21 years old. Eleanor’s and Henry’s empire was therefore significantly extended.

I have absolutely no doubt that Eleanor played a role in advising Henry throughout his tenure as king. After all, he was accustomed to seeking advice from his mother, Matilda, another strong-minded woman, and it was only natural that he now sought it from his wife. Eleanor and Henry seemed to have had a strong relationship for several years, acting as a team. Henry delegated the rule of Aquitaine and Poitou to her, which was a smart move, seeing as how the locals trusted her more than a stranger from Normandy. However, Henry’s philandering and domineering personality largely led to the deterioration of the relationship. I often wonder how things would have turned out if events had been different.

Subsequent events were far too complex to describe in detail here. For now, suffice it to say that Henry favored his oldest son, also named Henry, who was the heir to the English throne. Eleanor’s favorite son was Richard (also known as Richard Lionheart), who she groomed to take over Aquitaine. Eleanor had a close relationships with her sons, including Geoffrey (who was younger than Richard).

Eleanor’s and Henry’s relationship grew increasingly estranged. Henry’s infidelities, as well as personality conflicts between the two, invariably played a role. Eleanor was fiercely independent, and some scholars have suggested that perhaps she expected to rule Aquitaine independently with Richard. But as the sons grew older, Henry could see that they were heavily influenced by their mother, and he put down his iron fist, which Eleanor certainly would have resented. In the end, Eleanor ended up supporting her sons in a rebellion against their father, which was obviously an anomaly for a woman during the time (well, during any time, really).

As a result, Henry imprisoned Eleanor in Salisbury Castle, where she remained for several years until his death.


She apparently was given all the comforts of home there, and was allowed to go out for special occasions like Christmas. Alison Weir notes in her book that records reflect that it was very windy and cold there, and the monks of Salisbury complained of respiratory symptoms; however, Eleanor’s health seems not to have been affected. This woman had a will of steel, and she was apparently determined to outlive Henry, which she did.

Unfortunately, Eleanor’s and Henry’s older son Henry died young, leaving Richard heir to the English throne. Henry died in 1189, at the age of 56. The very first thing Richard did upon assuming power was to release his mother from Salisbury Castle, and the two made an excellent team.


Eleanor was around 67 years old in 1189 and, incredibly, it was her actions during RIchard’s reign for which she is best known today. Richard’s reign was largely overshadowed by his leading the Third Crusade. He never had much affinity for England, having been mostly raised by his mother in her native Aquitaine, and he preferred to reside there. Over his 10-year reign, he spent a total of around six months in England.

Eleanor was in charge of the administration of England, Aquitaine, Normandy, and Richard’s other lands, while he was crusading. The fact that she was able to keep those governments intact is a testament to her energy, skill, and political savvy in my mind. On his way home from the crusade, Richard was captured by the duke of Austria and held for ransom. Eleanor raised the ransom, not an easy task since Richard’s lands had already been bled dry in taxes in preparation for the crusade, and herself went to escort him back to England.

Richard died unexpectedly in 1199 from gangrene after being shot in the shoulder by a single arrow during the siege of Chinon in France. He left no heir. The youngest of Eleanor’s and Henry’s children, John, then became king.


Eleanor feared that the Plantagenet empire would disintegrate under John, who had much less political savvy and military skill than his father and brother.

OK, I’m not a psychologist, but sometimes I play one on my blog. It appears that John had serious psychological issues. Around the time that Eleanor was pregnant with him, she and Henry had a falling out largely over Henry’s long-term mistress, and possibly over other political and strategic issues, and their relationship had significantly deteriorated. Eleanor possibly had much less affection for John than for her other children (I’m speculating here), and John was often referred to as John Lackland since his three older brothers were set to inherit various of their parents’ territories, leaving nothing for him. Due to all this, John possibly suffered from attachment issues, self-esteem-related issues, etc. He certainly had a mean streak, but I’m not sure how much of that was due to his own personality (“nature”) or how he was brought up, as the youngest and more or less an afterthought (“nurture”).

John also let himself be distracted by other things, such as “stealing” a woman, Isabella of Angouleme, who was engaged to one of his vassals. Don’t piss off your vassals, because they can make life exceedingly difficult for you (as the case ended up being here, but that is another story for another day).

In any case, John became king of England in 1199. While he did have some military/strategic skill, his military successes were largely due to his seventy-eight-year-old mother.

In 1200 Eleanor assisted In defending Anjou and Aquitaine against her grandson Arthur of Brittany (Arthur was the son of her late son Geoffrey), thereby securing John’s French territories. In 1202 Eleanor successfully held the castle of Mirebeau against Arthur, until John could come to her relief, subsequently taking Arthur prisoner. John also smashed his opponents’s army, able to take them by surprise. John’s only military victories were therefore due to his elderly mother. I find this incredible. Let no one ever tell you that you are too “old” to accomplish something, if a 78-year-old woman could successfully lead armies in the early thirteenth century.

Also in 1200, Eleanor herself crossed the Pyrenees to make the trip to Castile (modern-day Spain) to pick up her granddaughter Blanca, so that she could marry the French king’s son. Eleanor had negotiated the marriage on John’s behalf, and hoped that it would ensure peace between the Plantagenet kings of England and the Capetian kings of France. In fact, the evidence suggests that Eleanor was the only person whom John trusted with such an important mission.

After the successful Battle of Mirebeau, Eleanor retired to the Abbey of Fontevrault, where she died in 1204 at the age of 82, before she had to see John sign the Magna Carta in 1215. I always wonder what would have happened had events been different. What if Eleanor and Henry had gotten along in the second half of their marriage? What if they had not treated John as an afterthought? What if Richard had lived longer? What if Richard had had an heir and John never would have become king? What if Eleanor had lived a few more years to provide John with the voice of reason he so desperately needed? Would she have been able to give John diplomatic advice and possibly rein in his behavior?

In my opinion, John was closer to his mother than to anyone else, even to his own wife. So one wonders, had she lived longer, if Eleanor would have been able to temper John’s behavior, such that the English barons would not have had to force him to sign the Magna Carta. And how would that have affected the limited government that the United States has today?

The fact that Eleanor was able to live such a full life, and a long one, was more or less unheard of for a woman during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Her journey from a frivolous, young girl to a ruler/military leader who demanded respect from vassals, troops, heads of government, you name it, who fought for her children’s interests and who (pardon me) “took no shit from anyone,” is truly remarkable for the period in which she lived. As such, she will always be my hero.

There have been plenty of books written about Eleanor, but my favorite one I’ve read recently is Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life, by Alison Weir. Weir’s book reads almost like a novel, and she delves into the source material to come to interesting conclusions about Eleanor’s life. Enjoy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s