She was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Western Europe during the High Middle Ages however life was not easy for Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Eleanor was born around 1122 in France, the oldest of three children to William X, Duke of Aquitaine. Raised in a glittering ducal court, she received the best possible education. Eleanor was extroverted, lively, intelligent and strong willed. In the spring of 1130, when she was just a child, Eleanor's mother and brother died at the castle of Talmont therefore making her heiress presumptive to her father's domains. At the time, the Duchy of Aquitaine was the largest and wealthiest province of France and Poitou and Aquitaine together were huge. So far... not such a horrible life, minus the dead mother and brother, but in 1137 tradegy struck again when Duke William X set out from Poitiers to Bordeaux. While visiting the Shrine of Saint James of Compostela (one of the 12 Apostles), William X died on Good Friday, April 9 1137.
Upon the sudden death of her father, Eleanor became the Duchess of Aquitaine at the tender age of 15. She also then became the most eligible bride in all of Europe. Beautiful, intelligent, rich, a Duchess and a Countess in her own right ... what a catch! Here's the creepy part of the story, so apparently on the very day that he died, William had dictated a will bequeathing his domains to Eleanor and appointing King Louis VI of France as her guardian, asking him to take care of her lands and to find her a suitable husband. That is just a little weird, did he know that he would die that day... a whole other mystery...
|Louis VI "Louis the Fat"|
So anyways, the King of France himself wasn't feeling too good either, suffering from "a flux of the bowels" (eww gross) from which he seemed very unlikely to recover. Despite his impending mortality, Louis the Fat (so appropriately named considering he was immensely obese) remained clear-headed. Having recently lost his own heir Philip to a riding accident, and his younger son Louis was now heir to the throne, plus the loss of one of his most powerful vassals which was now available . . . Louis put a plan together; he would marry the duchess to his heir and bring Aquitaine under the French Crown, thereby increasing the power and prominence of France and of the Capets! Brilliant plan! Now his heir has a wife and France has more land and wealth. Too bad for Louis who wanted nothing more than to live the monastic life and Eleanor who probably did not want to marry a boy who was more dedicated and interested in serving God than his country.
|Eleanor and Louis VII|
Therefore the two reluctant participants were married on July 25th 1137 in Bordeaux and the two were immediately enthroned as Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine. However there was one small catch . . . Eleanor's lands would remain independent of France until Eleanor's oldest son became both King of the Franks and Duke of Aquitaine. Ha! Bet you didn't think of that old Louis! Not like he had long to contemplate over his error, as he died on the 1st of August. So just like that the young couple were crowned King and Queen of the Franks.
Poor Eleanor did not have it easy in the French court. She was not popular with the stuffy northerners, as she tried to bring some of the glitz and glamour from her father’s court with her but all it brought her was criticisms of her conduct and her immodest dress. Louis however was totally head over heels in love with his beautiful bride. Despite the fact that he was an extremely pious man (much to Eleanor’s dismay) the two did manage to reproduce and Marie in 1145.
After the birth of their daughter Marie, Louis and Eleanor decided to go on a little adventure known as the Second Crusade. What a disaster that was . . . the Crusade itself achieved little. Louis was a weak and ineffectual military leader with no skill for maintaining troop discipline or morale; or of making informed and logical tactical decisions. The failed Crusade and the birth of their second daughter Alix in 1151, were quite literally the last straw for this fragile marriage. With no son and Eleanor's desire for a divorce, Louis was left with no choice but to have the marriage annulled due to consanguinity, which basically means that they were too closely related to be married (not like it mattered in the first place apparently... but I guess it works as a reason for the marriage to be annulled). Good news, the girls were still considered as legitimate and custody was awarded to Louis and Eleanor got all of her lands back.
|Henry II and Eleanor|
So now Eleanor is happily single again and on her way back to her own lands in Poitiers when she is almost kidnapped and forced into another marriage by Geoffrey, Count of Nantes. So what does she do, she sends envoys to the Count's brother Henry, Duke of Anjou to come at once and marry her. Not wasting anytime, the two are married on May 18th 1152, a whopping 8 weeks after her annulment! So remember how she was granted an annulment based on the fact that she was related to Louis... well she was even more closely related to Henry. The plot thickens as Marie (Eleanor's daughter) was proposed to marry Henry but denied because of their close relation and Henry's father Geoffrey V was rumoured to have been one of her lovers. Eww!
|Henry II and Eleanor|
Anyways, on October 25th 1154 Eleanor's second husband became King of England and Eleanor was once again crowned Queen. Over the next 13 years Eleanor gave Henry five sons (William, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, John) and three daughters (Matilda, Eleanor and Joan). Ouch. That is a lot of kids in a very short period of time.
Unfortunately her second marriage wasn't much better than the first as Eleanor and Henry's marriage was reputed to be tumultuous and argumentative, although they must have liked each other enough considering the amount of children they had. Henry was by no means faithful to his wife and he fathered many illegitimate children. By late 1166 after the birth of her her final child and Henry's notorious affair with Rosamund Clifford had become known, Eleanor's marriage to Henry appears to have become terminally strained. You really can't blame her, considering all of the work she did for her husband, giving him all of these children while he ran around playing with others.
Apparently Henry's sons weren't too fond of their father either as they revolted against his rule or because Eleanor sided with her sons instead of her husband, Henry imprisoned her for 16 years. Throughout her imprisonment, Henry continued to flaunt his mistress Rosamund and when she died in 1176, it was rumoured that she was poisoned by Eleanor. Not that I would blame her if it were true.
Henry himself died on July 6th 1189 and the first thing that her son, now King Richard I, did was rescue his mama from prison. What a good boy! Eleanor outlived Richard and lived on into her youngest son John's reign as King; she died in 1204 in Poitiers.
|Tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II|