Beautiful, spirited, fascinating and the richest heiress in medieval Europe, Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most desirable parti of her time. She was also a woman of great strength and intelligence and mother of one of the greatest and most powerful royal dynasties of the middle ages, the Plantagenets.
Princess of the courts of love
Eleanor was unusual in many ways, not least because she was her father’s heir in a world where a man would take almost any measure to ensure male succession. Indeed Duke Guillaume X had made sterling efforts to do so. Even his court – where the young Eleanor spent her formative years – was known as the premier court in Europe for the arts of chivalry, a magnet for troubadours. When Eleanor was fourteen years old he declared that repentance for his past sins was called for and until he’d removed this tiresome burden he would never be granted another child. He decided to go on that most popular of medieval hikes, a pilgrimage to the shrine of the apostle James at Santiago De Compostela.
Duchess of Aquitaine
The Pope, Alexander III, had declared this site to be a holy city equivalent to Rome and Jerusalem, Calixto II subsequently decreed that in a holy year (a year in which 25th July, St James day, falls on a Sunday) all pilgrims would be forgiven their past sins. The famous trail runs right through the heart of the Lot and Quercy and is still used today. It is customary, when crossing the river Lot at Cahors, to do so via the Pont De Valentre - taking due care that the devil clinging to the tower doesn’t tip you into the drink – then to wend your weary way to ancient Montcuq and Lauzerte and on to the passes of the Pyrenees. Guillaume never saw this wonderful example of fourteenth century architecture; the Pont De Valentre hadn’t been built when he donned the customary scallop shell and made his ill-timed bid for forgiveness. Ill-timed because he never returned, he died just as he reached the shrine, leaving his fifteen-year-old daughter to inherit the rich, rolling lands of Aquitaine, which in those days stretched all the way from the Loire to the Pyrenees.
In fact the Quercy sat strategically at the centre of this powerful Duchy. The situation the Duke had desperately tried to avoid had come to pass, he had left his daughter prey to every ambitious noble in Christendom, but he had also sadly underestimated her. Nobody took advantage of Eleanor.
Queen of France
A few weeks after her father’s death Eleanor married the saintly Prince Louis of France, who had recently been reluctantly thrust into the position of Dauphin after the untimely death of his elder brother, Philippe. Less than a year later he became King Louis VII. Eleanor had become a Queen, thus allying Aquitaine with France – just as it is today. Politically it was a shrewd move, and when it came to politics Eleanor was always shrewd. Princess of the courts of love, instigator of the term ‘courtier’ Eleanor was also an extremely passionate woman; unfortunately Louis was no match for her. Just four years after their marriage, when she was still only nineteen, Eleanor became so bored with the monk-like Louis that she planned one of the most outrageous adventures of her life and declared her avowed intent to - as the famous hymn goes – be a pilgrim. She would accompany the second crusade!
The Crusader Queen
This was unheard of. Nobly born ladies did not accompany crusades and Louis immediately forbad the enterprise. Poor Louis, he may as well have ordered the sun to go from west to east.
In 1147, accompanied by her husband, thousands of knights and three hundred attendant ladies Eleanor set out for Constantinople. It was the breath of life to her. Romance and adventure, all that she had yearned for and she enjoyed herself enormously. In fact on entering Antioch, and meeting her equally courtly and passionate uncle, Raymond, she enjoyed herself a little too much. When Louis went on to Jerusalem Eleanor refused to accompany him, and when eventually they returned to France they did so in separate ships. Even then the King would have forgiven his wayward wife, such was Eleanor’s fascination, but she’d had enough of him. She had tasted life and had no intention of becoming once more, a cloistered wife. Louis became even more immersed in Church affairs whilst Eleanor gaily held court for the Princes and nobles of Europe. One of these was the seventeen-year-old Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy, grandson of William the Conqueror and right-wise born heir to the English throne, provided he could oust the usurper, Stephen. Eleanor’s life was about to take its most significant turn.
Queen of England
Two years after this meeting Eleanor had her marriage to Louis annulled on the grounds of consanguinity, an extremely versatile political weapon as all the royal families of Europe were related to some degree. The powerful territories of Aquitaine reverted to its Duchess and she left happily for her castle of Poitiers.
There, on Whit Sunday in 1152, Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry of Normandy. It was one of the most powerful unions in European history and with half of France already in their possession they resolutely set about the re-conquest of England.
Two years later Henry was crowned King Henry II of England at Westminster Abbey and Aquitaine became part of the Plantagenet Empire. For the second time in her long and eventful life, Eleanor had become a Queen. With a strong man, eleven years younger than herself, as her husband and lover, Eleanor was finally satisfied. She could now turn her attention to creating the powerful dynasty that left its mark so vividly all over her territories.
Mother of the Plantagenet Dynasty
Eleanor gave birth to ten children. She bore two children to Louis, Marie and Alix, princesses of France, and then amazingly eight more to Henry, despite the fact that she was already thirty years old at the time of their marriage. By the time her last child, John, was born she was forty-five and had she been a lesser woman, would have been utterly exhausted! There were five sons of that marriage. The eldest, William, died in infancy and even the second, Henry did not survive to claim his inheritance. In fact he died in Martel, in the north of the Lot region, allegedly of a bad conscience after robbing the church at nearby Rocamadour of its sacred treasures to pay his soldiers.
It was Eleanor’s third son that was to become the sweet core of her life and follow her lead as a troubadour, courtier, famous crusader and eventually, King of England and Duke of Aquitaine. Richard the Lionheart.
Eleanor and Henry were both strong and wilful characters and it was hardly to be expected that their life together would be all hearts and roses, nor was it. Henry spent much of his time away from court ably defending his territories and naturally taking a few mistresses. The most famous of these, Rosamund Clifford, captivated him for so long that Eleanor never forgave him. She spent as much of her time as possible in her beloved Aquitaine, where she arranged advantageous marriages for her numerous children and grandchildren. Eventually Aquitaine sat at the heart of a web of influential European Princedoms. It remained English crown lands, on and off, until the end of the hundred years war. Henry died in 1189 and Eleanor bequeathed her inheritance to her son Richard, or at least she attempted to.
Richard Coeur de Lion
Richard the Lionheart died of a stray arrow wound in 1199, leaving his brother John to succeed to his dignities. He was buried near his father at the Abbey of Fontevrault at the command of his heartbroken mother. Eleanor herself lived for another five years, dying in 1204 at the incredible age of eighty-two. She was deeply mourned by all Aquitaine and at her request she too was buried at Fontevrault. The elegant effigy on her tomb is said to be the only authentic image of her still in existence.
She was, without doubt, one of the greatest Queens who has ever lived and one of the most enigmatic and powerful women in history.
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