Eleanor of Aquitaine: Twelfth century Ruling Queen

Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the church of Fontevraud Abbey

Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of the most famous women of the Middle Ages. Intelligent and colorful, she was Queen of both France and England and ruler of her own domain.

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s (c.1122-1204) changing reputation is a good example of the strong focus on women today in medieval studies. Until recently, Eleanor was considered to be, in essence, a royal slut. This attitude is quite old, going back to her lifetime. For example, when she went on crusade to the Holy Land with her first husband, Louis VII of France (nicknamed “the Pious”), some chroniclers accused her of having an incestuous relationship with her uncle, Raymond of Antioch.

But recent scholarship has indicated that we don’t know nearly as much as we thought we did about Eleanor. She was the daughter and eldest child of William X, Duke of Aquitaine; she inherited the title directly from him after her younger brother died in infancy. Though she was not named “queen”, her territory was larger than the realms of either of her two future husbands, who coveted her duchy.

She first married Louis in 1137 (an arrangement by her father to protect her from kidnap and forcible marriage), but retained her duchy to bequeath directly to their children. After two daughters, the Second Crusade (in which Eleanor and her ladies rode in drag and armed) and nasty rumors about her infidelities that stemmed from some serious incompatibility issues and the lack of sons, they divorced in 1152 on the grounds of consanguinity (basically, an annulment, since they had known they were related within the seventh degree forbidden by the Church when they married). She married Louis’ rival, Henry II of England, less than two months later and gave him five sons and three daughters, much to Louis’ chagrin. They had a tumultuous marriage marked by family strife, civil war and Henry’s infidelities (almost de rigeur for a 12th century king). Henry even imprisoned Eleanor for fifteen years in an attempt to get Aquitaine. But Eleanor got the last laugh when she willed her independent duchy directly to their sons, just as her father had wanted, and ruled England as regent during the Third Crusade.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was fortunate in two ways?she had a strong constitution and she was very fertile. Her ability to give her husbands children, male childen especially, gave her a major power base when she turned those children against Henry. It also protected her from the potential threats of Henry’s mistresses, especially his favorite, Rosamund. But Eleanor must also have been highly intelligent, well-cultured and possessed of considerable charisma herself to keep the loyalty of the Aquitainian lords. Women like Eleanor give the lie to the idea that female rule must always be weaker than male rule, other things being equal. Henry was a strong and renowned king of England?but in Aquitaine, it was Eleanor who ruled.