Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most powerful woman in medieval Europe, due to her inheritance and her marriages. She “leaned in” long before modern women were urged to do so.
Eleanor was born in 1122 as heir to the Aquitaine, which was roughly a third of modern France. At the age of 15 she married Louis VII, King of France. Eleanor’s life as Queen of France is notable for three things. First, she invited herself along on the Second Crusade which outraged the political and religious leaders of the day. Second, she had only daughters with Louis. Third, at the age of 25, Eleanor fell madly in love with a younger man, Henry Plantagenet. He was 18 years old when they met and he had prospects that far exceeded what Louis could offer.
Eleanor convinced the pope to grant her an annulment so that she could marry Henry. After Henry became King of England, they controlled territory stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees. Louis was left with little more than Paris and its surrounding counties. To compound Louis’ humiliation, Eleanor’s new marriage produced sons including, Richard the Lion-Hearted and John (of Magna Carta fame).
Eleanor ran their vast kingdom while Henry II was off fighting wars with the Scots, Welsh, Irish, and French. But their marriage eventually soured and Eleanor conspired with her sons against Henry and almost won a civil war against him. In retaliation, Henry imprisoned Eleanor in one of his more inaccessible castles. She was not freed until Henry died.
Eleanor lived for 82 years and remained feisty to the end. At the age of 80, she crossed the Alps on a trip to the Norman kingdom in Sicily to find a husband for one of her granddaughters.
For a fictionalized account of Eleanor and Henry watch the movie, “The Lion in Winter”, starring Kathryn Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (and a young Anthony Hopkins as Richard). The movie captures the soap opera behavior of the Plantagenet’s although it compresses actual historical events. For a biographical study, read “Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings”, by Amy Kelly.
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