Queens of Infamy: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Life gets busy when you have empires to build and marriages to annul.

Anne Thériault | Longreads | April 2018 | 16 minutes (4,246 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on badass world-historical women of centuries past.

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I’ve been fascinated by Eleanor of Aquitaine for as long as I can remember.

That sounds like it might be hyperbole or bragging, but it’s genuinely not. For most of that time I didn’t even know her name. To me, she was the royal mother in Disney’s Robin Hood, a woman whose maternal love — or lack thereof — shapes the entire story. Her eternal disappointment in her (admittedly very disappointing) youngest son, Prince John, is cited both by his allies and his enemies; John himself obsesses over her approval, at one point sucking his thumb in the middle of a muddy high street and wailing for mommy. Somehow, Eleanor manages to be a scene-stealer without ever being in a single scene. As a three-year-old, I was hooked.

Eleanor was a scene-stealer in real life, too, and more than deserving of her own Disney franchise. She was married to both the King of France and the King of England. (Though, sadly, not at the same time.) She was an early prison abolitionist. She raised a rebellion with her sons against their father. She heavily influenced ideas of courtly love and chivalry, concepts that during the Victorian age would become synonymous with the word “medieval.” No one was getting shit done like Eleanor.

Eleanor was probably born in 1122 or 1124 (although dates are conflicting, because even nobility couldn’t be bothered to keep decent records when it came to girls). She was the eldest child of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and Aenor de Châtellerault, who apparently was really into her name because she gave it to her daughter. Eleanor is an anglicization of Aliénor, which comes from the Latin alia Aenor — literally, “the other Aenor.” It wasn’t unusual at the time for highborn women to name their daughters after themselves — in fact, Eleanor would pass her name on to one of her own children — and anyway, Aenor came from a family full of women with interesting names. Her own mother was called Dangereuse, a reference to her beguiling ways with men, and as a nickname it supplanted her given name to the point where scholars are not actually sure what her given name was.

Aquitaine sits in the southwest corner of modern-day France — I say “modern-day” because in the 12th century, what was called “France” was the small chunk of land around Paris that is now known as the Île-de-France — and by the time William X rolled in as Duke, it was the richest and largest duchy in the neighbourhood.

Aquitaine in the late-Medieval period was a centre of culture, fashion, and higher learning (12th-century Paris, by comparison, was kind of a dull backwater). It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Eleanor was given the best education available, which included arithmetic, astronomy, and history along with “domestic arts” like household management, sewing, and spinning. When William X’s only son died in 1130, Eleanor (who would have been between 6 and 8 years old) became her father’s heir presumptive, a fact that would have kicked her education into high gear. While her brother still lived, Eleanor was being prepared for life as a powerful man’s wife. After his death, she had to be taught how to wield that power herself. Eleanor, who reportedly dazzled the Aquitanian court with her wit and beauty, was more than equal to the challenge.

When William X died in 1137, teenaged Eleanor became the most eligible bachelorette in all of Europe.

In his will, William appointed Louis VI of France as Eleanor’s guardian, asking the king to protect his lands and daughter until a suitable husband could be found. Literally hours after learning of William’s death, Louis arranged for Eleanor to marry his 17-year-old heir, also named Louis, meaning that he conveniently got to maintain control of Aquitaine. Well, sort of. According to the marriage agreement, Eleanor’s lands would come under the control of the crown only when Eleanor and Louis Jr.’s imaginary future son became King of France. Until then, Aquitaine would remain independent, with Eleanor as its leader.

What was the granddaughter of Dangereuse supposed to do with a boy raised by monks? Not much, judging by the extreme slowness with which they produced heirs.

Was it the slickest deal the king had ever made? No, probably not. But Louis Sr., who had dysentery at the time and was pooping himself to death in the midst of arranging his son’s wedding, was no doubt happy to take what he could get.

Louis VI died exactly a week after his son married Eleanor, meaning that she and her new husband got a very quick promotion to Queen and King of France. Having initially been installed in Aquitaine as the new Duke and Duchess, Louis VII and Eleanor found themselves back on the road, this time heading to Paris.

It seems important to note here that Louis VII was never supposed to be the King of France. That title was supposed to go to his older brother Philippe. Except that in 1131, 15-year-old Philippe was killed when the horse he was riding tripped over a wayward pig that had suddenly darted out of a dung heap.

As the younger royal brother, Louis Jr. was meant to have some kind of ecclesiastical career, and to that end he was raised and educated in the abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris. After Philippe’s death by shit pig, Louis re-entered court life in preparation to someday succeed his father, but his monastic schooling held a strong influence over his character. When he became king at 17, Louis VII was only marginally less guileless than he had been six years earlier when he left Saint-Denis; Eleanor was, arguably, much more suited to ruling than her husband, both in temperament and education. It must have exasperated her to no end to tolerate this milquetoast of a man not only as her husband, but also as her sovereign.

Louis was pretty keen on the turn his fortunes had taken, perhaps not least because he was very obviously and deeply besotted with his worldly new bride. Eleanor, however, was much less impressed with her new life. After growing up in her father’s dazzling court, she found Paris to be an uncultured hole and Louis VII a pious bore. What was the granddaughter of Dangereuse supposed to do with a boy raised by monks? Not much, judging by the extreme slowness with which they produced heirs. Since both would later go on to (SPOILER ALERT) have no problem making babies with subsequent spouses, the problem was probably less to do with fertility and more to do with general incompatibility.

After eight years of being married, Eleanor finally had a baby, a daughter named Marie. Eight months after Marie’s birth, Eleanor and Louis decided to go on a crusade. It’s extremely unclear why anyone thought this was a good idea. Maybe they thought it would bring the romance back into their marriage? A crusade is pretty high stakes. They should have started with roleplaying or whatever the Medieval equivalent of butt plugs was (it was probably just butt plugs).


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The crusade was, predictably, a complete shitshow. It was a shitshow before they even got to Antioch, and then became even more of a shitshow. At the time, Antioch was ruled by Raymond of Poitiers, the youngest brother of Eleanor’s father and a man described by his contemporary William of Tyre as being “the handsomest of the princes of the earth.” Eleanor was, presumably, pretty happy to see Uncle Raymond for a number of reasons: his court reminded her of the court she’d grown up in at Aquitaine, they spoke the same langue d’oc dialect, and he was genuinely kind to her. It must have felt like coming home after a decade of exile. The result of all these extremely normal emotions was that Eleanor spent a lot of time with Raymond, staying up late and laughing and drinking wine and conversing endlessly in a language Louis didn’t understand.

Everyone assumed that Eleanor and (admittedly smokin’ hot) Raymond were having an affair, because heaven forbid a miserable, homesick girl enjoy a visit with her uncle.

Whether or not the rumors were true, Eleanor compounded them by refusing to return to Paris and also saying she wanted to have her marriage annulled because of consanguinity. Eleanor argued that since she and Louis were third cousins once removed, their relationship amounted to incest — which is a pretty rich declaration to be made by someone who is maybe boning her uncle. Go big or (literally) go home (with your husband, whom you hate), I guess.

A crusade is pretty high stakes. They should have started with roleplaying or whatever the Medieval equivalent of butt plugs was (it was probably just butt plugs).

Eleanor — subject to who knows what kind of threats, promises, and threats that sounded like promises — eventually did leave Antioch with Louis to go loiter around the Holy Land for a while. Wait, you might be saying, what about that whole crusade, though? Weren’t they there to, oh, I don’t know, fight a war? Well, yeah, that was their original intention. But when they got to Antioch, Louis found out that the city he’d been intending to save, Edessa, had been razed. Louis was, somewhat understandably, relieved that he didn’t actually have to fight anyone. Raymond suggested that since Edessa was gone, maybe they could just go do a holy war somewhere else, in a conversation that presumably went something like this:

RAYMOND: Bro. Bro! It sucks that your crusade got cancelled or whatever, but we could totally still fight some bitches

LOUIS: Oh ummm actually my heart was just really set on Edessa? So I think I’m just going to pass

RAYMOND: Seriously, bro? Because we could totally go to Aleppo on a crusade!

LOUIS: it’s just that I’m definitely what I would call a planner, and Aleppo wasn’t on the itinerary I’d drawn up, so…

RAYMOND: Eleanor, don’t you think we should go to Aleppo?

ELEANOR: yeah, you guys should totally go to Aleppo! Get your war on!

ELEANOR: I mean, it would really suck if I was ever a widow

ELEANOR: but I’m willing to risk that for Jesus or whatever

RAYMOND: YEAH, EXACTLY. FOR JESUS. COME ON, BRO.

LOUIS: you know, normally? I would totally be down. It’s just that I’m actually pretty tired so I think I’ll just do some pilgrimages to the Holy Land and then go home. Maybe we could try again next year?

The voyage from the Holy Land to France was eventful, to say the least. Eleanor, who still wanted an annulment (or maybe a widowhood), travelled in her own ship with her own retinue. During her trip home, Eleanor’s ship was captured by Byzantine pirates, then rescued, then forced to make landfall in North Africa. Once she finally made it to Sicily she found out that her beloved Uncle Raymond had been beheaded in Aleppo (Louis: “not to say I told you so, but I told you so.”). Then, just to cap all this shit off, the pope refused Eleanor’s request to dissolve her marriage.

We don’t really know what Eleanor’s reaction to all of this was. Maybe she decided to give up? Maybe she was biding her time? What we do know is that she got pregnant pretty much as soon as she got back to Paris, and in 1150 she gave birth to her second daughter, Alix (or Alice, depending on whose interpretation you’re going by; Louis would later have another daughter whose name is spelled by various historians as Alys and Alix, so it’s kind of confusing).

Meanwhile, Louis was picking a fight in Normandy with its current duke (and hopeful heir to the English throne), 17-year-old Henry Plantagenet. It’s kind of a long story, but basically Louis was concerned that the the growth of the Plantagenets’ power spelled bad news for him, so he launched a preemptive strike against Henry. Henry was already fighting for the English crown, and was at risk of stretching his forces too thin. When his father suggested he find some kind of compromise with the French king, Henry managed to broker an uneasy peace. When Henry came to Paris to hammer out the deals of this peace he would have met 27-year-old Eleanor for the first time.

HENRY: Hey girl. Hey. Heyyyyyyy. Girl. Hey. What’s up?

ELEANOR: Oh. Um. Hey.

HENRY: I love wars

HENRY: I’m a super-capable leader

HENRY: not sure if you’ve ever heard of my mom, but thanks to her I’m really into strong female characters

HENRY: have you ever been to England?

HENRY: it’s pretty ok

HENRY: like I’m just saying if you ever wanted to live there

HENRY: as my queen

HENRY: because Louis sucks

HENRY: I would give you so many sons

HENRY: lol, so many of them

HENRY: you’d be drowning in sons

HENRY: anyway, think it over

HENRY: here’s an engraving of my dick to remember me by

HENRY: ok, talk later!!!

Just over half a year after Eleanor and Henry first met, Eleanor’s marriage to Louis was annulled. By a group of French Bishops. Who had the blessing of the pope. For reasons of consanguinity.

Don’t even ask me what the logic was there. If Louis and Eleanor were too related to be married in 1152, presumably they were also too related to be married back in 1149 when Eleanor first petitioned the pope? Did the pope just get worn down like the parent of a toddler who has told their child 318 times they can’t have a cookie and finally, on the 319th time, can’t manage to form the word “no” and just hands over a cookie so that they can have five hot seconds of peace and quiet before the child starts asking for a second cookie?

It likely all came down to the fact that Eleanor had only given birth to daughters and Louis was ready to cut his losses and marry someone who could give him a male heir. It was obviously a very trying time for Eleanor, who, upon arriving back in Aquitaine after her annulment, immediately sent a marriage proposal to Henry. Exactly two months after her annulment went through, Eleanor was back at the altar with her favourite English heir (who, I would just like to point out, was even more closely related to Eleanor than Louis had been). Just over a year later Eleanor gave birth to a son, which I’m sure made Louis pee his pants with rage.

When Eleanor married Henry (soon to be Henry II), she left behind her two daughters but brought with her the territory of Aquitaine. By the time Henry succeeded his cousin Stephen as King of England in 1154, the Angevin empire he ruled was the largest, richest, and most powerful force in western Europe. But in spite of the fact that Henry II had a lot of land to surveil (and he did a LOT of surveilling, travelling constantly to quash an uprising here and bring a lord to heel there), he and Eleanor somehow found time to get it on frequently. In the first six years of their marriage, Eleanor gave birth to five children — William, Henry, Matilda, Richard, and Geoffrey — and in the eight years that followed she would give birth to two more daughters, Eleanor and Joan, and a final son, John.

Eleanor argued that since she and Louis were fourth cousins, their relationship amounted to incest — which is a pretty rich declaration to be made by someone who is maybe boning her uncle.

Was their marriage happy? At 800+ years’ remove it’s honestly hard to say. It’s clear that Henry and Eleanor were much more similar in temperament than Louis and Eleanor had ever been, which was both good and bad. Henry recognized Eleanor’s leadership skills early on; he trusted her to take care of England while he was out of the country, and later installed her as ruler of Aquitaine. Some historians describe even their early marriage as “tumultuous” — which I guess means lots of yelling and throwing wine glasses and hate-fucking — but most of those stories hinge on Eleanor’s jealousy of Henry’s mistresses, which is kind of suspect. Certainly Henry was never faithful to his wife — he had several illegitimate children, two of whom he actually acknowledged — but to Eleanor, this fact would have seemed extremely Par For The Course For Powerful Medieval Dudes.

As Eleanor and Henry’s kids got older, the royal couple naturally had to start planning out who would inherit what. Their eldest son, William, had died at the age of three, but they still had four sons among whom Henry had to divide his (substantial) lands. During the negotiation of a peace treaty with France in 1169, it was decided that the eldest of these sons, Young Henry, would marry Marguerite, King Louis’ eldest daughter by his second wife, and inherit England, Normandy, and Anjou. Richard would get Aquitaine, and Geoffrey would marry the only daughter and heir of the Duke of Brittany and eventually inherit the duchy. No formal plans were made for John, a set of circumstances that led to him acquiring the nickname John Lackland.

Shortly before all these announcements were made, Henry and Eleanor had travelled together to Aquitaine with the purpose of installing Eleanor as its duchess regnant. There, Eleanor would keep an independent court that would still technically be overseen by the English crown. This was a politically genius idea on several levels. For one thing, it meant that Henry didn’t have to worry too much about ruling the largest, most foreign, and geographically most distant territory in his holdings. For another thing, the Aquitanians were much happier (and less prone to rebel) under the rule of one of their own. And finally, Eleanor was just really good at being large and in charge; it was what she’d been raised to do, and she’d more than proved her mettle in England whenever Henry was away.

I’m not really going to talk about what was going with Henry at this point in time because a) it’s already extensively documented elsewhere, b) just Google Thomas Becket (or “Thomas à Becket,” if you’re going to be That Dude), and c) this piece of writing is about Eleanor. Men are tiresome and their antics bore me.

Anyway. Back to Eleanor! Things were going great for her in Aquitaine. She was finally appearing in the role she’d (literally) been born to play, and she was the star of the show. Richard joined Eleanor after a few years, since she was ostensibly ruling in his name and he would one day have to take over as Duke of Aquitaine, and during this time the two became very close. You know that scene in Disney’s Robin Hood where a disconsolate Prince John mutters “mother always did like Richard best”? If that is not the truest line in any Disney movie ever, I don’t know what is.

The thing Eleanor was most famous for during this period was the so-called “Court of Love” in Poitiers. It’s hard to know if the Court of Love ever really existed, because only one contemporary writer, Andreas Capellanus, ever mentioned it (and even then, only ten years after the fact). Capellanus alleges that Eleanor, along with her daughter Marie (remember Marie?), Isabelle of Flanders, and Ermengarde of Narbonne, held a court where they acted as a sort of jury over lovers’ disputes and general questions about love. The most famous case revolved around the question of whether or not true love can exist in a marriage — the women ruled that it most likely could not. Foreshadowing!!!

Eleanor wasn’t exactly in jail-jail — she had servants and silk dresses and sumptuous living quarters — but she sure as hell wasn’t free.

The thing about being a king and having heirs is that while they’re a great security feature, they eventually want to, oh, I don’t know, inherit something. Henry had made a lot of promises to his sons — even going as far as having Young Henry crowned King of England in a lavish ceremony — but he wasn’t all that interested in actually ceding any of his power. This may or may not have been because some (if not all) of his sons were low-key useless, or it might have been because Henry was a control freak. Or both! Who knows? What we do know is that as the years went on, Henry the Younger became increasingly resentful.

Things came to a head when Henry II was brokering a marriage deal for his son John. Count Humbert of Maurienne, the father of John’s intended, had clearly heard of John’s nickname Lackland, because he asked Henry what lands, exactly, John would bring to a marriage with his daughter. Henry, caught off guard, quickly named three castles in Anjou. You know, Anjou, the province that was supposed to be part of Henry the Younger’s inheritance. Henry the Younger immediately went to his father-in-law Louis VII, and definitely the following scene happened exactly as I’ve outlined below.

HENRY THE YOUNGER: ugh my dad is the WORST and he never lets me do ANYTHING and now he’s GIVING MY LAND AWAY

LOUIS: Mmmmm yes go on

HENRY THE YOUNGER: He says I spend all my money on jousting!

LOUIS: You don’t say

HENRY THE YOUNGER: But that’s just because I really love jousting!!!

LOUIS: Ok here’s a funny idea

LOUIS: Bear with me

LOUIS: Have you ever considered raising a rebellion against your dad?

LOUIS: LOL just wondering!

LOUIS: You know, fuck him up a bit. Knock him off his high horse. Show him who’s boss.

LOUIS: Anyway, I’m just spitballing some ideas here. Brainstorming. Whatever you call it.

LOUIS: By the way, this has everything to do with my love for you as my son-in-law and nothing to do with my decades-old rivalry with your father

LOUIS: Did you know that I had sex with your mother on SEVERAL occasions?

LOUIS: Tell her I said hi!

Henry the Younger apparently saw some sense in what Louis was saying and organized an uprising posthaste. Richard and Geoffrey joined their older brother’s rebellion, which probably didn’t surprise their father all that much — they were hot-blooded young princes with daddy issues and steam to blow off. But then the unthinkable happened: Eleanor rose in open revolt against her husband.

The how of it all is well-documented, but the why is still a question that puzzles historians. Was Eleanor just a fickle bitch? Was she outraged on her sons’ behalf? Was she wildly jealous of Henry’s mistress Fair Rosamund? Was she incensed by various political decisions that Henry had made over the years in Aquitaine that served to undermine her rule? There are no reliable answers to these questions, although given Eleanor’s intelligence, savviness, and political acumen we can probably narrow it down.

What we do know is that Henry put a swift end to the revolt, forgave his sons, and imprisoned Eleanor for the rest of his life.

Things got bleak at this point. Henry lived for another 16 YEARS and no one is even sure where Eleanor was. Occasionally he would trot her out at Christmas like some kind of show pony and then put her right back wherever he was keeping her. I mean, Eleanor wasn’t exactly in jail-jail — she had servants and silk dresses and sumptuous living quarters — but she sure as hell wasn’t free. Even when Henry the Younger died — after trying to mount a revolt against Richard, because apparently he was incapable of Learning A Fucking Lesson From History — Henry still kept Eleanor under lock and key.

Henry II died in 1189; Richard’s first act after succeeding his father was to set his mother free, ordering that she be allowed to do whatever she wished. What she wished was, among other things, for no one else to endure the brutalities of forced confinement, which she achieved by taking the radical step of emptying the country’s jails. It’s hard to imagine what her feelings must have been at this point — imagine going from being your husband’s prisoner to suddenly being the most powerful woman in the kingdom — but it must have been incredibly satisfying to free everyone Henry had ever put in jail.

Eleanor was 65 at this point but she was still going strong. She helped hold down the fort in England while Richard went on a crusade (these dudes and their fucking crusades, man), and then helped raise money to pay his ransom when he was captured. And even though John was a piece of shit (who tried to pay Richard’s captors to keep him prisoner for longer), Eleanor still helped him acclimatize to kinghood when he unexpectedly inherited the throne. At the age of 75 she travelled across the Pyrenees to Castile, Spain, where she chose one of her granddaughters to be the bride of Louis VII’s grandson, Louis.

Eleanor died at the age of 80, and was entombed next to Henry in Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou, France. By the time of her death she had outlived both of her husbands and six of her eight children. She had been queen of two countries and travelled across Europe multiple times. She had seen the Angevin empire at its height and then watched it begin to crumble in the hands of her incompetent sons. To say that she led a full life is an incredible understatement.

There is an effigy on Eleanor and Henry’s tomb. In it, Eleanor is dressed in a crown and a long bejewelled gown, her head propped up on a pillow. She is spending eternity reading a Bible and studiously ignoring the indignity of sharing a final resting place with the man who made her life pure misery for a decade and a half.

Long live the fucking queen.

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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.

Editor: Ben Huberman