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Eleanor of Aquitaine: The Woman Who Defined the History of Western Europe

Eleanor of Aquitaine, born in 1122 at Poitiers, southern France, was perhaps the most powerful woman in 12th-century Europe (Parnoud, 2021) (1). Eleanor was the daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers, who possessed one of the largest domains in France (larger, in fact, than those held by the French king). She was well educated by him, thoroughly versed in literature, philosophy, languages, and trained to the rigors of court life when she became his heiress at the age of 5. In 1137, after the death of her father, she inherited his vast estate and became the most sought-after bride of her generation. She would eventually become the queen of France, the queen of England, and lead a crusade to the Holy Land ( Editors, 2009) (2).

A drawing of what Eleanor of Aquitaine might have looked like circa 1150. HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
A drawing of what Eleanor of Aquitaine might have looked like circa 1150. HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES (3)

Queen of France

As those days kidnapping an heiress was seen as a viable option for obtaining a title, William dictated a will on the very day he died that bequeathed his domains to Eleanor and appointed King Louis VI of France as her guardian. After the death of William, rather than act as guardian to the duchess and duchy, Luis VI decided to marry the duchess to his 17-year-old heir, Luis VII, and bring Aquitaine under the control of the French crown. In 1137, Eleanor and Louis VII were married and immediately the couple was enthroned as duke and duchess of Aquitaine. It was agreed that the land would remain independent of France until Eleanor's oldest son became both king of France and the duke of Aquitaine. When Louis VI died of dysentery, they were anointed and crowned king and queen of France on Christmas day of the same year (Weir, 1999) (4).

Louis and Eleanor’s first years as rulers were fraught with power struggles with their own vassals (the powerful Count Theobald of Champagne for one) and with Pope Innocent II in Rome. Louis, still young and intemperate, made a series of military and diplomatic blunders that set him at odds with the Pope and several of his more powerful lords. The conflict that ensued culminated in the massacre of hundreds of innocents in the town of Vitry—during a siege of the town, a great number of the populace took refuge in a church, which was set aflame by Louis’s troops. This conflict lasted four years (1141-1145) and Louis VII wished to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for his sins. In autumn, Pope Eugene III requested that Louis lead a Crusade to the Middle East to rescue the Frankish states therefrom disaster. Accordingly, Louis declared on Christmas day 1145 at Bourges his intention of going on a crusade. Eleanor decided to join him ( Editors, 2009) (2).

Holy Crusade and Annulment

Eleanor of Aquitaine formally took up the cross symbolic of the Second Crusade. In addition, she had been corresponding with her uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch, who was seeking further protection from the French crown against the Saracens. She insisted on taking part in the Crusades as the feudal leader of the soldiers from her duchy. 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.

From the moment the Crusaders entered Asia Minor, things began to go badly. However, the king and queen were still optimistic and marched towards Antioch in order to reach Raymond of Poitiers. Despite some initial victories, the French army was ambushed and suffered a severe defeat with heavy casualties from the Turks during the crossing of the Phrygian mountains. King Louis VII barely escaped unnoticed. Official blame for the disaster was placed on Geoffrey de Rancon, who disobeyed King’s orders. Since Geoffrey was Eleanor's vassal, part of the blame was placed to her as well. When the army arrived at Antioch, the king and queen had a dispute. One of Louis's avowed Crusade goals was to journey in pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and he stated his intention to continue. Reputedly Eleanor then requested to stay with Raymond and brought up the matter of consanguinity—the fact that she and her husband, King Louis VII, were perhaps too closely related. Consanguinity was grounds for annulment in the medieval period. But rather than allowing her to stay, Louis took Eleanor from Antioch against her will and continued on to Jerusalem with his dwindling army. This humiliated Eleanor, and she maintained a low profile for the rest of the crusade. Louis's long march to Jerusalem and back north debilitated his army and disheartened her knights; the divided Crusade armies could not overcome the Muslim forces, and the royal couple had to return home. The French royal family retreated to Jerusalem and then sailed back to Paris (Hodgson, 2007) (6).

Even before the Crusade, Eleanor and Louis were becoming estranged, and their differences were only exacerbated while they were abroad. Eleanor visited Pope Eugene III in Tusculum with the hope of annulling her marriage, but Eugene did not grant an annulment. Instead, he attempted to reconcile Eleanor and Louis, confirming the legality of their marriage. He even arranged for Eleanor and Louis to sleep in the same bed. Thus was conceived their second child (not a son, but another daughter). The marriage was now doomed. Still, without a son and in danger of being left with no male heir, as well as facing substantial opposition to Eleanor from many of his barons and her own desire for annulment, Louis bowed to the inevitable. In 1152, they met to dissolve the marriage. The annulment was granted on grounds of consanguinity within the fourth degree (Eleanor was Louis' third cousin). Their two daughters were, however, declared legitimate. Custody of them was awarded to King Louis. Eleanor's lands would be restored to her (Crawford, 2012) (7).

Queen of England

As Eleanor traveled to Poitiers and sent envoys to Henry, Duke of Normandy and future king of England, asking him to come at once to marry her. In 1152, eight weeks after her annulment, they married. Eleanor was related to Henry even more closely than she had been to Louis: they were cousins to the third degree. In 1154, Henry became king of England and pregnant Eleanor was crowned Queen of England. Over the next 13 years, she bore Henry five sons and three daughters: William, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, John, Matilda, Eleanor, and Joan. Eleanor's marriage to Henry was reputed to be tumultuous and argumentative. Henry was by no means faithful to his wife. During the period from Henry's accession to the birth of Eleanor's youngest son John, affairs in the kingdom were turbulent: Aquitaine, as was the norm, defied the authority of Henry as Eleanor's husband and answered only to their duchess. It is certain that by late 1166, Eleanor's marriage to Henry appears to have become terminally strained. In 1167, Eleanor left England for Poitiers and Henry did not stop her.

In 1173, Henry's son, the younger Henry, launched a Revolt with the support of Eleanor, his brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, and the French king. Eleanor tried to leave Poitiers but was arrested and sent to the king at Rouen. In 1174, Henry and Eleanor took ship for England. Eleanor was imprisoned for the next 16 years. During her imprisonment, Eleanor became more and more distant from her sons, though she was released for special occasions such as Christmas. In 1183, the young King Henry tried again to force his father to hand over some of his patrimony. He attacked his father at Limoges, but he was defeated despite the arriving troops sent by his brother Geoffrey and Philip II of France. Before he died of dysentery, he begged his father to show mercy to his mother. King Philip II of France claimed that certain properties in Normandy belonged to his half-sister Margaret, widow of the young Henry, but Henry insisted that they had once belonged to Eleanor and would revert to her upon her son's death. For this reason, Henry summoned Eleanor to Normandy in the late summer of 1183. This was the beginning of a period of greater freedom for the still-supervised Eleanor. Over the next few years Eleanor was sometimes associated with Henry in the government of the realm but still had a custodian so that she was not free.

Upon the death of her husband Henry II in 1189, Richard I was the undisputed heir. One of his first acts as king was to release Eleanor from prison. Richard was usually absent from England, engaged in the Third Crusade, and then held in captivity by Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor. She ruled England in Richard's name, signing herself "Eleanor, by the grace of God, Queen of England.". During Richard's absence, she exercised a considerable degree of influence over the affairs of England as well as the conduct of Prince John. Eleanor played a key role in raising the ransom demanded from England by Henry VI and in the negotiations with the Holy Roman Emperor that eventually secured Richard's release. Eleanor survived Richard and lived well into the reign of her youngest son, King John. She died in 1204 at the monastery at Fontevrault, Anjou, where she had retired. By the time of her death, she had outlived all of her children except for King John of England and Queen Eleanor of Castile (Weir, 1999) (4).


The impact of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the history of Western Europe was catalytic. Many would say not only of Western Europe but of the whole of Europe, as her grandchildren reigned in kingdoms of Spain, Germany, and Italy. As queen of France, she starred in disputes and negotiations between the Pope and the French crown, led a crusade, and succeeded in annulling her marriage to King Louis VII, something unprecedented for a royal family during the Middle Ages. As Queen of England, she achieved even more; she ruled the lands of the Angevin empire with political vigor and efficiency, when kings were absent or unable, incited revolts, in some cases served as a diplomat, and contributed to the development of art. Her contribution to England extended beyond her own lifetime; after the loss of Normandy (1204), it was her own ancestral lands and not the old Norman territories that remained loyal to England. She has been misjudged by many French historians who have noted only her youthful frivolity, ignoring the tenacity, political wisdom, and energy that characterized the years of her maturity. As the nuns of Fontevrault wrote in their necrology, a queen “who surpassed almost all the queens of the world.” (Parnoud, 2021) (1).


  1. Pernoud, R. (2021, May 31). Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen consort of France and England. Britannica.

  2. Editors. (2009). Eleanor of Aquitaine. HISTORY.

  3. A drawing of what Eleanor of Aquitaine might have looked like circa 1150. [Photograph]. HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES.

  4. Weir, A. (1999). Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life. Ballantine Books, p. 13, 154-155.

  5. Eleanor and Louis VII leaving France for the Second Crusade. [Photograph].

  6. Hodgson, N. (2007). Women, Crusading and the Holy Land in Historical Narrative. Boydell, p. 131-134.

  7. Crawford, K. (2012). Revisiting Monarchy: Women and the Prospects for Power. Journal of Women's History24(1), p. 160-171.

  8. Eleanor of Aquitaine knights a follower. [Photograph]. © 1997-2020 Spartacus Educational Publishers Ltd.

  9. Tomb of Eleanor. [Photograph]. Tomb of Eleanor_c_Anne_sophie_asher_Abbaye de Fontevraud. © 2021 France Media Ltd.

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Miltos Spiratos

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