(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Eleanor of Aquitaine 1122-1204

Queen consort of Louis VII of France, Queen consort of Henry II of England, mother of King Richard I of England and King John of England.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was Queen of France for fifteen years and Queen of England for fifty years; two of her ten children became Kings of England. In addition to being a very active and controversial Queen, she was a patron of the arts and an inspiration to many writers. Legends quickly grew around her, so much so that the legendary Eleanor is often hard to differentiate from the historical one; to this day she remains a popular subject for novelists and film makers.

Biographical Information

Eleanor was born in 1122, daughter of the future Duke William X and Aenor, who was the daughter of William IX's mistress. Eleanor's grandfather, William IX, was the Duke of Aquitaine and is credited as the earliest known troubadour. Through the deaths of her grandfather, her mother, and her brother, Eleanor became heir to Aquitaine—a vast area in the southwest of what is now France, reaching from the Loire River to the Pyrenees—while still a young girl. Her father had supported troubadours, poets, and storytellers, and through exposure to them and other teachers, Eleanor received a superior education, particularly unusual for a woman of her era. Eleanor's father wished to unite Aquitaine and France and so, on his deathbed, he commended Eleanor to Louis le Gros, King of France. Louis promptly had her married to his son, and they thus became the Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine. Within days Louis le Gros died, making his son King Louis VII and making fifteen-year-old Eleanor the Queen of France. At age nineteen she offered a thousand of her vassals to St. Bernard of Clairvaux to use in the Second Crusade. Over protests from the Church and the King's advisors, Eleanor insisted that she and some three hundred of her ladies join the expedition to help care for the wounded. After suffering a major defeat at the hands of Muslim attackers, the survivors fled to nearby Antioch, where they were welcomed by Prince Raymond, Eleanor's uncle. Eleanor's evident attraction to him upset her husband and this, along with serious disagreements about the Crusade's goal, led to Eleanor demanding a divorce. Although the marriage continued for some years and brought forth two daughters, it was annulled in 1152. Eleanor held such power in the south that her ex-husband had no choice but to allow her to leave with her land under her control. Just several weeks later she married Henry Plantagenet, eleven years her junior, the grandson of King Henry I, who held the titles of Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou; he would become King of England two years later. Four months after their marriage she gave birth to their first child, William, and over the following thirteen years Eleanor gave birth to seven more. Henry had numerous affairs; the most infamous was with Rosamond Clifford, the daughter of a knight. “Fair Rosamond” and her interactions with Eleanor have served as the inspiration for dozens of poems and romances. In 1168 Eleanor returned to rule her subjects in France. It was here that her court became a center of culture. In 1173 Eleanor led three of her sons—Henry, Richard, and Geoffrey—in a failed rebellion against their father. Her sons made their escape to France while Eleanor was put under house arrest for the following sixteen years. When Henry II died in 1189, her third son, Richard I (the Lionheart), became King. While Richard was fighting on a crusade in the Holy Land from 1190 to 1194, Eleanor ruled England herself. She died in 1204 in the abbey of Fontevrault, where she is buried along with Henry II and Richard the Lionheart.

Major Works

Although Eleanor reportedly composed poems and songs herself, and a few of her letters are extant, she is more important to the history of literature for critiquing and encouraging other artists. In her “court of love” she and her ladies regularly listened to and judged the poets delivering their verses. Although some biographers have disputed these claims, Eleanor had considerable impact on the music of her time both as patron of and inspiration for troubadours. Numerous official writs and charters were issued under Eleanor's name, and she (or perhaps Richard) is given credit for publishing a compilation of maritime laws known as the Laws of Oleron.

Critical Reception

Scholars have generally concerned themselves with trying to separate valid historical evidence about Eleanor from second-hand accounts and literary legend. This is a difficult task at best. As D. D. R. Owen explains, Eleanor’s chroniclers rarely personally witnessed the events they wrote about, and so “they frequently relied on hearsay; and the more colourful the story the better for their own glossing or elaboration.” He continues, explaining the way in which legend attached itself to Eleanor: “some possibly innocent activity” would “give rise to whispered rumours which would soon congeal into hard certainty, itself prompting fictional embellishment until any truth remained only as a distant echo.” Many modern biographers have given in to the temptation to conjecture and speculate when faced with scanty facts about the life of Eleanor. Other scholars stress that while some of these notions may be correct, the evidence is insufficient to warrant their presentation as valid historical claims. Avoiding the issue of the Eleanor legend, such scholars as Beatrice A. Lees and H. G. Richardson focus on hard evidence and study various documents attributed to Eleanor to see what role, if any, she really had in their composition.