Eleanor of Aquitaine Essay - Critical Essays

Desmond Seward

Eleanor of Aquitaine


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.

Representative Works

Walter Map
De Nugis Curialium (Of Courtiers' Trifles) (prose) 1181

Richard Coeur de Lion (romance) c. 13th century

William Shakespeare
Life and Death of King John (drama) 1594–96

Joseph Addison
Rosamond (opera) 1707

Sir Thomas More, Michael Drayton, Thomas Hearne, et al.
The Unfortunate Royal Mistress, Rosamond Clifford, and Jane Shore, Concubines to King Henry the Second and Edward the Fourth, with Historical and Metrical Memoirs of those Celebrated Persons (prose) first pub. 1825?


Agnes Strickland (essay date 1864)

SOURCE: “Eleanora of Aquitaine, Queen of Henry II” in Lives of the Queens of England, Boston: Taggard & Thompson, 1864, pp. 166-203.

[In the following excerpt, Strickland follows Eleanor's life through 1171, including her role in the Second Crusade, her attitude toward the institution of marriage, and her reaction to her husband's affair with Rosamond.]

The life of the consort of Henry II. commences the biographies of a series of Provençal princesses, with whom the earlier monarchs of our royal house of Plantagenet allied themselves, for upwards of a century. Important effects, not only on the domestic history of the court of England, but on its commerce and...

(The entire section is 11846 words.)

Beatrice A. Lees (essay date 1906)

SOURCE: “The Letters of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to Pope Celestine III,” The English Historical Review, Vol. 21, No. LXXXI, January, 1906, pp. 78-93.

[In the following essay, Lees examines three letters traditionally believed to have been written by Eleanor to persuade the Pope to aid Richard the Lionheart. She finds that, instead, they were most probably rhetorical exercises by Peter of Blois.]

Of all the perils which beset the unwary historian none is more insidious than the rhetorical exercise masquerading in the guise of an historical letter; it deceives only the more effectually because it was written with no thought of deception, and is often close enough...

(The entire section is 7335 words.)

Frank McMinn Chambers (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: “Some Legends Concerning Eleanor of Aquitaine,” Speculum, Vol. 16, 1941, pp. 459-68.

[In the following essay, Chambers contrasts the known historical evidence with various legends of Eleanor, including: her supposed participation in the Second Crusade, engaging in several love affairs, causing the death of Rosamond Clifford, and ruling over poetry courts.]

Of the few details associated in the common mind with Eleanor of Aquitaine, several are patent fictions which no sober historian would accept, although her biographers have done so all too often. But these stories, false as they are, generally have some basis in fact; and it will be my purpose here to...

(The entire section is 4816 words.)

Robert L. Chapman (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: “A Note on the Demon Queen Eleanor,” Modern Language Notes Vol. LXX, No. 6, pp. 393-96.

[In the following essay, Chapman discusses the legend of Eleanor that resulted in the character of the demon Cassodorien in Richard Coeur de Lion, a thirteenth-century romance.]

In the thirteenth-century Middle English romance Richard Coeur de Lion,1 the hero's mother is a beautiful stranger named Cassodorien, daughter to the King of Antioch. She asks that her marriage to Henry II “be done priuily,” and the next morning at mass she swoons just before the elevation of the host. Her explanation is: “For j am ρus jschent,/ I dar neuere see...

(The entire section is 1396 words.)

H. G. Richardson (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: “The Letters and Charters of Eleanor of Aquitaine,” The English Historical Review, Vol. LXXIV, No. CCXCI, April, 1959, pp. 193-213.

[In the following essay, Richardson painstakingly examines many of the official written documents of Eleanor, and concludes that she did not have the services of a formal chancellor.]

It may be worth while, if only to remove doubts and misconceptions, to devote some pages to the clerks who served Eleanor of Aquitaine in the capacity of chancellor or, if they did not bear that title, were responsible for the writing and sealing of her charters and letters. Though nothing like a complete collection of Eleanor's surviving...

(The entire section is 10656 words.)

Rebecca A. Baltzer (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Music in the Life and Times of Eleanor of Aquitaine” in Eleanor of Aquitaine: Patron and Politician, edited by William W. Kibler, University of Texas Press, 1976, pp. 61-80.

[In the following essay, Baltzer details the contribution of Eleanor and her family to the history of music, particularly of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.]

It is safe to say that, had Eleanor of Aquitaine not made a significant mark on twelfth-century politics and culture, the history of music in the Middle Ages would be very different from what it is. Both directly and indirectly, Eleanor and her family and their descendants, who eventually married into just about every royal...

(The entire section is 8525 words.)

D. D. R. Owen (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Legend” in Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen and Legend, Blackwell, 1993, pp. 103-61.

[In the following excerpt, Owen discusses Eleanor's chroniclers, particularly on the subject of King Henry's affair with Rosamond, and on the relationship between history and legend.]

Historical truth in the Middle Ages was a perishable commodity, apt to degenerate with time. Its recording was largely in the hands of churchmen, who were not above adapting it to their own code of values, slanting it perhaps to the advantage of their own community or to the detriment of a rival cause, and often with the intention of courting the favour of a patron. Such considerations apart, the...

(The entire section is 21157 words.)

Further Reading

Kelly, Amy. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950, 431p.

Uses mostly twelfth-century sources in detailing its readable, and controversial, account of Queen Eleanor.

Meade, Marion. Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1977, 389p.

Biography of Eleanor with a feminist emphasis.

Pernoud, Regine. Eleanor of Aquitaine. Translated by Peter Wiles. St. James's Place, London: Collins, 1967, 286p.

French biography of Eleanor as a “woman beyond compare, towering above the age in which she lived”; includes many documented...

(The entire section is 170 words.)