Eleanor of Aquitaine

(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: As Queen of France, Queen of England, and mother to two English kings, Eleanor of Aquitaine was probably the most powerful woman of her time. In addition, she promoted the literary and social style of courtly love and the troubadours.

Early Life

The first important influence on Eleanor’s childhood was William IX, her grandfather. He was the earliest troubadour known by name and ruled Aquitaine and Poitou from 1086 to 1127. Though he was known for a scandalous private life and his defiance of the Church, he maintained control over his quarrelsome vassals and passed down to William X and ultimately to Eleanor a considerable inheritance. William X, Eleanor’s father, was also a cultured man and a patron of poets and troubadours, though enormously quarrelsome and disrespectful of the Church. Eleanor’s mother, Aénor, who died when Eleanor was eight, was the daughter of the notorious Dangerosa, the wife to the Viscount of Chatellerault, and the mistress to Eleanor’s grandfather. William X was fond of Eleanor, his eldest child, and took her with him wherever he went. Medieval rulers could not reside quietly at some central castle. In order to maintain control over their vassals and administer justice throughout the land, they were almost always on the move from one residence to another.

Eleanor’s education was not confined to women’s arts such as needlework. She learned to read and write Latin, an unusual accomplishment for a layman, and probably to speak it as well. She also learned to read and write Provençal, the language of the lyric poetry of the troubadours. Eleanor herself became the inspiration of much troubadour poetry.

When Duke William X died in 1137, his daughter, under feudal law, automatically became the ward of the French King Louis VI. She did inherit her father’s fief and the homage of his vassals, but she was vulnerable to seizure by any powerful suitor who could forcibly marry her and enjoy her inheritance. Louis VI hastened to betroth her, therefore, to his only surviving son. Even before they were actually married, the monarch made his son, then sixteen years old, claim Poitiers and Aquitaine and receive the homage of Eleanor’s vassals. At age fifteen, therefore, Eleanor became the bride of the young man destined to be Louis VII. The bridegroom had a much less worldly upbringing than Eleanor, having been destined from earliest childhood to be a monk. Only the accidental death of his older brother, the crown prince, brought the “child monk” out of the monastery of Saint-Denis.

Chroniclers agree that the young prince was appropriately smitten with adoration for this tall, beautiful girl who already carried herself like a queen. Even writers who did not always approve of her worldly tastes agreed that she was strikingly beautiful, with a superb figure that she never lost, fine features, and lustrous eyes. On July 25, 1137, Louis and Eleanor were married in the cathedral of Saint André at Bordeaux in the presence of many lords and church dignitaries. A few days later, on August 8, they were consecrated Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine in the cathedral at Poitiers. During the banquet that followed, the abbot Suger, who was a trusted counselor to both King Louis VI and his son, brought the news that the king had died. Young Eleanor was crowned Queen of France on Christmas Day, 1137.

Life’s Work

Eleanor apparently enjoyed the next few years of married life, making her court the most splendid in Western Christendom. She filled it with troubadours from southern France and trouvères, their northern counterparts, who wrote not only love songs but also the epic chansons de geste. In spite of his savage temper, Louis VII became known for his honesty and generosity and extended royal authority in France by issuing charters to the towns.

In 1147, Eleanor accompanied her husband on the Second Crusade. Edessa had fallen to the Saracens in 1144 and Christendom feared that the Holy Land might be lost, after having been won from the infidels at such great cost only a generation before. After attempting an overland trip through Bavaria, Hungary, and the Balkans, Eleanor and Louis were royally entertained in Constantinople by Emperor Manuel Comnenus. The refinements of ancient Greece and Rome were still in evidence in Constantinople, as well as the luxuries of the East: Oriental silks, Russian furs, Persian carpets. This experience, combined with the royal reception later in the Latin principality of Antioch where her uncle Raymond of Poitiers was their host, confirmed Eleanor’s taste for Byzantine splendor.

The actual contact with the Saracens, however, and some of the dreadful effects of weather were not so pleasant. Emperor Manuel had reported that the German emperor Conrad, whose crusaders had preceded Louis, had already successfully engaged the Turks. Louis, wishing to share in such a triumph, moved hurriedly into dangerous territory. There he found that Conrad had actually suffered a disastrous defeat.

Louis and his band met with little better luck. On Christmas Day, heavy rains and floods destroyed their tents and baggage, and many horses and men were drowned. Soon after, the Saracens began to attack, shooting arrows from the saddle, then racing in with sabres. At Attalis Louis abandoned the infantry and the pilgrims to proceed as best they could, while he and his horsemen and Eleanor took to ships. They made a stormy crossing to Saint Symeon, where Eleanor became fast friends with her uncle Raymond, the Prince of Antioch.

Here Louis and Eleanor had a serious quarrel that was never to be entirely healed. Eleanor passionately supported Raymond in a plan to use the French troops to attack the Saracen strongholds and win back Edessa. Louis resented this proposal and asserted that he was leaving for Jerusalem and that his wife had to come with him. Eleanor refused, saying that she wanted their marriage annulled on grounds of consanguinity—that is, that they were too closely related. This was the favorite way of getting out of marriages among royalty in medieval times, as it avoided the stigma of divorce. Louis left in the middle of the night and had his men abduct...

(The entire section is 2562 words.)