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Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Medieval Matriarch

Though the sex to which I belong is considered weak, you will nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind.” – Queen Elizabeth I.

As the wife of King Henry II of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine subsequently became Queen of England in 1152. The couple would go on to have a very large and somewhat dysfunctional family, which included two future Kings of England – Richard I (‘The Lionheart’) and King John (‘Lackland’)

Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son John of England.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son John of England.

It was while she was still Queen that Eleanor’s influence as Queen Mother became apparent. For many years she had become increasingly irked by her husband’s extra marital affairs and, consequently, his neglect of her. It was this continuous treatment that forced the Queen to flee England and return to her native Aquitaine, whereby she established her own court and took her favourite son, Richard, along with her. It was while she resided at this court that history has suggested that Eleanor concocted a scheme for her unruly sons to rebel against their father’s position as King. Being under the influence of his doting mother, Richard whole heartedly agreed with the plans to rebel and encouraged his brothers to join them. However, although she was organiser of the rebellion, Eleanor did not prove her worth when she was captured by Henry whilst trying to join her sons in Paris in 1173. Eleanor spent the next fifteen years as her husband’s personal prisoner. During these years, the rebellion continued without The Queen and two of Eleanor’s children lost their lives for the cause; Henry ‘the Young King’ and Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany.

Henry II held onto his Crown, despite the dedicated rebellion against him by his sons, until his death on 6th July 1189. Henry was succeeded by his son Richard, who famously came to be known as ‘The Lionheart’. Upon Henry’s death, the theory that Richard was Eleanor’s favourite son was proven once more when one of his first acts as King was to order the release of his mother from imprisonment. Upon her release, Eleanor played an even bigger political role in the Angevin Empire than ever before, even more so than when she was Queen. The Queen Mother even took it upon herself to prepare for Richard’s Coronation. The most substantial evidence to suggest Eleanor’s influence came when Richard was on the Crusade to the Holy Land and she was made an administrator of the realm. There is even further proof that she favoured Richard the most out of her children when he was captured by the Duke of Austria on his return from the Third Crusade in 1192. In an act that can only be described as unusual, Eleanor collected the ransom money for Richard and actually delivered it in person. I say it was unusual as this was an age when women had little or no role to play in society and yet Eleanor travelled thousands of miles to deliver a ransom demand to a man who was significantly more powerful than herself, or so the Duke thought.

Richard I died on 6th April 1199 after being shot by an arrow and Eleanor was naturally devastated. However, anyone who had hoped that her influence would diminish with Richard’s death were unfortunately wrong. As Richard had no heir to succeed him, his brother John consequently ascended to the throne. At the time of her son’s accession, Eleanor was into her seventies, yet her travels and the authority she possessed was far from over. At the grand age of 77 Eleanor set out for France to select a Castilian Princess (who were the nieces of King John) in order to marry Phillip Augustus II of France’s son, the Dauphin Louis. This was an agreement made between the French King and King John, and Eleanor fully supported the match, hence why she went on the mission to France. However, things did not go to plan for Eleanor. Just outside Poiters, she was captured by Hugh IX of Lusignan. Not a woman to be held down by her male superiors, the Queen Mother secured her release by agreeing to the demands of Hugh, and thus she continued her journey south. Now let us not forget how old Eleanor was at this time, and her journey was a long and tiresome one which included a jaunt across the Pyrenees. She arrived before the end of January 1200. Once again Eleanor, who was living in a man’s world, was proving her worth and, what’s more, her influence over those who were more superior than herself.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and her sons, Prince John and King Richard.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and her sons, Prince John and King Richard.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, even at the age she was, was one of the most influential women in Europe and during King John’s reign this influence didn’t fade. She supposedly supported John in his role as King, and opposed her grandson, Arthur of Brittany (who was the son of Eleanor’s fourth son Geoffrey and Constance of Brittany), whose position was thought as a possible threat to John’s throne. In 1202 Arthur tried to recover his inheritance from John, which saw the young Duke besiege his elderly grandmother at Mirebeau, the castle that Eleanor was bravely holding for John. Eleanor proved once again that she was not going to be held down by anyone, not even a member of her own family. Consequently, she resorted to delaying tactics and, in doing so, she was able to send an urgent message to John. The King responded immediately and was able to reach Eleanor in just 48 hours. He took Arthur prisoner, but anyone who thought that Eleanor was a woman scorned and wanted Arthur dead would be wrong; she pleaded with John to make peace with Arthur. However, her pleading seems to have been worthless as medieval chroniclers have since made us believe that John had Arthur murdered. What makes this story even more interesting is that there is no evidence to document Eleanor’s reaction to the disappearance and probable murder of her grandson. This makes one wonder if Eleanor really had pleaded to save Arthur or whether that was simply recorded to make a ‘sinister’ Queen look more sympathetic. We can only speculate the whole saga which, centuries later, made William Shakespeare refer to Eleanor as ‘ a cankered grandam’; I will leave the decision to you.

So there we have it! Eleanor of Aquitaine certainly had an eventful life and no one can debate the influence she had on those around her. It could even be argued that her influence was greater when she was Queen Mother rather than when she was Queen. Queen Elizabeth I’s quote which I used at the beginning of this piece may have been stated over 300 years after Eleanor’s death, however I believe it perfectly sums up the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She had the heart and vigour of any contemporary man, she fought hard for her beliefs and her sons, and, as history shows us, she certainly wasn’t afraid of anyone nor anything.

Photo Credits: “Alienor-d-aquitaine et jean sans terre” by Original on the wall of the Sainte Radegonde chapel in Chinon; Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by amadalvarez. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. & “A Chronicle of England – Page 204 – Richard Pardons His Brother John” by James William Edmund Doyle Doyle, James William Edmund (1864) ” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.