Eleanor was wealthy because she was heiress of the duchy of Aquitaine, one of the greatest fiefs in Europe. Aquitaine was like a separate nation with lands extending in southwestern France from the river Loire to the Pyrenees. Eleanor's court was a trend setter in the medieval world, known for its sophistication and luxury. Heavily influenced by the Spanish courts of the Moors, it gave patronage to poets and encouraged the art of the troubadours, some of whom were believed to be in love with the beautiful Eleanor. One story is that in her effort to shed her rough knights of their unruly ways, she made up a mock trial in which the court ladies sat on an elevated platform and judged the knights, who read poems of homage to women and acted out proper courting techniques. The men wore fancy clothes - flowing sleeves, pointed shoes - and wore their hair long.
During their adventures on the Second Crusade, it became apparent that her marriage with dour, severe King Louis VII of France was ill matched. The marriage was annulled on a technicality, and Eleanor left her two daughters by him to be raised in the French court. Within a short time Eleanor threw herself into a new marriage, a stormy one to Henry of Anjou, an up and coming prince eleven years younger than she. Their temperaments as well as their wealth in land were well matched; her new husband became Henry II king of England in 1154.
For the next thirteen years Eleanor constantly bore Henry children, five sons and three daughters. (William, Henry, Richard I "the Lionheart", Geoffrey, John "Lackland", Mathilda, Eleanor, and Joan). Richard and John became, in turn, kings of England. Henry was given the title "the young king" by his father, although father Henry still ruled. Through tough fighting and clever alliances, and with a parcel of children, Henry and Eleanor created an impressive empire. As well, Eleanor was an independent ruler in her own right since she had inherited the huge Duchy of Aquitaine and Poitiers from her father when she was 15.
However all was not well between Henry and Eleanor. When her older sons were of age, her estrangement from her husband grew. In 1173 she led her three of her sons in a rebellion against Henry, surprising him with this act of aggression so seemingly unusual for a woman. In her eyes it was justified. After two decades of child bearing, putting up with his infidelities, vehemently disagreeing with some of his decisions, and, worst of all, having to share her independence and power, Eleanor may have hoped that her prize would have been the right to rule Aquitaine with her beloved third son Richard, and without Henry. The rebellion was put down, however, and fifty-year-old Eleanor was imprisoned by Henry in various fortified buildings for the next fifteen years.
In 1189, Henry died. On the accession of her son Richard I to kingship, Eleanor's fortunes rose again. When Richard was fighting in the Holy Land she repeatedly intervened to defend his lands - even against her son John. When he was captured on his way home, she used her considerable influence to help raise the ransom and secure Richard's release. Her relentless work on behalf of her favorite son increased her fame as an extremely able politician.
Eleanor traveled constantly, even in her old age. Running from one end of Europe to another, she often risked her life in her efforts to maintain the loyalty of the English subjects, cement marriage alliances, and manage her army and estates. By this time she had many grandchildren. Possibly one of her wisest acts was to travel to Spain to chose and collect her thirteen year old grand daughter Blanche of Castile to become the bride of Louis VIII of France, the grandson of her first husband Louis VII! Blanche eventually proved a rival to Eleanor in political influence and success as queen of France. Eleanor also, when almost seventy, rode over the Pyrenees to collect her candidate to be Richard's wife, (Berengaria, the daughter of King Sancho the Wise of Navarre). She then traversed the Alps, traveling all the way down the Italian peninsula, to bring Berengaria to Sicily. Berengaria then travelled to Cyprus, where Richard married her at Limossol on May 12, 1191.
Eleanor died in 1204 at her favorite religious house, the abbey of Fontevrault, where she had retreated to find peace during various moments of her life.
A religious community where older aristocratic
women and ill-used wives came to recover their
self-respect and find sympathy and spiritual comfort.
"You have been the first among my joys
and you shall be the last,
so long as there is life in me."
Verse sung by Bernart de Ventadour, a famous
troubadour said to be in love with Eleanor.
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