BIOGRAPHIES

Female Heroes from the Time of the Crusades

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine enters Constantinople, 1147 A.D.
Illustration from Women Warlords, Tim Newark, Blandford Press, UK, 1989.

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Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful and fascinating personalities of feudal Europe. At age 15 she married Louis VII, King of France, bringing into the union her vast possessions from the River Loire to the Pyrenees. Only a few years later, at age 19, she knelt in the cathedral of Vézelay before the celebrated Abbé Bernard of Clairvaux offering him thousands of her vassals for the Second Crusade. It was said that Queen Eleanor appeared at Vézelay dressed like an Amazon galloping through the crowds on a white horse, urging them to join the crusades.

While the church may have been pleased to receive her thousand fighting vassals, they were less happy when they learned that Eleanor, attended by 300 of her ladies, also planned to go to help "tend the wounded."

The presence of Eleanor, her ladies and wagons of female servants, was criticized by commentators throughout her adventure. Dressed in armor and carrying lances, the women never fought. And when they reached the city of Antioch, Eleanor found herself deep in a renewed friendship with Raymond, her uncle, who had been appointed prince of the city. Raymond, only a few years older than Eleanor, was far more interesting and handsome than Eleanor's husband, Louis. When Raymond decided that the best strategic objective of the Crusade would be to recapture Edessa, thus protecting the Western presence in the Holy Land, Eleanor sided with his view. Louis, however, was fixated on reaching Jerusalem, a less sound goal. Louis demanded that Eleanor follow him to Jerusalem. Eleanor, furious, announced to one and all that their marriage was not valid in the eyes of God, for they were related through some family connections to an extent prohibited by the Church. Wounded by her claim, Louis nonetheless forced Eleanor to honor her marriage vows and ride with him. The expedition did fail, and a defeated Eleanor and Louis returned to France in separate ships.

On her way home, while resting in Sicily, Eleanor was brought the news that her fair haired uncle had been killed in battle, and his head delivered to the Caliph of Baghdad. Although her marriage to Louis continued for a time, and she bore him two daughters, the relationship was over. In 1152 the marriage was annulled and her vast estates reverted to Eleanor's control. Within a year, at age thirty, she married twenty year old Henry who two years later became king of England.

In the papal bull for the next Crusade, it expressly forbade women of all sorts to join the expedition. All the Christian monarchs, including King Louis, agreed to this. But by this time Eleanor had problems of her own in her marriage to King Henry II of England.

Clink here to find out what happened to Eleanor after she returned from the Crusades.

Click here for a Timeline on lives and events in Eleanor’s life:


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Women in World History Curriculum