Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen-consort of France then England and One of the Most Powerful Medieval Women


At one time the medieval Crusader Queen of France, Eleanor of Aquitaine escaped kidnapping plots and assassination attempts to become the Queen of England after marrying the future Henry II. This would prove to be a pivotal moment in history, as she helped to forge the legendary Plantagenet dynasty.

However, Eleanor has also been wrongly maligned in history as a jealous wife, a schemer, and the head of a mythological "Court of Love".

A portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Frederick Sandys, 1858 (Image credit: Public Doman: Wiki/National Museum Wales, Art UK)

Eleanor of Aquitaine had stopped off at Port-de-Piles in France. The goal of reaching her native Poitou was almost in sight, just a short distance to the south. It was warm and relaxed — in stark contrast to the austere gloom of the Paris she was leaving behind. 

As she rested, news reached her from eyes and ears active across the region of another plan to kidnap her. It was the second plot within days. She had barely made it south from the county of Blois, slipping through the fingers of Count Theobald V.

In March 1152, the senior churchmen and nobility of France had gathered at Beaugency on the banks of the River Loire in Blois. If the spring was warm, the welcome for Queen Eleanor had been decidedly chilly. 

At the age of 28, her 15-year marriage to King Louis VII of France was annulled on the grounds of consanguinity, a too-close familial relationship that everyone had conveniently just remembered. 

Eleanor had enjoyed a great deal of influence over her husband, whom chroniclers consistently portrayed as a love-sick puppy led astray by a woman who threatened to be the ruin of his reign and his kingdom.

Louis had led a failed military campaign into Toulouse as part of an ongoing dispute with Eleanor’s family over ownership of the county. He had waged war on some of his most powerful subjects when Eleanor’s sister had begun an affair with a married older man. 

The royal couple had gone on crusade to the Holy Land together, but that had all gone terribly wrong. Monk chroniclers had furrowed their brows, searched for a reason for all this calamity, and aimed their inky bile at the queen. It had to be her fault so that it wasn’t the king’s.

Eleanor Becomes Queen of England

Within two months of her annulment, after fighting off attempts to marry her off to various other high-ranking French noblemen, Eleanor married Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. 

She had been rumored to have had an affair with her new husband’s father, and was more closely related to her new husband than she had been to Louis, but the marriage went ahead and within two years Henry and Eleanor were crowned king and queen of England after Henry’s accession to the English throne upon the death of King Stephen.

Eleanor’s marriage to Henry was more successful than her first, although not lacking in drama and discord. 

Henry and Eleanor argued often, but they produced eight children together between 1152 and 1166. 

The extent of Eleanor’s role in Henry’s rule is largely unknown, although it seems unlikely that a woman of her reputed energy and education would have been wholly without influence. 

Nonetheless, she does not emerge again into a publicly active role until separating from Henry in 1167 and moving her household to her own lands in Poitiers. While the reasons for the breakdown of her marriage to Henry remain unclear, it can likely be traced to Henry’s increasingly visible infidelities.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Court of Love

Eleanor’s time as mistress of her own lands in Poitiers (1168-1173) established the legend of the Court of Love, where she is reputed to have encouraged a culture of chivalry among her courtiers that had far-reaching influence on literature, poetry, music and folklore. 

Although some facts about the court remain in dispute amidst centuries of accumulated legend and myth, it seems that Eleanor, possibly accompanied by her daughter Marie, established a court that was largely focused on courtly love and symbolic ritual that was eagerly taken up by the troubadours and writers of the day and promulgated through poetry and song. 

This court was reported to have attracted artists and poets, and to have contributed to a flowering of culture and the arts. But to whatever extent such a court existed, it appears not to have survived Eleanor’s later capture and imprisonment, which effectively removed her from any position of power and influence for the next 16 years.

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Imprisonment

In 1173, Eleanor’s son “Young” Henry fled to France, apparently to plot against his father and seize the English throne. Eleanor, rumored to be actively supporting her son’s plans against her estranged husband, was arrested and imprisoned for treason. Once apprehended, she spent the next 16 years shuttled between various castles and strongholds in England, suspected of agitating against her husband’s interests and said by some to have played a role in the death of his favorite mistress, Rosamund. 

After years of rebellion and revolt, Young Henry finally succumbed to disease in 1183 and died, begging on his deathbed for his mother’s release. Henry released her, under guard, to allow her to return to England in 1184, after which she rejoined his household at least for part of each year, joining him on solemn occasions and resuming some of her ceremonial duties as queen.

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Regency and Death

Henry II died in July 1189 and their son Richard succeeded him; one of his first acts was to free his mother from prison and restore her to full freedom. Eleanor ruled as regent in Richard’s name while he took over for his father in leading the Third Crusade, which had barely begun when Henry II died. 

On the conclusion of the crusade, Richard (known as Richard the Lionheart) returned to England and ruled until his death in 1199. Eleanor lived to see her youngest son, John, crowned king after Richard’s death, and was employed by John as an envoy to France. She would later support John’s rule against the rebellion of her grandson Arthur, and eventually retire as a nun to the abbey at Fontevraud, where she was buried upon her death in 1204.