Saturday, 24 January 2015

celebrating historical heroes: Eleanor of Aquitaine

I mentioned in the last post that I'm a big fan of Game of Thrones on TV, and the Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin, which it's based on. I am also interested in history, as is Martin, who took lots of inspiration from European, and particularly, British history.

I think my favourite English royal dynasty (sorry Scotland - I don't know Scottish royal history*) is the Plantaganets, and my favourite Plantaganet Queen is Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was quite the force to be reckoned with.

This post forms part of my series of 50 things to blog about. You'll find the rest here.

Eleanor was born to the duchy of Aquitaine, a great and wealthy fief. When she was 15, in 1137, Eleanor's father died. She inherited the duchy, and also Poitiers.

All this wealth would have made Eleanor popular with European Kings in search of a Queen anyway, but Eleanor was also stylish and influential. 

That same year, Eleanor married Louis, the son of her guardian, King Louis VI, and soon to be King Louis VII of France. They had two daughters. Her court was the home of 'courtly love', where the more romantic aspects of being a knight were rehearsed and played out. Many knights professed their undying love for the beautiful Eleanor (but they were hardly going to call her a donkey, were they?). It was Eleanor's influence that led the men to wear long sleeves, pointed shoes, and to grow their hair long. Costume drama fans thank you Eleanor.

Sadly, Eleanor and Louis were not well suited, she had tried to get an anullment early on but had been refused by the pope, however, after she'd born Louis two girls and no boys in 15 years, Louis agreed to an annullment, which was granted in 1152, and Eleanor could move on. Eleanor left her daughters to be raised in the French court, and moved on to a new marriage (eight weeks after the last one was annulled), this one with Henry of Anjou, 9 years her junior, and well suited to her in temperament, intelligence, and in wealth. 

In 1154 Henry became King Henry II, the first Plantaganet King of England. Eleanor was again a Queen Consort. Eleanor bore Henry eight children, and also worked with him to create an impressive empire, travelling around their territiories as needed. She became known as a very able politician

However, theirs was a stormy marriage. Henry was repeatedly unfaithful, and Eleanor strongly disagreed with some of his political decisions, and hated sharing power. In 1173 Eleanor (then 50) led three of her sons, now of age, in a rebellion against the King. The rebellion was stopped, and Henry imprisoned Eleanor for the next 15 years.

She was freed when Henry died in 1189. Her favourite son, Richard, became King Richard I, and went off to fight in the Holy Land, leaving Eleanor at home as regent where she repeatedly intervened to defend his lands (even against his brother, John). She also helped to ransom him when he was captured on his way home. She continued to travel around Europe cementing marriage alliances for her children, and grandchildren, and working to maintain the loyalty of her family's subjects.

Richard died in 1199, and was succeeded by his younger brother, John, at which point Eleanor stepped out of the limelight. She died in 1204 at the Abbey of Fontevrault - a place where older aristocratic women would go to rest and recuperate when required. She had been there a few times, especially since Henry II had been buried there. She was buried there with him.

A little extra fact I love about Eleanor is that her grandmother was called Dangereuse. That is an awesome name.

We could do with more good historical fiction about Eleanor of Aquitaine. Cecelia Holland has written a good short story about the rebellion in the Dangerous Women collection, but her longer book looks ropey. You cannot however, go wrong with the marvellous Katharine Hepburn who plays her beautifully in The Lion in Winter.


Elizabeth Chadwick also published a book about Eleanor in 2013: The Summer Queen. Have you read it?
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*and it baffles me that my Scottish children, in Scottish schools are taught about English monarchs in history. I mean, the Tudors are great, but Scots royalty is interesting too.