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Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitane
Queen, wife, mother, crusader, traveler - and the bane of both her husbands' existences
Family Background, Early Life and Influences
Eleanor of Aquitaine was born in France in 1122 to William X (the last duke of Aquitaine) and Aenor de Chatellerault. She became the sole heir to the duchy of Aquitaine, the richest and largest province of France (now comprising almost half of modern day France), when her younger brother and sister died around 1130. Eleanor's family had reined over this region of France since 841 and the title was hereditary - Eleanor became the first woman to rule the Aquitaine in her own right. The Aquitainian duchy was a centre for many art forms - especially poetry, music and literature - and it was unrivalled in Europe. Growing up surrounded by art and literature, she developed a real love and passion for it. Her father ensured that she had an enlightened upbringing and was given the best possible education to prepare her for her future role as the Duchess of Aquitaine. She was taught to read and write in Latin as well as her regional language
Poitevin, and was trained in riding, hunting and hawking. William X had lead the Aquitaine in its artistic endeavours as his own father had done, and when he died in April 1137, Eleanor (then only 15) considered it her duty to do the same - therefore making her one of the most influential patrons of what we now call the 12th Century Renaissance.
Career/Occupation and Major Noteworthy Achievements
At just 15, Eleanor was beautiful, worldly and capricious and now Duchess of Aqutiaine. William X named King Louis VI of France Eleanor's legal guardian and, seeing as she was the most eligible woman in all of Europe, the King arranged her marriage to his own son within hours. Louis VII was a quiet, holy and easily influenced man, very different to Eleanor, who was very outspoken and cunning. The unification of the two brought the Aquitainian duchy under the French Crown and had the potential to greatly impact the country's power and prominence in Europe. The couple married on 25th July 1137 and a day later they were pronounced Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine on the condition that Eleanor's lands were not handed over to the Crown until her future son became both King of France and Duke of Aquitaine. Just days later, on August 1st, the ailing Louis VI died; Eleanor and Louis VII ascended to the French throne on Christmas Day the same year.
At 19, Eleanor used her considerable influence upon Louis to persuade him into letting her accompany him on the Second Crusade to free Jerusalem for Christianity. Considering she brought with her 300 ladies in waiting to ‘tend to the wounded’, clothes, mattresses, makeup kits, musicians, troubadours, numerous pieces of art and even animals, she proved to be a burden on the Crusade – getting in the way and using up valuable resources - and this resulted in constant bickering between her and Louis. There, Eleanor declared her marriage ‘not valid in the eyes of God’ and they returned home from the Crusade – a miserable failure - in separate ships. They remained married for a few years upon returning to France and Eleanor bore him two daughters, Marie and Alix, but the lack of a son placed increasing stress on their marriage due to the danger of being left without an heir. This was, possibly, the turning point in their relationship. After 15 years of marriage, Eleanor could no longer withstand the differences between her and her husband and the Pope eventually granted them an annulment (despite his attempts to reconcile them) on the grounds of consanguinity (being too closely related) in 1152. Eleanor continued to rule the Aquitaine.
Because she had retained her land, the day after the divorce was finalised Eleanor became the object of desire for many ambitious noblemen and she received a tip off of several abduction plots. Outwitting these men, she sent an embassy to propose marriage to Henry, count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, with whom she had been having an affair in the later years of her previous marriage. He was 11 years her junior and even more closely related to her than Louis, but he was soon to become King of England and therefore guaranteed her protection. It was very much a marriage of convenience, but also a marriage of love. They were wed two months later and Henry’s dominion became the largest in Europe upon the combination of his own land and Eleanor’s, far larger than the one ruled by King Louis VII. The next 13 years saw Eleanor give Henry 5 sons and 3 daughters - William, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, John, Matilda, Eleanor, and Joanna. However, he was by no means faithful and she resented his infidelities. His infamous affair with Rosamunde Clifford became known around the time of the birth of Eleanor and Henry’s final child, placing intense strain upon their relationship. In 1173, she led three of her sons in a revolt against her husband, giving them considerable military assistance. However, the revolt failed and she was captured by Henry whilst seeking refuge in the kingdom of her first husband. Eleanor was then semi-imprisoned for 16 years in England, which ended only with the death of Henry in 1189.
Eleanor’s political importance was maintained, even with the death of her husband – she was depicted on medieval coinage from 1189-1204. Her son, Richard the Lionheart, now became the King of England and then immediately set off on the Third Crusade. After Eleanor was released, she resumed her cultural and political work, most of it to rescue Richard (who was captured by the Duke of Austria on return from the Crusade). Eleanor collected his ransom money herself, and went to escort him back to England. At that time she was a remarkable 80 years old. When Richard died, leaving no heir, John was crowned king. Eleanor, seeing that England would not be strong enough with John as its King, then set out to restore peace with their enemies. John’s only victories in France were, in fact, due to Eleanor.
Retiring from public life, Eleanor of Aquitaine spent her final years in a nunnery and died in a Monastery in Fontevrault in 1204. Her tomb effigy can be found there today. As the nuns of Fontevrault wrote in their necrology, she was truly a queen “who surpassed almost all the queens of the world."
Intelligent, creative and impulsive, Eleanor's legend would go unrivaled until Elizabeth I. Blessed with a remarkably long and fulfilled life, Eleanor took centre stage in the 12th century, which, as Katherine Bailey expressed in the May 2005 issue of 'British Heritage', was a "
particularly impressive achievement considering that medieval women were considered nothing more than chattel"
. The unrest in Europe and the Holy Land at the time proved to be an incredible challenge for all leaders of the time, but Eleanor was renowned for her political wisdom and tenacity that marked the years of her maturity. Her sons are some of the most famous kings of England, including Richard the Lionheart and John, who is most known for signing the magna carta.
1122 - Born in France to William X and Aenor de Chatellerault
Around 1130 - Eleanor's younger brother and sister die
April 1137 - Eleanor's father dies, Eleanor becomes Duchess of Aquitaine
25th July 1137 - Eleanor and Louis VII marry
1st August 1137 - King Louis VI of France dies
25th December 1137 - Eleanor and Louis VII become King and Queen of the Franks
1145 - Eleanor and Louis' first child, Marie, is born
12th May 1147 - Eleanor and Louis march out of Paris, embarking on the Second Crusade
1149 - Eleanor and Louis take separate ships back to France from Palestine
1150 - Eleanor and Louis' second daughter, Alix, is born
March 21st 1152 - Eleanor and Louis' marriage is annulled
Late March 1152 - Eleanor eludes attempts to seize her for ransom
18th May 1152 - Eleanor marries Henry of Anjou, the future King of England
October 5th 1154 - King Stephen of England dies
December - Henry II and Eleanor are crowned King and Queen of England
February 28th 1155 - Henry and Eleanor's first child, a son, is born
1165 - Henry meets Rosamunde and their affair commences
1167 - Eleanor decides to separate from Henry, she leaves England and establishes a Court of Ladies at Poitiers
Spring 1173 - Rift between Henry II and his sons, possibly instigated by Eleanor
1174 - Henry exiles Eleanor to England
October 1175 - Eleanor refuses Henry's plea for a divorce
July 6th 1189 - Henry II dies
September 3rd 1189 - King Richard crowned
1190 - Richard leaves for the Third Crusade
1192 - Richard captured by Leopold, the Duke of Austria
1192-94 - Eleanor works to collect Richard's ransom
February 3rd 1194 - Eleanor presents Richard's ransom money, he is released
April 6th 1199 - Richard dies
May 27th 1199 - Eleanor's son, John, crowned King of England
1199 - Eleanor retires to Fontevrault Abbey
1204 - Eleanor dies at Fontevrault Abbey
Map of Eleanor's Life
Red: Eleanor's birthplace (Poitou, France)
Green: Eleanor's residence during her marriage to Louis VII (Paris, France)
Blue: Eleanor's residence during her marriage to Henry II (London, England)
Eleanor's travels on the Second Crusade
A photo of Eleanor's grave (on the left) next to the grave of Richard the Lionheart, her son (on the right)
This photo can tell us three things about Eleanor of Aquitaine:
a) As she was buried next to her son Richard the Lionheart and yet not anywhere near any of her other sons – this tells us that Richard was probably her favourite son.
b) It also tells us that she was extremely important, as there are very few graves from the Middle Ages, so she must have been really significant to those times to have been buried in a grave.
c) If you look closely, you will see that she is holding a book, we will never really know what this book signifies but here are some of the views held by others:
i. It tells you that she was wise and intelligent
ii. It is a bible (as she was quite religious) or it is a book of the poems and songs written for her by knights.
iii. It is there for people to remember her encouraging reading to many serfs in France and England.
Coin minted under Eleanor's rule of Aquitaine
Coins are an excellent way to tell which people were held in high esteem at the time in which they were made. These coins were minted during Eleanor’s rule of the Aquitaine and subsequently depict her crest. This therefore can tell us a lot about Eleanor’s career as a Duchess and leader as it allows us to infer that Eleanor was a very important figure in 12th Century France and that she had power well beyond what was expected of a woman. The most important detail that we can grasp from these coins is the very fact that she, not a man, is depicted on them and that she was regarded as the person in charge, which was very rare for a woman of the medieval period.
Rock crystal vase, a family heirloom and wedding gift from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Louis VII
This vase was a precious heirloom belonging to Eleanor's family and had been around for hundreds of years when her grandfather brought it back from the East. This artefact demonstrates the vast wealth of Eleanor's family and also shows that Eleanor was willing to give away one of her most valuable belongings to her husband. Historians are able to speculate on just why she gave Louis this vase – perhaps to further seal the alliance between them? Or maybe because Eleanor was so full of hope for the future that she thought a treasured piece of her family’s wealth was a gift worth giving?
A brief discussion of the sources...
These sources all provide similar perspectives on Eleanor’s life, career and legacy in that they all present her as being a very powerful individual. Considering that she was buried in a grave (which was uncommon for people of that time), depicted on coins and had very rare and valuable possessions, her importance cannot be questioned. Interestingly, it can be noted that Eleanor was more powerful than many men of the time as well – the coins are a perfect example of this as they show that she was regarded as the ruler of the Aquitaine by the French people, even in a time when women were seldom considered leaders. The theme of her being a well-liked leader is also one which is seen in the first source; she was given a grave, a privilege that people – let alone Kings – were rarely given and the possibility that the book signifies her encouraging serf’s to read and write allows us to infer that she genuinely cared about her subjects. At the same time we can deduce from the third source that she genuinely cared about her relationships as well, as she was willing to give up one of her family’s precious treasures to give to her first husband as a wedding gift. All in all, the sources show a generally positive perspective of Eleanor, one which is seen all throughout history.
A 19th Century depiction of Eleanor of Aquitaine
(Left) The marriage of Eleanor and Louis VII (Right) Louis VII travelling on the Second Crusade
A Victorian representation of Eleanor of Aquitaine - it is ideological
A stone rendering circa 1153 in which Eleanor is depicted. It was carved upon Henry taking the throne
This picture of Eleanor does not depict the beauty that she was so famous for
The Aquitainian province
Eleanor's first husband, Louis VII
Eleanor's second husband, Henry II
The lands of Eleanor and Henry formed a great Empire
Eleanor confronting Rosamunde about her affair with Henry
Henry of Anjou, Eleanor's second husband and King of England
This picture depicts Eleanor on the Second Crusade, arriving in Constantinople
True of False?
1. Eleanor's first husband became the King of England
2. The Second Crusade was a great success, mostly due to Eleanor's efforts
3. Eleanor produced a male heir for Louis
4. Eleanor could read, write and speak several languages
5. Women of the 12th Century were often considered more important than men and society was matriarchal
Fill in the missing words (marked with a question mark)
Eleanor of Aquitaine was aged ? when she inherited the duchy of Aquitaine from her father, ? in April, ?. She was first married to ?, the King of ? and travelled with him on the ? to ? and Jerusalem. Eventually, because of their inability to produce a ?, their marriage was ? and she went back to ruling the Aquitaine. Just two months later, Eleanor married Henry of ?, the future King of ?. As King and Queen, Eleanor and Henry had ? children, including ? sons. But Henry was not loyal to Eleanor, and his affair with Rosamunde ? lead Eleanor to lead her sons in a ? against her husband. However, it failed and Eleanor was ? until Henry died in ?.
- Second Crusade
- Louis VII
- William X
Find the one word answers to the crossword questions by reading the biographical profile of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
1. How do Eleanor's two husbands differ in personality?
2. Why do you think Eleanor became an object of desire for many noblemen once she had her marriage to Louis annulled?
3. Why was Eleanor such a burden on the Second Crusade?
4. Why would the fact that Eleanor could not produce a son for Louis be such an issue?
5. Why was King Louis VI of France so eager to marry Eleanor of Aquitaine to his son?
Find a word
Recommended Reading List
If you wish to learn more about Eleanor of Aquitaine and the events surrounding her life, these resources provide valuable and useful information:
This is a very useful site as it provides in-depth, elaborate information and is easy to read. However, it must be acknowledged that we cannot always trust Wikipedia to be a reliable source.
By: Jone Johnson Lewis
This page provides a concise recount of Eleanor’s life and is useful if you are looking for basic information.
This website provides exceptional detail relating to Eleanor’s life and also looks thoroughly into her family background and contemporaneous events.
This site is a blog dedicated to sharing the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. It provides useful information such as who she was, what she did and how she did it but the reliability of this information is questionable.
Written by Paul Lindenmuth, November 2000
This page is very useful, providing in-depth and accurate information about Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Weir, Alison. Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000
This book can tell us about the major events in Eleanor's life, including perspectives on how people thought, how things worked and what was going on in the world at the time she was around. It also can tell us about all the little details that you wouldn't be able to find in a website or piece of information, as all the small things collected from the information she has read have been noted into the book.
The courtly love system originated in the south of France in the 12th Century under Eleanor of Aquitaine’s influence. This site is very useful for understanding Eleanor’s legacy.
Information on Eleanor’s life provided by Encyclopaedia Brittanica. This is very useful and also very reliable.
This is a wiki page and provides very similar information to Wikipedia. Information on this wiki page should be checked using other sources as we cannot always trust it to be accurate.
by Terri Brisbin
This provides useful information on Eleanor’s second marriage (to Henry of Anjou). However, the article is written from a biased perspective.
By Eloise Argent, 10EHIX
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