In honour of Eleanor

A long time e-friend has just welcomed the arrival of his second daughter, to be known as Eleanor. Congratulations!

I love that name, as Eleanor of Aquitaine (at various times Prince of Aquitaine as ruling Duchess, Queen of France, Queen of England, Queen Mother and Regent of England) is my favourite historical hoyden. She was an unapologetic female ruler, whose charm, sophistication and beauty were renowned, and whose intellect was greatly respected (and feared) by the royal men in her life, much to the dismay of traditionalists.

My love of her is enhanced by the classic film of the later life of EofA and her husband Henry Plantagenet, The Lion in Winter, starring another of my favourite hoydens, La Hepburn. (I just discovered that James Goldman, playwright and screenwriter of The Lion in Winter, is the brother of William Goldman, who wrote The Princess Bride and much more. Apparently they know all about sibling estrangement.)

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Katharine Hepburn on the set of The Lion in Winter

EofA is, indeed, how I judge the quality of any encyclopaedia I encounter. If all they mention are the inheritances and battles of her husbands and sons, without any mention of her own significant interventions into the politics of the day, then they are not good reference books. I especially detest those who trivialise her leading armies against her husband as simple spousal resentment instead of hardnosed politics: Henry threatened her control of her own dukedom, also the inheritance of her sons and thus the perpetuation of her dynasty. Contesting his aims was her princely responsibility.

EofA played her political hand, the enormous wealth and military resources of Aquitaine, cannily her entire life. By pledging her soldiers and lands at various times to husbands, sons, popes and other princes, she usually ended up getting her own way in things until her husband Henry actually besieged her court in Poitiers, captured her and confined her in England, away from her own courtiers, where he could coerce her into signing away her rights in Aquitaine. Still, after Henry’s death in 1189 she emerged from 16 years of confinement, in her late sixties, to continue playing politics for another 15 years, including her famous raising of the exorbitant ransom for the captured Good King Richard against the wishes of Prince John (and with the mythologised aid of Robin Hood).

This immense political power as both Duchess and Queen is at the root of her scandalous reputation: because she had her own warriors to pledge to the Second Crusade, she could not be denied the right to ride with the crusade with her 300 ladies in armour bearing lances (they never fought though). Aged only 19, such disrespect for convention seemed to explain her failure to provide a male heir after full four years of marriage. Rumours flew: such an unconventional woman as the Queen of France might transgress any rule!

Eleanor entering Constantinople

It is hard now to know how many of the alleged affairs she had actually occurred, although there is no doubt that she was sexually involved with Henry of Anjou (later Henry II of England and ten years her junior) well before their marriage and possibly while she was still married to Louis VII of France, as she gave birth to their first son William five months after she and Henry married (William died a few years later). The simple fact of her being an independently powerful woman was enough for any scandal about her to seem credible: the consensus view seemed to be that without the need to depend on a husband for power and wealth, why would she, inherently carnal in nature like all women, be a faithful wife?

Eleanor outlived most of her critics, dying in her eighties in 1204. She outlived not only both husbands but also most of her daughters from both marriages and all her sons except the infamous John “Softsword” aka “Lacklands”. If John had inherited either of his parents’ political nous he would never have been forced into signing the Magna Carta: neither Henry nor Eleanor minded conflicts with other princes (indeed, they thrived upon them and sought them out), but they were far too sensible to alienate the barons upon whom they relied for soldiers and taxes. That John’s foolish problems with the barons came after he could no longer call on her for advice is probably no coincidence. She wouldn’t have been impressed with him losing most of her inheritance in France, either.

Anglocentric texts tend to ignore her significance on the Continent after her efforts as Regent for Richard. She is hardly mentioned after her youngest son John became King of England, yet these were some of her busiest years: her astonishing travels as a septa- and octe-genarian up and down Europe, cementing marriage alliances for her grandchildren that ended with a grandson as Emperor and a granddaughter as Queen of France, married to the grandson of her first husband.

It was given to few people in feudal Europe to live such a long life at the centre of significant political events, leading not only courts but armies. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Prince and Queen, is an endlessly fascinating character. May baby Eleanor have all her gaiety, charm, wit and influence and none of her reversals in fortune.

Categories: history, Life

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1 reply

  1. It sure seems like any politically powerful woman attracts rumors of sexual unconventionality. I find it profoundly strange how they both get so intertwined that it is difficult to separate out the fact from the lurid gossip.
    Hillary and Bill are a great example of the phenomena. Hillary’s politics are so devotely mainstream that they would be utterly unremarkable in a male politician but for some she seems to be some kind of reincarnation of Messalina in the minds of most.
    I just finished David Andress’s “The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France.” It spent some time examining the sexual politics of the French Revolution and the contemporary image of Marie Antoinette. The contrast between Marie Antoinette’s outrageous popular reputation could not be in more contrast her real history as a not particularly adept petty intriguer.

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