The Death of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most influential people of the medieval period, and one the most famous women in the history of Europe. She was the richest heiress in Europe at the age of 15, and arguably the greatest beauty as well. If her money didn’t hook a man, the fact she was hot enough to bring make even the devoutest of monks recant their vows would. She wasn’t unaware of the power both her wealth and her looks brought her, either.

During her lifetime she would wed two kings and give birth to three more. She was well-educated, a patron of the arts, high-spirited, and determined to control her own life as much as possible. Her life was more eventful than happy, but no one can say she didn’t make every moment of it count.

Eleanor of Aquitaine's seal

In 1137, the newly-made Duchess of Aquitaine married the heir to the French throne, the future King Louis VII.


He adored her, but her unbreakable spirit caused a lot of resentment in the French court. Eleanor was not the kind of women, even as young as she was, to sit meekly while men planned. Over time, Louis and Eleanor would become estranged, although it appears that all the push for an annulment was on Eleanor’s end. Historical rumor persists that Louis was heartbroken when he realized his love for his bride was never – and would never – be requited. As a final nail in the nuptial coffin, Eleanor met a man she found much more attractive and desirable as a husband –  the Duke of Normandy, the future King Henry II of England. Henry was bold, vivacious, daring, as ginger in nature as he was in hair color, and more than a decade younger than Eleanor. They hit it off like a house on fire, and they would eventually be consumed by the same conflagration.

Inasmuch as she had only born a daughter, Marie, rather than a male heir, Eleanor thought that she could end her marriage without much difficulty. However, when she asked Pope Eugene III  to grant her an annulment, he instead bullied her into reconciling briefly with Louis (probably at the king’s behest).

Thus was conceived their second child – not a son, but another daughter, Alix of France. The marriage was now doomed. Still without a son and in danger of being left with no male heir, facing substantial opposition to Eleanor from many of his barons and her own desire for divorce, Louis bowed to the inevitable. On 11 March 1152, they met at the royal castle of Beaugency to dissolve the marriage. Hugues de Toucy, Archbishop of Sens, presided, and Louis and Eleanor were both present, as were the Archbishops of Bordeaux and Rouen. Archbishop Samson of Reims acted for Eleanor. On 21 March, the four archbishops, with the approval of Pope Eugene, granted an annulment on grounds of consanguinity within the fourth degree. (Eleanor was Louis’ third cousin once removed, and shared common ancestry with Robert II of France.) Their two daughters were, however, declared legitimate. (Children born to a marriage that was later annulled were not at risk of being “bastardized,” because “[w]here parties married in good faith, without knowledge of an impediment, … children of the marriage were legitimate.”) Custody of them was awarded to King Louis. Archbishop Samson received assurances from Louis that Eleanor’s lands would be restored to her.

Post-annulment, Eleanor (clearly not the maternal sort to be easily attached to her toddler/infant daughters, who were probably kept from her much of the time anyway) made haste to Poitiers (evading two kidnapping attempts) and sent her people to let Henry know she was now free and able to marry him. Henry lost no time in crossing the channel, and the couple were married on 18 May 1152. Eight weeks before, Eleanor had been Queen of France. Two years later, she would become Queen of England.

Although Henry and Eleanor had a tumultuous marriage (which is unsurprising when both spouses are such strong-willed people), it was a very fruitful one. Eleanor gave birth to eight children:


William IX, Count of Poitiers
Henry the Young King
Matilda, Duchess of Saxony
Richard I, King of England
Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany
Eleanor, Queen of Castile
Joan, Queen of Sicily
John, King of England

In this second marriage, Eleanor developed more of a relationship with her children. Maybe it was the fact she saw them more often at a smaller English court that encouraged her to bond with her offspring, but I think it more likely that she came to love a child as he/she aged and she grew to know them as people, mainly because she became strongly attached to some of them but not others. However it happened, Eleanor’s loyalties eventually lay with her elder sons, especially after she and Henry became fully estranged. She would be imprisoned by her husband for more than 16 years as punishment for supporting the rebellion of their son, Henry the Young King, and two of his brothers against their father.

The first historical fiction I ever read was Revolt of the Eaglets by Jean Plaidy, which recounted these rebellions; it’s what got me hooked on Plantagenet history. When Henry II died in 1189 the new king, her third-born son Richard the Lionheart, freed his mother and she served as his regent and de facto ruler of England. She also assisted and supported her son, King John, and it was only after she became physically frail and retired to a convent to live out the rest of her life as a nun that John lost most of his lands on the continent and became John Lackland.

By the time Eleanor died on 1 April 1204, she had outlived both her previous husbands all of her children but Queen Eleanor of Castile and John. She was interred at Fontevraud Abbey, where she lies in state next to Henry II, and near to her son, Richard.

Eleanor and Henry II Effigies



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