Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Eleanor of Aquitaine |
The twelfth century

Eleanor of Aquitaine is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 72, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Mother of two kings, wife of two kings, and imprisoned by both for plotting against them, eligible heiress Eleanor of Aquitaine scandalized Europe for most of her 82 years

Eleanor of Aquitaine - The twelfth century’s liveliest lady

Eleanor of Aquitaine - The twelfth century’s liveliest lady
This still from Anthony Harvey’s 1968 movie The Lion in Winter features Katharine Hepburn as the aging Eleanor of Aquitaine and Peter O’Toole as the old lion Henry II. In the film, as in history, it was the case of a couple who could live neither together nor apart.

In her time Eleanor of Aquitaine was called many things. To her youngest son, England’s King John, she was “an unhappy and shameless woman.” To Gervase, the monk-recorder of Canterbury, she was “an exceedingly shrewd and clever woman . . . but unstable and flighty.” To late-twentieth-century feminists she was a valiant “gender warrior.” Beyond all argument, however, she was the wife of two kings and the mother of two, and certainly one of the most influential women in medieval Europe.

Born in 1122 and raised in Aquitaine’s hedonistic ducal palace at Poitiers, Eleanor was a pampered, headstrong, learned, and very beautiful auburn-haired girl. When her father, Duke William X, died young with no male heir, he left the duchies of Aquitaine and Gascony and the county of Poitou to the fifteen-year-old Eleanor, with France’s King Louis VI as her guardian. Louis, by a marital treaty, wed her to his son, the future Louis VII, in order to secure her vast territory, stretching from the Loire to the Pyrenees, for the French crown. Neither the treaty nor the marriage worked. The marriage lasted fifteen years and produced only daughters. The melancholy Louis rarely visited her bed. But many others did, including, by one account, her forty-seven-year-old uncle Raymond, prince of Antioch, with whom the royal couple stayed during the ill-fated Second Crusade (see accompanying chapter).

Eleanor’s role in the crusade is noteworthy. One chronicle records that she arrived in Outremer with a troop of female crusaders in an Amazonian couture of white tunics slit up the side to reveal knee-high red leather boots turned with an orange lining. Eleanor, as the leader, had a royal crest on her arm and a plume in her hat. The spectacle, observes the chronicler, much distracted the troops.

At one point when the ladies insisted that the crusaders camp in a charming green valley surrounded by treed hills, a Muslim army descended on Louis’ forces. The French fought them off but lost seven thousand men. By then the conviction was growing among the troops that Eleanor’s presence had doomed the Second Crusade. An enraged Louis had Eleanor confined to her quarters. He then brought her against her will back to France. Their marriage survived two more years but then was annulled.

She now contrived to marry the youthful, lustful, brazen, redheaded Henry of Anjou, aged nineteen, who would become Henry II, one of England’s greatest ever monarchs, and establish the Plantagenet line of English kings. Eleanor was about thirty (her birth date is uncertain), and over the next thirteen years she produced for Henry five sons and three daughters. Two sons, Richard and John, would become kings of England.

But her marriage to Henry was to prove even more tumultuous than her first had been. While Henry consolidated his hold on England and much of France, masterminded the institution of English common law, and developed an effective bureaucracy to unite the country, he also developed liaisons with an assortment of tarts and mistresses, eventually driving an infuriated Eleanor back to Aquitaine. There she provided a charter to an abbey for nuns at Fontevrault, fashioned her Poitiers court into a center for troubadours and the celebration of courtly love, raised and schooled her favorite son, Richard, and plotted against Henry with all her sons to divorce Aquitaine from the English crown.

Learning of this betrayal, Henry confined Eleanor in various English castles for sixteen years. Yet their marriage, while certainly beset by argument, quarrels, and even war, was not altogether unhappy. Eleanor herself described it as much happier than her union with Louis. The couple often spent Christmas together, providing a plot for the delightful 1968 film The Lion in Winter, winner of three Academy Awards, with Katharine Hepburn playing Eleanor and Peter O’Toole Henry. It portrays that species of dysfunctional marriage where the couple cannot live together and cannot live apart either.

Henry died in 1189 at age fifty-six. Eleanor would outlive him by fifteen years. She threw herself into the production of a splendid coronation for Richard at Westminster, and she remained a behind-the-scenes instigator and fixer for her son. She arranged his strategic marriage to Berengaria of Navarre, she kept an eye on England while he was crusading, she arranged for the lavish ransom paid to free Richard from imprisonment in Austria, and she organized his funeral after he was killed by an arrow in a skirmish in France in 1199.

On April 1, 1204, as her husband’s once vast territory was being lost to Philip of France by John, Eleanor, observes a monastic chronicler, “passed from the world as a candle in the sconce goeth out when the wind striketh it.” She was eighty-two. Her body was interred in the crypt at the abbey at Fontevrault in a fine tomb between those of Henry II and Richard I, her second royal mate and her first royal son.

This is the end of the Eleanor of Aquitaine category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 72, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Eleanor of Aquitaine from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at