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Crusader Queen: Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine
Queen of Two Nations
Crusader Queen: Eleanor of Aquitaine
Born around 1122 in Bordeux in the Aquitaine region of France, Eleanor grew up the privileged daughter of a duke, enjoying an education that was unheard of for most people at the time, let alone a girl. Her lessons in leadership came from her father, and she regularly joined him on his tours of Aquitaine, securing the region’s borders and overseeing disputes. When her father died when she was fifteen, Eleanor inherited a property larger than France is today.
Lively with sophisticated tastes, Eleanor was soon married to the French king Louis II, but she found married life less than fulfilling. “I thought to have married a king but I find I have wed a monk,” she complained. She was so bored and frustrated with her life that when the Second Crusade began, she jumped at a chance to help—and then enlist! She began by first raising money to finance the journey to the Holy Land and offered her husband thousands of vassals to use as an army, then by convincing Louis to join the crusade and to take her with him. She departed France for Constantinople with 300 warrior women in her retinue.
Unfortunately, the crusade ended in disaster and did nothing to improve Eleanor’s relationship with Louis; the rift was made clear when they returned home in separate ships. Not long afterwards Eleanor asked for a divorce from her husband and Louis granted it, though he kept both of their children. As the twenty-nine year old Eleanor rode away from the palace, she was ambushed by two knights who planned on kidnapping her and forcing her to marry them—Eleanor still owned a huge set of land and anyone who married her would be rich overnight. Luckily, Eleanor was able to out-maneuver them and escape.
Two months following her divorce Eleanor crossed the English Channel to marry King Henry II of England. Ten years younger than she, Henry heavily relied on Eleanor for her ruling experience, but they seemed to have genuine affection for each other; Eleanor joined Henry for fox and quail hunting and would join him on long trips at a moment’s notice, even when heavily pregnant. She had eight more children by Henry, and he often left her to rule in his stead when he was away.
But affection apparently means little when you’re a king, and Henry had many affairs while they were married. Incensed at his philandering, Eleanor moved out and established her own court where women held power. They would have mock trials judging men’s behavior for serving and adoring them—this was the beginning of the chivalrous movement.
Eleanor was a dominating mother, and she sided with two of her sons when they attempted to overthrow King Henry. Henry was outraged and tried to banish her to convent, but Eleanor responded that she just wasn’t suited for religious life. Deciding that she was right, Henry instead imprisoned Eleanor alone in a remote castle, where she stayed for fifteen years until he finally died. She was freed within the hour.
Fifteen years under house arrest hardly broke her stride and Eleanor was soon traveling up and down England, leading armies, introducing financial and legal reforms, and risking her life to maintain peace—in between making political marriages for all of her children and some of her grandchildren. She was trusted by popes, kings and emperors, ruling for sixty-five years until her death, making her one of the oldest people at that time. She died in Fontervarult, Anjou France in 1204, and almost immediately after her death she was portrayed negatively in fiction and history—even Shakespeare portrayed her as a terrifying person. It wouldn’t be until the late 1800s that Eleanor would gain the respect she was due.
Eleanor of Aquitaine works cited:
Women Warriors, by David E. Jones.
Warrior Women, by Robin Cross and Rosalind Miles
Uppity Women of Medieval Times, by Vicki Leon
Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir
The Warrior Queens, by Antonia Fraser
Lives of Extraordinary Women, by Kathleen Krull