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Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine

Queen, Mother, strategist, political negotiator, patroness of the arts, and apparently a great beauty to boot! This gal had it all...

One of my favourite women from history. Living as she did in patriarchal, medieval Europe, - Eleanor's achievements are even more impressive. So today's herstory of the month is....Eleanor of Aquitaine!

Not just Queen of England and mother of Kings Richard and John (of Robin Hood legend), She was the Grand Dame of medieval politics.

Born in 1122, Eleanor was born into extreme wealth and privilege, being the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine. She was afforded an elite education and did, therefore have a head start compared to many women (and men!) of the age. At the age of 12, she was put in charge of her fathers kingdom while he was away, and she negotiated and strategised with country rulers from her early teens.

She led armies and made decisions that would be terrifying even for an adult. After ascending to the French throne at the age of 15, it became quite apparent that she was significantly more astute than her husband, King Louis. She had control over him, but their marriage was not a happy one and through cunning and charm, Eleanor managed to persuade the Pope to grant them an annulment based on their close familial links (did this inspire Henry VIII's argument, much later, for why he had to divorce Katharine of Aragon?....)

She then was free to marry Henry, who went onto become King Henry II of England. This was a much better match, and Henry entrusted Eleanor with England while he conquered lands on the continent.

However Henry was tempestuous and a philanderer, and they divorced in 1168. Eleanor then set up court in France, and established the chivalric code that influenced poetry and literature from that point on. Rumours abounded at the time that she was also responsible for the poisoning of Henry's long-term concubine, too!

After her sons staged a failed rebellion against their Father, Eleanor fled to France to seek refuge and was arrested for treason and placed under house arrest for 15 years! Her son Richard released her after he took the throne in 1189, and she once more took her former position of power in the Royal Court where she continued to be active until an unusually ripe old age. In 1200, aged almost 80, she journeyed across the Pyrenees, and finally retired to a monastery in France and died in 1204.

What's incredible about Eleanor is that she wielded her feminine charms, intelligence and social status to get what she wanted - which was power for herself and her heirs. She had 12 children, and outlived all but two of them!

Eleanor is very well represented in history books, so you have a wealth of extra research material if you want to delve more into her story, but I found this podcast great as an introduction.

Next month I'll be back with a lesser known herstory. Comment on the blog if there's someone you'd like to see profiled, and I'll see what I can do!

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