Eleanor of Aquitane.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine was Queen of two great European powers - England and France. One of the wealthiest women in Europe, she played a very active role in government affairs.

  • Born: 1122 (approx.)
  • Field: Royalty, government affairs
  • Key moment: Taking part in a plot against her own husband, King Henry II, in 1173.

The most eligible woman in Europe

Born sometime around 1122, Eleanor became Duchess of Aquitaine after her father’s death in 1137. The teenage Eleanor had suddenly become the most eligible bride in Europe.

The King of France, who was gravely ill, secured Eleanor as bride to his son and heir, Louis Vll. Eleanor travelled to Bordeaux and married Louis VII three months later, on 25 July 1137. Within a few months of the wedding the king was dead, and Eleanor and Louis were crowned King and Queen of France on Christmas day 1137.

An image of Eleanors marriage to King Louis VII.

An unhappy marriage

Eleanor and Louis had two daughters, Marie (born 1145), and Alice (1150), but their lack of a son and heir apparent caused tension between the couple.

Louis left to go on a crusade to the Holy Land in 1147, and Eleanor persuaded him to allow her and her ladies to accompany the army. The crusade was a disaster, and Louis showed himself to be a weak and ineffectual military leader. Meanwhile Eleanor was lauded for her strength and wisdom, her popularity rapidly growing. They left the crusades in separate ships, and in 1152 the marriage was dissolved.

Queen of England

Though Eleanor wished to stay unmarried, this was impossible because her wealth and power made her a target for kidnapping (if forcibly married, the kidnapper could take her lands).

It is often said that when Geoffrey, Count of Nantes, attempted to kidnap her, Eleanor sent an envoy to Geoffrey’s brother Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. She told him what had happened and demanded that he marry her. Whether this is true or not, Henry and Eleanor were married on 18 May 1152, just eight weeks after her marriage to Louis Vll was annulled.

Two years later, Henry became King of England. Eleanor bore eight children, and played a very active role in government for almost two decades.

However, her relationship with Henry was strained, partly due to his neglect of their children. Eleanor returned to Aquitaine with two of her sons, Richard and Geoffrey.

Old Sarum today

Revolt and imprisonment

In 1173 Henry, their eldest surviving son, dissatisfied with his lack of power, plotted to overthrow his father. He travelled to Aquitaine, and Richard and Geoffrey joined him in the plot. Eleanor joined the revolt in protest at the way her power in Aquitaine was being constrained, and possibly also because of the way Henry treated their sons.

In 1173 Henry ll captured Eleanor, and imprisoned her for almost 16 years at various locations, including Old Sarum in Wiltshire. During her long imprisonment she saw little of her children, but they remained close to her. When Richard succeeded to the throne in 1189, one of his first acts was to release Eleanor and grant her powers to dispose of English affairs.

Over the last 15 years of her life Eleanor showed her extraordinary abilities as a ruler when she took control as regent while Richard was crusading.

Although Eleanor’s official role in English affairs ceased on Richard’s death in 1199, she continued to wield considerable influence. She remained closely involved in the affairs of Aquitaine until her death at the age of 82 in 1204, maintaining her role as one of the most influential and revered people of the period.

Visit Old Sarum

Related content

  • Venus von Willendorf, Naturhistorisches Museum Wien

    Why women disappeared from history

    Women occupy just 0.5% of recorded history, and are often stereotyped. In this blog post Bettany Hughes explores why women disappeared from history.

  •  Elizabeth I. Credit to National Portrait Gallery

    The accession of Elizabeth I

    Tracy Borman examines what the accession of Elizabeth I – who famously remained unmarried – meant for women in positions of power.

  • Hannah MacKenzie (seated) with Mrs Geyton, the cook, at Wrest Park

    Servants who broke the mould

    Women once made up around 80% of household servants. Here are some of the women who made a successful career out of domestic service.

  • Women who made history - from left, Ada Lovelace, Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Amy Johnson

    Women who made history

    Read about the remarkable lives of some of the women who have left their mark on society and shaped our way of life – from Anglo-Saxon times to the 20th century.

'step into englands story