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The amazing Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine is considered by many to have been the most powerful and enlightened woman of her age, if not the entire medieval era. She is pivotal to the history of our region.

She was born in 1122. Her father was William, the tenth Duke of Aquitaine, and her mother Aenor of Chatellerault. In Aquitaine women had liberties rarely found elsewhere in Europe and they mixed freely with men. Her personality, as she grew older, no doubt owed a lot to this. Her grandfather was very idealistic, and though ruthless, was also impractical. He was known as The Troubadour, he was a prince and a brave knight. Her father was a complex man as well but known for his aggressiveness.

On Good Friday 1137, in the city of Compostella while on pilgrimage, Duke William X passed away, leaving Eleanor, at the age of 15, one of the richest and most eligible women in the land. After his death she had no choice but to turn to Louis VI, king of France (at this time France was really no more than the confines of Paris but was starting to gain feudal control outside the Ile de France). Soon after she was engaged to his only surviving son, Louis le Jeune /the younger.

On July 25, 1137 the couple was married in the Cathedral of Bordeaux. At fifteen years old, Eleanor (according to contemporary sources) was a "beauty, tall, with a great figure that she kept well into old age." She probably had blond hair and blue eyes, which at this time were considered marks of extraordinary good looks. News reached them during the betrothal banquet that Louis' father, king Louis VI had died a week earlier.

So on December 25, 1137 Eleanor was crowned queen of France.

In these early days, the young couple seemed genuinely in love. She worked hard to make her court the most splendid in the west. She moved to Paris, an unimpressive city at this time with its still standing Roman ruins. Shocked by the frigid Parisian winter after her upbringing in southern France, Eleanor is said to be responsible for the introduction of built-in fireplaces, first used when she renovated the palace of Louis. Eleanor’s innovation spread quickly, transforming the domestic arrangements of the time.

Paris was in the early stages of a gothic revival, and Eleanor introduced customs from Aquitaine such as its language, respect for women, and fashion. The couple travelled together holding court in the cities and towns of the duchy. They learned from each other, she gained respect for Aristotelian logic, and enjoyed her husband's dissertations he arranged in the Palace gardens. He shared some of her pleasures such as hunting and tournaments, as well as her love for poetry. But their personalities were quite different; he was serious, studious and very pious, while Eleanor was more of a party girl and very social. She loved music and poetry.

After seven years of marriage, she still had not had any children, although she did have one miscarriage. Finally, she had a daughter, Marie (future countess of Champagne) around 1144. She and Louis were not getting along as well, and rumours started flying about Eleanor and a certain famous troubadour (some women have a thing for musicians!), which were probably not true, she just enjoyed flirting and loved romantic poems. Plus she had not had a male heir.

But she still seemed to love Louis, and in 1147, accompanied him and a small army on a Crusade, through Bavaria, Hungary and the Balkans. But she brought all her girlfriends, and servants, and troubadours & musicians, and it was a big distraction for the troops. When they reached Constantinople, she fell in love with Byzantine fashion - clothes, food, art. She did have a second daughter in 1150, Alix. But her marriage to Louis was growing more and more stressed.

In August 1151, Geoffrey Plantagenet and his son Henry visited Paris. Eleanor and Henry started making eyes at each other, and probably came to some kind of surreptitious arrangement. On March 21, 1152, the marriage of Louis and Eleanor was pronounced null and void on grounds that they were cousins (third cousins). Of course the real reasons were the absence of a male heir, and their basic incompatibilities.

Eleanor and Henry married about 8 weeks after the annulment. Henry became Henry II Plantagenet King of England, so Eleanor now becomes Queen of England.

She had 5 sons and 3 daughters with Henry, including her third and favourite son, Richard, who was later known as Richard the Lionheart, and his brother John, who tried to usurp the throne from Richard while he was being held prisoner by the Austrians during a Crusade. (You may recognize this story from the Robin Hood legends.)

She helped Richard revolt against her husband Henry, and was then made a prisoner by Henry. When Henry died, Richard ordered her set free. Richard was crowned king on England at Westminster Abbey in 1189, in the presence of his adoring mother. She was 67 years old, very old for those days. The next year, she travelled to Navarre to make a deal with King Sancho the Wise, for his daughter to marry Richard. She then travelled with her new daughter-in-law over the Alps (imagine that! over the Alps, all on horseback or carriage), to see Richard off on another Crusade. She got the pope, an old friend, to make her son Geoffrey an archbishop.

Eleanor was instrumental in many of the tactical and political decisions made by Richard, and when he died as a result of gangrene, she supported her son John being made king instead of Philip II (son of her ex-husband Louis). However, John slowly lost most of his kingdom/territory to Philip. But she did travel to Spain to choose the best bride among her granddaughters for Philip’s son. One of her grandsons was Otto IV of Brunswick, Emperor of Germany.

She died in a nunnery in 1204 at the advanced age of 82, almost unheard of in those days.

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Peter Jan De Weerd
Peter Jan De Weerd
May 12, 2021

I am reading the book that is on the right hand side. Where can we see something or buildings that have to do with the history of Eleonore? Is it only in Bordeux or nearer to the Mill as well?

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sarahgrahambeck
May 13, 2021
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Hello Peter, it is a super book ! There are a few traces of medieval times in Bordeaux : the street layout in the old town (our road dates from this time), some buildings and two gorgeous gates. Although, apart from the cathedral, nothing dates from the 12th century. The city was completely rebuilt from its 18th century golden age onwards. Eleanore's (or Aliénor as we write it here) palace was demolished in the 1800s, but there is a square in the city called the Place du Palais that it a reminder. She was married to the future Louis XII of France in the cathedral, which was substantially extended from the 14th century. I have developed a new tour o…

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