Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Episode Summary

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122- 1204) was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Europe during the Middle Ages. Known for her extraordinary beauty and brilliance, she was a leader who wielded significant influence over everything from art and literature to politics and the perception of women. She was Queen of both France and England, and built a long legacy through advantageous marriages for her many children.

Episode Notes

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Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s legend was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Europe during the Middle Ages. Known for her extraordinary beauty and brilliance, she was a leader who wielded significant influence over everything from art and literature to politics and the perception of women. She was Queen of both France and England, and built a long legacy through advantageous marriages for her many children. She was a role model for future female leaders. Please welcome Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Eleanor was likely born in the year 1122 to William X, Duke of Aquitaine and his wife, Aenor. Eleanor was the oldest of the couple’s three children.

Medieval Aquitaine was a huge fiefdom located in the western, central and southern areas of present-day France to the south of the Loire River. It was renowned for its wealth and influence and for being an enlightened capital of culture and learning. 

Eleanor’s father, a lover of literature and the arts, ensured that all of his children received the best cultural and academic educations available. Eleanor was fluent in multiple languages, learned math, astronomy, and history, was adept at sports such as falconry and chess. 

When Eleanor was 8, her mother and younger brother died. Seven years later, in 1137, her father died of dysentery while on a pilgrimage. On his deathbed, William’s last act was to do everything he could to protect Eleanor and her inheritance of Aquitaine. He ordered his men to rush to the court of King Louis VI of France to ask for protection for his daughter until a marriage could be arranged for her. He also asked Louis to find an appropriate match. Louis was all too delighted to choose his own son, Louis VII. The two were married a few months later.

Eleanor and Louis VII were a strange match. She was a renowned beauty and intellect well-versed in politics and well-travelled. He was incredibly sheltered for an heir to the throne and a generally quiet man. In fact, for most of his life, Louis was not the heir, and was never trained in the skills necessary to rule. It had been expected that he would go into the Church so he spent most of his early life in monasteries. That changed when his older brother suddenly died and Louis was thrust into the spotlight.

From the start of their relationship, Louis was submissive to and reliant upon Eleanor. When he accepted the task of leading the Second Crusade, Eleanor made it clear that she was coming along. It’s not surprising given Louis’ limited leadership skills and non-existent travel experience that the Crusade was not a success. 

Eleanor is famously recorded by medieval historians as treating the trip more as a big adventure than a serious endeavor. She brought more than 300 ladies in waiting with an accompanying baggage train that spanned miles. Still, these same historians note that Eleanor was a better leader and more respected than her meek husband. 

Though the Crusade was a series of utter misadventures, Eleanor managed to increase her social capital during the trip while Louis was continuously marginalized. By the time they reached Antioch, Louis was resentful of his wife. Eleanor asked for an annulment and Louis agreed, ending their marriage upon their return to France in 1152. 

Weeks after the end of her first marriage, Eleanor married Henry, Duke of Normandy and future King of England. The two ascended to the throne two years later in 1154. 

It was a tempestuous marriage. Unlike her first husband, Henry was not easily controlled by Eleanor. The more she tried to control him, the more he fought back by having affairs. He also disapproved of Eleanor surrounding herself with musicians and poets.

Still, Henry and Eleanor managed to have eight children together on whom Eleanor focused most of her attention. She was well aware that she could eventually wield much more power through her children than through her husband. 

Around 1170, Eleanor left her husband and moved back to her family home in Poitiers, taking her favorite son Richard and daughter Marie with her. She filled her court with artists and poets and worked to create a climate of great learning and creativity. 

In 1173, Eleanor’s oldest son, Henry the Young King, started a rebellion against his father, King Henry. He was soon joined by a number of his brothers. The rebellion lasted a year and a half before it was finally crushed. Some believed that Eleanor, who had publicly supported her sons, had actually instigated the revolt. As a result, King Henry had Eleanor imprisoned in 1174.

Eleanor stayed in captivity for 16 years until Henry’s death in 1189. By then, Eleanor’s oldest son had died so her second oldest, Richard I, known to history as Richard the Lionheart, ascended to the throne. 

Eleanor was very close with Richard. Soon after taking the throne, Richard went off to take part in the Third Crusade, and left Eleanor in charge. 

Though she had been locked away for 16 years, it took Eleanor no time at all to get back in the swing of things. It wasn’t long before she was signing documents, and having others address her as “Eleanor, by the grace of God, Queen of England.” 

Richard eventually returned home from the Crusade after being kidnapped in Jerusalem and ransomed by his mother. He only ruled for a few years. In 1199, Richard was killed in battle while fighting King Philip of France over territory. He was succeeded by his brother John. 

Upon becoming king, John quickly signed a peace treaty with Philip. 

With peace finally achieved, Eleanor moved to Fontevraud Abbey, where she died in 1204. She was around 82 years old. 

All May we’re talking about Mavericks & Legends. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our newsletter, Womannica Weekly. You can also follow us on facebook and instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

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