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Who was Eleanor of Aquitaine?

Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122–1204) was among the most powerful figures of the Middle Ages (500–1350). Her father was William X (1099–1137), the duke of Aquitaine—one of the largest and wealthiest regions that became modern France (it extended from the Loire River to the Pyrenees Mountains). Eleanor inherited her father’s vast holdings when he died in 1137; she was a teenager at the time. The same year, she married Louis VII (c. 1120–1180), who, within a month, succeeded his father as the king of France. As queen, Eleanor took an active role in her husband’s business, even accompanying him on the Second Crusade (1147–49), purportedly so that she and her numerous female attendants could care for the wounded. The expedition ended in failure, largely because of a disagreement between the king and queen about the objective. Thereafter women were prohibited from joining the crusades. Though Eleanor and Louis had two children, both daughters, they were granted an annulment of their unhappy marriage in 1152 on the grounds that they were distantly related. According to feudal law, Eleanor regained Aquitaine. Within a year she married again, to Henry Plantagenet (1133–1189) of England, who was some ten years her junior. In 1154 he became King Henry II, and Eleanor was again queen, this time of England.

Though the couple had eight children (five sons and three daughters), their marriage was stormy. Henry had liaisons with other women, the result of which was an illegitimate line of heirs to the throne. Eleanor also resented him for his attempts to control Aquitaine, which she felt was rightly hers. In 1173, when Henry and Eleanor’s three surviving sons attempted to depose their father, Eleanor threw her support behind her sons. The rebellion failed, and Eleanor fled for France. In 1174 she was captured and returned to England, where she was put in semi-confinement by her husband, the king, until his death in 1189. (Henry died while attempting to put down another rebellion by his sons, Richard the Lionhearted [1157–1199] and John Lackland [1167–1216]).

After King Henry’s death, Eleanor again became a powerful force in European politics. Her son, Richard “the Lionhearted,” inherited the English throne, and she took an active role in his administration. She even stepped in for him when he left England to fight in the crusades. When Richard died in 1199, his brother John ascended the throne. Eleanor, then in her late seventies, continued to wield power and influence. In an effort to ensure the future of the Plantagenets and to reconcile the English and French aristocracies, she arranged for one of her granddaughters to marry the son of the French king. She also managed to secure the family’s land holdings in France for King John. She retired from her active political life in 1202 and died two years later.


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