Women in the Medieval Society: The Case of Eleanor of Aquitaine


By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary

Eleanor of Aquitaine was born around 1122 to the family of the Duke of Aquitaine, which was one of the most powerful noble houses in all of Europe. Her father passed away before she turned 17. Eleanor inherited her father’s immense fortune in the south and southwest of France and became the most sought-after heiress across Europe.

Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II in their tombs.
The tombs of King Henry II of England and his Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine at Fontevraux Abbey. (Image: Mountainpix/Shutterstock)

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s First Marriage

After her father’s death, her status had risen so high that the king of France, Louis VI, became her legal protector. In less than a year, the king decided his son, the future Louis VII, was the person to marry Eleanor of Aquitaine. The motivation behind his proposal was to seize the Duke’s possessions for the French Crown. Thus, in 1122 [sic 1137], Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII got married. As we will see, this was not Eleanor’s only marriage.

Because she had married a man from a different part of the country, Eleanor was forced to emigrate from southern France to live in the north, where she felt lonely and alienated.

Eleanor’s relationship with Louis VII was rather complicated. Although they were roughly the same age, Louis VII was not a very likable person, and his extreme sense of jealousy made living with him much harder.

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Louis VII Annuls His Marriage With Eleanor

When Louis VII, who had recently become the king, went on the Second Crusade in the 1140s, he decided to bring Eleanor with him. His decision was highly unusual because only prostitutes and camp followers were taken on crusades. At the time, some observers believed that he was trying to keep his wife under scrutiny while others attributed his drastic actions to his deep love for her.

The Second Crusades ended disastrously for Louis VII. Not only did he suffer a substantial military defeat, but also rumors of her wife’s infidelity began to spread before the end of the war. Eleanor of Aquitaine was said to be having an affair with her own uncle. The rumors were never substantiated, but the couple did start to grow apart.

The deciding moment in their marriage was when Eleanor of Aquitaine gave birth to her second daughter in 1150. Louis VII could not stand to be married to an unfaithful wife who gave birth only to daughters. Therefore, he started to look for an excuse to have their marriage annulled. He finally found one.

Both Eleanor and Louis VII had been aware of their close family ties before getting married. Nevertheless, the king used their degree of kinship as a way to justify the annulment. Less than two years after having their second daughter, the couple separated.

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The Second Marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Once again, Eleanor of Aquitaine became the most desired heiress across Europe, because she had reclaimed her father’s lands and possessions from the Crown.

She returned to her ancestral lands in 1152 and remarried in less than a year to a young man who would become the King of England in two years – Henry II of England. Interestingly, Eleanor was nearly 11 years older than him.

Contrary to what one would expect, her relationship with Henry, was even worse than it had been with Louis VII. However, unlike her previous marriage, the problem was not her inability to bear male children. In fact, of her eight children with Henry II, five were boys.

People and fashion from the era of Henry II.
Costumes from time of Henry II, as seen on a vintage engraved illustration. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

The problem was somewhere else. Henry II was adamant not to let Eleanor take part in political matters. As a noblewoman who had participated in the Second Crusade, Eleanor was unwilling to accept his decision.

Despite their disagreements, the first few decades of their marriage were more or less uneventful. They did not spend long periods of time with each other, because both of them had to regularly travel back and forth between England and France to take care of their affairs. However, they did have eight children in 13 years, which means that the royal couple had frequent visits.

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A Royal Rebellion Puts Eleanor Under House Arrest

As with her first marriage, Eleanor of Aquitaine was rumored to be unfaithful to her husband, a man whose infidelity was not a secret.

Henry II had continued to limit Eleanor’s role in his rulership. However, as the children grew older, they began to demand higher positions and more authority within the kingdom. Despite this, Henry II wanted to maintain strict control of his reign and refused to abdicate his throne.  

The conflicts finally led to the first rebellion of Henry II’s sons in 1173. For the next 16 years, Henry II had to fight his sons to keep his realm under control.

Eleanor of Aquitaine had more than enough reason to stir up trouble between her sons and their father. Henry II had denied her an active role in managing the kingdom, which had made her bitter and angry. Moreover, he was famous for his relationships with numerous mistresses throughout his reign. Perhaps, she saw no choice but to side with her sons, especially Richard I Lionheart, who was her favorite.

A statue of Richard Lionheart riding a horse.
Statue of Richard Lionheart in front of the Houses of Parliament, London, United Kingdom. (Image: Roland Rossner/Shutterstock)

Following the rebellion in 1173, Eleanor’s first-born son fled to France together with his brothers. She also tried to escape but was unsuccessful. As a result of her betrayal, Henry II placed Eleanor of Aquitaine under house arrest until his death. She lived comfortably in a mansion, but she was never allowed to leave England and remained under close supervision until her last day of captivity.

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The Final Years of Eleanor of Aquitaine

After failing to escape to France, Eleanor of Aquitaine was confined to her mansion. She was only able to manipulate her sons from a distance. When the king passed away in 1189, her beloved Richard Lionheart inherited the throne. Although she was nearly 70 years old when her house arrest ended, she began to play the most public role that she had ever had.

During the reign of Richard Lionheart, she was given important responsibilities. In one significant incident, when Richard was captured by his enemies and held hostage in Germany, Eleanor of Aquitaine was the only person who could be trusted to deliver the ransom money and negotiate his release.

Several years after being liberated, she decided to retire to a monastery, where she lived until her death in 1204. Only two of her children were alive when she passed.

Common Questions About Eleanor of Aquitaine

Q: What is Eleanor of Aquitaine known for?

Eleanor of Aquitaine was among the most influential women in the medieval era. Inheriting her father’s fortune at a young age made her extremely famous throughout Europe, and many noblemen proposed to her.

Q: What language did Eleanor of Aquitaine speak?

In addition to her native language of Poitevin, Eleanor of Aquitaine was fluent in Latin. She was also interested in music and chivalric literature, as well as riding, hawking, and hunting.

Q: How old was Eleanor of Aquitaine when she married Henry II?

When the two married, Eleanor of Aquitaine was 11 years younger than Henry II. The couple became King and Queen of England nearly two years later.

Q: Why did Eleanor of Aquitaine divorce Louis VII?

The primary reason that Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII got divorced was that she did not bear him a son. At the time, women were blamed for the gender of their children.

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