The Life of Alienor of Aquitaine in 10 Key Moments
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
Marriage to the Dauphin Louis
Alienor was the richest heiress in Europe at the time of her father's death in 1137, bringing the vast lands of the Southern Duchy of Aquitaine to her marriage. The lucky groom, Louis, was the heir to the throne of France. It was in theory a good marriage, giving Alienor stability under a powerful ruler, except that Alienor was perfectly capable of ruling her lands herself. She was aged between thirteen and fifteen (her exact date of birth is unknown), and within weeks, this advantageous match was causing havoc in the French Court, which turned out to be very unlike the more relaxed court of the South that she had grown up in. It was in this court in Paris that she would spend the majority of the next fifteen years.
The Second Crusade
Louis, who had originally been destined to be a monk, decided to take the cross in 1146, and Alienor decided to go as well. This was not a decision to be undertaken lightly, especially for Alienor whose only child Marie was about two. The crusade was a complete disaster. After staying at Antioch with Alienor's uncle for a few months, the army moved to the Holy Sepulchre where Louis decided to take Damascus instead of Edessa but failed. In 1149, Louis celebrated Easter in Jerusalem before setting home via boat but this time Alienor travelled separately. The marriage was truly on the rocks by now, after the rumours at Antioch built on previous issues, but after visiting Pope at Tusculum they were reconciled to some degree, and Alienor had another daughter, Alix within a year.
Divorce and Second Marriage
After divorcing Louis in the spring of 1152, Alienor had a perilous trip back to Aquitaine, where she escaped ambushes by the Count of Blois and Geoffrey of Anjou (son of Geoffrey le Bel of Anjou and Empress Matilda). Once in Potiers, Alienor governed her domains until May when she married Henry FitzEmpress, (brother of Geoffrey, who had attempted ambush her). This marriage was one of the most brilliant marriages in European history, creating an empire that stretched the length of France and with the promise of a crown. Henry was already a confident commander, and had enough power to challenge Louis if there were repercussions from the marriage. It was a marriage that meant that she would be the only person in history to be Queen of France and England, and the best one possible, given the circumstances.
Queen of the English
In December 1154, Henry and Alienor were crowned in Westminster, Alienor heavily pregnant with her second child with Henry. Henry grew up to become Henry the Young King and would be joined by seven more siblings although his elder brother would die in 1156 aged just three. This coronation marked the start of a new phase for Alienor, and showed that her gamble had paid off as she helped to rule an empire that stretched from the Pyrenees to the Scottish borders. In the next fourteen years she would travel across the Angevin Empire tirelessly, crossing the Channel in the middle of winter and evading capture multiple times.
First Christmas Away from Henry
As the years passed, Alienor's relationship to Henry soured dramatically, and in 1167, they chose to hold separate Christmas Courts for the first time, which marks the start of another phase in Alienor's life. She spent the next five years almost exclusively in Aquitaine, ruling her own domains and teaching Richard, her heir, how to rule the vast counties and govern the changing dynamics of power.
Rebellion and capture
Henry and Alienor had four surviving sons who were only allowed limited power, which eventually drove them to rebellion which they lost. For an unknown reason, Alienor backed her sons instead of her husband in this rebellion of 1173. Alienor was captured as she fled to the French court, and was sent under strict guard to England where she was imprisoned. While security was initially tight, it was gradually relaxed and Alienor was allowed to visit her daughter Matilda who was in exile with her husband and children.
The Death of Henry II
In 1189, Henry II, the man who had imprisoned Alienor for sixteen years died, and the first act of her son Richard as King was sending William Marshall to free her. Unlike Henry, Richard trusted Alienor's advice and gave her an active role in his government in the years. She was immediately trusted to oversee England and rule there while Richard ruled the continental domains. Alienor was by now sixty-seven, and had restarted life, free of a husband who she was bound to obey and free of her prison. She was an absolute ruler, decreeing charters, restoring the estates of former allies, receiving oaths of homage for Richard and presiding over courts, like any typical Medieval monarch.
Richard Gets Crusading Fever
Although it may seem like a decision that would not affect Alienor, Richard's desire to go on crusade and leave his vast domains would shape the next few years of Alienor's life. This was mainly because she had been asked to bring his bride, Berengaria of Navarre to him while he was en route to the Holy Land. This involved a winter crossing of the Alps, a journey not for the faint of heart at the best of times, but even more so given that by now Alienor was almost seventy. Yet this is what she did, and delivered Berengaria to Sicily(where she also saw her daughter Joanna again for the first time since Joanna was eleven). Alienor almost immediately set off again upon arrival, and went back to Richard's abandoned land where she successfully ruled as regent for the crusade and Richard's subsequent capture and imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor. Richard was known by all to have been her favourite son, and she worked tirelessly to raise the ransom and stop her youngest son John from causing too much trouble.
Now into about her eightieth year, Alienor undertook one last task: going to Castile to bring back a bride for the heir to the French throne, Louis. This trip involved a crossing of the Pyrenees. On her arrival, Alienor stayed at the court of Castile for two months, where her daughter, another Alienor, was queen, getting to know her granddaughters and catching up with the daughter that she had said goodbye to many years before. It was expected that the bride for the Dauphin would be the elder daughter, Uracca, however, Alienor made the decision that it should be the younger daughter, Blanca who would be Queen of France. After saying a final goodbye to her daughter, Alienor left for Normandy with Blanca (the wedding couldn't happen in France as it was under interdict as a result of the actions of Philip Augustus). Alienor retired to Fontrevault upon delivering Blanca, where she remained until her final adventure. (Note, Richard died in 1199, few years previously.)
In this last adventure, Alienor was besieged at the castle of Mirebeau by her grandson, Arthur, aged fifteen. He was in many people's eyes the rightful heir to the throne, although Richard had made John his successor on his deathbed, and was in rebellion against King John. Mirebeau could not hold long and Alienor would be a prisoner who could turn the tide of the war. However, John managed to arrive in time, after a gruelling forced march and caught Arthur's army unaware, capturing Arthur and his sister, Eleanor of Brittany amongst others. Arthur would be murdered as John's prisoner in the coming years and Eleanor would be a prisoner for life in England, but John's throne was secure. After her rescue, Alienor retired to Fontrevault (again) and died there on 31 March 1204, after leading one of the most exciting lives of any person in the Middle Ages.
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