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Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine is known as one of the greatest political and wealthy powers of medieval Europe. Having been queen of both France and England, she was one of the most fascinating and powerful personalities of feudal Europe. In her younger years, she showed remarkable beauty. Well educated, she was among the greatest of female rulers.

Born somewhere around 1122, possibly in the castle of Berlin near Bordeaux, she was the daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers, and Aenor of Chatellerault. The eldest of three children, she was named Alienore, after her mother, which means the other Aenor. Translated into English it means Eleanor. Highly educated for a woman of the time, she knew how to read, could speak Latin, was well versed in music and literature, and enjoyed activities such as riding, hawking, and hunting. She was born into a society where women were looked down upon and had little purpose in life, but would soon overpower those constraints. In March 1130, her brother died, leaving her as the sole heiress to Aquitaine, one of the richest domains in mediaeval Europe. In the twelfth century, the country of Poitou and the duchies of Aquitaine and Gascony covered a vast region in the southwest of what is now France, encompassing all the land between the River Loire in the north and the Pyrenees in the south, and between the Rhone valley and the mountains of the Massif Central in the east and the Atlantic Ocean in the west. In 1137, when her father became ill from drinking contaminated water, he made his will. Calling his vassals to him, he bequeathed his domains to Eleanor and appointed King Louis as her guardian, in hopes of a promising marriage to Louis' son. Eleanor, only fifteen, was now Countess of Poitou and Duchess of Aquitaine and Gascony in her own right. Knowing the advantages of a wealthy match, Louis VI, King of France, married Eleanor off to his son, Louis VII, in July 1137. Not long after, Louis VI died. Eleanor was queen of France.

Not everyone liked Eleanor. Many thought her flighty and a bad influence. However, the king adored his wife. He granted her every request. Therefore, when she decided she wanted to go on the crusades with him, he naturally allowed her to go. She managed to convince others by offering thousands of her vassals for the Second Crusade. Along with her, she brought 300 ladies to "help tend the wounded." Once on the crusades, they went to Antioch, where Eleanor renewed an old friendship with her cousin, Raymond, who was currently prince of the city. Raymond wanted to capture Edessa. Naturally, Eleanor took his side. Her husband, however, disagreed, and in the middle of the night, forced her to leave for Jerusalem with him. Their marriage was never the same again. The Second Crusade failed, and Eleanor and Louis returned home on separate ships. On their way home, they met with the Pope to ask for divorce. Quite the opposite happened and soon Eleanor gave birth to her second daughter, Alix, in 1150. She had her first daughter, Marie, in 1145. Still, the marriage was broken, and in March 1152, their marriage was annulled on the grounds of consanguinity.

Not long after, Eleanor found a new husband. She married Henry II, Duke of Normandy, and Count of Anjou. He was eleven years younger than she, at eighteen. Even with the age difference, they were very alike and loved each other. Just five months after this hasty marriage, she gave birth to a son, William. William died just years later. In 1154, Henry became King of England, making Eleanor Queen of England. Together the couple had seven surviving children: Henry, Matilda, Richard, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan, and John. Two of these became king.

Soon, Eleanor and her husband grew apart. Henry conducted secret love affairs; the most famous of all was with the fair Rosamond. In 1168, Eleanor returned to France to rule her restless subjects. Very quickly, her court became a cultural center. She reached the height of her powers and created the court of love in which men having problems with the code of love would bring their questions before a tribunal of ladies for judgment. Eleanor also used this court as a way to calm down rowdy knights.

She continued to cooperate with Henry, but took measures to create her own heir in her son, Richard I (the Lion Hearted). During her rule there, she reunited with her daughter, Marie, from her first marriage. The power she had did not satisfy her, however. She wanted even more, so she began to scheme against her husband. He summoned her back to England, but she continued to scheme. When, in 1173, her three eldest sons, Henry, Richard, and Geoffrey, rebelled against their father, she gave her support and tried to join them. When they tried to flee, her husband caught and imprisoned her. She remained in captivity until her husband's death in 1189.

With Henry II's death, Richard became the new king and released his mother. He often relied on her for her good opinion and judgment. When he went off to the crusades, Eleanor ruled in his place as regent and even stood up to her son, John, who tried to overthrow his brother in the absence. When Richard was captured, Eleanor helped raise the ransom money. She managed to get Richard and John to reconcile upon Richard's return. Later, she escorted Berengaria, daughter of King Sancho of the Wise of Navaree, to Sicily, to be married to Richard. Eleanor did much traveling, even in her old age. She remained active and busy, arranging the marriage of her granddaughter to the grandson of Louis VII.

Eventually, Richard died in 1199. His brother, John Lackland, succeeded him. He, too, had his mother's support, but Eleanor grew older and soon retired to the abbey of Fontevraud. There she died in April 1204, believed to be about 82 years old. She is buried there along with Henry II and Richard the Lion Hearted. She lived a full life. According to Ralph of Diceto, her life fulfilled a prophecy. "The eagle of the broken bond shall rejoice in the third nestling." She was an eagle because she stretched out her wings over two kingdoms. The broken bond refers to her two broken marriages, and Richard, her third son, was the third nestling. During her life, she became one of the great political and economic powers of Europe. Even still today, her character is found in famous bits of literature such as "The Lion in Winter." Her beauty, political power, and great story earned her a place in history as one of the greatest female leaders of all time.