Eleanor was very much part of the Poitou-Charentes scene back in the 1100s, not that the name Poitou-Charentes actually existed back then. Names like Aquitaine, Poitevin, Anjou and Saintonge were more in use and are of course still recognised today. We are told that Eleanor was quite a girl. Her early life is not that well recorded so no one actually knows when or where she was born, even less what she looked like. She might have been born in Poitiers or possibly Bordeaux in 1122 or thereabouts. In any event she rose to some prominence not least because she married first the King of France and then the King of England.
To be honest I have been working around writing something on Eleanor for some time but despite reading several books and looking up lots of material on the internet, I am finding it hard to get inspired. I recently visited the Abbey of Fontevraud which is just outside the region of Poitou-Charentes where where both Henry II and Eleanor ended up. She is held in great esteem but in my opinion her greatest claim to fame was longevity and the number of children she had, two of whom became Kings of England. Anyway to start with let’s deal with the facts.
Born 1122 or maybe 1121 in Poitiers or maybe Bordeaux or maybe somewhere else possibly in the Vendee in Nieul-sur-l’Autise. The facts were not that well documented or have got lost because she was only a female and Aquitaine was quite important but not that important back then.
She became the Duchesse of Aquitaine in 1137 when her father Duke William X of Aquitaine died on 9th April 1137. This was a fairly powerful position but also very vulnerable because women did not rule back then and without a powerful man at her side her inheritance would quickly be eroded by ambitious and greedy minor aristocrats.
So, only three months later she found a man who was fairly powerful….. Louis VII of France also known as Louis the Fat! Despite his age, size and ill health he did manage to get her pregnant twice and she produced two children. Maybe more credit for this should go to her rather than to him! However the children were both girls so that was regarded not so good and it did take them 15 years to produce these two, so in 1152 they split up. The excuse was consanguinity, meaning they were too closely related to have a valid marriage although surely they knew that 15 years earlier!? They were both descendants of William the Conqueror.
Now she was on her own again and once again in need of a powerful husband. Having married an old one first time round she now looked round for a young virile replacement. Henry, Duke of Normandy was only 19 but he was powerful and in line to the throne of England. On 18th May 1152 she married him. This was only a few months after splitting from Louis and she was in fact more closely related to Henry (cousin thrice removed) than she had been to Louis but that did not count for much except when it was needed as an excuse for divorce.
Fairly soon she became Queen of England because the King, Stephen, died and there was an arrangement that Henry should succeeded him on the grounds that his mother, Matilda who was very powerful should really have been Queen of England but Stephen had got in first. That is another story. Anyway this now made Eleanor quite important for a woman as her husband was Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Nantes, and King of England, and a man. Thus he might be able to sort out any problems in Aquitaine that might have caused her quite considerable grief if she had not had him behind her.
Now she performed her most important job which was to produce heirs, and she produced lots. However some were girls, some died early and one known as Henry the Young King also died before his father so only two made it through to become Kings of England. Richard I, later known as Richard the Lionheart and John best known for losing his treasure somewhere in East Anglia. This was pretty good though- two kings was more than most queens ever produce.
She fell out with Henry after a while, or he fell out with her, but that was after she could no longer produce offspring. She was effectively put under house arrest in England, but she survived Henry and became quite important when in 1189 Richard became King. He was away a lot crusading and a wise steady hand was just what he needed at home. This Eleanor could supply. However Richard died in 1199 and John her youngest son became King. He was not a great success and much of the power that had been built up during Henry II’s reign was lost by John. During his reign Eleanor retired to Fontevraud Abbey and spent her last years there, finally dying in 1204.
So there you have a potted version of her life so now you do not need to read the books, but you might like to as they are in fact quite interesting. The trouble with the books is that most of them are versions of previous books which are adaptation of the ones before and so it goes on. They all say she was quite good looking and maybe a bit of a catch, but there are no pictures of her. The only clue to her looks is the effigy above her tomb at Fontevraud which is OK but not great. They all say she was the most powerful woman in Medieval Europe but then she would be by virtue of being married to two of the most powerful Kings of the time . Anyway there you have it and she is a local girl after all.
Richard I and his wife are also buried at Fontevraud, so it is now quite a tourist attraction. Here are a few photos I took when I visited recently.
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