A Woman’s History: The Secret Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Ask any woman you know about her favorite woman in history. Some will say Cleopatra, or Rosa Parks, or Elizabeth I. Maybe the history nerds will say Eleanor Roosevelt or Frida Kahlo. But not many know would say their favorite historical woman was Eleanor of Aquitaine. But why? She has one of the most compelling life stories I’ve ever heard. Why not tell her story, why not remember her as the truly iconic queen she was?

The Duchy of Aquitaine is well-known as the birthplace of troubadour poets — essentially romance singer-songwriters, the most famous of which was Eleanor’s grandfather. This artistic tradition continued, and Aquitaine was considered a cradle for arts, poetry, and courtly love. Despite Aquitaine’s notoriety as a progressive region, the High Middle Ages period still invited the kidnapping and ransom of young aristocratic women, girls’ marriages before the age of 13 and death in childbirth as the norm there.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was born around 1124, born into this environment. Her early life was marked by tragedy: Eleanor’s mother died when she was five and her brother William died after she turned six. She had a surviving sister, Petronilla, and an illegitimate half-brother Jocelin. Her father was Duke William, who owned more land than even the King of France at the time. Eleanor was smart, however, and learned writing, history, math, and language, in addition to the usual “woman stuff”, like dabbling in the arts and learning domestic responsibilities.

When Eleanor was a teenager, her father died while making a dangerous pilgrimage to Spain and left her as duchess. To put this into perspective, imagine if Mackenzie Bezos was the new Bachelorette--that’s how eligible Eleanor was after this inheritance. Left under the care of the King of France, she was quickly married off to his son Dauphin Louis (the fancy French term for prince) and moved to the palace in conservative Paris. Contrary to the romantic image that popped up in your head, Paris was at this time was like most cities in the age before sewage systems: fairly disgusting. Replace the Cabernet wine and chocolate croissants with pigeon meat pie and rotting grape juice, and you’ll begin to get a sense of what royal life in Paris was like.

When her father-in-law the king died unexpectedly of dysentery days after her wedding, Eleanor was crowned Queen of France at age fourteen.

The next few decades of Eleanor’s life were even more strange than her childhood. She and Louis had two daughters over the course of their marriage, and she accompanied him when he led armies on the second Crusade (unsuccessfully, I might add). Amazingly, she survived both childbirth and transcontinental war, both of which were considerable accomplishments. During this time, she was often criticized by the Church for being outspoken, enjoying music and dance, and--worst of all--wearing colorful and revealing clothes. She loved music, poetry, and art, and modernized the Paris court.

Eleanor’s marriage to Louis was annulled, however, when she was unable to bear him a son. Annulment, unlike divorce, was generally accepted by the Church and allowed especially for royalty when it threatened their dynastic line. Eleanor’s two children were left with Louis, and she remarried shortly after--this time to Henry, the next King of England. Eleanor was crowned Queen in 1154 (of the second country in about fifteen years, impressively). This is where Eleanor’s insane level of resilience is exposed: at a time when giving birth was one of the most dangerous things a human could do, Eleanor gave birth to eight children. In addition to the two she had with Louis, that’s a staggering total of ten children.

Her second marriage lasted longer than her first, but Henry constantly cheated on Eleanor. Perhaps as retribution, she encouraged one of her sons to revolt against his father for the throne. She even encouraged others to join her son’s armies and take England back for themselves. In hindsight, maybe this revenge was a tad overkill, as she spent over a decade imprisoned for her treachery.

When her husband Henry died, Eleanor was freed from prison by her second son, Richard, who was the new King of England. Side note: if you’ve ever heard of Richard the Lionheart, this is your guy. She even acted as the de facto ruler when Richard was away crusading or travelling, and was immensely successful in this capacity.

Eleanor outlived Richard and into her youngest son John I’s reign. Her daughters were married to various powerful men around Europe, and she remained a strong influence on both English and French politics until her death at age eighty-two. Yes — eighty-two. Since BBC News says the average life expectancy during the Middle Ages was a mere thirty-one years old, she may as well have been immortal.

When pondering history, it’s essential to remember that history isn’t just written by the winners, but by men. Learning about Eleanor’s life when I was younger taught me to challenge the stories I’m told about female figures throughout history.  She’s an unknown icon and a testament to the level of power women could achieve in an incredibly turbulent historical era. She upends the stereotype of the “damsel in distress,” which is central to later (mostly male) retellings of the Middle Ages. She was the mother of two of England’s most consequential kings and an ancestor of England’s current monarch Elizabeth I. But more than that, I think she offers valuable lessons in how women can rise above sexist criticism and take power for themselves, in a system designed to rob them of it.

The way I see it, women in two different situations can glean lessons from Eleanor’s life. Significantly, she grappled with many of the same struggles that women in the developing world still face; child marriage was common, divorce was unthinkable, birth control was nonexistent, and the threat of gender violence was all too real. The only reason that Eleanor was able to exert control over her life and wield such immense power was because of the education she was afforded as a child. As the oldest daughter of a father with no legitimate male heirs, it was important that she have the knowledge to manage a massive province. She, unlike most women in her era, had a well-rounded and full education, which allowed her to become a shrewd and savvy politician. At the very least, her experience illustrates the immediate need for young girls in every society to be educated to the fullest extent possible — it could allow them to change the world in the same way Eleanor did.

Women in the developed world also face some of the challenges Eleanor experienced in her life. Because she was an incredibly skillful politician, intellectual, and patron of the courtly arts, Eleanor had to protect her reputation against the many, many men who tried to bring her down. As any powerful woman today would attest, it can be incredibly hard to rise above sexist criticism to make an impact. Many women have fought harder and longer than men to achieve comparable levels of power, and even our progressive modern society can be harshly unforgiving of women at the top. In the face of this kind of criticism, Eleanor of Aquitaine stubbornly refused to waver and instead became one of the most influential figures in Europe’s history.

Perhaps Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm put it best: “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”