Eleanor of Aquitaine was a wife to two of the most important kings of the 12th century, but even aside from her marriages, she was a fascinating woman in her own right.
The facts about Eleanor of Aquitaine speak for themselves: she was the rightful ruler of the ancient duchy of Aquitaine in southern France, heiress to witty sovereign dukes who both supported great musicians and conducted love affairs with abandon, and forcibly married to a monk-like boy as a teenager. Decades later, she managed to separate from him, choose her own husband (though her independence in the choice is debatable), and become a powerful ruler on both sides of the English Channel for multiple decades.
The life of Eleanor of Aquitaine included crusades, art, numerous children, and diplomatic journeys across Europe, even as she reached her seventies. She sought to keep her family at peace – except when she rebelled, of course – and she was a fierce advocate for her own rights as a sovereign duchess. Intelligent, desirable, and savvy, Eleanor was truly a woman for the ages.
She Was Ambushed Once And Nearly Kidnapped Twice
Prior to her marriages, Eleanor constantly faced the threat of abduction: as a rich heiress without a husband, greedy lords may have sought to kidnap her, marry her against her will, and claim her lands and wealth as their own. This threat was one reason why, shortly before his passing, her father arranged her marriage to the eventual Louis VII, and another reason why Eleanor was most likely concerned for her own safety once she divorced Louis.
Despite her newfound freedom upon this separation, Eleanor knew she couldn't enjoy the luxuries of single life for long; she had to find a new husband for her own protection. After a council annulled her first marriage, she went home to Poitiers, barely evading two different captors: Theobald, Count of Blois (who would later marry one of her daughters), and her future brother-in-law, Henry Plantagenet's younger brother, Geoffrey. Fortunately, Eleanor took an alternate route home and arrived safely – she arranged a marriage to a new protector soon after.
In 1200, Eleanor was successfully ambushed and held captive by one of her son John's enemies, Hugh of Lusignan. Her imprisonment wasn't for the gain of her land, however: Hugh attacked Eleanor in order to extort John's support in Hugh's claim to a random piece of land.
She Was A Duchess In Her Own Right
As a teenager, Eleanor was one of the most sought-after heiresses in Europe because she ruled a fertile, valuable region of what would later become France.
Eleanor didn't hold Aquitaine by virtue of marriage, as was often the case; instead, she inherited the land in her own right. As a result, she alone was the territory's legitimate duchess, and any man who sought control would have to marry her. For this reason, securing the marriage between Louis VII and Eleanor was a prosperous coup for the late King Louis VI.
Even In Her Old Age, She Traveled Europe As A Diplomat
After she was released from prison, Eleanor remained politically active. She served as an unofficial regent in England for her son, Richard the Lionheart, while he was crusading. Eager to arrange royal alliances, she went abroad in 1199 when she was in her late seventies.
Eleanor traveled to Castile, visiting her daughter, also named Eleanor, who was Queen of that country, as well as her many grandchildren. Her task was to ally her own family yet again with the royal clan of France – Eleanor, once married to a king of France, and Henry often opposed their rivals across the Channel. The prince in question was the grandson of Eleanor's ex-husband (by another wife): the eventual Louis VIII of France.
Eleanor met her granddaughters and picked one of them, Blanca, to become a queen and marry Louis. This diplomatic maneuver was a true success: Blanche became a powerful consort and mothered many sons, including Saint-King Louis IX.
She Advocated For The Tradition Of Courtly Love
In true family tradition, Eleanor promoted the literary genre of courtly love, which advocated a particular code of conduct for women and the knights who lived to serve and love them. Whether or not Eleanor ever established a formal "academy" in Aquitaine to teach chivalry to men and women is unknown, but she may have instructed her ladies-in-waiting and male attendants to follow its precepts.
Marie of Champagne, one of Eleanor's daughters from her first marriage, fostered the tradition even more than her mother at her court in Champagne.