Eleanor of Aquitaine was a wife to two of the most important kings of the 12th century, but she was fascinating as a woman in her own right. So who was Eleanor of Aquitaine?
The Eleanor of Aquitaine facts speak for themselves. She was the rightful ruler of the ancient duchy of Aquitaine in southern France. Heiress to witty sovereign dukes who were patrons of great musicians and conducted love affairs with abandon - Eleanor was forcibly married to a monk-like boy as a teenager. Decades later, she managed to get rid of him, chose her own husband (although how much choice she had is debatable), and became a powerful ruler on both sides of the English Channel for decades to come.
The life of Eleanor of Aquitaine saw her go on a Crusade, travel Europe as a diplomat in her seventies, have lots of kids, and be a patron of the arts. She did her best to keep the peace in her family - except when she rebelled, of course - and was a fierce advocate for her own rights as a sovereign duchess. Smart, sexy, and savvy, Eleanor was a woman for the ages.
Eleanor Was Married Twice to Two Rival Kings
Eleanor walked down the aisle twice: each time to a powerful monarch or monarch-to-be. In order to ally her duchy to France, which was actually smaller than Aquitaine at the time, King Louis VI arranged the marriage of young Eleanor to his own heir, also named Louis. They wed in July 1137, just in time for King Louis to kick the bucket a month later. The match was ill-fated from the beginning; the two didn't get along, as Louis was reputedly very religious and Eleanor very sensual. After two daughters and 15 years of marriage, Eleanor and Louis had their marriage annulled in 1152 on the grounds of consanguinity (being too closely blood-related for the Church's rules).
Now a free woman, Eleanor turned around and married Henry, duke of Normandy, two months after her marriage ended. Two years later, he became king of England and lord of a ton of French lands - and thus a rival to Eleanor's first husband, Louis.
She Allegedly Confronted Her Husband's Mistress in a Maze
Sadly for Eleanor, Henry was far from a faithful husband. Rumor had it that Henry installed one of his favorite mistresses, the beautiful Rosamund Clifford, in a home at the center of a maze at his palace of Woodstock. He found his way each time by following a red string. Talk about a sexy, secluded meet-up!
But clever Eleanor noticed something was up. She picked up on a clue or two and wound her way through to the center of the labyrinth, where she found "Fair Rosamund." One version of the story has her offering Rosamund two ways out: a bowl of poison or a dagger straight to the heart. Legend has it that Rosamund sipped the poison and kicked the bucket.
This tragic tale was just that, though: a fable. In reality, Rosamund wasn't poisoned but died in a convent. And Eleanor was probably in prison, thanks to Henry, at the time Rosamund was Henry's favorite, so she couldn't have killed her rival!
Eleanor Intervened in a Near-Catastrophic Civil War Between Her Son and Grandson
Richard may have been Eleanor's favorite kid, but it was her youngest, John, who wound up being the next king of England after him - even though there was another brother in between them. That was Geoffrey, who had died before Richard, so he couldn't succeed - but Geoffrey's son, Arthur of Brittany, could! Arthur was technically the rightful king instead of his uncle John, but Eleanor supported her adult child as ruler against the teenage wonder boy. It didn't help that Arthur captured and imprisoned her, and only John freed her.
To settle the conflict once and for all, one of John's lieutenants took Arthur and delivered him to the king. What happened to the young duke next became a great historical debate, but he was definitely imprisoned and probably put to death, perhaps by John himself. But chances are that he didn't die as Shakespeare wrote it.
Eleanor Went on Crusade with Her First Husband
Eleanor was exceptionally well-traveled for a woman of her age. Louis VII and his German counterpart, Conrad, led the charge for yet another Christian Crusade in 1147. But a lot of the French, Eleanor included, weren't terribly enthusiastic about going so far just to reinforce the Crusader vassal states. But for Louis, it was a chance to atone for his sins (including burning a church full of people alive), and Eleanor joined him in the journey.
The Crusade (1147-1149) was a terrible failure militarily and personally. Louis and his allies didn't do much in the way of helping their Frankish cousins in the Middle East, and his relationship with Eleanor deteriorated drastically during their time away. The French also lost many men at Cadmos Mountain; this massacre of Frenchmen was blamed on Eleanor because she allegedly became an unwitting pawn in a Turkish attack there.