Eleanor of Aquitaine: Why we should not forget the medieval era when searching for our most powerful queens.
On the 9th September, Queen Elizabeth II surpassed Queen Victoria as the longest reigning British monarch. Journalists marked the event with comparisons between the two queens,  whilst some historians chose to look back to the Tudor queens of England; Mary and Elizabeth.  Both Victoria and Elizabeth I expanded Britain’s oversea territories, were patrons of the arts, and successfully ruled without a husband over shadowing them. It is understandable such large characters dominate our historical view when we search for the strong female leaders of our past. However, our focus on these women, mean that powerful medieval queens often get forgotten. I am not attempting to say that they had any equal power to that of the more modern Queens – medieval queens were undeniably second to the king.
Dispelling a myth
Medieval queens were also not the weak and submissive figures they sometimes come across as. Such an image is often more down to literature than fact. In Beowulf, for example, most of the women are written as barely anything more than a sexual subordinate or “peace-weaver”, withdrawn from the male world of governing.  Yet this was not the case for most medieval queens. Whilst it is true they were often married off by their fathers or brothers to create political alliances, the woman did also have a say in her future husband. Some queens were the driving force behind their marriage. Matilda of Scotland, who married Henry I of England, initiated the proposal by writing letters directly to Henry expressing her interest in him.  Providing an heir, or indeed multiple possible heirs, was of course one of the main expectations. But this does not mean queens were expected to stay in the bedroom, and in fact their sexual relationship with the king was seen as a political threat by many chroniclers. Not only did sharing a bed with the king mean a queen had special access to him, but a threat to her sexual purity was a threat to the security of an heir. Let us also not forget, a mother also had a special influence over her children, so even when her husband died she still influenced kings until her own death. 
The medieval era is awash in examples of strong and driven queens. Matilda “The Empress” started a civil war in order to obtain the throne she believed rightfully belonged to her, and her son Henry II; Isabella of France, wife of Edward II helped plan his removal and murder; and Elizabeth Woodville, widow and wife of Edward IV, exercised vast amounts of power to get her family into favourable positions in court. However, there is one medieval queen who comes as close to the type of queenship Elizabeth I exercised during her reign as possible. Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right after the death of her brother in 1130, Queen of France from 1137 – 1152, Queen of England 1154 – 1189, and mother of both Richard and John under who she enjoyed the privileges reserved for a kings wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of Britain’s most powerful queens.
Eleanor and her husbands
Eleanor was betrothed to Louis VII when she was 13 years of age, and at 15 the pair married. By most accounts her first husband was besotted with his new queen, yet Eleanor was by similar reports constantly unhappy. Her unhappiness could have been down to any numerous reasons; she was constantly failing in her task to give Louis and France an heir to the throne, and when she did finally fall pregnant, it was with a girl, Marie. Another reason may have been the crusades her husband took her on between 1147 – 9, which opened her eyes to a larger world and more potentials. Whichever the reason, for we can only speculate, it was Eleanor who is said to have first brought up the idea of divorce whilst on the tour of the east. By 1152, after the birth of yet another girl, the pair finally divorced. During her time with Louis, Eleanor exhibited very few royal powers. It was actually with their separation we see Eleanor emerge as the strong, determined woman history remembers her as. 
Demanding Aquitaine back, Eleanor set about asserting her authority as duchess by issuing a serious of traditional charters securing religious rights for the abbeys of Saint – Jean de Montierneuf, Fontevraud and Saint – Maixent. Not only did this endear her to the church and people as a pious ruler, but by issuing the writs her father, grandfather and great-grandfather, she reiterated to many her hereditary and undeniable right to the land. What her charters as duchess of Aquitaine also show is the powerful lords who supported her, including Briand Chabot and Hervey le Panetier. 
When Eleanor married Henry, it looked as though her power was diminished; the lords who witnessed her charters soon bent the knee and paid homage to their new lord. Elizabeth Brown argues of the couple’s marriage was founded on a mutual love of power, and that Eleanor somehow hoped to dominate the man who was 9 years her junior. Their relationship produced 8 children, 7 of whom survived to adulthood, rebellions and finally resulted in Eleanor’s imprisonment at the hands of her husband. Whether Brown is right for the reasons of their union, the couple clearly fought for power constantly. From 1154 – 1163, Eleanor ruled as regent of England whilst Henry was securing his French lands, and from 1163 – 1168, she went back to rule Aquitaine. Henry’s reasoning here is unknown, but the coincidence of sending his domineering wife away at the same time his similarly power hungry mother died, suggests he wanted to rid himself of troublesome women. Whilst there is evidence Eleanor as regent witnessed and signed charters, it was a very limited and concerned mostly religious privileges. Ironically, in trying to free himself from Eleanor, by sending her to Aquitaine he gave her the freedom to exercise more power. Not only did the frequency of charters increase, but only 1/3rd of our surviving records show she even recognised Henry as lord. Furthermore, she appears to have held her own separate court, receiving honoured guests such as King Alphonso II of Aragon and King Sancho VI of Navarre, with whom she discussed wars and borders. By 1172 her writs addressed the people as “her followers” and she was undisputedly the ruler of Aquitaine, even when Richard was made duke.
Mother of Kings
Even before Richard and John became kings, Eleanor was manipulating her children for her political needs. The rebellions fought between all four of her then living sons (Young Henry, Geoffrey of Brittany, Richard and John), against Henry II were all fought for autonomy in ruling pieces of Henry’s French lands. Whilst it is unsure whether Eleanor was the driving force behind the rebellions, the alignment of their interests and her encouragement of the situation was a constant thorn in Henry’s side.
Under Richard’s kingship, Eleanor again became regent of England and this time with more power. She released prisoners, settled disputes between religious figures and Richards magnates, and was present as great councils – including the discussion of Richard’s crusade. Eleanor’s biggest achievement as regent was her reaction to the threat of John usurping Richard as king. Not only did Eleanor, now of 70 years old, face her youngest son and stop him securing a French alliance with King Phillip, but made battle preparations by fortifying the beaches encase of a French invasion. As Ralph Turner comments in his article, her actions were very masculine in her military dealings with her sons. Her military prowess did not end with her England regency, for when John rose to take the throne she had a crucial part in defending castles and negotiating political alliances. 
Lord and Lady
G. Richardson and G. O. Sayle in their The Governance of Medieval England rightly declare Eleanor was “cursed by fate in being born a woman.”  Whilst she did not obtain the luxury of ruling alone as Elizabeth I and Victoria did, Eleanor ruled for most of her life autonomously in all but name. The legends that now surround Eleanor about her sexual appetite and her ‘devils blood’ stem from the fear she created in contemporaries at just how much power she could and did exercise over the Angevin kings . Eleanor, Queen of France, England and Duchess of Aquitaine, who wrote charters like any other male monarch, thought with starling military finesse and negotiated politics with kings of Europe in her own court, should definitely not be forgotten when discussing our most powerful female monarchs.
Written by Jessica Harris-Edwards
- Beowulf, translated by Chauncey Brewster Tinker, (Newson: Newburgh), 1902.
- Louis Huneycutt, “Alianora regina anglocum: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Anglo-Norman predecessors as Queens of England”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.
- Elizabeth Brown, “Eleanor of Aquitaine reconsidered”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.
- Marie Hivergneaux, “Queen Eleanor and Aquitaine 1137 – 1189”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.
- Ralph Turner, “Eleanor of Aquitaine in the governments of her sons Richard and John”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.
- G. Richardson and G. O. Sayle, The Governance of Medieval England, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), 1963.
- Peggy McCracken, “Scandalizing desire: Eleanor of Aquitaine and the chroniclers”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.