Eleanor of Aquitaine was iconic and one blog post cannot do justice to the many interesting facets of her life, so today we’re going to focus on her later life during the reign of her sons Richard and John.
When her husband Henry II died in 1189, Eleanor had been imprisoned for around 16 years after supporting their sons’ rebellion against him. On Richard’s accession she was freed at the age of around 67 and “the last fifteen years of Eleanor’s life fully reveal her extraordinary abilities as a ruler”. Richard was gunning to go on the Third Crusade and left Eleanor with key responsibilities to oversee his vast domains whilst keeping his erstwhile younger brother John in check. A medieval king’s fixation with crusading was something Eleanor was very familiar with, having gone on crusade herself with her first husband Louis VII of France. This was another important period in her life and “the freedom she learnt and the inspiration she received in the East proved to be the making of her…it spurred her divorce from Louis, and in turn laid the groundwork for her marriage to Henry II”.
Richard was still unwed despite a longstanding betrothal with Alys of France but neither he nor Eleanor wanted this match to go ahead, potentially due to the rumours that Alys had been Henry II’s mistress. Instead, Eleanor arranged Richard’s marriage to Berengaria of Navarre, a savvy political move, and travelled with her soon to be daughter-in-law to catch up with Richard who had already set off on crusade. They met up with Richard in Messina where Eleanor transferred Berengaria to her daughter Joanna of Sicily’s care, as the marriage was to take place later due to Lent. Eleanor returned to her commitments in Richard’s empire, and she had a task on her hands with John’s machinations.
On Richard’s return from crusade disaster struck and he was captured, ending up in the custody of the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich VI. Eleanor was horrified by the news, and threw herself into obtaining her favourite son’s release. In a letter to Eleanor from his captivity Richard wrote “First to God and then to your serenity, sweetest mother, we give thanks as we can, though we can not suffice to actions so worthy of thanks, for your loyalty to us and the faithful care and diligence you give to our lands for peace and defense so devotedly and effectively”. Eleanor was able to raise the required ransom for Richard’s release, and he was released in 1194. She then managed to use her position as their mother to encourage reconciliation between Richard and John. With everything now in hand, she semi-retired and spent more time in Fontrevault Abbey.
In 1199 Richard died of a gangrenous arrow wound, but not before naming John as his heir. This pulled Eleanor back into playing a more dominant position in the political scene as she worked to secure John’s accession. However, this wasn’t without difficulties as her grandson Arthur of Brittany (son of her child Geoffrey) believed he had a stronger claim. Eleanor supported John’s claim, and at one point during this drawn-out feud in 1202 she was surrounded by Arthur and his supporters at Mirebeau. Approaching 80, she refused to submit and John rushed to her aid ultimately relieving the siege. This was her last significant involvement in political events, and two years later Eleanor died at around the age of 82.
Eleanor was the matriarch of the Angevin dynasty, and although her marriage to Henry soured (a story for another day) she played a significant role in ensuring the continuity of the Angevin’s power and influence in her sons’ reigns. Eleanor was an icon and “became a legend in her own lifetime”, she lived to a ripe old age and played a role in key political events throughout her long eventful life.
What do you think of Eleanor of Aquitaine? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!
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ODNB [Eleanor of Aquitaine] by Jane Martindale
ODNB: Berengaria of Navarre by Elizabeth Hallam
ODNB: Richard I by John Gillingham
Epistolae, Eleanor of Aquitaine: https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/woman/24.html
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