It was pretty standard in medieval Europe for people to name their children after themselves, with Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine no different. Their second son was named Henry after his father, and their second daughter was named Eleanor after her mother. Upon her marriage she became Leonor so for clarity in this post: Eleanor = Eleanor of Aquitaine and Leonor = Eleanor of England.
Leonor was born in 1161 and had close ties with her family, despite her brothers’ (Henry, Geoffrey, Richard and John) often fractious relationship with each other. The life of a medieval princess, despite the grandeur and privilege, could be a difficult one. They were often married off young for their father’s political gain. Depending how far away their husband’s court was, they may never see their family again. They were reliant on their own abilities to navigate a foreign court and unknown husband. Their primary role was to bear heirs for their husband’s dynasty. This was a dangerous undertaking in the 12th century where the maternal mortality rate was high. Not delivering a male heir could place a foreign princess in an incredibly vulnerable position. They were also a symbol of their father and husband’s political alliance. If this alliance ran into problems (which let’s face it happened often) this placed the princess in an awkward situation.
So, with all this in mind, thing’s didn’t turn out too badly for Leonor.
Her mother played a pivotal role in arranging her marriage, and it was decided the young Leonor would marry Alfonso VIII, King of Castile. This alliance was politically advantageous to both sides, and by chance it turned out to be a personal success for the married couple. They are commonly believed to have had a good relationship, and went on to have at least 12 children of which the following surviving to adulthood: Berengaria, Urraca, Blanche, Ferdinand, Eleanor, Constance and Henry. Alongside providing her husband with heirs, she also took an active role in her husband’s domains. Leonor often signed charters with Alfonso, commissioned art and was a prominent benefactor of the church.
In time Leonor would follow in her mother’s footsteps and arrange marriages for her daughters. This includes her eldest daughter Berengaria’s match with Alfonso IX of León. Many did not want this marriage as Alfonso IX was an enemy, but Leonor could see how a marriage would settle the border war that had taken place between the two Alfonso’s. As historian Janna Bianchini says, “Leonor’s active role in arranging her daughter’s marriage shows the influence medieval queens could exert in the crucial business of martial alliance”. Eleanor of Aquitaine was not done with arranging marriages either, and in her late seventies travelled to Castile to choose among her granddaughters a wife for the French Dauphin, as part of her son King John’s political agreement with France. Blanche was chosen, and history tells us that she became a formidable figure in her own right.
In 1214 Leonor’s husband died. Three week’s later Leonor, now in her early 50s, also passed away. Already ill, her grief at her husband’s death may have been the last straw. Her husband had named her regent for their young son, but Leonor had ensured this role passed to her eldest daughter Berengaria before her passing.
What do you think of Eleanor of England, namesake of the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine? I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comments section below.
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ODNB: Eleanor [Leonor, Alienor] of England by Lindy Grant
The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
The Queen’s Hand: Power and Authority in the Reign of Berenguela of Castile by Janna Bianchini
Epistolae: Blanche of Castile: https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/woman/77.html