In an age where women were barely mentioned in historical records, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122- 1204) left indelible marks on history's pages. She was one of the most outstanding women of her age. Exceptionally beautiful, intelligent and fabulously wealthy, she was the most sought after bride in Europe. She was the only woman to be both the Queen of France and the Queen of England. Matriarch of a famously dysfunctional family, Eleanor's story has fascinated people for over 800 years.

No contemporary left a description of Eleanor and the portraits of the time were crude. But we can guess a little what she must have looked like - the medieval ideal of feminine beauty was for slender blondes with alabaster skins. Eleanor led a charmed childhood and grew up confident and high-spirited. Her wardrobe dripped with jewels (see here for examples of medieval jewelry). When she was 15, her father died and she became the Duchess of Aquitaine, a vast territory nearly a third the size of modern day France.

In those days, heiresses were in danger of being kidnapped for that was the surest way to a title and riches for younger sons and landless knights. Therefore in his will, Eleanor's father appointed the King of France as Eleanor's guardian. Louis VI or Louis"the Fat" as he was known, made sure all the Aquitaine revenues kept flowing into royal coffers by marrying Eleanor to his 18 year old son and heir, the future Louis VII. She gave Louis a vase made from rock crystal (clear quartz), gold and other jewels for their wedding. The vase is now part of the Louvre's collection.

The marriage was doomed for they were grossly mismatched. Eleanor was lively and passionate whilst Louis was dour and had about as much passion as a doormat. But for a quirk of fate - his older brother died in a riding accident - Louis was to be an abbot. Although Louis adored Eleanor "almost beyond reason", he rarely came to her bed. Eleanor snapped, " I thought I married a king but I find I have wed a monk." In 15 years of marriage, they had but two children, both girls. Eleanor was unhappy with her weak and ineffectual husband and began pressing for a divorce.

In the end, Louis was pushed to a corner. On one hand he was loathed to lose Aquitaine's riches but on the other hand, he needed to beget an heir with a new queen. So he agreed to an annulment - the excuse was they were third cousins! The price of Eleanor's freedom was the loss of her daughters as Louis was awarded custody. But she got to keep her precious Aquitaine.

Little did poor feckless Louis know Eleanor had already chosen her second husband - Henry, Count of Anjou, who was also the heir to the English throne and destined to be one of England's greatest kings. Henry was the kind of man she hungered for - everything Louis wasn't - energetic, strong and very virile. When they met, Eleanor was 29, he was 18 and already a leader of men and seasoned warrior. The attraction was mutual and the pair made secret plans. A year later, as soon as she was free of Louis, she cleverly dodged two kidnapping attempts to rendezvous with Henry for their wedding.

Their union sent shock waves through Europe and the repercussions echoed through 300 years of Anglo-French turmoil. When Henry became Henry II of England, the first Plantagenet king, their combined Angevin empire stretched from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees. Poor Louis must have paled at the news. Worse for him, with the ensuing years, Eleanor proved to everyone she was perfectly capable of producing heirs for she gave Henry 5 sons and 3 daughters ! Louis didn't hit the son jackpot until late in life with wife #3!

It was amazing she managed to get pregnant so often because Henry was away a lot governing his vast empire. He often left her to capably manage his affairs as he couldn't possibly do it all on his own. But for all that, he turned not to Eleanor but to his mother, the formidable ex-Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England, for counsel and for friendship, Thomas Becket, his Chancellor and later the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Eleanor was politically astute, and believed in the superiority of women. She expected an equal power share but Henry was determined he had the absolute last word in everything because he was king. Although they inevitably argued often there was one thing they were united on - making sure their sons inherited their joint kingdom. Henry spoilt his kids when they were little, but he was largely a distant father who nonetheless made grandiose plans for his children's futures.

Four sons survived to adulthood - Henry the Younger, Richard (the Lionheart), Geoffrey and John. Henry the Younger was actually crowned king during his father's lifetime to ensure the succession in case Henry died unexpectedly. The Young King was handsome but lacked the qualities needed in a king. He was bored by the administrative duties and whined a lot about not being given full authority of the regions he was awarded. Henry II tried to drag him along to teach him what he needed to know, to no avail. Richard was his mother's favourite and was naturally given Aquitaine. Geoffrey received parts of France and John, the last born, and his father's favourite, initially got nothing so Henry nicknamed him John Lackland!

The point the sons probably started to turn against their father was when Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, got his wish to die a martyr. Henry and Becket were once great friends but their relationship fell apart and they fought a long and bitter power struggle between church and state. He was finally assassinated by Henry's barons in Canterbury cathedral. They acted on their own accord but Henry was universally blamed for the Archbishop's heinous murder. Their father's tarnished reputation forever shattered any respect his sons had for him.

Eleanor and Henry's marriage also disintegrated as Henry pushed her further and further away from the seat of power. Eleanor's last pregnancy was difficult because by then Henry had fallen in love with Rosamund Clifford, the love of his life. Eleanor tolerated Henry's numerous infidelities over the years but this was the last straw as he openly flaunted Rosamund and let her live like a queen in one of his palaces. The unfortunate Prince John, the son she was carrying when she found out about Rosamund, became his mother's least favourite child.

Eleanor separated from Henry by moving back to her lands. Her three eldest sons followed her and she encouraged them to rebel against their father as she too felt they should have been given more power than Henry was willing to part with. For 15 years, a raging family brawl ensued and Henry almost lost to his rebellious sons. Henry eventually reconciled with his sons but he imprisoned Eleanor for 16 years. During this time, the Young King died of dysentery at 28 after stealing from the altar of a shrine because he felt his father was not giving him enough money. Geoffrey was trampled to death by horses during a tournament.

When Henry II died, it was Richard, his mother's darling, who became Richard I, king of England. Eleanor, now 67, was freed from her castle prison and worked to make sure Richard was accepted as an English king even though he spoke not a word of English! He had been raised to be the future Duke of Aquitaine and was not expected to rule over the English. Eleanor arranged a majestic crowning for Richard - the pageantry she crafted is still used by British monarchs for their coronations to this day.

Richard was called Lionheart because of his great military skill but in reality he was a bad and selfish king. Despite Eleanor using her considerable political skills to make Richard acceptable as an English king, his subjects soon realized he really didn't care two hoots about England except as a source of revenue. He complained England was "always cold and raining" and spent only 6 months in the country he ruled for 10 years. First he milked England by selling as much as he could to finance the Third Crusade and even joked, " I would sell London itself if I could find a buyer". The Briolette of India (above left), one of the oldest legendary diamonds, was once Eleanor's. She gave it to Richard to take on his crusade. Richard managed to get himself held captive on the way back from the crusade forcing Eleanor to squeeze England dry, raising a king's ransom to set him free.

Later during a siege, he received a crossbow arrow wound which turned gangrenous. Eleanor, despite her old age, rode day and night to reach him. "The staff in my hand and the light of my eyes" died in his mother's arms, aged 41.

As Richard had no heir, Eleanor's last child, the untrustworthy and morally corrupt Prince John, became King John I for real. He had tried to pass himself off as King of England when his brother was held captive overseas. Eleanor, now in her seventies, launched into a thankless task trying to mold John into a king because the alternative claimant would have been the worst of two evils.

John was actually clever and administratively capable like his father. There were flashes of brilliance but there were much more underhanded, deceitful, vindictive and stupid actions. He was nicknamed "Softsword" because he was militarily inept. Under John, his father's vast realm started to disintegrate despite Eleanor's best efforts to stop it. He was so bad, his barons forced him to seal the Magna Carta, a landmark document limiting kingly power. If John's father was England's greatest king, John was the worst. No wonder the BBC named him the worst 13th century Briton in 2006.

The elderly but still astute Eleanor continued to counsel her son until her final illness. She outlived all but two of her children. Her tomb in Fontevraud Abbey lies beside those of her beloved son Richard and Henry II. She was depicted reading a book for she was literate in an illiterate age. A remarkable woman indeed.

Marion Meade (1977) Eleanor of Aquitaine : A Biography. Hawthorn Books
Claudia Gold (2008) Queen, Empress, Concubine : 50 Women Rulers from The Queen of Sheba to Catherine the Great. Quercus.
Briolette of India Diamond

Highly recommended historical novels by authors who make history come alive :
1.Sharon Kay Penman Time and Chance - about Eleanor, Henry II and Thomas Becket
2.Sharon Kay Penman's Devil's Brood - about Eleanor's children
3.Elizabeth Chadwick The Greatest Knight: The Story of William Marshal and the sequel, The Scarlet Lion - about William Marshal, the incredibly honourable knight who served Eleanor and her sons. He was regent to John's young son after the king died of dysentery. He also managed to keep England financially solvent after John lost a great part of the England's treasury. He really was incompetent.

Other biographies by Pearl
Akbar the Great
Jewels for a King's Harlot - Barbara Villiers
Empress Eugenie's Obsession with Diamonds
The Beading Gem's Journal

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