The Determined Duchess

Despite historians knowing little about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, or at least not much of her true character, she is still a much debated figure amongst historians and historical novelists. A powerful woman of her time who achieved many things that the majority of her female counterparts could not, such as visiting the Holy Land on Crusade with her first husband Louis VII of France, instructing their divorce, surviving a revolt (with her sons) against her second husband Henry II of England and living into her eighties. She appears to have played a significant part in the beginnings of Medieval Chivalry, in the form of the dreamy Courts of Love which flourished in her home duchy of Aquitaine.

There are also a number of issues, which due to the lack of surviving evidence and historical records – as well as the questionable nature of some of the sources – historians are undecided upon, concerning areas such as Eleanor’s moral conduct; whether she really had an affair with her uncle, her influence upon events and ideas in history such as Chivalry and the influence of other people during her life-time, such as Thomas Becket upon her marriage with Henry II.

Many records of Eleanor’s life depict her as a rather scandalous and unfeminine duchess, largely because she, in so many ways, lived in contradiction to the conventional ideas of womanhood of her time. Indeed, in today’s society Eleanor of Aquitaine would be very much accepted for who she was, a politically astute and intelligent heiress, who constantly sought to control her own destiny. What is more the alleged sexual scandals she was involved in, it has been argued, have little standing in historical evidence and were most likely rumours created by men who feared a powerful woman. Indeed, Lisa Hilton’s study on English Queens in the Middle Ages suggests that Eleanor was not the only queen to be seen in a negative light when she did not behave according to the expectations of the time.

It is very clear that Eleanor wielded a lot of control in her marriage with Louis, at least from Alison Weir’s biography Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, and her novel The Captive Queen, simply due to the fact that Eleanor managed to secure for herself the chance to go on crusade with her husband, rather than remaining in France as his consort, as was expected of a woman of her status. As well as this, Weir notes in her biography that Eleanor tried to not only persuade Louis to seek less from his own advisers, but also to listen to her ideas of ruling France.[1] The fact that, due to successfully convincing Louis that they were too closely related to remain married (despite their papal dispensation) and becoming madly in love with Henry II, Eleanor was able to achieve a divorce from her first husband shows huge confidence and conviction in her sense of destiny and individuality.

What is more, despite the image of a very much imprisoned woman, which can be concluded from Weir’s historical novel, Eleanor appears to have been a strong and determined individual who did not willingly subject herself to male authority. But it is clear that this self-determined nature, intelligence and political appetite created many enemies for Eleanor. It seems that men in her lifetime – and indeed in generations to follow, at least until the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – were rather intimidated by her unconventional character, which may have been why most of the accounts of her life depict the Aquitanian duchess as lustful, demonic and generally a bad influence upon men.

Personally, I cannot help but admire her strength of character, despite the challenges she faced and perhaps some over-hasty decisions she made, in a male dominated world. Although, I am unsure about the overtly lustful character of Eleanor of Aquitaine that is portrayed in Weir’s novel and I feel that this idea, in a way, panders to the image portrayed by those who condemned powerful women, of Eleanor as demonic and ungodly. But perhaps, if this fictional creation reflects her true character, it illustrates her humanity, as few of us survive such difficult lives without escapism of some kind.

It is therefore evident that Eleanor was very much a woman born before her time, being described by Hilton as ‘the most famously exceptional woman of the medieval period.’[2]

Bibliography;

Hilton, Lisa, Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens, (London, 2009)

Weir, Alison, Eleanor of Aquitaine; by the Wrath of God, Queen of England (London, 2007)

Weir, Alison, The Captive Queen (London, 2011)


[1] Alison Weir, Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God Queen of England, (London, 2007), 33

[2] Lisa Hilton, Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens, (London, 2009), 111

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2 thoughts on “The Determined Duchess

  1. I’ve got Alison Weir’s biography waiting on my shelf, and after reading your post I am even more excited to get stuck into it. I always knew that Eleanor was an interesting character and I look forward to finding out more about her. Great post 🙂

  2. It might not be a good idea to take any historical novel too seriously- but I think we all do it sometimes, and there are better ‘distractions’ then the ones she supposedly found. If the suggestion in that regard are true I for one wouldn’t admire her for them.

    Interesting post though, have you seen Helen Castor’s series ‘She Wolves’ the first episode of which covers her, and makes some similar points about strong royal women.

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