Always seen as a backup character in history, Eleanor of Aquitaine was, in fact, the mind behind her husbands and legendary children's deeds.
Game of Thrones has gotten the success it has for its brilliant plot construction and iconic complex character building. One of the characters that have produced both fear and admiration, not to mention hatred, is Cersei Lannister, the powerful woman behind her sons' short reigns. She is ambitious, calculating, and hungry for power. As I said, these characters are anything but plain, and most of the inspiration to create this fantasy story was influenced by unique and outstanding real historical figures. One of the main influences in Cersei’s cunning nature was Eleanor of Aquitaine, once the most powerful women in medieval Europe, if not the most powerful person, since her plans were behind the leading figures of the time.
If you want to find the epitome of a brave, powerful, and determined woman fighting for what belongs to her, that’s Eleanor of Aquitaine, the inspiration and promoter of one of the most important literary currents in history: chivalric poetry, also known as courtly love, which gave birth to those iconic medieval songs and imagery we all love and recognize. Most of what we know about her life is based on legends that came from these poems. Although there’s historical evidence of her deeds, most of them have been romanticized, blurring the line between facts and myths. Still, she’s considered to be one of the most trailblazing characters in history, a woman who went against the norms of her time and fought for her own interests.
She used the inherited role of the men next to her in her favor and is remembered as a smart politician and brilliant strategist. The best example of her deeds is her legendary march with the army in the second crusades, where she dressed as an Amazon warrior. As the eldest daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, one of the wealthiest provinces in France, Eleanor was born to be the wife of a great monarch and the mother of powerful royals. For that reason, unlike many nobles of the time, her father put a lot of interest in his daughter, so she was highly educated both in activities that were exclusive of women and those that were considered elemental in a man's formation, like astronomy, maths, fencing, and even horse riding.
When she was only 15 years old, her only brother as well as her father died while fighting in the crusades, in 1137. Being the eldest daughter, she became Duchess of Aquitaine and inherited one of the biggest fortunes in Europe. Under the care of the King of France, Louis VI, he immediately decided to marry her to his son, heir to the throne of France. Only five days after the wedding, the king died, making young Louis and Eleanor the rightful king and queen of France and the most powerful couple in Europe. Unlike her husband, she knew that the image they presented was crucial to maintaining their strength and power, and for that reason, she proposed that both should fight together in the Second Crusade in Constantinople and Jerusalem. Thus the legend of the warrior queen.
Why did this fact become such an important legend of the time? To start with, it was not common to see women marching to war. Legend has it, she led her troops in an Amazon warrior attire. It’s even believed that she just marched with them but didn’t really engage in battle. However, the fact that she was brave enough to leave the comfort of her castle for the sake of her faith was really shocking at the time, and even afterwards. That's why she was transformed into a living legend. This might have set the couple as the strongest and most important one in Europe, but behind closed doors, their marriage was falling apart.
Louis VII was disappointed Eleanor hadn’t conceived an heir to the throne, and she was kind of sick of having such a weak husband who didn’t really care for their personal ambitions. Based on the church’s rules of the time, she sent the pope a note stating her wishes to annul the marriage under the grounds of consanguinity. Another myth around her life is that the Pope, wanting to prevent the separation, actually locked them in a room so that they could solve their issues and make sure Louis got the heir he wanted. It kind of worked, since they had another daughter.
Still, she got the annulment she wanted and went back to Aquitaine, but she wasn’t going to stay there for much time. In 1152, she married Henry of Anjou, the heir of the English crown. He was 11 years younger than her (quite a considerable age at the time) and even more related to her that her former husband. Two years after the marriage, Henry became King Henry II and Eleanor consort Queen of England. They had nine children, five boys, and four girls, and, as if she wasn’t legendary enough, her eldest sons became two of the most iconic figures of English history, Richard Lionheart and John Lackland, his evil brother.
This was the peak of her life. She was even more powerful than before, she had assured her lineage in the throne, and was even able to continue with her political work as (a hidden) head of the country. Being as powerful as she was, she was determined to educate her new country and so, she became a sponsor of many poets and troubadours. While they used to be considered an entertainment for commoners, after they were summoned to court they created the tradition of courtly love poetry.
But that peace that reigned for years was going to be altered when her eldest sons decided to plot against their father to overthrow him. Knowing the strategies of their mother, they came to her for advice and support, but their schemes were discovered and the king decided to imprison her for sixteen years. When Henry died, her son Richard rescued her and made her his first hand and main adviser. But soon Richard set off to the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades and John, as hungry of power as his mother, attempted a rebellion against his brother, something that didn’t really succeed.
When the king died, he took the crown, but he knew that if he wanted to become as powerful as his parents, he had to set his mother apart from the core of the political activities. But as it was proven to be the pattern of the family, when Arthur, John's son, came to age, he plotted against his father, and knowing that his grandmother had an essential role in the country's politics (even when she was relegated), he took her captive until John saved her and put her in a safe place, in Fontevraud, France, where she died in 1204 at the age of 82, something impressive counting the lifespan of the time. In that way, the life of one of the most iconic monarchs in history ended. However, her story and deeds remain alive behind the image of the famous and important men around her.
Here are other characters of history worth knowing about. Take a look at them: