I always think of her as the first feminist, for what does it mean to be a feminist after all? For me, being feminist means fighting for equal rights and duties, for having the same opportunities as men and reaching out for them without a trace of doubt…and that’s what Eleanor of Aquitaine did, back in the 12thcentury. A woman much ahead of her time, she wanted to have it all, and was never afraid to take bold steps or to act in what were then considered to be “unwomanly” ways. She was more educated than most men, reckless in love, had several children who were mostly devoted to her, fought for power and held it and lived through a whole century to her eighties in an age when people rarely survived their forties. She was by all accounts a fighter for equality in an era dominated by men, many centuries before the word even appeared. But the feminist spirit was undoubtedly there.
Duchess of Aquitaine
Eleanor’s exact date of birth is not known, but it must have been between 1122 and 1124. She was the eldest daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine who had no male heirs, so from an early age she was the heiress of the richest Duchy in the kingdom, a land of fertile valleys home to the vineyards that even today produce the famous Bordeaux wine. Most stories I have read about her begin in her early teens, shortly before her father died on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago (St. James) de Compostela, something very usual at the time when people sought to expiate their sins through these pilgrimages.
As a young girl she was beautiful but also clever. She had an education rarely bestowed on girls at the time, and was knowledgeable in several areas, from Maths and Astronomy to poetry and music, excelling at the troubadour love songs. As heiress to the Duchy she was also rich, which made her a desirable bride. At the time it was not rare to see young heiresses being taken away and forced to marry their kidnappers against their will, so her father was in some hurry to find her a suitable husband. Finally her marriage was arranged to Louis, the heir to the French throne, and soon after becoming Duchess of Aquitaine – on the death of her father – she was married and left her sunny country and her happy court – suitably called “the court of love” – for the colder North.
Queen of France and Crusader
Eleanor was said to be a sensuous woman and her husband, although deeply in love with her, was no match for her. Still, at first, they lived through some happy times, and when her husband the King of France decided to go on a Crusade to Jerusalem, she saw an opportunity for adventure and immediately said she would come with him.
Today we cannot imagine how it must have been to cross the whole of Europe and the middle East until the Holy Land back in those days; it took long months to get there, but of course on the way they stopped at the best castles, being entertained by the local nobility. Eleanor saw this as an adventure and did not look back. It was, in fact, an exciting time, and as the crusaders crossed Europe more and more men would join so that at a time they reached a total number of 100. All the way there were tournaments and entertainments and even of the King had some misgivings about the state of luxury they travelled in, the Queen would not have it any other way.
There were of course some battles on the way, as in Asia Minor with the Turks, where the French scored a great victory that cheered them as to their success in freeing the Holy Land. But there were also ambushes by the Arabs and great loss of lives that showed this was not just a pleasure trip but something much more serious – and dangerous.
After surviving many adventures, the depleted French army came to Antioch, a city where Eleonor’s Uncle Raymond ruled. He was a handsome man and his palace looked like Paradise to Eleanor after a tiresome and dangerous journey – she could see beautiful fountains, colourful flowers, cypress trees and olives and vineyards and the palace had all the comforts she could wish for. Soon it was rumoured that Eleanor and her Uncle were living a passionate love affair, to such an extent that her husband had to resort to force to make her leave the city, something she was refusing to do. Malicious gossip went as far as to relate her to Saladin, the commander of the Saracen armies, and all of this contributed for the downfall of her marriage. She was now certain she did not want to stay married to the King of France and he could not convince her otherwise. His advisors were also shocked at her behaviour, and the fact that she had not given the king a male heir – only two daughters – much contributed for the royal couple to seek an annulment.
Queen of England
It is said that, even before the end of her marriage, Eleanor had found a new love, in a man more than ten years her junior, something uncommon at the time: he was Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Normandy, who through his mother aspired to the throne of England. The story goes that as soon as she met him, she knew she had found her match. As for him, he was dazzled by this beautiful, powerful and clever woman, who supported his ambitions of becoming King of England. They became lovers and as soon as she was free from her first marriage they were joined in matrimony. She had meanwhile regained her Duchy of Aquitaine which made her a very powerful woman.
As Henry sailed off to conquer his throne Eleanor gave birth to a boy, the first of their many children, and after some time she joined him, and they began their reign as king and queen of England.
We might end the story here if it were not for the fact that Eleanor and Henry did not live happily ever after. Theirs was a passionate relationship with many quarrels and reconciliations, turned sour over the years because of Henry’s many infidelities that Eleanor never accepted nor forgave. Especially in the case of his most beloved mistress, Rosamund Clifford, who is said to have been put to death by Eleanor, leading to her imprisonment by the King. An imprisonment that lasted for sixteen years and only ended when her favourite son, the famous Richard the Lionheart, succeeded the throne upon his father’s death and immediately ordered his beloved mother’s release. Much against her will, Richard, whose dream was to conquer Jerusalem for Christianity, soon left on a crusade, leaving her as Regent. She ruled England for several years, while he was away in the Holy Land and during his imprisonment in a German castle when he was returning home; she raised the necessary money to ransom him – a true King’s ransom – and when she finally thought she could rest Richard was suddenly killed by an arrow during a siege. The only heir left to the English throne was by now her youngest son John, whom she knew was not fit to be a king, but still she supported him as much as she could. I her early eighties she still made an epic journey, from Castile through the Pyrenees, taking her granddaughter Blanche to France to marry its king, thus keeping a firm hold on European politics.
The last journey
I hope by now you agree with me in finding Eleanor of Aquitaine a truly remarkable woman. She would have been an amazing woman at any time, let alone in her own, eight hundred years ago…she would not abide by the rules, seeking always to make her own; she demanded her rights as any man would; she was educated, a shrewd politician, a talented poet and a lover of romance, a liberated woman if ever there was one. A ruler in her own right, who demanded faithfulness in a time when women meekly accepted their husband’s infidelities; a mother who fought for her sons keeping their throne in troubled times, and never failed in her duty to her native Duchy and her adopted England.
After her exhausting trip to France Eleanor retired to Fontevraud Abbey, where shocked by her son John’s deeds she took the veil, dying sometime after. She was buried beside the husband she had first loved and then hated, and the son she had adored, the great hero Richard the Lionheart. A woman of great ambition and loves, an indomitable lady who made her choices and lived life as she saw fit; fearless, adventurer and brave on one side, a romantic poet on the other; capable of great love but also of bitter revenge. This was Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the women I admire the most – a source of inspiration to us all.