What to do about a problem like Eleanor? I am sure her husband, King Henry II of England, thought about that a lot. I think the reason we are still so fascinated with Eleanor over 800 years after her death is because of the trouble and scandal she caused in her lifetime. One of the wealthiest heiresses of her time and a celebrated beauty, she was married off to the future King Louis of France, who was her opposite in disposition. She loved music, poetry, wit, and had a sensuous spirit in a time when women were expected to be virtuous. King Louis had been promised to the Church for the beginning part of his life and therefore made a pious and monkish king. They could not have been less suited for each other. Eleanor scandalized Europe by going on Crusade with her husband, even supposedly riding dressed as Amazons with her women. Eleanor only produced girls for Louis and so they were divorced. Little did Louis know that Eleanor would be secretly married to the soon to be King of England, Henry II, a short time afterwards (technically as Louis’s vassal Henry was supposed to ask permission to marry Eleanor, which he did not. Poor Louis, ignored on all fronts). Nearly a decade younger than his wife, Henry was equal to Eleanor in his fiery temperament and sexual appetite. This did not lead to a happy marriage in the end. Eleanor openly encouraged her sons (the young king Henry, Richard, John, most notably) to rebel against their father. In retaliation, Henry locked Eleanor away, under house arrest for a large portion of his reign. She was only freed when Henry died (supposedly of a broken heart after learning that his favorite son, John, had gone against him) and her favorite, Richard the Lionheart, became king. Perhaps even more impressive is that Eleanor lived to be 81 years old, finally dying in 1204. In an age where most men and women would be happy to live to half that age (women had notoriously short lives, especially vulnerable in childbirth, which Eleanor survived ten times), Eleanor had outlived several of her children.
For more information about the amazing queen of both France and England, check out the sublime The Lion in Winter with Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor. It is one of my favorite movies and Hepburn inhabits all of Eleanor’s virtues and flaws. She is perfection, simple as that. I also recommend Alison Weir’s Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life.