Proto-Feminisn in 12th Century Western Europe: This is Your Life ; Eleanor of Aquitaine, c1124 to 1204

This week, I am offering my readers a supermarket ‘Three for the price of One’ offer. My first two  entries this week have been on a major battle (Towton), and English Common Law (Inquest of Sheriffs). By way of contrast, I shall now analyse the political impact of a major 12th century ruler: Eleanor of Aquitaine. Today, 1st April 2011, is the 807th anniversary of the death of this great queen.

Eleanor’s political career lasted from 1137 to 1204. Her political tenure lasted an extraordinary 67 years! This would be remarkable in the 21st century, let alone during the medieval period. It encapsulates many of the great political events of the 12th century; but it is as an early force for feminism that Eleanor of Aquitaine should perhaps be best remembered.

  • Eleanor was probably born in 1124 to William, 10th Duke of Aquitaine, and his wife Alienor. The aristocratic couple had two other children, a son, William, and a younger daughter, Petronilla. The young William sadly died in childhood, but this was a boost for Eleanor, as it meant she was the heiress to the vast Aquitaine dukedom, on the death of her father in 1137.
  • Eleanor’s wealth would make her a very desirable match in the 12th century aristocratic marriage market, and one would have thought that Eleanor would have settled down to the life of a dutiful, but essentially submissive, wife of a major ruler. This was not Eleanor’s view of her destiny: she was determined to assert her own authority, and in so doing, she would be adopting what we now recognise as a feminist stance. Eleanor demonstrated her independence of spirit by marrying King Louis VII of France in the same year as her father’s death. The royal couple had two daughters, but no sons. They divorced in 1152, and conventional wisdom has it that Louis ‘The Pious’ initiated divorce proceedings because Eleanor had not born him sons. This has a ring of truth, as it reflects that king’s piously sanctimonious attitude; but one feels that Eleanor herself was tired of her holier –than-thou husband, and wanted to follow her own political ambitions.
  • Once again demonstrating her vigour, Eleanor married Henry, future King of England, immediately after her divorce in 1152. Their marriage was to be one of the cornerstones of the mighty Angevin Empire. The royal couple had a large family – four sons and three daughters.  This dynastic success helped stabilise Henry II’s rule in England; yet Eleanor did more to assert herself than simply by guaranteeing the Angevin succession. Eleanor acted as Henry’s Regent, helping him to govern his vast empire, especially in the first twenty years of Henry’s long reign. As Queen of England, Eleanor issued writs to the sheriffs, and collaborated with Henry’s justicars (notably Robert Earl of Leicester, and Richard de Lucy). Nor was Eleanor’s political authority confined to England. After the birth of her final child, John, in December 1167, Eleanor governed Aquitaine virtually single-handedly till 1174. One can only regard Eleanor in these years as a dynamic medieval ruler, in no sense subordinate or deferential to a patriarchal political structure: in short, the very epitome of political feminism.
  • Virtually all rulers make at least one mistake. Even Henry II himself made errors in handling Becket; but Eleanor’s major mistake was to affect her fortunes more severely.  Eleanor gave excessive support to her sons in their rebellion against their father Henry II (Eleanor’s husband) in the Great Rebellion of 1173-1175. Henry showed real leadership qualities, both in crushing the rebellion, and then displaying magnanimity to his former enemies in the aftermath of the Rebellion. Unfortunately, Henry’s generosity did not extend to his wife, and Eleanor spent the rest of Henry’s reign under virtual house arrest.
  • Fifteen years incarceration would have dampened the political spirit of most medieval rulers; but Eleanor was made of sterner stuff. When Henry II died, in 1189, Eleanor emerged from her political confinement to assist her son,  King Richard I. Eleanor was effectively ruler of the vast Angevin Empire between 1189 and 1194, while Richard was absent from the Angevin Empire, both on the Third Crusade, and during his  subsequent imprisonment. At the mature age of 65, Eleanor took up the ‘reigns’ of government. As Vicereine of the mighty Angevin Empire, Eleanor had a new seal struck, describing herself as ‘Queen by the grace of God’. Queen Eleanor issued charters, with a ‘civil service’ chancellery of at least half a dozen clerks. This was political feminism , not just in theory, but also in practice. Eleanor’s personal courage matched her political mettle. In the winter of 1194, when she was 70 years old, Queen Eleanor made the  arduous journey to Cologne, with her justicar, Archbishop Hubert Walter, to pay the first ransom instalment to the greedy Emperor of Germany, to release her son King Richard I from his captivity.
  • When Eleanor finally died, at the elderly age of 80, on 1st April 1204, the Angevin Empire lost a worthy heroine. It is no accident that the Angevin Empire disintegrated within ten years of Eleanor’s death; yet few issues are clear-cut in History. Eleanor’s queenship may not have ensured the long term survival of the Angevin Empire; but it did ensure that feminism would endure over time, even within an essentially patriarchal political structure. One feels that Eleanor would have been pleased to have bequeathed such a political and social legacy to posterity.
  • For those interested in finding out more about Eleanor, I would recommend Professor Ralph Turner’s recent biography: Eleanor of Aquitaine, published by Yale University Press, (2009).
  • Finally, as usual, I shall conclude this blog with a question (though this time there will be no prize!) I have written this blog on 1st April, because that is  the day and month when I think that  Eleanor of Aquitaine died. What is the alternative date for her death?
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Filed under Angevins, British Kings and Queens, Famous women, Feminism, Henry II, History, Medieval History, Sex discrimination, Women's Rights

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