Lessons on life and love according to Eleanor of Aquitaine—the only woman to be Queen of both France & England
Lessons from the life and legacy of one of history's most fascinating women; a new video premiering NOW: a short overview of Eleanor's life; & giveaways
This week, we’ll explore
A new video premiering NOW: A walk in the footsteps of Eleanor of Aquitaine
Lessons on life and love from one of history’s most fascinating women, Eleanor of Aquitaine
Recordings are now available for recent Civic Renaissance events: Are the Classics for Everyone? with Spencer Klavan, and Reviving American Civic Life with Francis Fukuyama
December Giveaway: Breakfast with Seneca
Premiering NOW: A walk in the footsteps of Eleanor of Aquitaine—one of history’s most interesting, but oft-forgotten, women
Lessons on life and love from Eleanor of Aquitaine, an overlooked yet fascinating leading lady of history
Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of the most fascinating and important—yet today oft-forgotten and overlooked—women in European history. To begin with, she is the only person (at least as far as I can tell) who was both queen of France and England.
867 years ago today, in fact—19 December, 1154—is the date of her ascension as Queen consort to the English throne.
On our New Grand Tour this summer—our month in Europe following in the footsteps of the great men and women that built our world, the topic of a book I’ve begun to write—we had the privilege of learning more about Eleanor by visiting her burial site, Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud in Western France.
And now that it’s almost Christmas, one of the most enjoyable and seasonally appropriate ways to learn more about Eleanor’s life is to watch the classic 1968 film A Lion in Winter—among the best Christmas movies out there, in this humble writer’s opinion. (This is how our family will be spending this evening!)
In A Lion in Winter, the endlessly glamorous and inimitable Katherine Hepburn plays Eleanor of Aquitaine, while Peter O’Toole plays her husband, King Henry II of England. It depicts the later years of their lives, during which the two larger-than-life figures founds themselves at war—literally. And Hepburn and O’Toole’s on-screen relationship—especially their blisteringly funny banter—make for one of the charming and entertaining in cinematic history.
But let’s return to the beginning: Eleanor was born in 1122 to William X, Duke of Aquitaine—a vast and exceptionally wealthy region in southern France.
From the very beginning of her life, Eleanor had every advantage and privilege. She was given the best education. She spoke four languages—including Poitou, the language native of the Aquitaine, as well as French and Latin—and was extensively educated in literature and philosophy.
The Aquitaine had a strong claim to be the cultural capital of Europe in this era. It set the tone for refinement, manners and luxury for the rest of the continent—including even the French Royal court, which sat in Paris. She was known as the Queen of the Troubadours—traveling poet-knights that embody the romanticism and chivalry of the Middle Ages.
In 1137, however, Eleanor’s life of freedom, sophistication and leisure was turned upside down.
Her father unexpectedly died, and suddenly—at fifteen years old—she became the wealthiest women in Europe, and, shortly after, the Queen of France.
Counterintuitively, becoming Queen of France was a down-grade from the sophisticated existence Eleanor had known up until that point. She was loathe to leave her life of luxury in the Aquitaine to assume the French throne, but leave she did. From the very beginning, she was unimpressed with the standard of living and surprised by the lack of refinement and and opulence to which she was accustomed in the Aquitaine. She took pains to improve the quality of life for the court in Paris, but to little avail.
Eleanor was also less than pleased that fate had brought her together with King Louis VII of France. She remained married to Louis for about 15 years—from August 1137 (and was coronated Dec 25 of that year) until 21 March 1152. While married to him, she travelled with Louis on one of the Crusade campaigns. These campaigns were spearheaded by the famous benedictine monk, Bernard of Clairvaux (who also foiled many of Eleanor’s attempts to polish and refine the French court).
Eleanor eventually managed to annul her first marriage to Louis and, two months later, instead married Henry Plantagenet, who was soon to become King of England.
Two years after her marriage to Henry, on 19 December 1154—867 years ago today—Eleanor became queen for a second time, this time of England (the rival, of course, of her prior husband Louis’ France).
Eleanor had eight children with Henry, including Richard the I of England, also known as Richard the Lionheart, who is most well-known for leading several crusades (Richard in fact spent very little of his monarchy actually in England).
Eleanor and Henry also had a son named John—who would one day become King of England, and a rather famously bad leader. King John alienated himself from the church and his barons, who eventually came together to force him to sign a document called the Magna Carta, among the most famous and important documents in the history of democracy.
Eleanor’s husband Henry Plantagenet (also known as Henry II of England), meanwhile, is best known to history for his dispute with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. With Henry representing the Crown and Thomas the Church, the two men fought for years over the relative precedent of English Society’s two most important institutions. Eventually, several knights allied with Henry brutally murdered Becket inside Canterbury Cathedral (the story goes that the knights did so after hearing Henry ask “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”) The popular reaction against Henry was swift and overwhelming, and Henry was ultimately forced to perform public penance, which included suffering physical blows at the hands of the monks of Canterbury Cathedral.
This story is eloquently told in the 1964 film, Becket, in which Peter O’Toole again plays Henry II. I highly commend it to your holiday watchlists!
Henry’s conflicts were not limited to Thomas Becket. His sons—with the help of their mother, Eleanor— allied with both France and Scotland to try and overthrow their father. They failed, and Henry had Eleanor imprisoned for supporting the plot against him.
Despite their tumultuous relationship, Eleanor is buried at Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud—situated in a region that was originally part of the Aquitaine—alongside her estranged husband, Henry. Her son Richard the Lionheart is also buried with them.
Interestingly enough, Eleanor’s effigy is not asleep like her husband and son around her. Instead, she is depicted reading a book—using her mind and exercising her will on history, even in the afterlife.
So, what can we learn from Eleanor’s remarkable life?
Eleanor was a woman of great intellect, as well as intense passions. She was loyal to her home region—the Aquitaine—above all. And she was an incredibly forceful personality. She was a strong woman in a man’s world, and she learned to use every resource and advantage at her disposal to pursue her goals. Her life and decisions also reflect the pitfalls of pursuing power at all cost. She pursued her ends at the expenses of anyone and anything that got in her way.
The film, A Lion in Winter, does a great job of showing this. Both Eleanor and Henry did not have good relationships with one another or their children. In a way, A Lion in Winter reveals what the HBO show Succession—a show about a wealthy and power-hungry family set in corporate America—poignantly depicts.
While Succession is set in a very different milieu, like A Lion in Winter, it reveals that hose willing to do anything to get power occasionally do get power, but often lose everything else along the way.
Eleanor is a remarkably important and fascinating figure who helped shape the world we live in today. And for that reason, it is worthwhile for us to remember and learn from her.
Based on this brief biographical sketch of Eleanor’s life and legacy, what is your impression of her? Is she Admirable? Condemnable? A bit of both?
Share with me your thoughts by writing to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’d love to hear from you!
Recordings available: Are the Classics for Everyone? with Spencer Klavan, and Reviving American Civic Life with Francis Fukuyama
We’ve had some wonderful discussions the last few weeks. I invite you to enjoy the recordings!
View Are the Classics for Everyone?, with Spencer Klaven, here:
View Reviving American Civic Life, with Francis Fukuyama, here:
December Giveaway: Breakfast with Seneca
For this month’s giveaway, I’m thrilled to be sending out THREE copies of a new book that explores how Stoic philosophy can enrich our lives.
In Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living, David Fideler explores how the time-tested principles of stoicism—including cultivating autonomy, self-ownership, and resilience—can help us navigate the maladies of the human condition. After all, the condition in which we find ourselves—at least, in its fundamentals—hasn’t changed much since Seneca and the Stoics wrote and lived thousands of years ago in the era of the Roman Empire.
To win a copy of this book, write to me at email@example.com with the subject line SENECA.
A quick note: I plan to be offline for the next several weeks, both as we celebrate the holidays and as we prepare to welcome our baby girl into the world. But please stay tuned for new content on the wisdom of the past, The Great Conversation, and beauty, goodness and truth coming to you early 2022!
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community!