11 Facts About Eleanor of Aquitaine

A drawing of what Eleanor of Aquitaine might have looked like circa 1150
A drawing of what Eleanor of Aquitaine might have looked like circa 1150
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Eleanor of Aquitaine was among the most powerful women of the 12th century. She controlled an extensive estate, became Queen of France and then England, and gave birth to one of England's most famed rulers, Richard the Lionheart. While her biography is now tangled up with myths and legends—even her date and place of birth are difficult to pin down—much of her legacy and influence survives. Here are 11 facts about Eleanor of Aquitaine.

1. Young Eleanor of Aquitaine was Europe’s most eligible bachelorette.

Born around 1122 or 1124 possibly in today’s southern France, Eleanor was named for her mother, the Duchess Aénor de Châtellerault. She was the eldest of three children. Her father—William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou—presided over one of the biggest holdings of land in France. It’s thought that from an early age she was educated in Latin, philosophy, and horseback riding. And when her younger brother died in 1130, Eleanor became the heir to a formidable amount of land and power.

When William X died in 1137 while on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the teenaged Eleanor suddenly became the Duchess of Aquitaine, a woman of major wealth—and a very eligible match. There was little time for her to mourn. As soon as news of her father’s death reached France, her marriage to Louis VII, son of the King of France, was arranged. The king dispatched 500 men to transport Eleanor to Paris for the wedding. Not long after their summer ceremony, the king fell ill and then died. By the end of the year his son was on the throne, and Eleanor was crowned Queen of France.

2. Her beauty was celebrated, but her appearance is a mystery.

It’s not hard to find contemporary accounts of Eleanor’s good looks. The French medieval poet Bernard de Ventadour declared her "gracious, lovely, the embodiment of charm," while Matthew Paris remarked on her "admirable beauty." Curiously, though, in all these celebrations of her fine features, not one person wrote down what she actually looked like. Her hair color, eye color, height, and face all remain a mystery. No art that has been definitively linked to her survives other than the effigy on her tomb—and the degree to which that resembles Eleanor's looks is unclear.

3. She didn't stay home during the Crusades.

When Louis VII answered the pope’s call for a Second Crusade to defend Jerusalem against the Muslims, Eleanor did not stay behind in France. Between 1147 and 1149, she traveled with her husband's party to Constantinople and then Jerusalem. (According to legend, she took along 300 ladies-in-waiting dressed as Amazons—but those tales have been debunked.)

Unfortunately, this was no romantic adventure for the royal couple. Louis and his headstrong queen were mismatched, and the strain between them culminated at the court of her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers at Antioch. Rumors of an incestuous infidelity between Eleanor of Aquitaine and her uncle, whose luxurious court thrilled her with its charms, darkened her reputation. She also made waves with her defiant support of her uncle’s plans for the crusade; he advised attacking Aleppo, while Louis preferred to continue to Jerusalem. Soon, Louis would force Eleanor to continue with him.

Ultimately, the Second Crusade was a debacle, culminating with the disastrous Siege of Damascus in 1148, which ended in a Muslim victory. Louis VII and the crusader army were sent home packing.

4. Her first marriage was annulled.

The royal marriage didn’t last much longer, its tensions furthered by the fact that Eleanor had yet to give birth to a male heir. The marriage was finally annulled in 1152. (The pair were granted the annulment on the grounds of consanguinity—the fact that they were technically related.) Eleanor kept her lands and was single again, but not for long. In May of that same year, she married Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. Two years later they were crowned the King and Queen of England.

5. She was a powerful Queen of England.

Eleanor was no less strong-willed as the Queen of England than she had been as the Queen of France. She refused to stay home and idle away her hours. She traveled extensively to protect the kingdom that was then being consolidated by Henry, giving the monarchy a presence across its newly united cultures. When her husband was away, she helped direct government and ecclesiastical affairs. And in contrast to her listless marriage to Louis VII—with whom she had two daughters—she secured her position by having eight children, including five sons and three daughters.

6. She had a historically bad break-up.

However, relations between Eleanor and Henry soured after years of his open adultery and frequent absences. They separated in 1167, and she moved to her lands in Poitiers. The distance didn’t change her opinion of Henry; when their sons revolted against him in 1173, she didn't waver in choosing sides, backing her children over her husband. When the revolt failed, it had catastrophic consequences for her freedom, with Henry making her his prisoner.

7. She spent over a decade under house arrest.

After supporting her sons in their revolt, Eleanor was captured while attempting to find safety in France. She spent between 15 and 16 years under house arrest in various English castles, and was almost entirely absent from the country's activity (although there were rumors that she had a hand in the death of Rosamund, King Henry's beloved mistress). On special occasions like Christmas, Henry would allow her to show her face, but otherwise she was kept invisible and powerless. Only in 1189, when Henry died, was she fully freed.

8. She was most powerful as a widow.

Her son Richard, who became king following Henry's death, was the one who freed his mother. After her years of house arrest, she did not come out ready for retirement. Instead, she threw herself into preparing for the coronation of her son, who would be known as Richard the Lionheart. Before he was crowned King of England, she journeyed all over his future kingdom to forge alliances and foster goodwill. When Richard set out on the Third Crusade, Eleanor took charge as regent, fending off her power-hungry son John. She even paid Richard's ransom when he was imprisoned by the duke of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor, traveling there herself to bring him home to England.

Richard then died in 1199, leaving John to become king. Eleanor, then in her seventies, kept at her commitment to the kingdom’s stability, including going to Spain to arrange a pivotal marriage for her granddaughter Blanche of Castile to the heir to the French throne. She also gave John crucial support against a rebellion led by her grandson Arthur.

9. A vase she owned still survives.

A vase that once belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine
A vase that once belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine
tnchanse ~ Tom Hansen, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (cropped)

Out of all the tokens of wealth and royalty that touched her life, only one artifact that once belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine survives. She received an elegant rock crystal vessel from her grandfather William IX Duke of Aquitaine, who had likely been given it by the ruler of Imad al-dawla of Saragossa. In 1137, she gave it as a wedding gift to her future husband, Louis VII. The king’s advisor Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis then convinced Louis VII to add it to his abbey’s treasury (thus keeping it in French royal possession after their brief marriage). Now visitors to the Louvre in Paris can view the rare object, where, despite its series of owners, it’s still known as the “Eleanor” vase.

10. She has an extensive legacy in pop culture.

Eleanor of Aquitaine has hardly faded from the public eye. Alternately depicted as a temptress, warrior, protective mother, and powerful queen, interpretations of Eleanor reflect how her history has been retold over time. In Shakespeare's 16th-century The Life and Death of King John, she is an aged but sharp and sometimes sultry force. She recurs in screen versions of Robin Hood (2010) and the Ivanhoe series. Katharine Hepburn bristled with fiery energy in the role of Eleanor in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter, based on the play by James Goldman. She even has a seat at a major work of feminist art—there's a place set for her in Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, now at the Brooklyn Museum.

11. Her bones are gone, but her tomb survives.

Tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England in the church at Fontevraud Abbey
Tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England in the church at Fontevraud Abbey
Martin Cooper, Flickr // CC BY-2.0 (cropped)

Having outlived all of her husbands and most of her children, Eleanor ended her days at Fontevraud Abbey in France. She died there in 1204 in her eighties. Remarkably, her 13th-century effigy tomb survives, depicting Eleanor reclining on a bed, a crown upon her head and a devotional book in her hands. She seems to be studiously ignoring the effigies of her husband Henry II and son Richard the Lionheart on either side of her.

Her bones were once interred in the abbey's crypt. But like many of the country’s churches during the French Revolution, the abbey was deconsecrated. The crypt's bones were exhumed, dispersed, and never recovered.

8 Explorers Who Mysteriously Disappeared (and Some Who’ve Been Found)

A statue of Gaspar Corte-Real
A statue of Gaspar Corte-Real

By their very nature, explorers often push the boundaries of survival in the name of glory, so it’s not a great surprise that many have gone missing in the course of their adventures. Over the years, the quest to uncover the truth of what happened to them has captivated the public, historians, and journalists alike, leading to numerous theories and some surprising finds.

1. Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real

The youngest of three Portuguese brothers, Gaspar Corte-Real was a keen explorer who undertook an expedition to Greenland in 1500. He embarked on a second expedition in 1501 with his older brother Miguel, in which they claimed Greenland for the crown before apparently sailing on to reach Newfoundland or Labrador. At that point, Gaspar sent two of his three ships back to Portugal, including the one captained by his brother. Gaspar’s ship continued its explorations, but was never seen again.

In 1502, Miguel Corte-Real, learning of his brother’s disappearance, led a search party to the area where Gaspar was believed lost, but he found nothing, and his ship too went missing. The oldest Corte-Real brother, Vasco Annes, begged the king to let him mount a further search party to find his lost brothers, but the king refused—perhaps unwilling to risk the embarrassment of losing a third Corte-Real.

The disappearances have remained a mystery for centuries. But in the 1910s, Edmund Burke Delabarre, a psychology professor at Brown University, put forward a new theory about the inscriptions on the famous Dighton Rock in Massachusetts. The rock is covered with petroglyphs that were first noted way back in 1680, and since then scholars have proposed numerous theories about who carved them and why. Delabarre suggested that the inscription was in fact abbreviated Latin, and reads: “I, Miguel Cortereal, 1511. In this place, by the will of God, I became a chief of the Indians.” This astounding theory implies that the explorer may have continued his travels into America and survived at least nine years in the New World. If his inscription is to be believed, he made quite a success of his new life.

2. Jean-Francois De Galaup

La Perouse's last letter
La Perouse's last letter

Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse, was an accomplished sea captain. In 1785, inspired by the successes of Captain James Cook, the French king Louis XVI sent La Pérouse on an expedition to explore the Pacific. The party was made up of two ships—La Boussole and L'Astrolabe—manned by 225 crewmembers. The voyage was expected to last four years. La Pérouse kept scrupulous records of his findings during the trip, mapping coastlines, taking specimens, and making observations of the peoples and places he encountered. (Thankfully, he sent his journals back to France, where they were preserved for posterity and later published to great success.) Having successfully sailed through the Pacific, taking in Japan, the Philippines, and Tonga, La Pérouse arrived at Botany Bay in Australia and was witnessed by British settlers sailing out of the bay in March 1788, the last sighting of the expedition. By 1791, when no communication had been received from La Pérouse for some time, a search party was dispatched from France—but no trace of the expedition was found.

The puzzle seemed to be solved in 1826 when an Irish sailor, Peter Dillon, came across something intriguing while exploring the Solomon Islands. The locals had a number of European swords, which Dillon thought might have belonged to La Pérouse, and told of sighting two large ships that had broken up on the reefs there. In 1964 the wreck of La Boussole was at last discovered on the reefs of Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands, confirming that this indeed was where the expedition had reached its sad end. However, in 2017 an Australian researcher found an 1818 account by an Indian castaway that seems to suggest La Pérouse was killed by locals on a small island off Northern Australia, perhaps in a later leg of his voyage after constructing a schooner from the remains of La Boussole.

3. Naomi Uemura

Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura in 1974
Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura in 1974
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Modern explorer and adventurer Naomi Uemura was part of the first Japanese team to scale Mount Everest in 1970. (He would have been the first Japanese person to reach the summit if his impeccable manners hadn’t made him relinquish the lead to allow his elder, Teruo Matsuura, the honor of going first.) Uemura completed many amazing feats during his lifetime, including climbing the highest mountain on each of the world’s continents solo, trekking across the Arctic to become the first person to reach the North Pole solo, and rafting down the Amazon. In February 1984, Uemura set off to scale Mount McKinley in Alaska in an attempt to become the first person to achieve a solo winter climb of the treacherous peak. Uemura reached the peak, but that is all we know, as he never made it off the mountain. Rescue parties searched for the adventurer, but all that was found was some equipment and his diary hidden in a snow cave. To date his body has not been found, and the exact circumstances of his tragic death remain a mystery.

4. Percy Fawcett

British soldier, archaeologist and explorer Percy Fawcett
British soldier, archaeologist, and explorer Percy Fawcett
Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the last 90 years, some 13 expeditions and over 100 people have perished in futile attempts to discover the fate of British explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. Fawcett was the very epitome of a dashing explorer: He had a distinguished military career before following his sense of adventure to help create maps of the vast and uncharted Amazon jungle. During the 1920s, he departed on a number of ambitious expeditions in an attempt to locate the fabled lost city of El Dorado, which he dubbed the city of “Z.”

In 1925 Fawcett set off into the Mato Grosso region of Brazil with his eldest son, Jack, and his son’s best friend, Raleigh Rimell. The trio plowed into the jungle, covering up to 15 miles in a day in their zeal to find the rumored riches of the lost city. By May 29 the group sent their native guides back with their latest letters, including one to Fawcett’s wife, Nina, in which he wrote: “You need have no fear of any failure.” This missive was the last thing heard of Fawcett, and after two years with no sign, the Royal Geographical Society sent the first of many search parties. That no trace was discovered of Fawcett only served to keep the many rumors surrounding his fate alive.

Researchers have since come forward with many different theories: Fawcett had “gone native” and was living among a remote tribe; he succumbed to malaria or a jaguar attack; he deliberately disappeared in order to set up a mystical commune. But perhaps the most believable version of his fate was obtained by journalist David Grann, who retraced Fawcett’s steps in 2005 and discovered the Kalapalo Indians had an oral history indicating that Fawcett had ignored their advice and walked right into the domain of a hostile tribe who, in all likelihood, killed him.

5. George Bass

George Bass was an English surgeon who, inspired by tales of Pacific exploration, took to the seas as a ship’s surgeon. He embarked on many expeditions, but the one for which he is most remembered is his voyage to Australia with Matthew Flinders in the 1790s. The pair mapped large swathes of the Australian coast, and Bass identified the body of water between Australia and Tasmania that was later named the Bass Strait in his honor. Despite his success as an explorer, Bass felt under-appreciated and became envious of the merchants who were making their fortunes shipping goods from Europe to the new settlements in Australia. Consequently, he abandoned his cartography and set himself up as a trader. Unfortunately he was a little late to the party and when he returned to Australia, his ship laden with goods, he discovered many others had beaten him to the punch and the market was saturated with British products.

Undeterred, he decided to try his luck in South America and set sail with his bounteous cargo in 1803. Bass and his ship were never seen again, and their fate remains an enigma. Rumors persisted that Bass made it to Chile or Peru, where he was captured by the Spaniards and forced to work in the mines there as a slave until his death.

6. George Mallory

George Mallory was a British explorer and mountaineer who captured the public’s imagination after he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest and he responded: “Because it’s there.” As one of the foremost mountaineers of his day, Mallory was an obvious choice to take part in the first British expeditions to the as-yet-unconquered Everest throughout the early 1920s—well before the benefit of modern materials, technology, and weather forecasting.

In June 1924, George Mallory and fellow mountaineer Andrew Irvine set off for an attempt on the summit. Another member of the expedition glimpsed them climbing at over 26,800 feet, but that was the last time they were seen alive. That the pair perished in their attempt was certain, but debate raged over whether they had become the first to reach the summit and died on their way down, or if they died having never reached the top. Various pieces of the puzzle emerged over time—in the 1930s, Irvine’s ice axe was discovered at 27,700 feet, and in 1991 a 1920s oxygen canister was found. Finally, in 1999, an expedition discovered Mallory’s frozen body on the mountainside, clearly the victim of a terrible fall. The climbers carefully buried the body where they found it, but sadly no trace was ever found of Andrew Irvine.

It was hoped that Mallory’s camera might be found—an artifact that could prove for certain if he made it to the summit—but unfortunately the camera remains missing. Tantalizingly, Mallory had stated that he was going to carry a photograph of his wife and leave it at the summit, and when Mallory’s body was found the photograph was not there, providing yet another clue that perhaps this great mountaineer had conquered the world’s tallest mountain.

7. Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin circa 1830
Sir John Franklin circa 1830
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the foremost explorers of the Victorian era was Sir John Franklin, who had captained a number of expeditions to the Arctic in search of the Northwest passage. Franklin succeeded in mapping large areas of coastline, identifying many new botanical specimens and furthering our knowledge of the unforgiving Arctic weather during his first two expeditions. Some 20 years after he had retired, Franklin was tempted back to make one final effort to find the Northwest Passage. In 1845, when Franklin was 60 years old, he set off with 129 crewmembers in HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The ships made it to Baffin Island, where they were sighted by a whaling ship, but after that the ships were seen no more.

With no word from the expedition, numerous rescue missions were sent out to try and discover their fate. Finally, in 1859, after a tip-off from local Inuit hunters, a team led by Francis McClintock found objects and remains from the group on King William Island. It became clear that the two ships had become hopelessly trapped in the sea ice. A note was found which indicated that the ships had finally been abandoned in April 1848, having been stuck fast in the ice since September 1846. The note also revealed that Franklin had died in June 1847, though no cause was given. Scientific analysis of the mummified remains of some of the sailors indicated they may have died from lead poisoning, likely caused by the lead used to seal their canned food. Historians argue that those who did not die from contaminated supplies probably perished in the freezing conditions as they tried to march across the ice to safety. In September 2016, archaeologists announced the discovery of the wrecked remains of HMS Terror off the coast of King William Island, which historians hope will provide yet more clues about the terrible fate of the stranded crew and their desperate struggle for survival.

8. Ludwig Leichhardt

Ludwig Leichhardt, German explorer
Ludwig Leichhardt, German explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1848, German scientist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt led an attempt to cross Australia’s desert interior from east to west. Leichhardt was already an explorer of some renown, having completed two earlier expeditions across Australia—on one occasion, he had been given up for dead after he spent 18 months in the Australian interior, only to show up very much alive and with copious notes and discoveries.

Leichhardt set off for his final mission accompanied by seven companions, 50 bullocks, 20 mules, seven horses, and a huge amount of supplies and equipment. Despite all of that, the only trace ever found of the missing expedition was a small brass plaque inscribed with Leichhardt’s name and the year 1848, which had been attached to his rifle. The lack of any further evidence of the bodies or equipment from the expedition has proved an enduring mystery, and things aren’t made any clearer by the fact that no one is sure which route they took or how far through Australia’s vast interior they got.

An 1852 search party reported that they had found an abandoned campsite with a tree with the letter L carved into it, a mark Leichhardt reportedly frequently left to indicate his route. Over the years a number of further searches uncovered more trees inscribed with an L, but their disparate locations did little to solve the riddle of the progress and fate of the explorers. The public was so intrigued by the mysterious disappearance that numerous rumors were published in the newspapers, inevitably leading to sensationalist stories of the group dying of thirst, being murdered by Aboriginal people, or even of Leichhardt surviving into old age living in the bush. However, until some concrete evidence or remains are discovered, it is likely that the truth will remain elusive.

This story first ran in 2016.

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