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.

Eliza Leslie: The Most Influential Cookbook Writer of the 19th Century

American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
Wikimedia // Public Domain

If it wasn't for Eliza Leslie, American recipes might look very different. Leslie wrote the most popular cookbook of the 19th century, published a recipe widely credited as being the first for chocolate cake in the United States, and authored fiction for both adults and children. Her nine cookbooks—as well as her domestic management and etiquette guides—made a significant mark in American history and society, despite the fact that she never ran a kitchen of her own.

Early Dreams

Born in Philadelphia on November 15, 1787, to Robert and Lydia Leslie, Eliza was an intelligent child and a voracious reader. Her dream of becoming a writer was nurtured by her father, a prosperous watchmaker, inventor, and intellectual who was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. She once wrote that "the dream of my childhood [was] one day seeing my name in print."

Sadly, her father’s business failed around the turn of the 19th century and he died in 1803. The family took in boarders to make ends meet, and as the oldest of five, Leslie helped her mother in the kitchen. To gain culinary experience, she attended Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cooking School in Philadelphia, the first school of its kind in the United States. Urged by her brother Thomas—and after fielding numerous requests for recipes from friends and family—she compiled her first book, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, in 1828. Notably, the book included the term cup cake, referring to Leslie's employment of a teacup as a measuring tool ("two large tea-cups full of molasses")—possibly the first-ever mention of a cup cake in print.

Seventy-Five Receipts was a hit, and was reprinted numerous times. Encouraged by this success—and by her publisher, Munroe & Francis—Leslie moved on to her true desire: writing fiction. She penned short stories and storybooks for young readers as well as adult fiction and won several awards for her efforts. One of her prize-winning short stories, the humorous "Mrs. Washington Potts," appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular 19th century magazine for which she also served as assistant editor. Leslie also contributed to Graham’s Magazine, the Saturday Gazette, and The Saturday Evening Post. At least one critic called her tales "perfect daguerreotypes of real life."

As much as Leslie loved writing fiction, however, it didn't always pay the bills. She wrote a second cookbook, Domestic French Cookery, in 1832, and achieved the pinnacle of her success in 1837 with Directions for Cookery. That work became the most beloved cookbook of the 1800s; it sold at least 150,000 copies and was republished 60 times by 1870. She offered pointers on procuring the best ingredients ("catfish that have been caught near the middle of the river are much nicer than those that are taken near the shore where they have access to impure food") and infused the book with wit. In a section discouraging the use of cold meat in soups, she wrote, "It is not true that French cooks have the art of producing excellent soups from cold scraps. There is much bad soup to be found in France, at inferior houses; but good French cooks are not, as is generally supposed, really in the practice of concocting any dishes out of the refuse of the table."

In The Taste of America, noted modern food historians John and Karen Hess called Directions for Cookery “one of the two best American cookbooks ever written," citing the book's precise directions, engaging tips, straightforward commentary, and diverse recipes—such as catfish soup and election cake—as the keys to its excellence.

Leslie is also credited with publishing America’s first printed recipe for chocolate cake, in her 1846 Lady’s Receipt Book. While chocolate had been used in baking in Europe as far back as the 1600s, Leslie’s recipe was probably obtained from a professional chef or pastry cook in Philadelphia. The recipe, which featured grated chocolate and a whole grated nutmeg, is quite different from most of today's chocolate cakes, with its strong overtones of spice and earthy, rather than sweet, flavors. (You can find the full recipe below.)

Later in life, while continuing to write cookbooks, Leslie edited The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, which included early publications by Edgar Allan Poe. She also edited her own magazine of literature and fashion, Miss Leslie’s Magazine. She wrote only one novel, 1848's Amelia; Or a Young Lady’s Vicissitudes, but once said that if she was to start her literary career over, she would have only written novels.

A Uniquely American Voice

Historians have argued that Leslie was successful because she crafted recipes to appeal to the young country’s desire for upward mobility as well as a uniquely American identity. At the time she began writing, women primarily used British cookbooks; Leslie appealed to them with a distinctly American work. (She noted in the preface to Seventy-Five Receipts, "There is frequently much difficulty in following directions in English and French Cookery Books, not only from their want of explicitness, but from the difference in the fuel, fire-places, and cooking utensils. ... The receipts in this little book are, in every sense of the word, American.")

Leslie included regional American dishes in her books, promoted the use of quality ingredients, and was the first to (sometimes) organize recipes by including ingredients at the beginning of each recipe instead of using a narrative form, setting the tone for modern recipe writing. Her books were considered a treasure trove of knowledge for young pioneer women who, frequently separated from their families for the first time, often relied on Leslie's works for guidance.

Unmarried herself, Leslie never managed her own kitchen, and often had others testing recipes for her. She maintained strong ties with her erudite, sophisticated family, and lived for a time with her brother Thomas while he was attending West Point. Another brother, Charles Leslie, was a well-regarded painter in England; her sister Anna was also an artist, and sister Patty was married to a publisher who produced some of Leslie’s work. As she got older, Leslie lived for years in the United States Hotel in Philadelphia, where she was something of a celebrity for her wit and strong opinions.

Leslie died on January 1, 1858. Many of her recipes are still used today, but it's likely she’d be most pleased to know that many of her short stories are available online. Modern readers can appreciate the totality of her work: the fiction writing that was her passion, though for which she was lesser known, and her culinary writing, which guided generations.

Eliza Leslie's Recipe for Chocolate Cake

From The Lady's Receipt Book:

CHOCOLATE CAKE.—Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready 14 ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon—mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,—a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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