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.

Hundreds of 17th-Century Case Notes of Bizarre Medical Remedies Have Been Published Online

Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As medical texts, the writings of Simon Forman and Richard Napier aren't very useful. The so-called "doctors," regarded as celebrities in 16th- and 17th-century England, prescribed such treatments as nursing puppies and wearing dead pigeons as shoes. But as bizarre pieces of history, the 80,000 case notes the two quacks left behind are fascinating. The BBC reports that 500 of them have now been digitized and published online.

Forman and Napier were active in the English medical scene from the 1590s to the 1630s. They treated countless patients with remedies that straddled the line between medicine and mysticism, and their body of work is considered one of the largest known historical medical collections available for study today. After transcribing the hard-to-read notes and translating them into accessible English, a team of researchers at Cambridge University has succeeded in digitizing a fraction of the records.

By visiting the project's website, you can browse Forman and Napier's "cures" for venereal disease ("a plate of lead," "Venice turpentine," and blood-letting), pox (a mixture of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer dung), and breastfeeding problems (using suckling puppies to get the milk flowing). Conditions that aren't covered in today's medical classes, such as witchcraft, spiritual possession, and "chastity diseases," are also addressed in the notes.

All 500 digitized case notes are now available to view for free. And in case you thought horrible medical diagnoses were left in the 17th century, here some more terrifying remedies from relatively recent history.

[h/t BBC]

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tried Solving a Real Mystery

An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
Sidney Paget, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On September 1, 1907, the New York Times wrote:

It looks as if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will eventually come to be considered an even greater detective than he made out Sherlock Holmes to be.

Doyle had found himself embroiled in a case that captured worldwide media attention for the fact that he, and not his famous sleuth, was trying to solve it. In 1906, a man named George Edalji was freed from prison after being sentenced for the crime of animal cruelty. He stood accused of injuring horses and cattle in Great Wyrley, and also of writing letters threatening to do the same to women. Upon his release, he wrote to Doyle asking for the celebrated author’s help in proving his innocence.

Doyle, who typically turned down such requests, was grieving over his wife's death and was eager for a distraction. He suspected Edalji’s Indian heritage was partly to blame for his conviction, as the Staffordshire police were believed to be racially discriminatory and the physical evidence was flimsy. (Another horse had even been attacked while Edalji was in prison.)

Doyle’s theory of the man’s innocence was largely dependent on his eyesight. In a remarkably Holmes-esque observation during their first meeting, Doyle noted Edalji held his newspaper close to his face. Since the animal mutilations had taken place at night and the criminal would have had to navigate a series of obstacles, he figured Edalji’s vision was too poor for the accusations to make sense.

Once Doyle took up his cause, Edalji became a symbol for injustice. Letters poured in, both to Doyle and to the Daily Telegraph, who had published his argument of Edalji’s innocence. The Scottish writer J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) wrote to say, “I could not doubt that at all events Edalji had been convicted without any evidence worthy of the name.”

Not everyone was convinced. The chief constable, George Anson, did not appreciate Doyle inserting himself into what police considered a closed case. Doyle was not simply posturing as an amateur sleuth: he was a pest, bombarding Anson almost daily with letters questioning their investigation, offering alternative theories, and using his celebrity to keep the case in the newspapers. Since Edalji had already been freed, his intention was to get some kind of financial compensation for the wrongful conviction. Anson responded unkindly, dismissing Doyle’s ideas and delivering sharp retorts.

Doyle was a “contemptible brute,” Anson remarked.

But the author would not be dissuaded, even when an anonymous letter had been delivered to him that was threatening in tone and insisted Edalji was the guilty party. It led him to believe the guilty party was worried enough to try and shut Doyle’s efforts down. By this point, he had isolated his suspicions to Royden Sharp, a former sailor who was said to be aggressive and once showed off a horse lancet capable of inflicting the wounds seen in the injured animals.

Doyle’s actions, the anonymous correspondent wrote, were “to run the risk of losing kidneys and liver.”

Doyle would later learn the letter was not written by a suspect, but instead commissioned by an unlikely tormentor: Constable Anson.

The officer had become so aggrieved with Doyle that he believed forging this letter would either discourage the author or send him on a wild goose chase. In recently discovered records that went up for auction in 2015, Anson even expressed glee that he had fooled “Sherlock Holmes.”

Despite Anson’s attempts to embarrass Doyle, the author had too large a platform for the Home Office to ignore. In 1907, they pardoned Edalji of the mutilation crimes, which allowed him to return to work as a solicitor. But they refused to apologize or offer any restitution.

Doyle was frustrated by their stubborn reaction, but his efforts had one crucial impact on British law: the publicity surrounding Edalji led to the creation of an official Court of Appeals, easing the process for future defendants.

Though Doyle won over the court of public opinion, he failed to solve the case: Sharp was not seriously investigated by police. Whoever had stalked the horses, cows, and sheep during those nights in Great Wyrley has never been identified.

This story was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

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