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10 Unexpected Ways Eleanor of Aquitaine Was a Pioneer

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen
Feature image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a remarkable figure in medieval European history. Born in 1122, she was the daughter of William X, Duke of Aquitaine. Later, she became a queen consort of both France and England. Eleanor’s life was marked by her extraordinary intelligence, beauty, and strong-willed personality. Those things set her apart from the typical women of her time—and made her memorable to us even today.

Eleanor’s most significant impact was her role as a queen and a mother. She married King Louis VII of France in 1137. Then, after their marriage was annulled, she went on to marry King Henry II of England in 1152. Her marriages helped shape the political landscape of Western Europe forever after. They also contributed to the complex web of alliances and conflicts that defined the era.

Eleanor’s influence extended beyond her marriages, too. She was a patron of the arts and played a key role in the development of courtly love and troubadour culture. She was also instrumental in the administration of her husband’s vast domains and was known for her skill in diplomacy. Today, her legacy endures as a symbol of the powerful and independent women of the Middle Ages. And in this list, we’ll take a long look at that impactful legacy. History buffs, clock in! We’ve got ten surprising ways in which Eleanor of Aquitaine was a true medieval pioneer!

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10 Trailblazing Queen of Two Kingdoms

The Court of Love – Eleanor of Aquitaine – European History – Part 2 – Extra History

Eleanor of Aquitaine was undoubtedly a pioneer in her role as queen. She married King Louis VII of France and later King Henry II of England. Doing so allowed her to become queen of two major European kingdoms—an absolutely unheard-of achievement both then and now. And it wasn’t by accident, either. Her extraordinary journey from the Queen of France to the Queen of England showcased her exceptional diplomatic skills and influence. And it proved her pioneering status to be able to leave one marriage and enter another in such a decisive manner.

Eleanor’s first marriage to King Louis VII of France in 1137 marked the beginning of her queenship. She quickly found herself navigating the complex politics of the French court, as well as learning the general ropes of royalty. That marriage was annulled after several years, though. And in an era where most women in that situation would have disappeared into irrelevancy, Eleanor stayed the course.

Her true pioneering moment came when she married Henry II of England in 1152, thereby becoming Queen of England. This unprecedented transition made her a key figure in the geopolitics of medieval Europe. She knew people on the continent and on the British Isles, and she could navigate geopolitics better than both of her husbands.[1]

9 Patron of Romantic Love and Poetry

Courtly Love in the High Middle Ages

Eleanor was not only a queen but also a prominent patron of courtly love and poetry. Her support for poets and troubadours during her time in both France and England made her a catalyst for the development of medieval literature and chivalry. She encouraged the creation of poetic works that celebrated ideals of romantic love and chivalric values.

Other leaders hadn’t done that in the past, and especially not so publicly. Eleanor’s push to celebrate both written art and romantic love was groundbreaking for the time when she was alive. The troubadour culture of the 12th century flourished under Eleanor’s patronage. She surrounded herself with poets, such as Bernart de Ventadorn and André de Coutances. He, in turn, composed many verses in her honor. And that directly related to her interest in courtly love and poetry.

Across the decades, it led to the creation of numerous literary masterpieces that influenced generations of writers. Eleanor’s influence in this realm extended to her daughters, too. As they grew up, they also became patrons of courtly love and literature. Because of that, her legacy in fostering a cultural movement that celebrated romance, honor, and chivalry remains an essential part of her historical reputation.[2]

8 Advocate for Women’s Rights

Beauty, Power, and Intrigue: The Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor was a pioneer in advocating for the rights of women. Her belief in the autonomy of women challenged the prevailing norms of her time. She supported the idea that women should have a say in their marriages and inheritance. She also held that their voices should be heard in matters that affected their lives.

In her role as Queen of France, Eleanor boldly stood up for women’s rights by publicly questioning the validity of her marriage to Louis VII. This act demonstrated her early commitment to advocating for the independence and agency of women in marriage. Of course, it was a stance that was controversial during the 12th century—and she stood a lot to lose by taking it.

Later, during her time as Queen of England, Eleanor continued to be an advocate for women’s rights. She took an active interest in the management of her vast lands and properties. That alone ensured her daughters’ inheritance and independence, which was a significant departure from the traditional norms of the time.

Eleanor’s advocacy for women’s rights left a lasting mark on the discussions surrounding gender equality and women’s empowerment in the medieval world. Women in power before her hadn’t done those things or spoken widely about those issues. Heck, there hadn’t really been women in power before her. So to have Eleanor stand up for women was a huge change from what was up until then considered to be the norm in the Middle Ages.[3]

7 Founder of the Court of Love

Behind Every Great King… | The Life & Times of Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor’s pioneering spirit extended to her establishment of the Court of Love, which was groundbreaking in the 12th century. This institution allowed women to address their grievances in matters of love and marriage. It also provided them with a platform to voice their concerns and seek marital justice.

The Court of Love, presided over by Eleanor, consisted of noblewomen who adjudicated disputes related to love, relationships, and marriage. This remarkable initiative gave women of the era a voice they never before had in matters of relationships—to which point they’d been wholly dependent on their husbands. It also promoted the development of a code of conduct in marriage and relations, as well as a briefing on etiquette in matters of courtly love.

In short order, the Court of Love contributed to the evolving concept of chivalry. And even more than that, it pushed forth the idea of love as a noble pursuit. It helped shape the ideals of romance and courtly behavior that would become prominent in medieval literature and culture—and soon after that, the Renaissance world and beyond.[4]

6 Cross-Cultural Queen

Eleanor of Aquitaine Queen of the World

Eleanor’s exposure to diverse cultures and traditions made her a pioneer in embracing different customs and ideas. Her experiences traversing Europe and even the Middle East broadened her horizons and contributed to her cosmopolitan outlook. Forget about women traveling that far during her era; most men—even most high-class men—didn’t travel as far and wide as Eleanor did during her lifetime.

It was inevitable she’d seek out new ways of doing things by virtue of the unique experiences she had. Traveling to the Middle East forced her to reckon with how Christianity was practiced in other areas of the world and the need to liberalize and spread it through soft power back at home. Her early years in Aquitaine, a region known for its rich blend of cultures, exposed her to the melting pot of influences that would shape her worldview. Her travels to the Holy Land during the Second Crusade also brought her into contact with various cultures. That, more than anything, left a lasting impact on her perception of the world.

And as a pioneer then, Eleanor’s cross-cultural experiences allowed her to introduce novel ideas and practices to the courts of France and England. She saw life lived differently in the Middle East and elsewhere. Her persuasive powers were strong enough then that she was able to convince the men leading two kingdoms to back her.[5]

5 Powerful Regent

The Angevins-English Monarchs-Henry II-Richard the Lionheart-John-Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor proved herself to be a remarkable and powerful regent during the reigns of her sons. Her ability to rule effectively in a male-dominated world showcased her political acumen and leadership. First, she was the regent of her son Richard the Lionheart during his absence due to his participation in the Third Crusade. During that time, Eleanor managed the affairs of the kingdom with authority and intelligence.

Her ability to maintain stability and uphold the crown’s authority demonstrated her strength as a ruler. Unlike any woman before her, she ruled with strength, power, assertiveness, and toughness. One might even say she was lionhearted in Richard’s absence! However, Eleanor’s regency wasn’t limited to just one son; she also acted as a regent for her other sons—including King John and Richard’s younger brother Geoffrey—during their reigns as well.

Her consistency and success in governing the realm in the absence of her sons solidified her reputation as a pioneering female ruler. While history may not give her the credit she deserves from those ruling periods, there’s no question her time as a regent was unique, impactful, and performed with considerable guile and backbone.[6]

4 Participation in the Second Crusade

The Second Crusade ⚔️ Explained in a simple way – KMS

Eleanor made history by joining the Second Crusade. In doing so, she became one of the few royal women to actively participate in a military campaign. Her presence in the Holy Land alongside her husband, King Louis VII, demonstrated her courage and commitment to the Christian cause. And it should go without saying that she proved herself a pioneer in that way—a woman unafraid to be in the thick of battle and the passions of war over religious faith.

Eleanor’s decision to take part in the crusade was remarkable. As noted, she accompanied her husband and his army when it came time to travel to the Middle East. But then, once there, she also played a significant role in the campaign. Her active involvement in the military affairs of the time was groundbreaking for a queen in the 12th century. She even directly led 300 other women dressed as Amazons and a group of another thousand knights into battle at one point. Truly, she was built differently than most women (most people!) of her time.[7]

3 Architectural Legacy

The French Château: From Eleanor of Aquitaine to Marie Antoinette

Eleanor’s influence extended beyond politics and culture. She played a role in the construction and renovation of numerous castles during her time in power, such as the ones at both Poitiers and Chinon. In turn, her architectural projects left an enduring mark on medieval fortifications. Eleanor’s interest in castle construction wasn’t just a matter of aesthetics, either.

As we’ve learned, she had firsthand experience in seeing the effects of war. So her designs had significant military and strategic implications. In turn, those architectural endeavors helped fortify the territories she ruled and protect them from external threats. Her innovative approach to castle design included things like incorporating defensive features and strengthening fortifications. Those choices then contributed to the overall evolution of medieval architecture.

The medieval castles we think of today with turrets, moats, and rooftop holes for archers to shoot arrows from were all inspired by (or directly linked to) Eleanor’s ideas. Her legacy in this domain endures through the numerous castles and fortresses she had a hand in building or enhancing and then the design inspiration that cascaded from her work over the next several centuries.[8]

2 Mother of Notable Rulers

Mother of Empires – Eleanor of Aquitaine – European History – Part 4 – Extra History

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s lifelong legacy extended through her descendants. Her children included the aforementioned Richard the Lionheart, John Lackland, and numerous other noble figures. In time, their connections and birthright allowed them to become some of the most notable rulers of the 12th and 13th centuries.

Obviously, it should go without saying that Eleanor’s role as the mother of these influential rulers underscores her pioneering role in shaping the destiny of Europe during the medieval period. Plus, her ability to serve as a regent in their place, as we’ve already discussed, has forever linked her to some critical moments in European history.

Richard the Lionheart was most well-known for his military prowess and leadership during the Third Crusade. Eleanor’s most famous son still today, his legacy as a renowned warrior and monarch. And, of course, he continues to be celebrated in history. John Lackland, another of Eleanor’s sons, went on to become King of England. His reign was marked by significant events, including the sealing of the Magna Carta, a foundational document in the development of constitutional law.[9]

1 Enduring Legacy in History and Literature

Eleanor of Aquitaine: the Medieval Queen of England and France in the High Middle Ages

Eleanor of Aquitaine’s remarkable life has inspired countless books, movies, and historical accounts. Her legacy as a pioneering queen, diplomat, and advocate for women’s rights continues to captivate both historians and enthusiasts. She remains a prominent figure in historical narratives, cementing her status as a true pioneer of her time. Historians continue to debate her life, her legacy, and just how important she really was in the medieval era.

That part of it is sort of ironic; after all, even if a historian thinks Eleanor was not an important person in the medieval era, the fact that we’re still debating her a thousand years later sort of disproves their argument, doesn’t it? In the modern age, Eleanor’s extraordinary life story has been the subject of numerous biographies, novels, and adaptations in various forms of media. Her enduring presence in historical and literary works ensures that her influence on medieval Europe is not and will never be forgotten.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen