Eleanor of Aquitaine was a remarkable woman, particularly considering the extent of her power and influence during the twelfth century, a time up to which women were seen only as saints, temptresses or baby-producing devices. She was queen of both France and England, in addition to governing her own inherited territories of Aquitaine and Poitou. She embraced the lifestyle of courtly love and repeatedly conflicted with her religious or war-mongering husbands and sons. The ideal of courtly love, born of Eleanor’s family in southern France, held women in higher esteem than in earlier times and other places, and so she garnered unprecedented power and adoration among her subjects, as well as animosity from both the English and French nobility who felt threatened by her. Eleanor, along with several of her children, was a fervent patron of the arts and enjoyed the lavish aesthetic that nobility could afford. For nearly 65 years, she wielded her administrative prowess, traveling throughout the continent to govern first hand and enjoy the adventure and liberty unknown to most women.
The film The Lion in Winter was based on a play by James Goldman about the lives of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II of England. The film did not depict any specific documented event, though historical references can be discerned from the sharp dialogue between the characters. It portrayed a time when Eleanor was most out of her element. Her husband, King Henry II of England, imprisoned her for over ten years, but he summoned her to join the family for Christmas Court. Evident was her bitterness about her confinement, as she was not allowed reign over her territories nor the opportunity to take pleasure in her court. The enmity between Eleanor and Henry ranged from witty banter to acid spite. Throughout the film, Eleanor and Henry threw verbal punches, attempting to assert power over each other with political threats and personal insults. They frequently resurrected painful memories and grudges, such as their extramarital affairs and political conspiracies.
The action of the film took place shortly after the death of the Young King Henry, Eleanor and Henry’s oldest son and heir to the throne. Eleanor’s bid for their oldest surviving son Richard to be king conflicted with Henry’s choice to appoint as his heir their youngest son John. All the while, their middle son Geoffrey and King Philip II of France conspired in any way that they deemed in their favor. Conniving self-interest drove each of the characters in the film to plot against each other. Ultimately, the goal was to select a successor, but not until everyone in the belligerent family had experienced betrayal of one form or another, a knife in the back gift-wrapped for Christmas. As Henry II (Peter O’Toole) asks in the film, “Well, what shall we hang? The holly or each other?”
Throughout The Lion in Winter, the character of Eleanor maintained her strength and shrewdness in order to control and manipulate, and her husband and sons saw her as a danger. Aside from emphasizing her unusual power as a woman, the film also portrayed her love of art and culture, as she pined for the days of travel and court. Throughout the film, Eleanor stood out in her bright red gown and gold cloak, contrasting the lavishness of her southern culture with the “ignorant and uncouth people1″ of the north clad in drab brown. In order to persuade Eleanor to give up her bequeathed territory of the Aquitaine, Henry offered to release her from imprisonment. This proposition posed a dilemma for Eleanor, as she (Katharine Hepburn) expressed in the film, “To be a prisoner, to be bricked in when you’ve known the world…These ten years, Henry, have been unimaginable. And now, you offer me the only thing I want if I give up the only thing I treasure.”
Eleanor’s love for her domain was well founded. She was heiress to the most lush province on the continent, described by Henriger of Lobbes as “Opulent Aquitaine…sweet as nectar thanks to its vineyards, dotted about with forests, overflowing with fruit of every kind and endowed with a superabundance of pasture-land.2″ Southern France at this time stood apart from the north in that women were prominent and permitted to inherit property. Eleanor was primed for court, educated in policy, diplomacy and charity. She patronized religious institutions and took pleasure in romantic poetry and literature. Despite her sex, Eleanor hunted with a hawk and accompanied her father on his chevauchées, horseback journeys of their provinces. Eleanor embraced the liberties afforded her as a noblewoman from an unusually liberal background.
From even before her marriage to Louis VII at age thirteen, Eleanor was more worldly than her husband the king, four years her senior. While she was reared to govern, Louis matriculated from a monastery, and he only became heir to the throne when his older brother Philip died suddenly. Young Queen Eleanor promoted entertainment in the court, which ruffled the pious feathers of the sober northerners. Her reputation was further marred by the conception that she held too much influence over the king. By her request, Louis misguidedly laid siege to the county of Champagne and burned the city of Vitry, a tragedy that inspired him to go on a crusade for forgiveness. Even more scandalous was Eleanor’s decision to join her husband on his crusade to aid the cities of Jerusalem and Antioch, the latter of which was governed by Raymond, her uncle. Purportedly, Eleanor and her ladies dressed as Amazons and rode on white horses, improving both the morale and recruitment of soldiers- in the film, Eleanor alluded to this particular adventure. Although Louis VII was said to have “loved the Queen almost beyond reason,3″ Eleanor still lamented over her marriage to such an austere figure- “I thought to have married a king, but I find I have wed a monk.4″
During her marriage to Louis VII, Eleanor wielded little control over her dower state of Aquitaine. She felt trapped in Paris, unable to delight in her home. Henry II, however, allowed her considerable jurisdiction in her patrimony. Eleanor’s subjects adored her, and her imprisonment by Henry, from 1173 until his death in 1189, distressed them severely. The chronicle of Richard le Poitevin pleads, “Come back, O captive, come back to your cities…The notes of your lyre have changed into lamentation, and your flutes into the sounds of mourning…[Y]our young companions sang their sweet songs to you…The King of the North Wind besieges you on all sides… Let your voice ring out like a bugle so that your sons may hear you. For then the day will come when they will liberate you and you will return to your own lands.5″
The significance of courtly love in Eleanor’s life was not portrayed in the film directly, though it came through in her character and appearance. Love of arts and culture ran in her family. Eleanor descended directly from William I Duke of Aquitaine, who attained this position in the ninth century during the dissolution of Charlemagne’s empire. Her grandfather, William IX, regularly crusaded and went on military campaigns. In sharp contrast, he was known as “the Troubadour” for he wrote chansons and poetry- “I have left behind everything I used to love, Chivalry and pride, And since it pleases God, I accept all that And pray Him to retain me in His presence. I pray all my friends, at the moment of death To come and render me high honor, For I have known joy and pleasure Far and near in my domain.6″ His poems and songs were innovative, both political and spiritual, introducing romantic concepts employed by future troubadours- “Love from a distant land, For you my whole heart aches.7″
William IX had two sons by Philippa, Countess of Toulouse- William, heir to Aquitaine and Poitou, and Raymond, Prince of Antioch. He betrothed his son William to Aenor, daughter of his mistress and her husband, the viscount of Châtellerault. Duke William X and Aenor bore Eleanor in 1124. At the age of six, Eleanor’s mother and only brother died, and she became heir to the rich territory of Aquitaine, as well as Poitou and Toulouse. She filled her courts with troubadours and passed on her dedication to beauty to several of her children, most notably her daughter, Marie of France. Marie was the eldest daughter of Eleanor and her first husband, King Louis VII of France. As Countess of Champagne, she patronized such writers as Andreas Capellanus, who composed a treatise on courtly love, and Chrétien de Troyes, who allegedly wrote Lancelot per her request.
The Lion in Winter addressed Henry’s extra-marital relationships and Eleanor’s reactions to them. Both the film and written accounts mention the rumor that Eleanor had poisoned Henry’s mistress of ten years, “The Fair Rosamund” Clifford, though there is no proof of this rumor. In the film, Henry was openly having a relationship with Alys Capet, Countess of the Vexin and half-sister of King Philip II, and Eleanor appeared subtly hurt and saddened. Sources confirm the affair but make no mention of Eleanor’s feelings. By modern standards, an extramarital affair is often interpreted as being unfaithful to an oath of love. But during the twelfth century, marriage between nobility was a political venture to form an alliance. Eleanor was also a believer in courtly love, which sought love that by nature did not exist in marriage. According to Andreas Capellanus’s treatise De Amore, “Marriage is no excuse for not loving8,” and so, within this ideal, adultery was acceptable if it was a demonstration of love. Allegations of Eleanor’s own affairs would prove any hard feelings hypocritical, and within the model of courtly love, the affairs were acceptable. It is unlikely that Eleanor would feel as hurt by her husband’s indiscretions as someone today involved in a companionate marriage built on affection. Her most feasible complaint was that during his affairs, Henry forced Eleanor out of the political spotlight, and this caused her significant distress.
The relationship between King Henry’s parents, Geoffrey Plantagenet and Empress Matilda, surprisingly paralleled his own marriage. Matilda was first married to Henry, Holy Roman Emperor. After the emperor’s death, she married Geoffrey, who was more than ten years younger than she. Similarly, Eleanor was originally married to King Louis VII of France, and after their annulment, married Henry, also eleven years her junior and soon to be crowned king of England. Henry’s affair with Alys Capet, his son’s fiancée, paralleled the alleged tryst between Eleanor and Henry’s father, Geoffrey. In examining this, it is easier to understand how the relationship between Eleanor and Henry could have transpired as it did. Eleanor was raised in a court that idealized love, while at the same time she was groomed to be an apt administrator. Henry nearly repeated, step by step, the marriage of his parents. The desire for authority was deeply seated in both of them, and in correlation with the thinking of the era in which they lived, they too viewed marriage as a political endeavor and put little stock in marital bliss.
Eleanor of Aquitaine posed a threat to Henry II’s authority. In the film, Henry imprisoned Eleanor because she led a rebellion of their sons against Henry, and academic accounts supported this. Henry did not delegate to his sons direct control over the territories for which they held titles. When Henry II and the Young King Henry received homage for Richard’s province of Toulouse, Eleanor “resolve[d] to fight for her sons’ rights.9″ The Young King opposed his father’s decision to grant certain territories, already bequeathed to the Young King, to his brother John without his consent. With the Young King as a belligerent frontman, Eleanor conducted her other sons in asserting their rights, initially without suspicion. William of Newburgh noted, “The younger Henry…went secretly into Aquitaine where his two youthful brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, were living with their mother, and with her connivance…he incited them to join him.10″ Richard le Poitevin asked in his songs, “[W]here were you when your eaglets, flying from their nest, dared to raise their talons against the King of the North Wind? We know for sure it was you who urged them to rise up against their father11…Rejoice, O Aquitaine! Be jubilant, O Poitou! For the sceptre of the King of the North Wind Is drawing away from you.12″
Eleanor went beyond her individual assistance and encouraged the barons of southern France to rise up and support the claims of her sons. The princes, aided by the king of France, fought their father through most of 1173 and 1174. Eventually, they arrived at a compromise and ceased hostilities, but the betrayal of his three oldest sons left an impression on Henry. Henry latched onto John, his fourth son, as his “favorite,” but Henry formed a closer relationship with his illegitimate son Geoffrey, in whom he confided, “You alone have proved yourself my lawful and true son. My other sons are really the bastards.13″ Henry incarcerated his wife from this point forward until his death.
In The Lion in Winter, the character of Richard (Anthony Hopkins) resents his mother for holding on to him too tightly and denying him the affection and attention of his father. Written sources made no mention of these feelings, and his documented actions demonstrated how influential on him his mother really was. Richard was Eleanor’s favorite son, and she groomed him to be her heir to the Aquitaine. She instilled in him the love of music and poetry and educated him in Latin and her native Languedoc. When his father died, Richard immediately released his mother from captivity, and for the majority of his rule as king, Richard allowed Eleanor to rule in his stead as regent while he on his crusades. The film did make mention of Eleanor’s efforts to pass on her southern values with a scene in which she asked Richard, “Remember how I taught you numbers, and the lute and poetry?.. I taught you dancing, too, and languages, and all the music that I knew and how to love what’s beautiful.” Eleanor’s appreciation for culture and the aesthetic was evident, as was her devotion to her favored son.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most influential woman of her time. From her forefathers, she inherited a romantic ideal and love of beauty, as well as the most abundant counties on the continent of Europe. She wed two kings and bore two kings, but she also devoted herself to the subjects of her beloved Aquitaine. The film The Lion in Winter offered a glimpse of the turbulent relationships Eleanor had with her husband and children, but it also showed her in all of her resplendent glory, strong despite her imprisonment. Eleanor stretched beyond the limits of gender in the twelfth century and left a legacy and legend that warrants acknowledgement.
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Evergates, Theodore. “Aristocratic Women in the County of Champagne.” Aristocratic Women in Medieval France. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, c1999.
Kelly, Amy. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1974.
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1 Richard the Poitevin. “Lament on Hearing of Queen Eleanor’s Imprisonment.” (c. 1173). Ffiona Swabey, ed. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Courtly Love, and the Troubadours. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 2004. pp. 128.
2 Henriger of Lobbes. Swabey, ed. pp. 29.
3 Swabey. pp. 38.
4 William of Newburg. Amy Kelly, ed. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1974. pp. 99.
5 Richard the Poitevin. “Lament on Hearing of Queen Eleanor’s Imprisonment.” (c. 1173). Swabey. pp. 128.
6 William of Poitou (c. 1119). Swabey, ed. pp. 136.
7 William of Poitou. Lazar, Moshé. “Cupid, the Lady, and the Poet: Modes of Love at Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Court.” Eleanor of Aquitaine, Patron and Politician. Austin : University of Texas Press, 1976. pp. 48.
8 Capellanus, Andreas. De Amore. 1184-1186. L.D. Benson, ed. http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/authors/andreas/de_amore.html (Sept 14, 2000).
9 Weir, Alison. Eleanor of Aquitaine : A Life. New York : Ballantine Books, 2001. pp. 199.
10 William of Newburgh. Weir. pp. 200.
11 Richard the Poitevin. “Lament on Hearing of Queen Eleanor’s Imprisonment.” (c. 1173). Swabey. pp. 127.
12 Richard the Poitevin. Weir. pp. 201
13 Giraldus Cambrensis. Weir. pp. 210.
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