Daughter of a duke, wife to two kings, and mother of three kings and two queens, she was probably the most powerful woman in Europe during her lifetime. She held the rich duchy of Aquitaine in her own right and sat on the thrones of both France and England, ruling the latter on behalf of her son. She was a powerful patron of the arts, and the woman to whom we most owe the evolution of the concept of chivalry. As a young woman she was charming, witty and energetic; as a queen she added a profoundly astute political sense.
She was born in 1122 to William, Duke of Aquitaine, who was one of the first patrons of the burgeoning troubadours. Eleanor was raised in a court that was both wealthy and cultured, and when she assumed the title of Duchess of Aquitaine on William's death, she married the crown prince of France, who became Louis VII when his father, Louis the Fat, died. Eleanor accompanied the pious Louis VII on the Second Crusade, although the French were badly beaten at Jerusalem and forced to withdraw. Eleanor wanted to support her uncle, Raymond of Antioch, but was overruled by Louis. The quarrel precipitated an annulment of their marriage. They had two daughters together, but no sons, which seems to have contributed to the estrangement.
She quickly married Henry, Duke of Normandy, just two months after the annulment was issued. The young Plantagenet king was bent on restoring his family's lands, and the marriage to Eleanor immediately plunged them in conflict with Louis. A complex, multi-front conflict composed of equal parts open and cold warfare emerged, lasting until 1154. Eleanor bore Henry four sons who would survive to adulthood.
During this time she lived in Poitiers with her daughter Marie (from Louis), and there she and the noble women of the Poitiers court instituted the famous court of love, which popularized the traditions of chivalry and courtly love. The great women (and some men) of the court would plead their cases of romantic love to Eleanor and her nobles, and the women would render their judgement. The troubadours would carry many of the ideals of courtly love to the rest of Europe, under Eleanor's patronage.
Eleanor's sons possessed all their parents' ambitions. Discontent with playing his father's strongman, the younger Henry launched a revolt, and attempted to recruit his brothers into the enterprise. Eleanor appears to have encouraged her sons in the revolt. When it failed, Henry imprisoned Eleanor for the next 16 years. Henry the Younger died in 1183 after a second failed uprising, and after that, Henry II relaxed some of the restrictions on Eleanor, and she appeared with him at court.
When Henry II died in 1189, his son Richard the Lionheart assumed control of the family lands in England and France. Eleanor was released from prison and proceeded to govern England in Richard's name. Richard himself went on the Third Crusade, which went very badly for him (please see Saladin's entry for details). That England remained loyal to Richard speaks to her successes, as her youngest son, John, attempted a coup, but did not gain control of England during his brother's absence. Eleanor was instrumental in securing the massive ransom needed to rescue Richard from being held hostage in Austria.
Richard died in 1199, and rule passed to the feckless John, whose reign marks the decline of the Angevin fortune, the rise of Robin Hood and the Magna Carta, and whose incompetence must have driven his capable mother to despair.
Now in her 70s, John dispatched his mother Eleanor on a diplomatic mission to the court of Castile. There her daughter (also named Eleanor) was queen, with daughters of her own. Eleanor was to choose a bride for the new crown prince of France, who was, in fact, the grandson of Eleanor's first husband, Louis VII, in order to cement a peace between France's Philip II and King John. The return trip was difficult, and she remained in Fontevraud, sending the future Queen Blanche on ahead.
The end of Eleanor's life continued the pattern of successive generations trying to overthrow the previous ones. In 1202 her grandson, Arthur Duke of Brittany, attempted to capture Eleanor in the castle of Mirebeau. John marched against Arthur, broke the siege of Mirebeau, and captured the 15-year-old Arthur. Arthur vanished in John's custody. Eleanor retired to Fontevraud, took religious orders, and died in 1204. She is entombed in Fontevraud between her husband, Henry II, and her son Richard.