This mighty medieval woman outwitted and outlasted her rivals

Ruler of two nations, mother to kings and queens, leader of a crusade: Eleanor of Aquitaine was a savvy power player in medieval France and England.

Beauty and determination infuse Frederick Sandys’s 1858 portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
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When reviewing the history of medieval Europe, no woman stands out as much as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Once the most eligible woman in Europe, she became queen of two nations, leader of a crusade, mother of kings, and patron of the arts. Her power and prestige earned her enemies in the 12th century, and her critics authored a black legend founded on gossip and rumor that has fueled ideas about her until the present time.

Eleanor (Aliénor) was born around 1124 in southwestern France to William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and Aénor, Viscountess of Châtellerault (Named for her mother, her name meant “the other Aénor”). The oldest of the couple’s three children, she had a younger sister, Petronilla, and a younger brother, William Aigret.

William X controlled many territories in west and central France including Aquitaine, Poitiers, Gascony, Limousin, and Auvergne. Their ducal court had a fine reputation as a patron of the arts. Eleanor’s grandfather, William IX, was known as the “troubadour duke,” famous for his poetry and songs about heroism and courtly love. Poets of the time, especially the famous Marcabru, found hospitality at the court of Aquitaine. (Skeleton of medieval artist reveals hidden truths about its identity.)

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