Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Ancients: Eleanor of Aquitaine

After a long drought of new content (sorry to my avid readers), this marks the return of regular posts here, and also begins a new intermittent series about some of my very oldest direct ancestors. Yes, it's a visit back through the way back machine. Readers who are boomers like me will get that reference instantly.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (abt 1122 - 1 Apr 1204) is my 25th great grandmother.

Even before I learned quite a few years ago that I am one of--okay--millions of her descendants, I had always admired Eleanor as a woman clearly before her time. As a teenager, Katherine Hepburn's portrayal of Eleanor in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter was my first exposure to this remarkable woman. It made a lasting impression on me. I've re-watched that film many times.

Now, Katherine Hepburn is one of the 20th century's greatest actors, so I admit, I had to wonder why was that why the film left such a lasting impression. No. It's definitely Eleanor, not Kate. Eleanor led a truly fascinating life, and is regarded as one of the most wealthiest and powerful women of her time in western Europe.

I've read many biographies, articles and other sources about her tumultuous life, including the
British historian Alison Weir's outstanding 1999 biography. Eleanor was brave, fierce, adventurous and a strategic leader and thinker, centuries before that phrase came into common usage. She led armies in the Crusades!

After an annulled first marriage to Louis VII of France (by whom she had two daughters but failed to provide the always at that time crucial male heir), Eleanor quickly married Henry Plantangent, then Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, her third cousin and 11 years younger than her, on 18 May 1152. You will know Henry from your history lessons better as Henry II of the House of Plantagenet -- he became king of England in 1154. Henry was the great grandson of William the Conqueror.

Eleanor and Henry had 12 children who survived childhood. I am directly descended from Eleanor and Henry through two of those children: John (24 Dec 1166-19 Oct 1216) and Eleanor, Queen of Castile (13 Oct 1162-1 Oct 1214) who married Alfonso of Castile.

John reigned as King of England from May 1177 until his death on 19 Oct 1216. His brutal reign led to the baronial revolt and the Magna Carta, signed in 1216. John was also mortalized as the evil king in the fictionalized stories of Robin Hood. I'm not sure how I feel about him being my 24th great grandfather, given his infamy.

Despite their very acrimonious married life (she was held prisoner for many years in a convent), Eleanor was buried next to Henry II at Fontevraud Abbey, together with their son Richard the Lionheart and Isabella of Angouleme, second wife of their son John, in Anjou, France. The Plantagenets were longtime benefactors of the Abbey.

You can read more about Eleanor of Aquitaine here, here and here, or at many other sources.

The never ending story continues....

© Margaret Dougherty 2016 All rights reserved

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