Eleanor of Aquitaine: my most inspiring French woman


This article was contributed by reader-member Moira McCarthy following a discussion in our ‘le Bulletin’ member newsletter about inspiring French women. You too can provide the occasional article or suggest article topics as a member of MyFrenchLife™ – MaVieFrançaise®.
To become a member make sure that you sign up! See the red button top right of this site.

MyFrenchLife™ - Inspiring Women – Reader contributions – header – MyFrenchLife.org

In this historic year for women, perhaps the most inspirational is the one who endured in her authority after one of the most tumultuous political marriages of any generation.

Balancing her own political and familial responsibilities, she survived the infidelities of her husband to establish her own social and cultural legacy. This woman emerged in a time of Middle Eastern conflict and participated in strategic discussions in Turkey over the conduct of War. Sounds familiar?

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org - Eleanor-of-Aquitaine - Inspiring-Woman - portrait

Eleanor of Aquitaine: a formidable French woman

The spirited and flame-haired Eleanor of Aquitaine inherited the duchy of Aquitaine on the death of her father in 1137. Three months later, her strategic marriage to King Louis V11 of France brought this province into the French kingdom and later produced two daughters, Marie and Alix.

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org - Eleanor-of-Aquitaine - Siege-of-Damascus

The marriage was ultimately annulled by the Pope in 1152 after the strong-willed Eleanor had failed to produce a male heir and could not be prevailed upon to continue the relationship. Intriguingly, Eleanor soon became involved in a passionate relationship with the dynamic Henry, Duke of Normandy, eleven years her junior.

Henry became the King of England in 1154 and their union produced eight children: the heroic Richard the Lionheart and the infamous King John being the most contentious of the Plantaganet dynasty.

An overlooked icon

So much history has been recorded of the dynastic conflicts that ensued for over three centuries, but often the cultural legacy of Eleanor, Queen of both France and England, has been overlooked. Her formidable intellect fostered art, troubadour poetry and music and she was innovative in drawing on Arabic medicine, mathematics, architecture and science.

Through her patronage of the poet Chretien de Troyes, her daughter Marie de Champagne would revive the Arthurian legend which has remained a chivalrous symbol of kingly power. Eleanor and Marie devised a ‘code of love’ at Court in which knights and ladies interacted in a context that esteemed the dignity – and social power – of women.

MyFrenchLife™ - MyFrenchLife.org - Eleanor of Aquitaine - grave-Fontevraud

 A trail-blazing humanitarian

Extraordinary and ‘scandalous’ was her departure to the Second Crusade as an Amazon on horseback with 300 female supporters. Although derided, this was the first humanitarian group ever assembled to ‘tend the wounded’ on the battle-field in an era that took no prisoners. Her son Richard would later bring a negotiated conclusion to the Third Crusade with the agreement of Saladin that Christian pilgrims would have access to Jerusalem.

Eleanor is a woman who inspires us even today with her courage and achievement while enduring the many betrayals, family conflict and exile imposed upon her by Henry 11. Tragic intervention may have eliminated Thomas A Beckett, “this meddlesome priest”, but Eleanor would remain a challenging presence in his life even in the isolation of prison.

Their destinies are forever intertwined and they are buried together, near Chinon, in the abbey of Fontevraud

Which French woman are you inspired by? Historical or modern day, we’d love to hear your stories! Comment below or write in at info.myfrenchlife@gmail.com to see your favourite inspiring woman featured here.

Image credits
  1. Feature image: Eleanor of Aquitaine Poiters Cathedral via Wikimedia Commons
  2. Portrait of Eleanor Gandvik via Wikimedia Commons
  3. Siege of Damascus, the Second Crusade Underlying Ik via Wikimedia Commons
  4. Les gisants d’Aliénor d’Aquitaine et Henri II Touriste via Wikimedia Commons

About the Contributor

Judy MacMahon

Experience FRANCE beyond the CLICHÉ with MyFrenchLife.org MyFrenchLife is for Curious Savvy Francophiles wherever you are. Meet Francophiles in France, online, and/or wherever you live. You’re very welcome to join us - Judy MacMahon - MyFrenchLife.org

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!


  1. sunny fields Sep 10, 2016 at 12:00 PM - Reply

    I too am a fan of Eleanor d’Aquitaine. Such a formidable woman for the age!
    However, her crypt is near Saumur along side Henry 11, her son Richard the Lionheart and various other members of the family.
    The burial place of Thomas A Beckett is Cantebury Cathedral.
    Our apartment is only 60 kilometres away and we visit the area quite often as it is a very scenic part of the Loire Valley.
    We are always happy to share our apartment with those wanting to experience the rich cultural history and stunning countryside of the region

    • Moira McCarthy Sep 11, 2016 at 3:46 PM - Reply

      My article does state that Fontevraud Abbey is near Chinon. The Abbey is almost midway between Chinon and Saumur. Chinon is 15kms to the South-East and Saumur is 13kms to the North-West. There was certainly no implication in the article that A Beckett was buried there.

      • Judy MacMahon Nov 6, 2017 at 1:34 PM - Reply

        Moira, bonjour

        There is a lovely discussion beginning below with Lisa. Just drawing your attention to it 🙂

  2. Lisa La Valle-Finan Nov 6, 2017 at 1:22 PM - Reply

    I was so intrigued and impressed by the empowering figure of Eleanor of Aquitaine, I wrote my college thesis about her. She influenced the female troubadours of Occitania, known as the Trobairitz. These noble born, early French feminists were exceptional in musical history because they were the first-known female composers of Western secular music. During the Crusades while their husbands were away, they were left in positions of power, they ran the castle holdings and all its employees. Some would call them an early Rosie the Riveters. They are multitaskers who found time to compose highly personal and original music for entertainment, unlike their husbands who hired Troubadours. The compositions were conversational and followed a personally blog style that viewed relationships more practically than male counterparts. The Trobaritz songs are timeless, concerned with many relationship issues easily recognizable today; like what is the meaning of love, how should I know when to marry, and what does equality look like for men and women regarding respective roles and responsibilities.

    Some scholars would argue Eleanor’s daughter, Marie de France may have written the Art of Courtly Love, but there’s little proof and the official author remains the monk, Andreas Cappellanus. However, both women were highly instrumental in fostering an environment that enabled the ‘code of love’ or the rules of love to be written. Whether or not the French are hardwired to codify behavior, it’s likely that Louis XIV was inspired by it when he codified court behavior.

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.