Past Lives

Past Lives: Eleanor of Aquitaine at Old Sarum

How this formidable French princess and former queen of England came to be imprisoned in the windswept castle of Old Sarum in Wiltshire.

Image: illustration of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Simon Pemberton

Eleanor, heiress to the vast French duchy of Aquitaine, was married first to Louis VII, king of France. Eleanor later said it was like being married to a monk. During their marriage Eleanor failed to produce an heir and, during the Second Crusade, Louis accused Eleanor of flirting with her uncle, Raymond of Antioch. Soon after, in 1152, Louis divorced her. Within months, Eleanor was married to Henry, count of Anjou and duke of Normandy. In 1154, Henry succeeded to the English throne, and Henry and Eleanor were crowned king and queen at Westminster Abbey. From 1154 Henry ruled England, and most of western France. 

Henry was everything that Louis VII was not – bold, energetic, with a quick intelligence. At first this marriage was successful. Sons and daughters were born. Eleanor often acted as regent in England when Henry was occupied in France. 

In 1167, Henry established Eleanor in Poitiers to rule her own duchy of Aquitaine, along with their second son, Richard. But by now relations between them were strained by Henry’s infidelities. In 1170, Henry’s conflict with his intransigent archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, led to Becket’s brutal murder. Henry’s reputation for kingship was badly battered.

Emboldened, Henry’s sons, Henry the Young King, Geoffrey count of Brittany, Richard count of Poitou and the youngest, John, demanded a share in their father’s lands and powers. Louis VII, who had matured into a wily operator, supported Henry’s disaffected sons against their father, as he had supported Becket against Henry.

In 1173, revolt broke out throughout Henry’s realms. Eleanor supported her sons against their father but she was captured as she attempted to reach the safety of Louis VII’s lands. Surprisingly, the old king defeated his enemies. Henry came to terms with his sons but could not forgive his wife’s treachery. Until his death in 1189, she was a prisoner at Old Sarum. Henry ensured that Eleanor led a queenly lifestyle, with hunting, feasting and fine clothes, but she no longer played a queen’s role in the governance of the realm. 

Like many queens, Eleanor came into her own during the reign of her sons. She assured their succession, undertook important diplomatic missions for them, and she ruled the Angevin realm when Richard was captured by the emperor. Eleanor’s political career did not end at Old Sarum.   

Words by Lindy Grant

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

Image: Old Sarum
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