11 Facts About Eleanor of Aquitaine

A drawing of what Eleanor of Aquitaine might have looked like circa 1150
A drawing of what Eleanor of Aquitaine might have looked like circa 1150
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Eleanor of Aquitaine was among the most powerful women of the 12th century. She controlled an extensive estate, became Queen of France and then England, and gave birth to one of England's most famed rulers, Richard the Lionheart. While her biography is now tangled up with myths and legends—even her date and place of birth are difficult to pin down—much of her legacy and influence survives. Here are 11 facts about Eleanor of Aquitaine.

1. Young Eleanor of Aquitaine was Europe’s most eligible bachelorette.

Born around 1122 or 1124 possibly in today’s southern France, Eleanor was named for her mother, the Duchess Aénor de Châtellerault. She was the eldest of three children. Her father—William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou—presided over one of the biggest holdings of land in France. It’s thought that from an early age she was educated in Latin, philosophy, and horseback riding. And when her younger brother died in 1130, Eleanor became the heir to a formidable amount of land and power.

When William X died in 1137 while on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the teenaged Eleanor suddenly became the Duchess of Aquitaine, a woman of major wealth—and a very eligible match. There was little time for her to mourn. As soon as news of her father’s death reached France, her marriage to Louis VII, son of the King of France, was arranged. The king dispatched 500 men to transport Eleanor to Paris for the wedding. Not long after their summer ceremony, the king fell ill and then died. By the end of the year his son was on the throne, and Eleanor was crowned Queen of France.

2. Her beauty was celebrated, but her appearance is a mystery.

It’s not hard to find contemporary accounts of Eleanor’s good looks. The French medieval poet Bernard de Ventadour declared her "gracious, lovely, the embodiment of charm," while Matthew Paris remarked on her "admirable beauty." Curiously, though, in all these celebrations of her fine features, not one person wrote down what she actually looked like. Her hair color, eye color, height, and face all remain a mystery. No art that has been definitively linked to her survives other than the effigy on her tomb—and the degree to which that resembles Eleanor's looks is unclear.

3. She didn't stay home during the Crusades.

When Louis VII answered the pope’s call for a Second Crusade to defend Jerusalem against the Muslims, Eleanor did not stay behind in France. Between 1147 and 1149, she traveled with her husband's party to Constantinople and then Jerusalem. (According to legend, she took along 300 ladies-in-waiting dressed as Amazons—but those tales have been debunked.)

Unfortunately, this was no romantic adventure for the royal couple. Louis and his headstrong queen were mismatched, and the strain between them culminated at the court of her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers at Antioch. Rumors of an incestuous infidelity between Eleanor of Aquitaine and her uncle, whose luxurious court thrilled her with its charms, darkened her reputation. She also made waves with her defiant support of her uncle’s plans for the crusade; he advised attacking Aleppo, while Louis preferred to continue to Jerusalem. Soon, Louis would force Eleanor to continue with him.

Ultimately, the Second Crusade was a debacle, culminating with the disastrous Siege of Damascus in 1148, which ended in a Muslim victory. Louis VII and the crusader army were sent home packing.

4. Her first marriage was annulled.

The royal marriage didn’t last much longer, its tensions furthered by the fact that Eleanor had yet to give birth to a male heir. The marriage was finally annulled in 1152. (The pair were granted the annulment on the grounds of consanguinity—the fact that they were technically related.) Eleanor kept her lands and was single again, but not for long. In May of that same year, she married Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. Two years later they were crowned the King and Queen of England.

5. She was a powerful Queen of England.

Eleanor was no less strong-willed as the Queen of England than she had been as the Queen of France. She refused to stay home and idle away her hours. She traveled extensively to protect the kingdom that was then being consolidated by Henry, giving the monarchy a presence across its newly united cultures. When her husband was away, she helped direct government and ecclesiastical affairs. And in contrast to her listless marriage to Louis VII—with whom she had two daughters—she secured her position by having eight children, including five sons and three daughters.

6. She had a historically bad break-up.

However, relations between Eleanor and Henry soured after years of his open adultery and frequent absences. They separated in 1167, and she moved to her lands in Poitiers. The distance didn’t change her opinion of Henry; when their sons revolted against him in 1173, she didn't waver in choosing sides, backing her children over her husband. When the revolt failed, it had catastrophic consequences for her freedom, with Henry making her his prisoner.

7. She spent over a decade under house arrest.

After supporting her sons in their revolt, Eleanor was captured while attempting to find safety in France. She spent between 15 and 16 years under house arrest in various English castles, and was almost entirely absent from the country's activity (although there were rumors that she had a hand in the death of Rosamund, King Henry's beloved mistress). On special occasions like Christmas, Henry would allow her to show her face, but otherwise she was kept invisible and powerless. Only in 1189, when Henry died, was she fully freed.

8. She was most powerful as a widow.

Her son Richard, who became king following Henry's death, was the one who freed his mother. After her years of house arrest, she did not come out ready for retirement. Instead, she threw herself into preparing for the coronation of her son, who would be known as Richard the Lionheart. Before he was crowned King of England, she journeyed all over his future kingdom to forge alliances and foster goodwill. When Richard set out on the Third Crusade, Eleanor took charge as regent, fending off her power-hungry son John. She even paid Richard's ransom when he was imprisoned by the duke of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor, traveling there herself to bring him home to England.

Richard then died in 1199, leaving John to become king. Eleanor, then in her seventies, kept at her commitment to the kingdom’s stability, including going to Spain to arrange a pivotal marriage for her granddaughter Blanche of Castile to the heir to the French throne. She also gave John crucial support against a rebellion led by her grandson Arthur.

9. A vase she owned still survives.

A vase that once belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine
A vase that once belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine
tnchanse ~ Tom Hansen, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (cropped)

Out of all the tokens of wealth and royalty that touched her life, only one artifact that once belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine survives. She received an elegant rock crystal vessel from her grandfather William IX Duke of Aquitaine, who had likely been given it by the ruler of Imad al-dawla of Saragossa. In 1137, she gave it as a wedding gift to her future husband, Louis VII. The king’s advisor Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis then convinced Louis VII to add it to his abbey’s treasury (thus keeping it in French royal possession after their brief marriage). Now visitors to the Louvre in Paris can view the rare object, where, despite its series of owners, it’s still known as the “Eleanor” vase.

10. She has an extensive legacy in pop culture.

Eleanor of Aquitaine has hardly faded from the public eye. Alternately depicted as a temptress, warrior, protective mother, and powerful queen, interpretations of Eleanor reflect how her history has been retold over time. In Shakespeare's 16th-century The Life and Death of King John, she is an aged but sharp and sometimes sultry force. She recurs in screen versions of Robin Hood (2010) and the Ivanhoe series. Katharine Hepburn bristled with fiery energy in the role of Eleanor in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter, based on the play by James Goldman. She even has a seat at a major work of feminist art—there's a place set for her in Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, now at the Brooklyn Museum.

11. Her bones are gone, but her tomb survives.

Tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England in the church at Fontevraud Abbey
Tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England in the church at Fontevraud Abbey
Martin Cooper, Flickr // CC BY-2.0 (cropped)

Having outlived all of her husbands and most of her children, Eleanor ended her days at Fontevraud Abbey in France. She died there in 1204 in her eighties. Remarkably, her 13th-century effigy tomb survives, depicting Eleanor reclining on a bed, a crown upon her head and a devotional book in her hands. She seems to be studiously ignoring the effigies of her husband Henry II and son Richard the Lionheart on either side of her.

Her bones were once interred in the abbey's crypt. But like many of the country’s churches during the French Revolution, the abbey was deconsecrated. The crypt's bones were exhumed, dispersed, and never recovered.

New Book Provides an Intimate Look at the Handwriting of Freud, Marie Antoinette, and Other Historical Figures

TASCHEN
TASCHEN

Handwriting analysts would have a field day with TASCHEN's latest book. Titled The Magic of Handwriting, the 464-page tome offers a rare glimpse into the intimate lives and correspondences of some of the most well-known names in history.

In modern times, handwriting is a dying art, which makes it all the more meaningful to see nearly 900 years' worth of writing preserved in vivid detail in the book. A letter penned a year before the French Revolution shows Marie Antoinette’s neat signature written in small letters. In contrast, French writer Marcel Proust’s handwritten manuscripts were frantically scrawled on whatever scraps of paper he could find. Charlie Chaplin sometimes included a sketch of his signature hat and cane while signing autographs, and Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota leader who was known for his courage in battle, dotted his i’s with what look like hearts or v's.

A signed picture of Sitting Bull
TASCHEN

A letter signed by Marie Antoinette
A letter signed by Marie Antoinette
TASCHEN

A manuscript handwritten by Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust's writing
TASCHEN

These artifacts come from the collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago, a Brazilian art historian and curator who has acquired thousands of handwritten letters, manuscripts, autographed photos, and musical compositions over the years. The book features over 100 items from his collection, which also went on display last year at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

In addition to displaying different styles of handwriting, the book also highlights little-known facts about historical figures and insight into their personality. There’s a handwritten invoice from Sigmund Freud, who charged one client 2000 schillings (nearly $500 in 1934, or roughly $9400 today) for 20 hours of psychoanalysis. When his patient tried to negotiate a lower price, Freud reportedly replied, “I am still forced to make a living. I cannot do more than five hours of analysis daily; and I do not know how much longer I shall work at it.”

An invoice signed by Sigmund Freud
An invoice signed by Sigmund Freud
TASCHEN

Ernest Hemingway’s snark is on full display in a “Who’s Who” questionnaire he filled out for the publishing firm Scribner’s in 1930. Under the career section, he merely replied “yes." Under "hobbies," he listed skiing, fishing, shooting, and drinking.

For more stories like these, order a copy of The Magic of Handwriting from TASCHEN’s website or Amazon.

A cover of the book 'The Magic of Handwriting'
TASCHEN

15 Fascinating Facts About Victoria

Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE
Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE

While The Crown may nab the bigger headlines, Victoria—the Masterpiece series that similarly follows a young-and-not-quite-ready royal’s ascension to England’s throne—beat Netflix’s pricey TV series to the air by more than two months. Though it was originally intended as a one-off miniseries, the show—about the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign—just kicked off its third season. To celebrate, we've gathered up some behind-the-scenes facts about the gorgeous, Buckingham Palace-set period piece.

1. Jenna Coleman left Doctor Who to take the lead in Victoria.

In 2015, Jenna Coleman surprised Whovians everywhere when she announced that she was leaving Doctor Who after three years on the series, where she served as a companion to both the Eleventh (Matt Smith) and Twelfth (Peter Capaldi) Doctors. Almost as soon as her departure from Doctor Who was confirmed, her casting as the lead in Victoria was announced. Not long after Coleman made her debut as Queen Victoria, her former Doctor Who co-star, Matt Smith, began his two-year stint as Prince Philip on The Crown.

2. Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke was among the actresses rumored to be vying for the lead role.

Victoria was originally meant to air as a single eight-part miniseries (its popularity is what led to a second season … and then a third). Because the time commitment wasn’t so intense, a number of well-known actors’ names were being tossed around as potential stars for the project. Among them? Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke and Downton Abbey’s Lily James.

3. Coleman was given access to Queen Victoria’s personal diaries.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

In order to better help her get into the mindset of her character, Coleman was given access to Victoria’s private diaries. “I’ve read so many biographies, but I’m always looking for certain details which give me access to her character and her psychology,” Coleman told Vulture in 2017. “Her diaries are so methodological in a lot of ways. You can find out what she ate for breakfast and what time she did this and what time she rose and what time she did everything. The detail is crazy.”

4. Queen Victoria was an avid sketcher, which was enormously helpful to Coleman.

In addition to writing down even the most mundane details of her day, Victoria was an avid sketcher. Gaining access to the Queen's doodles gave Coleman an even deeper insight into Victoria's mind. “She sketched and had done watercolors since she was about five or six years old,” Coleman told Vulture. “You can see what she used to draw and what interested her from a really young age, and that probably gave me the best sense of her psyche. It’s been totally untouched. Nobody has been able to distort her views with her own eyes and her hands. It’s unfiltered in every way so they’re really, really interesting.” (You can see some of those sketches for yourself here.)

5. Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne's relationship was complicated.

Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of ITV Plc for MASTERPIECE

Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne (played by Rufus Sewell) is one of the series’ most dynamic and touching. And while it plays out as somewhat of one-sided love affair in season one, the truth wasn’t quite as romantic. Though she was sometimes referred to as “Mrs. Melbourne” in a mocking manner because of the prime minister's influence over the young queen, their relationship was more like a parental one.

“What’s so wonderful about Lord M and Victoria’s relationship is that it was the prime minister and the queen. It was dear friends,” Coleman told Vulture. “She was 18; he was technically 56 at the time. They made each other laugh. They were like father and daughter in many, many ways. You really can’t quite put a label on it, other than it’s two people who really connect and charm each other through mutual likes and interests. They had a really profound love, but what that love technically was is unclear … I think he was the first person who didn’t try to manipulate her and didn’t try to control her. He really gave her a voice so the trust between them was genuine and two-way. They went through a lot together. He was the person who guided her and shaped her and trained her for the first couple of years on the throne."

6. Keeping the child actors entertained can be a challenge.

Over the course of their marriage, Victoria and Albert had nine children together. So as the series has gone on, the number of babies and children on set has grown. Writing for Marie Claire, series creator Daisy Goodwin admitted that keeping the youngsters entertained can require some creative solutions:

"One of the tricks we use is to dress their mothers up as nursemaids to keep them right at their side—but sometimes the kids just won’t play ball. In one episode, Victoria comes home after a trip to Scotland and rushes in all excited to see the children, but they didn’t even turn round to look at her. A bag of sweets later, we got them at least to look up when their 'Mother' walked in."

7. Coleman likes playing a pregnant Queen best.

Queen Victoria famously loathed being pregnant, which we witness in the series. She “absolutely hated it,” Coleman told Town & Country. “She called it ‘being caught’ … [E]very time she gave birth to a child, it took her out of being able to be Queen. Each time that happened, she was being more and more and more removed. And she’s an impatient person; she doesn’t like being told to lie down. She just wanted to do her job. She had this exhilaration and love for her independence, I suppose. And she hated breastfeeding; she thought it was for cows, not for humans. So a lot of the things that came with her being a mother, she found pretty vile, I think."

Coleman feels quite differently about Victoria’s pregnancies—or at least about playing a pregnant Queen. “I think I enjoy playing her most when she’s pregnant because one, I don’t have to wear a corset, but then two, I get to kind of waddle around, and I feel like she can just be foul-tempered and rude,” Coleman said. “I relish playing her when she’s like that because she doesn’t really care what anybody thinks, in a way. She does when it comes to the public and her people, but ultimately, you get free reign to play Victoria irritable and in a bad mood, and I really love playing her when she’s like that."

8. The child actors have “no respect” for Victoria, according to Coleman.

JENNA COLEMAN as Victoria and TOM HUGHES as Albert in 'Victoria'
GARETH GATTRELL/ITV Plc for MASTERPIECE

When asked about what it’s like working with a handful of kids on a regular basis, Coleman described it as both “absolutely crazy” and “hilarious.” Especially because the children are too young to understand what it means to stay in character. “Imagine toddlers, and you put them on set, and you kind of just have to get what you can,” Coleman said of shooting with her onscreen kids. “It's unpredictable, and incredibly funny because kids do say the funniest things, and they say the funniest things during takes. They ask Queen Victoria for some Doritos. It just becomes chaos, and I just absolutely get the giggles. They should release some footage of what really happens when the kids come to set. There’s no respect to Victoria. They completely rule me."

9. Buckingham Palace is actually an old airplane hangar.

Much of the series takes place at Buckingham Palace, and the show’s production team has done an amazing job of recreating the splendor of the property and what it would have looked like during Victoria’s reign. The location of their set, however, is not quite so glamorous. “The set where we film the Buckingham Palace scenes is in an old aircraft hangar, and is home to all kinds of wildlife,” according to Goodwin. “We had to stop shooting a very tender scene between Victoria and Albert because an owl kept flying through the frame, attracted by the jewels in Victoria’s hair."

10. Lighting all those candles is no easy task.

Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, at about the same time that candlelight was being replaced with gas light in some of London’s most stately properties. While the switch to gas lighting has its own storyline in the series (there are rats involved), there were still a lot of candles to be lit on the set—about 300 in total. According to Goodwin, the process of lighting all those candles took an hour each time they shot.

11. The dog that plays Dash is no stranger to playing Dash.

Dash, Queen Victoria's prized dog, in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE

The adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that plays the Queen’s most trusted BFF Dash has some experience with the role. “The dog who played Dash is actually called Tory, and she made her screen debut playing the same role in the film Young Victoria starring Emily Blunt,” Goodwin wrote for Marie Claire.

12. A bird played an unanticipated role in Victoria and Albert’s proposal scene.

Much like Victoria herself, some viewers were surprised to learn that when a Queen decides it’s time to tie the knot, she must be the one who proposes. Making the scene in which Victoria proposes to Albert even more awkward and difficult was the fact that an uninvited bird kept interrupting the production.

"The proposal, on paper it looked like a great scene but to film it was a nightmare,” Tom Hughes, who plays Prince Albert, admitted at a screening of the episode. “[It took] about 50 [takes] because there was a stray bird upstairs in the roof. Every time I got to the point where I say, ‘I have to kiss you first’, [the bird] thought that it was the most hilarious line it had ever heard. It was making a variety of all different noises, so that was the tough scene to film."

13. Prince Albert could be the next James Bond.

At this point, there are a handful of actors who have been rumored to be “the next James Bond,” and Hughes is one of them. The actor reportedly caught the attention of James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli after playing an MI5 operative in 2014 BBC miniseries The Game. When asked about his thoughts on taking on the iconic 007 role, Hughes responded: “Would I like to be James Bond? There’s not many people who wouldn’t want to be James Bond.” Though he made it clear that he had not been approached about the role, he stated that “I’d love them to ask."

14. The Duchess of Buccleuch was not so outspoken in real life.

In season two, the legendary Diana Rigg (who played Emma Peel in The Avengers TV series back in the day, and Game of Thrones’s Olenna Tyrell more recently) joined the cast of Victoria as the Duchess of Buccleuch, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Though audiences love the character for her outspokenness, the real-life Duchess—who served as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes from 1841 to 1846—was not quite so frank. “The real Duchess of Buccleuch was younger and not quite as cantankerous as Diana Rigg’s portrayal,” Goodwin said. “[But] when you’ve got Diana Rigg, you go with that!"

15. Albert’s imminent death is coming, and it’s a bit of dark cloud.

Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of Gareth Gatrell/ITV Plc for MASTERPIECE

Prince Albert died in 1861 at the age of 42. While the official cause of death was typhoid fever, modern scholars believe that he may have been suffering from Crohn’s disease or abdominal cancer. Knowing that Victoria and Albert’s time is limited is a fact that the cast can’t ignore. When asked whether knowing how this story ends ever affects her performance or how she approaches the character, Coleman admitted that it does. “I think everyone knows it’s coming, and it’s really interesting because Tom [Hughes] and I look a bit older in this series, and we’re so many children in,” she told Town & Country. "You kind of have that creeping feeling, but we still have an amazing part of the story to tell."

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