The Harpy Hall of Fame is dedicated to those women who worked on behalf of advancing women’s rights, contributed to reshaping gender roles, or were just generally awesome and badass. Unstinting in their desire to achieve their goals, these remarkable women left legacies that continue to resonate today.
Fluent in several languages and well versed in law, music, rhetoric and history, Eleanor became Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers at age fifteen, inheriting the most fertile and prosperous territory in France. She quickly married Louis VII of France, an alliance that consolidated her wealth and his power. In 1147 she traveled with her husband to the Holy Land to take part in the Second Crusade, both as Queen and as feudal leader of her Aquitanian army. The Crusade was unsuccessful, but stories of Eleanor and her ladies riding astride like Amazons scandalized Europe.
Eleanor and Louis had two daughters, but their marriage was never a happy one; Louis was deeply pious and wanted a demure, subservient wife. Eleanor, wealthy and politically powerful in her own right, was anything but. She ultimately strong-armed the Pope into dissolving their marriage and returning all her lands and titles to her. Once a free woman, she thwarted two attempts by French dukes to kidnap her and force her into marriage. Only six weeks after her divorce in 1152, Eleanor proposed marriage to Henry, Duke of Normandy, a rough soldier known as the “red star of malice” for his red hair and ferocious temper. Henry was 11 years Eleanor’s junior, but her equal in drive and political savvy. Henry’s mother, Matilda, was herself a formidable woman who waged civil war in England for years when her throne was usurped by a male cousin. Henry ultimately inherited the English crown from his mother, making Eleanor Queen of England. They had eight children in thirteen years. By all accounts, it was a tempestuous marriage, and by 1167, fed up with Henry’s philandering, and tired of cold, rainy England, Eleanor moved back to Poitiers, where she established her own court. There she became an active patron of the arts, particularly the songs and poems of courtly love by Chretien de Troyes, which encouraged the chivalric tradition of loyalty and honor towards women.
In March 1173, Eleanor’s three older sons with Henry launched a revolt against their father’s rule. Eleanor encouraged her vassals in the south of France to rise up and support her sons. But when she left Poitiers to join the rebellion she was captured, the rebellion was crushed and Eleanor was sent to England as Henry’s prisoner. For the next 16 years she was kept under guard in various isolated castles, not allowed to return to Aquitaine or to join the English court except at Christmas. Her communications with her sons were closely monitored, but in 1183 her sons again rose up against their father. Her oldest son, Prince Henry, died in the revolt. It was not until King Henry’s death in 1189 that she was freed. A whole new life began for Eleanor; when her son, Richard I, went on Crusade, she stayed in England and ruled in his name. After Richard’s death, she was often served as an advisor and ambassador for her son King John, undertaking diplomatic missions well into her 70s.
A woman of astonishing physical stamina, Eleanor survived all her children except two, living to age 80. The average life expectancy for a woman was barely over 30 in that era, and although one in five women died in childbirth, Eleanor successfully bore ten children, the last when she was 40. At the end of her life, she retired to the abbey of Fontevrault in Anjou, where she died and is buried.
Eleanor’s descendants dominated Europe for the next 500 years. Her granddaughters included the powerful medieval queens Blanche and Berengaria of Castile, Urraca of Portugal and Scholastique of Champagne. Hundreds of books have been written about Eleanor, including a bestselling biography by Alison Weir and novels by Sharon Kay Penman and Pamela Kaufman. Eleanor is perhaps best known, though, as a character in James Goldman’s play “The Lion in Winter”, in which she was played by both Katharine Hepburn (her third Oscar win) and Glenn Close.