Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
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Historical Notes on the reign of King John

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) was a powerful and dynamic figure: noted for her beauty, intelligence and energy, she was wife of two kings, mother of two more, political activist, patron of the arts, and lover of French courtly romance. She lived for eighty-two full years and accomplished remarkable feats in her old age, despite having given birth to ten children and having lived in imprisonment for over a decade.

Queen of France

At the age of fifteen, Eleanor married the heir to the French throne, later Louis VII of France. Initially, Louis was enthralled by Eleanor and was willing to embrace her fascination with the current fashion of courtly love, but after Eleanor's sister eloped with his married brother and war ensued, Louis became extremely devout and ascetic -- qualities which Eleanor held in contempt. She accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade with a group of her ladies, all of whom dressed in armor and were a constant source of irritation. Returning from the crusade, Louis arranged an annulment on the grounds of consanguinity, as they were distantly related.

Queen of England

As the ruler of the dukedom of Aquitaine, Eleanor was required to pay homage to the present king of France, but had authority to rule without interference. Her second marriage was to Henry II, count of Anjou; although she was eleven years older than Henry, she was a good match, possessing both beauty and a sizeable inheritance. In 1154, Henry succeeded Stephen of Blois as the King of England, and Eleanor became Queen. She bore eight children to Henry (seven of whom survived). In due course, Eleanor and Henry became estranged, probably as a result of their difference in age and Henry's predilection for mistresses. In 1172, Eleanor was captured while conspiring with her older sons in rebellion against their father, and was imprisoned at Winchester for the remainder of her husband's life.

Queen Mother

Richard Coeur-de-Lion (Lionheart) was Eleanor's favorite son: handsome, courageous, and artistic, he embodied the courtly ideals that his mother greatly admired. When his father Henry died, Richard ordered that Eleanor be released from confinement, and gave her authority to act as regent while he was on crusade. She immediately worked to gain support for Richard throughout the kingdom and released many of her late husband's prisoners. She was present at Richard's coronation and had enough influence over him to successfully plead with him to lift his younger brother John's banishment from England. As a result, she was obliged to return to England to restrain John from political intrigues, and was later forced to oppose John's plotting with Philip Augustus to gain custody of Richard from the duke of Austria and the emperor of Germany. When Richard was ultimately released, she herself went to fetch him from Germany, although she was in her seventies at the time.

25When Richard died, Eleanor immediately began to support John's succession, marking the beginning of a close relationship that lasted throughout his reign -- one that Shakespeare captures and emphasizes in the play. Eleanor gained the support of Richard's mercenaries on John's behalf, and attacked her own grandson, Arthur, while John was being crowned in England. Remarkably, Eleanor made the difficult journey to Castile in order to secure her niece -- Blanche -- for marriage to Louis -- Philip's heir -- in order to consolidate the peace treaty of Le Goulet. Tired by this long journey, Eleanor retired to the abbey of Fontrevault. During the next outbreak of war between England and France in 1202, Eleanor left Fontevrault to secure John's interests in Poitiers when she was beset by her grandson Arthur and trapped in the castle of Mirebeau. On hearing of this, John immediately set forth to rescue her and rapidly won a resounding victory, capturing Arthur and many others. Two years later she died, on 1 April 1204, at the remarkable age of 82. She was buried at Fontevrault alongside her second husband and Richard Coeur-de-Lion.