We tend to think of Eleanor of Aquitaine as a triumphant, successful and powerful figure. This is certainly a fair representation of her later life. But it utterly ignores both the limited power she had earlier in her life – and the astonishing series of events she survived which turned her into someone who ought to be seen as an icon of learned resilience.

Let’s just list these out:

  • Lost her mother aged about 6
  • Orphaned aged 13
  • Arranged marriage with Louis VII of France, which involved her leaving the country at about the same age
  • Because of her massive inheritance and the unpopularity of the marriage with her vassals she and her new husband were under threat of capture until they made it back into French lands. Effectively she had to flee her own lands the night of her wedding.
  • Went on Crusade – on the way to the Holy Land she was present at a massive and bloody battle during the course of which her husband was nearly killed. She would have seen people killed and endured the aftermath of the battle – with many wounded and much of the baggage train stolen, the army limped barefoot into the next town.
The famous ‘Plantagenet fresco’ in the chapel devoted to St Radegonde at
Chinon. There is a huge range of theories about who is depicted – and whether
Eleanor is the regal figure in the centre. (Chinpat, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Amberley Publishing)
  • Witness to the decision made by her husband to abandon the majority of the army in hostile territory when there were insufficient ships to transfer them on the final leg. Most of those left behind perished or were enslaved.
  • Abducted by her own husband when she asked for a divorce, and refused to go further with him.
  • Taken prisoner by pirates on her way home from the Crusade.
  • Forced to leave her two daughters with her husband on divorce.
  • After her eventual divorce from Louis, the subject of two abduction attempts on her way back to her own lands.
  • Loss of her first son by Henry aged just two.
  • Gave birth to 8 children in 13 years. The last when she was aged in her early forties.
  • Nearly captured by rebel vassals. Witnessed the murder of her military guard.
  • Forced to leave her two youngest children in a safe location because of difficulties with security and/or trust issues with her second husband.
  • Had to choose between husband and children when her sons rebelled against Henry.
  • Imprisoned for fifteen years by Henry.
  • Deaths during that time of two of her sons by Henry – Henry the Young King and Geoffrey Count of Brittany and her eldest daughter.
  • Aged 65+: Travelling over the Pyrenees and Alps in winter 1190-1 – to bring Berengaria of Navarre to Richard in Sicily. Then (the next day) turning round and travelling right back.
  • Capture of Richard on his return from crusade. Months not knowing if he was alive or dead. Needed to organise ransom and coastal defences for England to prevent invasion.
  • Aged 74-5: Death of Richard: Eleanor rode 180 km to his deathbed (gangrene – very, very unpleasant) and then organised his funeral and the accession of her youngest son John.
Eleanor raced to attend Richard’s deathbed, and oversaw his burial and remembrance. (AYArktos, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Amberley Publishing)
  • Present at the death of her youngest daughter Joanna in childbirth. Travelled the length of the country to organise her funeral and her will.
  • Aged 77: travels over the Pyrenees to visit her daughter the Queen of Castile, and choose a new Queen for France.
  • Aged 78: Held captive in her castle of Mirabeau by an army commanded by her own grandson Arthur.
  • In her final months becomes aware that her grandson Arthur has been murdered by her son John.
  • By the time Eleanor dies, in 1204 aged eighty, she has outlived all but two of her children and a number of the grandchildren she was closest to.
Eleanor had full control of how she would be seen by us – she commissioned her own tomb image, the first recorded instance of a lay woman reading. (Touriste, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Amberley Publishing)

It is breathtaking isn’t it? You come out of this list wondering how Eleanor was still standing – let alone flourishing – in her later years.

But interestingly, if you look at some modern tips for building resilience, Eleanor seems to have been very in tune with modern wisdom on this important point.

Take these resilience suggestions (borrowed with thanks from American Psychological Association, VeryWell Mind, and others):

  • Have a sense of purpose in your life: Eleanor had strong religious belief. She maintained an unusual number of churchmen in her household, and spent lavishly on her own chapel. She also kept very busy (see below).
  • Build strong social networks: Eleanor worked hard to build strong relationships with her children – spending an unusual amount of time with her children for a woman in her position. She also built strong links to others – the charters showing gifts in her honour show that she had relationships with women who were her friends, girls she raised as foster children, and even with one of the people who acted as her jailer. The fact that the nobles of England petitioned her son Richard for her to be at his coronation shows that she also built strong ties with the male nobles who might have been expected to resent her power.
  • Embrace change: When her first marriage failed, Eleanor was the one to call time and say that she and Louis should divorce. It appears she may have initiated her initial separation from Henry II also. When Richard acceded to the throne, she was unhesitating in her acceptance of the challenging role of ruler of his lands while he concentrated on crusade.
  • Take decisive action: Eleanor did not respond to crises by freezing. Again and again we see her acting – not always sensibly but decisively. On crusade she decided to try to leave her husband when the marriage hit rock bottom. When her sons and husband were at odds, she picked a side. When Richard was taken prisoner she assembled the ransom, persuaded people to stand as hostages for its payment, and built up the country’s defences.
  • Nurture your health: Eleanor’s long life and her possession of a book of women’s medicine suggests a strong interest in maintaining her health. So too do the pictures in her psalter which show that she kept track of auspicious days for being bled (then a cutting edge wellness technique). Her interest in religion also provided an opportunity for what would now be seen as mindful time.
  • Eat and drink well: Eleanor’s household records show a keen interest in good wine, and her patronage of the kitchen at the Abbey to which she retired and institution of a chapel devoted to the patron saint of cooks hint at an equally strong interest in good food.
  • Get a change of scenery: Eleanor’s itinerary shows that she moved regularly around the areas that she was governing – seeing different places and people.
  • Develop your problem solving skills/take action to solve problems: Eleanor’s style was to tackle rather than avoid problems: she confronted the problems in her first marriage – first by seeking church intervention, and then by seeking an annulment. Later in her life she toured her lands extensively to monitor and deal with problems. With each problem dealt with, her skills grew.
  • Keep working on your skills: Even in her final years we see Eleanor developing and using her skills. In the siege of Mirabeau she bought vital time for her rescuers to get to her by engaging face to face with Arthur. A very late letter from her to her son John shows her triumphing in her skill in pulling off a very neat piece of diplomacy crossed with emotional blackmail of a vassal who was also a young relative of hers.

Sara Cockerill's book Eleanor of Aquitaine is available for purchase now.