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.

The Smithsonian Needs Your Help Transcribing Sally Ride’s Notebooks

Sally Ride in 1984.
Sally Ride in 1984.
Coffeeandcrumbs, NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On June 18, 1983, Sally K. Ride made history when she became the first American woman to travel into space. Now, the Smithsonian Institution is making the history of her incredible decades-long career more accessible to everyone—and they need your help to do it.

The National Air and Space Museum Archives is home to the Sally K. Ride Papers, a collection of 38,640 physical pages (over 23 cubic feet) of material spanning Ride’s professional life as an astronaut, physicist, and educator from the 1970s to 2010s. Those resources have been scanned and used to create an online finding aid—not unlike a table of contents—so researchers can easily navigate through the wealth of information.

To simplify the searching process within that online finding aid, the Smithsonian Institution is asking for volunteers to transcribe documents in the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center, a digital hub launched in 2013, where anybody can sign up to type and review historical sources. Three projects from the Sally K. Ride Papers are currently available to transcribe, which include her notes for shuttle training between 1979 and 1981, notes about the Remote Manipulator System Arm (there's one on the International Space Station today), and notes from NASA commissions on which she served. One, for example, was the Rogers Commission, which investigated the causes of the fatal Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

You can find out more about the documents in the projects here, and if you’re interested in joining the forces of “volunpeers,” as the Smithsonian likes to call its transcribers, you can create a new user account here. (All you’ll need is a username and email address.)

Check out more citizen science projects you can participate in at home here.

12 Things You Might Not Know About Passover

iStock
iStock

For practicing Jews, Passover is a time to remember their deliverance from captivity in ancient Egypt. It's one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, and in the days before the first night's seder, families make preparations such as cleaning the home of chametz and planning for a week of meaningful dietary restrictions. Here are 12 facts about Passover that you wouldn't have learned from a yearly viewing of The Ten Commandments.

1. Firstborn sons need to fast for Passover.

matzo
iStock

The festival of Passover (or Pesach) commemorates the story of the Jews' escape from Egypt. The passover in question is when the houses of the observant Israelites in captivity were "passed over" as Egypt's first-born children were killed (although confusingly, in the Torah, the date the 14th of Nisan is referred to as Passover while the week-long celebration is the Festival of Matzot. They've since been combined into one celebration called Passover).

In celebration of the firstborns being saved, it is traditional for them to fast on 14 Nisan. If there are no children, the oldest member of the household fasts. If the firstborn is a daughter? That depends on the tradition of the community.

2. Passover lasts either seven or eight days.

reading the Haggadah at Passover
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The Torah says to celebrate Passover for seven days (the time between the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea), but many Jews outside of Israel celebrate for eight. Traditionally each month of the Jewish calendar was determined by an astronomical observation and could be either 29 or 30 days long. After a new month was determined, messengers spread the word. For Jews who lived too far away for messengers to bring timely news of a new month, it was safest to celebrate for an extra day, so no matter how long the previous month was, the holiday was celebrated.

Eventually the calendar was standardized and the eight-day custom was no longer needed. Today, some Jewish denominations outside of Israel (like Reform Judaism) celebrate the mandated seven days, while many others prefer eight days. Inside Israel it's generally seven.

3. Leavened grains are a no-go at Passover.

Person sweeping the floor
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One of the most important parts of Passover preparations is cleaning the house of chametz, or leavened food. Even the tiniest bit has to go. Because the Jews left Egypt in such a hurry, it's said they didn't have time to leaven their bread. To commemorate that, five grains (traditionally wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats) are banished from the house. Jews can spend weeks ensuring that the house is perfectly clean—and there are even professional chametz cleaning services that say they'll boil toys, break down and reassemble kitchen chairs … and possibly still leave the house dirty. There's a saying in Jewish households: "Dust is not chametz." The goal is to get rid of chametz above all else.

4. Matzo, which is made from wheat, is one of the most important parts of a Passover meal.

baking matzo
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While there are restrictions against leavened products, one of the most important parts of a Passover meal is matzo, which is made from wheat. The difference between matzo and regular bread is that the wheat in matzo cannot come into contact with any water until it's ready to be cooked. And once water and wheat are mixed it has to be baked within 18 minutes (sources differ as to whether the timer stops when it enters or leaves the oven). After 18 minutes, fermentation begins and it is chametz.

But why 18 minutes? Supposedly it's because that's how long it takes to walk between the cities of Migdal Nunaiya and Tiberias in Israel. Over the years, scholars have argued about how long it would actually take to walk between the cities, with some proposing that copying errors reduced the distance from circa 4 miles to 1 and thus reduced the time from 72 minutes to 18. Nowadays, it's felt that even if there was a transcribing error, there's enough tradition to use 18 minutes.

5. Grains get complicated during Passover.

matzo ball soup
iStock

As Jews spread around the world, they often found themselves faced with foods that weren't explicitly mentioned for Passover. Sephardic Jews (generally) feel that only the five expressly mentioned grains are forbidden, while Ashkenazi Jews worry that the dishes made from certain other plants that look similar and are grown in similar conditions as the forbidden grains will risk contamination between the two. So if these ingredients (called kitniyot, or "legumes") were avoided, actual chametz could more easily be avoided (although kitniyot is nowhere near as regulated as chametz).

But recently, some authorities have argued that improved technology and storing methods have rendered the old methods obsolete. It's a current debate in some communities.

6. Some of the best matzo flour is made in Arizona.

field of wheat
iStock

One of the most difficult parts of making matzo is keeping the flour dry before it's ready to be converted into matzo; any water risks converting flour into chametz. So, according to The New York Times, one sect of Hasidic Jews has found the perfect farming conditions to produce their wheat—the arid fields of southwestern Arizona. The group of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, New York, work with a farm in Yuma, Arizona, to ensure that no unwanted moisture affects the crop, and the resulting kosher wheat is shipped back east to make up to 100,000 pounds of matzo.

7. Pets also get special food during Passover.

cute dog with head tilted
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For Passover, houses must be free of chametz and there can be no benefit derived from it. This includes pet food. In keeping with this, there are Passover-friendly pet foods out there, and some Rabbinical authorities propose switching out your pet's diet for a few days—such as giving dogs straight meat or herbivores a variety of approved vegetables. If a pet must have a specific type of food—or you can't get Passover-friendly pet food—some observant Jews follow the rabbinical authorities who give the option to sell the pet to a gentile for a few days and then get it back after Passover has ended.

8. There are six symbolic Passover foods.

seder plate for Passover
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The focal point of the start of Passover is the Seder plate, and on it are six ceremonial items:

Beitzah—A cooked egg, representing sacrifice (it's also been suggested that while most foods soften when you cook them, eggs get harder, representing the resolve of the Jewish people)

Haroset—a sweet mix of fruits, nuts, and honey/wine that symbolizes the mortar used by Jews during their slavery

Karpas—a green vegetable signifying new life

Maror and hazeret—bitter herbs (often horseradish for maror and something like romaine for hazeret) to represent the bitterness of slavery

Zeroa—a shank bone (or a chicken neck) to remember the Paschal sacrifice.

9. Sometimes an orange is added to the Seder plate.

slice of orange
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In the 1980s, Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel spoke on a panel at Oberlin College. While there, she met some students who told a story of a rabbi who said "There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate." In response, they started placing a crust on their plates.

Heschel was inspired, but felt that using bread sent the wrong message, writing "it renders everything chametz … [suggesting] that being a lesbian is being transgressive, violating Judaism." So she proposed putting an orange (originally a tangerine) on the Seder plate to symbolize Jewish gays and lesbians. At some point a story emerged that it was actually to symbolize women in general, but Heschel explained: "A woman's words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn't that precisely what's happened over the centuries to women's ideas?"

Other more modern additions include pine cones (symbolizing mass incarceration), an artichoke (to recognize interfaith families), or tomatoes or Fair Trade chocolate (to remember that there's still slavery around the world).

10. Some major companies produce special kosher-for-Passover food and beverages.

ad for kosher Coca-Cola
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC-BY-2.0

Many companies produce special kosher-for-Passover products, from chocolate syrup to cake mixes. But one of the most important is Coca-Cola. In the early 20th century Rabbi Tobias Geffen was serving as an Orthodox Rabbi in Atlanta. Due to his location (Coca-Cola was invented and is headquartered in Atlanta), he was frequently asked if Coca-Cola was kosher. After analyzing the product, he found two problem ingredients—alcohol and glycerin.

The alcohol was a problem because it was grain-derived and thus unacceptable for Passover, a problem that was solved by switching to fermented molasses. The other problem, however, was glycerin. The glycerin was derived from animals, and there was simply no economic way to ensure the animals were kosher. As Roger Horowitz explains in Kosher USA, there's an exemption in the rules for a tiny amount of an unacceptable ingredient—designed to cover mistakes—and Coca-Cola's glycerin content was dramatically below that level. Rabbi Geffen, however, believed that since the glycerin was deliberately added, it didn't qualify for this rule. Soon though, a new source of glycerin from cottonseed oil emerged, and Coca-Cola was approved for Passover.

When Coca-Cola switched to high fructose corn syrup, however, that created a problem for Ashkenazi Jews. As such, today there's a special yellow-capped Coca-Cola that doesn't use HFCS and is certified kosher.

11. Maxwell House coffee holds a special place at Passover.

Maxwell House Haggadahs
Tom Lappin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

But the most influential company is likely Maxwell House. In the 1920s they decided to expand their presence to Jewish families—but there was a problem. Colloquially known as coffee "beans," there was a view that they were legumes, and as such forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews. Soon Maxwell House convinced reluctant coffee drinkers that their product was acceptable and in 1932 the company began publishing the Maxwell House Haggadah (the Haggadah is the telling of the Exodus and how to perform a seder meal). In the years since, Maxwell House estimates that it has published 50 million Haggadahs, which were even the preferred text for the Obama White House Seder.

12. The world's largest Seder happens in a surprising location.

Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/Getty Images

Going on for almost 30 years and hosting over 1000 people, the Kathmandu Seder was started in 1989 by the Israeli ambassador to Nepal, who quickly realized that the demand was much higher than he was ready for. The ambassador contacted a rabbi friend who dispatched two rabbinical students to aid the preparations. The seder was a massive success—expecting 90 guests and hoping for 150, they ultimately had 500 guests.

Nowadays, preparations for the seder start months in advance, with 1000 bottles of wine and over 1000 pounds of matzo getting shipped in from the United States and Israel.

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