by Susan Flantzer
Born on October 13, 1161 at Domfront Castle in Normandy (France), Eleanor was the second of the three daughters and the sixth of the eight children of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was named for her mother and was baptized by Henry of Marcy who was the Abbot of Hautecombe Abbey in France at the time and later was Cardinal Bishop of Albano in Italy. Her godfathers were Robert of Torigni, a Norman monk, prior, abbot and an important chronicler, and Achard of St. Victor, Bishop of Avranches.
Eleanor had seven siblings:
- William IX, Count of Poitiers (1153 – 1156), died in childhood
- Henry the Young King (1155 – 1183), married Marguerite of France, no issue
- Matilda, Duchess of Saxony and Bavaria (1156 – 1189), married Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, had issue
- King Richard I of England (1157 – 1199), married Berengaria of Navarre, no issue
- Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany (1158 – 1186), married Constance, Duchess of Brittany, had issue
- Joan, Queen of Sicily (1165 – 1199), married (1) King William II of Sicily, no surviving issue (2) Raymond VI of Toulouse, had issue
- King John of England (1166 – 1216), married 1) Isabella, Countess of Gloucester, marriage annulled, no issue (2) Isabella, Countess of Angoulême; had issue
It is possible that Eleanor and her younger sister Joan were brought up at Fontevrault Abbey near Chinon, in Anjou, France, but neither of them were to become nuns as their marriages would be used for their father’s alliances. In 1165, envoys from the Holy Roman Empire came to Rouen, Normandy with the purpose of negotiating two marriages with King Henry II, one between Eleanor and a son of Friedrich I (Barbarossa), Holy Roman Emperor, and the other between his eldest daughter Matilda and Heinrich the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, who was a cousin of Friedrich I (Barbarossa), Holy Roman Emperor. The marriage plans for Eleanor fell through, however, her sister Matilda did marry Heinrich the Lion. Instead, Henry decided to use Eleanor’s marriage to cement an alliance with the Kingdom of Castile and prevent Castile from making an alliance with France.
In 1170, Raoul de Faye, the Seneschal of Poitou and a trusted adviser of Eleanor of Aquitaine, negotiated a marriage for nine-year-old Eleanor with the 15-year-old King Alfonso VIII of Castile, who had succeeded to the throne at the age of three. The marriage treaty provided Alfonso with a powerful ally against his uncle, King Sancho VI of Navarre, who had seized some of Alfonso’s land along the Castile-Navarre border. The treaty also served to reinforce the border along the Pyrenees Mountains between Henry’s French territory and the Spanish kingdoms. Eleanor was to receive the County of Gascony, directly north of the Pyrenees Mountains, as a dowry but only upon the death of her mother as it was one of her mother’s territories. Due to the bride’s young age, the marriage was postponed. In September of 1177, Eleanor was sent to Castile where she married Alfonso VIII at the Romanesque-style Burgos Cathedral. Thereafter, she was known as Leonor, the Spanish version of Eleanor. The marriage was happy and successful.
Eleanor and Alfonso had twelve children:
- Berengaria, Queen of Castile (1180 – 1246), married (1) Conrad II, Duke of Swabia, no issue, marriage annulled (2) King Alfonso IX of León, had issue; was regent of her minor brother King Enrique I and then Queen of Castile in her own right after the death of Enrique, abdicated in favor of her son Fernando III of Castile who would re-unite the kingdoms of Castile and León
- Sancho (born and died 1181)
- Sancha (1182 – 1184)
- Enrique (born and died 1184)
- Urraca (1186 – 1220), married King Afonso II of Portugal, had issue
- Blanca (1188 – 1252), married to King Louis VIII of France, had issue
- Fernando (1189 – 1211, unmarried
- Mafalda (1191 – 1204), unmarried
- Leonor (1200 – 1244), married King Jaime I of Aragon, had issue, marriage annulled
- Constanza (circa 1202 – 1243), nun at the Cistercian monastery of Santa María la Real at Las Huelgas
- Enrique I, King of Castile (1204 – 1217), unmarried, only surviving son, succeeded his father under a regency of his mother and later his oldest sister, killed when he was struck by a tile falling from a roof
Eleanor was particularly interested in supporting religious institutions. In 1179, she had a shrine built at Toledo Cathedral in honor of St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had been murdered at Canterbury Cathedral by four of her father’s knights. In 1187, Eleanor and Alfonso founded the Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, a monastery of Cistercian nuns located near the city of Burgos now in Spain. The monastery became the burial place of the Castilian royal family. A hospital was also created at the abbey to feed and care for the pilgrims who were traveling along the Camino de Santiago, the road to the to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Eleanor and Alfonso’s youngest daughter Constanza became a nun at the Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas.
King Alfonso VIII of Castile died from a fever on October 5, 1214 at the age of 58. Eleanor was so distraught over his death that she was unable to attend his funeral. Instead, her eldest daughter Berengaria stood in for her. Eleanor then became ill and died on October 31, 1214 at the age of 53, less than a month after the death of her husband. Eleanor and Alfonso were buried at the abbey they founded, the Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas. The tombs containing the remains of Alfonso VIII, King of Castile and Eleanor, Queen of Castile were placed next to each other in the nave of the church of the abbey at the beginning of the choir.
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