Sex & The Citadel: Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Courtly Love Myth

As the sun shone brightly through the windows of the great hall of the Maubergeonne Tower, Eleanor, Queen of England and Duchess of Aquitaine settled to hear the case brought before her. With her daughter and other prominent ladies of the court at her side, the very embodiment of courtly poise and authority, Eleanor listened as two knights – one young and of bad character, the other old but of good – petitioned for her decision on a matter of great importance.

Both men desired the love of the same woman. The younger argued that if the object of their affections chose him, then he might be inspired to be a better man and, due to his youth, might change his character. The queen, however, was not convinced. That may indeed be true, but even if he did, with time, change his character, it was not a wise decision for the young woman to love someone with so bad a reputation, especially when one more deserving also vied for her affections. No, Eleanor decided, his current character was bad and there was nothing to promise that he would change: so saying, she pronounced for the older, more suitable suitor, settling yet another matter brought before the renowned Courts of Love.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, the duchess who was queen to two separate monarchs during her lifetime, has long been regarded as the epitome of a 12th century era of romance and chivalry. As the popular story goes, Eleanor, upon her separation from second husband Henry II of England, returned to her ancestral lands of Aquitaine in what is now south-west France. The area was in great ferment, the nobles rebellious, the people disordered and unmannered, and in desperate need of guidance and control. The more than competent Eleanor rose to the challenge, and set about bringing peace and harmony to her troubled realm.

The Maubergeonne Tower in Poitiers where she established her court was luxurious, spacious and grand. It was from there that Eleanor saw to the calming of her disordered province, turning a land of barbarity and bad manners into a revived social and economic centre. It was to this haven of civilisation that many came to witness the miracle that had been wrought: knights, troubadours and poets, all came to pay Eleanor homage and to sample the sophistication and virtue of her court.

Queen Eleanor by Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), from the National Museum Wales

Not only that, Eleanor and her graceful companions were said to have presided over a set of actual courts: the Courts of Love. During the sittings of these courts, knights brought their disputes over romance and love, whereupon the women would pronounce judgement, their decision final. Under Eleanor’s careful guidance, the ideas of courtly love flourished and knights learned how to be true knights: each devotedly pining for his mistress, pledging his affections to her alone as he strove to prove his worth by his deeds and gain her love. In short, while stories of Arthur and his gallant knights flourished throughout Christendom, Eleanor and her ladies were living the reality – Poitiers little short of a real life Camelot.

That is, at least, the most popular conception of the woman who is so often labelled as the queen of courtly love. Despite the enduring nature of the legend, how much truth is there in the deeds and ideas that have been ascribed to one of Europe’s most romanticised women?

The ideas contained within the concept of ‘courtly love’, the noble and chivalric ideas on how a knight or suitor should behave to the object of his desire, had been in existence long before Eleanor’s move to Poitiers. Indeed, they were part and parcel of the general move towards a more mannered, less chaotic society that was taking hold throughout the 12th century, with an overall stress placed on virtue and nobility. There had also been talk of Courts of Love before her time – the idea of noble women pronouncing over affairs of the heart, while matters of state were dealt with by their husbands. Therefore it seems that Eleanor cannot be credited with being the first to promote such ideas. In fact there is little evidence for her having personally advanced the concept during her time at Poitiers at all. Likewise, the idea that Eleanor brought her civilised and cultured southern ideas to the barbarous north with her marriage to Louis VII of France, and again to the less-mannered English court in a precursor to the transformation effected in Poitiers is on shaky ground.

Alas for legend, the French court, and Paris in particular, was already excelling in culture and the arts, and over her lifetime there is little evidence that Eleanor’s patronage of the arts was any greater than other noblewomen of her era. It can be argued, therefore, that Eleanor’s part in spreading the concept of everything courtly is as much a literary creation as the exploits of Arthur and his knights.

The wedding of Louis VIII and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the Grandes Chroniques de France, courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries

What, then, of the Courts of Love themselves? Another part of the legend of Eleanor states that among those who came to stay with her at Poitiers were the daughters of prosperous families, seeking to finish their education. As the story goes, Eleanor entrusted this important task to Marie, her daughter from her marriage to Louis VII, and Countess of Champagne. Marie came readily, bringing with her a man by the name of Andreas Capellanus, who may have been a chaplain within her household. Finding that the young people in her care were not receptive to her teachings however, Marie was left with a dilemma. As a solution, and with Eleanor’s approval she charged Andreas with writing a text to help in her teaching, based on a subject that could not fail to hold their interest: love.

Andreas Capellanus did indeed write such a book: known as De Amore, or ‘About Love’, it was inspired by Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, translated as ‘The Arts Of Love’. The premise of the work is that of the author informing his pupil, Walter, of the dangers of love that await him. Whereas in Ovid’s work the pursued woman was at the mercy of her would-be suitor, Andreas Capellanus turned this concept on its head in his revolutionary text: in De Amore, the woman was in control, taking charge of the developing relationship, her admirer in turn her vassal, the one who must prove himself worthy of her. De Amore consisted of three books: the first discussed the origins of the concept of love and how it should be defined, while the second consisted of a series of dialogues or conversations, showing how the process of romance should take place. The third book in turn was made up of cases from the supposedly ‘real life’ Courts of Love, presided over by Eleanor and her associates.

The judgements of the court were based, according to the author, on a series of 31 articles, that included among them such pearls of wisdom as, ‘Moral integrity alone makes one worthy of love’ and ‘The true lover believes only that which he thinks will please his beloved’. Eleanor is specifically referenced in several places throughout the text, including the case of a woman who refused to take back a former lover. He had previously asked for, and been granted, her permission to show his affections to another, but returned to his original mistress, having remained faithful during his absence, begging to be reinstated. The woman, however, was having none of it, and the man went before the courts to plead his case. Eleanor is said to have declared in favour of the knight, as he had indeed remained faithful. Her daughter Marie is also referenced, on one occasion asked to settle whether true love can exist between man and wife, ruling in the end with the rather galling verdict that it is actually impossible.

However, all is again not as it seems. Although the book existed, Eleanor’s input was non-existent, her only connection being that she is mentioned within it, along with several other prominent women of the time. Far from being written to help teach the young ladies at her court at the behest of her daughter, there is in fact no evidence that links Marie de Champagne to Eleanor’s court at Poitiers. Marie, one of two daughters to Eleanor and Louis VII, was seven when her parents separated, and there is no hard evidence that Eleanor and Marie ever saw each other again after that. There is also, outside of Capellanus’s work, (which was written after Eleanor left Poitiers) no other contemporary mention of the Courts of Love. Therefore, in the words of one historian, Alison Weir, the Courts of Love that were generally held to be the case by so many and still believed today, were “no more than a literary conceit” invented by Capellanus.

A 14th century German coffret from the Upper Rhineland depicting the goddess of love aiming an arrow at a young man, who the surrenders his heart. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Rogers Fund and The Cloisters Collection, by exchange, 1950

It seems then that Capellanus was the real originator of tales of Eleanor’s involvement with the courtly love movement, and although the legend has proved enduring, the historical veracity of claims for the Courts of Love came into question as early as the 19th century. Since then, differing interpretations of Capellanus’s work have been suggested, among them that De Amore should be read as a satire highlighting the corruptness of the worldly court, taking it away from a straight historical telling of events. One way of reconciling the literary with the factual has been suggested – that the “courts” were in fact literary or social gatherings, rather than actual courts. During these gatherings, matters of love and nobility would have been discussed as a matter of course, and Eleanor and her ladies would therefore have given their opinions. The very phrase “courtly love” itself was not in use during Eleanor’s time and was in fact popularised by Gaston Paris in 1883. There he described it as “idolisation and ennobling discipline,” through which a lover strives to prove himself worthy of his chosen mistress.

Although it may seem the idea of the queen of courtly love lies in tatters, there is still hope to be had. For although factually inaccurate, the legend of Eleanor and her patronage of courtly love has proved most tenacious for a number of reasons, and the falsehoods are as illuminating as the truths. For whatever scholars reveal, the link between Eleanor and the romantic legend endures, and it is not hard to see why.

Eleanor was in fact a most fitting choice for the role legend has bestowed upon her. The grand-daughter of the man known as the ‘first’ troubadour, William IX of Aquitaine, it could be said she had courtly love in her blood. She was, by all accounts, greatly attractive. She dressed well and had a penchant for fine fabrics and jewellery, looking the ‘part’ of a courtly queen.

Looks aside, there is no doubt Eleanor was an all-round outstanding woman. In an age where women were woefully lacking in political power, Eleanor governed her own lands and those of her husband, both in conjunction with her spouse and, at times, in his stead. In fact, it can be seen that she did not allow herself to be relegated to the traditional place of women – submissive, not dominant. Highlighting this is Eleanor’s actions after the annulment of her marriage to Louis; knowing full well that, as a single woman and heiress to a great region that covered a large area of modern-day south-west France, she was unprotected and vulnerable, she chose as her next husband a man who she not only married without Louis’s permission but who was also his rival.
She was also considered more than capable of governing by her second husband, Henry II of England. It is generally believed that Eleanor moving to Aquitaine was due to the breakup of their marriage. At that point, however, such a separation was not entirely out of the norm, as they had lived apart at various points during their marriage already, and it was at some point after her move that they decide to end the marriage. On the contrary, the move was beneficial to Henry, who realised quickly that Eleanor’s presence might do much to calm the troubled lands that, through his marriage, had become his concern. He expected that she would soothe the rift by her presence and good judgement, and it seemed she did just that.

More details The troubadour Perdigon playing his fiddle on a 13th century manuscript

Despite the lack of evidence for Marie’s presence at Poitiers, or her role in educating the young ladies of the court, Eleanor did have many ladies in her household, with as many as 60 noted at some points during the course of her residing there. Although her daughters from her first marriage were not at Poitiers, the children from Eleanor’s marriage to Henry lived with her for some time, along with her daughter-in-law and the future brides of her sons. Although the women credited with presiding over the Courts of Love were now generally believed not to have been there, their names would, as Capellanus knew full well, carry with them an authority and prestige when he evoked them in his work. That he chose Eleanor among them reflects her influence, and the great weight it carried within the context of the work made it easy for readers to imagine Eleanor in the position he placed her.

There is, however, a fascinating and verifiable story surrounding Eleanor that puts her in the very centre of a case worthy of the legends themselves. Around 1153, before Eleanor settled at Poitiers, the noted troubadour Bernard de Ventadour came to Eleanor’s court. A man with a sketchy reputation – he was rumoured to have attempted to seduce the wife of his patron before leaving his Limousin home – he was deeply enamoured with Eleanor. In his verses, he declares her the most beautiful of all women, his feelings for her stronger than any that ever existed, and his poems written to her are the embodiment of the movement later to be attributed to the object of his affections. It is generally held that Eleanor did not return his feelings: the foray was brought to an end when Henry summoned the hapless troubadour to England, on the pretext of needing his expertise. Indeed, the troubadours themselves as a whole were instrumental in continuing to build the reputation that would come: referred to as “more than a lady” and with her virtues extolled by many, works continued to be dedicated to her as a matter of course.

The spread of the legends of King Arthur and his knights also became entangled with that of Eleanor: made popular in the earlier half of the 12th century with the advent of Geoffery of Monmouth’s history, the chivalrous group caught the imagination of many, and in a blending of traditions, it has been suggested Eleanor was in fact the inspiration behind some of the later emerging stories of Guinevere. She has been identified by many in works of the time, including that of Marie de France, the idea of Eleanor in the guise of Guinevere or Iseult compelling enough to overcome the rationalising that any number of women from the time could fit those roles and nothing stands out to link them to Eleanor. The work of Capellanus, in which Eleanor played such a part, was instrumental in influencing Gaston Paris, who in turn popularised the concept and legend of courtly love, and it was ultimately Eleanor’s dramatic role in Capellanus’s work that elevated her reputation into the realms of legend. Along with Capellanus and Paris, more recent works from current authors has done much to keep the image of Eleanor as the courtly queen alive and flourishing, the misconceptions within repeated to this day despite scholarly attempts to the contrary.

It could be argued, given the enduring nature of the legend, that the lack of factual truth surrounding Eleanor’s part in the creation of courtly love matters little to those who subscribe to the cult of Eleanor, and in fact the fabrications have been more influential than the woman herself ever was. In the popular imagination at least, Eleanor remains the queen of courtly love.

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  • MR Evans, R, Inventing Eleanor: The Medieval And Post-Medieval Image Of Eleanor Of Aquitaine, Bloomsbury 2014
  • F Swabey, Eleanor Of Aquitaine: Courtly Love And The Troubadours, Greenwood Publishing 2004
  • A Weir, Eleanor Of Aquitaine: By The Wrath Of God, Queen Of England, Random House 1999