In chess, the most powerful player on the board is the Queen. But up until the 1400’s, the Chess Queen’s power more accurately reflected the reality of her position in real life—that of a pawn. What changed the game of chess is a woman who also changed the Game of Thrones in medieval Europe: Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Born in 1122 in the south of France, Eleanor was raised by a father who educated her like a man, and named her heir to Aquitaine, his vast Duchy in south and southwest France. His lands dwarfed the then-kingdom of France and when he died, the King of France made a power grab for Eleanor’s inheritance by marrying her to his son Louis. But Eleanor retaliated with a strategic move that enabled her to stay in the game—she negotiated for the right to control her own lands. The King didn’t know it, but he’d just been placed in check.
She was only 15 when she made her move, but it was a play that mapped out the power structure in Europe for the next 300 years.
Even as Queen, living in 12th century Paris paled in comparison with sunny Provence, and her husband didn’t help the situation—Louis’ calling in life was religion, and he lived the ascetic, and celibate, life of a monk. In his fervor he declared for the Crusades, and Eleanor scandalized the Church and the power structure by making the trip with him–scandalous, because the only women who went on Crusade were the prostitutes who accompanied the troops. Perhaps coincidentally, she developed a reputation for sleeping with a number of men on the Crusade, including the King of Jerusalem. The rumors were so strong and the royal marriage so bad that the Church stepped in and attempted counseling, which worked long enough for her to bear two daughters. And then at the age of 30, she left Louis and her marriage—and took her lands with her.
Their divorce opened up a power vacuum on the political stage, and a number of men made attempts to kidnap Eleanor so they could force her into marriage and grab her lands. She outplayed all of them and made it back to her Duchy, where she sent for 19 year-old Henry Plantagenet and made him an offer of marriage. Henry was Duke of Angers and Normandy in North and Northwest France, and his lands equaled Eleanor’s in size. As importantly, their marriage created a combined territory that dominated the French kingdom, leaving Eleanor safe from any royal retaliation.
Eleanor added her resources to Henry’s and several years later he invaded England and laid claim to the throne. Henry and Eleanor were installed as King and Queen in London, and made England their base of operations for their vast empire in England and France. Eleanor bore eight children in 12 or so years, a situation that would have minimized the moves of many women. But like a Chess Queen, Eleanor moved freely all over England and France, traveling constantly to France and Aquitaine, and maintaining a firm grip on the government of her own territories. She also chose her own successor in Aquitaine—her son Richard the Lion Hearted (of Robin Hood fame).
After the birth of her youngest, Eleanor spent more and more time in Aquitaine. She reconciled with her daughters from her first marriage and nurtured the troubadours who wandered Provence. One of those troubadours was Chretien de Troyes, who is credited with the Lancelot stories in the tales of King Arthur. Eleanor is rumored to have been a writer herself, using the name Marie De France. And with her daughters, she was said to be the instigator of the Courts of Love—a tribunal that ruled on affairs of the heart. In one notable case a Count sued his wife for infidelity, because she had fallen in love with a knight. But Eleanor and her Courts ruled the wife was innocent because there was no such thing as marital love!
Her ruling might have been grounded in her own experiences—while she was in France, Henry took up with the fiancée of Richard (who was rumored to be gay and therefore not too troubled by it). Eleanor however had a different point of view and, with her four sons, led a rebellion against Henry. They lost and Henry placed Eleanor under house arrest for many years. But she outlasted him and when he died, her son Richard assumed the throne. Almost immediately, he gave it over to Eleanor and went on Crusade to Jerusalem (where he was reputed to have an affair with the Muslim leader, Saladin).
As the Queen mother, Eleanor excelled at territorial chess. She moved ceaselessly across the board, traveling throughout England to make her presence felt and the kingdom under control. She continued to safeguard Aquitaine, and even returned to the Holy Lands while Richard was on Crusade (bringing his wife to him in an attempt to get him to procreate. It failed).
She continued to travel around throughout her 70’s, arranging marriage alliances for her many grandchildren with thrones throughout Europe and the Holy Roman Empire. At 80, after a winter trip across the Alps to broker a marriage in Spain, Eleanor withdrew from the board and retired to a convent.
Long before the Chess Queen could move freely in a match, Eleanor moved independently and powerfully around medieval Europe. She strategized, gambled, went to war and brokered alliances. Eleanor refused to be check-mated by her gender. She didn’t play like a girl, she played the game to win. Her ability to dominate the board shaped the face of modern-day Europe and redefined the concept of female power.