Mary Bowser: Union Spy

Unverified photo of Mary Bowser

Not our Mary; but a photo often confused for her. I could not find any photos of Mary in specific.

So, I really wanted to do another LGBT woman to continue Pride Month, but the tragic attack in South Carolina, and the realization that today is Juneteenth, made me change my mind. Instead, I want to talk about a woman of color. And instead of talking about a fighter or a soldier, I want to talk about a spy.

I haven’t covered a female spy yet; I’ve mostly focused on women who took up arms or led armies. But spies participate in war just as much as any soldier or general, and though they may not be on the front lines, they risk their lives all the same. A captured soldier may sometimes rely on being taken as a prisoner of war and later returned home; but a captured spy is generally summarily executed. And the best spies are often those we don’t find out about until long after the war.

And so.

Meet Mary Bowser.

Mary was born a slave in or around 1839 in Richmond, Virginia. I tried to find out more about her parentage, but the only thing known is that she was born to a slave owned by the hardware merchant John Van Lew. John Van Lew was a ‘soft’ abolitionist, who freed Mary and eight other slaves in his will after his death in 1843. His daughter Elizabeth, who had been educated by Quakers and had strong abolitionist beliefs as a result, went even further. She used part of the Van Lew estate to buy the freedom of the freed slaves’ families (over the objections of her brother and mother).

Elizabeth Van Lew, Mary's patron and mentor.

Elizabeth Van Lew, Mary’s patron and mentor.

Mary, still a child, was retained in the Van Lew household as a servant; or, more likely, her mother was retained as a servant and Mary grew up in service (former slaves staying on as paid servants was common practice). However, Elizabeth, for reasons of her own, quickly took a special interest in young Mary. While most black Christians in Richmond received baptism at the First African Baptist Church, Mary was baptized in 1846, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a largely white church to which Elizabeth belonged. And when Mary’s natural intelligence and quick wit shone through, Elizabeth paid for Mary to be educated at Anthony Benezet‘s school for black children in Philadelphia.

Mary studied hard, and reportedly had a near-photographic memory. She could read a page and be able to recite what was written, nearly word-perfect. After graduating in 1855, Mary was sent as a missionary to Liberia (Liberia itself was a nation founded a few decades earlier with the intention of repatriating former slaves back to Africa). However, Mary’s letters to Elizabeth reveal a deep homesickness – Africa was not for Mary, and she returned to Virginia in 1860.

There is some indication that her travel papers were not entirely in order, and Mary was arrested in Richmond under suspicion of being an escaped slave. She may even have been flogged. However, Elizabeth came to her rescue! Supposedly, Elizabeth had to claim Mary was her slave, and was made to pay a fine levied against owners who let their slaves out without a pass. Later in life, Mary would allude to having spent four months in a Richmond jail; this may be the incident she speaks of.

The church where Mary was baptized (and possibly married).

The church where Mary was baptized (and possibly married).

At some point, she met and fell in love with a man named Wilson Bowser, a free black man who also worked in the Van Lew household, and married him on April 16, 1861 – four days after the start of the Civil War. Several months later, Jefferson Davis would move the rebel capital to Richmond, and the city became overrun with Confederate soldiers, officers and politicians.

This presented a golden opportunity for both Mary and Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, using Christian charity as her shield, began to deliver food and medicine to captured Union soldiers held at Libby Prison. She also feigned several tics, such as muttering to herself and not making eye contact. As a result, many thought her insane and took less care to guard their words around ‘Crazy Bet.’

However, the greatest acts of espionage were performed by Mary.

Mary developed the persona of ‘Ellen Bond,’ a slightly dim but hard-working woman. ‘Ellen’ was brought on to help with several social events hosted by Varina Davis, wife of wealthy rebel leader Jefferson Davis. Mary performed her duties so well that she was brought on as house staff, full-time.

Yes, that’s right.

A former slave and highly educated woman was given access to the top levels of the rebel army because neither Varina nor Jefferson assumed a black female servant could read or had the intelligence to make sense of complex political or strategic conversations. This was exceptionally brave of Mary. As I mentioned above, armies are not kind to spies caught in their midst – and I seriously doubt Jefferson would have been inclined to show mercy to a black woman caught spying in his own house. Mary certainly would have known this. Her race, which had held her back all her life, presented her with one unique opportunity to be of incredible aid to the Union. And Mary took it.

Rebel capital where Mary worked.

Rebel capital where Mary worked.

Mary cleaned the Davis house, helped serve dinner and tended to various domestic tasks. And she also eavesdropped on Jefferson’s conversations with his cabinet, read his mail and generally kept her finger on the pulse of the rebel army. She would pass this information on to a baker named Thomas McNiven, who was also part of the Union spy network in Richmond. Every few days, Thomas would deliver bread to the kitchens, and Mary would take the opportunity to tell him what she had learned; intelligence which Thomas then passed on (Thomas would later write that Mary was one of his best sources of intelligence; the only other spy who came close to her in providing useful information was a prostitute named Clara; another woman underestimated by the rebels).

Unfortunately, Union records were destroyed to protect Mary and Elizabeth after the war, and Mary’s personal journal was lost in the 1950s. So we don’t know precisely what she told McNiven. However, according to surviving reports, some of her intelligence made its way to General Grant, and influenced his decision-making. So she definitely had an impact! I also personally suspect that every now and then, an important letter or map would mysteriously go missing from Jefferson’s office.

Lee's surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse; based on a woodcut by Alfred R. Waud.

Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse; based on a woodcut by Alfred R. Waud.

Jefferson eventually realized someone in his household was leaking information, but Mary played her role as the slow servant so well that she was not considered seriously as a suspect. However, her partner, Thomas McNiven, was found out sometime in late 1864 or early 1865, and Mary knew the jig was up – everyone in the household knew she frequently spoke with Thomas, and suspicion fell naturally on her. Mary got out of there as quickly as possible, but she didn’t go quietly – she attempted unsuccessfully to burn down the Davis mansion on her way out. And when the Union army re-took Richmond, Mary’s mentor Elizabeth was the first person to raise the Union colors.

From here on out, unfortunately, not much is known about Mary. Elizabeth became a near-pariah in Richmond during Reconstruction. Even though her spy activities were largely unknown to her neighbors, they nevertheless knew she had supported the Union during the war. However, Mary’s wasn’t the last life she would influence – Maggie Walker, born to black Van Lew servants in 1864, would grow up to become the first black woman to charter a bank in the United States (among a long list of other accomplishments).

Maggie Walker, prominent black businesswoman.

Maggie Walker, prominent black businesswoman.

Mary did go on the lecture circuit, often speaking circumspectly about her espionage during the war; and there’s some evidence she also started a school and worked to educate former slaves and their children for many years.

Unfortunately, Mary was also smart enough to know which way the wind blew in post-Reconstruction Virginia. One of her only surviving letters speaks of her fear of white anger and resentment. She picked up in many residents what she called a “quiet but bitterly expressed feeling that I know portends evil,” and doubted the black community could advance in the South without federal protection.

The date of her death and the place of her burial are sadly unknown (though rumors exist that her descendants know precisely where she’s buried, but are keeping her grave a secret to protect it).

Mary shows up every now and then in pop culture. Lois M. Leveen, a Portland-based writer, has written a non-fiction column for the New York Times, “A Black Spy in the Confederate White House,” which she later expanded into the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Ted Lange wrote a play, Lady Patriot, which focuses narrowly on the relationships between Mary, Elizbeth and Varina. The play was performed in Santa Monica in 2012, to fairly good reviews. And, in 1995, her hard work was recognized when she was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, two years after Elizabeth.


American Civil War Story

Recollections of Thomas McNiven and his Activities in Richmond During the American Civil War

The Root


Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar: Swedish Corporal

Museum Exhibit featuring Ulrika in uniform.

Museum Exhibit featuring Ulrika in uniform.

Happy Pride Month!

In America, June is celebrated as Gay Pride Month; and so I will spend a few weeks in observance covering women who fall under the LGBT umbrella.

Our first subject is Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar, and right up front, the pronouns are a bit tricky for this one. Ulrika was definitely assigned female gender at birth; but lived in a time which didn’t have very advanced thought regarding transgender individuals. Judging from some of her choices, it’s within the realm of possibility that, had Ulrika lived in the 21st century, she may have identified as a transman. But she said nothing of the sort (that we know of) while she was alive; and I don’t want to retroactively apply an identity to someone without more evidence than what I’ve got. So even though Ulrika might have been a transman, I’m going use the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ (if you have evidence that this isn’t the case, please use the Suggestion Box and let me know!).

Another issue is language: there’s a ton out there about Ulrika… in Swedish. I’ve had to rely on English-language resources, and so some translation errors might have crept across. I apologize in advance for those!

Also, I could find precisely zero pictures of Ulrika; who apparently never sat for a portrait and has not been drawn or depicted in popular media since. I’ve tried to find relevant art, but such was also a bit difficult. So please enjoy this survey of 17th and 18th century Swedish art, which I hope gives you a feel for the time and place in which Ulrika lived!

Okay, enough preamble. Let’s get to this week’s Extraordinary Lady!

Per Stålhammar, family patriarch.

Per Stålhammar, family patriarch.

Ulrika Eleonara Stålhammar was born into a military family in 1688 in Sweden, the daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Johan Stålhammar and the grand-daughter of Per Stålhammar, who both enjoyed distinguished military careers. Johan had no sons, and four other daughters along with Ulrika.

As a child, Ulrika disdained domestic, feminine pursuits – while her sisters were content to crochet and embroider, Ulrika preferred to be out in the dirt and sunshine. She particularly enjoyed riding horses, and was reportedly good enough at hunting that more than one person commented how unlucky she was to have been born female.

At age 14, in 1702, Ulrika’s father retired from the military. Unfortunately, a series of bad decisions led the Stålhammar family to near-ruin by the time Johan died in 1711. Though Swedish law at the time allowed for women to inherit property, Johan Stålhammar had died with virtually nothing to pass on to his daughters. They relied for a time on the charity of relatives, but that could not last forever. As a result, Ulrika’s sisters one by one found themselves marrying under financial duress, to men they would not otherwise have chosen, simply for economic security.

Ulrika, witnessing her sisters’ misery, swore she would not share their fates. And in 1713, she raided her father’s old wardrobe, stole a horse, and ran away to join the army under the name Vilhelm Edstedt (sometimes spelled Wilhelm).

17th Century Swedish Dragoons.

17th Century Swedish Dragoons.

At the time, Sweden was a decade into the Great Northern War. The war would last yet another decade, and would determine who got to run Sweden and then-Swedish territories. King Karl XII of Sweden and his allies were facing down none other than Peter the Great and his allies. The war would end with Sweden’s defeat in 1721, but at the time of Ulrika’s enlistment, Sweden was still giving it their all. As a result, the recruitment officers probably didn’t look too hard at this young, eager enlistee.

Interestingly enough, Sweden seems to have an informal tradition of women cross-dressing in order to go to war. Brita Olofsdottr dressed as a man to join the army in the 16th century, and several other women are known to have participated in the Great Northern War dressed as men: Margareta von Ascheberg, Margareta Elisabeth Roos and Anna Jöransdotter, whose story became public in 1714 and foreshadows Ulrika’s.

Ulrika served as an artillerist, which meant she got to shoot the cannons (fun!). By all accounts, she had an admirable military record, serving for 13 years (I really wanted to find out more about what she did during her career, but this is where I ran into the problem of ‘everything’s written in Swedish’).

Margareta von Ascheberg, another woman who dressed as a man to fight in the Great Northern War.

Margareta von Ascheberg, another woman who dressed as a man to fight in the Great Northern War.

In 1716, Ulrika (living as Vilhelm) met a housemaid by the name of Maria Lönnman. The two fell madly in love, and were quickly married after a whirlwind courtship.

By all accounts, Ulrika and Maria made each other very happy. Everyone knows ‘that’ couple – they’ve been together forever, and just seem to get each other. Ulrika and Maria were that couple to their friends and associates.

However, their happiness was not to last. In 1724, one of Ulrika’s sisters, Katarina, learned that her sister was living as a man and had married a woman. Being a devout Christian, she was abjectly horrified and threatened her sister with exposure, imprisonment and damnation.

Possibly out of shame and possibly simply self-preservation, Ulrika swore to Katarina that she would repent, leave the army and confess her sins. Which she did, though it took her awhile to get around to it. She left the army in 1726, and wrote a letter of confession to the Swedish government in 1728. At some point, she revealed her biological sex to Maria. Which might have been shocking to some women, but I suspect Maria had figured out by now what was going on. Maria decided Ulrika’s gender didn’t matter, and she would rather stay with the person she loved.

Ulrika and Maria were called to stand trial. The judges, after consulting their Bibles, eventually charged Ulrika with violating the order of God by living as a man and with making a mockery of the sacrament of marriage by marrying a woman. After Maria swore she did not know Ulrika’s true sex when they married, but still chose to stay with her after discovering the truth, the court decided to charge her with the lesser ‘crime’ of homosexuality. Interestingly enough, no one seemed angry that Ulrika had joined the army under false pretenses – indeed, her military record stood in her favor.

Another Ulrika Eleonora, who was briefly Queen of Sweden during our Ulrika's military service.

Another Ulrika Eleonora, who was briefly Queen of Sweden during our Ulrika’s military service.

Sweden actually had very few laws against homosexuality at the time; though largely because the fear was that speaking publicly about homosexuality would somehow inspire people to want gay sex. While male homosexuality had been a crime in the country since at least the early 1600s, female homosexuality was only outlawed in 1714, when Anna Jöransdotter, mentioned above, was found to have married a woman.

Of especial (and possibly prurient) interest to the judges was whether or not Ulrika and Maria had ever consummated their marriage. Both women denied ever engaging in sexual relations with each other. Maria said she had believed ‘Vilhelm’ to be impotent; and, as she was a rape survivor, was quite content to live without sex.

Yes, it’s possible they were lying – but even if they were, there’s no way to prove it. Ulrika underwent a medical examination as part of the trial, and the physician reported that Ulrika appeared female, except for not having developed breasts. So it’s quite possible that Ulrika suffered from some hormonal condition, a side effect of which meant she did not have a sex drive. Or she was asexual. Or, yes, lying to save herself and the woman she loved.

Ulrika and Maria were able to produce a long parade of witnesses, who testified not only to the couples’ enduring love for each other, but also Ulrika’s devoted service to her country.

A modern female Swedish soldier. Ulrika would be proud!

A modern female Swedish soldier. Ulrika would be proud!

In the end, the judges were inclined towards leniency, in large part because they believed Ulrika and Maria had a chaste relationship. To the judges, the fact that Ulrika and Maria lived without sex made their love a pure, spiritual union – better, in some ways, than a traditional heterosexual marriage. Ulrika was sentenced to one month in prison and Maria to ten days. The king at the time, King Frederick, had taken a personal interest in the case and said that Ulrika did not need to serve her sentence in one of the worse prisons and could enjoy a few comforts.

However, in a very sad turn (as if being put on trial simply for loving someone wasn’t sad enough), the two women were made to live apart from each other. Ulrika lived with relatives at a place called Hultsjö manor; while Maria found work with one of Ulrika’s aunts at another estate. I tried to find out where these manors were, but I couldn’t figure out how far apart the women were made to live. I hope it wasn’t too far, and that they at least got to see each other on occasion. Ulrika and Maria did keep in constant contact via letter; though, and it’s obvious that even distance didn’t dim their devotion to each other.

Ulrika died in 1733, at age 45. Maria would work as a housekeeper until her death in 1761, and I could find no indication she ever married again.

In modernity, Ulrika has become a hero to the Swedish people, particularly those identify along the LGBT spectrum. I found reference to a play which was either titled “The Amazon of Charles XII” or in which Ulrika is called that. But, again, more Swedish.

Today, Sweden welcomes female enlistees into it’s armed forces. In 1995, the country became the third to offer a type of civil union to same-sex couples; and in 2009 formally legalized same-sex marriage. That same year, the Church of Sweden agreed that same-sex weddings could be performed by ordained clergy in their churches.


Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Cultures

Rad History


Eleanor of Aquitaine: Crusader Queen

A fanciful portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Kinuko Y. Craft

A fanciful portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine by Kinuko Y. Craft

I wanted to cover Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine for Amazon Month, but it seemed a bit of a stretch. Though she and her ladies-in-waiting were called Amazons when Eleanor took up the cross for the Second Crusade, that was but one brief moment in a complex, influential life.

So consider this a bonus Amazon! This is long, but Eleanor accomplished quite a lot, and it’s difficult to give just a brief summary of her life & impact.

Eleanor of Aquitaine was born around 1122, possibly 1124, in the Bordeaux region of France, to Duke William X and Duchess Aenor de Châtellerault, the eldest of three children. However, around age eight, Eleanor lost both her mother and brother to a fever. Though she was surely devastated by this loss, it did mean she became heir to Aquitaine.

Eleanor’s father was a pretty solid dude, especially when it came to making sure his daughter was equipped to handle whatever life threw at her. Not only did Eleanor receive a traditional noblewoman’s education, her father also saw to it that she studied the ‘manly’ subjects of music, literature and hunting.

This turned out to be remarkably foresighted. For Eleanor would have to grow up quicker than anyone expected, and her education would serve her well in the years to come.

A simple line drawing, artist unknown.  The book indicates Eleanor's lifelong devotion to literature and the arts.

A sketch of Eleanor, artist unknown. The book indicates Eleanor’s lifelong devotion to literature and the arts.

In April of 1137, Duke William went on a pilgrimage to Spain, leaving his children (Eleanor and her younger sister Petronilla) under the care of the Archbishop of Bordeaux. However, he would never see home, or Eleanor, again. Somewhere along the route, Duke William became gravely ill. Knowing he was on his deathbed, William’s priority was to see to the welfare of his children. He knew that after he died, his daughter would become one of the wealthiest women in Europe, owning approximately one-third of modern-day France. And without sufficient protection, she could easily be kidnapped and forcibly married to any nobleman looking to advance his station (12th century European marital law was not what you’d call woman-friendly).

Knowing this, William named King Louis VI of France as Eleanor’s guardian – now no one could harm Eleanor without picking a fight with France. King Louis could have refused, but he had little reason to do so. He was, in fact, quite thrilled to be named Eleanor’s guardian, as it presented a unique opportunity to unite Aquitaine and France. King Louis couldn’t directly control Eleanor’s territory – not only had William’s will been solid in that respect, the Archbishop of Bordeaux staunchly looked out for Eleanor’s interests. What he could do, however, was marry Eleanor to his own son and heir, Prince Louis (roughly the same age as Eleanor, having been born in 1120). Supposedly, William even encouraged this particular match in his will.

Under the negotiated marriage arrangement, Eleanor would retain control over Aquitaine for the rest of her life. But her heir (presumably the son she was expected to eventually have with Louis) would inherit both Aquitaine and France, and rule over a united nation. This pleased everyone, and Eleanor was virtually rushed to the altar. Not just as a protection against kidnapping; King Louis was dying, and wanted to secure his country before moving on to his final reward. Barely three months after the sudden death of her father, Eleanor found herself marrying Prince Louis in July of 1137.

Queen Eleanor and King Louis

Queen Eleanor and King Louis VII

King Louis died just a few days after the wedding; Eleanor and her husband were crowned Queen and King of France on Christmas Day, 1137. Eleanor moved to the royal capital in Paris.

The French court largely did not know what to make of this highly educated, headstrong woman; many courtiers were shocked at her ‘outrageous’ behavior – which generally seemed to consist of believing that people should take her seriously and getting mad when they didn’t. Also, Eleanor was no older than sixteen, and could have been as young as thirteen or fourteen when all this went down. She had gone from being a teenager living under her father’s care to a married woman and Queen of France in ten months; it’s understandable that she and her new environment had some difficulty adjusting to each other.

King Louis, however, was head over heels in love with his new wife, and spared no expense making the royal palace comfortable for her. However, their marriage was not particularly fruitful. Though they married in 1137, Eleanor would not bear a child until 1145, when she gave birth to Princess Marie. Over the course of their 14 year marriage, Eleanor would have only one more daughter by Louis. Supposedly, Louis, trained as a monk when younger, abided by some very strict chastity laws: he would not sleep with his wife on Sundays, holy days, feast days, during Lent, during pregnancy or while Eleanor was menstruating. No wonder they only had two children!

Eleanor and Louis on Crusade, on the right. Don't they both just look thrilled to be there?

Eleanor and Louis on Crusade, on the right. Don’t they both just look thrilled to be there?

The same year as Marie’s birth, Louis, feeling guilty over his role in the burning of a village as the result of some papal politics involving the marriage of Eleanor’s sister, announced his intention to join the Second Crusade. Eleanor insisted that she, as ruler of Aquitaine, had the right to accompany her husband. Louis agreed, and Eleanor assembled approximately 300 armed vassals and ladies-in-waiting as her retinue. Eleanor had another motivation as well: her uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch, had been asking Eleanor for French protection. And Eleanor, who had always been fond of her uncle, wished to help.

Some accounts say Eleanor’s retinue was nothing but ladies-in-waiting, but I doubt that. She most certainly would have brought her own soldiers, fighting under the banner of Aquitaine. According to some historical accounts, Eleanor and her ladies-in-waiting dressed like Amazons (or, rather, what they believed Amazons dressed like, which probably wasn’t this).

Queen Eleanor

Queen Eleanor

Unfortunately, the Second Crusade did not go well for Eleanor. The journey was difficult, and Eleanor was blamed for several tactical mistakes which were not her fault. The royal family did eventually reach Antioch, though matters did not improve there. The declared objective of the Second Crusade was to recapture the city of Edessa and bring it under Christian control. Raymond was all in favor of this plan – Turkish and Muslim forces constantly threatened Antioch; and having nearby Edessa neutralized as a threat would ensure his own safety. Eleanor, looking to her uncle’s well-being, also supported this plan.

However, Louis did not. He wanted to take his forces and journey to Jerusalem. A fight broke out between the two royals, and it was bad. Eleanor was fine with Louis continuing onward to Jerusalem, but she wanted to remain in Antioch and use her own soldiers to support her uncle.

Rumors then began to circulate that Raymond and Eleanor were having an incestuous affair (helped by the fact that Raymond was only a few years older than Eleanor and reportedly quite handsome). There’s no solid evidence this actually happened, though; and my personal theory is that these were just vicious rumors. The French court already disliked Eleanor, they didn’t need an excuse to trash talk her. And Eleanor was extremely fecund; I rather suspect that, had she been sleeping with anyone on this trip, she probably would have ended up with another child.

Eleanor, as depicted in a window in Poitiers Cathedral.

Eleanor, as depicted in a window in Poitiers Cathedral.

Outraged by these rumors and her husband’s intransigence, Eleanor pulled her trump card: she and Louis, cousins in the third degree, were too closely related for their marriage to be legal. She and Raymond were even planning for Raymond to ‘abduct’ her, though the plan was discovered before it could be carried out. This enraged Louis, who asserted that Eleanor, as his wife, had to do as he said. Eleanor eventually relented, but the damage had been done. The conflict in the royal family led to divisions in the troops and a loss of morale; Louis failed to take Jerusalem and their armies eventually returned home in defeat.

Indicating how deep the rift between the two had grown, Eleanor and Louis took separate ships on their way back to Italy. Perhaps the couple might have reconciled after some time to cool off; but this was not to be. Soon after they left Antioch, Muslim forces overran the city; Raymond was executed and his head sent to the Caliph of Baghdad as a gift.

Glenn Close as Eleanor, Lion in Winter, 2003 (TV)

Glenn Close as Eleanor, Lion in Winter, 2003 (TV)

As one can imagine, Eleanor did not take this news well. She blamed Louis – had they stayed in Antioch, or had they moved on to Edessa, Raymond might have survived. And so, instead of going home to Paris, Eleanor set out for Rome and the Pope. When she gained an audience with him, she requested an annulment of her marriage on grounds of consanguinity. But the Pope demurred – instead, he proclaimed their marriage valid, and even manipulated events so that Eleanor and her estranged husband had to share a bed. Reportedly, this is how Eleanor’s second child, Princess Alix, was conceived.

However, not even the Vicar of Christ could restore the broken love between Eleanor and Louis. Louis wanted a son, and eventually figured out that he would probably never have another child with Eleanor. And so the king relented. In 1152, their marriage was officially annulled (though the two princesses were declared legitimate).

Eleanor, though now free of Louis, found herself in much the same position as when her father had died. Two separate attempts by two different noblemen were made to kidnap and forcibly marry her within just a few weeks of the annulment. Acting quickly, Eleanor married Henry, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy and eventual King of England.

Eleanor and Henry, decorating a cathedral.

Eleanor and Henry, decorating a cathedral.

Ironically, Eleanor and Henry were even more closely related than Eleanor and Louis (as were Louis and his second wife, Constance of Castile). Eleanor married in May of 1152, just eight weeks after her first marriage was annulled (which rather indicates that, given how much time it took to go anywhere in the 12th century, Eleanor set out for Henry almost as soon as the ink on the proclamation was dry. Quite possibly, she planned to marry him while still married to Louis).

Eleanor and Henry seemed to have a passionate but tumultuous marriage. Though they often argued, they nevertheless had eight children together over the next fourteen years. They had two main contentions: Henry could not remain faithful to Eleanor, and peppered England with his illegitimate children, some of whom (such as Geoffrey of York) Henry expected Eleanor to raise in her household. Henry also felt that, as Eleanor’s husband, he had a legal right to Aquitaine. But Eleanor disagreed – as did the people of Aquitaine, who steadfastly refused to obey any order which did not come directly from her.

In 1167, shortly after the birth of Prince John, Eleanor left Henry and England for Poitiers, the capital of Aquitaine. The couple, however, remained legally married until Henry’s death in 1189.

The Accolade by Edmund Leighton; a work which channels the spirit of the Court of Love.

The Accolade by Edmund Leighton; a work which channels the spirit of the Court of Love.

What happened next had a distinct and lasting impact on European culture, an effect which can still be felt today. From 1168 to 1173, with her daughter Marie, Eleanor presided over the Court of Love in Poitiers. The two women would adjudicate romantic disputes and engage in philosophical discussions on questions of love, romance and marriage.

In addition, the court supported a small army of troubadors, minstrels, singers, poets and storytellers – including one Chrétien de Troyes, who not only introduced the legends of King Arthur to a French audience, but also wrote the character of Launcelot and perhaps the most famous love triangle in the Western literary canon. Modern culture, as a result, owes quite a lot to this Court of Love – most of our ideas on chivalry, knights in shining armor and the quests they go on to win the love of fair maidens are informed directly by ideas developed in the Court of Love.

Unfortunately, the Court of Love was not to last. Eleanor’s oldest surviving son, Henry the Younger, staged a revolt against his father in 1173. The revolt was quickly put down, and Young Henry (then age 18) fled to Poitiers. Eleanor, for her part, actively encouraged this rebellion, convincing her younger sons Richard (yes, that Richard) and Geoffrey to join their brother (in even further irony: Henry was newly married to Margaret of France, the daughter of Eleanor’s ex-husband King Louis by his second wife).

The rebellion, however, did not go well for Eleanor. Almost immediately, Eleanor and her sons were captured by forces loyal to King Henry. Though the three sons managed to talk their way out of severe punishment, Eleanor was imprisoned.

Eleanor's royal seal, proclaiming her Queen of England and Duchess of Aquitaine.

Eleanor’s royal seal, proclaiming her Queen of England and Duchess of Aquitaine.

Her imprisonment, however, was relatively gentle. Eleanor, being a woman of high standing and still officially Queen of England, was entitled to special treatment. Throwing her into a dungeon and giving her nothing but bread and water would not only have shamed King Henry, but probably would have incited a popular revolt in Aquitaine.

Instead, Eleanor was placed under a sort of house arrest. She lived in castles and had servants and attendants to see to her needs, but her movements and communications were severely curtailed and monitored. She could only see her children at Christmastime, which caused her relationships with all of her children to suffer.

King Henry began rather publicly carrying on with his favorite mistress, Rosamund Clifford, shortly after Eleanor’s imprisonment. He may have been trying to provoke the queen into seeking another annulment, and rumors began to circulate that he planned to divorce Eleanor and marry Rosamund. In 1176, however, Rosamund died in mysterious circumstances. Some sources indicate Eleanor as being the cause of her death; however, an annulment of her marriage to King Henry meant Henry the Younger, Richard and Geoffrey might have lost their position in the line of succession. And these princes (who were far freer to act than Eleanor) were obviously not shy about picking up weapons to secure their rights. If Rosamund’s death was the result of foul play, I personally think it far likelier that one of Eleanor’s sons was behind it than Eleanor herself.

Queen Eleanor convinces her son Richard to forgive his brother John.

Queen Eleanor convinces her son Richard to forgive his brother John; by James Doyle.

Despite ostensibly being a hostage against her sons’ good behavior, Henry the Younger staged another rebellion in 1183. However, this rebellion ended when Henry contracted a fatal case of dysentery. Richard, though, kept up the family tradition and rebelled again in 1189. This rebellion proved too taxing for King Henry, who died that same year, making way for Richard to become King of England. Immediately after assuming the throne, Richard issued orders for his mother to be freed. Upon arriving at Eleanor’s castle, though, the couriers discovered that Eleanor’s attendants, anticipating these very orders, had already released her.

Promptly after his coronation, Richard left to join the Third Crusade, and left the ruling of England in Eleanor’s hands. By all accounts, she managed the country quite capably. Richard had squeezed the country for quite a lot of money to fund his Crusading; but when he was captured and held prisoner by the Holy Roman Emperor for a ransom nearly three times the annual income of England, Eleanor found the money and personally traveled to Germany to see his release in 1193. She also traveled to Castile to arrange a marriage between one of John’s nieces and the son of King Phillip II of France.

Tragedy would strike in 1199, however, when Richard died at age 42 from a mis-fired arrow. Eleanor held him as he died, and her grief at losing him had a profound effect on her well-being. Already quite old, especially for a woman of her day, Eleanor’s health rapidly declined. In 1201, she joined a nunnery at Fontevraud (an institution to which she had been a regular donor), in western France. She passed away in 1204, and was entombed at Fontevraud, next to Henry.

Eleanor and Henry's tombs at Fontevraud.

Eleanor and Henry’s tombs at Fontevraud.

Her son King John would later become exceptionally famous in 1215, when he signed the Magna Carta. And though Eleanor cannot be held directly responsible for that, nor for choices made by subsequent generations, she did influence the development of House Plantagenet and the rivalry between England and France, which would eventually lead to the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses.

Eleanor was a popular figure even while alive; and subsequent generations have been fascinated by this remarkable woman.

A 19th century Italian opera, Rosmonda d’Inghilterrafocuses on the love triangle between Eleanor, Henry and Rosamund.

Her debut as a film character happened as early as 1923, with the release of the silent film Becket (another film of the same name came out in 1964, currently available on Netflix!).  A popular play, The Lion in Winter, was written in 1966 about the rebellions of Eleanor’s sons. The play became a film in 1968, and was remade for television in 2003. Katharine Hepburn won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the Queen in the 1968 film, and Rosemary Harris won a Tony for the same role on stage.

12th century Europe has been a favorite setting of historical authors, and a tall stack of historical fiction has been written about Eleanor and the era in which she lived.

A knight in shining armor, circa 2009.

A knight in shining armor, circa 2009.

However Eleanor’s contribution to modern culture is far more than her appearance in films or literature. Eleanor, apart from her five year investment in the Court of Love at Poitiers, supported troubadors, poets and other artists her whole life. She was an avowed patron of the arts, and her generous support nurtured the development of secular medieval art. She certainly can’t take all the credit – courtly love existed as a concept before she was born.

But the culture of courtly love flourished, in both England and France, under Eleanor’s reign. Chrétien de Troyes, mentioned above, wrote many of his most famous works while under her patronage. Indirectly, we also have Robin Hood; who, in many versions of the stories, fights against the tyranny of King John (likely not how Eleanor would have wanted her son to be remembered, but it is what it is). Undoubtedly, though you may not have read the original versions, you still recognize these stories. They’ve become part of our culture, and retellings of these stories persist even today – the most recent Robin Hood film was made in 2010; and King Arthur in 2004. And even more archetypally – the bandit prince, the knight errant, the beautiful princess are all figures we recognize; even in their inversion (because what is Brienne of Tarth but a knight errant?)

So what I’m saying is that basically every nerd who’s ever loved a fantasy epic which has drawn on romantic ideals of chivalry, from The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser to The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien to even Game of Thrones, owes a tremendous cultural debt of gratitude to Queen Eleanor.





Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England by Alison Weir

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Queen of France, Queen of England by Ralph V. Turner

Encyclopedia Britannica

History Today

Stuff You Missed in History Class (podcast)


Women in World History