Eleanor of Aquitaine: Background information when reading Matrix

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by Lauren Groff

Matrix by Lauren Groff X
Matrix by Lauren Groff
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2021, 272 pages

    Sep 2022, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Eleanor of Aquitaine

This article relates to Matrix

Print Review

19th century engraving of Eleanor of Aquitaine In Lauren Groff's novel Matrix, the protagonist Marie (based on 12th century poet Marie de France) spends the majority of her life pining for Eleanor of Aquitaine. This real-life queen of France and England serves as Marie's foil and the source of considerable turmoil, as both women seek to hold and maintain power over their very different kingdoms.

Eleanor was born circa 1122 the eldest daughter of William, the 10th Duke of Aquitaine, which was at the time an independent kingdom in modern day Bordeaux, France. When her father died in 1137, 15-year-old Eleanor became Duchess of Aquitaine and inherited a fortune, and soon after she wed France's King Louis VII (at which point Aquitaine became a French territory). In 1147, the marriage began to suffer when they traveled together to join the Second Crusade. The Crusade was largely a failure, demonstrating Louis's lack of military prowess, and the couple was dealing with the added stress of their inability to produce a male heir. They had their marriage annulled in 1152, on the grounds that they were third cousins. Just a few weeks later Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet, Duke of Anjou, who became England's King Henry II in 1154 (at which point Aquitaine became an English possession, and remained as such for the next three centuries).

Sometimes called the "grandmother of Europe," Eleanor had five sons and three daughters with Henry. The sons included England's King Richard I (the Lionheart) and his brother John, who became King on Richard's death; while one daughter married a duke of Saxony and Bavaria, another the king of Castile, and the third the king of Sicily, ensuring the family's power stretched far and wide.

Eleanor reportedly did not get along much better with her second husband than she did her first. Around the late 1160s, she left England and returned to Aquitaine. In 1173, three of her sons — Richard, Geoffrey and Henry — attempted to overthrow their father. The rebellion failed and Eleanor tried to flee Aquitaine for France, but she was captured en route and returned to King Henry II, who was furious that she had supported their sons. She remained essentially imprisoned in England until her husband's death in 1189.

Richard I ascended the throne when his father died and released Eleanor from confinement. Shortly after he became king, Richard I set off for the Third Crusade, leaving Eleanor and his brother John to govern England. In the year 1200, at nearly 80 years old, Eleanor was still making moves to preserve her dynasty. She traveled across the Pyrenees mountains to retrieve her granddaughter Blanche from Castile so she could be married to the dauphin who would become King Louis VIII.

Eleanor died in 1204 at Fontevraud Abbey, located in modern-day France, where she is now entombed. She is remembered for her tireless diplomacy efforts securing loyalty for her sons who ruled and appropriate marriages for her daughters and granddaughters.

There is conjecture but no definitive proof as to the identity of the person who wrote as Marie de France, but it is believed that she was an "illegitimate" half-sister of King Henry II. Thus, it is entirely possible that these two women would have known one another, though perhaps not as intimately as Lauren Groff imagines in Matrix.

No contemporary image or physical description of Eleanor has survived. This engraving by J. W. Wright was first published either in The Queens of England or Royal Book of Beauty (1875) or Biographical Sketches of the Queens of England, edited by Mary Howitt (1851)

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to Matrix. It originally ran in September 2021 and has been updated for the September 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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