Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  The charm, however, concealed a cold, shallow, and selfish character. 14 Geoffrey was nicknamed "Plantagenet" on account of the sprig of broom flower (Latin: planta genista) that he wore in his hat. Although the dynasty founded by his son is referred to as the Plantagenet dynasty-- a term coined by Shakespeare-- the name was not used again by Geoffrey's descendants until Richard, Duke of York, adopted it around 1460 in order to emphasise his claim to the throne.

  Geoffrey also carried a shield emblazoned with golden Hons, given to him by his future father-in-law, Henry I of England, on the occasion of Geoffrey's knighthood at the King's hands in c. 1127. Henry I is thought to have used the symbol of a lion as his personal badge; during his reign the first lion ever seen in England was displayed in the royal menagerie at Woodstock, and this may have been the inspiration for the device. Certainly, Henry was known as the Lion of Justice, which may allude to his badge. Geoffrey's shield is evident in the enamelled picture of him on his tomb, and is the earliest known example of what was probably an hereditary blazon. It was almost certainly one of the devices on which the heraldic trio of leopards, later adopted by the Plantagenets and still used in the royal coat of arms today, was based.

  Geoffrey's marriage was a stormy one, with no love on either side. According to her biographer, Arnulf of Lisieux,15 Matilda was "a woman who had nothing of the woman in her." Henry of Huntingdon also speaks of her "masculine firmness," which seemed out of place in an age when women were expected to be subordinate to men. A complex character, Matilda "resembled her father in fortitude and her mother in sanctity,"16 but she had none of the gendeness of the latter, Matilda of Scotland, being "always superior to feminine softness and with a spirit steeled and unbroken in adversity."17

  Born in 1102 and christened Adelaide (she took the name Matilda on her first marriage), she became Henry I's sole heir when her brothers were drowned in 1120 in the White Ship disaster. By then, Matilda had been married for six years to the Emperor Henry V, who was thirty years her senior. The marriage was childless and he died in 1125. In 1121 Henry I had taken a second wife, but she also failed to bear him any children and he was obHged, on three separate occasions, to make his barons recognise Matilda as his heir. This they did reluctantly, since there was no precedent for a woman ruler, either in England or Normandy.

  The Empress was a handsome and learned woman but insufferably arrogant and haughty-- William of Malmesbury cans her "a virago"-- and she despised her new young husband for being merely the son of a count and unworthy of her. Geoffrey, in turn, resented and disliked Matilda, and took his pleasure from mistresses. As we have seen, Eleanor of Aquitaine may have been one of them.

  Although incompatible, Geoffrey and Matilda nevertheless reaHsed that it was in their own interests for their marriage to survive, and produced three sons to continue their line: Henry, born on 5 March 1133 at Le Mans, capital of Maine; Geoffrey, born on 1 June 1134 at Rouen or Argentan in Normandy (he was created Count of Nantes in c. 1150); and William, born in the summer of 1136 at Argentan or Angers.

  Matilda and Geoffrey were at least united in desiring the best education for their sons, but it was mainly Geoffrey who arranged it. He himself was "exceedingly well educated,"18 a cultivated man who could converse in Latin and took an interest in art and literature; he was passionately interested in military history, "possessed a thorough knowledge of antiquity,"19 and never went to war without a scholar riding by his side to advise him on strategies that had worked in the past. The Count was praised by his son's tutor, William of Conches, for the care he took in raising his children and providing them with a good education.20 Even his bastards benefited from this: a daughter, Marie, became Abbess of Shaftesbury in Dorset, and may perhaps be identified with the mysterious Marie de France, famous for her lays and translations. Matilda was rarely around to supervise her sons' education; in 1139 she sailed to England, intent upon claiming the throne that was hers by right.

  When Henry I of England died in 1135, his barons broke their sworn promise to ensure Matilda's smooth succession, and crowned her cousin, Stephen of Blois, son of the Conqueror's daughter Adela, as King of England. Stephen, who proved a weak and ineffectual ruler, also inherited Normandy, but Geoffrey immediately claimed it in right of his wife and proceeded to take it by force, thus initiating a war that was to last for the best part of a decade.

  Matilda was determined to wrest the other half of her inheritance from Stephen. Supported by her half brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester (one of Henry I's twenty or more bastards), she invaded England in 1139 and launched a civil war, but at first met with little success. In 1141, however, after steadily gaining support, she emerged victorious and was recognised by the Great Council at Winchester as Lady of England and Normandy. In triumph, she went to London, where she was well received, "but she was swollen with insufferable pride by her success in war, and alienated the affections of nearly everyone. She was driven out of London."21 After that it was easy for Stephen to regain the advantage, and by 1142, when she was obliged to escape from Oxford Castle in a blizzard, camouflaged in a white cloak, it was apparent that Matilda's cause was hopeless. Nevertheless she was to continue the struggle for another six years.

  In 1142 Geoffrey of Anjou sent his nine-year-old son, who would from now on be known as Henry FitzEmpress, to England, hoping that his presence would inspire Matilda's disillusioned supporters to rally once more to her banner. The ploy did not work, and after a year Henry was sent home.

  England had now descended into anarchy as unscrupulous barons took advantage of the weakness of Stephen's rule, and his preoccupation with the war with Matilda, to devastate the land, building unlicensed castles and engaging in private feuds and wars. The Scots and Welsh rampaged unchecked and committed atrocities against English borderers, while foreign mercenaries seized and tortured innocent civilians to extort booty from them. Famine only added to the people's miseries. As the years passed, the situation grew steadily worse, and men said that during Stephen's reign "Christ and His saints slept."22 Not for nothing was this period of English history called the Anarchy.

  By 1144, when the capital city of Rouen fell, Geoffrey had conquered most of Normandy, and in January that year he was invested with the ducal crown in Rouen Castle. The following year, Geoffrey's overlord, Louis VII, acknowledged him as Duke of Normandy. Although Geoffrey made it clear he was not interested in ruling England, his conquest of Normandy was a dreadful blow to King Stephen and greatly helped the Angevin cause in England, for many English barons held land on both sides of the Channel and realised that it was in their interests to stay friendly with the man whose son might well be their future king. Many anticipated that, before long, Henry of Anjou would use Normandy as a bridgehead from which to invade England, and most were eager to see Normandy and England reunited. For this reason, the English barons were reluctant to accept Stephen's son Eustace, Count of Boulogne, as the heir to England.

  In 1148, relinquishing her cause and her claim to England in favour of her son Henry, the Empress Matilda retired from the fray and settled in Rouen, where she devoted herself to spiritual matters and good works. Her experiences had belatedly taught her wisdom, shrewdness, and humility, and in the years to come her opinions would be respected by many. Henry would often seek his mother's advice; indeed, she was the only woman able to influence him.

  The following year, Henry, now sixteen and a force to be reckoned with, returned to England, determined to enforce his claim to the throne. At Carlisle, he was knighted by his great-uncle, King David I of Scotland, and then proceeded to rally men to his cause. Evading Stephen's efforts to defeat and capture him, he returned to the continent, where, on an unspecified date between November 1149 and March 1150, Count Geoffrey made him Duke of Normandy.

  By this time, the lords of England were heartily sick of civil war and anarchy, and eager to reach some kind of settlement or compromise over the succession. They, and the oppressed English people, wanted a ruler who would govern firmly a
nd wisely and maintain the peace, as Henry I had, and they now looked to Henry's grandson as their hope for the future.

  Henry of Anjou was to play a role of paramount importance, not only in the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, but also in the history of Europe.

  In appearance, he had a lionlike face and cropped red hair; "his countenance was one upon which a man might gaze a thousand times, yet still feel drawn to return to gaze upon again."23 He was "of middle height, reddish, freckled complexion, with a large round head, grey eyes which glowed fiercely and grew bloodshot in anger, a fiery countenance and a harsh, cracked voice." His bull-like neck "was somewhat thrust forward from his shoulders, his chest was broad and square, his arms strong and powerful. His frame was stocky with a pronounced tendency to corpulence, which he tempered by exercise."24 Throughout his life he was obsessed with keeping his weight down, through rigorous diets, fasting, or punishing sporting activity. "In agility of limb he was second to none, failing in no feat which anyone else could perform."25

  He cared little for ceremony or the trappings of rank and dressed carelessly, often in hunting gear; his clothes were nevertheless clean and made from fine fabrics. If they were torn, he would mend them himself with a needle and thread. His hands were rough and horny because he refused to wear gloves, except when hawking. He was not a pretentious man, and did "nothing in a proud or overbearing fashion."26 He was "liberal in public, frugal in private,"27 and abstemious in his consumption of food and drink. According to Walter Map, "he does not take upon himself to think high thoughts; his tongue never swells with elated language; he does not magnify himself as more than man; but there is always in his speech that cleanness which is seen in his dress. He comes nearer to admitting himself to be despicable than to making himself a despiser."

  Henry was renowned for his formidable and forceful personality. He was self-assured, articulate, intelligent, and, unusually for a twelfth-century ruler, literate: Giraldus Cambrensis claims he was "remarkably polished in letters," although Walter Map may be nearer the truth when he says that Henry "had skill of letters so far as was fitting or practically useful." As a child, he had been taught by the brilliant academic Peter of Saintes. During his first year in England he lived at Bristol under the rule of the renowned Master Matthew of Loudun,28 a tutor chosen for him by his uncle, Earl Robert of Gloucester, whose circle included such scholars as Adelard of Bath (who dedicated his treatise on the astrolabe to young Henry) and Geoffrey of Monmouth; it may have been the latter's History of the Kings of Britain that inspired in Henry a lifelong fascination with the Arthurian legends. After returning from England, the boy completed his education at Angers and in Normandy under William of Conches, an eminent Norman grammarian who taught his pupil letters and manners and, around 1150, dedicated to Henry his De honesto et utili, a treatise on moral philosophy.

  As an adult, Henry was able to hold his own in the company of scholars and was voracious in his desire for knowledge: "anything he had once heard worthy of remembrance he could never obliterate from his mind. So he had at his fingers' end a ready knowledge of nearly the whole of history and a great store of practical wisdom."29 He would often withdraw into his private chamber to indulge his pleasure in reading works of literature, and he also "had a knowledge of all the languages from the French sea to the Jordan, but spoke only Latin and French."30 His memory was especially excellent when it came to recalling names and faces.

  Henry's character was complex and unpredictable. A wary man, he kept his own counsel, never revealed his motives, preferred to do things himself rather than delegate, and was firm and decisive: he had a will of iron and "was never one to procrastinate."31 Once he had conceived a liking or loathing for someone, he was slow to change his views.32 Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, thought Henry volatile, crafty, and unfathomable. Only in his small circle of intimates did Henry relax his guard.

  Both Walter Map and Giraldus Cambrensis speak of his courtesy: Map calls Henry "a treasure house of politeness," while Giraldus says that he was "second to none in politeness." Map also states that Henry was infinitely patient and "exceedingly good and lovable," and that, when he was in a good mood, no one compared with him for "good temper and affability." "In stress of evil circumstances no one could be kinder; when fortune smiled again, no one more unbending." In general, he was "affable, sober, modest, pious, trustworthy and careful, generous and successful, and ready to honour the deserving; when oppressed by importunate complaints or provoked by abuse, he bore it all in silence."33

  However, "he readily broke his word,"34 and would later be described by Thomas Becket as a Proteus in slipperiness. He could also be caustic and cynical, and "answered roughly on every occasion,"35 often resorting to his favourite oath, "By the eyes of God,"36 which was considered blasphemous in the extreme. He was eloquent in argument, had a sharp wit,37 and particularly enjoyed a joke at someone else's expense.

  Henry's temper was truly spectacular, and needed little provocation. His normally benign expression would suddenly change dramatically as his face became empurpled with fury. When in a rage, he would often throw himself on the ground, roll yelling on the floor, or grind his teeth on the rushes. On one occasion, he fell screaming with anger out of bed, gouged the stuffing out of his mattress, and crammed it into his mouth. When angry, he could be vindictive.

  Henry was an able soldier and a competent general, but he did not love war for its own sake, and would avoid it if he could reach a settlement by diplomatic means. He was not, by nature, a cruel man, as his Norman predecessors had been; both Giraldus Cambrensis and Peter of Blois testify to the fact that he despised violence and hated war.

  Although he "loved quiet," Henry was a restless and impatient soul. He "detested delay above all things,"38 could not bear to stay still for long, and remained continually active. "Except when riding a horse or eating a meal, he never sits."39 Even at mealtimes, he often stood, consuming his food with no apparent pleasure, and finishing his dinner within five minutes. He transacted all business standing up, pacing back and forth on his muscular, bowed legs, or discussing matters of state while cleaning or repairing his hunting gear. His big, coarse hands were never idle, and he was forever fiddling with his bow, book, falcon, hunting spear, armour, or clothing. Even at mass, which he attended daily, although scarcely for an hour, he fidgeted, glanced this way and that, plucked his neighbour's sleeve, whispered, scratched himself, doodled, scribbled orders, notes, and messages, and even strode up and down impatiently.40 When talking or listening to others, his eyes were incessantly moving.

  He was immensely hard-working and possessed of prodigious energy. He was never tired, and "shunned regular hours like poison."41 He would invariably rise before cock-crow, then "at crack of dawn he was off on horseback, traversing wastelands, penetrating forests and climbing the mountaintops, and so he passed his restless days. At evening, on his return home, he was rarely seen to sit down, either before or after supper. And despite such tremendous exertions, he would wear out the whole court by remaining on his feet."42 "There are times when he rides four or five times the distance which most men cover in a day."43 It was not unusual for him to walk so far that his feet were sore and blistered. Even so, he would stay up until the small hours, talking and arguing with his friends. Sometimes he would attend to business throughout the night. He excelled at all athletics and had an immoderate love of the chase. He would happily spend all the hours of daylight in the saddle, hunting at a lolling pace; some chroniclers believed he did so to dissipate his sexual energy, but Henry himself insisted he was trying to lose weight. "He was addicted to hunting beyond measure," delighting "in birds of prey, especially when in flight, and in hounds pursuing wild beasts by their keen scent. Would he had given himself as much to his devotions as he did to the chase!"44

  Henry chased women too, with the same kind of fervour. Throughout his life, his vigorous sexual appetite would draw comment and fuel gossip. An aggressively virile man, he had numerous casual encounters with
women and several enduring affairs. Quite a few of these liaisons produced bastards.

  Walter Map attributes Henry's worst character traits to his mother's influence, but also makes it clear that he acquired much of his statecraft from her. She passed on her hard-won knowledge of how to deal with his vassals: "Dangle the prize before their eyes, but be sure to withdraw it again before they taste it. Then you will keep them eager and find them devoted when you need them." He should avoid hangers-on and during his leisure seek the company of wise men and scholars.45 "Be free in bed, infrequent in business," she told her son, a saying he was fond of repeating.46 It is clear that he inherited both good and bad qualities from both parents. Fortunately, he had none of his mother's arrogance and poor judgement.

  By 1150, Henry of Anjou's reputation was formidable. Given the aggressive independence and increasingly threatening power of the House of Anjou, it was hardly surprising that, when Henry pointedly failed to pay homage to his overlord King Louis for Normandy, Louis refused to confirm him as its duke. Instead, he allied himself that summer with King Stephen's son, Eustace-- who was married to Louis's sister Constance-- in an abortive attempt to wrest the duchy from the Angevins. Despite encroaching age and ill health, Suger intervened and arranged a truce, and Louis withdrew his army from the Norman border without ever having confronted Henry.

  Suger's death on 13 January 1151 removed the last obstacle to an annulment of the marriage of Louis and Eleanor. While his mentor lived, the King had a powerful advocate for retaining Aquitaine within his grasp, but with the man whom Louis now affectionately referred to as the father of the country gone, dissenting voices made themselves heard, and doubtless Eleanor's was prominent among them. When Bernard of Clairvaux again voiced his doubts about the legality of the marriage and urged Louis to have it declared invalid, the King paid heed; he was, after all, very concerned about his lack of the heir that was essential to the survival of his dynasty. By the summer, it appears, he was beginning to reconcile himself to an annulment. All that remained was to sort out the administrative and legal processes by which the marriage would be dismantled.

 
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