Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  "God Himself appeared to fight for the Duke:"21 after months of skirmishing, during which he took many towns and castles, among them Malmesbury and Warwick, and earned an impressive reputation for bravery and military skill, Henry at last confronted Stephen's forces before Wallingford in July.22 The war-weary English barons and bishops, prominent among them Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, urged the two leaders to negotiate; many felt that Stephen should acknowledge Henry as his heir.23

  The King's son Eustace, however, was determined to assert his rights, and in an attempt to force a military confrontation began laying waste East Anglia. His sudden death, probably from food poisoning, on 17 August at Bury St. Edmunds was regarded as divine vengeance for sacking the property of the abbey there.24 On that very day, in far-off Poitiers, seemingly as a further token of God's approval of Henry's cause, Eleanor bore a son and heir, who was baptised William in the time-honoured tradition of the dukes of Aquitaine, and styled Count of Poitiers.25

  The removal of Eustace from the political arena simplified matters. Although he had a younger son,26 an exhausted and demoralised King Stephen lost the will to fight on, and the mediators seized this opportunity to bring about a peaceful settlement. In November Stephen was persuaded to meet Henry at Winchester and thrash out terms. A peace was quickly agreed upon, with the King accepting that Henry had an hereditary right to the throne and acknowledging him as his heir. In turn, "the Duke generously conceded that the King should hold the kingdom for the rest of his life," provided that he swore on oath that Henry should succeed "peacefully and without denial" upon his death.27

  This agreement was enshrined in a treaty drawn up by Archbishop Theobald and ratified at Westminster at Christmas 1153. By the terms of this treaty, which was witnessed by fourteen bishops and eleven earls, Stephen not only made Henry his heir, but adopted him as his son and agreed "that in all the business of the kingdom I will act with the advice of the Duke." Henry, in turn, would do homage to Stephen, their supporters would swear to make peace, and the bishops would ensure that the terms of the treaty were adhered to.28

  "So God granted a happy issue and peace shone forth," wrote Henry of Huntingdon. "What boundless joy! What a happy day!"

  From Winchester, Stephen took Henry to London, "where he was received with joy by enormous crowds and splendid processions. Thus, by God's mercy, peace dawned on the ruined realm of England, putting an end to its troubled night."29

  Henry had kept in regular touch with Eleanor during his sojourn in England, and also with his vassals on the continent. It was probably through them that he learned of Bernard de Ventadour's passionate addresses to his wife, and, being unfamiliar with the troubadour culture and its games of courtly love, was alarmed at what he heard. He may also have remembered that Eleanor had been free with her favours in the past, spurning her marriage vows, not only with his father but also with himself. Now that she was his wife and the mother of his heir, no breath of scandal must touch her, so Henry diplomatically summoned Bernard to England, claiming that he had need of him to compose martial tunes upon his lyre.

  Reluctantly, Bernard complied. When he arrived it was still winter, and in his verses he says that, whenever he thought of the Duchess, his heart was so filled with joy that everything in Nature seemed altered: even the snow on the banks of the Thames seemed to bloom with "red, white and yellow flowers." Miserable in his exile, he begged leave to return to Eleanor's court, once more to mingle with "ladies and chevaliers, fair and courteous." At length he did go back, apparently without first obtaining Henry's permission: when the Duke sent a further summons, he managed to ignore it.

  In the spring of 1154 Henry "returned triumphantly" to Rouen in Normandy, where "he was duly received with joy and honour by his mother Matilda, his brothers, and all the people of Normandy, Anjou, Maine and Poitou."30 Soon Eleanor joined him to celebrate Easter, bringing with her their eight-month-old son and heir, William. The family was lodged in the palace built by Henry I beside the church of Notre-Dame-des-Pres, just outside the city walls, which was now Matilda's chief residence. This was the first recorded occasion on which the Duchess met her formidable mother-in-law. Shortly afterwards, Henry made a brief visit to Eleanor's domains to suppress a minor rebellion; by the end of June, he was back in Rouen. Two months later, Eleanor was able to tell him that she was again pregnant.

  During that year, Louis VII of France remarried. In the summer, he went to the shrine of St. James at Compostela in Spain, ostensibly on a pilgrimage, but in reality to assess the suitability of Constance, daughter of Alfonso VII, King of Castile, as a future bride. Impressed by her modesty and demeanour, he arranged their betrothal with her father, then returned to Paris, travelling by way of Toulouse and Montpellier so as to avoid passing through Eleanor's domains. His marriage to Constance took place soon afterwards, at OrlĂ©ans. His subjects were of the opinion that he was "better married than he had been." In consequence of his marriage, he relinquished the title Duke of Aquitaine and made overtures of friendship to Henry. At a meeting in August, the two were finally reconciled.

  An illness in September laid Henry low, and there were fears that he might die, but by early October he was recovered and fit enough to lead a campaign against some rebellious Norman vassals in the Vexin. Eleanor remained with Matilda in Rouen, and it was she who, on 26 October, received a messenger with important news from Archbishop Theobald in England.

  On 25 October, the "nineteen long winters"31 of Stephen's reign had come to an end with the King's death. News of his passing reached Henry early in November, just as he was besieging a rebel castle. Neither the news that he was to be a king,32 nor a plea for him to "come without delay and take possession of the kingdom"33 deterred him from his purpose, and he calmly reduced the castle, took counsel of his mother the Empress, then set about putting his affairs in Normandy in order before joining Eleanor in a flurry of preparations for their departure for England. Among the items packed in Eleanor's baggage were forty-two gowns of silk, linen, and wool, many richly embroidered; fourteen pairs of shoes, six of them embroidered with gold thread; five mantles of various colours furred with ermine; a great quantity of veils; and ten warm undershirts.

  Henry, meanwhile, took just two weeks to assemble an escort sufficiently imposing to impress his new subjects. 34 It included, among a host of magnates and bishops, his brother Geoffrey and Eleanor's widowed sister Petronilla. He also decided that the Empress should remain in Normandy to keep the peace while he was in England.

  Henry now seized the opportunity of ridding himself of the irritating Bernard de Ventadour, who "remained behind, full of grief and sorrow, then went to the good Count Raymond of Toulouse, with whom he remained until his death. Because of his grief, he entered the Order of Dalon, where he ended his days,"35 renowned as perhaps the greatest troubadour of all. In fact, far from being grief-stricken, he in the meantime found another patroness. In a poem probably written soon after Eleanor's departure for England, he claims that it was because of her that he was forced to leave the King's service; he also begs a messenger to go on his behalf and sing this song to "the Queen of the Normans."36 There is no record of Eleanor having any further dealings with him, and a reference by Bernard to her "fair disdain" indicates that she had lost interest in his courtly addresses.

  Although Henry, Eleanor, young William (who was to travel with them), and their retinue were ready to leave in good time, heavy storms, gales, and sleet delayed their departure, and it was 7 December before Henry was able to sail from Barfleur to take possession of his kingdom. Even then, they had to brave a tempest and the violent sea, but despite the risks and the fact that Eleanor was seven months pregnant, Henry would delay no longer. England had been without a king for six weeks; nevertheless, with Archbishop Theobald in charge, no one had dared to dispute the succession and the realm had remained at peace "for love of the king to come."37 Such was Henry's reputation that "no man dared do other than good, for he was held in great awe."38

&n
bsp; On 8 December, after a storm-tossed voyage lasting twenty-four hours, in which some of their vessels were scattered, the royal party landed safely in a harbour south of the New Forest39-- probably Osterham near Southampton. They rode straight for Winchester so that Henry could take possession of the royal treasury 40 and receive the homage of the English barons, who, summoned by Archbishop Theobald, were "quaking like a bed of reeds in the wind for fear and anxiety," thunderstruck at learning that their formidable new ruler had, with almost superhuman courage, defied the storms and gales to come to England.41

  Then, with the royal entourage increasingly augmented by English lords and prelates, it was on to London, where the people received their new sovereign "with transports of joy,"42 acclaiming him as "Henry the Peacemaker."43 It was probably at this time that the English bestowed on him the nickname "Curtmantle," on account of the short French cloak he wore.

  Since the palace of Westminster was in a badly dilapidated state, having been vandalised by Stephen's supporters, the royal couple were lodged in the old Saxon palace at Bermondsey,44 situated on the Surrey shore of the Thames opposite the Tower of London, just below London Bridge. Nearby stood the newly built abbey of Bermondsey.

  On Sunday, 19 December, Henry and Eleanor were "crowned and consecrated with becoming pomp and splendour"45 in Westminster Abbey by Archbishop Theobald. The crown used was that commissioned by William the Conqueror in imitation of the imperial crown of Charlemagne, and the officiating clergy wore splendid vestments of silk, such as had never before been seen in England, while the royal couple and their barons were attired in robes of silk, brocade, and gauze. It was a very moving occasion: Henry was "blessed as king with great joy and many crying for happiness, and splendidly enthroned."46 Afterwards, as the new King and Queen rode in procession along the Strand, the citizens ran alongside to catch a glimpse of them, crying, "Waes hael!" and "Vivat Rex!" 47

  Thus Henry "took possession of his hereditary kingdom to the acclaim of all, while throughout England the people shouted, 'Long live the King!' So many evils had sprung up in the previous reign that the people hoped for better things from the new monarch, especially when they saw he possessed remarkable prudence, constancy and zeal for justice, and at the very outset already manifested the likeness of a great prince."48

  The long rule of the Plantagenets had begun.

  7. All the Business of the Kingdom

  The realm of which Eleanor of Aquitaine became Queen was, like most European kingdoms, a feudal society. The land was fertile and its people were growing ever more prosperous. In 1066, William the Conqueror had successfully prosecuted his claim to the throne of England and established an alien monarchy in the realm of the Anglo-Saxon people. He had also imposed the hierarchical feudal system of land tenure upon his kingdom, reformed its Church along sterner, more disciplined Norman lines, and laid an iron hand of justice on his new subjects with such success that, after his death in 1087, it was said that "a man could travel unmolested throughout the country with his bosom full of gold."1

  Norman England was a rural society based on the village as an economic unit. From the few records that survive, it is estimated that the rising population numbered around two and a half million by 1200. Life expectancy was short, thanks to plague, famine, and insanitary living conditions. Most people lived and worked on the land, and only a tiny proportion of the population lived in towns. The Norman kings distributed land to their earls, barons, and bishops, who became tenants-in-chief owing fealty and military service to the sovereign. They in turn had their own tenants, barons and knights, who would preside as lords of the manor over the lower echelons of the social pyramid, the villeins and serfs. These last were bondmen, tied to the land that they worked for themselves and their lords, and unable to leave their manors without permission. All overlords had a duty to protect their vassals, and all subjects owed fealty to the King as well as to their immediate overlord, if they had one.

  By the mid-- twelfth century the indigenous Saxon population had come reluctantly to accept the Norman yoke. Henry I had attempted to ease relations with the conquered people by marrying a princess of the deposed Saxon line in 1100, only to suffer the disparaging jeers of his barons for doing so. There was no mistaking the demarcation line that ran through English society: Norman magnates held most of the land, most Saxon earls having been ousted; Norman laws held sway; and Norman-French was to remain the language of the court, the upper ranks of the hierarchy, and the law courts until the late fourteenth century. Latin was from 1066 the official language of government. Only the native population spoke what is now called Middle English, although there is some evidence that their masters made some attempt to learn it. Yet it was not until the fourteenth century that important works of literature would be written in the vernacular and English would emerge as the dominant tongue. The Norman conqueror had been nothing if not thorough.

  During Eleanor's time, however, there were signs that the two races were beginning to intermingle. Where once English kings had addressed their subjects as "French and English," by the thirteenth century they were referring to them as purely "English."

  The King was the supreme power in feudal England, answerable only to God. There was no parliament, and government was essentially carried out personally by the King and his Great Council of lords, both spiritual and temporal, on whose loyalty he relied. The personality and abilities of a king were of crucial importance to the welfare of his kingdom.

  It was taken for granted that the crown would pass from one member of the ruling family to another, but despite the efforts of Henry II, the law of primogeniture-- succession of the first-born-- was not properly established until the thirteenth century. Prior to that, the candidate nominated by his predecessor usually succeeded, his accession being confirmed by popular election (in theory at least), an essential part of the coronation rite.

  A king was deemed to rule "by the grace of God," whom he was legally deemed to represent on Earth. The ceremony of crowning, established in recognisably its present form in the reign of Edgar during the tenth century and based on the rituals used by the Pope to crown the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in 800, conferred sanctity and a form of priesthood upon a king. Hitherto he had been styled merely "lord," but once crowned and anointed he was invested with divine authority to rule and could begin his reign proper. Until the time of Edward I (ruled 1272-1307), regnal years were always dated from the day of the King's coronation. It was to underline the sacred nature of their kingship that the early mediaeval sovereigns held ceremonial crown-wearings at Easter, Whitsuntide, and Christmas, at which the Litany was recited and there was great feasting and solemnity.

  The sanctity of monarchy was universally accepted throughout Christendom. Kings from Henry I onwards laid hands on their scrofulous subjects in the firm conviction that the royal touch could effect a cure. Yet despite their semidivinity kings had obligations to their subjects, which they were bound to honour by the terms of their coronation oath: to keep the peace in Church and state, to forbid violence and wrongdoing, and to show equity and mercy in all their judgements. How they went about this was very much a matter of personal interpretation, however. "The prince is controlled by the judgement of his mind alone," commented John of Salisbury, one of the finest scholars and political observers of the age.

  John also believed that a king should be able to read and write, so that he could read about the law of God and "think about it every day." Furthermore, a king "must not plead ignorance of the law of God by reason of his military duties."

  The King was the fount of justice. Lords who administered their own courts held their authority from him. William I and his successors had adopted and in some cases revised the laws of the Saxon kings, and Henry II insisted that his Constitutions of Clarendon (1164) merely restated the laws and customs of his grandfather Henry Fs time, which was not strictly true. In an age that saw the codifying of canon and civil law throughout Europe, Henry was responsible for several sign
ificant changes in the common law and the administration of justice.

  It was the King's business to appoint the chief officers of Church and state, to determine foreign policy, to make war or peace, and to act as supreme commander of his armies, which he would often lead in person. To finance all this, he drew revenues from his crown lands, collected his feudal dues, and imposed taxes as he thought necessary. As the fount of justice, he promulgated and maintained law and order and presided, often in person and always in spirit, over the supreme court in the land, the curia regis, or King's Court.

  By 113 5 London was eclipsing Winchester as the metropolis and chief city of the whole kingdom-- it would be recognised as the capital by the end of the century-- yet England had, at this time, no central seat of government. The royal court was itinerant, moving from castle to castle, and most of the chief departments of state travelled with it. During his reign Henry II established these departments at Westminster, which became the centre of royal bureaucracy and justice. Simultaneously, Westminster Abbey, built by Edward the Confessor in 1065, and the Palace of Westminster, dating from Saxon times, became the focus for royal ritual and ceremonial, as they still are today.

  The chief minister of the early Angevin kings was the justiciar, who exercised judicial and political power and often acted as regent in the King's absence. The justiciar was head of the Court of the Exchequer, which controlled the royal finances. The Exchequer was responsible for collecting royal revenues, for adjudicating on cases connected with them, and for auditing the royal accounts. The royal treasure was stored in the Lower Exchequer, under strong guard, while in the Upper Exchequer officials would convene around the Board of the Exchequer, a table spread with a checkered cloth, its design incorporating an abacus that was used to check returns made by sheriffs. Sums received would be recorded by means of notches on wooden tally sticks, and transactions of the Exchequer were listed on long parchment scrolls stored in pipes-- the Pipe Rolls.

 
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