Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  The King's second minister was the chancellor, who headed the Chancery, the royal secretariat, which issued in the King's name writs concerning administrative and legal matters. Because the chancellor also served as the King's chaplain and head of the royal chapel, he was always in holy orders. The chancellor was not only the monarch's spiritual adviser but also his personal assistant and keeper of the King's seal. Royal seals had been used to authenticate documents from the time of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), since not every sovereign during this period could write his name. The chancellor attended meetings of the Exchequer and took charge of the administrative work of the royal household. The Chancery was also responsible for the issue of charters conferring privileges and land grants, Letters Patent making temporary grants, and Letters Close, which contained secret orders for royal officials. From 1199, the issue of these letters was recorded on long rolls known as Patent Rolls and Close Rolls.

  The King ruled in consultation with his chief nobles, who formed the nucleus of what was in effect a military aristocracy, whose power was centred on the castles they built to subdue and dominate the land. Introduced after the Norman Conquest, castles were originally simple affairs consisting of a wooden tower known as a keep or donjon, which would house the great hall and lord's solar, where he and his family slept: privacy was a privilege only of those of high rank, and everyone else bedded down on pallets in the hall. The tower would be built on an earthen mound (the motte) surrounded by a wooden palisade and moat. Within the palisade was the bailey, an open area housing workshops, stables, and a kitchen; the latter was always built separately because of the risk of fire. In uncertain times, the villagers, who looked to their lord for protection against invaders, could take refuge in the bailey with their livestock until the danger had passed.

  During the twelfth century, many timber castles were rebuilt in stone with square keeps, which made them better able to resist a siege. The walls of these newer castles were very thick and had only arrow slits for windows. Often draughty and damp, with unpaved earthen floors strewn with rushes, the new castles were heated by open fires in the central hearth of the great hall, the smoke escaping through a vent in the ceiling, or by braziers in the smaller rooms. Built-in fireplaces were rare in England during this period, since the design of keeps could not easily accommodate chimneys; yet we know that Queen Eleanor had one installed at Winchester.

  Each castle was under the control of a constable, who was entrusted with keeping the peace in the region during his lord's absence. When the lord was in residence, however, he would hold court, attend to local affairs, dispense justice, and oversee administration.

  Knights, who fought on horseback, belonged to the lower ranks of the military elite, and often found warfare a lucrative business. Their daily rate of pay rose steadily in the twelfth century: by 1189, it was one shilling (5p). On top of that, they could expect to profit from taking enemy knights for ransom or from sharing the spoils of war. There were around seven thousand knights in England at this time.

  One of the most favoured knightly pursuits was the tournament, which became popular in France in the eleventh century but was not legalised in England until 1194, by Richard I. Early tournaments were merely occasions for brutal battle practice; they began with single combats called jousts and ended with a violent melee over a wide area. Deaths and injuries were commonplace; Eleanor herself was to lose one of her sons in a tournament. Nevertheless, knights could earn rich prizes and good money at tournaments, which became popular social gatherings.2

  England was divided into shires, each under the control of a sheriff (shire-reeve). He represented the King and was supposed to safeguard the crown's interests in the shire, which was divided into administrative divisions called hundreds. The sheriff enforced the King's justice in the shire courts and ensured that royal revenues and debts were collected. His was a lucrative office and its holders were never very popular: witness the Sheriff of Nottingham, of Robin Hood fame. Until the time of Henry II, the magnates had often extended their influence by appropriating shrievalties for themselves, but Henry replaced them with professional administrators and made them more accountable for their actions and finances.

  There was a high incidence of violent crime during this period. There was, of course, no police force, and local enforcement of law and order was left to the sheriffs, lords of the manor, and local communities. Every so often the King's itinerant justices would visit each shire in turn, to hear all pleas at the shire court. The King himself and the judges who followed his court would hear individual cases as they travelled around the kingdom. Later it became customary for the royal justices to sit on the King's Bench at Westminster and hear civil and criminal cases.

  Convictions were hard to secure because the machinery of justice was often inadequate. If they witnessed a crime, ordinary people could raise the hue and cry, inciting everyone to chase after a wrongdoer. A felon might claim sanctuary in a church, usually for no longer than a fortnight; if he escaped, he risked being declared an outlaw.

  There were several ways of determining a person's guilt. The Normans had introduced two procedures invoking divine judgement: trial by ordeal-- either by water or fire-- which was commonly resorted to up until Henry lis reign, and trial by combat-- if the loser was not killed, he would be hanged. Finally there was trial by jury, an old Anglo-Saxon process, which became the accepted procedure from the time of Henry II.

  Punishments were severe. William I had abolished capital punishment, preferring the very efficacious deterrent of mutilation, but it had been restored by Henry I, although the royal courts were judicious in its use. Male murderers were hanged, females burned to death; rapists were castrated, arsonists burned at the stake. For slander or false accusation, a man could have his tongue cut out. The most common punishment was a fine, which hit poor felons hardest.

  The Church administered its own courts, presided over by archdeacons or bishops, which adjudicated on disputes over wills and on matters such as heresy, annulment, sexual misconduct, and other cases touching the cure of souls. Ecclesiastical courts also dealt with offenders in holy orders who had committed civil crimes, usually imposing more lenient sentences. Even the lowliest clerks could claim this "benefit of clergy," which Henry II thought to be unfair: his attempt to reform the system was one of the major causes of his quarrel with Thomas Becket.

  Much of England was then covered by forests. During the Middle Ages, the continual clearance of forest areas was so commonplace as to merit little mention in the records, yet in this period the forest was regarded chiefly as "the sanctuary and special delight of kings, where, laying aside their care, they withdraw to refresh themselves with a little hunting. There, away from the turmoils inherent in a court, they breathe the pleasure of natural freedom."3 So seriously did the early mediaeval kings take the sport of hunting that they set aside vast acres of land for their own use, built numerous hunting lodges in the royal forests (of which the most notable was the spacious palace of Clarendon, near Salisbury, recently excavated), and introduced a series of savage forest laws designed to prevent the King's subjects from poaching his game, a hazardous business at the best of times since predatory wolves still roamed the forests of England in the twelfth century. The Norman kings had executed or mutilated those who transgressed these laws, but Henry II and his successors preferred to punish them with imprisonment or a fine.

  In England, as elsewhere, the feasts of the Church, her holy days and saints' days, governed the Christian's year, and the parish church was the focal point of social life in every village. Shrines to the Virgin Mary and the saints, many containing holy relics, were to be found everywhere and were the objects of special veneration and pilgrimages. In every city and town, and throughout the countryside, men raised the most beautiful churches to the glory of God.

  The Archbishops of Canterbury and York were rivals for the primacy of England until the fourteenth century. The ultimate ecclesiastical authority was the Pope, who
was regarded as the successor to St. Peter, but the Church was mainly run by bishops, and bishops in the twelfth century were chiefly politicians, businessmen, and administrators. Some, such as Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, had a genuine aura of sanctity, but they were the exception rather than the rule, most preferring to seek high office and influence in the service of the King. Most of the great offices of state were filled by bishops, some of whom were even appointed sheriffs. Thus did the Church spread its influence over secular affairs. Indeed, many bishops were very worldly men, who lived like princes and spent more time indulging themselves with hunting, entertaining, building projects, and the acquisition of wealth than they did on their spiritual and pastoral duties.

  At the other end of the scale, a village priest, living on his glebe-land and caring for the souls of his flock, often earned a mere pittance, for he was required to rely on tithes imposed on the parish, which were usually paid in kind, and he often had a family to support. William I had forbidden English priests to marry, on penalty of a heavy fine, but even as late as the reign of Henry II it was common for a priest to keep "a hearth girl in his house who kindled his fire but extinguished his virtue. His miserable house [was] often cluttered with small infants, cradles, midwives and nurses."4 It was not until 1181 that this practice was forbidden by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

  There were nine thousand parishes in England. Many parish priests were sincere men who carried out their duties with simple faith and humanity, but there were many more who were often drunk, lax, or so illiterate that they could not properly read or fully interpret for their flock the offices and services of the Church, which were all in Latin, its universal language. Many priests, and even some of the higher clergy, preferred to preach in English.

  The twelfth century witnessed a great monastic revival, with the founding of several new orders with stricter rules: the Cistercians, who built their abbeys in the northern wildernesses laid waste by William I, reclaimed the land for sheep farming, and became England's foremost wool producers; the Augustinian canons, whose double houses admitted both men and women in holy orders; the Carthusians, who lived under an austere rule requiring them to embrace a life of solitude and silence; and the Order of Fontevrault, especially dear to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her family.

  In England, a programme of monastic reform had been imposed by William I. Most of the Norman kings founded abbeys in England, such as those at Reading and Faversham, whose respective founders Henry I and King Stephen were buried in the churches they had endowed. William I and his queen, Matilda of Flanders, founded or endowed several abbeys in Normandy, notably at Caen, where they were entombed.

  The religious houses were not just the refuge of those who wished to retreat from the world and live lives dedicated to God. They fed and cared for the poor, healed the sick, dispensed alms, and gave shelter to travellers. Many were cradles of learning, preserving in their libraries ancient books, documents, and manuscripts, and training their monks in the arts of illumination and calligraphy so that they could produce Bibles and devotional works glorifying God-- most books were about religious subjects-- or new chronicles and annals recording the history of their house or of England itself. The Church therefore enjoyed a monopoly over the written word.

  The expensive art of illumination had been imported from Byzantium, thanks to the expansion of trade with the Eastern Empire, and there are some exquisite English examples from this period, notably the Byzantine-influenced Winchester Bible. Manuscripts were written mainly in the rounded Carolingian minuscule script, which had not yet given way to Gothic lettering. Most books were bound with leather-covered oak boards, but some were lavishly adorned with gold or metal filigree work, ivory reliefs, or precious stones.

  Monks were not universally popular. Enclosed in their communities, and undertaking no pastoral works outside those walls, they were often perceived as idle troublemakers who led promiscuous lives and were overcritical of those who remained in the world. "From the malice of monks, O Lord deliver us!" wrote Giraldus Cambrensis with feeling. By the end of the twelfth century, religious rules were being subverted by softer living conditions, and the decline of monasticism had set in. Education was then dominated by the Church, which used it as a means of training those who were destined for holy orders. All schools had to be licensed by bishops: many were grammar schools, attached to cathedrals and monasteries. Only boys were admitted. They studied the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and the quadrivium (mathematics, music, geography, and astronomy). All lessons were in Latin and discipline was strict. There was no prejudice against a bright boy from a poor background gaining acceptance in these schools and by benefit of his education rising through the ranks of the Church to high office. In fact, it was the peasant classes who seemed to care most about education, for they "vied with each other in bringing up their ignoble and degenerate offspring to the liberal arts."5 The nobility, on the other hand, were often "too proud or too lazy to put their children to learning."6 Upper-class boys were more likely to be taught the manly arts of warfare, preferably in another noble household, where they would be sent initially as pages, in the hope that their hosts would secure future honours and advantages for them. It would appear therefore that it was mainly the peasant, merchant, and artisan classes who sent their sons to the schools and universities. Relatively few laypeople, however, learned to read and write: literacy was chiefly the preserve of those in holy orders.

  Music, sacred or otherwise, pervaded every walk of twelfth-century life, although very little survives, and that which does is so poorly annotated that we can only guess at how it should be played. Nevertheless, we have examples of the hymns that were sung in churches, the songs that were sung by soldiers, and the part-songs that originated in Wales and were sung for pleasure in castles and manor houses. Carols had not yet become associated purely with Christmas, but were sung and danced in a ring to celebrate a variety of holy days and even the coming of spring. Sirventes were songs of a satirical nature, often only of topical interest, which is why they were rarely written down, but they were highly popular.

  Life in mediaeval castles was lived communally, and during the evenings everyone would gather in the great hall of the keep to eat supper and take their leisure by the light of torches and candles in the wall sconces. If they were lucky they might be entertained by minstrels, clowns, acrobats, Morris dancers, mummers, mime-artists, and jesters. Kings and lords would keep their own jesters; Rahere, founder of St. Bartholemew's Church and Hospital, was Henry I's jester, and had a special talent for mimicry. The repertoire performed by these artistes, who were usually of lowly birth and disreputable reputation,was often coarse and bawdy, punctuated by swearing and obscenities. Satirical humour was popular, then as now, and slapstick drew much merriment.

  Christmas was marked by twelve days of religious offices and revelry, and every English king held a special court in honour of the occasion. The Church itself entered into the spirit of frivolity, appointing boy bishops for the duration and holding a Feast of Fools, to the hilarity of beholders, but it was stern in condemning jollifications at any rite that had obvious pagan origins. Thus May Day rituals and observation of the summer and winter solstices were either prohibited or somehow incorporated into the Christian calendar.

  In order to spread the Word of God, the Church sanctioned the performance of miracle plays or tableaux of scenes from the Bible. These had become very popular by the end of the twelfth century. They were at first performed in churches, and later on colourful stages set up in marketplaces. Many of these early plays were in the vernacular, so that the common folk could understand them.

  During the twelfth century, English towns flourished and grew, thanks to the development of trade and commerce. Several new towns were founded by kings and noblemen, and some villages received charters conferring township status. Conscious attempts at town planning were made in new urban developments, such as Leeds and Liverpool, which were constructed on a grid system
.

  Towns were known as boroughs, from the Saxon word hurh, and were centres of trade; the merchants who lived in a borough were known as burgesses. Towns would have walls built around them for protection, which often meant that, with the expansion of their trade and population, too many people were crowded together in houses crammed into narrow streets. As the century progressed and society became less militaristic in its outlook, suburbs grew up outside town walls.

  Some towns and cities were communes, which meant that they had secured the right to self-government by elected aldermen, often in the face of opposition from kings like Henry II, who disapproved of towns being independent from the crown. Kings and lords would also grant charters licensing the holding of fairs and markets, invariably a lucrative source of profit for themselves.

  London, with an estimated population of 35,000, was by far the biggest and most important city. Its chief citizens were known as barons. They were a politically acute clique who wielded considerable influence, and by the end of the century they had wrested their independence from the crown, declared themselves a commune, and in 1191 elected their first mayor, Henry FitzAilwin. Many citizens were bilingual, speaking both Norman-French and English, or a curious combination of the two. Intermarriage between those of Norman and Saxon origin was common.

  We are fortunate that, around 1180, the chronicler William FitzStephen wrote a description of London as a preface to his biography of Thomas Becket, who was born in the city. Thus we have at first hand a picture of the London Eleanor knew.

  London had occupied its 326-acre site on the banks of the Thames since Roman times, and its landward boundaries were protected by a high stone wall with towers and seven double gates: Bishopsgate, Cripple-gate, Moorgate, Aldgate, Aldersgate, Ludgate, and Billingsgate. The city was dominated by three fortresses: the White Tower, built by William the Conqueror, and Baynard's Castle and Montfichet Castle, where the city garrisons were housed. Between 1176 and 1209, a strong stone bridge was built to replace the old wooden structure that connected the city to the Surrey shore. Within the city walls, the ordinary houses were built of wood and gaily painted red, blue, and black. Because there were so many timber buildings, there were frequent fires; one in 113 5 destroyed St. Paul's Cathedral and a wide area around it.

 
Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]