Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  By 1180, the city was bustling and prosperous, boasting a fine stone cathedral, thirteen religious houses, 126 parish churches, lordly residences, guildhalls, and schools. London was a great centre for trade, and had streets of shops displaying a variety of luxury goods, including silks from Damascus and enamels from Limoges. There were also markets where merchants would come from all over Europe to sell their goods, and numerous stalls and booths. There was even a cook shop by the river serving ready-made meals to take away.

  The city's population was growing and suburbs such as Smithfield, where there was a horse fair every Saturday, were by now springing up beyond the walls. In these suburbs, the richer citizens had fine timber-framed houses set in beautiful gardens planted with trees. Nearby were "excellent suburban wells with sweet, wholesome, clear water," such as Clerkenwell, Holy Well, and St. Clement's Well. Beyond these suburbs lay pleasant meadows and millstreams, and forests where the Londoners would go with their merlins, falcons, and dogs to hunt stags, deer, boar, and even bulls. They also had the right to hunt farther afield in the Chiltern Hills.

  There was much to do in London. Annual carnivals took place, and the people regularly participated in bull- or bearbaiting, cockfighting, horseracing, archery, and wrestling. Boys and youths enjoyed football (soccer)-- then a much more violent game than it is now-- and their fathers and the city elders often came on horseback to watch. During Lent there were tournaments every Sunday, and at Easter, "naval tourneys" on the Thames. In winter, people made skates out of animal bones and whizzed across the frozen marshes north of the city. For refreshment there were many inns and taverns, identified by the bunches of greenery hanging above their doors.

  FitzStephen described London as a beautiful and splendid city, "known for its healthy air and honest, Christian burghers," but Richard of Devizes stated that, compared with Winchester, it was a cynical, terrifying, and evil place. The murder rate was high, and it was dangerous to venture out on the streets after curfew because of predatory street gangs. The worst areas for crime were actually across the bridge on the Surrey shore, particularly between the Bishop of Winchester's palace in Southwark and the Archbishop of Canterbury's palace at Lambeth, which was the equivalent of a modern red-light district.

  Other cities and towns were far smaller than London, often not much bigger than a large modern village. Winchester, York, Lincoln, and Norwich boasted fewer than ten thousand citizens each, while Oxford and several other cities had not yet fully recovered from being sacked by the Conqueror's troops after refusing to submit to him.

  Ecclesiastical architecture flourished at this time. By the end of the century, nearly every English cathedral and monastic church had been rebuilt in stone in the Norman style known as Romanesque. This was characterised by a massive barrel vault supported by thick columns and rounded arches, often decorated with geometric or zigzag chevron patterns. Most churches had very long naves and imposing towers over the crossing with the transepts, and were furnished with several altars to meet the high demand for masses. Durham Cathedral is the finest of the few remaining examples of English Romanesque architecture.

  Towards the end of the century, after the development of the pointed arch in Burgundy and France, Gothic architecture became fashionable. In England, this style is known as Early English, and an outstanding example is the choir of Canterbury Cathedral, built by William of Sens. This set a new trend in church building and was soon followed at Lincoln, Wells, and other cathedrals. Twelfth-century churches were rich in carvings-- a visual aid for the faithful-- and covered in instructive and decorative wall paintings depicting biblical scenes, saints, doom-paintings, allegories, floral patterns, and even battles, as at Kempsley Church, Gloucestershire. Most were whitewashed over at the Reformation, yet a few have been restored, giving us some idea of how colourful mediaeval churches were.

  In the early twelfth century, church windows were small and filled with clear glass. Shortly, glass stained in grey and black and known as grisaille appeared. Then, as the development of the Gothic arch facilitated larger windows, coloured stained glass was introduced into the first French Gothic cathedrals. It began to appear in English churches only towards the end of the century, and very little survives from that time, that in the choir at Canterbury being one of the best extant examples.

  Sculpture was primitive, ill proportioned, and crude, although there were some talented craftsmen at work in this field, as is evident from the stone sculptures at Chartres Cathedral and Cluny Abbey in Burgundy. Most sculpture was brightly painted, even if it adorned the outside of a church. Tomb effigies were rare, and those of the Plantagenets at Fontevrault are of unusually good quality. Opinions differ as to whether these were genuine attempts at portraiture, but their very diversity implies that perhaps they were. Portraiture as an art form did not exist-- people had only a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy-- and such paintings as survive are murals or manuscript illustrations that display little attempt at realism.

  England was rich in natural resources. Her coal seams were not mined until the thirteenth century, but iron, lead, silver, and charcoal were, and in Devon and Cornwall tin was becoming the major industry. Staffordshire was already known for its pottery, although much of what was produced was primitive in design and execution. The major industry was the production of wool, which became the basis of England's wealth from the twelfth century onwards. Trade was not yet dominated by craft guilds: the weavers' guild was the only one of any significance in this period.

  There was a variety of fabrics on sale, many of them home produced, particularly in Lincolnshire. Velvet would not be invented until the fifteenth century, and the finest cloth available was that dyed scarlet, which was made almost exclusively for Henry II and his family at 6s 8d (33p) an ell (a measure laid down in Henry Is reign and equal to the length of the King's right arm). Green say cost half that: it had a more delicate texture, but the colour was not as fashionable. Then there was a striped fabric called ray and the coarse white blanchet cloth worn by Cistercian monks and poorer folk. Linen was woven in Wiltshire and was used for women's headdresses and for undergarments for both sexes.

  Money was coming into more general use, replacing the system of barter or payment in kind that had sufficed in early feudal times. The only currency in England in the twelfth century was the silver penny. Money was counted in units known as shillings (i2d, or 5p), marks (13s 4d, or 67p), pounds (24od, or £1), and gold marks (£6), but there were no actual coins of these denominations. In the interests of trade, upon which England's burgeoning prosperity depended, Henry II took measures to ensure that the coins bearing his image, which continued to be issued throughout the reigns of his sons, were accepted as sound currency throughout Christendom. Nevertheless, there were many clipped or debased coins in circulation.

  A labourer earned roughly one shilling a day, a thatcher one penny, and a plumber three pence, while a miller received as an annual stipend five shillings and a chaplain around forty shillings. There was chronic inflation and prices were constantly rising.

  Trade, of course, was largely dependent on communications. It is a misconception that people rarely ventured out of their villages or towns at this period. In fact, royalty, nobles, knights, merchants, craftsmen, pilgrims, and a host of others were constantly on the move, by land or water. Not that travel was always easy. Some Roman roads, notably "Wading Street, Ermine Street, and the Fosse Way, remained in use, as did the prehistoric Icknield Way: all were designated royal roads in the twelfth century, and were under the King's protection. By law, they had to be wide enough to allow two wagons to pass each other or sixteen armed knights to ride side by side. The surfaces of these royal roads were "metalled" and paved. Most people travelled on horseback or by horse-drawn carts and covered wagons.

  There were other main roads, known as the King's Highways, but they were often mere dirt tracks, which frequently became muddy and waterlogged. For this reason many goods, and people, were transported by river on barges.
Towns that were sited by major rivers, such as York, Gloucester, and Norwich, grew rapidly in prosperity.

  Most seafarers travelled in round cogs with a single mast, a square, coloured sail, and elevated castles at each end. Sailings were frequently delayed by inclement weather, and ships were often blown off course. It could take several days to cross the English Channel, and in all seas there were hazards such as shipwreck or pirates to be braved.

  England enjoyed a lively foreign trade with France, Italy, and other Mediterranean states, Flanders, Hainault, Scandinavia, and the German principalities bordering the Rhine. Gold was even imported from Arabia. The Thames was constantly thronged with ships, and the wharves of London "packed with the goods of merchants coming from all countries";? these merchants imported timber, furs, gold, silver, gems, fabric, chain mail, and even gyrfalcons, those hunting birds used only by royalty. France's principal export to England was wine, chiefly from Poitou, Gascony, and Auxerre, although Rhenish wine was also favoured. The marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II gave a great boost to the wine trade.

  The diet of the English was more varied than we today might imagine. The fertile soil allowed several types of crop to be grown, while wild herbs, often used in cooking, were to be found in the meadows. Fruits and berries grew on trees and bushes, and a wide variety of birds were killed for the table. In the towns and markets, spices imported from the Orient, such as ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon, could be purchased, at a price. Meat was a staple, but it could only be eaten fresh in the summer, because all livestock were slaughtered in the autumn, there being no means of feeding them through the winter, and their meat was smoked or salted down for the colder months. Stuffings, marinades, and rich sauces, often flavoured with garlic, were used to disguise the taste and smell of rancid meat that had in many cases gone green. The poor kept pigs, while the rich hunted for game such as venison, wild boar, swans, hares, and even peacocks.

  Great varieties of fish were also eaten in large quantities, it being necessary to do so on Fridays and also during Lent, when the devout were expected to give up meat. Most manors and monasteries had their own fishponds or streams, and castle moats were often stocked with fish.

  Many recipes known today, such as coq au vin, beef bourguignon, and bouillabaisse, date from the twelfth century. Herb-flavoured omelettes were popular, as were stews and pies. There were no potatoes, and most meats were served upon thick trenchers of bread. Only the better-off used plates, and these were usually shared between two people, a gentleman always inviting his lady to take the tastiest morsels. Sweets and desserts were popular, and might include dried fruits, compotes, jellies, biscuits, tarts, waffles, fritters, gingerbread, or macaroons.

  The staple drink of all classes was ale or "home brew," which was consumed in huge quantities in leather or pottery tankards or jugs-- "the whole land was filled with drink and drinkers."8 Thin red and white wines were also home-produced in vineyards near Bedford, Tewkesbury, and York, but they were poor in quality.9 The best wines came from abroad and were drunk in the households of the upper classes and used at communion. These fine wines cost up to 34s a cask in 1184, and were often drunk from silver goblets. Wines could be spiced with cloves or sweetened with fruit such as pears. Cider and mead were also popular.

  The main meal of the day was eaten between nine o'clock and noon, depending on the season. In castles and manor houses it was served with elaborate ceremony in the great hall, where the lord and his family would sit at the high table. This would be laid with a cloth, and ewers, basins, and towels would be brought so that the diners could wash their hands. Knives and spoons were used as eating utensils, but forks had not yet been invented. Salt-- then an expensive luxury-- would be placed in cellars on the table, along with goblets, tankards, and jugs of wine. Each course would be brought in by servants, while the company-- which included guests, travellers, and retainers-- would enjoy lively conversation or transact business. Sometimes music would accompany the meal.

  Bad harvests were often followed by winters of famine, which was greatly feared, for it was not uncommon for poorer people literally to starve to death once their supplies of food had been exhausted. Farming was carried out by manual methods, the only technological aids being the water mill, for grinding corn, and the plough. The chief crops were wheat, barley, oats, and vegetables. Because most manors were divided into strips, and because one field in three was often left fallow for a year, the yield could be poor, leading to a dearth.

  Science made some advances at this time, thanks to the rediscovery of classical works, particularly on medicine, preserved by the Arabs. The study of astronomy was very popular, while in 1145 the Arab system of algebra was first introduced into Europe by Robert of Chester. It was either he or the great scientist Adelard of Bath who first used Arabic numerals in Europe, although these would not replace the old Roman numeral system until the sixteenth century.

  Medicine was rudimentary and crude. Diseases and their causes were not properly understood, and physicians often found it hard to reach an accurate diagnosis. Even when they did, there was little they could do for the patient beyond prescribing baths or offering herbal remedies or infusions, some of which were efficacious. Badly wounded limbs were usually amputated with an axe without benefit of anaesthetic, often with fatal results, and it was some time before the Arab practice of dressing wounds was followed in the West.

  Life in twelfth-century England was often short and hard and it was universally believed that, while the wicked who had committed mortal sins would be consigned after death to the flames and tortures of Hell, those who had striven for goodness in this life would receive their reward in Heaven. However, in order to avoid a sojourn in Purgatory beforehand to expiate lesser sins, it was common for men and women to invest their life savings so that perpetual alms could be distributed for the safety of their souls.

  8. " Eleanor, by the Grace of God, Queen of England"

  At Christmas 1154, King Henry II and Queen Eleanor presided over a great court at Westminster,1 which was attended by the chief barons and prelates of England. With their assistance, Henry immediately set to work to tackle the evils and decay that beset his kingdom and to establish well-organised government. He began by ordering the expulsion of Stephen's Flemish mercenaries, the destruction of 1,100 unlicensed castles, and the resumption of royal castles and alienated crown lands,2 acts that "earned the praise and thanksgiving of peace-loving men."3

  Henry was passionate about justice. He paid "due regard to public order, and was at great pains to revive the vigour of the laws of England, which had seemed under King Stephen to be dead and buried. Throughout the realm he appointed judges and legal officials to curb the audacity of wicked men and dispense justice to litigants."4 In his coronation charter, Henry made no mention of Stephen's reign, but referred frequently to the laws and customs of Henry I, which he was determined to restore and enforce. In fact, as his reign progressed, he would not slavishly follow his grandfather's policies, but would introduce new and sometimes radical legislative reforms of his own.

  He divided the country into administrative regions and instituted legal circuits, whereby his justices would visit each region to ensure that the King's Peace was being kept and administer justice through assize courts. While on his travels through his kingdom, Henry himself would preside over these courts, and his judgements were reputed to be so just that anyone with a sound case was anxious to have it heard by him, while those with dubious cases would not come before him unless they were dragged into court.5 Another change was the gradual replacement of trial by ordeal with trial by jury. It was due to these dramatic reforms that, during Henry II's reign, the foundations of English common law were laid down.

  Henry also "jealously watched over the royal interests,"6 judiciously increasing the wealth and prestige of the crown while curbing the power of his barons.

  What made all this possible was the strong desire of the English aristocracy and people for peace aft
er the terrible anarchy of Stephen's reign, a desire that Henry exploited to the full in order to press on with his reforms. He knew that it was essential to restore public confidence in the monarchy and the government, and by quickly establishing a strong grip on affairs and learning to control his barons and make them cooperate, he succeeded in achieving this. Gradually, he established the supremacy of the King's Court over the feudal courts of his vassals, and improved local government by dismissing corrupt or inept sheriffs. There was no aspect of national or local government that escaped his attention, and soon after his accession it was said that a virgin could walk from one end of the realm to the other with her bosom full of gold and suffer no harm, and that evil barons had vanished like phantoms.7

  The King also took steps to reorganise and improve the royal finances, which were in chaos. He levied new taxes, minted a purer coinage, and ensured that all royal revenues were collected by the Exchequer, which had been vigorously reorganised by 1158. This policy was highly successful: royal income, which was £22,000 in 1154, had increased to £48,000 by the end of the reign.8 Out of this, Henry had to maintain not only himself and his household, but also the royal estates and castles, and finance the government of the realm. His careful housekeeping benefited not only himself, but England too, for it led to a boom in trade and prosperity, which in turn resulted in increased royal revenues.

 
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