Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir

  By the summer of 1155, thanks to Henry II's genius for good government, order had been re-established within the kingdom, with such thoroughness that England would remain at peace for nearly two decades.

  Even after he became King, Henry II disdained the trappings of sovereignty. He did not need them anyway, for his very presence was enough to quell those who would have opposed him and reduce mighty lords to servility. He was a despot, both as a ruler and as the head of his family, and one of the most able and gifted rulers to sit on the throne of England: his contemporaries accounted him "the greatest of earthly princes."9

  He nevertheless remained the most affable of monarchs, although no one ever mistook his geniality for a want of sovereign authority.10 "He was expansive towards strangers and prodigal in public," wrote Giraldus. When assailed and jostled by a crowd of clamorous suitors, he would remain even tempered and endeavour to give each one a hearing.11 Few, however, got what they wanted, for Henry had a fault which he contracted from his mother's teaching: he is wasteful of time over the affairs of his people, and so it comes about that many die before they get their matter settled, or leave the court depressed and penniless, driven by hunger.

  Another fault is that when he makes a stay anywhere, which rarely occurs, he does not allow himself to be seen, but shuts himself up within and is only accessible to those who seem unworthy of such ready access.12

  In a crisis Henry usually stayed calm and decisive, and his sense of humour often served him well. Once, after a stormy clash with the King, Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, approached him with trepidation as Henry sat on the ground in the forest with his courtiers in a circle around him. Since Henry had forbidden anyone to acknowledge Hugh's presence, no one rose to greet him, "but Bishop Hugh, undaunted, eased an earl out of his place beside the King and sat down. There was a long, brooding silence, finally broken by Henry who, unable to do nothing, called for needle and thread and began to stitch up a leather bandage on an injured finger. Again, there was a heavy silence until Bishop Hugh casually remarked, 'How like your cousins of Falaise you look' "-- a droll reference to William the Conqueror's mother, who had been a tanner's daughter from Falaise. "At this, the King's anger fled from him and he burst into laughter which sent him rolling on the ground. Many were amazed at the Bishop's temerity, others puzzled, until the King, recovering his composure, explained the gibe to them."13

  For all his geniality, Henry's rage could be terrible when his will was flouted, his authority undermined, or his trust betrayed. Generally, however, "he possessed remarkable prudence, constancy and zeal for justice,"14 and knew when to be merciful. When Ralph d'Albini flung a stone at the King at Bedford Castle-- a gross insult-- the King merely confiscated one of his estates.15

  Henry could be kind and generous towards his servants16 and those hit by misfortune. Walter Map recalled how, "although he was not obliged to do so, and the cost was high," he had made good the losses of some seamen when their ships, which they had "provided as a service to the Cinque Ports without cost to the crown," were wrecked during a storm. In 1176, when there was terrible famine in Anjou and Maine, the King emptied his private stores to succour the poor.17 His laws displayed concern for the needs of his humbler subjects,18 and he was "more and more anxious about the common welfare [and] most intent on showing justice to everyone."19

  Walter Map stated that Henry was generous with almsgiving, but "in secret, lest it should be known to his left: hand what his right hand gave." Map also claimed that the King was a pious man, but Giraldus insisted that he could see no sign of personal devotion in him. William of Newburgh criticised Henry to his face for leaving bishoprics vacant so that he could appropriate their revenues, but the King merely retorted that it was better that the wealth of the Church be spent to the benefit of the realm than on the pleasure of bishops, which Newburgh thought shocking. Indeed, Henry's open anticlericalism prejudiced many chroniclers against him, notably Ralph Niger and Gervase of Canterbury, although Adam of Eynsham, the biographer of St. Hugh of Lincoln, testifies to the King holding truly devout men in high regard, and Walter Map tells of him tactfully averting his eyes and making no comment when a monk's habit blew up and exposed his bare buttocks.

  Giraldus Cambrensis deplored the way in which Henry sometimes ridiculed the clergy, as well as his frequent blasphemies, which were as offensive then as four-letter words are today. Comparing him unfavourably with Louis VII, he wrote that Louis did not, like some princes he could mention, swear by the eyes, the feet, the teeth, or the throat of God, and that his device was not bears, leopards, or Hons, but the simple lily. The reference to leopards and lions may allude to the developing royal arms: Henry had perhaps inherited one lion from his father; the second he probably acquired on his marriage, for the device of Eleanor of Aquitaine was a golden lion on a red background. These two lions appear quartered on a shield of the Duke of Saxony and Brunswick, who later married Henry's daughter. Not until the reign of Henry's son would the Plantagenet arms featuring three lions or leopards evolve.

  Henry's benefactions to the Church were lavish. He and Eleanor endowed many leper hospitals, including those at Caen, Angers, and Le Mans. He directed his almoner to give to the destitute one-tenth of all the food and drink that was purveyed by or given to the royal household. The bequests in his will were exclusively for religious houses. He gave generously to the abbeys of Fontevrault, Reading (where Henry I lay buried), and Grandmont in the Limousin. Henry had a great attachment to the austere Order of Grandmont, visited it frequently, founded several cells, and in 1170 expressed a wish to be buried in the stark abbey church. This horrified his barons, who felt that such a resting place would be inconsistent with his dignity as king. Henry also had a deep respect for the even more ascetic Carthusian Order, and founded their first house in England at Witham, Somerset.

  For a man of his time, Henry could be surprisingly tolerant. Unlike other Christian rulers, he refused to persecute the Jews, and he offered asylum to Albigensian heretics who had fled from persecution in the south of France. Yet, like most people of his time, he regarded homosexuality as an offence against God, and authorised the torture of some Templars who had been arrested on suspicion of that and other unnatural practices; they confessed and were severely punished. This was the first time that torture was used under royal warrant in England.

  Inheriting the crown of England placed Henry, at the age of just twenty-one, on an equal footing with his rival, King Louis. Henry was by far the richer of the two in lands and resources, for his empire now extended from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees, yet he remained Louis's vassal for his lands in France, which meant that from time to time he would have to bow the knee to him in homage. Both were aware that Henry was the more powerful monarch, and Louis both feared and distrusted him, even while extending the hand of friendship. Thus France was always a potential enemy.

  Although Henry worked hard and efficiently to establish his authority in England, his chief interests lay on the continent. However, he found his continental domains far more difficult to govern than his kingdom-- especially Aquitaine, where his rule was never popular and which remained in a state of almost constant revolt against him. Governing such far-flung territories presented many practical difficulties in an age of poor communications, but with his tremendous energy Henry strove to overcome them, keeping in constant touch with the affairs of each domain by messenger, letter, and personal visits. His understanding of languages was an asset, but from now on virtually his whole life would be lived on the move, as he enforced his authority in his various territories. The chronicler Herbert of Bosham described him as a human chariot who drew all behind him, while King Louis was astonished at the pace of Henry's travels: "Now in Ireland, now in England, now in Normandy, he must fly rather than travel by horse or ship!" he exclaimed.20

  Henry also facilitated efficient rule by centralising the administration of his territories at Westminster and Rouen. All his orders were processed centrally throug
h his secretariat, the Chancery, which travelled with his court; these orders, or writs, were renowned for their clarity and could be understood everywhere in his empire. This helped to establish a degree of uniformity throughout dominions that had no common language, laws, customs, or currency.

  Despite these measures, Henry was almost constantly at war, either with France, or subduing rebellious vassals, or keeping his borders secure from attack. Yet "above everything in the world, he labours for peace; all that he thinks, all that he says, all that he does, is directed to this end: that his people may have tranquil days."21

  By the time she became Queen of England, at thirty-two, Eleanor was already something of a legend. In Germany, her beauty was lauded in the contemporary collection of anonymous student songs known as the Carmina Burana:

  If all the world were mine

  From the seashore to the Rhine,

  That price were not too high

  To have England's Queen lie

  Close in my arms.22

  Another German minnesinger -- the equivalent of a troubadour-- wrote:

  The sweet young Queen

  Draws the thoughts of all upon her

  As sirens lure the witless mariners

  Upon the reef.

  This is also thought to refer to Eleanor. The likelihood is that these poets had not even seen her, but had relied upon reports of her looks and her reputation. In England and France, her praises were sung in a more conventional manner, as in this tribute by Benoit de Sainte-Maure in his Roman de Troie:

  For my presumption, shall I be chid

  By her whose kindness knows no bounds?

  Highborn lady, excellent and valiant,

  True, understanding, noble,

  Ruled by right and justice,

  Queen of beauty and largesse,

  By whose example many ladies

  Are upheld in emulous right-doing;

  In whom all learning lodges,

  Whose equal in no peer is found.

  Rich lady of the wealthy King,

  No ill, no ire, no sadness

  Mars your goodly reign.

  May all your days be joy.

  In the introduction to his Bestiary, formerly dedicated to Adeliza of Louvain, second queen of Henry I, and now reissued in the hope of acquiring a new patroness, the writer Philippe de Thaun takes a similar laudatory approach:

  God save Lady Eleanor,

  Queen, who is the arbiter

  Of honour, wit and beauty,

  Of largesse and loyalty.

  Lady, born were you in a happy hour

  And wed to Henry, King.

  Yet for all her fame, throughout the thirty-five years of Henry's reign the chroniclers rarely mention Eleanor, unless it is to record her presence by the King's side on various occasions, or the births of her children, through which she was fulfilling her prime function as queen. Most of her modern biographers therefore conclude that she enjoyed little political power as queen, and that Henry saw to it that her role was purely dynastic and ceremonial. Yet there is evidence in official documents that she was allowed a certain autonomy in decision-making and considerable responsibility for administrative matters, especially during Henry's frequent absences abroad, although naturally she did not make major decisions affecting policy. Nor were English queens in the twelfth century expected to be entirely subservient to their husbands: they were regalis imperii participes -- sharers in the imperial kingship. It may therefore be concluded that, because of the prejudices against her sex, and the fact that her role was completely overshadowed by Henry's deeds and achievements, Eleanor's activities were not considered worthy of mention.

  The few observations that the chroniclers do make about Eleanor are perceptive. While Thomas Agnell, Archdeacon of Wells, called her "a woman of great discernment," referring perhaps to her taste rather than her judgement, Gervase of Canterbury described her as "an exceedingly shrewd woman, sprung from noble stock, but fickle."

  For the first few years of the reign, when Henry was away on the continent, Eleanor acted as regent of England. She dealt with routine business, implemented orders sent by the King from abroad, approved all the acts of his ministers, arbitrated in disputes, and supervised the accounts of, for example, the market at Oxford, the tin mines of Cornwall, and her mill at Woodstock.23 Until 1163, she issued official documents or writs under her own name and seal,24 which were attested by her own chancellor. Often she was co-regent with the justiciar and acted in association with him, and occasionally she is recorded as having presided over courts and dispensed justice at Westminster, Cherbourg, Falaise, Bayeux, or Bordeaux. Her rulings were drawn up by her clerk, Master Matthew, and her letters, dictated to her clerks and written in Latin, were signed "Eleanor, by the grace of God, Queen of England," although not in her own hand. (The earliest extant signature of an English queen is that of Joanna of Navarre in the fifteenth century.)

  The sparse surviving evidence indicates that Eleanor was zealous in upholding her husband's policies. This is clear from two extant letters recording her intervention in disputes. One is to John FitzRalph, a baron of London:

  I have received a complaint from the monks of Reading to the effect that they have been unjustly dispossessed of certain lands in London which were bestowed on them by Richard FitzB-- when he became a monk. I command you to look into this without delay and, should it be true, to ensure that these lands are returned to the monks without delay, so that in future I shall hear no more complaints about deficiencies in law and justice. I will not tolerate their being unjustly deprived of anything that belongs to them. Greetings.

  The second letter was sent to the tenants of Abingdon Abbey:

  To the knights and men holding lands and tenures from Abingdon Abbey, greetings. I command that in all equity, and without delay, you provide Vauquelin, Abbot of Abingdon, with those same services which your ancestors provided in the days of King Henry, grandfather of our sovereign lord; and if you do not do so, then the King's justice and my own will make you do so.

  This is not the tone of a woman conscious of the narrow parameters of her authority. This is an imperious, dictatorial ruler confident in her power to enforce her decrees, while remaining aware that her husband retained ultimate control over affairs. Moreover, her actions during the reigns of her sons prove that she had gained considerable political experience, both in England and on her travels, and also through having known personally many of the great figures of the age, and by administering her own lands, a task for which she had been groomed since childhood. Eleanor would also have been conscious that, through Henry's marriage to her, England was enjoying increased prosperity, largely due to an expansion of the wine trade with Gascony and the import of silk, both of which brought great wealth to London and its merchants. In addition England enjoyed beneficial cultural links with Aquitaine as a result of the marriage; many English churches of the period display southern influence in their architecture.

  Like Henry, Eleanor was constantly on the move, travelling throughout England, Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine. Often she accompanied the King and his court, but on many occasions she travelled alone, with an escort, apparently unfazed by stormy seas or the dangers that sometimes lurked on the roads.

  When the King and Queen were in England, they followed a tradition set by the Conqueror, by ceremonially wearing their crowns at special courts held at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun, either at Westminster or at Winchester, the old Saxon capital. On these occasions there would be formal processions and church services at which the royal couple made offerings and took communion, all with great ceremony.

  As Queen, Eleanor was very rich, although her wealth did not come from conventional sources. On his accession Henry endowed her with numerous manors. The precise details have not survived: the earliest extant charter for an English queen's dower is that of Isabella of Angouleme, wife of King John, which dates from May 1204 and states that Isabella's assignment was identical to Eleanor's. According to Roger of Ho
veden, Eleanor held the same lands as had been assigned to the queens of Henry I and Stephen.

  Her dower manors should have provided Eleanor with substantial revenues in the form of annual rents, taxes, and yields, and houses in which to lodge while on her travels. However, it is clear from the records that Eleanor did not gain control of her dower until Henry's death, and that during his lifetime all her revenues went to the Exchequer, although she was at liberty to visit her manors.

  Her income came from two sources. Although little documentation exists, it is almost certain that Eleanor was the first English queen granted the right to claim queen-gold, an additional tenth payable to her on any voluntary fine over the value of ten marks, made in exchange for a licence or pardon from the crown, and on taxes on Jews; the first reference to queen-gold dates from Henry II's reign. It was paid direct to a clerk of the Exchequer appointed by the Queen; the clerk had a thankless task collecting it, for it was very unpopular. Eleanor was also paid dues by the sheriffs in whose bailiwicks she resided. These payments were authorised by the King.

  It may be inferred from these arrangements that Henry wished to retain control over her finances. In the 1180s Eleanor attempted to increase her revenue from queen-gold by extending the range of fines on which it was levied, which suggests that she was finding Henry's constraints unwelcome.

  In fact, the financial independence of earlier queen consorts had been much eroded before Eleanor's time. In the eleventh century and earlier, queens had managed not only the royal household but also the royal treasure, which made them both influential and wealthy. By 1135, however, the supervision of the household and treasury had been delegated to officials, diminishing the importance of the Queen's role. However, Henry's constraints upon Eleanor's finances probably had little to do with this trend and everything to do with his determination to limit her powers of patronage and prevent her from alienating crown lands. Not until the mid-thirteenth century were queens of England allowed to administer their own estates and income.

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