Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  It was Henry, therefore, who paid the running costs of Eleanor's household and the salaries of the officials who administered her estates and of her personal servants. If she needed money for private expenditure, the Keeper of the Royal Wardrobe provided it.

  Eleanor was a pious woman and, like her husband, a great benefactor of religious institutions, especially in Poitou and Aquitaine. With Henry, she helped to fund the rebuilding of the church of Notre-Dame-la-Grande at Poitiers in the Gothic style, a project she instigated herself and which would take a century to complete; with Henry, also, she once made a pilgrimage, bearing rich gifts, to the heights of Rocamadour, to visit the oldest shrine to the Virgin in France. In 1190 she gave to the Knights Hospitaller the port of Le Perrot.

  Eleanor is also said to have built the tiny church of Saint-Pierre de Mons, near Belin, to which a curious legend attaches: in the twelfth century and later, local annalists claimed that she buried her "numerous bastards" in its churchyard. Considering that her life was lived on so public a stage, it is hardly likely that she could have produced one bastard, let alone several, without the more veracious chroniclers of the age recording the fact.

  Naturally, it was the abbey of Fontevrault that benefited most from the Queen's patronage and generous endowments, made over a period of nearly sixty years. In 1170, for example, she granted lands to the order, with the right to take timber and firewood from one of her forests, the charter being witnessed by Saldebreuil of Sanzay Raoul de Faye, Eleanor's chaplain Peter, and Jordan, her clerk. She built a great octagonal kitchen for the nuns, which boasted five fireplaces and twenty chimneys, and which still stands today. When, in later years, her granddaughter, the daughter of Alix of France and Theobald of Blois, entered Fontevrault, Eleanor was lavish in her gifts to the girl.

  Thanks to Eleanor's patronage, Fontevrault's prestige increased, and it was transformed from being a house offering a refuge to women of all classes, including prostitutes, into an aristocratic institution fashionable with the daughters of kings and nobles.

  In England, Eleanor was responsible for the spread of the Order of Fontevrault, founding cells at Eaton and Westwood; in 1177, Henry II, himself a generous patron of Fontevrault, also founded a cell, at Ames-bury in Wiltshire. Eleanor founded a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas in Tickhill Castle, Yorkshire, and endowed it, providing a warden and four chaplains. She and Henry also befriended the future saint, Gilbert of Sempringham, founder of the Gilbertine Order of nuns and canons. In the 1160s, when his laybrothers, irked by their poverty, accused the nuns and canons of fornication, the King and Queen rallied to Gilbert's side and five bishops declared the charges unfounded.

  All mediaeval queens gave alms for the expiation of their sins and, as was customary, Eleanor employed an almoner to distribute charity on her behalf, although details of her donations have not survived.

  Henry II was said to have had more learning than any other European monarch of the age, and to have constantly increased his store of knowledge. "With the King, there is school every day, constant conversation with the best scholars, and discussion of intellectual problems," wrote Peter of Blois. When the King had leisure, "he occupies himself with private reading or takes great pains in working out some knotty question among his clerks."25 Yet Eleanor also wielded considerable intellectual influence over the cultural life of the court and, indeed, of the twelfth century in general, because her patronage of troubadours and other literary figures facilitated the spread of sophisticated southern cultural traditions throughout the Angevin empire and later, through the marriages of her children, into other parts of Europe.

  Many writers and poets dedicated their works to Eleanor, among them the Norman Robert Wace, a native of Jersey, who presented his translation into French of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain to her around 1155-1157,26 saluting "noble Eleanor" as being "wise and of great virtue." Henry II also liked Wace's works and made him official court reader; in 1160 he asked Wace to compile a metrical history of the dukes of Normandy, Le roman de Rou (Rou being Rollo, first Duke of Normandy and direct ancestor of William the Conqueror). Most of the books commissioned by Henry or dedicated to him are of an historical nature, reflecting his interest in his forebears.

  Since the appearance of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae around 1135, the Arthurian legends had rapidly acquired popularity in England as well as in France, where Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France developed the tradition at a highly sophisticated level. In no time at all, King Arthur had come to embody every contemporary ideal of knighthood and kingship. Many stories were told of him, most of them mythical, but in their day they were accepted as historical fact and eagerly retold and embellished by writers and poets. Only a few scholars, notably Ailred of Rievaulx and William of Newburgh, dared to question the veracity of Geoffrey's history.

  Both Henry and Eleanor were fascinated by the legends of King Arthur, or the "Matter of Britain," as they were then known. Henry had been taught them in childhood, while Eleanor had long been familiar with the romance of Tristan and Yseult; in one of his poems, Bernard de Ventadour had compared his love for her with that of the doomed lovers. Later, one of Henry and Eleanor's grandsons would be called Arthur.

  While Geoffrey of Monmouth had collected old Celtic legends and written the first popular account of King Arthur, Wace was the first writer to mention the Round Table, where no one knight had precedence. Prior to 1173, the poet Thomas wrote a romance of Tristan and Yseult, which survives only in part and was probably dedicated to the King and Queen. Marie de France, reputedly Henry's half sister, wrote five lays of King Arthur and Tristan and Yseult, while Eleanor's daughter, Marie, Countess of Champagne, was the patron of Chretien de Troyes, who wrote at least five poems based on the Arthurian legends, including "Perceval" and "Lancelot," and was the first to set them at Camelot and to recount the doomed romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. It has been suggested that Eleanor of Aquitaine may have been the inspiration behind some of the later legends surrounding Guinevere, but, although possible, this supposition rests only on very slender evidence.27

  By the 1170s, as a result of royal interest, the Arthurian legends had become enormously popular, both at court and throughout England, and indeed throughout all Christendom-- even as far away as Constantinople and Alexandria-- and it became fashionable for knights and ladies to emulate the chief characters, whose chivalric ethic reflected the aristocratic values of the twelfth century. Already people were flocking to sites associated with Arthur, such as Caerleon on the Welsh River Usk28 and Glastonbury in Somerset, which Henry and Eleanor themselves visited. Indeed, there was so much speculation that Arthur would one day return to his kingdom that a disconcerted Henry II instituted a search for the hero-king's grave at Glastonbury.29 In 1190, bones believed to be those of Arthur and Guinevere were exhumed there, along with a leaden cross inscribed "Here lies Arthur, the famous king, in the Island of Avalon." Thanks to this find, the Isle of Avalon has ever since been identified with Glastonbury. The bones were reburied with great ceremony in the abbey church.30

  Other works dedicated to Queen Eleanor include romances of Oedipus and Aeneas, and we know that she enjoyed performances of mystery and miracle plays from a letter written by Peter of Blois, in which he congratulates his brother, Abbot William of Blois, on his tragedy Flora and Marcus, which had been played before the Queen, either at Westminster or Winchester.

  Cultivated it may have been, but Henry II's court was no haven for those with a taste for luxurious living. It was a hive of frenetic activity, which revolved around the ever-moving person of the King. Like all mediaeval courts, it was nomadic, staying at a succession of castles, palaces, abbeys, manor houses, and hunting lodges, and rarely remaining in one place for more than a few weeks or, in some cases, a few days. These frequent moves were made in order to serve the interests of the state, or to facilitate the King's hunting expeditions or enable a vacated residence to be cleaned: twelfth-century sanitation lef
t a lot to be desired, being limited to primitive garderobes or chamber pots, and when 250 people had been staying in a house for any length of time, the stink could become unbearable, especially in summer.

  Henry II, more than any other contemporary monarch, was, as Walter Map complained, "forever on his travels, covering distances in unbearably long stages, like a courier, and in this respect merciless beyond measure to his household." "He does not linger in his palaces like other kings, but hunts through the provinces, inquiring into everyone's doing, and especially judges those whom he has made judges of others." 31 His companions moaned about "the miseries of court life":32 Walter Map grumbled that "we wear out our garments, break our bodies and our beasts, and never find a moment for the cure of our sick souls," yet the King did not seem to notice and "suffered patiently the discomforts of dust and mud."33

  When it came to making travelling arrangements, Henry was notoriously unpredictable. "If the King has said he will remain in a place for a day-- and particularly if he has announced his intention publicly by the mouth of a herald-- he is sure to upset all the arrangements by departing early in the morning. And then you see men dashing around as if they were mad, beating packhorses, running carts into one another-- in short, giving a lively imitation of Hell." Even those who had been bled or had taken laxatives were ordered to move or be left behind. Yet "if, on the one hand, the King orders an early start, he is sure to change his mind, and you can take it for granted that he will sleep until midday. Then you will see the packhorses loaded and waiting, the carts prepared, the courtiers dozing, traders fretting and everyone grum-bling."34 Often the maids and doorkeepers knew more about the King's plans than the great lords and councillors.35

  The court on the move resembled a straggling procession of horses, wagons, baggage carts, and pack animals, including oxen, which were laden with all kinds of luggage. The Queen and other ladies either rode on horseback or in brightly painted but unsprung barrel-shaped wagons with leather roofs.

  When Henry II travelled, he took with him some of the royal treasure (leaving the bulk in the treasury at Winchester) and the chief departments of state, accompanied by the justiciar, the chancellor, and the Lord President of the Council, with their officials and all the paraphernalia of their work, such as parchments, documents, barrels of coins, and boxes of jewels. Most items were packed in chests, sacks, leather bags, or pouches.

  In addition, there was the royal household, which numbered around two hundred persons and provided for the domestic needs of the King and his court. The household had its own departments, headed by the steward, who had charge of the hall, kitchen, pantry, and larder; the chamberlain, who presided over the chamber (which comprised the royal apartments and was also a secretarial and accountancy office, and would later evolve into the presence and privy chambers); the treasurer, who looked after the royal treasure, which was kept in a chest in the King's bedroom; the Lord High Constable, who was in charge of the outdoor servants and the stables; and the King's Marshal, who was responsible for maintaining order and discipline within the court and, with the constable, for organising the royal sports and supervising the archers who formed the King's personal bodyguard; finally there were the keepers of the seals. All of these officers enjoyed specific allowances of food, wine, candles, and other perquisites.36

  Then there were the officers of the Queen's household, whose names are known mainly from the charters they witnessed. They comprised her treasurer, chancellor, attorneys, and clerks, who administered her estates (which were run by her stewards and baillifs), and her personal servants, such as her chamberlain, knights, esquires, chaplains, ladies, and Master of the Horse.

  The household included a great army of servants: cooks, bakers, confectioners, cellarers, fruiterers, and poulterers, all of whom either purveyed or prepared food; the chief butler and his staff, who were responsible for the provision of wine; and keepers of the cups, who served it. Other kitchen and pantry officials included the usher of the spirit house, the keeper of the dishes, the master steward of the larder, and the workmen of the buttery. The numbers of royal servants were augmented by chaplains, clerks, painters (limners), ushers, huntsmen, horn-blowers, watchmen, guards, archers, men-at-arms, cat-hunters, wolf-catchers, keepers of the hounds, keepers of the royal mews, keepers of the tents, the chamberlain of the candles, the bearer of the King's bed, the King's tailor, laundresses, including the King's personal washerwoman, and a ewerer, who dried his clothes and prepared the royal bath.37 It is not known how often Henry used this, and we may surmise that it was not very often; King John prompted astonished reactions in 1209 when he had eight baths in six months.

  These hordes of servants required even more piles of baggage, for they needed to transport kitchen equipment, hunting spears, weapons, altar cloths, communion vessels and plate, tables, chairs, featherbeds, pillows, sheets, coverlets, hangings, napery, chamber pots, cosmetics, and clothing. 38

  The royal retinue would also include scholars, artists, "actors, singers, dicers, gamblers, buffoons and barbers,"39 as well as mimers, jugglers, conjurers, magicians, fortune-tellers,40 and a host of whores and pimps. Not for nothing did John of Salisbury and Walter Map write disparagingly of Henry's court as a hotbed of scandal and frivolity. John of Salisbury, who compared the court to ancient Babylon, particularly condemned the effeminate garments of the fashion-conscious nobles and gallants, the polyphonic music that kindled all kinds of licentiousness, the widespread indulgence in lovemaking that would once have been described by serious men as depraved, the dancing, the sport, and the gambling-- all done to excess; and he was scathing about the hangers-on, the wheedlers and flatterers who thought they could fawn their way to favour and advancement. Worst of all were the coarse mimes and bawdy dramas, with their extravagant acting and gross buffoonery, that were staged at court: John thought that all involved in them should be excommunicated for so corrupting their audiences.

  Once the court was on the move, messengers would be sent speeding ahead to warn the King's tenants or hosts that he was about to descend on them, and bid them prepare accommodation and ensure they had sufficient provisions for his retinue. In addition, hosts were required to provide one night's entertainment for the court. It was often a condition of land tenure that royal tenants provide these services, although many abbots and secular hosts were financially ruined through so doing. The King also had a habit of making sudden appearances. Peter of Blois tells us that Henry enjoyed vexing his stewards with the uncertainty of his plans: many a time he would announce his destination, "and we would be comforted by the prospect of good lodgings."

  But at the end of a long day's ride, "the King would turn aside to some other place where he had, it might be, just a single dwelling with accommodation for himself and no one else. I hardly dare say it, but I believe he took a delight in seeing what a fix he put us in." A royal visit was therefore a prospect that filled most people with dread.

  One thing that Henry always looked for was good hunting, a pleasure he indulged in wherever he went. Map states he was "a great connoisseur of hounds and hawks, and most greedy of that vain sport."

  Even when it was settled in one place, the court was chaotic, disorganised, and noisy. Walter Map complained that, although Henry was a friend to scholars and loved learning, the Muses flourished less at his court than at any other, "since the worry of it would not allow an interval for rest sufficient for sleep, let alone study."

  The food was appalling, and so was the wine, despite hundreds of barrels of it being regularly imported from Gascony, Poitou, and Burgundy and brought directly to the royal palaces and hunting lodges. Peter of Blois recorded:

  At mealtimes or out riding, or during the long evenings, there is no order or restraint. The clerks and knights feed on poor, ill-fermented, unkneaded, unleavened, and unbaked barley loaves, made of the dregs of beer, full of bran and heavy as lead. To drink, they are given a tainted, murky, thick, rank, flavourless wine, greasy and rancid and tasting of pitch. I
have seen wine set before persons of eminent rank which was so thick that to get it down a man had to close his eyes, clench his teeth and sift it rather than drink it, grimacing with horror. The ale tastes horrible and looks filthy.

  On account of the great demand, cattle are sold to the court whether they are healthy or diseased, meat is sold whether it be fresh or not, and fish-- four days old-- is no cheaper for being putrid or foul-smelling. We have to fill our bellies with carrion and become graves for sundry corpses. The servants care nothing whatever whether the unlucky guests become ill or die, provided they load their master's table with dishes. Indeed, the tables are sometimes filled with rotting food, and were it not for the fact that those who eat it indulge in powerful exercise, many more deaths would result from it.

  Nothing was ever done to rectify these shortcomings because food was not important to the King. When the monks of St. Swithun at Winchester complained, weeping, to him that their bishop allowed them only ten courses at meals, Henry was not impressed.

  "In my court, I am satisfied with three," he snapped. "Perish your bishop if he doesn't cut your dishes down to the same."41

  It was only on the three great religious festivals that the court ceased being a strictly functional institution and became a theatre of ceremony. Henry commonly kept Easter at Winchester or Windsor, Pentecost at Westminster, and Christmas at Gloucester or Windsor, and all these feasts were marked by solemn religious observances and feasting. There was as yet no concept of the court as a regular forum for aristocratic pleasures, as in Tudor times, yet it formed a centre of patronage to which suitors flocked.

  Henry II was aware of the political value of royal display, and although fine clothes, luxury, and personal comforts meant little to him, his accounts include payments for rich furs, silken robes, plate, and jewels,42 which must have been purchased for great ceremonial occasions. Even King Louis commented on the relative magnificence of his rival, telling Walter Map: "Your King, the lord of England, has men and horses, gold and silk and jewels and fruits, game and everything else, while we in France have nothing but bread and wine and gaiety."

 
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