Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  Queen Eleanor also exercised a degree of patronage, mainly in cultural matters, yet her role in the court was chiefly decorative and ceremonial. She was often present at the King's side when he received important visitors or envoys, who came from all over Europe, and at royal banquets, religious ceremonies, and state occasions.

  As we have seen, the Queen had her own household and her own officers and personal attendants. She was waited on by the wives and daughters of the nobility, all of whom were paid, some receiving salaries and others occasional gifts: the records of these payments contain the first references to ladies-in-waiting in England. The pattern of payments suggests that unmarried girls were expected to attend the Queen on a regular basis, while married ladies waited upon her for part of the time and spent the rest on their husbands' estates or bearing children.

  For all her experience at the civilised and orderly courts of Aquitaine and France, Eleanor seems to have made little attempt to impose more sophisticated standards upon Henry's court. She did lay down some rules of courtesy, insisting for example that no man appear before her with unkempt hair, unless he wished to be promptly ejected from her presence, but the evidence suggests that she was unable to enforce more stringent reforms. Instead, she appears to have resigned herself to enjoying, in the privacy of her apartments only, a higher standard of living than the rest of the court, achieved through importing many luxury items from abroad; these included gold for plates and goblets, regular shipments of spices, her favourite wine from La Rochelle, and incense for her chapel and to disguise the smell of the London fog.43 From the Pipe Rolls we know that Eleanor's private bowers boasted the very latest in decoration, including tiled floors, glazed windows, silken hangings, and carpets imported from the Orient, and that she always took tapestries and cushions with her on her travels.44

  The Pipe Rolls also record purchases for the Queen of "oil for her lamps," wine, flour, linen for tablecloths, brass bowls, and sweet-scented rushes for the floor, all of which give a clearer picture of the comfort in which she lived. However, we have no way of knowing how Eleanor occupied her time, although we may surmise that, when she was not attending to her state and administrative duties, she read books and poetry, listened to music, spent a part of each day at her devotions, attended to household and family matters, and perhaps undertook some sewing and embroidery, those age-old pastimes of queens.

  During Henry II's reign, the crown owned perhaps sixty castles and a number of hunting lodges. It was customary for apartments to be kept ready for the King and Queen at most of these residences, in case they chose to pay a visit or demanded a night's lodging while on their travels.

  Of the chief royal residences of Eleanor's day, three are still in use today: the Palace of Westminster, the Tower of London, and Windsor Castle. Other important castles, such as those at Winchester, Nottingham, Ludgershall, Gloucester, and Marlborough, are now ruins.

  King Edward the Confessor had had a Thames-side residence at Westminster in the eleventh century, but this had been replaced by a palace built by William Rufus, who also erected the vast New Hall, completed around 1099-1100, which still stands today (although with a fourteenth-century hammerbeam roof) and is now known as Westminster Hall. From the time of Henry II, the King's judges sat here to dispense justice. Nothing else survives of the Norman palace, although we do have William FitzStephen's description of how it appeared in Henry II's reign: "Upstream, to the west, a royal palace rises high above the river, an incomparable building ringed by an outwork and bastions, two miles from the City and joined thereto by a populous suburb."

  In 1153 King Stephen built a new wing of the palace, which was surrounded by orchards and woodlands, extending down to the river bank. In this wing were the royal apartments that were found to have been vandalised on Henry II's accession. The older palace lay to the south, and was used to house the various departments of state and provide accommodation for courtiers. It was a sparsely furnished and strictly functional building.

  William the Conqueror's priority had been to strengthen the defences of London, and in 1067 he had begun building fortifications on what is now Tower Hill, on the site of an ancient Roman stronghold on the banks of the River Thames. Around 1078, he ordered the building of the White Tower, which was completed in 1097 and remained unchanged until 1190, when the building of two curtain walls, bisected by towers, began. William FitzStephen refers to the Tower as the Palatine Castle, stating that it was "very great and strong with walls rising from very deep foundations, their mortar being mixed with the blood of beasts."

  The White Tower, so named because of the regular coats of whitewash applied to it, stood ninety feet high, with walls eleven feet thick. It was a rectangular building with turrets at each corner, one housing a spiral staircase. Access was through a doorway set high above the ground, reached by an external staircase, and the walls were pierced with arrow slits, which were not converted into windows until 1715.

  In each of the royal residences, the King's apartments were divided into hall, chamber, and chapel, which together formed the substance of his household. On the upper floors of the Tower were to be found a galleried great hall and chamber, each two storeys high, the royal apartments, and a Norman chapel dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, constructed of Caen stone with rounded Romanesque arches and brightly painted stonework. It is still in use today. The ground floor provided quarters for the Constable of the Tower, and in the basement there were storerooms and a well. There is no evidence of an indoor kitchen; the kitchen was probably housed in a separate building in the bailey.

  The Tower dominated London. It was not only a fortress and palace but also a state prison, garrison, arsenal, armoury, mint, wardrobe, and treasure house: the crown jewels were always kept here. There was even a small menagerie. Even by King Stephen's reign, it was famous as one of the chief residences of the kings of England.

  In 1070-1080, in order to complete his ring of fortresses around London, built to control the southeast of England, William the Conqueror had erected a defensive wooden castle on top of a steep earthwork at Windsor, in the parish of Clewer, not far from Edward the Confessor's palace at Old Windsor. The castle overlooked the River Thames, had far-reaching views across a wide area, and was surrounded by forests and heathland offering excellent hunting grounds. The Conqueror and his sons had enclosed much of Windsor Forest for their own use and built kennels for their hounds and a royal mews.

  The Conqueror's tower had been built, in Norman fashion, on the summit of the earthwork, with courtyards known as the Lower Ward and Upper Ward on either side of it; the whole area was surrounded by a wooden palisade and a ditch. The entrance was via a drawbridge and gate in the Lower Ward. Within the courtyards were huts for the garrison, stables, cages for prisoners, and access to secret subterranean tunnels for emergency use when the castle was under siege. The later Norman kings had added a range of royal apartments, a great hall, a kitchen, and a chapel dedicated to St. Edward the Confessor.

  Around 1166-1170, Henry II ordered that Windsor Castle be rebuilt in stone. The work took several years to complete, and entailed transporting blocks of heath-stone from quarries near Bagshot and lead for the roofs from Cumberland in the north. The palisade was replaced by half a mile of massive stone walls, and the tower-- rebuilt in 1180 and thereafter known as the Round Tower-- and other buildings were also rebuilt in stone; these included the private royal apartments in the Upper Ward (on the site of the present state apartments) and an official royal residence with a great hall, known as the Winchester Tower, in the Lower Ward. On the slopes of the escarpment on which the castle was built, a vineyard was planted, although its yield was never plentiful.

  Very few of Henry II's buildings survive today, having been either demolished, rebuilt by later sovereigns, or disguised during the early nineteenth century, when Jeffrey Wyatville remodelled the castle for George IV. The earliest surviving room at Windsor is a thirteenth-century dungeon. Nevertheless, the size and form of the orig
inal mediaeval buildings may still be seen, and because of the dirt-repellent properties of heath-stone, the twelfth-century walls at Windsor still look as pristine as they did eight centuries ago.

  William the Conqueror also built the royal castle known as the King's Castle at Winchester, although hardly anything remains after its demolition by Cromwell's men in the seventeenth century, and the surviving great hall dates only from 1235. We know from the Pipe Rolls and other sources, however, that the castle boasted a painted chamber in Eleanor's time.

  In Oxford, around 1130, Henry I had built the King's House, later known as Beaumont Palace. A complex of massive wooden and stone buildings, it was surrounded by a defensive wall, had a great chamber, in which Henry II held court, a great hall adorned with mural paintings, two chapels, a cloister, and private quarters for the use of the Queen, the royal chaplains, and other officials. Two of Eleanor's children were to be born here. The palace was later converted into the church of the White Friars, which became in turn a workhouse; in the nineteenth century, a crumbling, roofless chamber with the remains of a fireplace was pointed out as the birthplace of King Richard the Lionheart.

  Nearby was the royal hunting lodge at Woodstock, built by Henry I on the site of a Saxon manor house. It stood in the middle of a forest and was surrounded by a well-stocked deer park. Here, Henry II founded the first royal menagerie in order to house the animals sent to him as gifts by foreign rulers. They included Hons, leopards, lynxes, camels, and a porcupine; later, Richard I housed a crocodile there. Although Woodstock was used chiefly as a hunting lodge, Henry also held meetings of the Great Council there.

  Another important hunting lodge, particularly favoured by Henry II, was situated at Clarendon in the New Forest, near Salisbury. Around 1176, the King ordered it to be rebuilt in palatial style with a magnificent hall, marble pillars, and a large wine cellar, and for the next two centuries it remained in constant use by his successors. Although the site is now overgrown, its partial excavation in 1978 revealed much valuable information about what life was like in a twelfth-century palace.

  9. "The King Has Wrought a Miracle"

  During the 1154 Christmas court and afterwards there was a constant stream of magnates arriving at Bermondsey to discuss with the King "the state of the realm and the restoration of peace." They brought with them so many pet dogs, monkeys, parrots, and hawks that the great hall resembled a menagerie rather than a palace.1

  The King wasted no time in appointing his chief officers of state. The capable and trustworthy Richard de Lucy was made justiciar in association with Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, who had served Stephen loyally, yet worked tirelessly to secure Henry's succession. Nigel, Bishop of Ely, was made treasurer.

  It was probably during the Christmas court that Archbishop Theobald presented his most promising clerk, Thomas Becket, to the King, and warmly recommended him as an excellent candidate for the office of chancellor. Henry took an instant liking to Becket and agreed to the appointment without hesitation. Thus began one of the most famous friendships in history, a friendship that was to have far-reaching consequences for both men.

  Becket, who was of middle-class Norman parentage, had been born in London in 1118.2 His father was a wealthy merchant who arranged for young Thomas to be educated at Merton Priory and a London grammar school, before being sent to the schools of Paris, Bologna, and Auxerre to study law. Despite this very comprehensive education, Becket was no academic and never fully mastered Latin. A family friend who held the office of justiciar of London taught him business skills and accountancy, and in 1143 other influential friends, recognising his talent as an administrator, secured him an appointment as a clerk in the household of Archbishop Theobald, which entailed taking minor orders in the Church.

  The Archbishop soon recognised Becket's intelligence and administrative ability and earmarked him for promotion. Before long, he was being sent on successful diplomatic missions to Rome and elsewhere, and by 1154 was the holder of several parishes and benefices and had been appointed Provost of Beverley and ordained Archdeacon of Canterbury It seems, however, that he was now resting on his laurels, for he grew over-worldly and lax in his duties, and was threatened by Theobald with excommunication if he did not improve.

  A spell abroad allowed tempers to cool, and when Becket returned, good relations were restored. By the time of Henry's accession, the Archbishop was convinced that Becket would not only make a good chancellor but would also be a loyal champion of the Church. Initially disappointed in this hope, for Becket proceeded to immerse himself wholeheartedly in secretariat matters and affairs of state, Theobald did not live to see how dramatically it would later be fulfilled.

  Becket was very tall and slim with dark hair, finely chiselled features, an aquiline nose, and rather effeminate, tapering hands. He was a good conversationalist, despite a slight stutter, and had great charm of manner. Like Henry, he was a man of enormous energy and versatile talent, whose chief pleasures were hunting, hawking, and chess, although unlike Henry he avoided encounters with women, having taken a vow of chastity in his youth. He was elegant, witty, generous, vain, and ambitious, and thrived on the public role that went with his promotion to chancellor, "throwing off the deacon" and indulging his love of display in magnificent clothes and an extravagant standard of living. He was the perfect courtier. However, he also took things to extremes, being self-willed, obstinate, manipulative, and uncompromising, and, as a consummate actor, he was well able to play the martyr in order to get what he wanted.

  His friendship with the King was unusually close, although no one has ever suggested that there was anything sexual about it; contemporaries observed that Becket stood with the King as Joseph did with Pharaoh. Henry, who was fifteen years younger, knew Becket's worth, and Becket in turn served him faithfully and efficiently as chancellor. "A man of diligence and industry, experienced in many and great affairs, he discharged the onerous duties of his office to the praise of God and the well-being of the whole realm."3 When it pleased him, the King could now relax and leave affairs in Becket's capable hands: "All things were entrusted to Thomas; while the King gave himself up to youthful pursuits, Thomas governed the whole realm according to his will."4

  As chancellor, Becket maintained a splendid household in London, which was paid for by his master and said to outshine the King's in splendour. It came to outrival the court as a forum for ambitious men and a school for the sons of the nobility. This did not bother Henry, who was rather amused by it, but it aroused the envy of his courtiers, who felt themselves displaced. Yet Henry, who was bored by pomp and ceremony, and had little time for impressive displays, was happy to allow Becket to indulge his passion for such things, knowing that it would reflect well upon the wealth and status of his royal master. Therefore he denied him nothing. "The King bestowed upon him many revenues and received him so much into his esteem and familiarity that throughout the kingdom there was none his equal save the King alone."5

  The King and the chancellor greatly enjoyed each other's company and spent whole days together, hunting, feasting, discussing state affairs, or enjoying witty conversation.6 "The King and Becket played together like little boys of the same age, at the court, in church, in assemblies, in riding."7 Becket was occasionally the butt of Henry's practical jokes. Once, riding together through London in the depths of winter, they espied a beggar, shivering in the cold.

  "Would it not be a meritorious act to give that poor old man a warm cloak?" asked the King.

  Becket concurred.

  "Yours be the merit then!" cried his master, whipping off Becket's cloak and, foiling his attempts to recover it, tossing it to the beggar.8

  History does not record what Queen Eleanor thought of this friendship during these early years, although several historians have perceptively suggested that it relegated her to the sidelines of affairs and undermined her influence with the King. When Henry was abroad, it was Becket, rather than Eleanor, who dispensed patronage on Henry's behal
f and received important visitors to England. Nor do we know Becket's opinion of Eleanor, although he was a close friend and colleague of John of Salisbury, whom he had met when both were in the service of Archbishop Theobald, and John could have told him several interesting-- and politically sensitive-- things about Eleanor's past. If so, he kept them to himself. There is no evidence that the Queen slighted Becket or bore him any malice during the period of his chancellorship. It may even have humoured her to take an opposite stance to her mother-in-law, the Empress Matilda, who disapproved of Becket and made no bones about saying so. Yet this was one issue on which Henry ignored his mother's otherwise welcome advice.

  The evidence for Eleanor's life as Henry's queen is at first sight fragmentary, yet when all the fragments are put together, a rounder picture emerges. Sometimes all we have is an itinerary, and an incomplete one at that, yet the surviving official documents give intriguing insights into different aspects of Eleanor's existence, offering clues as to what she was really like. What follows in this and the next few chapters is an attempt to reconstruct this period of her life from these few precious sources.

  Feeling that he could safely leave the administration of his realm in the hands of his chancellor and justiciars, Henry left London at the end of January 1155 to establish his authority in other areas of his realm. Marching through East Anglia to York, he besieged several castles and crushed attempts at resistance by a few stubbornly rebellious barons.

  On Monday, 28 February 1155, Eleanor, who had remained at Bermondsey, gave birth to a second son. The infant was baptised Henry by Richard de Belmeis, Bishop of London.9 About a month later, the King returned victorious, to greet the new arrival. Charters issued by him at this time to the canons of Holy Trinity and Christ Church were witnessed by Eleanor, Becket, and Richard de Lucy.

 
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