Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  The first sign of trouble between Henry and Becket manifested itself at a council of clergy held at Woodstock on 1 July, when the Archbishop condemned the King's plan to divert the larger part of his sheriffs' profits into the royal treasury. It appears that Becket seized on this reasonable proposal as an issue upon which to assert his authority as primate, and, surprisingly, he got his way.

  The real showdown came on 1 October, when, at a meeting of the Great Council at Westminster, the King proposed that the Church should degrade and disown those "criminous clerks" who had been found guilty in the ecclesiasatical courts and should "hand them over to my court for corporal punishment";2 this, he declared-- rather stretching the truth-- would be no innovation but merely a return to the customs of Henry I.

  Like many people, Becket was aware of the abuses in the system, but as archbishop he found he could not sanction any infringement of the authority and liberties of the Church, which was fiercely protective of its immunity from secular interference. He therefore opposed the reform, and was supported, after some persuasion, by every one of his bishops.3

  An exasperated Henry reacted by demanding that his bishops swear obedience to the ancient customs of the realm. Sensing that they might be outmanoeuvred, they all took the oath, but, at the insistence of the Archbishop, with the qualifying rider "saving our order." The King was not pleased.

  "By the eyes of God!" he thundered. "Let me hear no word of your order! I demand absolute and express agreement to my customs." When both Becket and his bishops proved obdurate, Henry stormed out of the hall.4 The following day, before he left Westminster at dawn, he confiscated Becket's manors of Eye and Berkhamsted, which he had bestowed upon him when chancellor,5 and removed the Lord Henry from his household; the boy was not returned to his mother's care, but was given an establishment and servants of his own. Thus began one of the most famous rifts in history.

  On 13 October both king and archbishop were present in Westminster Abbey when the body of St. Edward the Confessor was translated to a new shrine. It is likely that Eleanor and her children were also present at this ceremony. The Archbishop conducted the service and, on the surface, it seemed that all was well, but this was just an illusion.

  Soon, it seemed to Henry that Becket was deliberately trying to provoke him at every turn. When the King decided to marry his brother William to the heiress Isabella de Warenne, widow of King Stephen's younger son (also called William), the Archbishop forbade it on the flimsiest of grounds, and when William of Anjou died soon afterwards-- some said of a broken heart-- Henry blamed Becket. Without consulting the King, as was customary, Becket then excommunicated a tenant-in-chief, William of Eynsford, as a result of a petty dispute. Worst of all, he defied the King by going out of his way to ensure that crimes committed by clerks-- including theft, manslaughter, rape, and murder-- went unpunished or earned only the lightest sentences.

  In all these measures Becket was supported by a majority of the bishops. William of Newburgh later concluded that they were the ones responsible for the rupture within the kingdom, "since they were more intent upon defending the liberties and rights of the clergy than on correcting and restraining their vices."

  Counselled by his mother, the Empress Matilda, who would over the next four years give him sensible advice as to how to deal with Becket, Henry took steps to win over public opinion to his side. He had Becket's enemy, Gilbert Foliot, transferred to the See of London to advise him and lead the opposition to the Archbishop. Foliot was a strong advocate, sufficiently acquainted with both canon and civil law to be convinced that Becket was wrong. A few other bishops, perturbed by the Archbishop's aggressive stance, began to distance themselves from him, and Pope Alexander III, who had reason to be grateful to Henry, urged Becket to submit to his master, warning him that he could "expect no help from the curia in anything that might offend the King."

  By December, fearful of the Pope's displeasure, most of the bishops had deserted Becket, and public opinion popularly supported the King's stand against what was widely regarded as an abuse. At Woodstock, at Pope Alexander's behest, the Archbishop acknowledged defeat and finally gave the King his unqualified promise to observe the ancient customs of England.

  At Christmas, the King and Queen were together at Becket's former castle at Berkhamsted. Thomas had spent large sums transforming the keep into a luxurious residence, and it was one of the more comfortable of Henry's houses. Royal plate was brought here from the treasury at Winchester in honour of the festival.6

  The year 1164 saw the marriages of Eleanor's daughters by Louis: Marie married Henry, Count of Champagne, while Alix married his brother, Theobald, Count of Blois. There is no record of Eleanor having any contact with her daughters during the years after the dissolution of her marriage to their father, and she did not attend either wedding.

  Henry was not content with Becket's private promise: he wanted to make him submit publicly to royal authority. At a council held at Clarendon on 25 January 1164,7 he demanded that the clergy endorse a new code of sixteen laws, which became known as the Constitutions of Clarendon, and which Henry claimed enshrined the customs of his ancestors. The third article, which was one of those that did not, laid down that criminous clerks should be handed over to the royal courts for sentencing, and it prompted Becket to a further protest. However, Henry had wisely taken counsel of both canon and civil lawyers and knew that the Archbishop had no grounds for opposition.

  The bishops, however, were unhappy at the King's demand, for they knew very well that a few of the Constitutions encompassed his own reforms, rather than the customs of his ancestors. Disregarding the King's anger-- his howls were "like the roaring of a Hon"8-- and his threats to resort to the sword in order to compel them to submit, they backed Becket, only to see him inexplicably capitulate and agree to "perjure himself."9 He still refused to set his seal to the Constitutions,10 but gave his consent "in good faith," bidding the bishops do likewise. When the Pope saw a copy of the Constitutions, he agreed with Becket that the liberties of the Church were under threat, and condemned nearly every clause.

  Fortified by papal support, Becket soon regretted his moment of weakness and imposed severe penances on himself in self-retribution. He also tried twice to escape to France, but was frustrated by adverse winds, untrustworthy mariners, and the King's officers. His change of heart infuriated Henry, who was now determined to oust Becket from his archbishopric, a move that was supported by the bishops, who mostly shared Henry's view that Becket was too unstable for high ecclesiastical office.

  In October Henry had Becket arraigned at a council at Northampton on a charge of contempt of court.11 Although Becket maintained that, as archbishop, he was not subject to the jurisdiction of the King, it was pointed out to him that he had been charged as a tenant-in-chief and not as archbishop, and as such he would be judged. When Henry also called him to account for the disposition of moneys that had passed through his hands as chancellor, it became clear to Becket that the King was out to ruin him. When he asked his fellow prelates for advice and help, he was dismayed to find that few of them were willing to support him.

  At the end of a gruelling week, the Archbishop made a dramatic entrance into the court, carrying his episcopal cross himself, rather than having it borne before him by his cross-bearer, to signify that he claimed the protection of the Church against the ill will of the King.12 "He was always a fool and always will be," observed Bishop Foliot.13

  Having reminded an irate Henry that he had been released from all his liabilities as chancellor, Becket forbade the bishops to sit in judgement on him. They in turn, at Henry's behest, resolved to inform the Pope that Becket had breached the oath he had sworn upholding the Constitutions of Clarendon, and to request his deposition. The King then called for sentence to be passed on him, but Becket refused to wait to hear it, and stalked out of the room to shouts of "Traitor!"14

  That night, disguised as a monk, the Archbishop escaped from Northampton and fled to Flanders.15
His departure excited little stir in England, and few missed him, although the King was struck speechless with anger on hearing of his flight and hissed, "We have not finished with him yet!"16 On the continent, Becket continued to make trouble for Henry: visiting the Pope at Sens, he portrayed himself so convincingly as a victim of the English King's deliberate attempt to limit the Church's power that he won Alexander's sympathy, and thereafter it would require the deployment of all Henry's skills in diplomacy to avoid an open breach with the Pope.

  Becket also wrote numerous letters trying to enlist the sympathy of other European rulers, several of whom attempted to exploit the quarrel to their own advantage. Before long, orthodox churchmen all over Europe believed that Henry was hell-bent on persecuting the Church. Becket even wrote repeatedly to the Empress Matilda, but received little satisfaction from that quarter. A sympathetic Louis VII took the exiled Archbishop under his own protection and offered him refuge at the Cistercian abbey of Pontigny in Burgundy (in 1166, Becket moved to the abbey of Sainte-Colombe at Sens), but he also tried to heal the rift: between 1165 and 1170 he arranged no fewer than twelve interviews between Henry and Becket; of the ten that took place, all ended in failure. For the next six years, neither king nor archbishop would agree to compromise. What had begun as a dispute over a legal principle had turned into a battle of wills over whose was the greater authority.

  Henry and Eleanor spent the winter of 1 164-1165 in the south of England,17 keeping Christmas at Marlborough. On 24 December, when Henry received the envoys he had sent to enlist Louis's support against Becket and forestall Becket's appeal to the Pope, he was appalled to hear that Louis had taken Becket's part and expressed the hope that the Pope would receive the Archbishop with kindness "and not heed any unjust accusations against him";18 Henry was also informed that Becket had gotten to the Pope first and complained of harassment, and that Alexander had threatened Henry with excommunication.

  "The King, burning with his customary fury, threw the cap from his head, undid his belt, threw far from him the cloak and robes in which he was dressed, with his own hands tore the silken coverlet off the bed, and, sitting down as though on a dung heap, began to chew the straw of the mattress."19 He remained in a foul mood throughout Christmas Day, and on the 26th, "giving way to unbridled passion more than became a king, he took an unbecoming and pitiful kind of revenge by banishing all the Archbishop's relatives out of England."20 Four hundred people were affected by this decree; all were stripped of their possessions and deported to Flanders, where they were reduced to begging for food.21

  In February 1165 Henry crossed to Normandy. At Rouen, as a means of putting pressure on the Pope to abandon Becket, he opened negotiations for an alliance with the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, which would be certain to upset King Louis, the Pope-- whose rival Frederick had supported-- and, above all, Becket. The alliance was to be cemented by two marriages: that of Henry's eldest daughter Matilda to Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, the Emperor's cousin, foremost vassal, and powerful ally; and that of Matilda's three-year-old sister Eleanor to the Emperor's infant son Frederick. Frederick Barbarossa had sent the imperial chancellor, Reinald of Dassel, Archbishop of Cologne, to Rouen to arrange the terms of the treaty.

  While Henry negotiated in Rouen, Eleanor remained at Winchester,22 although not as regent. The Pipe Rolls reveal that at around this time she and her children visited Sherborne Castle in Dorset and the Isle of Wight before moving to Westminster. After concluding the marriage treaty, the Archbishop of Cologne crossed the Channel to pay his respects to the Queen and be introduced to her daughters; on Henry's orders, she had summoned a council to Westminster to confirm the new alliance.

  On 1 May, pregnant once more, Eleanor left her other children in England and took Richard and Matilda to join Henry in Normandy23 for a fortnight before he returned to his kingdom to undertake a new campaign against the Welsh. After his departure Eleanor took up residence in Angers, having been entrusted with the government of Anjou and Maine in his absence. In this task she seems to have been advised by her uncle, Raoul de Faye, who appears to have exercised considerable influence over her.

  It was at around this time that Becket contemplated appealing to Eleanor to intervene on his behalf in his quarrel with the King. Both his friend John of Salisbury, who had voluntarily undertaken to share his exile, and John de Bellesmains, Bishop of Poitiers, warned Becket that he could hope for neither aid nor counsel from the Queen, "especially since she puts all her trust in Raoul de Faye, who is no less hostile towards you than usual." This is in fact the only surviving evidence of Eleanor's attitude towards Becket. What is unusual is that she appears to have been influenced more by her uncle than by her husband, which is perhaps the first indication that she and Henry had grown apart.

  What is clear from this and the absence of other evidence is that, although Eleanor was hostile to Becket, she never became actively involved in his quarrel with Henry. Although Henry regularly consulted his mother on the matter, there is no record of him consulting Eleanor, although the very fact that Becket thought it worthwhile to appeal to her suggests that she wielded some influence over the King.

  In his letter to Becket, the Bishop of Poitiers also added mysteriously that the relationship between Eleanor and her uncle was subject to "conjectures which grow day by day, and which seem to deserve credence."24 He did not elaborate, but certainly whatever he was referring to was of a highly sensitive nature. He may have meant simply that Raoul de Faye was an undesirable political influence, yet it may also be inferred from the same remark that there was a degree of attraction between them. In the past, Eleanor had not scrupled to become too closely involved with one of her uncles; she was now forty-three, still fertile, and her marriage to Henry may have gone stale. It would have been all too easy for her to turn to the supportive Raoul for comfort; however, she was four months pregnant with her ninth child at this time, and we hear no more of the rumours about her relationship with Raoul de Faye, so it would be unwise to infer any sexual innuendo from the Bishop's letter.

  Although Eleanor disappears from the records during the period from May to the end of July, it would appear that she remained in Angers, and she was certainly there at the end of August when momentous news arrived from France.

  On 22 August 1165, King Louis's hopes were at long last fulfilled when Adela of Champagne bore him a healthy son at Gonesse near Paris. The infant was baptised Philip and immediately nicknamed "Dieudonne," which means God-given, and "Augustus," after the month of his birth. There were joyous celebrations in Paris, but Henry II cannot have shared Louis's joy, for the birth of an heir to the French throne put paid to his scheme to claim the crown of France for the Lord Henry in the right of his wife Marguerite. Two comets that appeared in the sky over England at this time were widely regarded as portending the death of a king or the ruin of a nation. Later, their appearance was linked to Philip's birth.25

  Meanwhile, in Angers, Eleanor was having trouble enforcing her authority over Henry's vassals in Maine and on the Breton border, who were plotting rebellion against their overlord.26 At the Queen's command, the Constable of Normandy raised a force against them, but was unable to overcome them, largely, it appears, because Eleanor's orders were treated with contempt by his men. Nor could the King come to her aid, because he was heavily beset in Wales.27

  It was perhaps during the summer of 1165 that Henry began his notorious affair with Rosamund de Clifford, although it is impossible to date this event with any certainty. During the Welsh campaign, Rosamund's father, Sir Walter de Clifford, a knight of Norman extraction, had performed his feudal service for the King, and it is possible that at some stage Henry received hospitality at Sir Walter's border stronghold at Bredelais, where he is thought by several historians to have made Rosamund's acquaintance.

  According to Giraldus Cambrensis, Rosamund was very young when her affair with the King began, and he confirms that it lasted for some years, at least until 1174, when
it was publicly acknowledged, and probably until shortly before Rosamund's death in 1176. The fact that the liaison was kept secret until 1174 would appear to explain William of Newburgh's assertion that Henry did not begin to be unfaithful to Queen Eleanor until she was past childbearing age.

  It has been suggested that during their affair Rosamund was much neglected by the King, who was only in England for three and a half years during the course of it, yet it is possible that she travelled discreetly with him, especially since for much of this time he was not living with Eleanor. Rosamund is not thought to have borne the King any children: it was not until the sixteenth century that it was asserted that she was the mother of his natural sons Geoffrey and William Longsword, and no contemporary source ascribes any bastards to her.

  In fact, there is very little information in contemporary sources about Henry's affair with Rosamund. It is through later legends, which have evolved over eight centuries, that it has become famous; indeed, no other mistress of an English king has ever inspired so many romantic tales. Unfortunately, even in the twentieth century many of these stories have been accepted as fact by historians.

  The legends surrounding Rosamund de Clifford are of two types: legends about her death, which will be examined later, and legends about her affair with the King.28 Early in the fourteenth century, a monk of Chester, Ranulf Higden, in his Polychronicon (Universal History), which was based on the works of Giraldus Cambrensis and many other, often less reliable sources, asserted that Henry II "was privily a spouse breaker" and was not ashamed "to misuse the wench Rosamund. To this fair wench the King made at Woodstock a chamber of wonder craft, won-derly made by Daedalus' work, lest the Queen should find and take Rosamund."20 This is the first reference to Henry building a bower and labyrinth for Rosamund at Woodstock. It is not mentioned again in any work until the late fifteenth century, when the London chronicler Robert Fabyan, drawing on Higden, described "the house of wonder working or Daedalus' work, which is a house wrought like unto a knot in a garden called a maze."

 
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