Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  The Young King was not only good-looking but "most blessed in courtesy, most happy in the love of men and in their grace and favour."23 This popularity was due not only to his charm but also to his fast-growing reputation as a "fountain of largesse," which drew to his side a great following of young aristocrats, eager for adventure and advancement. He kept a splendid court, dispensed generous and lavish hospitality,24 and enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle, living well beyond his means.

  Thanks to the training of the Marshal and others, young Henry displayed "unprecedented skill in arms."25 Jousting was a passion with him, which he indulged with great ardour as often as he could.26 He was brave, could be energetic when he chose, and was hailed by many as a chivalrous knight. He could also be merciful, and was praised by Giraldus for being "the shield of the wrongdoer."

  However, in the years to come this youth who had been so blessed would "turn all these gifts to the wrong side"27 and become "a prodigy of unfaith and a lovely palace of sin."28 What caused this was undoubtedly his deep dissatisfaction with his father's refusal to allow him any political power. It angered him that his younger brothers already had the freedom of their own domains, while he, the eldest, had nothing but meaningless titles. Yet despite his repeated requests to be allowed to govern England or, failing that, Normandy or Anjou, Henry would not permit the Young King to take possession of any part of his inheritance. Nor would the King allow him to rule England as regent during his absence abroad, but delegated this responsibility to his justiciar.

  To add to the Young King's resentment and humiliation, Henry assigned him what both he and William the Marshal felt to be a shamefully meagre allowance-- his famed largesse came either from the royal treasury or, when that ran out, from the profits of jousting29-- and even insisted on choosing the members of his household. Henry also, with the approval of the Pope, banned tournaments in England on the grounds that too many young knights were being killed,30 a move that must have caused anguish to the Young King.

  It was as well that Henry did impose such constraints upon the boy. Although he was indeed reluctant to cede power to any of his sons, being incapable of regarding them as anything other than children and expecting them to be satisfied with empty titles, he must have realised that the eldest, who was also his favourite, was a weak, vain, idle, untrustworthy, and irresponsible spendthrift,31 who knew all too well how to manipulate others with a shallow charm that blinded them to his less endearing traits. Among these was a violent temper32 and a talent for being laceratingly cruel and insensitive. He was also susceptible to the subversive influence of those eager to exploit his grievances with his father. In all, "he was a restless youth, born for many men's undoing"33 and "inconstant as wax."34

  Despite all this, the King, no less than Eleanor, had high hopes of his children and was confident that he could mould young Henry into another ruler such as himself. The boy had had the best tutors and, like his brothers, had mastered the skills of reading and writing. Since childhood he had attended the ceremonial court gatherings at Christmas, Whitsun, and Easter, and had sat with his father in the assize courts, accompanied him on progress, inspected garrisons, and been taught about the English legal and taxation systems. None of it seems to have made much impression on him.

  Unfortunately, Henry was a fond parent: "on his legitimate children, he lavished in their childhood more than a father's affection."35 Often absent, he took it for granted that his love was returned. He found it hard to find fault with his sons, and forgave them all too readily, even after they had caused him almost irreparable injury and pain. According to Walter Map, the Young King could usually allay his father's wrath simply by bursting into tears. Matters were only made worse by the fact that the two parents seem to have competed for their children's affection. By all accounts, Eleanor was an indulgent mother who, for various reasons (both political and personal), would from now on be only too willing to take sides with her sons against their father.

  The end result of all this was that their sons grew up spoilt and headstrong, determined to get their own way regardless of whether or not they wrecked the King's careful policies in the process. In fact, their deeds reveal that they had little affection or respect for their father, an attitude Eleanor may well have encouraged, for as they grew older she seems to have been more in touch with their developing minds than Henry was-- she was certainly more sympathetic-- and consequently exerted greater influence over them; some writers have gone so far as to suggest that she dominated them. She was certainly not above using them to achieve her own political ends, as time would prove.

  Henry seems to have sensed the growing alienation of his sons, and as they matured "he looked askance at them, after the manner of a stepfather."36 He may have recalled what Eleanor had told him of the curse laid by a hermit on William IX of Aquitaine, that his descendants would never know happiness in their children; it was a tale he was fond of repeating to Bishop Hugh of Lincoln.37 Not only would there soon be serious discord between his sons and himself, but there was already much jealousy between them, which would on many future occasions erupt into open and vicious conflict. In later life, Richard I was fond of recalling another family legend and observing, with black humour, "What wonder if we lack the natural affections of mankind? We are from the Devil, and must needs go back to the Devil!"

  Eleanor was not present at the Young King's coronation. She had travelled south to Poitiers for the investiture of twelve-year-old Richard as Count of Poitou. The ceremony took place on 31 May in the abbey of Saint-Hilaire, where the young Count received from the Bishop of Poitiers and the Archbishop of Bordeaux the holy lance and standard of St. Hilaire, the city's patron saint 38 Afterwards, at Niort, he was presented to the lords of Poitou as their future overlord, and they paid homage to him as such.39 After celebratory banquets and jousts to mark the occasion, the Queen visited Fontevrault, where she put her seal to a gift made to the chapter by Manasse, one of the King's stewards. Then she returned to Falaise, where she was soon afterwards joined by Henry, who had returned from England around 24 June.40

  In the course of his journey he had met the Bishop of Worcester. Unaware that the Queen had prevented the Bishop from going to England, or that he had acted as a courier for the Pope, the King angrily denounced him as a traitor for boycotting the coronation, and an undignified row ensued. In the course of it, the Bishop revealed that it was Eleanor and the justiciar who were responsible for his absence, but the King refused to believe him.

  "What? The Queen is in the castle of Falaise and Richard of Le Hommet is probably there also," he said. "Are you naming them as the instigators of this? You cannot mean that either of them intercepted you in contravention of my summons!"

  Bishop Roger's reply was masterful, focusing on the Queen's role in the affair, rather than his own. "I do not cite the Queen, for either her respect or fear of you will make her conceal the truth, so that your anger at me will be increased; or if she confessed the truth, your indignation will fall upon that noble lady. Better that I should lose a leg than that she should hear one harsh word from you."41

  The outcome of this episode is unrecorded, but there is no mention of the King publicly censuring Eleanor for her intervention. Doubtless she acquainted him with the real reason for it, in which case he would have had cause to thank her.

  The Pope was now insisting that Becket and Henry make up their quarrel, thus enabling the Archbishop to put right the wrongs that had been done. Henry responded by declaring that he was ready to make peace, and, through the good offices of King Louis and Rotrou of Warwick, Archbishop of Rouen, the King and Becket met at Freteval on 22 July. Throwing his arms around his erstwhile friend, Henry cried, "My lord Archbishop, let us go back to our old love for each other, and let us each do all the good he can to the other, and forget utterly the hatred that has gone before."42 He admitted that he had wronged the Church over the matter of the coronation, and when he asked Becket to return in peace to Canterbury and re-crown the Young King
, this time with Marguerite, the Archbishop accepted. The Constitutions of Clarendon were not mentioned, and king and primate retired in a spirit of reconciliation, although Henry had still not given Becket the kiss of peace. That, he promised, would be given to him after he had returned to England.

  The King was unable to put in hand immediate arrangements for the Archbishop's return because, around 10 August, he fell seriously ill at Domfront with a tertian fever.43 His life was despaired of--- in France, it was at one time rumoured that he was already dead-- and he dictated a will confirming the dispositions made under the Treaty of Montmirail. It was the end of September before he was fully recovered, and in thanksgiving he went on a pilgrimage with Eleanor to the shrine of Rocamadour in Quercy.44 On returning through Aquitaine, he spent time attending to administrative business that had fallen into abeyance during Eleanor's long absence, and dealing with local disputes: at the request of the townsfolk of Souterraine, he sent in troops to deal with an unpopular provost.45 Clearly, he was still in overall control of the duchy.

  During this year 1170, relations between Henry and Frederick Barbarossa cooled, and a match between the King's daughter Eleanor and the Emperor's son no longer seemed desirable. Instead Henry sought to extend his influence across the Pyrenees and prevent a Franco-Castilian alliance by betrothing Eleanor to the twelve-year-old King Alfonso VIII of Castile;46 she was to receive Gascony as her dowry, but only on the death of her mother.

  In October, Henry at last issued Becket a formal safe-conduct to return to Canterbury and resume his episcopal duties, and wrote to the Young King, then in England, confirming that the Archbishop's return had his approval:

  Henry, King of England, to his son, Henry, King of England, greeting. May you know that Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, has made peace with me in accordance with my wishes. Therefore I order that you see to it that he and his followers should have their possessions in peace and with honour. Witness Archbishop Rotrou of Rouen, at Chinon.47

  Soon afterwards Henry and Becket met for the last time at Chaumont near Amboise and reaffirmed their agreement.

  "My lord," Thomas said, "my mind tells me that I will never again see you in this life."

  Henry took offence: "Do you think I am a traitor?"

  "God forbid, my lord," was the answer.48

  Becket was girding his loins for another battle. His anger against those bishops who had connived with the King over the coronation was still simmering, and on 30 November he sent a messenger to England to deliver letters excommunicating them.

  On 1 December, Becket disembarked at Sandwich and rode to Canterbury, where he was accorded a warm welcome by both the clergy and the common people.49 But several royal officers made it clear to him that they resented his return, and the Young King, whom he had once called his adopted son, refused to receive him at his court at Woodstock.50

  On Christmas Day, from his pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral, the Archbishop publicly denounced the renegade bishops and published his sentence of excommunication on them.

  What followed was not only the most cataclysmic disaster of the reign, but also an event that shook Christian Europe to its very foundations.

  The evidence suggests that Eleanor spent Christmas with Henry at his hunting lodge at Bures in northern Normandy51 near Bayeux. Their children Richard, Geoffrey, Joanna, and John were certainly present, and Richard's presence makes it likely that Eleanor was there too. The Young King was for the first time holding his own Christmas court at Winchester.

  On Christmas Day, three of the excommunicate bishops-- London, York, and Salisbury-- arrived at court and complained to Henry of Becket's high-handed conduct.52 Henry and his barons listened to their catalogue of Becket's misdemeanours with mounting indignation.

  "My lord, while Thomas lives, you will not have peace or quiet or see good days," declared one lord.53 The King "waxed furious and indignant beyond measure, and, keeping too little restraint upon his fiery and ungovernable temper, poured forth wild words from a distracted mind."54

  "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" he is supposed to have cried, although no contemporary source quotes these words. Edward Grim, a monk of Canterbury, says that Henry railed at the cowardice of his vassals, snarling, "A curse! A curse on all the false varlets and traitors I have nursed and promoted in my household, who let their lord be mocked with such shameful contempt by a low-born priest!"55

  This was too much for four knights of his household, Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy (Becket's former chancellor), Hugh de Morville (who had served the King in the north as an itinerant justice since his accession), and Richard de Brito; without confiding their intentions to anyone, they quietly slipped away from Bures and made haste to England.56 When Henry discovered they had gone, he realised in alarm what they had in mind and sent messengers to summon them back, but it was too late. 57

  On the afternoon of 29 December, the four knights confronted Becket in his study at Canterbury, making all kinds of wild accusations against him and threatening him with dire punishment if he did not leave England.58

  "Stop your threats and stop your brawling," commanded Becket. "I have not come back to flee again."59 The knights withdrew into the courtyard, muttering insults, and began putting on their armour.60

  Edward Grim has left an eyewitness account of what happened next. That evening, when the monks went in procession into Canterbury Cathedral for Vespers, "the four knights followed them with rapid strides. When the holy Archbishop entered the church, the monks stopped Vespers and ran to him, glorifying God that they saw their father." Then, fearful of the four knights who were advancing menacingly, the monks "hastened, by bolting the doors to the church, to protect their shepherd from the slaughter." But Becket "ordered the church doors to be thrown open, saying, 'It is not meet to make a fortress of the house of prayer, the church of Christ.' And straightaway [the knights] entered the house of prayer with swords sacrilegiously drawn, causing horror to the beholders with their very looks and the clanging of their arms."

  Everyone watching was "in tumult and fright" except Becket, who retained his composure. He must have guessed the knights' purpose, and his behaviour suggests that he welcomed the chance of martyrdom.

  "Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and realm?" cried the knights.

  "I am here, no traitor to the King but a priest," replied Becket. "Why do you seek me? I am ready to suffer in His name, who redeemed me by His blood." So saying, he turned away and began praying. The knights closed in on him.

  "Absolve and restore to communion those whom you have excommunicated!" they demanded.

  Becket refused.

  "Then you shall die!" was the reply. Becket remained calm.

  "I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may find liberty and peace," he declared.

  "Then," Grim's account continues, "they laid sacrilegious hands on him, pulling and dragging him that they might kill him outside the church."

  "Touch me not, Reginald!" Becket thundered at FitzUrse. "You and your accomplices act like madmen."

  FitzUrse, possessed by blood lust, raised his sword. Becket immediately assumed an attitude of prayer, lifted his hands, and commended his cause and that of the Church to God, St. Mary, and the blessed martyr St. Denis. At that, FitzUrse leaped at him and sliced the skin off the top of his head with his sword. As it descended Edward Grim sprang to the Archbishop's defence, but the blade nearly severed his arm. His brother monks fled, but Grim remained by Becket's side, his uninjured arm supporting him. Seeing the Archbishop still on his feet, clinging to a pillar, the knights struck again, but a second blow on the head failed to prostrate him. At the third blow, Becket fell forward onto his knees and elbows, muttering, "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death."

  As he lay there on the ground, "the third knight [Richard de Brito61] inflicted a terrible wound, by which the sword was broken against the pavement and the crown was separated from the hea
d, so that the blood white with brain and the brain red with blood dyed the surface of the Virgin Mother Church."

  The fourth knight, Hugh de Morville, had prevented the monks from returning "so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder." Their accomplice, a treacherous subdeacon called Hugh Mauclerc, who had accompanied them, now came forward, "put his foot on the neck of the holy martyr"62 and "extracted the blood and brains from the hollow of the severed crown with the point of his sword,"63 scattering them all over the pavement and "calling out to the others, 'Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.' "64

  12. "The Cubs Shall Awake"

  News of the murder of the primate of England sent the whole of Europe into shock. Some declared it was the worst atrocity since the crucifixion of Christ. William, Archbishop of Sens, asserted that it surpassed the wickedness of Nero, the cruelty of Herod, the perfidy of Julian, and even the sacrilegious treachery of Judas,1 while King Louis wrote to the Pope: "Such unprecedented cruelty demands unprecedented retribution. Let the sword of St. Peter be unleashed to avenge the matryr of Canterbury."2 "Almost everyone laid the death of the blessed martyr at the King's door,"3 and Henry was reviled throughout Christendom. His reputation never fully recovered.

  Soon it became apparent that Becket dead was infinitely more powerful than Becket alive. No sooner had he fallen than he was being revered as a martyr-- the people of Canterbury came hurrying to smear themselves with his blood, take it away in bottles, or snip off pieces of his vestments 4-- and the cult of "God's doughty champion"5 soon spread with remarkable speed throughout Christendom. By Easter 1171 it was being claimed that miracles were taking place at his tomb.

 
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