Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  The King had suffered two days of unbearable tension at Bures, waiting for news of the knights. Then, abandoning the Christmas festivities, he dismissed his vassals and retired to Argentan. It was there, on 31 December 1170 or 1 January 1171, that he was informed of Becket's murder.

  Henry was almost paralysed with horror and remorse. Arnulf, Bishop of Lisieux, an eyewitness, informed the Pope:

  The King burst into loud lamentations and exchanged his royal robes for sackcloth and ashes, behaving more like a friend than the sovereign of the dead man. At times he fell into a stupor, after which he would again utter groans and cries louder and more bitter than before. For three whole days he remained shut up in his chamber and would neither take food nor admit anyone to comfort him, until it seemed from the excess of his grief that he had determined to contrive his own death. So in consequence we began to despair of the life of the King, and so by the death of the one we feared in our misery that we might lose both.6

  For six weeks Henry remained in seclusion, refusing to attend to business, take any exercise, or indulge in recreational activities. In vain did the Archbishop of Rouen, summoned for the purpose, offer him spiritual comfort. In his misery, the King called upon God to witness, "for the sake of his soul, that the evil deed had not been committed by his will, nor with his knowledge, nor by his plan. He directly submitted himself to the judgement of the Church and, with humility, promised to undertake whatever it should decide."7

  He sent envoys to protest to the Pope that he had never desired Becket's death, but Alexander refused to speak to them for a week.8 However, having placed Henry's continental domains under an interdict, which was soon afterwards lifted, the Pontiff behaved towards him with commendable moderation. For many months he deliberated as to whether or not he should excommunicate Henry, as most people expected him to do, or extend the interdict to England. In the meantime, he simply forbade the King to venture onto consecrated ground until he had been absolved of his guilt.

  At Winchester, the Young King professed himself relieved that none of his liegemen had been involved in the murder.9

  On Easter Day the Pope excommunicated the four knights, those "satellites of Satan"10 who had carried out the murder. For a year they remained holed up in Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire. Henry's ill-judged failure to punish them convinced many that they had acted on his orders. Later, Hugh de Morville made a penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he received absolution; he was afterwards restored to royal favour, dying in 1204. William de Tracy granted his manor in Devon to the cathedral chapter of Canterbury to expiate his sin, and in 1173 also went on pilgrimage, but died before he could reach Jerusalem.

  Was it the murder of Becket that turned Eleanor against Henry? Certainly, between the Christmas of 1170 and that of 1172, something occurred to turn her feelings for her estranged husband into revulsion. Prior to Becket's murder, there is nothing to suggest that their separation was anything but amicable; indeed, Eleanor had spent most of the year supporting Henry's policies.

  Although there is no record of Eleanor's reaction to Becket's murder, the fact remains that this event had the effect of turning most of Europe against the King. Eleanor seems to have supported Henry throughout his quarrel with Becket, but while quarrelling was one thing, the brutal murder of an archbishop was quite another-- an outrage that inspired extreme revulsion in most God-fearing people. Even though there were other, contributory factors, it might not be too fanciful to conjecture that the murder went some way towards alienating Eleanor from Henry.

  The Queen was certainly not on hand to console her husband in his anguish. Either she could not bring herself to do so, or (which is more likely), she had already returned to Poitiers. Details of her movements at this time are virtually nonexistent.

  In 1171 the Lord John was approaching five years old, and the King changed his mind about dedicating him to the Church. He had received an envoy, Benedict, Abbot of Chiusa, from Count Humbert of Maurienne (later Savoy and Piedmont), who ruled over a wide domain between Italy and Germany. Humbert was, however, by no means wealthy, and he had no son to succeed him. Desirous of gaining a powerful ally, he now offered the hand of his eldest daughter, Alice, to the Lord John, who was the only one of Henry II's sons as yet unbetrothed. As Alice was Humbert's heiress, John would in time inherit the Count's domains and the Angevins would gain the desirable strategic advantage of controlling the western Alpine passes. Henry was happy to enter into negotiations with Humbert, but for various reasons the matter dragged on for many months.

  In the summer of 1171 the Pope sent two cardinal legates into Normandy to hear Henry's case and discuss with him the terms under which he might receive absolution for the murder of Becket, but the King, fearing excommunication, did not wait to meet with them. On 6 August he returned to England,11 having decided that this would be a good time to embark upon the conquest of Ireland, which had been granted to him by Pope Adrian IV in 1155. On 16 October he set sail with an imposing army from Milford Haven, landing the next day at Waterford and riding north to Dublin, where he established his winter headquarters. He was to remain there, isolated by foul weather, until the next spring. This tactical withdrawal from the continental political arena allowed hostile tempers to cool, so that when the subject of Becket's murder was next raised, it would be approached in a more rational manner.

  The Irish were not so amenable. They were resentful of Henry's distribution of land around Dublin to his followers, and remained in a constant state of rebellion against him. Nevertheless the King managed to impose his authority over a substantial area and, in an astute bid to regain the Pope's favour, instituted reforms of the Church in Ireland, bringing it more into line with that of Rome.

  On 17 April 1172 Henry returned from Ireland to learn that the papal legates were prepared to negotiate a reasonable settlement, and on 12 May he returned to Normandy with the Young King and Marguerite of France. Ten days later, in Avranches Cathedral, having declared on oath that he had neither wished for nor ordered Becket's death, but that he had, unwittingly and in anger, uttered words that had prompted the four knights "to avenge him,"12 Henry was formally absolved by the Archbishop of Rouen of any complicity in the murder of Becket and was reconciled with the Church.13 Afterwards, stripped of his outer garments and clad-- to the astonishment of onlookers-- in a hair shirt, the King knelt on the pavement outside the cathedral and was flogged by monks, as the Young King and the cardinal legates watched, the latter weeping with emotion.14

  Henry then began making reparation. Among other things, the conditions of absolution required him to restore to the See of Canterbury the possessions he had confiscated, to make restitution to those who had suffered as a result of their support of Becket, and to take the Cross for a period of three years with the intention of leading a crusade against the Infidel. However, the Pope excused him from this last obligation in return for his promise to found three religious houses.15

  The King was also required to do penance at some future date and to renounce any laws he had introduced that were detrimental to the Church; subsequently he revoked the two most contentious articles of the Constitutions of Clarendon. Yet although it seemed that Becket, in the end, had won the moral victory, Henry did reserve to the crown the right to protect its interests if threatened by the processes of the Church, and this liberty eventually became enshrined in English law.

  Richard was now nearly fifteen, and was considered by his parents to be old enough to exercise power in Aquitaine. This did not mean that Eleanor intended to relinquish all her authority to her son, but that she wished to formalise his position and intended to rule her duchy in association with him.

  On 11 June 1172, 16 in the abbey of Saint-Martial at Limoges, Richard, wearing a silk tunic and gold coronet, was invested with the ring of St. Valerie, a Roman martyr and the city's patron saint, and publicly proclaimed Duke of Aquitaine. It seems probable that this ceremony was revived by Eleanor not only to emphasise the continuity of
the ducal line but also to make reparation to the people of Limoges for Henry's oppressive rule, under which they had suffered more than most.17 After the investiture, there was a banquet such as had not been seen in the city for many years.

  Richard, Duke of Aquitaine, was made of sterner stuff than the Young King. "Henry was a shield, but Richard was a hammer," observed Giraldus Cambrensis.

  Eleanor's second surviving son was "tall in stature"-- his height has been estimated as six feet five inches-- "graceful in figure; his hair between red and auburn; his limbs were straight and flexible, his arms rather long, and not to be matched for wielding the sword, and his long legs suited the rest of his frame, while his appearance was commanding and his manners and habits suitable."18 He had inherited his father's piercing blue eyes. The realistic tomb effigies of him at Fontevrault and Rouen, although by different sculptors, show a remarkable similarity and may be attempts at a likeness.

  He was essentially a child of the south. The langue d'oc was his native tongue, and he had spent most of his formative years in his mother's domains. He had received a very good education, not only in knightly and military skills but also in the schoolroom, where he learned to read and write and mastered Latin. The troubadour culture of the south was an inspiration to him, leading him to compose competent verses and songs in both French and Provencal. He loved music, and would sing with and conduct the choir in his private chapel.19 He was also a patron of artists and poets such as Bertran de Born, who became friends with Richard after years of enmity between them.

  It was Bertran who bestowed on his patron the nickname "Oc e No" (Yea-and-Nay), which reflected Richard's single-mindedness and his determination never to break his word. The name stuck throughout Richard's life; the epithet Coeur de Lion, or the Lionheart, is not recorded until a decade after his death, and is thought to have been first used by the troubadour chronicler Peyrols, although Richard of Devizes had called Richard "that fearful lion" during his lifetime.

  He was undoubtedly his mother's favourite child.20 She idolised him, referring to him as "the great one," while he, she knew, "reposed all his trust in her, next to God."21 Ralph of Diceto states that Richard "strove in all things to bring glory to his mother's name." This special relationship is reflected in official documents, where Eleanor calls John her "dear" son (dilectum) and Richard her "very dear" son (carissimum).

  Richard was a person of consummate ability, gifted in many ways. A man of immense courage and daring, he would in time become renowned as one of the greatest generals and strategists of the age, one greatly feared and respected by his enemies. Ralph of Diceto called him "a man dedicated to the work of Mars". Like the Young King, he was a master of the generous gesture, but less extravagant, less accessible, and also notoriously avaricious. Unlike the Young King, he was not interested in tournaments, preferring to gain military experience in real warfare, but he loved hunting. He was a natural leader, and inspired many to follow him, either through fear or admiration. "Why need we expend labour extolling so great a man?" asked one chronicler. "He needs no superfluous commendation. He was superior to all others."22

  Like all the Angevins, Richard was of a volatile disposition and had a savage temper, although he was far more violent and cruel than his father. He was ruthless, unscrupulous, and predatory. The author of the Gesta Henrici Secundi thought him "bad to all, worse to his friends, and worst of all to himself." He was proud, reckless, quarrelsome, and obsessive, often to his own detriment. "Impatient of injury, he was impelled irresistibly to vindicate his rights."23 Nevertheless, he could sometimes be forgiving towards those who had defied him.

  The evidence that survives suggests that, as Richard grew older, he gained a reputation for promiscuity. He did not scruple to resort to rape: "he carried off the wives, daughters and kinswomen of his freemen by force, and made them his concubines, and when he had sated his lust on them, he handed them over to his knights for whoring." He was once accused by a preacher, Fulk of Neuilly, of begetting three shameless daughters: Pride, Avarice, and Sensuality-- to which he cynically retorted, "I give my daughter Pride to the Knights Templar, my daughter Avarice to the Cistercians, and my daughter Sensuality to the princes of the Church."24 Unlike his father, he had only one acknowledged bastard, Philip, born of an unknown mistress before 1189.25

  Richard was ambitious, but he was not interested in usurping his elder brother's role. He "cared not an egg" for England: all his ambition was focused upon Poitou and Aquitaine. Here, he was well known and popular, winning the affection of the common folk by acts of condescension and generosity.26

  While in Limoges, Eleanor joined Richard in laying the foundation stone of the abbey of St. Augustine. The Queen's movements between June and December 1172 are not recorded, but she probably remained in Poitou and Aquitaine with Richard.

  Henry was now becoming obsessed with bringing the Young King to heel. Determined to keep an eye on him, he dragged him from Avranches to the Auvergne to meet Count Humbert of Maurienne, who had come to finalise his daughter's betrothal to John. When the Count inquired as to the Lord John's inheritance, Henry told him that on his death John would receive three continental castles-- Chinon, Loudun, and Mirebeau-- and some estates in the English midlands, all of which had hitherto been assigned to the Young King. Despite his fury, young Henry was forced to witness the marriage treaty.27

  On 27 August the Young King was crowned a second time-- this time at Winchester, along with Marguerite of France. The Bishop of Evreux officiated, since the See of Canterbury was still vacant and the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London and Salisbury had been forbidden by the Pope to attend.28 The King was not present at this second crowning, having gone to Brittany, but his hopes that it would go some way towards appeasing Louis were fulfilled,29 and it was probably soon afterwards that the Young King and Young Queen began living together as man and wife.

  Henry returned to Normandy in September. There, on the 27th, the Pope having approved the terms agreed at Avranches, he again received absolution.

  During November, King Louis invited his daughter and son-in-law to Paris, ostensibly for a family reunion, but in reality in the hope of driving a wedge between the Young King and his father and exploiting this to his own advantage. He was well aware of the growing rift between Henry and his son, and Henry virtually played into his hands because, when the young couple visited him in Normandy before departing for Paris, and the Young King again demanded his inheritance, the King once again adamantly refused, even reproaching his son for his temerity, which only provoked further bitterness. Between the Young King and the old "a deadly hatred sprang up"; the father had not only "taken away [the son's] will," but had also "filched something of his lordship."30

  In Paris, Louis listened sympathetically to the Young King's grievances and strongly advised him to demand a share of his father's dominions. But their plotting was abruptly curtailed because Henry, perhaps suspecting that Louis was up to something, summoned the Young King back to Normandy for Christmas. Burning with resentment, the young man obeyed, but he did not join his parents. Instead, in a typically extravagant gesture, he ordered his heralds to summon all the knights in Normandy called William to feast with him: no of them turned up.31

  By this time the Young King had become friendly with the troubadour Bertran de Born, who was twice his age. An intelligent but violent man of many talents, Bertran had become lord of Hautfort Castle in the Dordogne after driving his elder brother from their family estate. He had two passions in life: writing poetry and making war, and there were many who believed he exerted a sinister influence over the Young King. He was perhaps one of the people who "whispered in his ear that he ought now by rights to reign alone, for at his coronation, his father's reign had, as it were, ceased."32

  Henry and Eleanor spent the festival at Chinon with Richard and Geoffrey. It is almost certain that Eleanor had taken the Young King's part, and that it was this issue that caused the final falling out between her and Henry,
for by 1173 it is clear that her sympathies lay wholeheartedly with her sons and, like a lioness fighting to protect her cubs, she was prepared to resort to drastic measures to ensure that they received their just deserts. Her estrangement from Henry was now virtually complete.

  Henry's heavy-handed imposition of his authority and his loss of international prestige following the murder of Becket had by now led to the disaffection of a large number of his vassals throughout the empire, particularly in Poitou and Aquitaine. Their enmity and resentment appear to have been systematically exploited by the Queen and her three eldest sons, and with the support of King Louis, who feared that the dispositions of Montmirail were at risk through Henry's obduracy, a formidable coalition was formed.

  The stage was now set for the most dangerous rebellion ever to confront the King. The origins of the conspiracy are unknown, but it is clear that different people had different objectives. The Young King and his brothers wanted autonomous power in the lands assigned to them, even if it meant the overthrow of their father; Eleanor wanted justice for her sons and consequently more power and influence for herself. This, she must have known, could only be achieved through the removal of her husband from the political scene. She was prepared to countenance this, which is surely proof that whatever feelings she had had for him had long since died. Henry's vassals wanted an end to his dictatorial government, and were therefore prepared to support anyone who could offer an alternative. King Louis was ready to seize any chance to undermine the might of the Angevins, even to the extent of allying himself with his former wife.

  That there was contact between Eleanor and Louis is certain-- he was her overlord and she had every right to ask him for aid against her enemies-- but it was made so secretly that no details survive. The chroniclers are vague as to her role in the rebellion, but almost all of them imply that she was a prime mover in it, so it may therefore have been she who approached Louis. Gervase of Canterbury and William of Newburgh claim that the whole uprising had been devised and executed by her, while Richard FitzNigel asserts that, while the King's sons "were yet young and, by reason of their age, easily swayed by any emotion, certain little foxes corrupted them with bad advice, so that at last his own bowels [i.e., his wife] turned against him and told her sons to persecute their father." Ralph of Diceto accuses Eleanor of corrupting the minds of her sons with folly and sedition.

 
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