Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir

  Now, Queen with two crowns, you consume yourself with sorrow, you ravage your heart with tears. I beg of you, Queen with two crowns, end your continual self-affliction. Why consume yourself with sorrow, why ravage your heart with tears each day? Return, O captive, return to your own lands if you can, poor prisoner. If you cannot, may your plaint be that of the King of Jerusalem: "Alas, my exile has been a long one! I have lived with a crude, ignorant tribe."

  Where is your court, where are your guards, your royal escort, where are the members of your family? Where are your handmaidens? Where are the young men of your household? Where are your councillors of state? Some, dragged far from their own soil, have suffered a shameful death, others have been deprived of their sight, and still others are banished and wandering in divers places and are counted fugitives.

  Eagle of the broken alliance, you cry out unanswered, because it is the King of the North Wind who holds you in captivity But cry out and cease not to cry; do not weary, raise your voice like a trumpet, so that it may reach the ears of your sons. For the day is approaching when they shall deliver you and then shall you come again to dwell in your native land.

  Like other commentators of the period, Richard le Poitevin saw Eleanor as the Eagle of Merlin's prophecies, as recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Elsewhere, when referring to the rebellion, he calls her "Queen Eleanor, described by Merlin as the Eagle of the Broken Covenant." Similarly, another Poitevin writer, Guernes of Pont-Saint-Maxence, refers to Eleanor as "the Eagless." Nor was there any doubt in the mind of Richard le Poitevin that Henry was Merlin's King of the North Wind. Yet this writer's expectations were totally unrealistic. Eleanor would not be free to return to her native land for many years; nor were her sons, sympathetic though they were to her plight, in any position to rise in her favour.

  With Eleanor disgraced and in prison, Henry began living openly with his mistress, Rosamund de Clifford. Giraldus Cambrensis noted disapprovingly: "The King, who had long been a secret adulterer, now blatantly flaunted his paramour for all to see, not a rose of the world [rosa mundi], as some vain and foolish people called her, but a rose of un-chastity [rosa immundi]. And since the world copies a king, he offended not only by his behaviour but even more by his bad example." In that year, 1174, the King bestowed a manor on Sir Walter de Clifford "for the love of Rosamund, his daughter."

  There is no evidence that Rosamund presided over the court in Eleanor's place; in fact, other chroniclers hardly mention her, and it was possibly the young Queen Marguerite who, on ceremonial occasions, stood in for her mother-in-law; the Pipe Rolls show that her allowance was increased at this time to a level far exceeding Eleanor's. Yet since Marguerite was often with her husband on the continent or in Paris, there must have been many occasions when Henry presided alone over his court.

  After concluding the Treaty of Montlouis, Henry remained in Normandy with the Young King and the bastard Geoffrey until the following spring; the King was now putting pressure on the Pope to confirm Geoffrey's election as Bishop of Lincoln, which he finally obtained in 1176.

  Duke Richard and Duke Geoffrey had been sent off to administer their domains: Geoffrey went to Brittany, while Richard returned south to subdue the angry vassals of Poitou and Aquitaine, who had erupted in fury at the news of Eleanor's imprisonment.4 Efficiently and savagely he ravaged the countryside and reduced castle after castle, exacting a terrible vengeance: those who opposed him had their eyes gouged out, their hands cut off, and their women raped by the Duke and his men. With his terrible reputation going before him, the land was soon quietened. 5 From now on Richard would spend his life engaged in a ceaseless succession of campaigns against his turbulent vassals, whose independence would be ruthlessly curbed by his iron hand and violent reprisals.

  In October, Henry made peace with King Louis, and at Christmas he held court at Argentan with his four sons, feasting on "the meat of four score deer" sent over from England.6

  In the new year of 1175, because they wanted "to return to their old familiarity," the princes "decided to remove all suspicion by doing homage and allegiance to their father." The younger sons, Richard and Geoffrey, swore fealty first at Le Mans, and the Young King on 1 April at Bures.7 On that occasion, Henry raised his prostrate and weeping son, assured him of his love, and assigned to him a generous allowance from the treasury.

  On 9 May 1175 "the two kings of England, whom the previous year the kingdom had not been big enough to contain, came together and crossed to England in a single boat."8 Relations between them were much improved: "they ate together at the same table and rested their limbs in the same bedroom."9 Henry, "turning his fatherly gaze to the needs of his son," even paid the Young King's "onerous debts."10 On 28 May they went on pilgrimage together to the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury, where the King "stayed up on all-night vigils, with prayer, fasting and scourging lasting into the third day."11

  With his empire at peace and stronger than it had ever been, Henry could now afford to devote more time to the affairs of his kingdom. Thanks to his wise and firm government, England was prosperous and peaceful and enjoyed great prestige in Europe. Foreign rulers sought to ally themselves with her, and even the native Irish kings paid homage to the English King.

  After leaving Canterbury the King and his son went on a progress through England so that the Young King could learn how to govern his future realm.12 Yet, resentful of the fact that his brothers were permitted to rule their fiefs and not he, he chafed under his father's tutelage, although for many months he kept his resentment to himself.

  According to Gervase of Canterbury, it was during 1175 that Henry first took steps to have his marriage to Eleanor annulled. Giraldus Cambrensis claimed that his purpose was to marry Alys of France, his son Richard's allianced bride-- who was now fifteen-- presumably with a view to bringing about closer relations between England and France.

  Henry's friend Hugh of Avalon had always held that the King's marriage to Eleanor was adulterous and therefore invalid, and had warned that no good issue would come of it.13 There were indeed good grounds for an annulment: Henry and Eleanor were more closely related than she and Louis had been, and their marriage could even be said to be incestuous, given that she had enjoyed sexual relations with Henry's father. It is more likely, however, that Henry pleaded consanguinity not only to avoid further scandal, but because he could always claim that the marriage had been entered into by both partners in ignorance, in which case the heirs would be accepted by the Church as legitimate. Since Geoffrey of Anjou had warned him, before he married Eleanor, that he himself had known her carnally, Henry could not claim that he had married her in good faith in that regard, and in such a case their children would almost certainly be declared illegitimate.

  However, in repudiating Eleanor, the King risked losing her vast inheritance. Should the Pope annul their union, her lands would revert to her and, on her death, pass to her sons. Furthermore, since she would no longer be Henry's subject, he would have no grounds for keeping her a prisoner, but would have to send her back to Aquitaine, where she would be free to make mischief with her sons, her vassals, and King Louis. She might also remarry and install a hostile neighbour on Henry's borders. Thus the King sought a way of setting her aside without any loss to himself.

  It was probably during the summer of 1175 that Henry asked Pope Alexander III to send a legate to England to hear his case against Eleanor. Since annulling their marriage was so serious a step and would have far-reaching political consequences, the matter had to be handled with absolute discretion. Therefore when the legate, Cardinal Uguccione Pierlone of Sant' Angelo, arrived, it was on the pretext of resolving the quarrel between the Sees of York and Canterbury. Most chroniclers guessed what was really on the agenda.

  On 1 November, the feast of All Saints, Henry met Cardinal Pier-lone at Winchester, where the matter of an annulment was almost certainly discussed. Gervase of Canterbury learned that the King had given the legate a large amount of silver, and understood that
it was a bribe. But the legate refused even to listen to Henry's pleas for an annulment and, having apparently warned him of the risks involved in repudiating Eleanor, left England soon afterwards.

  Famine followed hard upon the heels of plague,l4 and that winter was one of the coldest in living memory. Christmas found Henry and the Young King at Windsor. The land was covered in snow and ice, and a thaw did not set in until Candlemas in February 1176.

  According to Giraldus, in the new year Henry offered Eleanor the chance to take the veil at the abbey of Fontevrault and be appointed to the prestigious office of abbess in return for her consent to an annulment; if she agreed, he would not have to surrender her lands. In Fontevrault, moreover, she would be in Angevin territory and could be kept under supervision.

  But Eleanor had no intention of retiring from the world or of giving up her crown or her inheritance, nor did she have any vocation, and at Easter 1176 she appealed to the Archbishop of Rouen against being forced to become a nun. When the Archbishop refused to consent to her being committed to Fontevrault against her will, the King was obliged to appeal directly to the Pope for licence to have the marriage dissolved.

  Duke Richard and Duke Geoffrey visited England at Easter 1176, joining their father and the Young King at Winchester for the Easter court. Historians have speculated that the annulment of the royal marriage was discussed and that the princes lent their support to their mother, but there is no evidence for this. What is certain is that, over Easter, the Young King voiced his dissatisfaction with being kept in England while his brothers were allowed their independence, and his suspicion that the King-- who had allowed Richard and Geoffrey to pay homage to him before he permitted the Young King to do so-- intended to exclude him from the succession.15 Paranoid in his conviction that there was a sinister conspiracy against him, he accused his father of keeping him a captive in his palaces, of limiting his allowance, and of preventing him from contacting his friends.

  When he asked leave to visit the shrine of St. James of Compostela in Spain, Henry saw this as the ruse it was, and suspected that the Young King's real intention was to join those dubious friends who had supported him during the rebellion. Nor had it escaped Henry's notice that it would shortly be the start of the tournament season on the continent.16 With grave misgivings, the King refused his son permission to go to Compostela, but allowed him instead to visit King Louis in Paris with Queen Marguerite, on condition that the Young King would afterwards travel south to Poitou to assist Richard against the rebels.17 In order to prevent his son from using inducements to gain support against his father, Henry gave him a strictly limited allowance.

  After the briefest of visits to Paris, the Young King hastened to Flanders, where he unburdened his grievances to a sympathetic Count Philip.18 What troubled him most was his inability to support his knights during the tournament season, so Philip provided him with horses and arms and subsidised him at great cost to himself. For the next few weeks, the Young King and William the Marshal excelled themselves in the lists.19 When the season ended on St. John's Day, the prince reluctantly rode south to Aquitaine to fulfil his promise to his father, although he did not stay long. Returning to Poitiers, he met up with some of his mother's barons who had risen against Henry in 1173-1174 and, having lost everything, were now plotting the ruin of their overlord, Duke Richard. To them, the Young King was a hero, and he basked in their flattery.

  The King had sent his vice-chancellor, Adam Chirchedune, to keep an eye on his son. Chirchedune, no fool, soon guessed what was going on, and wrote to Henry, warning him that the Young King was plotting treason. But the latter's spies caught him with the letter in his possession and he was dragged before their master with demands that he be flayed alive. The Bishop of Poitiers interceded for him, but the Young King was out for blood and ordered Chirchedune to be stripped naked and flogged in the public square of Poitiers.20 When Chirchedune returned to England and reported what had happened, Henry's rage knew no bounds.

  The discovery of his scheming had, however, given the Young King a jolt, and, abandoning his fellow conspirators, he "spent [the next] three years in tournaments and profuse expenditure. Laying aside his royal dignity and assuming the character of a knight, he devoted himself to equestrian exercises and carrying the victory in various encounters, spreading his fame on all sides around him."21

  In the early summer of 1176, the King concluded negotiations for the marriage of his eleven-year-old daughter Joanna to William II, King of Sicily, and preparations were put in hand for her departure. The princess was staying in Winchester at this time, and the Pipe Rolls suggest that in August Eleanor travelled there under guard from Sarum to say farewell to this daughter whom she might never see again.22

  On 27 August the princess took ship for France on the first stage of her journey to Palermo. She was escorted by John of Oxford, Bishop of Norwich, who had acted as Henry's envoy to the Sicilian court. The bridal party travelled south through France, then in the grip of a devastating famine, and took ship "in dangerous weather conditions" across the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian Seas to Sicily. Having safely delivered Joanna to King William there and witnessed the formal betrothal, the Bishop returned to England.23

  Eleanor was still at Winchester at Michaelmas.24 After Joanna's departure, the Pipe Rolls record a payment of £28 13s 7d "by the King's writ" for "two cloaks of scarlet and two capes of scarlet and two grey furs and one embroidered coverlet for the use of the Queen and her servant girl." It has been suggested that Joanna, seeing her mother in penury, pleaded with her father to ameliorate the terms of her imprisonment, yet all that this entry in the Pipe Rolls tells us is that the new clothes provided for the Queen were no better than those provided for her maid Amaria-- even though scarlet was an expensive cloth-- while the provision of one coverlet suggests that Eleanor and Amaria were obliged to share a bed.

  On 28 September the Lord John was betrothed to his cousin Hawise,25 daughter and heiress of William, Earl of Gloucester, one of the most powerful English magnates and son of the Earl Robert, who had so staunchly supported the Empress Matilda; on his marriage, John would acquire widespread estates in England.

  Between 1174 and 1176, Rosamund de Clifford retired to the nunnery at Godstow, near Oxford. It is not known whether she repented of her affair with the King and became a nun, or was ill and in need of nursing. It was probably the latter, because she died in 1176 (or possibly in 1177). The King had a beautifully decorated tomb erected to her memory before the high altar in the abbey church and, together with her father, Sir Walter de Clifford, and her brother-in-law, Osbert FitzHugh, gave generous gifts in her memory to the convent.

  Rosamund's death would in time give rise to many legends, none of which have any truth in them. In the fourteenth century, the French Chronicle of London was the first source to assert that Queen Eleanor murdered Rosamund, giving a lurid account of how she stripped her of her gown, roasted her naked between two fires, and, with venomous toads on her breasts, let her bleed to death in a hot bath at Woodstock. However, the Queen's name is given as Eleanor of Provence (who was the wife of Henry III and died in 1291) and the date of the murder as 1262! Also in the fourteenth century, the chronicler Ranulf Higden claimed that Rosamund was "poisoned by Queen Eleanor," who discovered her hiding place at Woodstock when she found "a clue of thread or silk" from Rosamund's sewing casket, learned the secret of the labyrinth, "and so dealt with her that she lived not long after."

  In the sixteenth century, the legends were further embroidered in popular ballads, in which Eleanor finds her way through the labyrinth and offers Rosamund the choice between a dagger or a bowl of poison, or even tears out her eyes. A late-seventeenth-century ballad, "Queen Eleanor's Confession," has Eleanor confessing the murder to Henry and William the Marshal on her deathbed, notwithstanding the fact that Henry predeceased her.26 By the eighteenth century the legends were accepted as fact, and it was not until the nineteenth century that writers began to question their veracity.<
br />
  Of course, Eleanor could not possibly have murdered Rosamund, since she was securely held in custody at that time. Nor could she have sent assassins to do the deed for her, because any contact with the outside world was strictly forbidden. The tales of the murder and her jealousy of Rosamund belong to later legend and are not substantiated by contemporary sources. Yet there remains to this day a persistent belief that there is no smoke without fire.

  In 1191 Bishop Hugh of Lincoln visited Godstow and noticed in the choir a fine tomb, covered with silken cloths, surrounded by candles, and lovingly tended by the nuns. "He was told that this was the tomb of Rosamund, and that for love of her Henry, King of England, had shown many favours to the church."

  Shocked, the Bishop replied, "Take her away from here, for she was a harlot, and bury her outside of the church with the rest, that the Christian religion may not grow into contempt and that other women, warned by her example, may abstain from illicit and adulterous intercourse."27 The body of Rosamund was thereupon re-interred in the nuns' chapter house, and the tomb inscribed with lines that were probably inspired by the exhumation of the corpse:

  Hie jacet in tumba rosa mundi, non rosa munda;

  Non redolet, sed olet, quae redolere solet.

  Here lies the rose of the world, not a clean rose;

  She no longer smells rosy, so hold your nose.28

  Giraldus Cambrensis states that, after Rosamund had retired to Godstow-- and therefore before her death-- the King consorted openly and shamelessly with Alys of France, his son's betrothed. Confident that he would be granted an annulment, he meant to make her queen of England. That Alys was Henry's mistress is borne out by Ralph Niger, Roger of Hoveden, the Chronicle of Meaux, and, later, by Ranulf Higden, although all these chroniclers are very discreet in their handling of the matter.

  This new liaison of the King's was far more scandalous than that with Rosamund, since Alys was a royal princess and precontracted to his son, and it only served to fuel the multiplying rumours about a royal annulment; Giraldus says that Henry intended to disinherit his sons by Eleanor and raise with Alys a new progeny, who would inherit his empire. It was also said that Henry intended naming John, the only one of Eleanor's sons who had not had his mind poisoned by her, as his heir-- a theory lent credence by the enrichment of John through his betrothal.29

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]