Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir

  "Then the Young King's life was cut short, as if by a weaver, and with it the hopes of many fighting for him and hoping to rule with him after his father's death."73

  The weather had been stiflingly hot, and after leaving Rocamadour the Young King fell violently ill with dysentery and fever. With a few followers, he tried to reach Limoges, but at the village of Martel in Quercy he was forced to take lodgings in a house belonging to a burgher, Etienne Fabri,74 which still stands today. The Bishop of Agen came to see him and he made a fervent confession of his sins. As his condition worsened, his case seemed hopeless and the Bishop was sent to fetch the King.

  Henry's advisers, however, suspected a trap, and instead of hastening to his son's bedside, which he would have preferred to do, the King sent his physician, some money, and, as a token of his forgiveness, a sapphire ring that had belonged to Henry I.75 He also sent a message expressing his hope that, after his son had recovered, they would be reconciled.

  On Saturday, 11 June, the Young King realised he was dying and, overcome with remorse for his sins, asked to be garbed in a hair shirt and a crusader's cloak and laid on a bed of ashes on the floor, with a noose round his neck and bare stones at his head and feet, as befitted a penitent.76 His conscience was troubling him because he had once sworn to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and had never fulfilled that vow, but William the Marshal set his mind at rest by promising to fulfil it for him.

  When Henry's ring was brought to him, he begged that his father would show grace and mercy to the Queen his mother, held now for so long in captivity, and that all his companions would plead with Henry to set her at liberty 77 He also asked the King to provide for the needs of the Young Queen and ordered that all his possessions, save the ring, be given to the poor. A monk who had been summoned to hear his last confession asked why he did not give away the ring also.

  "Because I wish my Judge to know that my father sent it me as a token of forgiveness," he replied.78 He died late in the evening, "young in years"-- he was only twenty-eight-- "but full of time when measured by the experiences of his life."79 After his death it proved impossible to remove the ring from his finger.

  Not one of his companions dared face the King with the news, so Bernard Rossot, a monk of Grandmont, was sent to break it to him. He found Henry at Mas near Limoges, sheltering from the afternoon heat in a peasant's hovel.

  "I am not a bearer of good news," the monk said.80 Henry guessed what he had come to tell him and, having dismissed his entourage, sought to find out every detail of the Young King's death, then "threw himself upon the ground and greatly bewailed his son."81 He was so distraught that Peter of Blois was moved to reprove him for his "excess of grief."

  At the Young King's request, his eyes, brain, and entrails were buried beside the grave site chosen by his father in the monastery of Grandmont, which was among those he had recently sacked. He had asked for his body to be buried in Rouen Cathedral, but as his funeral cortege passed through Le Mans on its way north, the citizens seized the body, which was garbed in the Young King's linen coronation garments,82 and buried it in their own cathedral. The indignant people of Rouen threatened to burn Le Mans to the ground if the corpse was not surrendered to them, but the King intervened, commanding that his son be buried in the place he had chosen, "on the north side of the high altar,"83 where his tomb effigy may be seen today.

  * * *

  The King sent Thomas Agnell, Archdeacon of Wells, to break the news of her son's death to Eleanor at Sarum. Agnell found her calm and, surprisingly, prepared. She had had a dream, she told him, that foretold her loss. She had seen her son lying on a couch with his hands together as if in prayer, and it had struck her that he looked like a tomb effigy. On his finger could be seen a great sapphire ring-- the one his father had, unknown to Eleanor, sent him-- and above his white face there hovered two crowns. The first was the one he had worn at his coronation, but the second was a circlet of pure dazzling light that shone with the incomparable brightness of the Holy Grail.

  The Queen asked Agnell, "What other meaning than eternal bliss can be ascribed to a crown with no beginning and no end? And what can such brightness signify, so pure and so resplendent, if not the wonder of everlasting joy? This second crown was more beautiful than anything which can manifest itself to our senses here on Earth. As the Gospel says, 'Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of Man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.' "

  After she had dismissed him, Agnell praised her composure and the way in which she had "fathomed the mystery of the dream and had, in consequence, borne the news of her son's death with great discernment, strength and equanimity."84 Yet her grief went very deep: a decade later, in 1193, she told Pope Celestine III that she was tortured by the memory of the Young King.85

  The Young King's death removed one of the most dangerous threats to Henry's security and left Richard the undisputed heir to England, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, and Aquitaine. The rebel coalition immediately collapsed, but the Duke's retribution was vicious: some rebels were drowned, some run through with swords, and others blinded, as an example to future would-be conspirators.

  The widowed Marguerite of France was allowed to retain some of her dower properties in Normandy and Anjou, although Henry kept a tight grip on others and on the Vexin, despite Philip's demands that he return them. In 1186, however, Philip agreed that the Vexin should be assigned to the dowry of his sister Alys,86 on condition that Henry pay Marguerite a large allowance. That same year she returned to Paris87 prior to marrying Bela III, King of Hungary; she died on a pilgrimage at Acre in the Holy Land in 1197.

  Bertran de Born wrote a poignant lament for the Young King: "Youth stands sorrowful, no man rejoices in these bitter days. For cruel Death, that mortal warrior, has harshly taken from us the best of knights." Moved by his eloquence, Henry restored to him his castle of Hautfort, which had been confiscated during the revolt.88 As for William the Marshal, who had been the Young King's guardian, mentor, and friend, he kept his promise and, taking the Young King's cross, departed immediately on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, grieving for his lost master.

  The chroniclers, however, drew a moral lesson from the Young King's death, which left "for the approval of the wise the opinion that sons who rise up against fathers to whom they owe everything are worthy only of being disinherited."89

  15. "Shame, Shame on a Conquered King!"

  In 1183 Henry was fifty and, thanks to his ceaseless exertions, aged beyond his years.1 His hair was grey, his stocky body had become corpulent, and years of sitting in the saddle had made him bow-legged. Thanks to a well-aimed kick from a horse, he was lame in one leg. His health had deteriorated and he was often troubled by chronic illnesses of an unspecified nature.

  Eleanor had now been his prisoner for a decade. She was sixty-one, and it appears, from her interview with Thomas Agnell, that years of confinement had wrought their effect and taught her wisdom, patience, and true piety. The death of their son and the Young King's dying request, together with the pleas of their daughter Matilda, may well have prompted a change in Henry's attitude towards her, but it was in fact for political reasons that he summoned her to Normandy in the late summer of 1183.

  Philip of France was insisting that certain properties in the duchy belonged to the Young Queen in right of her late husband, but Henry was adamant that they had in fact once belonged to Eleanor and that she had assigned them to her son for his lifetime, after which they would revert to her. To underline this, Henry determined that Eleanor should visit those lands to reassert her right to them.2 Geoffrey of Vigeois says that Eleanor stayed in Normandy for six months. This marked the beginning of a period in which she would be allowed greater freedom, albeit under supervision.3

  Once again she was to assume her place as Queen, even occasionally appearing in public at Henry's side,4 although she did not normally reside with him and there is no suggestion that their personal estrangement had ended. Yet
there may have been some vestiges of affection between them: according to Giraldus, those whom Henry had once hated he rarely came to love, yet those "whom he had once loved, he rarely regarded with hatred." What he and Eleanor now achieved was a working, mutually beneficial relationship designed to preempt any resentment against the King on the part of their sons for the way in which he had treated her. Nevertheless, as events would show, Henry remained suspicious of Eleanor.

  Henry was at this time keeping Alys under guard at Winchester.5 Philip was insisting that he honour the agreements made at Ivry and Gisors and marry her to Richard forthwith,6 but again Henry stalled. Personal considerations apart, the last thing he wanted to see was Richard allied by marriage to the French King, whom he suspected would use this alliance to turn Richard against him. In any case, Henry was more preoccupied with making peace between his sons and an equitable settlement for them.

  Since the dispositions of the Treaty of Montmirail could no longer apply, Henry sought, late in 1183, to make a fairer division of his empire between Richard and John: it seemed unfair that Richard should receive England, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, and Aquitaine and John only Ireland and some estates in England and on the continent. This state of affairs prompted Henry to nickname John "Lackland," an epithet that, in the light of future events, was curiously prophetic.

  John was undoubtedly Henry's favourite legitimate son. Now sixteen, he was about five feet six inches tall 7 and favoured his brother Geoffrey in looks, having thick, dark red, curly hair and a strongly built body, which, as he grew older, became portly as a result of overindulgence in good food and wine. We do not know what John really looked like: his effigy in Worcester Cathedral is a stylised representation that was sculpted some years after his death and cannot be termed a portrait in any sense of the word.

  John had been well educated, firstly at Fontevrault, then in the household of the Young King, and latterly in that of the justiciar, Ranulf Glanville; since Glanville was also Eleanor's custodian, it is possible he sometimes brought the boy to visit his mother. Giraldus thought that, of all the Angevin brood, John and Geoffrey were the most alike, and that John was at least as bright as his clever brother, having a sharp, inquiring mind and being able to read. In later life he acquired many theological manuscripts from Reading Abbey, and also works by Pliny and French historians, all of which would form the nucleus of the future royal library. Although he showed no interest in the songs and culture of the troubadours, he loved music. Yet for all his education, he was "light minded,"8 preferring the superficial to the substantial.

  John was self-indulgent and greedy, and had a relaxed approach to life. He loved hunting, hawking, carousing, gambling, and playing backgammon with amusing companions. He was a genial host who dispensed lavish hospitality, and his wit, conversational skills, and very accessibility brought him popularity of a sort. He lived in luxury, spending extravagantly on fine clothes and gold ornaments for himself, and accumulated a large collection of jewellery. He was also, by the standards of his day, fastidious.

  Like his father, he was rampantly promiscuous, and even noblewomen were not safe from being abducted and raped by him. "Not a woman was spared if he was seized by the desire to defile her in the heat of his lust."9 When, as a young man, he tried to seduce the wife of Sir Eustace de Vesci, Eustace smuggled a whore into John's bed in her place. The next day, when John boasted to Eustace about how good his wife had been in bed, Eustace could not resist telling him the truth, thereby provoking so angry a reaction that he was obliged to flee the court.10

  John had at least seven bastards, probably more. The mother of his daughter Joan, who married Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Wales, was Clementia, wife of Henry Pinel. The names of other mistresses appear in the records, but none seems to have enjoyed John's attentions for long, although he was generous to them while they were in favour. The evidence suggests that he was emotionally shallow.

  Usually lethargic and indolent, John could, when he wished to, display as much energy and vigour as Henry II and Duke Richard. Although he disliked war and had no time for tournaments, he displayed on occasion talent and even brilliance as a military commander, but was all too often fatally dilatory, a failing that later earned him the nickname "John Softsword." He was intelligent and able, but also ruthless, tenacious, restless and impatient like his father, and temperamentally incapable of keeping faith with anyone, having a reputation for being untrustworthy, cunning, crafty, and suspicious of all around him.

  William of Newburgh called John "Nature's enemy": although the tales of his cruelty have undoubtedly been exaggerated, he was certainly capable of being cruel,11 and had no qualms about committing murder when it was expedient to do so. Having inherited the notorious Angevin temper, he would, when in a rage, bite and gnaw his fingers, or even set fire to the houses of those who had offended him.

  John was by no means a good man, yet later chroniclers, looking back on his reign, would paint a much blacker picture of him than those writing in his youth or his early years as king. "Foul as it is, Hell itself is defiled by the very presence of John," wrote Matthew Paris in the thirteenth century. Roger of Wendover called him a cruel tyrant who had failed as a king. Many of these later chroniclers in fact embellished and exaggerated the scandalous tales and rumours that abounded during John's reign and after his death.

  John's bad press in the monastic chronicles may be attributed to his failures as a king and his cynical contempt for religion; he quarrelled with the Church during his reign and was excommunicated. It may be that his early years in Fontevrault had had a detrimental and lasting effect on him, although his critics would claim that it was his immorality that led him astray from the teachings of the Church. He "led such a dissipated life that he ceased to believe in the resurrection of the dead and other articles of the Christian faith [and] made blasphemous and ribald remarks,"12 his favourite oaths being "By God's teeth!" or "By God's feet!"13 He took a gleeful pleasure in shocking churchmen, rarely observed feast or fast days, and once, seeing a buck slaughtered at the end of a hunt, remarked, "You happy beast, never forced to patter prayers nor dragged to Holy Mass."14 His scepticism was alarming in that age of faith.

  It has been suggested that John was conceived at a time when his parents' marriage was soured by his father's infidelities and born at the height of Henry's affair with Rosamund; that consequently his mother did not love him and abandoned him to the nuns of Fontevrault; and that it was this that accounted for his flawed character. There is, however, no evidence that Eleanor did not love her son. On the contrary, it was she who made tremendous efforts to secure his peaceful succession to the throne, and there is ample evidence of a supportive bond between them.

  Eleanor may have been a distant mother-- she was a prisoner for much of John's childhood-- but Henry spoiled John. The boy had inherited the charm that characterised his family, but it blinded others, especially his indulgent father, to his faults, which seem to have gone largely unchecked in youth. After removing John from Fontevrault, Henry kept him frequently with him and did his best to provide this son with a great inheritance, sometimes, as we have seen, with disastrous results. He was about to make another blunder now.

  Summoning Richard, Geoffrey, and John to Angers,15 Henry commanded them to make peace with one another and with him, as their father and their liege lord. He demanded that Richard cede Poitou and Aquitaine to John, so that John could swear fealty to him as their new ruler. An appalled Richard-- who regarded himself first and foremost as a southerner, who had been brought up from infancy as his mother's heir and had spent years fighting to impose his authority on his unruly subjects-- could not bring himself to give the King an answer, and stole away from Angers, burning with resentment. Arriving back in Poitou, he sent Henry a message declaring that under no circumstances would he yield a furrow of his land to anyone.16

  Soon Richard had further cause for grievance. The repeated postponement of Richard's marriage to Alys of France had led Philip to bel
ieve that Henry still intended to repudiate Eleanor and dispossess his sons, so that he could marry Alys himself and start a new family.17 Richard himself was suspicious of Henry's intentions, and now realised that his own marriage to Alys was politically to his advantage, for it would gain him a powerful ally in the French King and thereby help to protect and consolidate his position as Henry's heir, since Henry would not risk alienating Philip by disinheriting his sister's husband. Setting aside any scruples he may have had, Richard appealed to the Church to support him, while Philip asked Henry for a parley to discuss the matter.

  The two kings met on 6 December 1183 at Gisors. Henry declared that he could not assign the Young King's lands in Normandy and Anjou to his widow because they belonged to Eleanor, and he could prove this. Geoffrey of Vigeois asserts that it was at this time that Henry summoned Eleanor from England to make her six-month progress through these lands, but that cannot have been so, since Eleanor was at Berkhamsted the following Easter, and it is more likely that she had begun her tour in the late summer and was still in Normandy at the time of the conference.

  When Philip asked what was to become of Alys, Henry promised that if she was not immediately married to Richard, she would soon be married to John. Hearing this, Philip and later Richard were alarmed, for it seemed to confirm their suspicions that Henry meant to make John his heir, which may well have been the case, although the evidence to support such a theory is inconclusive.

  Their business concluded, Henry did homage to Philip for his continental domains, ominously revoking into his own hands all the territories he had assigned to his sons,18 and thus making them completely dependent on him.

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