Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  Yet he was in no fit state to go to war. Ageing and corpulent, he tried to ignore the many ailments that beset him (among them an anal fistula), and invaded France, making desultory assaults on castles near Mantes. There was fighting in Normandy and Anjou, and Henry succeeded in wooing away Philip's allies, the Counts of Blois and Flanders.

  Just when it seemed that Henry, against all the odds, was winning, Richard succumbed to Philip's blandishments and again deserted his father. On 18 November, when the two kings met at Bonmoulins for a second peace conference, Richard accompanied Philip and, primed by him, demanded that Henry name him his heir, give him immediate possession of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine, and allow his marriage to Alys to take place without further delay and prevarication. When Henry, predictably, refused all these demands, Richard shouted, "Now at last I believe what heretofore has seemed incredible!"58

  Despite his father's presence, he knelt before Philip and, defiantly proclaiming himself the heir to Henry's continental fiefs, paid homage to the French King as his liege lord for all those domains "saving his father's lands while he lived and the loyalty which he owed his father."59 The French barons were so incensed at Henry's refusal to give Richard what they believed to be his due that they drew their swords and attacked the King and his entourage, forcing them to withdraw to the safety of a nearby castle.

  When the campaigning season ended, a truce lasting until Easter was agreed by all parties, and Henry withdrew to Le Mans, ill and in low spirits. During the winter the Pope's legate, John of Agnani, and several bishops used all their diplomatic skills to bring about a settlement, so that the crusade could go ahead, but with little success.

  Henry kept his last Christmas at Saumur in Anjou. His health was declining, and when the truce expired at Easter 1189 he had to defer meeting Philip and Richard to discuss a settlement because he was too incapacitated to do so.

  They finally did meet on 4 June at La Ferte Bernard, where Henry refused to reach a compromise and again proposed that Alys be married to John. As far as Richard was concerned, this was the clearest indication yet that his father meant to disinherit him in favour of John, and when Philip refused to consent to Henry's proposal, the three leaders "withdrew on both sides as enemies."60 Philip and Richard then reopened hostilities by invading Henry's lands, taking one castle after another. One by one, the King's barons in Maine, Touraine, and Anjou, tired of his autocratic and oppressive rule, deserted him. When Philip's army appeared before the walls of Le Mans, Henry's birthplace, the King-- in an attempt to drive off the French-- ordered that a suburb be fired, but the wind so fanned the flames that the city itself caught fire and Philip was able to breach its defences. As the French stormed into the city, Henry and his knights were forced to flee. Drawing rein on a hilltop overlooking Le Mans, the King's bitterness burst forth.

  "Oh, God, Thou hast vilely taken away the city I loved best on Earth!" he cried. "I will pay Thee back as best I can. I will rob Thee of the thing Thou lovest best in me, my soul!" Giraldus Cambrensis, who recounts these words, says that Henry uttered a lot more, which it was wiser not to repeat.

  Aiming to strike north to Normandy, which had remained loyal, Henry ordered a force led by William the Marshal to guard his back. Soon afterwards, the Marshal confronted Richard, leading a French army, and levelled his lance in readiness for battle.

  "By God's legs, Marshal, do not kill me!" shouted Richard. "I wear no hauberk."

  "May the Devil kill you, for I will not!" cried William, and thrust his lance into Richard's horse, unseating him.61 Then he cantered off to warn the King of Richard's approach, enabling Henry to evade a direct confrontation of arms with his son.

  The weather was now unbearably hot and many of Henry's followers succumbed to dysentery or fatigue, dying by the wayside. The King's captains advised him he must nevertheless press on to Normandy, but his anal fistula was now badly abscessed, and he was unable to go farther. Sending the remainder of his knights to Alençon to obtain reinforcements, and accompanied by his bastard son Geoffrey and William the Marshal, Henry, leaving Touraine open to occupation by Philip and Richard, retreated via the back roads to Chinon. When he arrived, he was clearly suffering from the effects of blood poisoning and could barely walk; nor, thanks to his abscessed wound, could he stand or sit without discomfort. He was also worrying about what had become of his son John, who had mysteriously disappeared.

  On 4 July, the day after Tours fell to the French, Henry dragged himself from his sickbed and rode to another meeting with his enemies at Colombieres (now Villandry),62 a village between Tours and Azay-le-Rideau. On the way, he was forced to rest at a house of the Knights Templar at Ballan, complaining, "My whole body is on fire."6' When his knights rode ahead to tell Philip that Henry was ill, Richard insisted he was feigning it. On hearing this, Henry, sick and weak, had his men prop him up on his horse and rode on in a thunderstorm to Colombieres. Seeing him looking so unwell, Philip, for pity, offered to have a cloak spread on the ground for him to sit on, but Henry retorted stiffly that he had not come to sit but to learn the price he must pay for peace. He remained on his horse, his men holding him upright as he wearily undertook to agree to whatever Philip should demand.64

  Philip thereupon forced Henry to submit to the most humiliating of terms. He was to pay homage to Philip for all his continental domains, agree to leave all his lands, including England, to Richard, and order his barons on both sides of the Channel to swear fealty to Richard as his father's heir. He was to pardon all those who had fought for Richard and was to promise to go on crusade by Lent 1190. He was to surrender Alys into Philip's custody and arrange, without delay or excuse, for Richard to marry her after returning with him from Jerusalem. Finally, he was to place himself wholly at Philip's will, pay an indemnity of twenty thousand marks, and surrender three strongholds in Anjou or the Vexin as tokens of his good faith. Defeated, Henry accepted these terms without demur and turned to leave, but Philip insisted that he give Richard the kiss of peace. He reluctantly complied, but as he drew away from his son, his last words to him were, "God grant that I may not die until I have had a fitting revenge on you."65

  He was then carried back to Chinon in a litter, calling down the wrath of Heaven upon Richard,66 cursing his sons, himself, and the day he was born, and uttering blasphemies. "Why should I worship Christ?" he cried. "Why should I deign to honour Him who takes my earthly honour and allows me to be ignominiously confounded by a mere boy?"67 However, when he arrived at Chinon, at the behest of a very shocked Archbishop of Canterbury, he went to the chapel and made his peace with God, confessing his sins and receiving absolution and communion.

  In June, Matilda of Saxony, the eldest daughter of Henry and Eleanor, died in Germany, aged thirty-four, and was buried in the cathedral church of St. Blasius in Brunswick, of which she was co-foundress. Henry probably did not live long enough to hear of her death.

  On 5 July, Henry's vice-chancellor, Roger Malchat, brought him a list of those vassals who had treacherously supported Richard and were to be spared punishment.

  "May Jesus Christ help me, Sire!" exclaimed Malchat in distress. "The first name here is Count John's, your son."

  This, for Henry, was the worst blow of all.

  "Is it true that John, my heart, John, whom I loved more than all my sons, and for whose gain I have suffered all these evils, has forsaken me?" he lamented.68

  From that moment he lost the will to live. He turned his face to the wall and dismissed Malchat, muttering, "Say no more. Now let the rest go as it will. I care no more for myself, nor for aught in this world."69

  During the remaining hours of his life, he either slept or lapsed into delirium, moaning with grief and pain. His bastard son Geoffrey stayed with him, cradling his head, soothing him, and warding off flies. In a moment of lucidity, Henry blessed him, declaring he was the only one of his sons who had remained true to him, and expressed the wish that he should be made Archbishop of York; he also gave Geoffrey his signet ring wi
th the two leopards on it.70 He then became delirious once more, crying again and again, "Shame, shame on a conquered king!" 71 before falling into a coma.

  On Thursday, 6 July 1189, he died at Chinon. Geoffrey, faithful to the end, was the only one of his sons to be present at his deathbed, but as soon as he had left the chamber, the scavengers descended: the dead King's attendants stole all his personal effects, even the clothes he wore, and it was left to a young knight, William de Trihan, to cover his nakedness with a short cloak of the type that had once earned Henry the nickname "Curtmantle."72

  Although the trappings of kingship had been pilfered, Geoffrey and William the Marshal proved resourceful in laying out their master's body for burial. A woman gave them a fillet of gold embroidery to use as a crown, and they managed to find a ring and a sceptre. "On the morrow of his death, he was carried out for burial adorned with regal pomp: a golden crown on his head, gloves on his hands, a gold ring on his finger, holding a sceptre, wearing shoes of gold fabric with spurs on his feet, and girded with a sword. He lay with his face exposed."73

  When Duke Richard, now the undisputed heir to his father's possessions, was informed by William the Marshal of Henry's death, he hastened to Chinon. As he looked upon the body on the bier, "one could not tell from his expression whether he felt joy or sorrow, grief, anger or satisfaction,"74 and it was noted with disapproval that he knelt to pray for "scarcely longer than the space of a paternoster."75 But when he rose to his feet, everyone watched with horror as "blood began to flow from the nostrils of the dead King, and ceased not to flow so long as his son remained there, as if his spirit were angered at Richard's approach. Then, weeping and lamenting, Richard accompanied the body of his father to Fontevrault, where [on 10 July] he had him buried"76

  in the nuns' choir,77 deeming it more fitting a resting place than Grandmont, where Henry had asked to be buried. A tomb with a fine effigy was soon afterwards raised to his memory, and Ralph of Diceto transcribed the epitaph that was engraved upon it:

  I am Henry the King. To me

  Divers realms were subject.

  I was duke and count of many provinces.

  Eight feet of ground is now enough for me,

  Whom many kingdoms failed to satisfy.

  Who reads these lines, let him reflect

  Upon the narrowness of death,

  And in my case behold

  The image of our mortal lot.

  This scanty tomb doth now suffice

  For whom the Earth was not enough.

  The judgements passed on Henry II by his contemporaries were harsh. Giraldus Cambrensis and Ralph Niger viciously condemned what they described as his oppression, injustice, immorality, and perfidy. Gervase of Canterbury bristled with disapproval of him, while an anonymous monk of Evesham claimed that he had had a vision of the King suffering the worst torments of Hell for his sins. Only Ralph of Diceto wrote of his good qualities.

  A decade later, William of Newburgh recalled how "ungrateful men, and those bent on evil courses, talked incessantly of the wickedness of their monarch, and would not endure to hear good spoken of him." Yet by then Henry's critics had had cause to revise their opinions. "To such men in particular the hardships of the days that followed alone brought understanding. Indeed, the evils that we are now suffering have revived the memory of his good deeds, and the man who in his own time was hated by many is now declared everywhere to have been an excellent and beneficial ruler."78

  Today, despite his ignominious end, Henry II is remembered as one of the greatest of England's mediaeval kings and one of the most successful rulers of his time. His memory soon came to be revered by his successors as an example of a firm and wise prince, who brought peace and prosperity to a troubled realm and left his mark on every English institution.

  16. "The Eagle Shall Rejoice in Her Third Nesting"

  One of Richard I's first acts as king was to send William the Marshal to England with orders for the release of Queen Eleanor from captivity1 and letters authorising her to act as ruler of England until he was ready to take possession of his royal inheritance. When he arrived in Winchester, William was surprised to find Eleanor "already at liberty and happier than usual";2 news of Henry's death had preceded him, 3 and the Queen's custodians, bearing in mind the love King Richard had for his mother, as well as his fearsome reputation, had not demurred when she demanded to be set free. Thus the Marshal found her, "more the great lady than ever,"4 already presiding over a hastily assembled court, to which people were rushing to pay their respects.5 The Marshal informed Eleanor that she had been "entrusted with the power of acting as regent by her son. Indeed, he issued instructions to the princes of the realm, almost in the style of a general edict, that the Queen's word should be law in all matters."6

  Eleanor now came into her own. At sixty-seven-- a great age in those days-- she emerged from captivity an infinitely wiser woman, yet she had not lost any of her energy or her dignity, and her new authority sat easily upon her. More powerful than ever before, she was eager to grasp the reins of government and exert her influence over her son, who would need all the help he could get to rule his vast empire. Such was the respect she commanded that she would be the second power in the realm during the first half of the reign. In the circumstances, "could any be so uncivil or so obdurate as not to bend to that lady's wishes?"7 No one dared.

  Having listened to Richard's instructions, the Queen devoted her energies to drumming up support for him in England; after spending most of his life in Aquitaine, he was a stranger to his new subjects. Gathering her retinue, which included the justiciar, Ranulf Glanville, Eleanor rode to Westminster, where she decreed "that every freeman in the whole realm must swear that he would bear fealty to the Lord Richard, lord of England, in life and limb and earthly honour as his liege lord, against all men and women, living or dead, and that they would be answerable to him and help him to keep his peace and justice in all things."8 Many lords and prelates flocked to Westminster, where, on behalf of the King, the Queen received their oaths of fealty in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. At around this time, Eleanor restored to her former ally, Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, the estates King Henry had confiscated after the rebellion of 1173-1174, in which he had supported Richard and the Young King.

  After a few days in London, the Queen set off on a progress through the southern shires, "moving her royal court from city to city and from castle to castle, just as she pleased.9 "She arranged matters in the kingdom according to her own pleasure, and the nobles were instructed to obey her in every respect."10 Wherever she went, she received oaths of homage on Richard's behalf and dispensed justice in his name. She transacted the business of court and chancery, using her own seal on deeds and official documents,11 and styling herself "Eleanor, by the grace of God, Queen of England." She also issued edicts decreeing that uniform weights and measures were to be used for corn, liquid commodities, and cloth, and that a new standard coinage, valid anywhere in England,12 was to be issued. In Surrey, she founded a hospital for the poor, the sick, and the infirm.

  As the King had directed, Eleanor sent messengers to every shire relaying his wishes that, "for the good of King Henry's soul," all those who had been unjustly imprisoned were to be released, on condition that they promised to aid the new King in preserving the peace of the realm.13 Although William of Newburgh spoke for many when he complained that, "through the King's clemency, these pests who came forth from the prisons would perhaps become bolder thieves in the future," this amnesty held much personal appeal for the Queen since, she said, she had found "by her own experience that prisons were distasteful to men, and that to be released therefrom was a most delightful refreshment to the spirits."14 It was generally a popular measure, and Eleanor introduced others designed to win the people's love for their new sovereign.

  She gave orders for the relaxation of the harsh forest laws, and pardoned felons who had been outlawed for trespassing or poaching in the royal forests.15 "She contai
ned the depredations of those sheriffs who were charged with the care of the forests, intimidating them with the threat of severe penalties."16 She married off wealthy heiresses formerly in the wardship of King Henry to powerful young men known to be loyal, or to those whose loyalty needed to be courted.17 She revoked King Henry's order that relays of royal horses be stabled and groomed, at great expense, in religious houses, a move that was thankfully welcomed, especially by the poorer monasteries; furthermore "Queen Eleanor distributed the horses as gifts" to the abbeys "with pious hberality."18

  In her every act, she displayed "remarkable sagacity,"19 demonstrating all the qualities of a wise, benevolent, and statesmanlike ruler. Her contemporaries were impressed, and many now found it hard to credit the scandalous rumours about her conduct in her younger days. Looking back from the perspective of the thirteenth century to the periods when she was the ultimate authority in England during the frequent absences of King Richard, Matthew Paris pronounced that her rule had made her "exceedingly respected and beloved." It is indeed on her performance in these later years that her modern reputation chiefly rests.

  Eleanor's mercy did not, however, extend to Alys of France, whom she had brought up as a daughter and of whom she now had custody. On her orders, the princess remained straitly confined at Winchester. Alys was now twenty-nine, and her future was still unsettled, but if Eleanor had her way, it was going to have nothing to do with Richard.

  On 29 July 1189, having seized King Henry's treasure at Chinon, Richard was invested as Duke of Normandy in Rouen Cathedral and received the homage of his Norman vassals. On the 31st he reached a settlement with Philip at Gisors, assuring him that he intended to marry Alys immediately after returning from the Holy Land, and agreeing to depart on crusade with him the following spring. Richard also made peace with those vassals who had supported his father and, in a curious volte-face, prompted no doubt by guilt and a new consciousness of the loyalty due to a king, denounced as traitors those who had risen with him against Henry. William the Marshal was one of those who received a pardon, and Richard rewarded his faithfulness to the late King by awarding him the hand of the richest heiress in the gift of the crown, Isabella, the daughter of Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke and Striguil. The Marshal inherited these earldoms through his wife and became overnight one of the foremost of Richard's vassals.

 
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