Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  Richard favoured an alliance with Navarre, the little kingdom that straddled the Pyrenees. King Sancho VI was friendly-- he had once asked King Henry to free Eleanor from captivity-- and could be relied upon to protect the southern borders of his ally from the predatory French during his absence. Such an alliance would also promote trade between England and Navarre. Moreover, Sancho had an unmarried daughter, Berengaria. Richard had seen her during a visit to the Navar-rese court at Pamplona in 1177, and had much admired her accomplishments and charms.46 The contemporary writer Ambrose goes so far as to assert that Richard "had loved her very much from the time when he was Count of Poitou and she had been his heart's desire."

  It may have been Eleanor who revived his interest in her now. William of Newburgh claims that she planned to provide her son with a worthy wife who would give him an incontestable heir. A Castilian chronicle of the Third Crusade, La Gran Conquista de Ultramar, which was written in the thirteenth century under the direction of King Alfonso X and is the first Spanish source to refer to Berengaria of Navarre, states:

  When Eleanor knew that her son was to marry the sister of the King of France when he returned, she was very sad, for she did not like the French lineage. She pondered as to how it might be possible to rescind this marriage, and inquired as to where she could find a wife for her son. She was told that the King of Navarre had two sisters [sic] 47 and that she could probably get one of these for her son. On hearing this, the Queen asked the King of Navarre to send one of his sisters to be married to the King of England. The King was happy when he heard this news and he prepared the elder sister, who was called Berengaria, as was fitting for this princess.48

  Eleanor would have approved of Berengaria: she was a southerner from a court that had assimilated the troubadour culture of Aquitaine, and her reputation was unbesmirched. As far as Sancho and Berengaria were concerned, Richard was a splendid catch.

  During his progress in the south, which took him to Bayonne near the Navarrese border, Richard almost certainly came to an understanding with Sancho, either through the good offices of Eleanor or by a direct approach, but it had to be kept secret for fear of offending Philip at this crucial time. To all intents and purposes, Richard was still betrothed to Alys and would marry her after the crusade had been successfully concluded. Richard was now resolved that his marriage to Berengaria should take place as soon as possible, and arranged that, after his departure, Eleanor should travel south to collect his bride and escort her to wherever he was at the time, so that the nuptials could take place immediately.

  When Richard returned to Chinon, his affairs on the continent were finally in order and preparations for the crusade were almost completed. On 24 June, having issued stern ordinances governing discipline among his troops, Richard said a final farewell to Eleanor at Chinon before departing on his great venture.

  At Tours, where he mustered his army, he received his pilgrim's scrip and staff, although when he leaned on the staff and broke it some saw this as a bad omen. 49 Richard was unconcerned, and travelled on to Vezelay where the crusader hosts were gathering. On 2 July he joined Philip there and the two of them made their final arrangements, agreeing to share equally the spoils of the crusade. As Bertran de Born pointed out, the contrast between the two leaders could not have been more marked: "Tell Sir Richard from me that he is a lion, and King Philip seems to me a lamb."

  For the present, however, the two kings had set aside their differences, and on 4 July, at long last, with banners flying, they set off together at the head of the vast army on their long journey to the Holy Land. It was an awe-inspiring sight. "Had ye but seen the host when forth it came! The Earth trembled with its coming."50

  17. "The Admiration of Her Age"

  After Richard's departure, Eleanor dispatched John to England-- possibly to keep an eye on Longchamp-- then, in the late summer or early autumn of 1190, herself left for Bordeaux on the first stage of her journey to collect Berengaria. Some modern writers suggest that the princess was brought to Eleanor at Bordeaux, but there are several contemporary accounts of Eleanor crossing the Pyrenees to Navarre, accompanied by a Poitevin retinue and "with no thought for her age" or the dangers of escorting Berengaria through the Alps in winter.1

  Richard of Devizes describes the Queen at this time as "still indefatigable for every undertaking, although sufficiently advanced in years; her power was the admiration of her age." How far her reputation had been rehabilitated may be perceived from his description of her as "an incomparable woman, beautiful, gracious and chaste, powerful and modest, meek and eloquent, strong-willed yet kind, unassuming yet sagacious, qualities which are rarely to be met with in a woman." She was "even now unwearied by any task, and provoked wonder by her stamina." Yet even this admiring chronicler could not resist a veiled reference to Eleanor's colourful past, rumours of which had been revived by memories of the previous crusade: "Many know what I wish none of us knew. This very Queen was at Jerusalem in the time of her first husband. Let none speak more thereof, though I know well. Keep silent."

  King Sancho VI received Eleanor in Pamplona and hosted a magnificent banquet in the Olite Palace in her honour; his daughter's betrothal could not as yet be celebrated openly, because Richard was still precontracted to Alys of France.

  Berengaria was then about twenty-five-- rather old for a bride in those days. The historian Ambrose, who saw her in 1191 in Sicily, described her in conventional terms as "a prudent maid, a gentle lady, virtuous and fair, neither false nor double-tongued. She was the wisest lady in all truth that might anywhere be found." Her father was a great patron of Provencal literature, enjoyed the works of Virgil and Ovid, and could speak the langue d'oc; it is likely therefore that Berengaria had absorbed a great deal of southern culture during her extended spinsterhood, and possible that she was able to read and also converse with her future husband in his native tongue.

  The truth is that very little is known about Berengaria. There is a beautiful effigy on her tomb in Le Mans, but although it portrays a young woman, it was probably modelled after her death at the age of sixty-five or more.2 It cannot therefore be considered a faithful representation. Nor are the chroniclers agreed as to whether Berengaria was good-looking: while William of Newburgh describes her as "a damsel famed for her beauty and eloquence" and Roger of Hoveden calls her "the beautiful Navarroise," Richard of Devizes states that she was "more accomplished than beautiful."'

  What is clear is that from the first Berengaria played a passive role, not only with her future husband, but also with her mother-in-law, to whom she was dutifully subservient. Her marriage to Richard might in other circumstances have relegated Eleanor to the sidelines as queen dowager, but Eleanor was too powerful to be displaced thus, and it was Berengaria who became the subordinate, signing herself as "the humble Queen of England" and remaining very much in the background.

  It seems that Queen Eleanor was satisfied with Richard's choice, and soon afterwards she and her future daughter-in-law left Navarre, escorted by King Sancho's envoys and a large retinue.4 The route they took to their rendezvous with Richard is not known for certain-- the chroniclers' accounts vary-- but probably took them north to Mont-pellier, then over the Alps and across the plains of Lombardy in northern Italy. By Advent, Richard had received news that they had safely traversed the Alps and were on their way south to meet up with him in Sicily. 5

  Richard and Philip had gone their separate ways to the Mediterranean. Philip, who was in a noticeably bad humour with his ally after Richard had refused to be pinned down over Alys, took the overland route, while Richard rode south to Marseilles where, since his fleet had not yet arrived, he was obliged to hire ships to take him to Sicily, leaving orders for his own vessels to follow him.

  At the end of September he arrived at Messina on the northeastern coast of Sicily, where he quickly became embroiled in local troubles. To begin with, the people of Messina were hostile to the crusaders: they closed the city gates to them and refused to give th
em any supplies.

  Richard was having none of that, and effortlessly stormed the city, then commandeered it as his headquarters. But his problems were far from over.

  In November 1189, when his sister Joanna's husband, King William II of Sicily, had died childless, William's illegitimate nephew, the apelike6 Tancred of Lecce, had usurped the throne. By rights the crown of Sicily should have passed to William II's aunt, Constance of Hauteville, wife of the new German Emperor Henry VI, but anti-German feeling was rife in Sicily, and Tancred was the obvious choice of the people. Fortunately for Tancred, the Emperor was preoccupied with establishing his own position in Germany, but the usurper needed money and wasted no time in seizing Queen Joanna's dowry, stealing many valuable treasures left her by her husband, and placing her under house arrest in a fortress in Palermo.

  When Richard arrived in Sicily he found Joanna a prisoner and a complacent Philip, happy to take sides against his Plantagenet rival, already installed in the palace of her jailer. Richard immediately demanded Joanna's release,7 and Tancred did not demur, sending her to her brother in Messina with her treasure, which Richard appropriated to help fund the crusade. Tancred refused, however, to surrender her dower and a legacy left by King William to Richard,8 and the wrangling over this kept Richard in Sicily until the spring of 1191.

  The King welcomed his sister with all honour, and it was not long before Philip of France was casting amorous glances in her direction. Roger of Hoveden states that people noticed how relations suddenly improved between Richard and Philip after her arrival, and that when Philip met Joanna his face "glowed with a joyful expectation." But Philip was a married man, and when Richard realised what he wanted, he appropriated the priory at La Bagnara on the coast of mainland Calabria and established Joanna there, out of the French King's reach.9

  At Christmas the King entertained Philip at Messina, and was afterwards heartened to hear a holy man, Abbot Joachim of Corrazzo, predict that he would be victorious over Saladin. In February, probably as a preparation for his coming marriage, or perhaps as an act of purification before setting off for the Holy Land, Richard, stripped to his breeches, and kneeling outside a church door in Messina, publicly confessed to "sins against nature" and "the foulness of his past life." A bishop granted him absolution and thrashed his bared back with rods as a penance, and pious hopes were expressed that the King would return to his iniquity no more. "Happy is he who after repentence has not slipped back into sin," observed a chronicler.

  Meanwhile, Eleanor and Berengaria, having made the hazardous journey through the winter-bound St. Bernard Pass, were making their way across the plains of Lombardy.10 Food was scarce here because Philip's army had recently passed through and stripped the region of its crops and provender, leaving very little sustenance for the inhabitants. The Queen and her party were without safe-conducts and had to buy them from feuding Italian princes. They were also at risk from the predatory freebooters who roamed the ravaged land, waiting to ambush and rob unwary travellers,11 but fortunately they passed unscathed.

  Passing through Milan, the royal ladies and the Navarrese ambassadors travelled southeast to Lodi, where they had a brief meeting with the Emperor Henry VI, who was on his way to Rome to be crowned by the Pope. No details of the meeting survive, but Eleanor was one of the witnesses to a charter issued by the Emperor to Conrad, Bishop of Trent.12

  After having failed to obtain a sea-passage from Pisa to Sicily, the Queen waited there for instructions from Richard.13 He ordered her to proceed to Naples, where his galleys would be waiting to take her to Messina. Late in February, Eleanor and Berengaria duly embarked, escorted by Count Philip of Flanders, who was on his way to join the crusading host, but when their ships approached the coast of Messina, only Philip's was allowed to dock. Tancred's officials insisted that Eleanor and Berengaria had too great a retinue to be accommodated in Messina, and forced them to sail on round the south of Italy to Brindisi on the east coast.

  Richard was furious, and on 3 March met Tancred at Catania to demand why his mother and the princess of Navarre had been so rudely treated. Tancred showed him letters which proved that Philip had been poisoning Tancred's mind by insinuating that Richard was plotting to deprive him of his kingdom.14 It had not escaped Philip's notice that Queen Eleanor was on her way south with a bride for Richard, and he was desperate to prevent anything from blocking the latter's marriage to his own sister and all the political advantages it would bring him. He had therefore persuaded Tancred to forbid Eleanor and Berengaria to land and so give him the time he needed to retrieve the situation.

  Over their five-day meeting, Tancred confessed to Richard that he had believed Philip's lies. He had heard that the Emperor was in Italy and might press his claim to the kingdom of Sicily. He had also heard that Eleanor had had a meeting with Henry, and was fearful that the Angevins had formed a league with him, with a view to setting him up as king in Tancred's place. Richard was able to reassure Tancred that his fears were groundless, and the two kings reached a friendly agreement.

  Richard recognised Tancred as King of Sicily 15 while Tancred finally capitulated over the matter of Joanna's dowry, paying the English King forty thousand gold bezants in full settlement, and it was agreed that his infant daughter should be betrothed to Arthur of Brittany, whom Richard now designated his heir in the event of his dying childless.16 The two kings celebrated their agreement by exchanging gifts: Richard gave Tancred what was reputed to be King Arthur's sword Excalibur, said to have been dug up at Glastonbury when the supposed tomb of the hero-king was discovered there,17 while Tancred gave Richard nineteen ships.

  Richard now sent a large ship under the command of a Sicilian captain to convey Eleanor and Berengaria south from Brindisi to Reggio, on the toe-cap of the Italian boot. Here, on 30 March 1191, they were welcomed with great honour by Richard, who took them on board his own ship and sailed with them, and thirty wagons laden with provisions that they had brought him,18 up the coast to the priory at La Bagnara, where Joanna was waiting to greet them. There is, unfortunately, no eyewitness account of the meeting between King Richard and his future bride or of the reunion between Eleanor and Joanna, who had not seen each other for fourteen years.

  Leaving Berengaria in the care of Joanna at La Bagnara, Richard escorted his mother across the Straits of Messina to join the crusading host in Sicily. They had much to talk about.

  In March, shortly before Eleanor's arrival, Richard had confronted Philip with the evidence of his perfidy, but the French King indignantly dismissed Tancred's letters as forgeries and accused Richard of fabricating excuses for not marrying Alys. Angrily, he demanded that the marriage take place without further delay.

  "If you put her aside and marry another woman, I will be the enemy of you and yours so long as I live," he threatened.19 There is no doubt that Richard's rejection of his betrothal to a princess of France would bring shame and humiliation upon the French monarchy, and Philip was desperate to avert such disgrace.20 Knowing he could evade the issue no longer, Richard was driven to divulge the real reason for his failure to go through with the marriage, revealing that "the King of England, his own father, had been intimate with [Alys] and had a son by her."21 Philip was inclined to regard this shocking disclosure as no more than an insulting excuse-- the evidence suggests that he could never bring himself to accept it as the truth-- but when Richard produced witnesses to testify to the truth of it, Philip had no choice but to release him from their twenty-year-old agreement in the presence of a gathering of lords and prelates, although he did so only on payment of a quitclaim of ten thousand marks (which came out of Tancred's bounty) as compensation for Richard's breach of promise.22 The two kings then signed a treaty, but this did little to allay the bitterness that Philip felt towards Richard for having so dishonourably repudiated Alys.

  Richard arranged for Alys to be given back into Philip's custody as soon as they returned from the Holy Land and to return with her the Norman Vexin and the castle of Gisors,
which had been her dowry.

  Because it was Lent-- a season during which the Church would not solemnise marriages-- the nuptials of Richard and Berengaria had to be postponed. Humiliated by the exposure of his sister's shame, and irritated at the frustrating delays in Sicily, Philip insisted that Richard put off his wedding until they reached Acre, but Richard refused; he intended to marry his princess as soon as possible. Still angry, and barely on speaking terms with Richard, Philip left Messina for the Holy Land on the morning of Eleanor's arrival, not wishing to receive the bride who would supplant his sister as queen of England.

  During her journey through Italy the Queen had received letters containing disturbing news from England of William Longchamp's abuse of power. Concern had also been expressed over the ambition of Count John. John had exploited Longchamp's unpopularity, building up his own power base by courting the chancellor's opponents, and was now engaged in a duel with him for political supremacy.

  Eleanor and her clerks wasted no time in acquainting Richard with their concerns, the Queen confessing she was dismayed at the rapidity and thoroughness with which Longchamp had ousted all his rivals for power.23 On her advice, Richard issued a mandate to Walter of Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen, to go to England and take charge of the situation there. Coutances was a Cornishman born, a scholarly, devious, and able politician who had loyally served the Angevins for fifteen years in chancery as Keeper of the Seal, and as treasurer of Rouen, Archdeacon of Oxford, and (until 1184) Bishop of Lincoln. He was no friend to Longchamp, and had already secretly counselled John to raise baronial support against him. Eleanor, for her part, was to return immediately to Normandy, from where she would be able to monitor events.

  Because of the urgency of the situation, the Queen spent only four days with her children in Sicily.24 During her stay, she ordered wedding garments for the King and finalised with him the arrangements for Berengaria's dower, ceding certain nominal interests in Poitou to the princess for her lifetime. Richard had decreed that only on Eleanor's death would his wife receive the full dower of the queens of England. Before she left, the Queen entrusted Berengaria to the custody of Queen Joanna; fortuitously, there had sprung up a warm friendship between the two women, who had now joined the King and his mother in his luxurious quarters just outside the walls of Messina. On 2 April, Richard bade farewell to Eleanor as she began her journey back to Normandy, escorted by Walter of Coutances, Sir Gilbert de Vascoeuil, and several great lords.25 The Queen carried with her several royal mandates and letters patent, enabling her to exercise sovereign authority during the King's absence.

 
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