Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  Although it was deepest winter, the Queen's ships had a smooth crossing over the North Sea. After disembarking, she and her entourage made their way overland to the Rhine, and travelled down it by boat towards Speyer.

  On 6 January 1194 Eleanor arrived in Cologne in time to celebrate the Feast of Epiphany, and was welcomed by the Archbishop, Adolf of Altena. By 17 January, the date set for Richard's release, the Queen had arrived in Speyer, only to learn that the release date had been unaccountably postponed. 57 The reason for this was that Philip and John had offered the Emperor a sum greatly exceeding the English ransom if he would either deliver up Richard to them or keep him in custody until Michaelmas 1194, by which time they hoped to have overrun his territories.58 Henry was making a pretence of considering their offer in order to wring new concessions from Richard.

  At Candlemas, on 2 February, a suspicious Eleanor was received by the Emperor at his court at Mainz in the presence of King Richard and a host of German princes. The Queen was overjoyed to be reunited with her son after an absence of nearly three years, and was therefore utterly dismayed when the Emperor announced that Philip and John had outbid her for his captive.59

  With the Archbishops of Cologne and Mainz acting as go-betweens, both Eleanor and Walter of Coutances made strong representations to Henry, while Richard's cultivation of the German princes now bore fruit, for they protested violently against the Emperor's failure to honour his word. At length, after forty-eight hours of fraught negotiations-- the details of which are not fully known-- Henry, who had had no intention of aiding his rival Philip, agreed to release King Richard in return for his acknowledgement of the Emperor as his overlord for England and the surrender of Walter of Coutances as a hostage for the King's good faith.60

  These were humiliating terms, and the Queen, Walter of Coutances, the Bishop of Bath "and many other nobles approached the King in person, briefly telling him the unhappy news."61 "By the advice of his mother Eleanor,"62 who had "with great difficulty" helped to bring about this mitigated settlement 63-- Henry had originally demanded that Richard recognise him as the suzerain of all his lands-- the King reluctantly accepted the Emperor's conditions and delivered up his kingdom to his captor. Then, after paying homage to Henry, he received it back as a fief of the Empire.64

  Henry VI believed that he had secured a valuable ally against the pretensions of the King of France,65 and as Richard's overlord would, in the years to come, encourage him in his wars against Philip. He also used the ransom money to finance his campaign against Tancred of Sicily, and on Tancred's death in 1194 assumed the crown of Sicily. Richard's alliance with the Emperor also brought about a reconciliation between the latter and Henry the Lion. As for Leopold of Austria, he received what Ralph of Diceto believed was divine punishment for his treatment of Richard, for in December 1194 he was involved in a riding accident and had to have his foot amputated.

  At nine o'clock66 on the morning of 4 February, after the ransom and hostages had been handed over, Richard was formally released and "restored to his mother and freedom."67 Eleanor was so overcome with emotion that she broke down in tears, as did many of those looking on.68

  That same day Richard and Eleanor began their journey back to England, travelling northwards along the Rhine. On the way they spent three days enjoying the "rich luxuries and splendid feasts" provided for them by Archbishop Adolf at Cologne. On the last day, they attended a mass of thanksgiving in the cathedral, where the Archbishop took as his introit the text "Now I know truly that the Lord has sent His angel and has rescued me from the hand of Herod"69-- a gracious compliment to Eleanor.

  The royal travellers received similar ovations in other towns, notably Louvain, Brussels, and Antwerp, where the Duke of Louvain held a special reception in their honour in his castle. Wherever he went, Richard had Eleanor sit in the place of honour at his right hand. He also took this opportunity to forge alliances with German and Flemish princes against France, their common enemy.

  On 4 March the King and Queen, with their train, boarded an English ship, the Trenchemer, in the Scheldt estuary. Richard's trusty admiral, Stephen de Turnham, assisted by experienced local pilots, navigated the vessel through the islets in the estuary by day, but that night, for greater protection from predatory French ships, the royal party slept on board a great galley sent over from Rye, one of the Cinque Ports.70 The next morning they again boarded the Trenchemer, and put out to sea from the port of Shouwen,71 escorted by the galley. The voyage took several days because of the need to evade French ships in the North Sea and the Channel.

  At nine o'clock72 on the morning of 12 March,73 the little convoy docked at Sandwich, and the King set foot in his realm for the first time since December 1189. The sun shone exceptionally brightly, and many later claimed they had recognised it as an omen of the crusader's return.

  As soon as they landed, Richard and Eleanor rode to Canterbury, where they gave thanks for the King's safe return at the shrine of Becket.74 The following day they pressed on to Rochester, where Hubert Walter and a vast crowd were waiting to greet them.

  "The news of the coming of the King, so long and so desperately awaited, flew faster than the north wind,"75 virtually extinguishing the last vestiges of support for John. One of his supporters, the castellan of St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall, dropped dead with fright on learning that the King had returned.76

  On 23 March, Richard, with Eleanor riding by his side, made a state entry into London, where, "to the great acclaim of both clergy and people, he was received in procession through the decorated city into the church of St. Paul's"77 to give thanks for his restoration. Afterwards, as they rode to the Palace of Westminster, they were "hailed with joy along the Strand."78 A few days later the King and Queen visited both St. Albans Abbey and the shrine of St. Edmund at Bury St. Edmund's in Suffolk, where they again gave thanks for his safe return to his realm.79

  Richard was now obliged to interrupt the celebrations in order to root out John's few remaining supporters from Nottingham Castle and other strongholds. Nottingham surrendered at the King's approach, and other rebel fortresses followed suit.80

  On 30 March, Richard presided over a meeting of the Great Council in Nottingham Castle. Eleanor was present, as were Geoffrey of York, Hugh de Puiset, William Longchamp, and Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, and for four days they discussed the affairs of the kingdom. High on the agenda was the question of what to do with John; the council wanted to auction off his confiscated possessions, but the Queen pointed out that this might drive him further into the arms of Philip. In the end, the council summoned John to appear within forty days to account for his conduct, or else suffer banishment and forfeiture of all his honours, titles, and estates. In gratitude for Longchamp's loyal service, Richard restored him to full authority as chancellor. He also ransomed Walter of Coutances, who returned to England in May, for ten thousand marks.

  On 2 April, Richard and Eleanor rode to the royal hunting lodge at Clipstone81 in Sherwood Forest.82 The King had never visited Sherwood before, and it "pleased him greatly."83 This is the context in which many later legends of Robin Hood were set, but the evidence for Robin Hood's identity is sparse and confusing: if he existed, he probably lived in the thirteenth or early fourteenth century. It was not until 1521, in the Scottish writer John Major's book The History of Greater Britain, that the Robin Hood legends were set in the reign of Richard I.

  The King and Queen celebrated Easter at Northampton,84 where Eleanor witnessed a royal charter granting various honours to the King of Scots. It was at around this time, possibly in celebration of his restoration, that Richard added the third leopard to his coat of arms; the three leopards of England, used to this day as the royal heraldic device, first appeared on his seal, and that of Eleanor, in 1194.

  In order to purge himself of the dishonour of imprisonment, Richard staged what appears to have been a second coronation, or formal crowning ceremony, on 17 April, when "he received the crown of the kingdom from Hubert Walter, Arc
hbishop of Canterbury" in Winchester Cathedral.85 The wording of this passage suggests that the ceremony was more than a formal crown-wearing, which is what some modern historians believe it was; the triannual ceremony of crown-wearing had in any case fallen into disuse for forty years. The Queen proudly watched the proceedings from a dais in the north transept, surrounded by a bevy of aristocratic beauties.86 Berengaria was not present, having remained in Poitou.

  The Pope had written urging Richard to take up the Cross again and return to the Holy Land, but the King was impatient to recover the lands Philip had seized in Normandy. Having raised an army, he travelled with Eleanor to Portsmouth around 23-25 April, and early in May set sail for the continent87 with one hundred ships,88 but rough winds carried them back to port, where they were delayed by bad weather for a fortnight and obliged to outlay £100 on lodgings.89 At last, on 12 May, Richard and Eleanor set sail for Barfleur.90 Neither of them would ever set foot in England again.

  19. "The Staff of My Old Age"

  Having arrived in Normandy to great rejoicing,1 Richard and Eleanor made a triumphal progress via Bayeux and Caen2 to Lisieux, where they were welcomed by the Archdeacon, John of Alençon, and lodged in his house. The evidence strongly suggests that, determined to bring about a reconciliation between her sons, Eleanor had already summoned a destitute John, now abandoned by Philip, and given him advice as to how to approach the King to beg for forgiveness.

  While Richard and Eleanor were at supper one night, John arrived "in a state of abject penitence," and begged to speak to his mother, that he might beseech her good grace to intercede for him with the King. "Through the mediation of Queen Eleanor," Richard agreed to see John and be reconciled with him.4 "Falling at his feet" and bursting into tears, John "sought and obtained his clemency."5 Richard, who had never taken his little brother-- who was now twenty-six-- seriously, raised him up and gave him the kiss of peace, saying, "Think no more of it, John. You are but a child, and were left to evil counsellors. Your advisers shall pay for this. Now come and have something to eat."

  So saying, he commanded that a gift of fresh salmon, meant for his own table, be cooked and served to John.6

  For the next five years John kept a low profile, serving his brother loyally, attending to the affairs of his estates, which Richard restored to him in 1195, and staying out of mischief.

  This left Richard free to turn his attention to expelling Philip from Normandy and returning the whole duchy to its rightful suzerainty. For the rest of his reign he would be engaged in a bitter and unceasing struggle with the French King, defending his territories against the latter's aggressive ambition, and would never again have the chance to return to the Holy Land, which was still his chief desire. Now thirty-seven, he was putting on weight, but was still a magnificent and terrifying figure on a horse, and able to move "more swiftly than the twisted thong of a Balearic Sling."7

  Walter of Coutances and William Longchamp had joined the King in Normandy, leaving England in the capable hands of Hubert Walter. Longchamp served Richard faithfully until his death in 1197, while Coutances helped him rule Normandy for the rest of the reign.

  Philip was determined to seize Rouen, liberate Alys, and march south to recover Berry. To this end he was busily besieging Verneuil, while his forces were attacking castles on the Loire with a view to driving a wedge between Anjou and Aquitaine. Richard drove off Philip, relieved his castles, and within a very short time had recovered those lands in Touraine that John had ceded to the French. In June 1194 he won a decisive victory over Philip at the Battle of Freteval, driving the French army to an ignominious rout; Philip fled so fast that he left his treasure, archives, and seal on the battlefield, and was forced to hide in a wayside chapel until Richard's pursuing soldiers had passed.

  Richard then rode south, where he ferociously suppressed a rebellion incited by the French King in Aquitaine, taking prisoner three hundred knights and forty thousand soldiers. On 23 July, through the mediation of the Church, he and Philip concluded a truce until November 1195, although neither had any intention of observing it. After that, determined to recover the rest of the lands ceded by John to Philip, Richard concentrated on consolidating his position and strengthening his defences. He had already lifted the ban on tournaments.

  Eleanor, meanwhile, had withdrawn with a much-reduced household to the abbey of Fontevrault, the refuge of many high-born widows. At seventy-two, after ruling England for eighteen turbulent months, and having reconciled her sons, she doubtless felt entitled to a rest. She did not, however, take the veil, but lived at the abbey as a guest in her own apartments, making generous donations and in return being honoured and served as a queen. And there she seems to have remained for much of the rest of Richard's reign.

  After 1194, references to Eleanor in contemporary sources are few, and are mainly connected with the payment of queen-gold and matters arising from her dower rights,8 but there is enough evidence to show that, although she had partially retired from public life, she was still in touch with the affairs of the world and occasionally active in an administrative capacity. Powerful men still deferred to her wisdom, and Fontevrault was centrally placed between Anjou and Poitou, enabling Eleanor to keep an eye on her own lands and her son's. Richard sometimes stayed at nearby Chinon, and doubtless rode over to see her whenever he did so.

  Contemporary records give only occasional tantalising insights into Eleanor's life during these years. She supported the monks of Reading Abbey by asking the King to remit part of a fine payable by them to Walter of Coutances.0 In 1196 she granted to her butler, Engelram, her manor of Eaton Bray near Dunstable, as a reward for good service, and in April that year gave financial assistance to the Abbot of Bourgeuil, who could not pay a tithe on wine.10 At Saumur she found in favour of the nuns of Fontevrault in a dispute over a corn crop.

  At the same time the old Queen looked to the salvation of her soul and prepared for death. By contemporary standards she had been granted an extraordinarily long span, and in the natural order of things could not expect to live much longer. But Eleanor was no ordinary woman, and her public life was by no means over.

  Richard held his Christmas court at Rouen that year, but there is no record of Eleanor's presence there, nor at any of his future Christmas courts. It would appear that she now made a habit of keeping Christmas at Fontevrault.

  Since Richard's liberation, Queen Berengaria had apparently been living on her dower properties in Maine.11 She had not been summoned to England to join in the celebrations for the King's return, and her husband had made no attempt to see her after arriving in Normandy. In fact, he had gone back to his former promiscuous ways.

  The saintly Bishop Hugh of Lincoln had even visited him to reproach him for his neglect, asking in what state his conscience was. Richard replied it was "very easy."

  "How can that be, my son, when you live apart from your virtuous queen and are faithless to her? Are these light transgressions, my son?" reproved the Bishop.12 The King, unfortunately, took no notice, but his behaviour was becoming a scandal.

  During Lent, while hunting in a forest in Normandy, Richard met a hermit. Recognising him, the holy man soundly castigated him for his unlawful pleasures, and warned him to "remember the destruction of Sodom, and abstain from illicit acts, for if you do not, God will punish you in fitting manner." Richard ignored him, too.

  At Easter 1195, however, he fell seriously ill. Believing himself on his deathbed, he recalled the hermit's warning and "was not ashamed to confess the guiltiness of his life, and after receiving absolution, he took back his wife, whom he had not known for a long time, and, putting aside illicit intercourse, he remained faithful to her, and they became one flesh, and the Lord gave them health of body and soul."13

  Just what were the sins that Richard I felt compelled to confess? Since 1948, when John Harvey first propounded the theory in his book The Plantagenets, historians have speculated as to whether or not the King was homosexual. In 1191 he had publicly repen
ted of his "sins against nature" and "the foulness of his past life." Now he had promised never again to indulge in "illicit intercourse."

  "Illicit intercourse" and "illicit acts" could both of course mean sex outside marriage, and there is no shortage of contemporary reference to Richard's promiscuity. He had at least one bastard. It was not unusual for monastic chroniclers to regard extramarital sex as "foulness" and even as a "sin against nature."

  It is the hermit's reminder of the destruction of Sodom that has prompted twentieth-century historians to speculate that Richard was bisexual. Although every reference in the Bible to the wickedness of the cities of the plain is unspecific in detail, in the first century A.D. the Jewish Greek philosopher and scholar Philo, in his work De Abrahamo, and early Christian writers such as the author of the Book of Jude in the Apocrypha, defined the sin of Sodom as intercourse with a member of the same sex. By the twelfth century, the association was well known, and in 1300 sodomy was being referred to in England as an "unkindly sin that is not twix woman and man."14

  This is not to say, however, that Richard was a homosexual. It was also known that the destruction of Sodom was a punishment for many sins, and the hermit's allusion was probably not specifically to homosexuality but rather to general promiscuity, or even unnatural sexual intercourse with women, which was also regarded as sodomy. Nor, it must be said, was it ever suggested before 1948 that Richard was a homosexual, because his reputation was in fact that of a womaniser. William of Newburgh testifies to his pursuit of women, and in the thirteenth century, the chronicler Walter of Guisborough asserted that Richard's need for women had been so great that he had summoned them even to his deathbed, against his doctor's advice. Another legend circulating after Richard's death, recounted by a Dominican friar called Stephen of Bourbon, relates how the King lusted so intensely after a nun of Fontevrault that he threatened to burn down the abbey if he could not sleep with her; when told that it was her eyes that had enticed him, she cut them out with a knife and sent them to him. There is no contemporary evidence to corroborate these stories and others of a similar nature, but they were believable at the time because they were in keeping with what people knew of Richard's character.

 
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