Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  Had Richard bedded men, it is unlikely it would have remained a secret-- kings, after all, lived their lives on a very public stage-- and the resultant scandal in an age when such practices were regarded as not only a mortal sin but also criminal would have drawn comment from the chroniclers, who did not hesitate to report how William Longchamp was suspected of fancying boys. Nor would the King's enemies have hesitated to make political capital out of it.

  Whether the King and Queen really resumed sexual relations after their reunion is another matter. Around this time, it was rumoured that Richard was so certain he would never have a legitimate heir that he again resolved to name Arthur of Brittany as his successor. Although the King and Queen are described as living together conjugally at Poitiers later in the year, it is perhaps significant that they never had any children, although this cannot be taken as evidence that the King was homosexual. Berengaria may have been barren; Richard, after all, had one acknowledged bastard, Philip of Cognac. There was no question of the marriage being dissolved, since Berengaria's brother Sancho VII had staunchly defended Richard's territorial interests in the south against French aggression during the King's captivity in Germany, and was a valuable ally.

  In August, Richard finally bowed to Philip's demands and delivered up Alys to him. Philip immediately married her off to his vassal William III, Count of Ponthieu,15 and she spent the rest of her life in peaceful obscurity. The date of her death is not recorded.

  During the summer of 1195, learning that the Emperor was urging Richard to make war on him, Philip violated the truce and began raiding Normandy, attacking and looting castles. But both sides were short of funds, there was famine in Normandy, and by the end of the year the two kings were striving to achieve a more lasting settlement. The Treaty of Louviers formally ceded the Norman Vexin to Philip, but returned everything else he had wrested from Richard.16

  At Christmas 1195, Richard and Berengaria held court together in Poitiers. Seeing the people suffering so much as a result of the famine, the Queen persuaded her husband to dispense generous relief to them.

  Despite the continuing famine, Richard feared that Philip would soon launch another assault on Normandy, and in the spring of 1196 began building one of the greatest of all mediaeval castles, Chateau Gaillard (meaning Saucy Castle), on the rock of Les Andelys on the Norman frontier, where it commanded a wide bend of the Seine and was strategically placed for defending Rouen and facilitating the recovery of the Norman Vexin. The King himself personally supervised its design and construction, into which were incorporated the most advanced defences, and it became not only his headquarters but also one of his favourite residences; he was fond of referring to it as his daughter.

  The building of Chateau Gaillard was sufficient to provoke Philip into renewing hostilities. The new fortress was said to be impregnable. When a jealous Philip looked upon it for the first time, he declared, "If its walls were made of solid iron, yet would I take them." His words were repeated to Richard, who retorted, "By God's throat, if its walls were made of butter, yet would I hold them!" It is said that, during hostilities, he personally threw three French prisoners over the ramparts to their deaths, and blinded fifteen others.

  During the spring of 1196 Richard again named Arthur his heir and demanded that the Bretons surrender the boy, now nine, into his custody as his ward, and that his mother Constance bring him to Normandy to pay homage to his uncle. Constance duly left Nantes with Arthur and travelled towards Rouen. On the way, however, she was abducted and imprisoned by her second husband, Ranulf de Blundeville, whom the insular Bretons, resenting his styling himself Duke of Brittany, had sent into exile. Richard marched into Brittany at the head of an army, intent upon rescuing his nephew, only to discover, to his fury, that Arthur had been secretly taken by his tutor to the French court to be brought up with Philip's son Louis.

  Eleanor had no wish to designate either Arthur or the unreliable John to succeed her in Poitou and Aquitaine. That spring, with Richard's consent, she named her grandson, Otto of Saxony, as her heir.

  In October 1196, Richard married his sister Joanna to Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, the son of Raymond V-- whom Eleanor had regarded as a usurper-- by Constance of France. The marriage took place in Rouen in the presence of Queen Berengaria, Joanna's close friend, and finally put an end to the ancient dynastic feud between the counts of Toulouse and the ducal House of Aquitaine. Eleanor now happily ceded her claims to Toulouse to her daughter, whose son Raymond, born in 1197, would one day inherit the title. King Richard gave Joanna Agen and Quercy for her dower.

  Unfortunately, the marriage was not happy. Count Raymond had been married three times already, and had at one time been excommunicated for marrying the enchanting Bourguigne de Lusignan while still wed to Beatrix of Beziers; in 1196, having tired of Bourguigne, and eager to marry King Richard's sister, he had repudiated her and shut her up in a religious house run by austere Albigensian heretics. He also maintained a harem. But Richard regarded him as a valuable ally.

  In the summer of 1964 a mural dating from the last decade of the twelfth century was uncovered in the chapel of Sainte-Radegonde at Chinon. It depicts five figures, all on horseback, as if on a hunting expedition. Their leader is a bearded man wearing a crown; he is followed by two women, one seemingly young with long auburn hair, the other, who is crowned, gesturing to the first of two smaller men bringing up the rear of the procession. This man is leaning towards the crowned woman with what appears to be a hawk or falcon-- although only its feet survive, since the surface of the painting is somewhat damaged-- on his extended wrist. Behind him is the smallest figure, a youth in a white cap.

  The identification of these figures as members of the Angevin family rests on three factors: firstly, the location of the mural, in the heartland of the Plantagenet empire; secondly, the fact that two figures are wearing crowns; and thirdly, the similarity between the design on the cloak-linings of the two crowned figures and that on the tomb enamel representing Geoffrey of Anjou, father of Henry II, at Le Mans. The design on Geoffrey's tomb, however, is an inverted version of the design in the mural, and it may be that, like chevrons, this pattern was simply a popular motif in the twelfth century. It appears to have no heraldic significance.

  It has long been thought that the two women are meant to be Eleanor of Aquitaine and her future daughter-in-law, Isabella of Angouleme, and this section of the mural has therefore been reproduced in several books about Eleanor. Surprisingly, the male figures have in every case been omitted, and it is only recently that the traditional identifications have been questioned. In an article published by the University of Poitiers in December 1998, an Israeli professor, Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, has suggested that the mural either depicts King John with Eleanor and Isabella of Angouleme, in which case it dates from c. 1200, or that it shows Eleanor being led into captivity by Henry II in 1173/4; the Queen is said to be accompanied by her daughter Joanna and two of her sons, one of whom is Richard. To him she has given a falcon, the symbol of the duchy of Aquitaine, which she has ceded to him.

  There are several problems with these hypotheses. If the figures represent King John, Eleanor, and Isabella of Angouleme, who then are the two young men at the rear? Is this merely a hunting expedition with attendants? If so, why is Eleanor gesturing meaningfully towards one of the youths? Although it is almost certain that John took his bride to meet Eleanor, who was then in retirement at Fontevrault, there is no reason why this unrecorded meeting should merit being portrayed in such an important painting.

  Clearly the mural is of some significance. Yet it is unlikely that it portrays an ignominious event that had taken place some twenty years before it was painted, namely Eleanor's departure for England and captivity, after inciting her sons to rebel against their father. Henry had dealt so discreetly with Eleanor after her capture that we do not even know where she was imprisoned during the year before her transfer to England. It is hardly likely that either he or his son Richard would commission
a mural commemorating her disloyalty and disgrace. Nor was Eleanor allowed any contact with her sons for several years after her arrest.

  Of course, the mural may be a symbolic rather than a literal representation. Even so, Eleanor had ceded the duchy of Aquitaine to Richard in 1172, a year before the rebellion, and it is unlikely that this event would have been recorded in a church outside her dominions. Furthermore, there is no record of a falcon or hawk (the two are indistinguishable in heraldry) being the emblem of Aquitaine. The arms of Aquitaine, which were probably adopted by Eleanor herself, were a gold lion on a red ground, as shown in MS. 4790 in the Bibliotheque de L'Arsenal in Paris. This is also the emblem of the city of Bordeaux, while the city of Poitiers likewise has a lion as its symbol.

  It has been suggested by some authorities on heraldry that the falcon was an early Angevin device, a pun on the name Fulk, the name of five counts of Anjou, but this would not explain its use as the emblem of Aquitaine. In fact, the falcon device was not used by any royal personage until the fourteenth century, when Edward III adopted it as a badge. Nor is there any evidence to show that it was used at all as an emblem in twelfth-century England or France.17

  This is not to say that the mural is without dynastic significance. Given the fact that it has been dated to the last decade of the century, the evidence strongly suggests that it was perhaps completed late in 1196 and reflects certain important events in that year. The King who leads the procession is almost certainly Richard I. He is bearded, as Richard's effigy at Fontevrault shows him bearded, while Henry II's is clean-shaven. Given the special relationship between Richard and his mother, it follows that the crowned woman is Eleanor herself. She is shown gesturing at a young man who may be her grandson, Otto of Brunswick, whom she had designated her heir in the spring of 1196. The youth behind him may be either Arthur of Brittany, who Richard had that same spring named as his own heir, or-- less probably-- Count John.

  The young woman riding with Eleanor may be Berengaria, whose marriage to Richard the Queen had arranged, and who had recently been reunited with him. Alternatively, this figure, who is uncrowned, could represent Joanna, who had married Raymond of Toulouse in 1196 and brought to an end the decades-old dispute over the suzerainty of Toulouse.

  With Eleanor in permanent residence at nearby Fontevrault, it would have been natural for Richard to commission a mural at Chinon, one of his foremost strongholds, portraying her as central to Angevin policies. It would also have been appropriate for him to make it very clear to both John and Arthur and their supporters how the Angevin empire was to be disposed of on his death.

  The year 1197 found Richard and Philip again at war over Normandy. Philip took Aumale, but Richard-- with the aid of a Brabantine mercenary force led by the redoubtable, and ruthless, Captain Mercadier, who was one of Eleanor's subjects from the Perigord-- managed to recover some of the territory taken during his captivity by the French.

  In May, fighting for his brother, John took captive Philip's cousin, Philip of Dreux, the martial Bishop of Beauvais. The Bishop was imprisoned in the custody of Hugh de Neville at Rouen.

  Although Richard was driven back from Arras in August 1197, he was beginning to emerge as the victor in the struggle. Mercadier and his mercenaries had laid waste wide swathes of Philip's territories, plundering, burning, looting, and killing; not even priests were spared. Many of Philip's vassals, including the counts of Flanders and Boulogne, declared for Richard, while others chose to remain neutral. Again Philip was forced to call for a truce.

  During 1197 the Emperor Henry VI died; on his deathbed, he released King Richard from his feudal oath. He was succeeded as King of Sicily by his infant son Frederick, but clearly a young child could not wield power as Holy Roman Emperor. The German princes favoured Otto of Saxony, Richard's nephew, and in June 1198, at their request, the King put pressure on the electors and persuaded them to elect Otto as King of the Romans and future Emperor. Thus he secured Germany and Italy as friendly allies, while Otto relinquished his right to succeed his grandmother Eleanor in Aquitaine.

  It was at around this time that Eleanor lost, within a few months of each other, her two daughters by Louis. The date of Alix's death is not known for certain-- it is variously given as 1197 or 1198-- but Marie, whom the poet Rigaud de Barbezieux called "the joyous and gay Countess, the light of Champagne," passed away on 11 March 1198; it was given out that she had died of sorrow on learning that her eldest son Henry, King of Jerusalem, had fallen to his death from a window of his palace in Acre. Richard had been attached to his half sister, and it is possible that she had been reunited at some stage with her mother, although there is no documentary evidence of their ever meeting after Eleanor's marriage to Louis was annulled.

  In September 1198 Richard overran the Vexin, reclaiming Gisors with such ferocity that Philip was nearly drowned in the frantic retreat of the French; in a letter to Hugh de Puiset, Richard gleefully related how "the King of France drank river water on that day." A record one hundred French knights were also taken prisoner. It was at this point that the Church intervened to negotiate a peace between the two kings.

  The Bishop of Beauvais was now being held by Richard in a dungeon at Chateau Gaillard, which many regarded as an outrage. The new Pope, the formidable Innocent III, who would emerge as one of the greatest pontiffs of the Middle Ages, was determined to have the Bishop freed, and sent a legate, Cardinal Peter of Capua, to order Richard to release him on the grounds that it was forbidden by canon law to imprison a bishop.

  The King was in no mood to obey, and unleashed a flood of abuse upon the legate, shouting that the Holy See had never intervened on his behalf when he was being held captive-- an attitude that echoes the sentiments expressed in Eleanor's letters to Celestine III-- and accusing the Bishop of Beauvais of being no better than a brigand and the Cardinal of being a traitor, liar, simoniac, and suborner. Then Richard sent him from his presence, commanding him never to come before him again.

  When Eleanor learned what had happened, she was much disturbed, having heard of Pope Innocent's ruthlessness. She therefore arranged for the Bishop to escape-- probably by bribing or duping his jailers-- and offered him asylum in her own domains. Then she let it be known that Richard had freed him. In this way she averted the threat of excommunication falling upon her son and avoided making an enemy of Innocent and driving him over into Philip's camp. It was a brave thing to do, considering just how angry Richard could be when he was thwarted; yet there is no record of any recriminations, and it is likely that, once his wrath had cooled, Richard saw the wisdom of Eleanor's actions.

  On 13 January 1199 Richard and Philip met on the River Seine-- Richard in a boat, Philip on the bank-- near Chateau Gaillard and concluded a five-year truce, during which they would each keep the territories they now held. Philip's chances of conquering Richard's domains now seemed remote, for the English King had an iron grip on his possessions, and powerful allies.

  In March 1199 Richard stayed for a few days at Chinon, and may have visited Eleanor at Fontevrault. He was on his way south to seize by force some treasure that had been discovered at the village of Chalus, near Limoges in the Limousin, which he claimed was rightfully his. With him went Mercadier and his mercenaries.

  The treasure-- a pot of Roman coins-- had been unearthed in a field by a ploughman, who surrendered it immediately to Achard, Lord of Chalus. It was then demanded of Achard by his overlord, Aimar, Count of Limoges. As word of the find spread, so the description of the treasure became embroidered, and the King was eventually informed that it was a golden statue, resembling an emperor and his family seated around a golden table. He immediately laid claim to it as supreme overlord of Chalus.

  Richard was warned by those who knew better that such a treasure did not exist, but he insisted on going to Chalus, where on 4 March he laid siege to Lord Achard's castle and set his engineers to tunnelling beneath its walls. Then he sat down to await the castle's surrender.

  On the evening of
26 March, all was quiet, and the King did not bother to don his armour before he and Mercadier went "reconnoitring the castle on all sides." All he had with him was his helmet and a shield. Seeing him so vulnerable, "a certain arbalister, Bertram de Gurdun,18 aimed an arrow from the castle and struck the King on the arm, inflicting an incurable wound." Angry and in pain the King rode to his quarters and issued orders to Mercadier and the army to make assaults on the castle without intermission, until it should be taken. After its capture, the King ordered that all the people were to be hanged, him alone excepted who had wounded him, whom he would have condemned to a more shocking death, as we supposed.

  After this, the King gave himself into the hands of Mercadier, who, after attempting to extract the iron head [of the arrow], extracted the wood only, while the iron remained in the flesh. But after this butcher had carelessly mangled the King's arm in every part, he at last extracted the arrow.19

  After suffering this torture, Richard, who had a splendid constitution, expected to recover, but within a day or so the wound grew inflamed and then putrid and he began to suffer the effects of gangrene and blood poisoning. Soon, it became clear that his chances of survival were poor.

 
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