Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir

  South of La Rochelle lay the Ile d'Oleron, to which Eleanor granted two charters, one conferring independence and the other, addressed "to the beloved and faithful marines of Oleron," confirming "the former grants of that venerable and illustrious man, our Lord Henry, King of England, on condition that the islanders of Oleron keep faith with our heirs."18 In 1200, King John issued his own charter to the island, "confirming all that our dearest and most venerable mother has granted during her life."19 While at Oleron, Eleanor is also said to have drawn up a code of laws governing maritime trade, which are regarded as the basis of all French sea laws.

  From here Eleanor progressed east, probably through Rochefort, to Saint-Jean-d'Angely and thence south to Saintes, where she endowed an abbey.20

  On 25 May 1199, confident that his continental possessions were secure for the moment, John crossed to England to claim his kingdom,21 which had been held safely for him by Hubert Walter and William the Marshal.22 Two days later, on Ascension Day, he was crowned in Westminster Abbey.23

  As King of England, John has received a bad press, although recent studies of the official documents of his reign have shown that he was a gifted administrator who showed a concern for justice and ruled "energetically enough."24 Unlike his brother Richard, he showed real concern for his kingdom, and he travelled more widely within it than any of his Norman and Angevin predecessors, dispensing justice and overseeing public spending. During his reign, as a result of his personal intervention, the Exchequer, Chancery, and law courts began to function more effectively. The records also suggest that the King took a more than ordinary interest in the welfare of his common subjects.

  As the anonymous annalist of Barnwell stated, however, "John was indeed a great prince but scarcely a happy one, and he experienced the ups and downs of fortune. He was munificent and liberal to outsiders, but a plunderer of his own people, trusting strangers rather than his subjects, wherefore he was eventually deserted by his own men and, in the end, little mourned."

  Many of John's troubles arose, as the chronicler said, from bad luck, but the worst failures of his reign were the result of his own indolence and stubbornness. He faced the impossible task of holding together an unwieldy empire in the face of unprecedented French aggression, yet he alienated many of those who could have aided him in this by his duplicity, suspicion, and arbitrary acts. As a result, few of his vassals trusted him.

  During his stay in England John appointed Hubert Walter chancellor and made William the Marshal Earl Marshal of England, or chief of staff. On 20 June, after visiting the shrine of Becket at Canterbury,25 the King returned to Normandy, where on 24 June his barons rallied to him at Rouen, offering their support against Philip and Arthur. John, however, concluded an eight-week truce with Philip, buying himself valuable time in which to consolidate his position; as for Philip, he was in no position to sustain a prolonged struggle, since France was impoverished as a result of previous wars.

  Sometime during the summer of 1199, certainly before 30 August, John had his childless-- and controversial-- marriage to Hawise of Gloucester annulled in Normandy by the Bishops of Lisieux, Bayeux, and Avranches, on a plea of consanguinity,26 although he managed to keep hold of her lands. Hawise, who had not been crowned queen, did not contest the action, and she and John seem to have remained friendly, since he continued to send her presents. She remarried twice, and died without issue in 1217. She was buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

  After his marriage was annulled, John looked around for an advantageous alliance, and by early 1200 had sent envoys to ask King Sancho I of Portugal for the hand of his daughter;27 this was either Theresa, whose seven-year marriage to Alfonso IX of Leon had been annulled in 1198, or-- which is more likely-- Berengaria, who was unwed.

  * * *

  In the middle of June, Eleanor visited Philip at Tours and swore fealty to him for Poitou and Aquitaine, underlining the independence of these fiefs from the Angevin empire and shrewdly preempting any schemes the French King might have had for setting up Arthur as their ruler.28 The chroniclers record few details of the meeting, although they do state that Philip gave Eleanor the kiss of peace. There is no record of Eleanor meeting her grandson Arthur.

  The Queen resumed her progress, travelling south to Bordeaux, which she reached on 1 July. Three days later, "she inspected the charters granted by her father and her dearest son Richard, King of England, in favour of Sainte-Croix of Bordeaux, which charters she now confirms."29 She also visited the nearby abbey of La Grande-Sauve, where she was shown a deed of privilege to which was attached the seal of Thomas Becket, as chancellor. Eleanor now granted a new charter renewing those privileges, recalling in it how the late King Henry, our very dear husband of gracious memory, and we ourselves long ago took the monastery of La Grand-Sauve under our special protection. But that Henry, as well as our son Richard, having both since died, and God having left us still in the world, we have been obliged, in order to provide for the needs of our people and the welfare of our lands, to visit Gascony. We have been brought in the course of our journey to this monastery, and we have seen that it is a holy place. For this reason we have commended both ourselves and the souls of those kings to the prayers of this community; and that our visit may not have been unserviceable, we hereby confirm the ancient privileges of this foundation.30

  Upon leaving Bordeaux, she followed the course of the Gironde north to Soulac before crossing the river to Royan. She may then have returned briefly to Fontevrault, pausing on the way to settle a dispute in favour of the nuns of nearby Montreuil. Sometime after the end of May, she issued a charter "to the blessed Mary and the nuns of Fontevrault," granting an annuity of £100 "for the weal of her soul and of her worshipful husband of sacred memory, King Henry, of her son King Henry, of goodly memory, and of that mighty man King Richard, and of her other sons and daughters, with the consent of her dearest son John."31

  Having completed her grand progress, during which she is estimated to have travelled over a thousand miles, Eleanor temporarily closed her chancellory at Vienne and went north to Rouen, where she met up with John on 30 July. Thanks to his mother's efforts, John's position was more secure than it might have been, and he acknowledged his debt to her, and his trust in her, in a decree proclaiming that the Queen was to retain Poitou and Aquitaine for the rest of her life; furthermore, it was proclaimed, "we desire that she shall be lady not only of all those territories which are ours, but also of ourself and of all our lands and possessions."

  During August, John and Eleanor were joined at Rouen by Joanna, who was in the last months of pregnancy and clearly unwell. Count Raymond was refusing to pay his absent wife an allowance, so on 26 August, to save her from destitution, John gave "his dearest sister Joanna 100 marks of rent, by the advice of his dearest mother and lady, Eleanor, Queen of the English."32 In view of Joanna's state of health, he also assigned her "3,000 marks for making her will, according to the disposition she shall make for distribution by the hands of the most reverend Eleanor their mother, to be paid at the four terms which the Queen and archbishops shall set."33 In her will, Joanna asked Eleanor to divide those three thousand marks "among religious houses and the poor";34 she directed also that a donation be made in her name for the nuns' kitchen at Fontevrault.

  Early in September it became painfully apparent that Joanna was dying. Realising this, the anguished Countess begged to be veiled as a nun of Fontevrault, that she might set aside the vanities of her rank and end her life in poverty and humility. This was a very unusual and astonishing request, since she was a married woman and about to give birth, and it was also forbidden by canon law, but when Eleanor and others tried to dissuade her, the Countess insisted that it was what she wanted. It was customary in such unusual cases to consult the Abbess of Fontevrault, who had the power to commute the rules. Abbess Matilda was duly sent for, but Eleanor, fearing that Joanna might not live until she arrived, asked Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who happened to be in Rouen at the time, to
do the veiling. This was most irregular, and the Archbishop counselled the Queen to be patient and await the coming of the Abbess. He also visited Joanna and tried to divert her from her purpose, but she was adamant in her resolve.

  Impressed by her fervour, and taking pity on her state and that of her anguished mother, Hubert Walter convened a committee of nuns and clergy, who all agreed that Joanna's vocation must be inspired by Heaven. On their advice, the Archbishop set aside protocol and his scruples and admitted Joanna to the Order of Fontevrault in the presence of Eleanor and many witnesses. Joanna was so weak that she could not stand to make her vows, and died shortly afterwards.35 Her infant was born minutes later-- possibly cut out of her lifeless body, since there is no mention in the sources of her being in labour, although it is possible that she did die in childbed-- but survived only long enough to be baptised with the name of Richard.36

  Eleanor arranged for Joanna and her son to be buried at Fontevrault, near Henry II and Richard I. Once again, she found herself mourning the loss of a child. Of the ten she had borne, only two yet lived: John, and Eleanor, who was in far-off Castile.

  After Joanna's death, Eleanor informed her vassals in an open letter that she had "gone to Gascony, taking with her the original of the testament of her dearest daughter, Queen Joanna, that the Count of St. Gilles [sic] may see it." The Queen begged her bishops "to carry out its provisions, according to the transcript of it she sends them, in the presence of William, Prior of Fontevrault, as they love God and her."37

  On her return from Gascony, Eleanor formally ceded Poitou and Aquitaine to "her very dear son John as her right heir," while retaining sovereignty and a life interest for herself, and commanded her vassals to receive him peacefully and do him homage.38 It is likely that she had made up her mind to do this before paying homage to Philip in June, and there was nothing that Philip, having accepted that homage, could do about it, since she had every right to make her son her heir, and no one could deny that she was getting rather old to rule such wide and troublesome domains. But her gift meant that John, having inherited these domains, might prove as formidable an adversary as Richard had been, and a jealous Philip could now view his former ally only as a threat to his ambitions and therefore a potential enemy.

  By this time, however, a rift had developed between Philip and Arthur. Philip had garrisoned many of the castles loyal to Arthur in Anjou, Touraine, and Maine, but there was mounting resentment against this on the part of Arthur and his friends, who feared that the French King meant to occupy those castles on a permanent basis. A disaffected William des Roches now switched his allegiance to John, and called upon Aimery of Thouars to act as mediator. With his help, and without Philip's knowledge, William, Arthur, Constance, and Guy of Thouars stole away from Paris and made for Brittany.

  Warned of their flight, and determined to lay his hands on Arthur, John lay in wait for them near the ruined city of Le Mans. Leaving Arthur and his mother in a safe place, the three barons attempted to parley with John, but finding that he was not prepared to negotiate, managed to warn the Duchess that an ambush was planned. Constance, Guy, and Aimery fled back to Paris with Arthur,39 and John immediately dismissed Aimery from his stewardship of Chinon for his "treachery," an unwise step that alienated a powerful vassal who might otherwise have remained loyal. Only William des Roches was reconciled to the King-- at Eleanor's persuasion, it is said. John forgave him and made him hereditary seneschal of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine in place of Aimery. Based at Chinon, he had regular contact with Eleanor when she was at nearby Fontevrault, and witnessed at least one of her charters.

  The loss of such a valuable ally was a blow to Philip, who was involved at this time in a bitter conflict with the papacy over his matrimonial tangles, which would lead to his excommunication. He sued for peace, and after Christmas concluded with John a five-year truce, whereby, in return for a payment of thirty thousand silver marks,40 payable upon confirmation of these terms by a treaty, Philip abandoned Arthur and, in his name, relinquished all his dynastic claims and recognised John as King Richard's heir. He also agreed that Arthur would do homage to John for Brittany. In return, John ceded the Vexin and the Norman county of Evreux to Philip. What Philip would not agree to do, however, was surrender the young Duke into the custody of his uncle. Nevertheless, the meeting ended with the two kings "rushing into each other's arms."41

  The truce also provided, among other things, for the marriage of Philip's twelve-year-old heir Louis to one of John's Castilian nieces, a union that John hoped would check Philip's territorial ambitions. The princess would have as dowry lands taken by King Richard from Philip.42 The English barons felt that John had made far too many concessions to Philip, and disparagingly bestowed upon him the nickname "Softsword," which unfortunately stuck.43

  It was decided that, because John had to go to England to raise the thirty thousand marks, Eleanor should travel to Castile to select one of the princesses, and then convey her back to France.44 This was a strenuous task for an old lady of seventy-seven, but Eleanor may have welcomed the opportunity of being reunited with her daughter and namesake, whom she had not seen for nearly thirty years.

  After the truce was agreed,45 the Queen set off from Poitiers, accompanied by Elie of Malemort, Archbishop of Bordeaux, and the mercenary Captain Mercadier, on whom she obviously placed great reliance. Her journey was not without adventure, for just south of Poitiers she was ambushed and taken prisoner by her turbulent vassal Hugh de Lusignan, who threatened to hold her captive until she had ceded to him the rich county of La Marche. This fief had long ago been sold by his forebears to Henry II, and had been retained by Richard I, who did not want subversive lords using it as a power base. Hugh had long desired to recover La Marche, but it was also claimed by Count Aymer of Angouleme, a powerful, independent-spirited, and untrustworthy baron who had allied himself to King Philip against Richard. Realising that the Castilian marriage was of greater importance than a disputed fief, and deciding that Hugh-- who had been one of Richard's friends and had distinguished himself during the crusade-- was a more worthy claimant, Eleanor capitulated, and was set free to continue her journey south towards Bordeaux.

  Once more the Queen crossed the Pyrenees, this time in the depths of winter, then travelled through Navarre and the kingdom of Castile to either the capital Toledo or the city of Burgos, arriving before the end of January in the year 1200.

  Of their twelve children, King Alfonso VIII and Queen Eleanor had two46 remaining unmarried daughters, Urraca and Blanche, who were both beautiful and dignified. Urraca, as the elder, was the obvious choice as a bride for the heir to France, but, according to the late Spanish chronicle of Pedro Nino, Eleanor rejected her, ostensibly on the grounds that the French would never accept a queen with such an outlandish name, and chose Blanche instead. It was a wise choice, for Blanche of Castile would prove almost as formidable a queen as her grandmother had been, and would keep France stable during the minority of her son, the future saint, Louis IX. It is possible that Eleanor perceived that Blanche possessed extraordinary qualities, even at the tender age of sixteen.

  There was no need to hurry back, since marriages were not solemnised during Lent, so Eleanor stayed for nearly two months at the sophisticated Castilian court, which-- due to the influence of its queen-- had embraced the culture and architecture of the south, yet offered Moorish luxuries reminiscent of the courts of the East. In his verses, the troubadour Pierre Vidal refers to the younger Eleanor keeping her husband elegant company in his gracious court,47 while another poet, Ramon Vidal, gives us a brief glimpse of "Queen Leonore modestly clad in a mantle of rich stuff, red, with a silver border wrought with golden lions."48

  Late in March, Eleanor, accompanied by Blanche, journeyed through the pass of Roncesvalles into Gascony, and was back in Bordeaux by 9 April. Then something terrible happened. "While she was staying at the city of Bordeaux on account of the solemnity of Easter, Mercadier came to her"; it was decided that he would escort th
e Queen and princess north through Poitou. But "on the second day in Easter week, he was slain in the city by a man-at-arms in the service of Brandin,"49 a rival mercenary captain. This avoidable tragedy was too much for the elderly Queen, who was "fatigued with old age and the labour of the length of her journey." Unable to continue to Normandy, she rode in easy stages with Blanche to the valley of the Loire, where she entrusted her granddaughter to the care of the Archbishop of Bordeaux, who would escort her to King John. Her duty done, an exhausted Eleanor "betook herself to the abbey of Fontevrault, and there remained."50

  21. "The Brood of the Wicked Shall Not Thrive"

  It would seem that Eleanor now intended to live out her remaining days at Fontevrault. Here, she was attended by her chaplain, Roger; her secretary, Guy Diva; her clerks, Joscehn and Renoul; and "her dear maid, Aliza, Prioress of Fontevrault," to whom in that year, 1200, she made a gift of £10 Poitevin.1 Abbess Matilda had long been a good friend.

  But the world kept intruding into the peace of the abbey.

  On 22 May, John and Philip concluded the Treaty of Le Goulet, which enshrined the terms of the truce. Philip formally recognised John as Richard s heir, and John paid homage to him for his continental territories. It was also arranged that Arthur should hold Brittany of John as his vassal and that the young Duke should swear fealty to the uncle he hated.2

  The following day, Blanche and Louis were married by the Archbishop of Bordeaux near the Norman border; their nuptials could not be solemnised in France because, as a consequence of Philip's irregular conjugal affairs, Pope Innocent had laid it under an interdict. Philip was barred from the ceremony, but provided lavishly for the celebrations that followed, during which young Arthur of Brittany distinguished himself in a tournament.3 Arthur paid homage to John for Brittany, then returned to France with King Philip and the bridal pair.4 The union of the future Louis VIII and Blanche of Castile, which produced twelve children, would ensure that Eleanors descendants would one day sit on the throne of France.

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