Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir


  In early summer Eleanor fell ill with an unspecified complaint and John visited her at Fontevrault. She advised him "to visit immediately his Poitevin provinces and, for the sake of their peace and preservation, she desired him to form an amicable league with the Count of La Marche."5 John took her advice, and in July rode south. He was still in the midst of negotiations for a marriage alliance with Portugal, and that month sent another embassy to Sancho I.6

  On 5 July, John arrived at Lusignan Castle, where he attended a ceremonial gathering hosted by Ralph de Lusignan, Count of Eu,7 brother of Hugh le Brun, the new Count of La Marche, with whom John had come to make peace. The King also effected a general reconciliation between himself and the counts of Angouleme and Limoges, who had rebelled against King Richard.8

  Among the guests was the daughter and heiress of Count Aymer of Angouleme, a beautiful and precocious thirteen-year-old called Isabella.9 She had been betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan some months earlier-- the exact date is not known-- to cement a reconciliation between their two rival houses. After her betrothal, Isabella had been sent to be trained in the skills of a feudal chatelaine in the household of her betrothed. Her marriage had been deferred because of her youth, but was due to take place soon.

  John took one look at Isabella and was smitten.10 "It was as if she held him by sorcery or witchcraft," observed a shocked Roger of Wendover. The thirty-three-year-old King made no secret of his burning desire for her, and her parents, aware that a union with the King would be a far more prestigious alliance than that with a mere count, encouraged his advances.

  John immediately broke off negotiations with Portugal and informed Count Aymer that he meant to marry Isabella instead. The Count was only too pleased to give his consent. At that point, John sent an unsuspecting Hugh de Lusignan to England on official business, to get him out of the way.

  John should have realised that marrying Isabella would be an ill-advised step-- indeed, political suicide-- since it would make enemies of the Lusignans, who were powerful and potentially troublesome vassals. Yet no one could have predicted just how disastrous the consequences would be.

  The chroniclers imply that John was too much in thrall to Isabella's charms to care, yet although they deplore his headlong rush into a marriage based, as they believed, on love alone-- almost unheard of in royal circles in those days-- there were sound political advantages to be gained from such an alliance, of which John was doubtless aware. Not the least of these was securing the friendship of the influential yet fickle Count Aymer and the loyalty of the hitherto unruly fief of Angouleme, which was strategically placed on the approaches to Gascony, and of the neighbouring fiefs allied to it, as well as the succession to Angouleme on Aymer's death.11

  It would also seem that John had deliberately gone after Isabella with the intention of breaking her betrothal to Hugh de Lusignan, fearing that the union of two such powerful vassals might in the long run prove detrimental to himself and the stability of the Angevin empire. Yet there is no doubt that he was strongly attracted to her.

  It was essential that the agreement between John and Aymer be kept secret from the Lusignans. Lying through his teeth, Isabella's father offered some pretext to summon her home to Angouleme. When told of the great marriage that had been arranged for her, the girl wept bitterly and protested loudly, but to no avail. On 23 August, John arrived at Angouleme with Elie, Archbishop of Bordeaux, and Isabella was informed that she must travel south to Bordeaux, where she would be married on the morrow-- the date originally set for her marriage to Hugh de Lusignan.12

  On 24 August, John and Isabella of Angouleme were married by the Archbishop in Bordeaux Cathedral.13 King Philip, who may have anticipated that this union would cause divisions in the empire, willingly gave his consent to the marriage.14

  The King was "madly enamoured" with his bride: in her "he believed he possessed everything he could desire."15 It was said that he seemed chained to his bed, so hotly did he lust after her. The new Queen was "a splendid animal rather than a stateswoman,"16 but there is little evidence that she returned her husband's love. Within a few years, lust and endurance had degenerated into mutual hatred, and Isabella, who bore John five children, turned into an "evil-minded, adulterous, dangerous woman, often found guilty of crimes, upon which King John seized her paramours and had them strangled with a rope on her bed."17 By then the Poitevins, who had never forgiven her for jilting Hugh de Lusignan, were likening Isabella to Queen Jezebel.

  When the Lusignans learned how Hugh had been robbed of his bride, they initially did nothing. Yet the insult rankled and festered, and would in a very short time lead to a deadly conflict that would have far-reaching and tragic repercussions. Hugh accepted the bride chosen for him by John-- the King's ward Matilda, daughter of Count Vulgrin of Angouleme, Aymer's deceased elder brother-- and she bore him a son, who became Hugh X,18 but this was not considered adequate compensation for the loss of so valuable a matrimonial prize as Isabella. Immediately after the wedding, the King and Queen rode north via Poitiers to Chinon, and it is almost certain that, while they were staying there, John took his bride to Fontevrault to meet her mother-in-law. It would appear that Eleanor was impressed: Isabella was a southerner, like herself, the daughter of one of her own vassals, and she had spirit.

  Soon afterwards, the old Queen dowered the girl with the cities of Niort and Saintes.

  From Chinon, John escorted Isabella to Normandy, taking her on a progress through the duchy, then crossed with his bride to England early in October. Having been acknowledged as Queen of England by the magnates in council at Westminster, Isabella was crowned on 8 October by Hubert Walter in Westminster Abbey.10

  Late that year Bishop Hugh of Lincoln died in Lincoln's Inn, London. On his deathbed, he prophesied the ruin of the Angevin dynasty, saying:

  The descendants of King Henry must bear the curse pronounced in Holy Scripture: "The multiplied brood of the wicked shall not thrive; and bastard slips shall not take deep root nor any fast foundation," and again, "The children of adulterers shall be rooted out." The present King of France will avenge the memory of his virtuous father, King Louis, upon the children of the faithless wife who left him to unite with his enemy. And as the ox eats down the grass to the very roots, so shall Philip of France entirely destroy this race.20

  These predictions were strangely accurate, foretelling not only the events of John's reign but also those occurring in 1483-1485, when the Plantagenet dynasty came to an ignominious end.

  During the winter and early spring, the King and Queen went on a progress through their realm; it took them to Lincoln, where John and William the Lyon acted as pallbearers at the funeral of Bishop Hugh. John and Isabella kept their first Christmas court together at Guildford. In February 1201 they were at York, and at Easter they revived the ancient custom of crown-wearing at Canterbury.21

  Eleanor was again unwell in the early months of 1201. Whether this was a recurrence of her former illness, or a different disease, is not known, but it did not prevent her from continuing to work behind the scenes in the interests of peace in Poitou, which was being threatened by the Lusignans. Hugh had finally made a formal protest to John about the theft of Isabella, and when John had ignored him, he and his kinsmen had risen in rebellion. In March, in retaliation, John confiscated La Marche and sent in his officers, with an armed force, to take over its administration. Shortly afterwards he bestowed it upon his father-in-law, Count Aymer.

  Eleanor knew there was one vassal upon whom she could count in this situation, and that was Count Aimery of Thouars, who came at once to Fontevrault at her summons. After talking with him about the situation, she felt a lot better in every way, and after he had gone she wrote warmly of him to John, determined to effect a reconciliation between them:

  I have been very ill, but I want to tell you, my very dear son, that I summoned our well-beloved cousin, Aimery of Thouars, to visit me during my illness, and the pleasure which I derived from his visit did me good, for
he alone of your Poitevin barons has wrought us no injury, nor seized unjustly any of your lands. I made him see how wrong and shameful it was for him to stand by and let other barons rend your heritage asunder, and he has promised to do everything he can to bring back to your obedience the lands and castles that some of his friends have seized. I was much comforted by his presence, and through God's grace am convalescent.22

  The Queen ordered her secretary, Guy Diva, to write to the King in similar vein, and she also wrote to Aimery, urging him to protest his loyalty in writing to John.23 Both King and Count heeded her advice, and soon afterwards made peace with each other. In this present crisis, John found Aimery a valuable ally.

  He was to need many more such. When John ordered Guarine of Clapion, Seneschal of Normandy, to seize Driencourt, a castle owned by Hugh de Lusignan's brother, Ralph, Count of Eu, the Lusignans in-dignandy revoked their oaths of allegiance to John and appealed to King Philip, their ultimate overlord, for justice. Fearing armed French intervention, Eleanor summoned her grandson Arthur to visit her at Fontevrault and wrung from him a promise that he would do everything in his power to preserve the peace in Poitou and Aquitaine. But Philip was in fact in a contrite mood: having recently submitted to the Pope and got the interdict on France lifted, he was reluctant to offend Innocent again by breaking his truce with John. He therefore appealed to the Lusignans to cease harrying their suzerain.

  The Lusignans ignored him. They were now in open revolt, and Eleanor and Aimery both urged John to return from England to deal with them. Count Aymer of Angouleme, in gratitude for the gift of La Marche, also offered his support. John sent orders to his officials to pester and plunder the Lusignans and "do them all the harm they could."24 Every castle belonging to them in Poitou and Normandy was either besieged or seized.

  On 31 May, John and Isabella crossed to Normandy and took up residence at Chateau Gaillard.25 At the beginning of July they visited Philip in Paris, where they were "honourably entertained" and given gifts and champagne.26 The French King was friendly and offered to act as mediator between John and the Lusignans. He agreed not to demand immediate redress for the Lusignans' grievances, on condition that John agreed that those grievances could be aired in a court presided over by Philip and the peers of France. John consented, and there the matter rested for a time.

  Late in July, Philip's mistress, Agnes of Meran, who had been the cause of his conflict with the Pope, died, leaving him in a much stronger position. Free now of matrimonial tangles,27 he was waiting only for Innocent to legitimise his children by Agnes; once that had been accomplished, he would not be so concerned about antagonising the papacy. Already he had begun to devise how he might use John's quarrel with the Lusignans to bring about the fulfilment of his dream to break the power of the Angevins on the continent.

  John and Isabella spent the remaining weeks of the summer of 1201 at Chinon with Berengaria, while the rumbles of discontent echoed from Poitou. Thanks to Aymer of Angouleme and Aimery of Thouars, however, Aquitaine lay peaceful. Eleanor remained at Fontevrault; contemporary sources do not record anything of her for the rest of the year.

  During the first week of September, Constance of Brittany died in childbirth at Nantes.28 Some sources claim that she had contracted leprosy. Sometime earlier she had made her peace with John and had since identified herself and her son with the Angevin interests, but after her death Arthur came increasingly under the influence of King Philip, and his attitude to King John grew ever more aggressive.

  John's arbitrary measures had alienated many of those who might have supported him. By the autumn, several southern barons, among them Raymond of Toulouse and Aimar of Limoges, had defected from their allegiance and joined forces with the Lusignans.

  Fearing that Philip would support this formidable coalition, John wished to avoid having the dispute with Hugh le Brun settled by the court of France. In October he suddenly accused the Lusignans of treason and challenged them to a trial by combat, in which both sides would be represented by champions nominated by themselves. The Lusignans refused, and they again appealed most urgently to King Philip and the lords of France for justice. This time Philip was ready to exploit the situation. John was summoned with the Lusignans to appear before the French court in Paris, but although a date for the hearing was agreed upon, he spent the winter cancelling or postponing it.

  By the end of the year, Arthur of Brittany, who had ambitions of his own, had allied himself to Philip and the Lusignans against John. John and Isabella spent Christmas at Caen.

  In March, Philip was elated to learn that the Pope had legitimated his children by Agnes of Meran. Freed from the threat of papal censure, he now proceeded to deal with John. On 28 April 1202 Philip issued a final summons ordering John to present himself at the French court to answer the charges laid against him and submit to judgement by the peers of France.29

  John responded by protesting that, as King of England and Duke of Normandy, he was not answerable to a French court. Philip retorted that he had been summoned as Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Poitou, and Count of Anjou,30 but John ignored him and failed yet again to appear on the appointed day. His continuing prevarication gave Philip the legal pretext he needed to declare the English King a contumacious traitor and confiscate all his continental territories except Normandy, which he was within his rights as overlord to do and which would lend validity to what he had in mind. Accordingly, "the assembled barons of France adjudged the King of England to be deprived of his lands which he and his forefathers had hitherto held of the King of France."31

  Philip then declared the truce broken and launched an armed onslaught on Normandy's frontier defences, determined to conquer the duchy and make it part of the French royal demesne. It was Philip's intention that Brittany and John's other territories-- Anjou, Maine, Touraine, and Poitou-- should be held by Arthur, as his own vassal. In July, at Gournay, Arthur, now fifteen, "was knighted by King Philip and betrothed to his small daughter" Marie,32 then did homage to Philip for the Angevin territories. The King gave Arthur two hundred French knights and told him to take possession of his inheritance," whereupon Arthur "marched forth with pompous noise"33 towards Poitou.34

  John was now facing a war on two fronts, and he was by no means prepared for it. He could not count on the support of his brother-in-law and former ally, Alfonso VIII of Castile, since through his daughter's marriage that monarch had now identified himself with French interests. Yet providence was to grant John a stroke of extraordinary luck.

  When war broke out between John and Philip, Eleanor, outraged at Arthur's temerity in attempting to wrest Poitou from its designated ruler, declared her support for John. In the last week of July, she set out from Fontevrault with a small military escort, intending to install herself in her capital, Poitiers, and deter Arthur from taking possession. Near the Angevin border, she lodged at the decaying castle of Mirebeau, once a mighty stronghold of Count Geoffrey of Anjou. This fortress dominated a small walled town, twenty miles northeast of Poitiers.

  Unfortunately, Arthur, then at Tours, learned of her whereabouts. "Following some evil and rash advice," he set out with Hugh de Lusignan, his uncle Geoffrey, and 250 soldiers, "to besiege the castle of Mirebeau,"36 intending to take the old Queen hostage and barter her for Queen Isabella, thereby enabling him to wrest huge concessions from John.37 The castle was not adequately provisioned for a siege, nor were its defences very strong, but Eleanor, "fearing capture"-- for she was aware of her immense value as a potential hostage-- instructed her men-at-arms and the garrison to defend the fortress. She also smuggled out two messengers, one with orders for "her son John to bring her aid as soon as possible,"38 and the other to summon William des Roches, Seneschal of Anjou, from Chinon.

  Contemporary sources suggest that she then played for time by dragging out negotiations with her grandson:

  Arthur managed to speak with his grandmother, demanding that she evacuate the castle with all her possessions and then go peaceably whereve
r she wished, for he wanted to show nothing but honour to her person. The Queen replied that she would not leave it, but if he behaved as a courtly gentlemen, he would quit this place, for he would find plenty of castles to attack other than the one she was in. She was, moreover, amazed that he and the Poitevins, who should be her liegemen, would besiege a castle knowing her to be in it.39

  She refused adamantly to submit to Philip's disposition of her domains in return for her freedom.

  John was "on the road to Chinon"40 when, on 30 July, he heard of Eleanor's plight. "The King immediately set out with part of his army"41 and marched day and night to Mirebeau, covering a distance of over eighty miles in forty-eight hours. On the way he was joined by William des Roches, who offered to lead the attack on condition that the King agreed he would not execute Arthur or any other of the rebels, but would consult William as to their fate.42 John gave his word.

  On approaching the town in the early hours of 1 August,43 the King was informed that his mother had been forced to lock herself into the keep, since the walls of Mirebeau and the outer defences of the castle had been breached by Arthur's men.44

  "The rebels had entered the town and closed up with earth all the gates except one,"45 which they left open so that supplies could be brought to them. Soon after dawn on 1 August, an unsuspecting Arthur and Hugh de Lusignan were breakfasting on roast pigeons 46 while their men were dressing and arming themselves. Before they knew it, William des Roches and his troops had entered the gate and launched an assault on them, "the armed upon the unarmed," throwing them into disarray. "After heavy fighting, the King entered the city"47 and the besiegers were easily overcome. Arthur was seized by William de Braose, Lord of Brecon; the siege was raised; and Eleanor, unharmed, was escorted to safety.

 
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