Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir

  Virtually nothing is known of Eleanor's life during these terrible months. All that is recorded is her granting a charter to the city of Niort, perhaps with a view to securing its support against the French. Philip's advance through Maine and Anjou had left her isolated at Fontevrault, and John-- to the detriment of his own interests in Normandy-- had deployed his forces in Anjou, possibly with a view to preventing his mother from being cut off from him. It has been claimed that the old Queen took refuge in Poitiers at this time, yet the concentration of troops in Anjou suggests that she remained at Fontevrault.

  On 6 March 1204, after holding out for six months, Chateau Gaillard, which King Richard had claimed was impregnable, fell to the French, cutting off Rouen. It was a bitter blow that signalled the beginning of the end of the struggle for Normandy, and news of it is said to have hastened Eleanor's death. Paulus Ernihus, in his life of Philip II, claims that her death was hastened by learning that John had murdered Arthur.

  Neither claim is likely to have been true, for the annals of Fontevrault state that the Queen now existed as one already dead to the world. We may infer from this, not so much that she had renounced the world, but that she was no longer aware of her surroundings.

  On 1 April 1204,34 Eleanor "passed from the world as a candle in the sconce goeth out when the wind striketh it." She was eighty-two and her death went virtually unremarked in the chaos surrounding the collapse of the Angevin empire.

  Such accounts as do exist differ in respect of where Eleanor died. Peter of Blois, her former secretary, states that she died at Fontevrault, where she was received for penance and put on the monastic habit. Other sources say she had donned the garb of a nun before dying at Fontevrault. The annals of Fontevrault clearly state that Eleanor was consecrated as a nun in 1202, a fact that may not have been widely known (which would account for the slight discrepancies in these reports). Half a century later, Matthew Paris recorded that "the noble Queen Eleanor, a woman of admirable beauty and intelligence, died in Fontevrault."

  However, the Chronique des eglises d Anjou states that Eleanor died at Poitiers, as does the minor chronicle of St. Aubin of Angers. But it is more likely that Peter of Blois, who knew her and may have kept in touch, was correct.

  Eleanor's body was buried in the crypt of the abbey of Fontevrault in a fine tomb erected between those of her husband, Henry II, and her son, Richard I. It was surmounted by a painted stone gisant, or effigy, with a crown on its head, a hint of a smile on its lips, and a book of devotions open in its hands. Such effigies were rare, and Eleanor's is one of the finest of the few that survive from this period. It was not by the same sculptor who worked on the effigies of Henry and Richard, which date from around 1200, and it has been suggested that it was made by the craftsman who helped build the transepts in Chartres Cathedral. Whether or not the Fontevrault effigies are attempts at portraiture is a matter for dispute, but they are very individualistic representations.

  During the French Revolution the abbey of Fontevrault was sacked and the tombs were disturbed and vandalised. The bones of Eleanor, Henry, Richard, Joanna, and Isabella of Angouleme" were exhumed and scattered, never to be recovered. The abbey was then converted into a prison.

  Later, the desecrated tombs were cobbled together and rearranged in the crypt. In 1963 the prison was closed and the abbey, which is now a hotel, was restored to its former glory, with four of the tombs36 being placed in the church. That and the nuns' kitchen date from Eleanor's time, but most of the conventual buildings were built in the sixteenth century or later. Today, after eight hundred years, the Plantagenet effigies bear the ravages of time and only traces of the paint remain.

  Eleanor did not live to see the eventual destruction of the empire that both she and Henry had built. Her own death, in fact, removed an insuperable legal obstacle to Philip's ambitions. By June 1204, the whole of Normandy was in Philip's possession-- lost by John, according to Roger of Wendover, under the quilts of the marriage bed-- and at the end of that month, all that John had left of the duchy were the Channel Isles. Also gone were Anjou, Maine, Touraine, and Brittany, leaving the English King in possession only of the vulnerable county of Poitou and the duchy of Aquitaine. In less than a year, Philip had quadrupled his territories and laid the basis for France's future greatness.

  Not satisfied with this, immediately after Normandy fell, he sent a force under William des Roches to invade Poitou, which fell to him in 1205.

  The nuns of Fontevrault recorded in their necrology37 a glowing but conventional tribute to their late patroness, who had been a paragon among women, and "who illuminated the world with the brilliance of her royal progeny. She graced the nobility of her birth with the honesty of her life, enriched it with her moral excellence, and adorned it with the flowers of her virtues; and by her renown for unmatched goodness, she surpassed almost all the queens of the world."38 No doubt they wrote in all sincerity, having known Eleanor during her venerable old age.

  Others, who had known her in youth, could have told a different story, and after her death, as a direct consequence of the fall of the Angevin empire and King John's dire reputation, it was the scandals connected with his mother that were remembered and not her wise rule during the latter years of her life. "By reason of her excessive beauty, she destroyed or injured nations," asserted Matthew Paris, with some exaggeration. Even King John, he claimed, called his mother an "unhappy and shameless woman."

  This may not have been true, since the evidence suggests that her memory was revered among her descendants. Her grandson Henry III, who was born three years after her death, paid "for the support of a chaplain to perform divine service for the soul of Queen Eleanor, our grandmother."39 In 1233 Henry also granted land to the brothers of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, "for the safety of the soul of Queen Eleanor, the King's grandmother."40 Such intercessions were indiscriminately solicited for those whose sins had been great and for those whose Lives were blameless, so we should not infer too much from it.

  Desmond Seward, one of her modern biographers, has pointed out that Eleanor could, like Queen Victoria, be accurately described as "the Grandmother of Europe." Her sons and their descendants were kings of England, her daughters queens of Sicily and Castile; among her grandsons were a Holy Roman Emperor and the kings of Castile and Jerusalem, while her great-grandson became king of France. Two saints, St. Louis IX of France and St. Ferdinand III of Castile, were also among her descendants. In England, the line of kings that she and Henry-founded endured until 1485, and her blood flows in the veins of Britain's present queen, Elizabeth II.

  Today, our knowledge of Eleanor is still clouded by the persistent legends that cling to her name. The myths that circulated after her death were through the ages increasingly accepted as fact, and are only now beginning to be disproved by objective scholarship.

  Early thirteenth-century chroniclers compared her to the cruel Roman Empress Messalin, and some even confused her with the legendary Melusine. One French chronicler describes her asking the barons of France, after the dissolution of her marriage to Louis, "Look at me, Sirs. Is not my body delightful? The King thought I was the Devil!"41 This theme was echoed by the Minstrel of Rheims, who called Eleanor "a very Devil"; and by the middle of the thirteenth century many people were prepared to accept as fact his assertion that Eleanor intended to elope with Saladin. As time went by, the stories grew ever more fantastic; in one mediaeval ballad, "Queen Eleanor's Confession," she was accused of having a bastard child by William the Marshal. And as we have seen, she was frequently accused of murder in the legends of Fair Rosamund.

  Four hundred years after her death, Shakespeare, in King John, referred to Eleanor as a "canker'd granddam, a monstrous injurer of Heaven and Earth" and compared her to Ate, the goddess of blind folly, while as late as the nineteenth century, Agnes Strickland, the Victorian biographer of the queens of England, was sufficiently shocked by the Rosamund legends and by contemporary accounts of Eleanor's dealings with men to call her a "b
ad" and "giddy Queen" who was given to "disgusting levity."

  Only at the end of the nineteenth century was Eleanor at last given her due, by the historian Bishop Stubbs, who wrote: "This great lady deserves to be treated with more honour and respect than she has generally met with. She was a very able woman of great tact and experience, and still greater ambition; a most important adviser while she continued to support her husband; a most dangerous enemy when in opposition."

  In the twentieth century, Eleanor of Aquitaine has either been regarded as a romantic heroine-- which has led several admiring biographers to exaggerate her achievements and write spirited defences of her fadings-- or has been relegated to the sidelines by male historians, who have focused on her husband and sons and greatly underestimated her own role. The result has been a distorted picture, which serious, but rarely publicised, academic studies have done little to correct. It has been my aim in this book to achieve a more balanced portrayal, based chiefly on contemporary sources.

  In the final analysis, although Eleanor was important in her own day for who she was, her fame rests largely on what she did, and on the controversial role she played during a long career on the political stage. Denied for so long the exercise of power, for which she had a natural aptitude, she came into her own at an age when most women were either dead or long in retirement, and ruled as capably as any man. She was no shrinking violet, but a tough, capable, and resourceful woman who travelled widely throughout the known world and was acquainted with most of the great figures of the age. Remarkable in a period when females were relegated to a servile role, she was, as Richard of Devizes so astutely claimed, an incomparable woman.

  Notes on the Chief Sources

  What follows is a brief description and evaluation of each of the main contemporary sources to which I have referred in the text and notes. They are arranged in alphabetical order according to forename. Full details of their works are given in the Bibhography that follows.

  Adam of Eynsham wrote a laudatory biography of St. Hugh of Lincoln, in which its author took care not to be too critical of Henry II.

  The anonymous Monk of Barnwell , who flourished in the reign of King John, wrote a lively, relatively objective, and elegant chronicle of his times.

  Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100-- c. 1154) was a Welsh chronicler of possibly Breton origin who became Archdeacon of Monmouth c. 1140 and Bishop of St. Asaph in 1152. His fictitious History of the Kings of Britain, allegedly derived from ancient Welsh chronicles, is the first major English source for the legends of King Arthur.

  Gervase of Canterbury (c. 1141-1210) was a monk of Christ Church Priory by Canterbury Cathedral from 1163, and sacrist from 1193. He wrote a chronicle of his times, a book on the deeds of kings, and a history of the archbishops of Canterbury from St. Augustine to Hubert Walter. An admirer of Becket, he dedicated his chronicles, which are among the finest of the age, to "Brother Thomas and our humble community." They are written in the traditional, generally uncritical monastic style, with the affairs of his priory as the dominant theme, yet are full of valuable information about the period.

  Giraldus Cambrensis , also known as Gerald of Wales and Gerald de Barri (c. 1146-- c. 1120/23), was the youngest son of William de Barri,a Norman knight from Pembrokeshire, by Nesta, a Welsh princess. He was one of the foremost, most prolific, and popular writers of his time, and his works include topographical accounts of Ireland (written c. 1188 and dedicated to Henry II) and Wales (1191); the latter-- written after he had travelled through the principality in c. 1188-- being perhaps his most famous work. He also wrote the earliest autobiography to survive from the Middle Ages.

  Gerald was educated at Gloucester Abbey and in the schools at Paris, and was one of the first to lecture at the new university at Oxford. He was personally acquainted with most of the important public figures of his time, and was an eyewitness to many great events. His style is grand and pompous, and he was a zealous critic of his times. However, he believed in the prophecies of Merlin and often failed to distinguish between history and legend.

  An ambitious man, he was appointed Archdeacon of Brecon in 1172, and four years later was elected Bishop of St. David's by the cathedral chapter, but after Henry II refused to confirm the appointment because he was suspicious of Gerald's royal Welsh blood, an embittered Gerald became very antagonistic towards the King, whom he had formerly admired, and wrote a waspish and hostile account of him in Concerning the Instruction of a Prince, which satirises the fate awaiting a sinful ruler.

  Gerald was, however, later reconciled to Henry II and served as a royal chaplain from 1184 to 1189. In 1185 he accompanied the King's son John to Ireland.

  His works are prejudiced in favour of the Welsh and the Normans and those in public life with whom he wished to curry favour; he despised the Saxon English, regarded the Irish as subhuman savages, and disapproved of Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom he portrays as a sinister, shadowy figure. In fact, he sincerely believed that the Angevin family as a whole had, as they boasted, come from the Devil, as well as from corrupt stock, and would incur the wrath of God.

  Guillaume le Breton was the chaplain of Philip II of France, and wrote the Philippide, a laudatory account of his master's reign.

  The Itinerary of Richard I was translated into Latin from an anonymous French eyewitness account by Richard, Prior of Holy Trinity, Aldgate. The original author stated that, in the midst of the din of war, he had written down things that were "warm" in his memory.

  John of Salisbury (c. 1115-1180), one of the finest minds of the age, studied in Paris under Peter Abelard and was clerk to Pope Eugenius III before becoming secretary to Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury and then Thomas Becket, whose fervent supporter he remained. Estranged from Henry II, he retired in the 1160s to Rheims, where he wrote his Historia Pontifkalis, among other works. Returning to England, he witnessed Becket's murder at Canterbury. In 1176, he was consecrated Bishop of Chartres. His works are rational, moderate, and objective, and display a penetrating understanding of statesmanship.

  Joscelin of Brakelond (c. 1155-1215) was a Benedictine monk at Bury St. Edmunds from 1173 and wrote a chronicle covering the period 1173 to 1202, focusing mainly on the history of his abbey.

  Layamon was an English poet and a priest at Areley Regis near Bewdley in Worcestershire. He wrote The Brut, an alliterative history of the English based on the work of Robert Wace, between 1173 and 1207, "to tell the noble deeds of Englishmen in their own tongue." His work is the first surviving poem in Middle English. Both Sir Thomas Malory and Alfred, Lord Tennyson drew on his work as a source for their own versions of the Arthurian legends.

  Peter of Blois (1135-1205) came from a noble Breton family and, having been educated in the schools of Paris and then attached to the Norman court in Sicily, was invited to England by Henry II, who conferred upon him a succession of court offices, including that of secretary to the King and, later, to Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury, then to Eleanor of Aquitaine herself. An impressively erudite man, Peter was eventually appointed Archdeacon of Bath, then Archdeacon of London. His surviving letters are distinguished by their sharp, acerbic wit and observation.

  Piers Langtoft (d. c.i307) came from Langtoft in Yorkshire and was an Augustinian canon at Bricklington Priory. He wrote a doggerel verse history of England covering the period up to the death of Edward I; his accounts of periods prior to Edward's reign are based on earlier chronicles and are not very reliable.

  Ralph of Coggeshall (fl. 1207-1224) was the Cistercian Abbot of Coggeshall in Essex, whose name has been attached to a chronicle covering the period 1066-1224; it is believed, however, that he wrote only the section from 1187 to 1224. He took pains to be accurate and made it his business to keep himself well informed as to the events of his time, which he was able to do through a wide network of contacts, built up through his monastic connections. For example, he learned about Richard I's battle against the Saracens in 1191 from a soldier who was present, and about Richard's capture by Leopol
d of Austria from the King's own chaplain, Anselm.

  Nevertheless, like many otherwise reliable chroniclers, Ralph of Coggeshall was given to according miraculous events the same prominence as actual ones.

  Ralph of Diceto (d. 1201?) was Archdeacon of Middlesex, Canon and archivist of St. Paul's Cathedral, and, from 1180, its Dean. His Images of History, which covers the period up to 1201, is a concise and readable chronological account of his times. He was a conscientious researcher who took care to be accurate in his facts. His emphasis was on ecclesiastical history, but he used as sources a wealth of royal documents and contemporary letters, many of which he reproduced in his text. Remarkably for his time, he was an objective observer and made an attempt to analyse and evaluate events, such as the conflicts between Henry II and Becket, and between Henry II and his sons. Although Ralph of Diceto was appalled by Becket's murder, he nevertheless admired and respected Henry II.

  Ralph Niger (fl. 1170) was educated in Paris and became clerk to Henry, the Young King. The bulk of his output was religious works, but in later life he compiled two chronicles, drawn mainly from other sources but distinguished by an original, hostile, and penetrating attack on Henry II.

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