Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England by Alison Weir


  In December, Eleanor returned to Poitiers while Henry travelled to Normandy, where his invasion fleet was waiting to sail. Before embarking he went to Rouen to visit his mother, the Empress Matilda, who lent him money to help finance his expedition. There is no record of Eleanor meeting Matilda during the first months of her marriage, nor might either have relished such a prospect: Matilda may well have been reluctant to receive the woman whom rumour accused of having had an adulterous affair with her own husband, while Eleanor may have resented the Empress's influence over her son and the fact that it was she whom he consulted on political matters, rather than his wife.

  In January 1153 Henry sailed from Barfleur for England with a fleet of twenty-six ships17 and an army of 3,000 foot and 140 horse, intending to bring King Stephen to submission. He left Normandy in the care of the Empress Matilda, and Anjou and Aquitaine in the custody of Eleanor, who shortly after his departure seems to have taken up residence at Angers,18 leaving her maternal uncle, Raoul de Faye, as her deputy in Aquitaine. By the spring, Eleanor knew that she was pregnant.

  It was perhaps at around this time that the celebrated troubadour Bernard de Ventadour presented himself at Eleanor's court. According to a biography of him written in the thirteenth century,19 Bernard, who was blessed with good looks and a fine singing voice, was the son of a kitchen maid in the household of Eble II, Viscount of Ventadour in the Limousin. The Viscount, who came from a family with a tradition of patronising troubadours, realised that the boy had talent and tutored him in the arts of poetry and composition. But when, on reaching maturity, Bernard repaid his noble patron by attempting to seduce Alaiz, his wife, he was thrown out of the household at Ventadour, while his

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  hapless paramour was locked up by her enraged husband and had her marriage annulled.

  The account continues:

  Bernard left and went to the Duchess of Normandy, who was young and of great worth, and she had understanding of matters of valour, honour and fine flattery, and liked songs in praise of her. Bernard's voice and songs pleased her greatly, and she received him as her guest with a warm welcome. He was at her court for a long time and fell in love with her, and she with him, and he composed many excellent songs for her. While he was with her, King Henry of England made her his wife and took her from Normandy to England.

  There are obvious inaccuracies in this story: Eleanor was not Duchess of Normandy until she married Henry, an event that took place before he became King of England, but such errors are inevitable in a work written a century after the events it describes. There is nevertheless much evidence in Bernard's surviving verses, which are written in Provencal and are very moving, that he was at Eleanor's court and was, indeed, somewhat in love with her. His lyrics express this love and eulogise the object of it in the conventional courtly manner. One reads:

  When the sweet breeze

  Blows hither from your dwelling

  Methinks I feel

  A breath of Paradise.

  Elsewhere, addressing Eleanor as "my comfort" or "my magnet," Bernard refers to her as "noble and sweet ... faithful and loyal ... gracious, lovely, the embodiment of charm," indeed, "one meet to crown the state of any king." When she looked at him with eyes full of fire and eloquence, he felt the joy normally associated with a festival such as Christmas. "You have been the first among all my joys and you shall be the last, so long as there is life in me." Of all women, Eleanor was the most beautiful, and he would not have traded her charms for even the wealthy city of Pisa. Delighted that she was able to read, Bernard wrote poems intended for her eyes alone, in which he inserted secret messages that he hoped she would understand. Tristan, he declared, never suffered such woe for the fair Yseult as he, Bernard, suffered for his chosen lady. When he was in her presence, he trembled like an aspen, his wits fled, and he had "no more sense than a child, so overcome by love was I." Everything he wrote, he wrote for Eleanor:

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  I am not one to scorn

  The boon God granted me.

  She said, in accents clear,

  Before I did depart,

  "Your songs they please me well."

  I would each Christian soul

  Could know my rapture then,

  For all I write and sing

  Is meant for her delight.

  How deeply these feelings went, and whether or not Eleanor reciprocated them, is not clear, although the indications are that Bernard's passion went unrequited. Looking back on the episode in later life, he wrote, "I was like a man beyond hope, sighing in such a state of love, though I would come to realise that I had been a madman."

  The dating of this episode is problematical: Bernard may have joined Eleanor's household at any time during the period from March 1152 to early 1154; as we are told that he was at her court for a long time, it cannot have been much later.

  As far as Eleanor was concerned, it was perfectly normal for troubadours to express passionate devotion to a high-born lady such as herself, and everything we know about her suggests that she enjoyed being the object of such reverence and probably expected and encouraged it. As Henry was away in England, these games of courtly love provided her with a welcome diversion. It did not occur to her that her husband might disapprove of them.

  When, after a stormy crossing, Henry arrived on the south coast of England on 6 January, "the earth quivered with sudden rumours like reeds shaken in the wind."20 When the Duke went into a church to hear mass, he heard the priest declare, "Behold, the Lord the ruler cometh, and the kingdom is in His hand." Interpreting this as a good omen, he pressed on in buoyant mood, deciding that his first objective must be to relieve his chief supporters, who were under siege at Walling-ford Castle.

  "God Himself appeared to fight for the Duke:"21 after months of skirmishing, during which he took many towns and castles, among them Malmesbury and Warwick, and earned an impressive reputation for bravery and military skill, Henry at last confronted Stephen's forces before Wallingford in July.22 The war-weary English barons and bishops, prominent among them Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, urged the two leaders to negotiate; many felt that Stephen should acknowledge Henry as his heir.23

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  The King's son Eustace, however, was determined to assert his rights, and in an attempt to force a military confrontation began laying waste East Anglia. His sudden death, probably from food poisoning, on 17 August at Bury St. Edmunds was regarded as divine vengeance for sacking the property of the abbey there.24 On that very day, in far-off Poitiers, seemingly as a further token of God's approval of Henry's cause, Eleanor bore a son and heir, who was baptised William in the time-honoured tradition of the dukes of Aquitaine, and styled Count of Poitiers.25

  The removal of Eustace from the political arena simplified matters. Although he had a younger son,26 an exhausted and demoralised King Stephen lost the will to fight on, and the mediators seized this opportunity to bring about a peaceful settlement. In November Stephen was persuaded to meet Henry at Winchester and thrash out terms. A peace was quickly agreed upon, with the King accepting that Henry had an hereditary right to the throne and acknowledging him as his heir. In turn, "the Duke generously conceded that the King should hold the kingdom for the rest of his life," provided that he swore on oath that Henry should succeed "peacefully and without denial" upon his death.27

  This agreement was enshrined in a treaty drawn up by Archbishop Theobald and ratified at Westminster at Christmas 1153. By the terms of this treaty, which was witnessed by fourteen bishops and eleven earls, Stephen not only made Henry his heir, but adopted him as his son and agreed "that in all the business of the kingdom I will act with the advice of the Duke." Henry, in turn, would do homage to Stephen, their supporters would swear to make peace, and the bishops would ensure that the terms of the treaty were adhered to.28

  "So God granted a happy issue and peace shone forth," wrote Henry of Huntingdon. "What boundless joy! What a happy day!"

  From Winchester, Stephen took Henry
to London, "where he was received with joy by enormous crowds and splendid processions. Thus, by God's mercy, peace dawned on the ruined realm of England, putting an end to its troubled night."29

  Henry had kept in regular touch with Eleanor during his sojourn in England, and also with his vassals on the continent. It was probably through them that he learned of Bernard de Ventadour's passionate addresses to his wife, and, being unfamiliar with the troubadour culture and its games of courtly love, was alarmed at what he heard. He may also have remembered that Eleanor had been free with her favours in the past, spurning her marriage vows, not only with his father but also with himself. Now that she was his wife and the mother of his heir, no breath of scandal must touch her, so Henry diplomatically

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  summoned Bernard to England, claiming that he had need of him to compose martial tunes upon his lyre.

  Reluctantly, Bernard complied. When he arrived it was still winter, and in his verses he says that, whenever he thought of the Duchess, his heart was so filled with joy that everything in Nature seemed altered: even the snow on the banks of the Thames seemed to bloom with "red, white and yellow flowers." Miserable in his exile, he begged leave to return to Eleanor's court, once more to mingle with "ladies and chevaliers, fair and courteous." At length he did go back, apparently without first obtaining Henry's permission: when the Duke sent a further summons, he managed to ignore it.

  In the spring of 1154 Henry "returned triumphantly" to Rouen in Normandy, where "he was duly received with joy and honour by his mother Matilda, his brothers, and all the people of Normandy, Anjou, Maine and Poitou."30 Soon Eleanor joined him to celebrate Easter, bringing with her their eight-month-old son and heir, William. The family was lodged in the palace built by Henry I beside the church of Notre-Dame-des-Pres, just outside the city walls, which was now Matilda's chief residence. This was the first recorded occasion on which the Duchess met her formidable mother-in-law. Shortly afterwards, Henry made a brief visit to Eleanor's domains to suppress a minor rebellion; by the end of June, he was back in Rouen. Two months later, Eleanor was able to tell him that she was again pregnant.

  During that year, Louis VII of France remarried. In the summer, he went to the shrine of St. James at Compostela in Spain, ostensibly on a pilgrimage, but in reality to assess the suitability of Constance, daughter of Alfonso VII, King of Castile, as a future bride. Impressed by her modesty and demeanour, he arranged their betrothal with her father, then returned to Paris, travelling by way of Toulouse and Montpellier so as to avoid passing through Eleanor's domains. His marriage to Constance took place soon afterwards, at OrlĂ©ans. His subjects were of the opinion that he was "better married than he had been." In consequence of his marriage, he relinquished the title Duke of Aquitaine and made overtures of friendship to Henry. At a meeting in August, the two were finally reconciled.

  An illness in September laid Henry low, and there were fears that he might die, but by early October he was recovered and fit enough to lead a campaign against some rebellious Norman vassals in the Vexin. Eleanor remained with Matilda in Rouen, and it was she who, on 26 October, received a messenger with important news from Archbishop Theobald in England.

  On 25 October, the "nineteen long winters"31 of Stephen's reign

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  had come to an end with the King's death. News of his passing reached Henry early in November, just as he was besieging a rebel castle. Neither the news that he was to be a king,32 nor a plea for him to "come without delay and take possession of the kingdom"33 deterred him from his purpose, and he calmly reduced the castle, took counsel of his mother the Empress, then set about putting his affairs in Normandy in order before joining Eleanor in a flurry of preparations for their departure for England. Among the items packed in Eleanor's baggage were forty-two gowns of silk, linen, and wool, many richly embroidered; fourteen pairs of shoes, six of them embroidered with gold thread; five mantles of various colours furred with ermine; a great quantity of veils; and ten warm undershirts.

  Henry, meanwhile, took just two weeks to assemble an escort sufficiently imposing to impress his new subjects. 34 It included, among a host of magnates and bishops, his brother Geoffrey and Eleanor's widowed sister Petronilla. He also decided that the Empress should remain in Normandy to keep the peace while he was in England.

  Henry now seized the opportunity of ridding himself of the irritating Bernard de Ventadour, who "remained behind, full of grief and sorrow, then went to the good Count Raymond of Toulouse, with whom he remained until his death. Because of his grief, he entered the Order of Dalon, where he ended his days,"35 renowned as perhaps the greatest troubadour of all. In fact, far from being grief-stricken, he in the meantime found another patroness. In a poem probably written soon after Eleanor's departure for England, he claims that it was because of her that he was forced to leave the King's service; he also begs a messenger to go on his behalf and sing this song to "the Queen of the Normans."36 There is no record of Eleanor having any further dealings with him, and a reference by Bernard to her "fair disdain" indicates that she had lost interest in his courtly addresses.

  Although Henry, Eleanor, young William (who was to travel with them), and their retinue were ready to leave in good time, heavy storms, gales, and sleet delayed their departure, and it was 7 December before Henry was able to sail from Barfleur to take possession of his kingdom. Even then, they had to brave a tempest and the violent sea, but despite the risks and the fact that Eleanor was seven months pregnant, Henry would delay no longer. England had been without a king for six weeks; nevertheless, with Archbishop Theobald in charge, no one had dared to dispute the succession and the realm had remained at peace "for love of the king to come."37 Such was Henry's reputation that "no man dared do other than good, for he was held in great awe."38

  On 8 December, after a storm-tossed voyage lasting twenty-four

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  hours, in which some of their vessels were scattered, the royal party landed safely in a harbour south of the New Forest39-- probably Osterham near Southampton. They rode straight for Winchester so that Henry could take possession of the royal treasury 40 and receive the homage of the English barons, who, summoned by Archbishop Theobald, were "quaking like a bed of reeds in the wind for fear and anxiety," thunderstruck at learning that their formidable new ruler had, with almost superhuman courage, defied the storms and gales to come to England.41

  Then, with the royal entourage increasingly augmented by English lords and prelates, it was on to London, where the people received their new sovereign "with transports of joy,"42 acclaiming him as "Henry the Peacemaker."43 It was probably at this time that the English bestowed on him the nickname "Curtmantle," on account of the short French cloak he wore.

  Since the palace of Westminster was in a badly dilapidated state, having been vandalised by Stephen's supporters, the royal couple were lodged in the old Saxon palace at Bermondsey,44 situated on the Surrey shore of the Thames opposite the Tower of London, just below London Bridge. Nearby stood the newly built abbey of Bermondsey.

  On Sunday, 19 December, Henry and Eleanor were "crowned and consecrated with becoming pomp and splendour"45 in Westminster Abbey by Archbishop Theobald. The crown used was that commissioned by William the Conqueror in imitation of the imperial crown of Charlemagne, and the officiating clergy wore splendid vestments of silk, such as had never before been seen in England, while the royal couple and their barons were attired in robes of silk, brocade, and gauze. It was a very moving occasion: Henry was "blessed as king with great joy and many crying for happiness, and splendidly enthroned."46 Afterwards, as the new King and Queen rode in procession along the Strand, the citizens ran alongside to catch a glimpse of them, crying, "Waes hael!" and "Vivat Rex!" 47

  Thus Henry "took possession of his hereditary kingdom to the acclaim of all, while throughout England the people shouted, 'Long live the King!' So many evils had sprung up in the previous reign that the people hoped for better things from the new monarch, espe
cially when they saw he possessed remarkable prudence, constancy and zeal for justice, and at the very outset already manifested the likeness of a great prince."48

  The long rule of the Plantagenets had begun.

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  7. All the Business of the Kingdom

  The realm of which Eleanor of Aquitaine became Queen was, like most European kingdoms, a feudal society. The land was fertile and its people were growing ever more prosperous. In 1066, William the Conqueror had successfully prosecuted his claim to the throne of England and established an alien monarchy in the realm of the Anglo-Saxon people. He had also imposed the hierarchical feudal system of land tenure upon his kingdom, reformed its Church along sterner, more disciplined Norman lines, and laid an iron hand of justice on his new subjects with such success that, after his death in 1087, it was said that "a man could travel unmolested throughout the country with his bosom full of gold."1

  Norman England was a rural society based on the village as an economic unit. From the few records that survive, it is estimated that the rising population numbered around two and a half million by 1200. Life expectancy was short, thanks to plague, famine, and insanitary living conditions. Most people lived and worked on the land, and only a tiny proportion of the population lived in towns. The Norman kings distributed land to their earls, barons, and bishops, who became tenants-in-chief owing fealty and military service to the sovereign. They in turn had their own tenants, barons and knights, who would preside as lords of the manor over the lower echelons of the social pyramid, the villeins and serfs. These last were bondmen, tied to the land that they worked for themselves and their lords, and unable to leave their manors without permission. All overlords had a duty to protect their vassals, and all subjects owed fealty to the King as well as to their immediate overlord, if they had one.

 
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