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


  The staple drink of all classes was ale or "home brew," which was consumed in huge quantities in leather or pottery tankards or jugs-- "the whole land was filled with drink and drinkers."8 Thin red and white wines were also home-produced in vineyards near Bedford, Tewkesbury, and York, but they were poor in quality.9 The best wines came from abroad and were drunk in the households of the upper classes and used at communion. These fine wines cost up to 34s a cask in 1184, and were often drunk from silver goblets. Wines could be spiced with cloves or sweetened with fruit such as pears. Cider and mead were also popular.

  The main meal of the day was eaten between nine o'clock and noon, depending on the season. In castles and manor houses it was served

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  with elaborate ceremony in the great hall, where the lord and his family would sit at the high table. This would be laid with a cloth, and ewers, basins, and towels would be brought so that the diners could wash their hands. Knives and spoons were used as eating utensils, but forks had not yet been invented. Salt-- then an expensive luxury-- would be placed in cellars on the table, along with goblets, tankards, and jugs of wine. Each course would be brought in by servants, while the company-- which included guests, travellers, and retainers-- would enjoy lively conversation or transact business. Sometimes music would accompany the meal.

  Bad harvests were often followed by winters of famine, which was greatly feared, for it was not uncommon for poorer people literally to starve to death once their supplies of food had been exhausted. Farming was carried out by manual methods, the only technological aids being the water mill, for grinding corn, and the plough. The chief crops were wheat, barley, oats, and vegetables. Because most manors were divided into strips, and because one field in three was often left fallow for a year, the yield could be poor, leading to a dearth.

  Science made some advances at this time, thanks to the rediscovery of classical works, particularly on medicine, preserved by the Arabs. The study of astronomy was very popular, while in 1145 the Arab system of algebra was first introduced into Europe by Robert of Chester. It was either he or the great scientist Adelard of Bath who first used Arabic numerals in Europe, although these would not replace the old Roman numeral system until the sixteenth century.

  Medicine was rudimentary and crude. Diseases and their causes were not properly understood, and physicians often found it hard to reach an accurate diagnosis. Even when they did, there was little they could do for the patient beyond prescribing baths or offering herbal remedies or infusions, some of which were efficacious. Badly wounded limbs were usually amputated with an axe without benefit of anaesthetic, often with fatal results, and it was some time before the Arab practice of dressing wounds was followed in the West.

  Life in twelfth-century England was often short and hard and it was universally believed that, while the wicked who had committed mortal sins would be consigned after death to the flames and tortures of Hell, those who had striven for goodness in this life would receive their reward in Heaven. However, in order to avoid a sojourn in Purgatory beforehand to expiate lesser sins, it was common for men and women to invest their life savings so that perpetual alms could be distributed for the safety of their souls.

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  8. " Eleanor, by the Grace of God, Queen of England"

  At Christmas 1154, King Henry II and Queen Eleanor presided over a great court at Westminster,1 which was attended by the chief barons and prelates of England. With their assistance, Henry immediately set to work to tackle the evils and decay that beset his kingdom and to establish well-organised government. He began by ordering the expulsion of Stephen's Flemish mercenaries, the destruction of 1,100 unlicensed castles, and the resumption of royal castles and alienated crown lands,2 acts that "earned the praise and thanksgiving of peace-loving men."3

  Henry was passionate about justice. He paid "due regard to public order, and was at great pains to revive the vigour of the laws of England, which had seemed under King Stephen to be dead and buried. Throughout the realm he appointed judges and legal officials to curb the audacity of wicked men and dispense justice to litigants."4 In his coronation charter, Henry made no mention of Stephen's reign, but referred frequently to the laws and customs of Henry I, which he was determined to restore and enforce. In fact, as his reign progressed, he would not slavishly follow his grandfather's policies, but would introduce new and sometimes radical legislative reforms of his own.

  He divided the country into administrative regions and instituted legal circuits, whereby his justices would visit each region to ensure that the King's Peace was being kept and administer justice through assize courts. While on his travels through his kingdom, Henry himself would preside over these courts, and his judgements were reputed to be so just that anyone with a sound case was anxious to have it heard by him, while those with dubious cases would not come before him unless they were dragged into court.5 Another change was the gradual replacement of trial by ordeal with trial by jury. It was due to these dramatic reforms that, during Henry II's reign, the foundations of English common law were laid down.

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  Henry also "jealously watched over the royal interests,"6 judiciously increasing the wealth and prestige of the crown while curbing the power of his barons.

  What made all this possible was the strong desire of the English aristocracy and people for peace after the terrible anarchy of Stephen's reign, a desire that Henry exploited to the full in order to press on with his reforms. He knew that it was essential to restore public confidence in the monarchy and the government, and by quickly establishing a strong grip on affairs and learning to control his barons and make them cooperate, he succeeded in achieving this. Gradually, he established the supremacy of the King's Court over the feudal courts of his vassals, and improved local government by dismissing corrupt or inept sheriffs. There was no aspect of national or local government that escaped his attention, and soon after his accession it was said that a virgin could walk from one end of the realm to the other with her bosom full of gold and suffer no harm, and that evil barons had vanished like phantoms.7

  The King also took steps to reorganise and improve the royal finances, which were in chaos. He levied new taxes, minted a purer coinage, and ensured that all royal revenues were collected by the Exchequer, which had been vigorously reorganised by 1158. This policy was highly successful: royal income, which was £22,000 in 1154, had increased to £48,000 by the end of the reign.8 Out of this, Henry had to maintain not only himself and his household, but also the royal estates and castles, and finance the government of the realm. His careful housekeeping benefited not only himself, but England too, for it led to a boom in trade and prosperity, which in turn resulted in increased royal revenues.

  By the summer of 1155, thanks to Henry II's genius for good government, order had been re-established within the kingdom, with such thoroughness that England would remain at peace for nearly two decades.

  Even after he became King, Henry II disdained the trappings of sovereignty. He did not need them anyway, for his very presence was enough to quell those who would have opposed him and reduce mighty lords to servility. He was a despot, both as a ruler and as the head of his family, and one of the most able and gifted rulers to sit on the throne of England: his contemporaries accounted him "the greatest of earthly princes."9

  He nevertheless remained the most affable of monarchs, although no one ever mistook his geniality for a want of sovereign authority.10 "He was expansive towards strangers and prodigal in public," wrote

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  Giraldus. When assailed and jostled by a crowd of clamorous suitors, he would remain even tempered and endeavour to give each one a hearing.11 Few, however, got what they wanted, for Henry had a fault which he contracted from his mother's teaching: he is wasteful of time over the affairs of his people, and so it comes about that many die before they get their matter settled, or leave the court depressed and penniless, driven by hunger.

  Another fault is that when he
makes a stay anywhere, which rarely occurs, he does not allow himself to be seen, but shuts himself up within and is only accessible to those who seem unworthy of such ready access.12

  In a crisis Henry usually stayed calm and decisive, and his sense of humour often served him well. Once, after a stormy clash with the King, Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, approached him with trepidation as Henry sat on the ground in the forest with his courtiers in a circle around him. Since Henry had forbidden anyone to acknowledge Hugh's presence, no one rose to greet him, "but Bishop Hugh, undaunted, eased an earl out of his place beside the King and sat down. There was a long, brooding silence, finally broken by Henry who, unable to do nothing, called for needle and thread and began to stitch up a leather bandage on an injured finger. Again, there was a heavy silence until Bishop Hugh casually remarked, 'How like your cousins of Falaise you look' "-- a droll reference to William the Conqueror's mother, who had been a tanner's daughter from Falaise. "At this, the King's anger fled from him and he burst into laughter which sent him rolling on the ground. Many were amazed at the Bishop's temerity, others puzzled, until the King, recovering his composure, explained the gibe to them."13

  For all his geniality, Henry's rage could be terrible when his will was flouted, his authority undermined, or his trust betrayed. Generally, however, "he possessed remarkable prudence, constancy and zeal for justice,"14 and knew when to be merciful. When Ralph d'Albini flung a stone at the King at Bedford Castle-- a gross insult-- the King merely confiscated one of his estates.15

  Henry could be kind and generous towards his servants16 and those hit by misfortune. Walter Map recalled how, "although he was not obliged to do so, and the cost was high," he had made good the losses of some seamen when their ships, which they had "provided as a service to the Cinque Ports without cost to the crown," were wrecked during a storm. In 1176, when there was terrible famine in Anjou and Maine, the King emptied his private stores to succour the poor.17 His laws displayed concern for the needs of his humbler subjects,18 and he

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  was "more and more anxious about the common welfare [and] most intent on showing justice to everyone."19

  Walter Map stated that Henry was generous with almsgiving, but "in secret, lest it should be known to his left: hand what his right hand gave." Map also claimed that the King was a pious man, but Giraldus insisted that he could see no sign of personal devotion in him. William of Newburgh criticised Henry to his face for leaving bishoprics vacant so that he could appropriate their revenues, but the King merely retorted that it was better that the wealth of the Church be spent to the benefit of the realm than on the pleasure of bishops, which Newburgh thought shocking. Indeed, Henry's open anticlericalism prejudiced many chroniclers against him, notably Ralph Niger and Gervase of Canterbury, although Adam of Eynsham, the biographer of St. Hugh of Lincoln, testifies to the King holding truly devout men in high regard, and Walter Map tells of him tactfully averting his eyes and making no comment when a monk's habit blew up and exposed his bare buttocks.

  Giraldus Cambrensis deplored the way in which Henry sometimes ridiculed the clergy, as well as his frequent blasphemies, which were as offensive then as four-letter words are today. Comparing him unfavourably with Louis VII, he wrote that Louis did not, like some princes he could mention, swear by the eyes, the feet, the teeth, or the throat of God, and that his device was not bears, leopards, or Hons, but the simple lily. The reference to leopards and lions may allude to the developing royal arms: Henry had perhaps inherited one lion from his father; the second he probably acquired on his marriage, for the device of Eleanor of Aquitaine was a golden lion on a red background. These two lions appear quartered on a shield of the Duke of Saxony and Brunswick, who later married Henry's daughter. Not until the reign of Henry's son would the Plantagenet arms featuring three lions or leopards evolve.

  Henry's benefactions to the Church were lavish. He and Eleanor endowed many leper hospitals, including those at Caen, Angers, and Le Mans. He directed his almoner to give to the destitute one-tenth of all the food and drink that was purveyed by or given to the royal household. The bequests in his will were exclusively for religious houses. He gave generously to the abbeys of Fontevrault, Reading (where Henry I lay buried), and Grandmont in the Limousin. Henry had a great attachment to the austere Order of Grandmont, visited it frequently, founded several cells, and in 1170 expressed a wish to be buried in the stark abbey church. This horrified his barons, who felt that such a resting place would be inconsistent with his dignity as king. Henry also had a deep respect for the even more ascetic Carthusian Order, and founded their first house in England at Witham, Somerset.

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  For a man of his time, Henry could be surprisingly tolerant. Unlike other Christian rulers, he refused to persecute the Jews, and he offered asylum to Albigensian heretics who had fled from persecution in the south of France. Yet, like most people of his time, he regarded homosexuality as an offence against God, and authorised the torture of some Templars who had been arrested on suspicion of that and other unnatural practices; they confessed and were severely punished. This was the first time that torture was used under royal warrant in England.

  Inheriting the crown of England placed Henry, at the age of just twenty-one, on an equal footing with his rival, King Louis. Henry was by far the richer of the two in lands and resources, for his empire now extended from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees, yet he remained Louis's vassal for his lands in France, which meant that from time to time he would have to bow the knee to him in homage. Both were aware that Henry was the more powerful monarch, and Louis both feared and distrusted him, even while extending the hand of friendship. Thus France was always a potential enemy.

  Although Henry worked hard and efficiently to establish his authority in England, his chief interests lay on the continent. However, he found his continental domains far more difficult to govern than his kingdom-- especially Aquitaine, where his rule was never popular and which remained in a state of almost constant revolt against him. Governing such far-flung territories presented many practical difficulties in an age of poor communications, but with his tremendous energy Henry strove to overcome them, keeping in constant touch with the affairs of each domain by messenger, letter, and personal visits. His understanding of languages was an asset, but from now on virtually his whole life would be lived on the move, as he enforced his authority in his various territories. The chronicler Herbert of Bosham described him as a human chariot who drew all behind him, while King Louis was astonished at the pace of Henry's travels: "Now in Ireland, now in England, now in Normandy, he must fly rather than travel by horse or ship!" he exclaimed.20

  Henry also facilitated efficient rule by centralising the administration of his territories at Westminster and Rouen. All his orders were processed centrally through his secretariat, the Chancery, which travelled with his court; these orders, or writs, were renowned for their clarity and could be understood everywhere in his empire. This helped to establish a degree of uniformity throughout dominions that had no common language, laws, customs, or currency.

  Despite these measures, Henry was almost constantly at war, either

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  with France, or subduing rebellious vassals, or keeping his borders secure from attack. Yet "above everything in the world, he labours for peace; all that he thinks, all that he says, all that he does, is directed to this end: that his people may have tranquil days."21

  By the time she became Queen of England, at thirty-two, Eleanor was already something of a legend. In Germany, her beauty was lauded in the contemporary collection of anonymous student songs known as the Carmina Burana:

  If all the world were mine

  From the seashore to the Rhine,

  That price were not too high

  To have England's Queen lie

  Close in my arms.22

  Another German minnesinger -- the equivalent of a troubadour-- wrote:

  The sweet young Queen

  D
raws the thoughts of all upon her

  As sirens lure the witless mariners

  Upon the reef.

  This is also thought to refer to Eleanor. The likelihood is that these poets had not even seen her, but had relied upon reports of her looks and her reputation. In England and France, her praises were sung in a more conventional manner, as in this tribute by Benoit de Sainte-Maure in his Roman de Troie:

  For my presumption, shall I be chid

  By her whose kindness knows no bounds?

  Highborn lady, excellent and valiant,

  True, understanding, noble,

  Ruled by right and justice,

  Queen of beauty and largesse,

  By whose example many ladies

  Are upheld in emulous right-doing;

  In whom all learning lodges,

  Whose equal in no peer is found.

  Rich lady of the wealthy King,

  No ill, no ire, no sadness

  Mars your goodly reign.

  May all your days be joy.

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  In the introduction to his Bestiary, formerly dedicated to Adeliza of Louvain, second queen of Henry I, and now reissued in the hope of acquiring a new patroness, the writer Philippe de Thaun takes a similar laudatory approach:

  God save Lady Eleanor,

  Queen, who is the arbiter

  Of honour, wit and beauty,

  Of largesse and loyalty.

  Lady, born were you in a happy hour

  And wed to Henry, King.

  Yet for all her fame, throughout the thirty-five years of Henry's reign the chroniclers rarely mention Eleanor, unless it is to record her presence by the King's side on various occasions, or the births of her children, through which she was fulfilling her prime function as queen. Most of her modern biographers therefore conclude that she enjoyed little political power as queen, and that Henry saw to it that her role was purely dynastic and ceremonial. Yet there is evidence in official documents that she was allowed a certain autonomy in decision-making and considerable responsibility for administrative matters, especially during Henry's frequent absences abroad, although naturally she did not make major decisions affecting policy. Nor were English queens in the twelfth century expected to be entirely subservient to their husbands: they were regalis imperii participes -- sharers in the imperial kingship. It may therefore be concluded that, because of the prejudices against her sex, and the fact that her role was completely overshadowed by Henry's deeds and achievements, Eleanor's activities were not considered worthy of mention.

 
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