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


  The few observations that the chroniclers do make about Eleanor are perceptive. While Thomas Agnell, Archdeacon of Wells, called her "a woman of great discernment," referring perhaps to her taste rather than her judgement, Gervase of Canterbury described her as "an exceedingly shrewd woman, sprung from noble stock, but fickle."

  For the first few years of the reign, when Henry was away on the continent, Eleanor acted as regent of England. She dealt with routine business, implemented orders sent by the King from abroad, approved all the acts of his ministers, arbitrated in disputes, and supervised the accounts of, for example, the market at Oxford, the tin mines of Cornwall, and her mill at Woodstock.23 Until 1163, she issued official documents or writs under her own name and seal,24 which were attested by her own chancellor. Often she was co-regent with the justiciar and

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  acted in association with him, and occasionally she is recorded as having presided over courts and dispensed justice at Westminster, Cherbourg, Falaise, Bayeux, or Bordeaux. Her rulings were drawn up by her clerk, Master Matthew, and her letters, dictated to her clerks and written in Latin, were signed "Eleanor, by the grace of God, Queen of England," although not in her own hand. (The earliest extant signature of an English queen is that of Joanna of Navarre in the fifteenth century.)

  The sparse surviving evidence indicates that Eleanor was zealous in upholding her husband's policies. This is clear from two extant letters recording her intervention in disputes. One is to John FitzRalph, a baron of London:

  I have received a complaint from the monks of Reading to the effect that they have been unjustly dispossessed of certain lands in London which were bestowed on them by Richard FitzB-- when he became a monk. I command you to look into this without delay and, should it be true, to ensure that these lands are returned to the monks without delay, so that in future I shall hear no more complaints about deficiencies in law and justice. I will not tolerate their being unjustly deprived of anything that belongs to them. Greetings.

  The second letter was sent to the tenants of Abingdon Abbey:

  To the knights and men holding lands and tenures from Abingdon Abbey, greetings. I command that in all equity, and without delay, you provide Vauquelin, Abbot of Abingdon, with those same services which your ancestors provided in the days of King Henry, grandfather of our sovereign lord; and if you do not do so, then the King's justice and my own will make you do so.

  This is not the tone of a woman conscious of the narrow parameters of her authority. This is an imperious, dictatorial ruler confident in her power to enforce her decrees, while remaining aware that her husband retained ultimate control over affairs. Moreover, her actions during the reigns of her sons prove that she had gained considerable political experience, both in England and on her travels, and also through having known personally many of the great figures of the age, and by administering her own lands, a task for which she had been groomed since childhood. Eleanor would also have been conscious that, through Henry's marriage to her, England was enjoying increased prosperity,

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  largely due to an expansion of the wine trade with Gascony and the import of silk, both of which brought great wealth to London and its merchants. In addition England enjoyed beneficial cultural links with Aquitaine as a result of the marriage; many English churches of the period display southern influence in their architecture.

  Like Henry, Eleanor was constantly on the move, travelling throughout England, Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine. Often she accompanied the King and his court, but on many occasions she travelled alone, with an escort, apparently unfazed by stormy seas or the dangers that sometimes lurked on the roads.

  When the King and Queen were in England, they followed a tradition set by the Conqueror, by ceremonially wearing their crowns at special courts held at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun, either at Westminster or at Winchester, the old Saxon capital. On these occasions there would be formal processions and church services at which the royal couple made offerings and took communion, all with great ceremony.

  As Queen, Eleanor was very rich, although her wealth did not come from conventional sources. On his accession Henry endowed her with numerous manors. The precise details have not survived: the earliest extant charter for an English queen's dower is that of Isabella of Angouleme, wife of King John, which dates from May 1204 and states that Isabella's assignment was identical to Eleanor's. According to Roger of Hoveden, Eleanor held the same lands as had been assigned to the queens of Henry I and Stephen.

  Her dower manors should have provided Eleanor with substantial revenues in the form of annual rents, taxes, and yields, and houses in which to lodge while on her travels. However, it is clear from the records that Eleanor did not gain control of her dower until Henry's death, and that during his lifetime all her revenues went to the Exchequer, although she was at liberty to visit her manors.

  Her income came from two sources. Although little documentation exists, it is almost certain that Eleanor was the first English queen granted the right to claim queen-gold, an additional tenth payable to her on any voluntary fine over the value of ten marks, made in exchange for a licence or pardon from the crown, and on taxes on Jews; the first reference to queen-gold dates from Henry II's reign. It was paid direct to a clerk of the Exchequer appointed by the Queen; the clerk had a thankless task collecting it, for it was very unpopular. Eleanor was also paid dues by the sheriffs in whose bailiwicks she resided. These payments were authorised by the King.

  It may be inferred from these arrangements that Henry wished to retain control over her finances. In the 1180s Eleanor attempted to increase her revenue from queen-gold by extending the range of fines

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  on which it was levied, which suggests that she was finding Henry's constraints unwelcome.

  In fact, the financial independence of earlier queen consorts had been much eroded before Eleanor's time. In the eleventh century and earlier, queens had managed not only the royal household but also the royal treasure, which made them both influential and wealthy. By 1135, however, the supervision of the household and treasury had been delegated to officials, diminishing the importance of the Queen's role. However, Henry's constraints upon Eleanor's finances probably had little to do with this trend and everything to do with his determination to limit her powers of patronage and prevent her from alienating crown lands. Not until the mid-thirteenth century were queens of England allowed to administer their own estates and income.

  It was Henry, therefore, who paid the running costs of Eleanor's household and the salaries of the officials who administered her estates and of her personal servants. If she needed money for private expenditure, the Keeper of the Royal Wardrobe provided it.

  Eleanor was a pious woman and, like her husband, a great benefactor of religious institutions, especially in Poitou and Aquitaine. With Henry, she helped to fund the rebuilding of the church of Notre-Dame-la-Grande at Poitiers in the Gothic style, a project she instigated herself and which would take a century to complete; with Henry, also, she once made a pilgrimage, bearing rich gifts, to the heights of Rocamadour, to visit the oldest shrine to the Virgin in France. In 1190 she gave to the Knights Hospitaller the port of Le Perrot.

  Eleanor is also said to have built the tiny church of Saint-Pierre de Mons, near Belin, to which a curious legend attaches: in the twelfth century and later, local annalists claimed that she buried her "numerous bastards" in its churchyard. Considering that her life was lived on so public a stage, it is hardly likely that she could have produced one bastard, let alone several, without the more veracious chroniclers of the age recording the fact.

  Naturally, it was the abbey of Fontevrault that benefited most from the Queen's patronage and generous endowments, made over a period of nearly sixty years. In 1170, for example, she granted lands to the order, with the right to take timber and firewood from one of her forests, the charter being witnessed by Saldebreuil of Sanzay Raoul de Faye, Eleanor's chaplain Peter, and Jordan, her cler
k. She built a great octagonal kitchen for the nuns, which boasted five fireplaces and twenty chimneys, and which still stands today. When, in later years, her granddaughter, the daughter of Alix of France and Theobald of Blois, entered Fontevrault, Eleanor was lavish in her gifts to the girl.

  Thanks to Eleanor's patronage, Fontevrault's prestige increased, and

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  it was transformed from being a house offering a refuge to women of all classes, including prostitutes, into an aristocratic institution fashionable with the daughters of kings and nobles.

  In England, Eleanor was responsible for the spread of the Order of Fontevrault, founding cells at Eaton and Westwood; in 1177, Henry II, himself a generous patron of Fontevrault, also founded a cell, at Ames-bury in Wiltshire. Eleanor founded a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas in Tickhill Castle, Yorkshire, and endowed it, providing a warden and four chaplains. She and Henry also befriended the future saint, Gilbert of Sempringham, founder of the Gilbertine Order of nuns and canons. In the 1160s, when his laybrothers, irked by their poverty, accused the nuns and canons of fornication, the King and Queen rallied to Gilbert's side and five bishops declared the charges unfounded.

  All mediaeval queens gave alms for the expiation of their sins and, as was customary, Eleanor employed an almoner to distribute charity on her behalf, although details of her donations have not survived.

  Henry II was said to have had more learning than any other European monarch of the age, and to have constantly increased his store of knowledge. "With the King, there is school every day, constant conversation with the best scholars, and discussion of intellectual problems," wrote Peter of Blois. When the King had leisure, "he occupies himself with private reading or takes great pains in working out some knotty question among his clerks."25 Yet Eleanor also wielded considerable intellectual influence over the cultural life of the court and, indeed, of the twelfth century in general, because her patronage of troubadours and other literary figures facilitated the spread of sophisticated southern cultural traditions throughout the Angevin empire and later, through the marriages of her children, into other parts of Europe.

  Many writers and poets dedicated their works to Eleanor, among them the Norman Robert Wace, a native of Jersey, who presented his translation into French of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain to her around 1155-1157,26 saluting "noble Eleanor" as being "wise and of great virtue." Henry II also liked Wace's works and made him official court reader; in 1160 he asked Wace to compile a metrical history of the dukes of Normandy, Le roman de Rou (Rou being Rollo, first Duke of Normandy and direct ancestor of William the Conqueror). Most of the books commissioned by Henry or dedicated to him are of an historical nature, reflecting his interest in his forebears.

  Since the appearance of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae around 1135, the Arthurian legends had rapidly acquired popularity in England as well as in France, where Chretien de Troyes and

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  Marie de France developed the tradition at a highly sophisticated level. In no time at all, King Arthur had come to embody every contemporary ideal of knighthood and kingship. Many stories were told of him, most of them mythical, but in their day they were accepted as historical fact and eagerly retold and embellished by writers and poets. Only a few scholars, notably Ailred of Rievaulx and William of Newburgh, dared to question the veracity of Geoffrey's history.

  Both Henry and Eleanor were fascinated by the legends of King Arthur, or the "Matter of Britain," as they were then known. Henry had been taught them in childhood, while Eleanor had long been familiar with the romance of Tristan and Yseult; in one of his poems, Bernard de Ventadour had compared his love for her with that of the doomed lovers. Later, one of Henry and Eleanor's grandsons would be called Arthur.

  While Geoffrey of Monmouth had collected old Celtic legends and written the first popular account of King Arthur, Wace was the first writer to mention the Round Table, where no one knight had precedence. Prior to 1173, the poet Thomas wrote a romance of Tristan and Yseult, which survives only in part and was probably dedicated to the King and Queen. Marie de France, reputedly Henry's half sister, wrote five lays of King Arthur and Tristan and Yseult, while Eleanor's daughter, Marie, Countess of Champagne, was the patron of Chretien de Troyes, who wrote at least five poems based on the Arthurian legends, including "Perceval" and "Lancelot," and was the first to set them at Camelot and to recount the doomed romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. It has been suggested that Eleanor of Aquitaine may have been the inspiration behind some of the later legends surrounding Guinevere, but, although possible, this supposition rests only on very slender evidence.27

  By the 1170s, as a result of royal interest, the Arthurian legends had become enormously popular, both at court and throughout England, and indeed throughout all Christendom-- even as far away as Constantinople and Alexandria-- and it became fashionable for knights and ladies to emulate the chief characters, whose chivalric ethic reflected the aristocratic values of the twelfth century. Already people were flocking to sites associated with Arthur, such as Caerleon on the Welsh River Usk28 and Glastonbury in Somerset, which Henry and Eleanor themselves visited. Indeed, there was so much speculation that Arthur would one day return to his kingdom that a disconcerted Henry II instituted a search for the hero-king's grave at Glastonbury.29 In 1190, bones believed to be those of Arthur and Guinevere were exhumed there, along with a leaden cross inscribed "Here lies Arthur, the famous king, in the Island of Avalon." Thanks to this find, the Isle of Avalon has ever since

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  been identified with Glastonbury. The bones were reburied with great ceremony in the abbey church.30

  Other works dedicated to Queen Eleanor include romances of Oedipus and Aeneas, and we know that she enjoyed performances of mystery and miracle plays from a letter written by Peter of Blois, in which he congratulates his brother, Abbot William of Blois, on his tragedy Flora and Marcus, which had been played before the Queen, either at Westminster or Winchester.

  Cultivated it may have been, but Henry II's court was no haven for those with a taste for luxurious living. It was a hive of frenetic activity, which revolved around the ever-moving person of the King. Like all mediaeval courts, it was nomadic, staying at a succession of castles, palaces, abbeys, manor houses, and hunting lodges, and rarely remaining in one place for more than a few weeks or, in some cases, a few days. These frequent moves were made in order to serve the interests of the state, or to facilitate the King's hunting expeditions or enable a vacated residence to be cleaned: twelfth-century sanitation left a lot to be desired, being limited to primitive garderobes or chamber pots, and when 250 people had been staying in a house for any length of time, the stink could become unbearable, especially in summer.

  Henry II, more than any other contemporary monarch, was, as Walter Map complained, "forever on his travels, covering distances in unbearably long stages, like a courier, and in this respect merciless beyond measure to his household." "He does not linger in his palaces like other kings, but hunts through the provinces, inquiring into everyone's doing, and especially judges those whom he has made judges of others." 31 His companions moaned about "the miseries of court life":32 Walter Map grumbled that "we wear out our garments, break our bodies and our beasts, and never find a moment for the cure of our sick souls," yet the King did not seem to notice and "suffered patiently the discomforts of dust and mud."33

  When it came to making travelling arrangements, Henry was notoriously unpredictable. "If the King has said he will remain in a place for a day-- and particularly if he has announced his intention publicly by the mouth of a herald-- he is sure to upset all the arrangements by departing early in the morning. And then you see men dashing around as if they were mad, beating packhorses, running carts into one another-- in short, giving a lively imitation of Hell." Even those who had been bled or had taken laxatives were ordered to move or be left behind. Yet "if, on the one hand, the King orders an early start, he is sure to ch
ange his mind, and you can take it for granted that he will sleep

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  until midday. Then you will see the packhorses loaded and waiting, the carts prepared, the courtiers dozing, traders fretting and everyone grum-bling."34 Often the maids and doorkeepers knew more about the King's plans than the great lords and councillors.35

  The court on the move resembled a straggling procession of horses, wagons, baggage carts, and pack animals, including oxen, which were laden with all kinds of luggage. The Queen and other ladies either rode on horseback or in brightly painted but unsprung barrel-shaped wagons with leather roofs.

  When Henry II travelled, he took with him some of the royal treasure (leaving the bulk in the treasury at Winchester) and the chief departments of state, accompanied by the justiciar, the chancellor, and the Lord President of the Council, with their officials and all the paraphernalia of their work, such as parchments, documents, barrels of coins, and boxes of jewels. Most items were packed in chests, sacks, leather bags, or pouches.

 
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