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


  Another important hunting lodge, particularly favoured by Henry II, was situated at Clarendon in the New Forest, near Salisbury. Around 1176, the King ordered it to be rebuilt in palatial style with a magnificent hall, marble pillars, and a large wine cellar, and for the next two centuries it remained in constant use by his successors. Although the site is now overgrown, its partial excavation in 1978 revealed much valuable information about what life was like in a twelfth-century palace.

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  9. "The King Has Wrought a Miracle"

  During the 1154 Christmas court and afterwards there was a constant stream of magnates arriving at Bermondsey to discuss with the King "the state of the realm and the restoration of peace." They brought with them so many pet dogs, monkeys, parrots, and hawks that the great hall resembled a menagerie rather than a palace.1

  The King wasted no time in appointing his chief officers of state. The capable and trustworthy Richard de Lucy was made justiciar in association with Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, who had served Stephen loyally, yet worked tirelessly to secure Henry's succession. Nigel, Bishop of Ely, was made treasurer.

  It was probably during the Christmas court that Archbishop Theobald presented his most promising clerk, Thomas Becket, to the King, and warmly recommended him as an excellent candidate for the office of chancellor. Henry took an instant liking to Becket and agreed to the appointment without hesitation. Thus began one of the most famous friendships in history, a friendship that was to have far-reaching consequences for both men.

  Becket, who was of middle-class Norman parentage, had been born in London in 1118.2 His father was a wealthy merchant who arranged for young Thomas to be educated at Merton Priory and a London grammar school, before being sent to the schools of Paris, Bologna, and Auxerre to study law. Despite this very comprehensive education, Becket was no academic and never fully mastered Latin. A family friend who held the office of justiciar of London taught him business skills and accountancy, and in 1143 other influential friends, recognising his talent as an administrator, secured him an appointment as a clerk in the household of Archbishop Theobald, which entailed taking minor orders in the Church.

  The Archbishop soon recognised Becket's intelligence and administrative ability and earmarked him for promotion. Before long, he was

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  being sent on successful diplomatic missions to Rome and elsewhere, and by 1154 was the holder of several parishes and benefices and had been appointed Provost of Beverley and ordained Archdeacon of Canterbury It seems, however, that he was now resting on his laurels, for he grew over-worldly and lax in his duties, and was threatened by Theobald with excommunication if he did not improve.

  A spell abroad allowed tempers to cool, and when Becket returned, good relations were restored. By the time of Henry's accession, the Archbishop was convinced that Becket would not only make a good chancellor but would also be a loyal champion of the Church. Initially disappointed in this hope, for Becket proceeded to immerse himself wholeheartedly in secretariat matters and affairs of state, Theobald did not live to see how dramatically it would later be fulfilled.

  Becket was very tall and slim with dark hair, finely chiselled features, an aquiline nose, and rather effeminate, tapering hands. He was a good conversationalist, despite a slight stutter, and had great charm of manner. Like Henry, he was a man of enormous energy and versatile talent, whose chief pleasures were hunting, hawking, and chess, although unlike Henry he avoided encounters with women, having taken a vow of chastity in his youth. He was elegant, witty, generous, vain, and ambitious, and thrived on the public role that went with his promotion to chancellor, "throwing off the deacon" and indulging his love of display in magnificent clothes and an extravagant standard of living. He was the perfect courtier. However, he also took things to extremes, being self-willed, obstinate, manipulative, and uncompromising, and, as a consummate actor, he was well able to play the martyr in order to get what he wanted.

  His friendship with the King was unusually close, although no one has ever suggested that there was anything sexual about it; contemporaries observed that Becket stood with the King as Joseph did with Pharaoh. Henry, who was fifteen years younger, knew Becket's worth, and Becket in turn served him faithfully and efficiently as chancellor. "A man of diligence and industry, experienced in many and great affairs, he discharged the onerous duties of his office to the praise of God and the well-being of the whole realm."3 When it pleased him, the King could now relax and leave affairs in Becket's capable hands: "All things were entrusted to Thomas; while the King gave himself up to youthful pursuits, Thomas governed the whole realm according to his will."4

  As chancellor, Becket maintained a splendid household in London, which was paid for by his master and said to outshine the King's in splendour. It came to outrival the court as a forum for ambitious men and a school for the sons of the nobility. This did not bother Henry,

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  who was rather amused by it, but it aroused the envy of his courtiers, who felt themselves displaced. Yet Henry, who was bored by pomp and ceremony, and had little time for impressive displays, was happy to allow Becket to indulge his passion for such things, knowing that it would reflect well upon the wealth and status of his royal master. Therefore he denied him nothing. "The King bestowed upon him many revenues and received him so much into his esteem and familiarity that throughout the kingdom there was none his equal save the King alone."5

  The King and the chancellor greatly enjoyed each other's company and spent whole days together, hunting, feasting, discussing state affairs, or enjoying witty conversation.6 "The King and Becket played together like little boys of the same age, at the court, in church, in assemblies, in riding."7 Becket was occasionally the butt of Henry's practical jokes. Once, riding together through London in the depths of winter, they espied a beggar, shivering in the cold.

  "Would it not be a meritorious act to give that poor old man a warm cloak?" asked the King.

  Becket concurred.

  "Yours be the merit then!" cried his master, whipping off Becket's cloak and, foiling his attempts to recover it, tossing it to the beggar.8

  History does not record what Queen Eleanor thought of this friendship during these early years, although several historians have perceptively suggested that it relegated her to the sidelines of affairs and undermined her influence with the King. When Henry was abroad, it was Becket, rather than Eleanor, who dispensed patronage on Henry's behalf and received important visitors to England. Nor do we know Becket's opinion of Eleanor, although he was a close friend and colleague of John of Salisbury, whom he had met when both were in the service of Archbishop Theobald, and John could have told him several interesting-- and politically sensitive-- things about Eleanor's past. If so, he kept them to himself. There is no evidence that the Queen slighted Becket or bore him any malice during the period of his chancellorship. It may even have humoured her to take an opposite stance to her mother-in-law, the Empress Matilda, who disapproved of Becket and made no bones about saying so. Yet this was one issue on which Henry ignored his mother's otherwise welcome advice.

  The evidence for Eleanor's life as Henry's queen is at first sight fragmentary, yet when all the fragments are put together, a rounder picture emerges. Sometimes all we have is an itinerary, and an incomplete one at that, yet the surviving official documents give intriguing insights into different aspects of Eleanor's existence, offering clues as to what she was really like. What follows in this and the next few chapters is

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  an attempt to reconstruct this period of her life from these few precious sources.

  Feeling that he could safely leave the administration of his realm in the hands of his chancellor and justiciars, Henry left London at the end of January 1155 to establish his authority in other areas of his realm. Marching through East Anglia to York, he besieged several castles and crushed attempts at resistance by a few stubbornly rebellious barons.

  On Monday, 28 February 1
155, Eleanor, who had remained at Bermondsey, gave birth to a second son. The infant was baptised Henry by Richard de Belmeis, Bishop of London.9 About a month later, the King returned victorious, to greet the new arrival. Charters issued by him at this time to the canons of Holy Trinity and Christ Church were witnessed by Eleanor, Becket, and Richard de Lucy.

  The King intended that young Henry should succeed to Anjou.10 In April, with Eleanor, he travelled to Wallingford to present both princes to the barons and clergy and to command them to swear allegiance to his elder son, William, as the heir to England and, perhaps, Normandy; then, in the event of William's early death, to young Henry as his successor.11 Since William was styled Count of Poitiers, it appears that he had been designated his mother's heir. It was probably at around this time that Henry acknowledged his bastard son Geoffrey and took him into his household to be brought up with his legitimate sons.

  During the spring Eleanor prevailed upon Henry to undertake repairs to the Palace of Westminster, his chief residence. At Easter, he delegated responsibility for the work to Becket, who undertook it with such energy and enthusiasm that the palace was ready for occupation by Whitsun: a veritable army of workmen had accomplished in fifty days what would, in the normal run of things, have taken a year at least, although the noise they had made had been deafening.12

  Early in June, Eleanor took up residence at Westminster, but she was not there for long, since she accompanied the King on a tour through his now peaceful realm, visiting important castles and cities.13 It may have been at around this time that she commissioned the building of her own dock in Thames Street, known as Queenhithe. It was here, in a basin cut into the river bank next to Vintners' Quay, that ships from Aquitaine would in future find moorings. The entrance to the dock was by a great gatehouse, which remained for centuries one of the sights of London.

  In September, Eleanor moved with her household to Winchester to be reunited with Henry, who had spent some weeks hunting with Becket in the New Forest. On 29 September the barons attended a Michaelmas council to discuss the King's projected invasion of Ireland,

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  of which he had been named overlord by Pope Adrian IV, the only Englishman ever to occupy the throne of St. Peter. Ireland was then in chaos, torn by wars between feuding chieftains, and the Pope believed that Henry II was the only man who could bring it to order.

  Henry was enthusiastic at the prospect of conquering Ireland, and spoke of giving it to his youngest brother William, but the Empress Matilda, learning of his plans, was horrified, and came in haste to England to oppose them. Ireland, she told the council, was a poor land, full of barbarians, which would not be worth the trouble it would bring the King. When she revealed that her middle son, Geoffrey, was taking up arms to enforce his claim to Anjou and Maine, which his father had meant Henry to cede to him once he became king, Henry's interest in Ireland was immediately shelved and he began making plans to deal with Geoffrey.

  Henry and Eleanor remained at Winchester throughout the autumn; by the time they celebrated Christmas there, Eleanor knew she was pregnant again.

  On 10 January 1156, having spent more than a year in England, Henry crossed from Dover to Wissant and returned to Normandy to attend to the affairs of his continental fiefs, leaving Richard de Lucy as regent and placing Eleanor and their children under the guardianship of Archbishop Theobald and John of Salisbury; the Pipe Rolls show that the Queen was paid allowances for the two boys, and also record that she was supporting in her household her sister Petronilla and their two bastard brothers, William and Joscelin. During the period 1154-1158, there are thirty-six entries relating to Exchequer payments to William, as well as regular payments of generous sums for wine for Petronilla.

  On 5 February Henry met King Louis on the Norman border and finally paid him homage for Normandy, Anjou, and Aquitaine.14 He spent the next few months bringing Geoffrey to submission, and in the summer managed to buy him off with an annuity-- which he failed to pay in full-- and the castle of Loudun. Shortly afterwards, the lords of Nantes and southern Brittany, who had been warring over the Breton succession since the death of Count Conan III in 1148, offered Geoffrey the comital circlet, but he did not live long to enjoy it, dying at Nantes on 26 July 1158.

  During the spring Eleanor travelled widely about the realm, running up a high expenditure of £350.15 Although she was not officially associated with Richard de Lucy in the regency, the numerous writs issued in her name at this time attest to the fact that she was actively involved in government.

  In April or June (sources differ), Eleanor's eldest son, William, who

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  was not quite three years old, died at Wallingford Castle.16 The circumstances and cause of his death are unknown. He was buried at the feet of his great-grandfather, Henry I, in Reading Abbey.

  The grief that Henry and Eleanor felt at losing their son may have been somewhat mitigated by the birth of a daughter in June, either in London or, less probably, at Windsor Castle. The baby, who was baptised by Archbishop Theobald in the church of the Holy Trinity at Aldgate,17 was named Matilda in honour of the Empress. The Pipe Rolls record the purchase of a baby carriage for her.

  Late in July, Eleanor drew funds from the Exchequer and crossed the Channel with the new baby and the Lord Henry, and by 29 August had been reunited with the King at Saumur in Anjou. In October the family travelled south to Aquitaine, where they undertook a progress, receiving homage from Eleanor's vassals and taking hostages to ensure they did not break their oaths.18 At Limoges, in order to underline his authority, Henry made the young Viscount his ward and installed Norman officials to administer the county. One baron who had caused trouble for Eleanor in the past was the Viscount of Thouars,19 who had supported Geoffrey of Anjou in his recent conflict with his royal brother. Henry's vengeance was swift and thorough: he expelled the Viscount from his lands in Poitou and destroyed all his castles.

  Henry and Eleanor held their Christmas court at Bordeaux. By the end of February 1157, Eleanor was back in London with her children, leaving Henry to conclude his business on the continent. Soon after her return, she realised that another baby was on the way. Around 8 April, Henry followed her back to England, and at Whitsun they were at Bury St. Edmunds for a ceremonial crown-wearing.

  After Easter the King had begun planning a campaign against Owain Gwynedd, Prince of North Wales, who was threatening to take the city of Chester. When, at the end of July, he set out at the head of his army, Eleanor acted as regent. Henry did not fare well in Wales: he was unused to the guerrilla tactics employed by his opponents, who paid no heed to the normal rules of chivalry and routinely decapitated their enemies. During an early skirmish, Owain's men fell upon the English with such savagery that the royal standard was cast into the dust and the King was believed killed. Indeed, he barely escaped with his life, leaving many of his men dead in the field. At Rhuddlan, defeated, he negotiated a truce with Owain and returned to Chester.20 From there, he embarked on a progress that would take him the length and breadth of England.

  Thomas Becket, Richard de Lucy, and Robert de Beaumont were all summoned north to join the King, but Eleanor, because of her

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  advancing pregnancy, was obliged to remain at Westminster. In early August, Henry swept south through Warwickshire to Malmesbury, Windsor, Woodstock, and Oxford, where Eleanor was able to join him. There, in the King's House (later Beaumont Palace) on 8 September 1157, she gave birth to their third son. The Pipe Rolls record a payment of twenty shillings to cover the expenses of the confinement.

  The boy was christened Richard 21 and was given into the care of a nurse, Hodierna of St. Albans, whose own son, Alexander Nequam, had been born the same night. This boy, Richard's foster brother, grew up to be one of the greatest scientists of the age, the author of a treatise on natural history and the first European to study magnetism. Hodierna took care of Richard during his early years. As he grew, he became attached to her, and years later, when he became kin
g, he rewarded her for her care of him with a large pension. The old name for West Knoyle in Wiltshire, Knoyle Odierne, suggests that she may have retired there.

  It seems likely that Richard was designated the heir to Poitou and Aquitaine, in place of his deceased brother William. Ralph of Diceto implies that this son was special to Eleanor from birth, recalling one of the ancient prophecies of Merlin, which in the twelfth century were widely believed to apply to Henry II and his family: "The eagle of the broken covenant shall rejoice in her third nesting." Eleanor was the eagle, the broken covenant the dissolution of her marriage to Louis, and the third nesting was the birth of her third son, Richard.

  Once she was over her confinement, Eleanor joined Henry on his great progress, which initially took them to the north of England, where Malcolm IV of Scotland acknowledged the English King as his overlord and paid homage to him. Over the course of the next year, Henry travelled a staggering 3,500 miles, and for much of that time, if not all, Eleanor was with him.

  The Christmas court of 1157 was held at Lincoln. Afterwards, Henry returned north to ensure that castles taken from the Scots were properly garrisoned. Then, in the middle of January, he moved south through Yorkshire into Nottinghamshire, where he and Eleanor stayed at the royal manor of Blyth and the royal castle at Nottingham. They then crossed through Oxfordshire into Wiltshire, arriving in Worcestershire by Easter. After the Easter mass held in Worcester Cathedral, the King and Queen took part in a curious ceremony in which they renounced their crowns, taking them off and laying them upon the shrine of St. Wulfstan, solemnly vowing never to wear them again.22 Then it was on to Shropshire, Gloucestershire, and Somerset, before pressing north to Carlisle in June.

 
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