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

  The widowed Marguerite of France was allowed to retain some of her dower properties in Normandy and Anjou, although Henry kept a tight grip on others and on the Vexin, despite Philip's demands that he return them. In 1186, however, Philip agreed that the Vexin should be assigned to the dowry of his sister Alys,86 on condition that Henry pay Marguerite a large allowance. That same year she returned to Paris87 prior to marrying Bela III, King of Hungary; she died on a pilgrimage at Acre in the Holy Land in 1197.

  Bertran de Born wrote a poignant lament for the Young King: "Youth stands sorrowful, no man rejoices in these bitter days. For cruel Death, that mortal warrior, has harshly taken from us the best of


  knights." Moved by his eloquence, Henry restored to him his castle of Hautfort, which had been confiscated during the revolt.88 As for William the Marshal, who had been the Young King's guardian, mentor, and friend, he kept his promise and, taking the Young King's cross, departed immediately on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, grieving for his lost master.

  The chroniclers, however, drew a moral lesson from the Young King's death, which left "for the approval of the wise the opinion that sons who rise up against fathers to whom they owe everything are worthy only of being disinherited."89


  15. "Shame, Shame on a Conquered King!"

  In 1183 Henry was fifty and, thanks to his ceaseless exertions, aged beyond his years.1 His hair was grey, his stocky body had become corpulent, and years of sitting in the saddle had made him bow-legged. Thanks to a well-aimed kick from a horse, he was lame in one leg. His health had deteriorated and he was often troubled by chronic illnesses of an unspecified nature.

  Eleanor had now been his prisoner for a decade. She was sixty-one, and it appears, from her interview with Thomas Agnell, that years of confinement had wrought their effect and taught her wisdom, patience, and true piety. The death of their son and the Young King's dying request, together with the pleas of their daughter Matilda, may well have prompted a change in Henry's attitude towards her, but it was in fact for political reasons that he summoned her to Normandy in the late summer of 1183.

  Philip of France was insisting that certain properties in the duchy belonged to the Young Queen in right of her late husband, but Henry was adamant that they had in fact once belonged to Eleanor and that she had assigned them to her son for his lifetime, after which they would revert to her. To underline this, Henry determined that Eleanor should visit those lands to reassert her right to them.2 Geoffrey of Vigeois says that Eleanor stayed in Normandy for six months. This marked the beginning of a period in which she would be allowed greater freedom, albeit under supervision.3

  Once again she was to assume her place as Queen, even occasionally appearing in public at Henry's side,4 although she did not normally reside with him and there is no suggestion that their personal estrangement had ended. Yet there may have been some vestiges of affection between them: according to Giraldus, those whom Henry had once hated he rarely came to love, yet those "whom he had once loved, he rarely regarded with hatred." What he and Eleanor now achieved


  was a working, mutually beneficial relationship designed to preempt any resentment against the King on the part of their sons for the way in which he had treated her. Nevertheless, as events would show, Henry remained suspicious of Eleanor.

  Henry was at this time keeping Alys under guard at Winchester.5 Philip was insisting that he honour the agreements made at Ivry and Gisors and marry her to Richard forthwith,6 but again Henry stalled. Personal considerations apart, the last thing he wanted to see was Richard allied by marriage to the French King, whom he suspected would use this alliance to turn Richard against him. In any case, Henry was more preoccupied with making peace between his sons and an equitable settlement for them.

  Since the dispositions of the Treaty of Montmirail could no longer apply, Henry sought, late in 1183, to make a fairer division of his empire between Richard and John: it seemed unfair that Richard should receive England, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, and Aquitaine and John only Ireland and some estates in England and on the continent. This state of affairs prompted Henry to nickname John "Lackland," an epithet that, in the light of future events, was curiously prophetic.

  John was undoubtedly Henry's favourite legitimate son. Now sixteen, he was about five feet six inches tall 7 and favoured his brother Geoffrey in looks, having thick, dark red, curly hair and a strongly built body, which, as he grew older, became portly as a result of overindulgence in good food and wine. We do not know what John really looked like: his effigy in Worcester Cathedral is a stylised representation that was sculpted some years after his death and cannot be termed a portrait in any sense of the word.

  John had been well educated, firstly at Fontevrault, then in the household of the Young King, and latterly in that of the justiciar, Ranulf Glanville; since Glanville was also Eleanor's custodian, it is possible he sometimes brought the boy to visit his mother. Giraldus thought that, of all the Angevin brood, John and Geoffrey were the most alike, and that John was at least as bright as his clever brother, having a sharp, inquiring mind and being able to read. In later life he acquired many theological manuscripts from Reading Abbey, and also works by Pliny and French historians, all of which would form the nucleus of the future royal library. Although he showed no interest in the songs and culture of the troubadours, he loved music. Yet for all his education, he was "light minded,"8 preferring the superficial to the substantial.

  John was self-indulgent and greedy, and had a relaxed approach to life. He loved hunting, hawking, carousing, gambling, and playing


  backgammon with amusing companions. He was a genial host who dispensed lavish hospitality, and his wit, conversational skills, and very accessibility brought him popularity of a sort. He lived in luxury, spending extravagantly on fine clothes and gold ornaments for himself, and accumulated a large collection of jewellery. He was also, by the standards of his day, fastidious.

  Like his father, he was rampantly promiscuous, and even noblewomen were not safe from being abducted and raped by him. "Not a woman was spared if he was seized by the desire to defile her in the heat of his lust."9 When, as a young man, he tried to seduce the wife of Sir Eustace de Vesci, Eustace smuggled a whore into John's bed in her place. The next day, when John boasted to Eustace about how good his wife had been in bed, Eustace could not resist telling him the truth, thereby provoking so angry a reaction that he was obliged to flee the court.10

  John had at least seven bastards, probably more. The mother of his daughter Joan, who married Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Wales, was Clementia, wife of Henry Pinel. The names of other mistresses appear in the records, but none seems to have enjoyed John's attentions for long, although he was generous to them while they were in favour. The evidence suggests that he was emotionally shallow.

  Usually lethargic and indolent, John could, when he wished to, display as much energy and vigour as Henry II and Duke Richard. Although he disliked war and had no time for tournaments, he displayed on occasion talent and even brilliance as a military commander, but was all too often fatally dilatory, a failing that later earned him the nickname "John Softsword." He was intelligent and able, but also ruthless, tenacious, restless and impatient like his father, and temperamentally incapable of keeping faith with anyone, having a reputation for being untrustworthy, cunning, crafty, and suspicious of all around him.

  William of Newburgh called John "Nature's enemy": although the tales of his cruelty have undoubtedly been exaggerated, he was certainly capable of being cruel,11 and had no qualms about committing murder when it was expedient to do so. Having inherited the notorious Angevin temper, he would, when in a rage, bite and gnaw his fingers, or even set fire to the houses of those who had offended him.

  John was by no means a good man, yet later chroniclers, looking back on his reign, would paint a much blacker picture of him than those writing in his youth or his early years as king. "
Foul as it is, Hell itself is defiled by the very presence of John," wrote Matthew Paris in the thirteenth century. Roger of Wendover called him a cruel tyrant who had failed as a king. Many of these later chroniclers in fact


  embellished and exaggerated the scandalous tales and rumours that abounded during John's reign and after his death.

  John's bad press in the monastic chronicles may be attributed to his failures as a king and his cynical contempt for religion; he quarrelled with the Church during his reign and was excommunicated. It may be that his early years in Fontevrault had had a detrimental and lasting effect on him, although his critics would claim that it was his immorality that led him astray from the teachings of the Church. He "led such a dissipated life that he ceased to believe in the resurrection of the dead and other articles of the Christian faith [and] made blasphemous and ribald remarks,"12 his favourite oaths being "By God's teeth!" or "By God's feet!"13 He took a gleeful pleasure in shocking churchmen, rarely observed feast or fast days, and once, seeing a buck slaughtered at the end of a hunt, remarked, "You happy beast, never forced to patter prayers nor dragged to Holy Mass."14 His scepticism was alarming in that age of faith.

  It has been suggested that John was conceived at a time when his parents' marriage was soured by his father's infidelities and born at the height of Henry's affair with Rosamund; that consequently his mother did not love him and abandoned him to the nuns of Fontevrault; and that it was this that accounted for his flawed character. There is, however, no evidence that Eleanor did not love her son. On the contrary, it was she who made tremendous efforts to secure his peaceful succession to the throne, and there is ample evidence of a supportive bond between them.

  Eleanor may have been a distant mother-- she was a prisoner for much of John's childhood-- but Henry spoiled John. The boy had inherited the charm that characterised his family, but it blinded others, especially his indulgent father, to his faults, which seem to have gone largely unchecked in youth. After removing John from Fontevrault, Henry kept him frequently with him and did his best to provide this son with a great inheritance, sometimes, as we have seen, with disastrous results. He was about to make another blunder now.

  Summoning Richard, Geoffrey, and John to Angers,15 Henry commanded them to make peace with one another and with him, as their father and their liege lord. He demanded that Richard cede Poitou and Aquitaine to John, so that John could swear fealty to him as their new ruler. An appalled Richard-- who regarded himself first and foremost as a southerner, who had been brought up from infancy as his mother's heir and had spent years fighting to impose his authority on his unruly subjects-- could not bring himself to give the King an answer, and stole


  away from Angers, burning with resentment. Arriving back in Poitou, he sent Henry a message declaring that under no circumstances would he yield a furrow of his land to anyone.16

  Soon Richard had further cause for grievance. The repeated postponement of Richard's marriage to Alys of France had led Philip to believe that Henry still intended to repudiate Eleanor and dispossess his sons, so that he could marry Alys himself and start a new family.17 Richard himself was suspicious of Henry's intentions, and now realised that his own marriage to Alys was politically to his advantage, for it would gain him a powerful ally in the French King and thereby help to protect and consolidate his position as Henry's heir, since Henry would not risk alienating Philip by disinheriting his sister's husband. Setting aside any scruples he may have had, Richard appealed to the Church to support him, while Philip asked Henry for a parley to discuss the matter.

  The two kings met on 6 December 1183 at Gisors. Henry declared that he could not assign the Young King's lands in Normandy and Anjou to his widow because they belonged to Eleanor, and he could prove this. Geoffrey of Vigeois asserts that it was at this time that Henry summoned Eleanor from England to make her six-month progress through these lands, but that cannot have been so, since Eleanor was at Berkhamsted the following Easter, and it is more likely that she had begun her tour in the late summer and was still in Normandy at the time of the conference.

  When Philip asked what was to become of Alys, Henry promised that if she was not immediately married to Richard, she would soon be married to John. Hearing this, Philip and later Richard were alarmed, for it seemed to confirm their suspicions that Henry meant to make John his heir, which may well have been the case, although the evidence to support such a theory is inconclusive.

  Their business concluded, Henry did homage to Philip for his continental domains, ominously revoking into his own hands all the territories he had assigned to his sons,18 and thus making them completely dependent on him.

  Henry had desired peace with his sons, but it became clear that this was only on his own terms, and their resentment would cause such discord during the remaining years of his life that "he could find no abiding state of happiness or enjoyment of security."19

  Eleanor returned to England probably early in 1184. She kept Easter at Becket's former castle at Berkhamsted, where she was visited by her daughter Matilda, then seven months pregnant. Although the Queen


  was from now on allowed more freedom of movement, she was still in the custody of Ralph FitzStephen, who at Easter received payment of £32 14s for her allowance for the period 1 April to 24 June. After Easter Eleanor moved to Woodstock, where she seems to have stayed until June.20

  On 10 June, Henry himself returned to his kingdom, where "all his subjects were enjoying the delights of peace."21 "Within a few days, at Winchester, the Duchess [Matilda of Saxony] bore a son, called William,"22 who would be brought up in England. Eleanor was present for the confinement. During this year her name begins to appear more frequently in the Pipe Rolls, which indicate that her household had perhaps been enlarged and which record gifts from the King, at a cost of over £28, of a scarlet gown lined with grey miniver, a saddle worked with gold and trimmed with fur, some embroidered cushions, and also various items for the Queen's maid Amaria.

  Alys of France was still being held at Winchester, but there is no record of her meeting Eleanor. Later events would show that the Queen had no love for this girl with whom Henry had tried to supplant her. It is likely that Henry's affair with Alys was still ongoing, although the Pipe Rolls hint that he in fact had another mistress at this time. There is an intriguing payment of £55 17s "for clothes and hoods and cloaks, and for the trimming for two capes of samite and for the clothes of the Queen and of Bellebelle, for the King's use." Since the clothes and trimmings were hardly for the King's use, we must assume that Bellebelle was.

  In July, Eleanor and the Duke and Duchess of Saxony, with their children, moved to Berkhamsted, where they stayed for the rest of the summer.23

  The dispute between Henry and Richard over the assignment of Poitou and Aquitaine to John had still not been resolved. In the autumn of 1184 Geoffrey allied himself with John and together they raided Poitou; in retaliation, Richard plundered Brittany.24

  In November the King ordered his warring sons to lay down their arms and come to England, where he intended to force them to a settlement. On the 30th, St. Andrew's Day, Eleanor was at long last reunited with them when, at Henry's command, she joined him and their children at a court convened at Westminster to bring about a concord between the royal princes25 and elect a new Archbishop of Canterbury.

  Henry had invited Eleanor for a purpose. Ostensibly she was there to witness the reconciliation of her sons, but he also wanted her support for his plans regarding their inheritances. Summoned to the council


  chamber, she was seated in the place of honour and she watched as Richard, Geoffrey, and John were called forward to make peace publicly with one another and give the kiss of peace.26 The King then asked Eleanor, as Duchess of Aquitaine, to approve the assignment of Poitou and Aquitaine to John, on the grounds that it constituted a fairer distribution of his empire, but the Queen, supported by Richard, the newly elected A
rchbishop Baldwin of Canterbury, and some lords of the council, refused to cooperate. Realising that King Philip, as her overlord, would undoubtedly also support her, if only to drive a wedge through the Angevin family, Henry backed down.

  Before Christmas, the King sent Geoffrey to Normandy to take charge of the duchy in his absence, a move that astonished observers and led to rumours that Henry was contemplating naming Geoffrey as his heir. Geoffrey's duchess, Constance, had recently given birth to her first child, a daughter, who was baptised Eleanor in honour of the Queen;27 during the following year, 1185, Constance bore another daughter, Matilda or Mary, who died young.

  At Christmas the remaining members of the family were together again at Windsor.28 The chroniclers record frustratingly few details of these royal gatherings, yet entries in the Pipe Rolls confirm that they were occasions of some splendour, payments being made for wines, spices, wax for candles, cattle, furs, and "entertaining trifles suitable for feasts." After Christmas Richard returned to Poitiers, while Eleanor remained in England; early in 1185 she was at Winchester, probably in the company of Matilda and her family.

  Around this time it became clear that King Baldwin IV was dying of leprosy. Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, led an embassy to England to offer Henry the throne of Jerusalem for his son John. The prospect of a crown had John on his knees begging his father to accept it on his behalf, but for various reasons Henry refused.29 Instead, he decreed, John should go to Ireland and govern it on his behalf. On 31 March he knighted his son at Windsor, and arranged for him to depart for Ireland on 25 April. It seemed that John would have a kingdom after all: the Pope sent him a golden crown adorned with peacocks' feathers, hoping that his father would see fit to have him crowned King of Ireland.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]