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


  Richard had taken pity on the young daughter (whose name is not recorded) of Isaac Comnenus and had entrusted her to Berengaria's care. According to Geoffrey de Vinsauf, an eyewitness, she was a mere child, but several chroniclers allege that the King spent long hours in the girl's company and hint darkly that his interest in her was less than honourable. It was sufficient to arouse disapproval among the clergy who attended him, especially in view of his recent penance.

  On 5 June, taking Berengaria and Joanna with him, Richard sailed east to the Holy Land, arriving three days later at the city of Acre, which had been under siege by the forces of Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, for two years now. Since the founding of the crusader kingdoms of Outremer, Acre had been the major port for Jerusalem; it was therefore of great commercial and strategic importance, and its recapture was the primary objective of the crusaders.

  The arrival of King Richard and his army boosted the confidence of the exhausted, famished, and demoralised besiegers. He took command at once and reorganised operations with his usual energy and efficiency despite having contracted malarial fever. Saladin himself was so impressed by his enemy's fortitude that he sent him gifts of fruit and food. Richard chivalrously responded by presenting the Emir with a black slave. Although the two never met, they had a high regard for each other, despite being bitter foes.

  On 12 July, thanks to Richard's strenuous efforts, Acre surrendered and the King moved with his wife and sister into the royal palace. He was annoyed to find that, alongside his own standard, another banner was flying from the roof--- one that had no right to be there, since its owner, Duke Leopold of Austria, had played little part in the taking of the city. An enraged Richard ordered it to be torn down and flung into the filthy moat, and made disparaging remarks about Leopold, 33 insults the Duke never forgot, and which would one day have serious consequences for the English King. That night, Leopold withdrew with his men from the crusade, swearing vengeance.

  The victory at Acre was also marred by Richard's savage retribution. He announced that, unless Saladin came to terms within a week, every

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  Saracen prisoner would be taken outside the city and put to death in order to avenge the massacre of the Templars and Hospitallers in Jerusalem in 1187. Saladin refused to surrender; nor would he free Christian prisoners or deliver up the True Cross. Consequently, ignoring the pleas of his fellow crusaders, Richard gave the order for the mass beheading of between 2,700 and 3,000 Turkish men, women, and children. 34 It was an atrocity that is remembered with horror to this day in the Middle East, 35 and for centuries afterwards Turkish mothers would discipline their children with threats of "Malik Ric" (Evil Richard).

  Richard's triumph aroused only jealousy in the breast of his ally, Philip, who had also fallen a victim to malaria. On 22 July he announced to a contemptuous Richard that he was too ill to go on with the crusade and was returning to France.36 His real purpose, however, was to lay claim to Artois and Vermandois and then-- far more important to his future plans-- undermine the stability of Richard's continental domains during the absence of their ruler.

  By 24 June, Eleanor had returned via Bourges to Rouen, where she took up residence, keeping a wise eye on events across the Channel. Walter of Coutances, meanwhile, had travelled on to England, 37 where to his dismay he found political chaos.

  At the end of March, John had taken Walter of Coutances's advice and incited a revolt against William Longchamp, seizing the royal castles of Tickhill and Nottingham. The chancellor suddenly found himself fighting on two fronts, for the marcher baron Roger Mortimer chose this moment to launch an insurrection on the Welsh border. Having reduced Wigmore Castle, Longchamp raced across the country to besiege Lincoln, which John had occupied. John, whose anger knew no bounds when he heard that Longchamp supported Richard's decision to name Arthur his heir, was now consumed with a deadly determination to bring down the chancellor.38 This was the situation when Walter of Coutances took charge of affairs.

  Careful not to offend either Longchamp or John and make enemies of them, the Archbishop acted as a conciliator. He went to great lengths to work with Longchamp on an equitable basis, not revealing his commission to supersede him should the need arise. The chancellor found the Archbishop sympathetic, for it was plain to Coutances that Longchamp-- however misguidedly-- was acting in what he thought to be the King's best interests, while John was intent only upon serving his own interests. Nevertheless, Richard of Devizes accuses Coutances of duplicity in his dealings with Longchamp.

  Indeed, at that time it seemed very likely that John might soon be king. Many believed-- and John himself deliberately fostered this

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  belief--- that Richard would never return from the Holy Land,39 and it seemed unlikely that the English barons would accept Arthur of Brittany, a boy of four, as their ruler. John, whose popularity had benefited from his self-appointed role as leader of the opposition to the hated Longchamp, would almost certainly be their preferred choice.

  By the end of July, thanks to Coutances's careful handling of the situation, a settlement was reached. John was made to surrender the castles he had taken, and Longchamp, realising that his power had been cleverly limited and eager to make concessions, now sought to ally himself to John by agreeing to support his claim to the succession over that of Arthur of Brittany, Richard's designated heir.40 This, however, did not prevent John from continuing to intrigue against Longchamp, and at one point the latter warned Coutances that John was plotting to seize the crown itself.

  On 22 August, leaving Berengaria and Joanna at Acre, King Richard began his march towards the greatest prize of all-- Jerusalem. This was no easy venture, for his provisions were dwindling and the army was shadowed by the Saracens all the way, but by the end of August the King was at Ascalon, and on 7 September he won a brilliant victory over Saladin on the plains of Arsuf, fighting with terrifying ferocity. Two days later, the crusaders took Jaffa (modern Tel Aviv).

  So far, the crusade had been a resounding success, but now Richard succumbed again to the malaria and dysentery that plagued many crusaders, and was seriously ill for several weeks. Philip had gone home to France, and several of Richard's allies and friends had perished, among them Philip of Flanders and Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury. Yet the King was determined to press on with the great enterprise as soon as he was able.

  On 18 August, Geoffrey had been consecrated Archbishop of York at Tours. Ignoring his undertaking to Richard to remain out of England for three years, he prepared to cross the Channel to take up his episcopal duties.

  William Longchamp was determined to keep him out of the kingdom. He asked Baldwin VIII, the new Count of Flanders, to prevent Geoffrey from leaving the continent, and ordered the sheriff of Sussex to forbid him to disembark. On 14 September, however, Geoffrey landed at Dover, only to be confronted by Longchamp's sister Richent, wife of the castellan of Dover, and by a party of knights, who demanded that he take an oath of fealty to the King and the chancellor. Geoffrey refused, saying that he had already sworn fealty to the King and had no intention of doing so to a traitor, then prudently sought

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  sanctuary in the Benedictine priory of St. Martin at Dover. The next day, however, he found himself besieged by troops summoned by the irate Richent. Four days later, in violation of the rights of sanctuary, he was dragged by the arms and legs from the altar where he had been assisting at mass, and pulled through the mud to Dover Castle, where he was imprisoned in a dungeon.41

  The people of England were outraged at such mistreatment of an archbishop and, recalling the fate of Becket, adopted Geoffrey as their hero of the hour, hailing him as another champion of the liberties of the Church. Longchamp was held responsible for his plight, and in vain did the chancellor protest that he had never ordered Geoffrey's arrest. No one believed him, and he hastened to order the Archbishop's release. But the damage had been done. Bishop Hugh of Lincoln excommunicated the castellan of Dover and his wife and thos
e who had dared lay hands on the Archbishop, and Geoffrey was brought in triumphal procession through the streets of London, while Longchamp took refuge at Windsor.

  Seeing Longchamp in such a precarious position, John pressed home his advantage, setting himself up as the champion of the righteous and oppressed. Rallying the chancellor's enemies-- among them Geoffrey of York and Hugh de Puiset-- at his own castle of Marlborough, he marched via Oxford to Reading, where he issued writs for the Great Council to assemble on 5 October. Longchamp was summoned to meet John at a bridge on the River Loddon, four miles from Reading, but dared not turn up. Deserted by all his supporters, he fled to the Tower of London and barricaded himself in.42

  When the council met, Walter of Coutances listened to the complaints against the chancellor, heard John accuse him of breaching the limits of his authority and "moving pompously along bearing a sneer in his nostrils,"43 then called for his deposition, to which all present agreed.

  On 7 October, Count John came to London at the head of an army, which he ordered to occupy the city. Summoning the citizens to St. Paul's Cathedral, he had Longchamp's misdemeanours proclaimed and was gratified to hear their approval of the chancellor's deposition and banishment. In reward, John bestowed upon them the right to self-government under an elected mayor, a privilege that Londoners had long coveted. On the authority of the papal mandate obtained by Queen Eleanor, Walter of Coutances was thereupon appointed head of a council of regency, in which capacity he immediately sequestered all Longchamp's estates on behalf of the crown.

  On 29 October, having surrendered his castles and given up his brothers as hostages, Longchamp was transferred from the Tower to Dover

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  Castle, whence he escaped, disguised as a woman, aiming to flee the realm. John was much amused to hear, however, that he had been arrested after his disguise had been discovered by an amorous fisherman, and agreed that he be allowed to go into exile in France.

  Freed of this encumbrance, John now devoted all his energy, charm, and talent to consolidating his own position as the future king. Richard of Devizes states that he made a point of travelling far and wide throughout the realm, making himself known-- as Richard had never made himself known-- to all classes, and courting the favour of the commons. Drawing on his huge revenues, he showed himself liberal, affable, magnificent, and lavishly hospitable. Not only did he preside over his own court, but he dispensed his own justice. He also spread rumours that Richard had named him as his heir and that the King would never return from the crusade. "It lacked nothing but that he should be hailed as king," observed Richard of Devizes. But the English barons remained impervious to his devious ploys: they had no intention of replacing Richard with his untrustworthy brother while there was a chance that the King might return to reproach them for it. Nevertheless, while there was still a strong likelihood that John might soon be king, most magnates showed themselves friendly towards him, fearful of his future vengeance if they did not.44

  Longchamp, meanwhile, made his way to Rouen, demanding as chancellor of England-- an office of which only King Richard could deprive him-- and as papal legate to see the Queen and lay his grievances before her. This put Eleanor in a dilemma: she fully approved of his dismissal-- Longchamp had been nothing but a troublemaker-- and had nothing to say to him, yet she did not want him going to Paris to stir up trouble with the French. Nevertheless, that was what he did, bribing some citizens to afford him the welcome merited by his high office. 45

  In Paris he met two cardinals from Rome, Jordan and Octavian, who had been sent by the Pope to heal the rift between Longchamp and Walter of Coutances 46 and who were prepared to lay Longchamp's grievances before Queen Eleanor at Rouen. The Queen, however, refused to see them, declaring herself satisfied that justice had been done. Secretly she feared that the cardinals had come on Philip's behalf, since Alys was still a prisoner at Rouen, 47 and Eleanor had received no instructions from Richard for her release. When the cardinals tried to cross the Norman border at Gisors, the Seneschal of Normandy raised the drawbridge against them and informed them that they could not pass without the Queens safe-conduct. 48

  The cardinals "swelled with rage" on being denied entry, but Eleanor refused to be intimidated by their threats of excommunication, and

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  in the end they were obliged to depart, muttering that it was "meet for the servants of the Lord to suffer contumely for His adversaries." As a parting shot, they excommunicated the seneschal and placed Normandy under an interdict, although Eleanor was specifically excluded from the ban. 49

  It was the season of anathemas. Longchamp excommunicated every member of the regency council except John, and in retaliation the bishops excommunicated Longchamp and placed his diocese of Ely under an interdict. This brought great misery to the people living there, who spent the winter cut off from the comfort of the Church's sacraments.50

  On 2 November, Geoffrey was solemnly enthroned as Archbishop in a magnificent ceremony in York Minster. A jealous Hugh de Puiset failed to attend, however, and when he ignored Geoffrey's summons to explain his absence, the Archbishop excommunicated him. This angered those canons of York who had voted against Geoffrey's election and would have preferred Bishop Hugh, and when the Archbishop highhandedly refused to heed their protests, a major row developed, which rapidly reached a stalemate.

  By October, Richard had been joined in Jaffa by his wife and his sister, who remained in residence in the city after the King, having dragged himself from his sickbed, had pressed on towards Jerusalem. What he did not know was that, during his illness, his allies had concluded a truce with Saladin's brother Safadin, and that if any assault was to be made on the Holy City, it would be made by him alone.

  Richard himself now tried to bargain with Saladin, offering his sister Joanna as a bride for the Emir's brother Safadin, with a view to their jointly ruling the Holy Land as King and Queen of Jerusalem, on condition that Christians be granted access to the holy places, but this plan was scuppered by an offended Joanna, who stoutly, and very publicly, refused to marry a Moslem.

  In Normandy, around this time, the Queen appointed the talented Peter of Blois as her chancellor and Latin secretary. Now fifty-six, this Breton aristocrat had been educated in the schools of Paris and had for a time been attached to the court of Sicily. Such was his reputation as a scholar that Henry II had invited him to England and conferred upon him several court offices, including that of secretary to the King. Later, Peter had served Archbishop Baldwin in the same capacity. A brilliant writer, he peppered his letters with sharp, acerbic wit and perspicacious observation; Henry II had been so impressed by them that he had amassed a collection. Peter was, however, a difficult man to work with, being vain, pedantic, and eternally dissatisfied with his position in life,

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  complaining constantly that he never received the preferment his talents deserved. Nevertheless, he stayed with Eleanor for some years and served her well.

  In the Holy Land, winter fell. In December, Richard reached Beit-Nuba, only twelve miles from Jerusalem, but severe seasonal rains precluded any assault on the Holy City. He spent Christmas at Latrun, west of Jerusalem, in the company of Berengaria, Joanna, and King Guy of Jerusalem. When he discovered how he had been deserted by his allies, his rage was terrible indeed.

  Eleanor spent the Christmas of 1191 holding court either at Bures or at Bonneville-sur-Touques (near modern Deauville) in Normandy. While there, she learned of Philip's return to a hero's welcome in France, and also learned that, in order to retrieve his own reputation, he was now imputing his sudden abandonment of the crusade to Richard's insolence, pride, and treachery, s1 He was even uttering dark hints that he had been poisoned, although his symptoms were merely those of severe malaria and dysentery. Aware that Philip's accusations were all ploys to enable him to ignore the Truce of God and have his revenge on Richard for abandoning Alys,52 and receiving the alarming intelligence that he was planning to invade Normandy,53 Eleanor
immediately realised that it would be up to her to maintain the peace in the Angevin domains, since the French King would be sure to take advantage of any disputes. Above all, John's ambition must be contained.

  In the middle of the winter of 1191-1192, determined to thwart Philip's treacherous designs, Eleanor commanded the seneschals of all castles guarding the Angevin borders to repair and strengthen their fortifications and ensure their garrisons were fully manned. When, in the third week of January, Philip launched an assault on Gisors, it failed. 54 That same month, the French King demanded the return of his sister Alys, but Eleanor, who had no mandate for this, refused. Then came news of John's perfidy.

  Philip had wasted no time in wooing John with false promises. Early in 1192, after his own barons had refused to break the Truce of God and invade Normandy, he offered John all Richard's continental domains in return for John's undertaking to marry Alys and surrender Gisors to Philip. Notwithstanding the fact that he already had a wife, John eagerly agreed and prepared to cross the Channel with an army of mercenaries in order to pay homage to Philip for the promised lands and lay Normandy wide open to him.

  Fortunately, warnings about his activities reached Eleanor in Normandy.55 "Fearing that the light-minded youth might be going to attempt something, by the counsels of the French, against his lord and

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  brother,"56 and knowing that no one but herself had the power to restrain him, "with an anxious mind" 57 she made haste to England. On 11 February she arrived in Portsmouth-- -just in time to prevent John from sailing from Southampton.58

 
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