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


  Realising that the unity of the kingdom was essential at this time of crisis, the Queen exacted new oaths of allegiance to the King from the lords and clergy. "Queen Eleanor, the King's mother, and Walter of Coutances and other barons did their utmost to conserve the peace of the kingdom, seeking to join together hearts which were permanently at loggerheads."20

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  In February 1193, in return for the promise of part of the ransom Henry VI intended to demand, Leopold handed over his illustrious prisoner to the Emperor,21 who had Richard moved from Dürnstein to the eleventh-century castle of Trifels, perched high above the little town of Annweiler in the forests on the Swabian border.22 His journey took him via Ratisbon (Regensburg) and Würzburg, and it was just south of Würzburg, at Ochsenfurt, in the middle of March, that the Abbots of Boxley and Pont-Robert briefly met their king, whom they found in good spirits, determined to outwit the Emperor.23

  Richard's brother-in-law and Henry VI's chief adversary, Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, and other German princes protested vehemently against Richard's continuing imprisonment, but the Emperor silenced their protests by threatening to have the King executed for his alleged crimes if they did not desist. This was a mere bluff, for he secretly intended to use his captive for more lucrative purposes.

  On 23 March, Richard was brought before the imperial council, or Diet, at nearby Speyer on the Rhine24 to answer certain charges, but spoke up so well for himself that the Emperor was moved to give him the kiss of peace.

  Present at this ceremony was Richard's loyal servant Hubert Walter, Bishop of Salisbury, who had learned of his master's capture in Sicily while travelling back to England from the Holy Land, and had immediately gone to Rome to seek the Pope's advice as to what he should do. Celestine told Hubert to go to Germany and seek out the King, then assist him as best he could. Hubert had hastened north, tracking down his master by trailing rumours from town to town.25

  Richard had a high opinion of Hubert Walter. Tall, elegant, and handsome, Hubert hailed from East Angha and was the nephew of the former justiciar Ranulf Glanville. An expert lawyer and administrator, he had served the Angevins well, first as chaplain to Henry II, then as a royal judge, a baron of the exchequer, Dean of York, and latterly as Bishop of Salisbury. During the crusade he had worked tirelessly to assist injured and dying soldiers, and Richard had entrusted him with the task of leading his army home. When Hubert arrived at Speyer, the King decided that he was the obvious candidate to replace Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury, and sent him back to England with letters authorising the Queen to secure his appointment as primate.

  During March, the two abbots returned from Germany and reported to Eleanor that they had seen the King. They also warned her that the Emperor was likely to demand a large ransom in return for Richard's release.

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  Eleanor was alarmed to learn that her beloved son was now a prisoner of the Emperor, for she had heard something of Henry's reputation, and it was probably this that prompted her to write the first of three extraordinary letters to Pope Celestine III. After his initial censures, the Pontiff had promised three times to send a legate to intercede with Richard's captors, but had failed to do so. Eleanor felt that he should be doing a lot more to alleviate the situation, and now angrily castigated him for his tardiness in aiding a crusader who was supposed to be under the Church's protection.

  Copies of the letters she sent were preserved among the papers of her secretary, Peter of Blois, who almost certainly had a hand in their composition, since his style is evident in parts, and it is unlikely-- although not impossible-- that Eleanor was sufficiently erudite to include so many citations from scripture. Some modern historians believe that Peter composed the letters himself as an exercise in Latin rhetoric. There is no record of their dispatch, nor of their receipt in Rome. Yet this does not mean to say that the Pope never received them, since most letters of the period are lost. It is true that these remarkable letters were not attributed to Eleanor until the seventeenth century, yet why the connection was not made earlier remains a mystery, given the salutations, the authenticity of the detail, and the passionate sentiments expressed, which are in keeping with what we know from other sources of the period of Eleanor's feelings, actions, and character. Moreover there is some evidence of a papal response to the second letter. The conclusion must be, therefore, that Eleanor not only initiated this correspondence but was also its coauthor.

  Because so few of Eleanor's letters survive, this one has been quoted at length, especially since it gives us such a graphic and intimate view of the Queen's personal feelings, and in particular the anguish and anger she felt at this time, and her fears for her son-- rare in a mediaeval royal letter:26

  To the reverend Father and Lord Celestine, by the grace of God, the Supreme Pontiff, Eleanor, the miserable and-- would I could add-- the commiserated Queen of England, Duchess of Normandy, Countess of Anjou, entreats him to show himself to be a father of mercy to a pitiful mother.

  O holiest Pope, a cursed distance between us prevents me from addressing you in person, but I must give vent to my grief a little, and who shall assist me to write my words? I am all anxiety, both within and without, whence my very words are full of suffering. Without are fears, within contentions, and I cannot take one breath free from the persecution of my troubles and the

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  grief caused by my afflictions, which beyond measure have found me out.

  I am all defiled with torment, my flesh is wasted away, and my bones cleave to my skin. My years pass away full of groans, and I wish they were altogether passed away. O that the whole blood of my body would now die, that the brain in my head and the marrow of my bones were so dissolved into tears that I might melt away in weeping. My very bowels are torn away from me. I have lost the staff of my old age, the light of my eyes, and would God accede to my prayers He would condemn my ill-fated eyes to perpetual blindness that they no longer saw the woes of my people.

  Who may allow me to die for you, my son? Mother of mercy, look upon a mother so wretched, or else, if your Son, an unexhausted source of mercy, requires from my son the sins of the mother, then let Him exact complete vengeance on me, for I am the only one to offend, and let Him punish me, for I am the irreverent one. Do not let Him smile over the punishment of an innocent person. Let He who now bruises me take up His hand and slay me. Let this be my consolation-- that in burdening me with grief, He does not spare me.

  O wretched me, yet pitied by no one. Why have I, the Lady of two kingdoms, the mother of two kings, reached the ignominy of this abominable old age? My bowels are torn away, my very race is destroyed and passing away from me. The Young King and the Count [sic] of Brittany sleep in the dust, and their most unhappy mother is compelled to live that without cure she may be ever tortured with the memory of the dead.

  Two sons yet survive to my comfort, who now live only to distress me, a miserable and condemned creature. King Richard is detained in bonds, and his brother John depopulates the captive's kingdom with the sword and lays it waste with fire. In all things the Lord has become cruel towards me, turning His heavy hand against me. His anger is so against me that even my sons fight against each other, if indeed it can be called a fight in which one languishes in bonds and the other, adding grief upon grief, tries by cruel tyranny to usurp the exile's kingdom.

  O good Jesus, who will grant me Your protection and hide me in Hell itself until Your fury passes away, until Your arrows, which are in me, by whose very vehemence my spirit is drunk up, shall cease? I long for death, I am weary of life, and though I thus die constantly, I yet desire to die more fully. I am reluctantly compelled to live, that my life may be the food of death and a means

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  of torture. Blessed are those who pass away by a fortunate abortion and never know the capriciousness of this life, who do not know the waywardness of this life and the unpredictable events in our inconstant fate!

  What do I do? Why do
I yet live? Why do I, a wretched creature, delay? Why do I not go, that I may see him whom my soul loves, bound in beggary and irons? At such a time as this, how could a mother forget the son of her womb? Affection for their young appeases tigers, nay, even the fiercer witches.

  Yet I fluctuate in doubt, for if I go away, I desert my son's kingdom, which is laid waste on all sides with fierce hostility, and in my absence it will be destitute of all counsel and solace. Again, if I stay, I shall not see the face of my son, that face which I so long for, and there will be no one who will study to procure the liberation of my son. But what I fear still more is that this most fastidious of young men will be tortured for an impossible sum of money, and, impatient of so much affliction, will be easily brought to the agonies of death.

  O impious, cruel, and dreadful tyrant [i.e., the Emperor], who has not feared to lay sacrilegious hands on the Lord's Anointed; nor has the royal unction, nor the reverence due to a holy life, nor the fear of God, restrained you from such inhumanity.

  Yet the Prince of the Apostles still rules and reigns in the Apostolic See, and his judicial rigour is set up as a means of resort. It rests with you, Father, to draw the sword of Peter against these evildoers, which for this purpose is set above peoples and kingdoms. The Cross of Christ excels the eagles of Caesar, the sword of Peter is a higher authority than the sword of Constantine, and the Apostolic See higher than the imperial power.

  Is your power derived from God or from men? Did not the God of Gods speak to you through His apostle Peter, that whatsoever you bind on Earth shall be bound also in Heaven, and whatsoever you loose on Earth shall be loosed also in Heaven? Why then do you so long negligently, nay cruelly, delay to free my son, or is it rather that you do not dare? Perhaps you will say that this power is given to you over souls, not bodies: so be it, I will certainly be satisfied if you bind the souls of those who keep my son bound in prison.

  It is your province to release my son, unless the fear of God has yielded to a human fear. Restore my son to me, then, O man of God, if indeed you are a man of God and not a man of mere blood. For know that if you are slow in releasing my son, from your hand will the Most High require his blood.

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  Alas, alas for us, when the chief shepherd has become a mercenary, when he flies from the face of the wolf, when he abandons in the jaws of a bloodthirsty beast the lamb put in his care, or even the chosen ram, the leader of the Lord's flock. The good shepherd instructs and informs other shepherds not to fly when they see a wolf approaching, but rather to lay down their lives for their sheep. Save, therefore, I entreat you, your own soul, while, by urgent embassies, salutary advice, by the thunders of excommunication, general interdicts and terrible sentences, you endeavour to procure the liberation, I will not say of your sheep, but of your son. Though late, you ought to give your life for him, for whom as yet you have refused to say or write one word. My son is tormented in bonds, yet you do not go to him, nor send anyone, nor are moved by the sorrow which moved Joseph. Christ sees this and is silent, but at the last judgement there shall be a fearful retribution for those who are negligent in doing God's work.

  Three times you have promised us to send legates, yet they have not been sent. If my son were in prosperity, we should have seen them run in answer to his lightest call, expecting plentiful rewards from his munificent generosity and the public profit of his kingdom. But what profit could they consider more glorious than the freeing of a captive king and the restoring of peace to the people, quiet to the religious, and joy to all? But while the wolf comes upon its prey, the dogs are mute: either they cannot, or they will not, bark.

  Is this the promise you made me at the Castello Pvadulphi,27 with such protestations of love and good faith? What benefit did you gain from giving my simple nature mere words, from mocking the faith of the innocent with a hollow trust? Alas, I know now that your cardinals' promises are but empty words. You alone, who were my hope after God and the trust of my people, force me to despair. Cursed be he who trusts in man!

  Where is my refuge now? You, O Lord my God. The eyes of Your handmaiden are lifted up to You, O Lord, for You recognise my distress. You, O King of Kings, Lord of Lords, grant sovereignty to Your Son, and save the son of Your handmaiden. Do not visit upon him the crimes of his father or the wickedness of his mother.

  We know from a certified public report that, after the death of the Bishop of Liege, whom the Emperor is said to have killed with a fatal blow from his sword, though wielded by a distant hand, he miserably imprisoned the Bishop of Ostia, four of his

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  provincial bishops, and even the archbishops of Salerno and Treves. And the apostolic authority ought in no way to deny that unlawfully and tyrannically he has also taken possession of Sicily. The Emperor's fury is not satisfied with all these gains, but his hand is still stretched out. Fearful things he has already done, but worse are still certainly to be expected.

  Where is the promise the Lord made to His Church: "I shall make thee the pride of ages, a joy from generation to generation"? Once the Church trod upon the necks of the proud with its own strength, and the laws of emperors obeyed the sacred canons. But now things have changed-- not only canons, but the makers of canons are restrained by base laws and profane customs. No one dare murmur about the detestable crimes of the powerful, which are tolerated, and canonical rigour falls on the sins of the poor alone.

  The kings and princes of the Earth have conspired against my son, the Lord's Anointed. One tortures him in chains, another ravages his lands with a cruel enmity. The Supreme Pontiff sees all this, yet keeps the sword of Peter sheathed, and thus gives the sinner added boldness, his silence being presumed to indicate consent.

  But I declare to you that the time of dissension foretold by the Apostle is at hand, when the son of eternal damnation shall be revealed. The fateful moment is at hand when the seamless tunic of Christ shall be rent again, when the net of Peter shall be broken, and the solid unity of the Catholic Church dissolved. These are the beginnings of sorrows. We feel bad things, we fear worse.

  I am no prophetess, but my grief suggests many things about the troubles to come. Yet it also steals away the very words which it suggests. A sob stops my breath, my sadness saps the strength of my soul, and absorbing grief shuts up by its anxieties the vocal passages of my soul. Farewell.28

  It appears that the Queen received no response to this letter. At eighty-seven, Celestine was of too timid a disposition to risk incurring the enmity of the Emperor, whose armies were even now invading papal territory and whose men had recently cut the throats of papal emissaries.29 For decades the papacy had been in conflict with the Empire, and all Celestine wanted was to preserve the peace so that he could target corruption within the Church. In any case, he was aware that, as a result of the recent schism, the standing of the papacy was poor, and any representations he might make on Richard's behalf to the Emperor would be treated with contempt.

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  In Lent, John returned to England ahead of his mercenary force, intent upon establishing himself as king. Having failed to enlist the support of William the Lyon, King of Scots, he was successful in hiring more mercenaries in Wales. He then went to London, where he demanded that the regency council surrender its powers to him. When the magnates refused, he did his best to convince them and the Queen that Richard would never return, repeating all kinds of alarmist rumours to that effect, which were then circulating in France. At one point, he even announced that Richard was dead, but no one believed him. The council's firm stand was supported by Geoffrey of York and William the Marshal, and it was boosted by Eleanor's refusal to be intimidated by her son, as well as by Richard's widespread popularity.

  Making his intentions even clearer, John began stirring up rebellion, urging the magnates to join him and seizing several royal strongholds. He himself garrisoned Windsor Castle, to which Walter of Coutances and other magnates immediately laid siege. At the same time, Hugh de Puiset inv
ested John's castle at Tickhill.

  Meanwhile, Philip had invaded Normandy. On 12 April he took Gisors, then overran the Vexin, laying wide open the rest of the duchy to conquest. Having seized Neaufles, he marched on the capital, Rouen, where he set up his siege engines and demanded that the citizens surrender to him and deliver up his sister Alys.30 Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, the Seneschal of Rouen, whose lands had been restored to him by Eleanor in 1189, refused to comply, although he declared, with an air of menace, that he would be pleased to offer Philip the hospitality due to his master's overlord, and would also conduct him to visit his sister, provided he entered the castle alone and unarmed. Philip suspected a trap to take him prisoner and exchange him for Richard, and angrily demurred. In his fury at being thwarted, he had his own siege engines destroyed and ordered that every cask of wine from his stores be emptied into the Seine. Then he marched back to Paris, vowing that he would revisit Rouen with a rod of iron.31

  Expecting John's army of Flemish mercenaries to arrive in England at any time, the Queen and council took urgent measures for the defence of the realm. "By order of Queen Eleanor, who then ruled England, at Passiontide and Easter and thereafter, nobles and common people, knights and peasants, flew to arms and guarded the sea coast that looks towards Flanders,"32 while fresh oaths of fealty to Richard were again exacted from the magnates. When the first mercenaries arrived, they were either killed or imprisoned in chains. Those who followed prudently turned their ships about and sailed back to Flanders.

 
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