Friday, 28 October 2011

A woman out of legend: The Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and Queen of England (Part 2)

After a very long delay to this blog's Lives of the Queens of England series, here is part II of the three-part life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Part I - Daughter of Riches - can be read here.

"My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. Henry Fitz-Empress, first Plantagenet, a king at twenty-one, the ablest soldier of an able time. He led men well, he cared for justice when he could and ruled, for thirty years, a state as great as Charlemagne's. He married out of love, a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen."- Henry II in the play The Lion in Winter by James Goldman (1966)

History loves a good romance. Some of its most famous couples, like Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra, are remembered because of the intensity of their love for one another. Others, like Marc Antony and Cleopatra or Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are remembered not so much for the nature of their love, but because of the melodrama that surrounded them. On 18 May 1152, a newly married couple emerged from the cathedral of Saint Pierre in the city of Poitiers in modern-day France (below). They were Henry of Anjou, nineteen year-old heir-presumptive to the English throne, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the twenty-something ex-wife of the King of France. Henry and Eleanor emphatically belong to the latter category of famous historical couples. With them, it’s the drama, not the sentiment, which entices. Their marriage, celebrated less than two months after Eleanor’s divorce from her first husband, was born from political expediency, but it ended in civil war, rebellion, mutual recriminations, heartbreak and imprisonment.

From the moment her marriage to Louis VII had been formally declared null and void by the relevant ecclesiastical authorities, Eleanor had been a vulnerable woman. Without Louis’s protection, she was liable to fall prey to any of the feudal warlords in Western Europe. Eleanor may have been occasionally misguided, but she was not stupid. There is strong circumstantial evidence to support the idea that she had been planning her own future since long before the divorce with Louis was announced and having met Henry of Anjou when he visited the French court with his father in 1151, she had most likely been in cahoots with him for the best part of a year. Without doubt, physical attraction must have played some part in explaining why Henry and Eleanor planned to marry once she was free of Louis. Henry was muscular, attractive but not necessarily handsome and even at the age of nineteen, a celebrated soldier. Unlike her obsessively religious first husband, young Henry Plantagenet was also full of energy and an unquenchable passion for life. Eleanor was beautiful, clever, passionate and impossibly glamorous. Even at the distance of nearly nine hundred years, it’s clear that both Henry and Eleanor practically reeked of sex appeal.

But it wasn’t just bulging muscles, bejewelled cleavage and pheromones which drew Henry of Anjou and Eleanor of Aquitaine into each others’ beds. It was ambition, too. Eleanor was the greatest heiress of her generation; as a teenager she had inherited the duchy of the Aquitaine, one of Europe’s most beautiful, wealthy and cultured provinces. For a man who had spent most of his conscious life fighting for the royal birthright that relatives had snatched from his mother on the grounds of her gender, for Henry marriage to Eleanor also meant marriage to the Aquitaine, which would bring him enormous tactical and financial advantage when it came to continuing in the fight to reclaim the English throne for his family. Eleanor, for her part, had no intention of "trading down." Having just been dumped by the current King of France, she was determined to be taken up by the future King of England. Evidently, Eleanor had a taste for crowns and for queenship. Henry had also already shown himself to be a capable, even a brilliant, military leader and he could therefore be counted upon to protect her inheritance from the greedy feudal lords who surrounded it.

Some historians doubt that Henry and Eleanor made plans to marry prior the pronouncement of her divorce from Louis. This theory runs that it was only once her time as Queen of France came to an end that Eleanor realised how helpless she was without a man to protect her and dispatched an impromptu invitation to Henry, begging him to marry her at once. However, this theory is not borne out by the fact that on the first night after her divorce, Eleanor was very nearly kidnapped by Theobold, count of Blois, whose brother, Stephen, was the man who had stolen the throne from Henry’s mother. During her time as Queen of France, Eleanor had treated Theobold with malicious vindictiveness and taken great delight in the humiliating divorce of his younger sister. So it may be that Count Theobold’s attempt to kidnap Eleanor was simply an attempt to settle old scores. But having escaped Theobold’s henchmen, Eleanor then had to dodge the attentions of Henry’s brother, Geoffrey of Anjou, who attempted to abduct her as she crossed the River Creuse. Geoffrey was at that time consumed with jealousy for his elder brother’s inheritance and when read in this light, the attempts by Theobold of Blois and Geoffrey of Anjou to kidnap Eleanor in the days immediately after her divorce suggest strongly that they both knew, or suspected, that she was going to Poitiers to marry Henry.

Eleanor made it to Poitiers safely by travelling in disguise and taking country roads, where there was less chance of being spotted. Once there, she dispatched a message to Henry, who arrived so quickly that he must have been awaiting her summons. They were married on the eighteenth day of May and Eleanor swiftly set about shedding all signs of association with her first husband. During their marriage, which she had entered into when she was little more than a child, Louis had exerted all practical power in the Aquitaine and Eleanor had been little more than an accessory. Her signature was needed to make Louis’s edicts into law, but that was it. Eight days after she married Henry, Eleanor issued her first charter as Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, re-confirming various privileges previously granted to the church of St.-Jean de Montierneuf by her ancestors. It was a small gesture but it showed who was in charge. The next day she began systematically revoking all the charters Louis and she had issued as co-signatories and re-issued them in her own name. Aware that Louis had divorced her because she had only produced two daughters and no sons, Eleanor  also lost no time in spreading the rumour that she had been ‘greatly offended’ by Louis’s marital conduct and insulted him by saying ‘she had married a monk, not a king.’ According to Eleanor, Louis had been either an incompetent or infrequent lover. (Maybe both.) Either way, the fault for their lack of sons had been his, not hers. It was a petty and vindictive game of character assassination played at the very lowest common denominator, but Eleanor’s future marital prospects depended largely on her dismissing Louis’s insinuation that she was infertile

All things considered, in the summer of 1152, Eleanor of Aquitaine really had ample reason to be pleased with herself. Unlike most royal ex-wives, she had avoided spending the rest of her life in a convent as an infertile footnote to history. She had a new husband - more attractive and more useful than the first; she had safeguarded her inheritance and she was now one half of one of the most famous and dynamic power-couples in history. With Henry's help, she had turned the potential disaster of her divorce into a resounding personal triumph. Then by January, the woman shoved off the throne of France due to alleged infertility was pregnant. On 17 August, she went through her third experience of childbirth. This time, she produced a son. He was christened William, in honour of her late father, and Eleanor made him Count of Poitiers, from birth. Louis had not even had time to find a new bride.

William of Poitiers’s birth in August 1153 not only gave his parents a moment of sublime satisfaction in their feud with the still son-less Louis, but it also reinvigorated Henry’s fight for the English throne. On precisely the same day as Eleanor gave birth to William, Henry’s cousin and rival, Eustace, died of an infection in Suffolk. On precisely the same day as God had given Henry a son and heir, He had struck down the son and heir of the man who had taken the crown from Henry’s mother. To a providentialist society, there could be no greater indicator of the Almighty’s Will. Even King Stephen began to lose faith after his son’s death. Stephen was a deeply devout man who had been morally upstanding in everything except breaking the sacred oath he had made to support his female cousin’s right to rule. It is almost inconceivable that he would not have seen the hand of God in his son’s death on the same day He blessed his rival with a healthy, living baby. According to one chronicler, Stephen was ‘grieved beyond measure’ and ‘he pursued warlike preparations less vigorously, and listened more patiently than usual to the voices of those urging peace.’ Another chronicle, far less kindly, reported that Eustace’s death had practically been celebrated by the people of England because it cleared the way for Henry’s succession and a peaceful resolution to the civil war. On 26 October 1154, Stephen died a broken man and his body was conveyed to Faversham Abbey in Kent, where he was laid to rest next to his wife and eldest son. The succession passed smoothly to the twenty-one year-old Henry and Eleanor, already pregnant again, was crowned at his side six days before Christmas in Westminster Abbey.

In centuries to come, many writers would focus on the glory and power Henry II inherited. At the age of twenty-one, Henry ruled an empire, so it was quipped, which ran from Scotland to Spain, from the Pennines to the Pyrenees. He ruled more of modern-day France than the actual French monarchy. All of England, Normandy, the Aquitaine and Anjou were his by virtue of his mother, wife and father. However, what is often forgotten is that Henry came to the throne at the end of a terrible and destructive civil war. The war had weakened the monarchy and without a strong secular authority, the Church had drastically increased its influence, independence and, some would say, its arrogance. In the days of Henry’s grandfather, great-uncle and great-grandfather, the power of the Church in England had been enormous, but it had now expanded far beyond even that. It no longer existed as a counter-balance to the power of the monarchy, but rather as a real and present threat to it. The Church courts had a separate ecclesiastical legal system which had used the civil war and the resultant dilution of royal authority to massively expand its field of jurisdiction. The English economy was also in ruins and Henry’s continental holdings were surrounded on all sides by a resentful French crown and greedy, treacherous feudal princelings. In reality, Henry II  therefore succeeded to the English throne in circumstances every bit as trying, if not more so, than those that faced by Henry VII in 1485, Elizabeth I in 1558, Charles II in 1660 and George VI in 1936. Luckily, Eleanor had married a man who was more than up to the challenge.

If he was not quite as enthralled to intellectual pursuits like later indomitable royal red-heads, namely Elizabeth Tudor, Henry II was still a well-educated man. He had a strong grasp of languages, which was particularly useful in a monarch who reigned over so many different territories, and he was a gifted speaker of Latin, still the language of the Church and internationalism. He had an exceptional memory, great physical fitness and an ability to mix with all men of all classes, as noted by his courtier, Walter Map. One contemporary, Pierre of Blois, wrote of Eleanor’s husband, ‘the lord king has been red-haired... His height is medium... curved legs, a horseman’s shins, broad chest, and a boxer’s arms all announce him as a man strong, agile and bold... he never sits, unless riding a horse or eating... In a single day, if necessary, he can run through four or five day-marches and, thus foiling the plots of his enemies, frequently mocks their plots with surprise sudden arrivals... Always are in his hands bow, sword, spear and arrow, unless he be in council or in books.’ Henry had a fantastic sense of humour, and unlike other powerful men, he had a sense of humour about himself, too. Unlike his wife, Henry was not interested in luxury or pomp. He enjoyed power and activity; not its trappings or its grandeur. Like his Norman ancestors, he had ferocious temper which, when riled, could and would do great damage.

Almost immediately, Henry set about re-invigorating and then expanding his empire. Unlike his mother, the new King was not a vindictive person and he did not pursue vendettas against those who had supported Stephen. Methodically and brilliantly, Henry began working through the problems that the civil war had created. A man of restless ambition, he was also keen to expand his territories and in the same year as he came to the throne, fate handed him an unexpected opportunity to do so when for the first, and so far the only, time in its history, an Englishman was elected to the Papacy. Nicholas Brakespeare, now His Holiness Pope Adrian IV (right), took a decidedly dim view of his homeland’s western neighbours. Like the Welsh, it was assumed by the English that Irish culture was naturally inferior to their own. The Papacy was also concerned with the independence of the Christian Church in Ireland. To call Hibernian Christianity "Catholic" in 1154 was probably stretching the term to its limits. Ireland still calculated Easter and the major liturgical festivals independently, rather than accepting those set by Rome; Gaelic was used in preference to Latin in many church services and a number of native Celtic customs were still prevalent in how the Irish practised their faith. Any medieval pope, particularly an English one, was bound to be unimpressed and in 1155, Adrian issued the Laudabiliter, urging the King of England to invade Ireland and “civilize” it.

This is the traditional version of events to explain how the English came to invade Ireland in the first place.  However, given the alleged symbiosis between Irish Catholicism and Irish nationalism which grew up in the nineteenth century, the role the Papacy played in legitimising, and even encouraging, the English invasion obviously became a very touchy subject in Irish historiography. The very existence of the Laudabiliter has been questioned by many historians who assert that, at best, it was a forgery or wilfully misinterpreted by the English. Perhaps the fairest assessment comes from the historian P.S. O’Hegarty who concludes that whether or not the Laudabiliter was ever issued in the way the English would claim it was is now largely an academic debate. My own hunch is that Adrian IV must have issued some kind of blessing, even an instruction, for the English invasion of Ireland. However painful and baffling it must be for diehard Irish nationalists and unionists  to accept that the Roman See played a pivotal role in placing the first military English foot on Irish soil, it was entirely in keeping with earlier papal practise to condone military aggression by an orthodox monarch against a culture or region was felt to be spiritually subversive. This mentality, after all, had been one of the many reasons why the Papacy had blessed the Norman invasion of England a century earlier. Later popes, like Adrian’s successor Alexander III and his successor Lucius II, acted as if papal authorisation had been given, which suggests that even if the Laudabiliter wasn’t issued in precisely the same format claimed by generations of pro-English historians, a papal blessing was definitely given one way or the other.

Henry II, however, did not invade Ireland solely because the Pope asked him to. Henry was religious, yes, but he was not devout enough to launch an invasion of a neighbouring island solely because the Holy Father didn’t like the way they timetabled Pentecost. Along with Papal encouragement, Henry also received the other carte blanche of medieval warfare. He was invited. He also, eventually, had no choice politically but to invade.

The invitation for the English invasion was issued by a man who has had the opprobrium of Irish nationalists heaped upon his head for centuries. His name was Dermot MacMurrough (Diarmait mac Murchadha in Irish) and he was the King of Leinster (above), the eastern province of Ireland and the one closest to England. Subsequent generations of Irishmen would disparagingly nickname him Diarmait na nGall, which means ‘Dermot of the Foreigners.’ Ireland, at the time, was a heptarchy of seven different minor kingdoms and Dermot had made the mistake of quarrelling with Rory O’Connor (Ruaidhrí Ua Conchobhair in Irish), the king of the westernmost province - Connacht. Rory, technically Dermot’s overlord, had driven Dermot off his throne in retaliation and Dermot fled to Aquitaine, where he sought the protection of a new overlord – King Henry. Henry promised to restore Dermot to his throne in Leinster by allowing him to ally with Anglo-Norman aristocrats keen to help in return for rewards upon victory. Dermot agreed and the alliance was sealed by the marriage of his eldest daughter Aoife (pronounced Eef-a) to the Irish expedition’s commander-in-chief, Richard de Clare, earl of Pembroke. The invading forces landed in 1169 and quickly took possession of the key towns of Leinster – Wexford, Waterford and Dublin. Dermot was restored to his throne, but died eighteen months later. Irish inheritance laws were complicated in comparison to mainland Europe’s, with primogeniture being less strictly established. Dermot’s son, Donal, claimed to be the rightful King of Leinster, but by exploiting the ambivalence in Irish inheritance laws, Pembroke, now known as "Strongbow" because of the prowess of his archers, claimed that he should inherit the throne on behalf of his wife, Aoife, Donal’s sister.

It was at this point that Henry himself landed in Ireland and prosecuted a full war against Rory O’Connor and the native heptarchy. How keen Henry had been to conquer Ireland before this is anybody’s guess. He was certainly ambitious enough, but he had not acted immediately upon receiving Pope Adrian’s  encouragement, nor had he personally led the force that put Dermot MacMurrough back on the throne. He had allowed others to do it. It was the events after Dermot’s death and Strongbow’s attempts to become king himself which forced Henry to make himself Lord of Ireland in Rory O’Connor’s place. Henry could not allow one of his own subjects to acquire such enormous power for themselves. Strongbow could not become a king - it would weaken Henry's own primacy in the British Isles and that could not be allowed to happen. Henry’s six-month stay in Ireland produced the desired result: all of the relevant Norman lords, as well as many Irish princes and chiefs, swore fealty to the King of England, recognising him as their overlord. Eleanor had become Lady of Ireland and nine centuries of controversy had begun.

Whilst Henry was busy adding countries to their empire, Eleanor was adding children to their nursery. After William’s birth, Eleanor produced five more children over the next eight years. The couple’s second son, Henry, was born shortly after his parents’ coronation; Matilda, the couple’s first daughter but Eleanor’s third, arrived a year later; Richard (Eleanor’s favourite) was born a year later in Oxford; his brother Geoffrey  arrived in the autumn of 1158 and, three years later, a daughter, christened Eleanor in the Queen’s honour. However, Eleanor’s fecundity and her husband’s ambition meant that, fairly early on their marriage, Eleanor ended up relinquishing the independence she had so brazenly asserted in the days right after her divorce from Louis. Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of the Middle Ages’ favourite  modern heroines and one of feminism’s favourite “founding mothers.” And yet, for most of her second husband’s reign, she exerted zero political influence. In his biography of Henry, the late Belfast-based historian, Professor W.L. Warren concludes that this silence on Eleanor’s part is ‘all the more remarkable … [given] her dominating personality is so marked a feature of the reigns of her sons’. The French historian, Edmond-René Labande, is even more dismissive of Eleanor’s  influence as queen consort, writing that for most of the 1150s and 1160s, we see her ‘crossing and re-crossing the Channel, almost always expecting another child; here she is, severely reduced to the strictest obligations of a feudal queen: other than the duty to produce numerous offspring for her husband, she must be present everywhere, at every moment, showing herself to the vassals at the plenary courts of Christmas or Easter, riding, sailing, riding again.’ Finally, Lisa Hilton, in her recent history of England’s medieval queens, notes that despite Eleanor’s brazen and seemingly independent personality, she paradoxically exerted far less institutional influence than her queenly predecessors: ‘The period she spent by her husband’s side as queen of England is one of virtual invisibility… in comparison with her predecessors Matilda of Flanders, Matilda of Scotland and Matilda of Boulogne, who ‘exercised all the prerogatives of sovereignty’, evidence of Eleanor governing and managing her household and lands is scant. Her role was ceremonial…’

Why Eleanor should have accepted a role as nothing more than a governmental ornament is a mystery which exasperates her modern-day admirers. It may be, as suggested in Sharon Key Penman’s brilliant trilogy of novels based on Eleanor’s family, that Eleanor was prepared to live in Henry’s shadow only so long as she trusted him. Whilst the royal marriage was still one of love, attraction and mutual confidence, Eleanor could rely on her indefatigable husband to expand their empire and provide glorious futures for their children. On the other hand, we don't know that for certain. It's just as possible that Eleanor maybe resented living in her second husband’s shadow, as much as she had apparently resented living in her first’s. It was only once she passed the age of childbearing and she no longer had to constantly live with Henry that she was allowed back to the Aquitaine and, once there, began to assert her independence from him. Either way, there's no way of knowing for certain what Eleanor felt for the first half of her marriage.

My own hunch, for what it is worth, is that Eleanor’s decorous silence during the first part of her husband’s reign was consensual, not resentful. She had consented to a similar arrangement with her first husband and she had only turned on him when she ceased to love or respect him. Lisa Hilton argues well that it was solely a political falling-out which led to the breakdown of Eleanor’s second marriage, but I think it was far more personal than that. Ten years into their marriage, a process began which saw Eleanor’s love, lust and respect for her husband turn into suspicion and resentment. Doubtless, there were major political considerations pushing her towards betraying him, namely his ultimate mismanagement of her homeland, but equally, much of it must have been personal and the pain she inflicted on Henry, and ultimately upon herself, was far more savage and heartbreaking than anything she had experienced with Louis.

Queen Eleanor was spared the gruelling experience of medieval pregnancy for four years after her daughter Eleanor’s birth. In October 1165, she was visiting Henry’s paternal territories in Anjou when she gave birth to her final daughter, Joanna. A year later, on Christmas Eve, she was at Beaumont Palace in Oxford when she gave birth to her final child, John (marked in modern-day Oxford with a plaque, above). Unlike another birth on Christmas Eve, no angels sang at John’s nativity. (Precious few angelic influences were to be felt throughout his unpleasant, vicious little life.) John’s birth brought the number of surviving royal children to eight: Henry and Eleanor’s first child, William, had died at the age of three, but given the normal infancy mortality rates in the Middle Ages, to have produced ten children who lived into adulthood was astonishing good luck on Eleanor’s part. (Her two daughters from her French marriage, who had been raised by their father, were already married by the time Eleanor gave birth to John. Marie had been married to the Count of Champagne; Alice to Theobold, Count of Blois, son of Eleanor’s old adversary.) In an amusing quirk of fate, Henry and Eleanor’s eldest surviving son and heir, Henry, had been married to Louis’s daughter from his second marriage, Marguerite, and there were plans to seal the French alliance by betrothing Richard to Marguerite’s sister, Alys. Eleanor’s daughter, Matilda, was married at the age of twelve to Heinrich the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, and she set sail to begin married life in Germany. Plans were being made for the other children’s marriages and to start preparing various parts of the empire for the boys – as it stood, Young Henry was expected to inherit England, Normandy and Anjou; Richard, as his mother’s favourite, would get the Aquitaine; Geoffrey would be married to Constance, the sole heiress to the Duke of Brittany, and John would get Ireland. Henry II, looking confidently into the future, saw nothing but success for his lineage and, apparently, a game of happy families. The great king was totally and utterly oblivious to the resentment brewing all around him, particularly in his wife and his eldest son.

In 1165, when she lay pregnant with their last child, Henry had betrayed Eleanor by taking a mistress named Rosamund de Clifford. Rosamund, the daughter of a minor country squire, was said to be very pretty, very pleasing and, unlike many royal mistresses, she was neither greedy nor ambitious. This, coupled with her beauty, led to her being nicknamed "Fair Rosamund" in later romantic stories, where she was pitted as a rival against the imperious, manipulative Queen Eleanor. In these fables, Rosamund is cast as a kind of Snow White, hounded to death by an evil queen who is consumed with jealous resentment at the poor girl’s radiant loveliness. Allegations that Henry hid Rosamund in a beautiful country house surrounded by a maze, which Eleanor managed to find and then exacted her revenge by poisoning Rosamund are later legends, casting Eleanor in the role of a medieval Milady de Winter. They are, moreover, impossible, since Rosamund lived until 1176, three years after the latest possible date she could have been in Eleanor’s company. At the opposite extreme of the medieval legends of jealous poisoning, some historians have questioned whether or not Eleanor ever felt any jealousy whatsoever at her husband’s affair with "Fair Rosamund." After all, why should she? Henry had been persistently unfaithful to her for most of their marriage. He had fathered nearly half a dozen illegitimate children with a variety of mistresses. Why should Rosamund de Clifford be any different?

Well, one night-stands and brief flings were one thing. But a mistress ensconced in her own apartments in the king’s hunting lodge at Woodstock and who stayed there for the best part of three years was something else entirely. She was something to be worried about. Eleanor was entering middle-age and she was losing her looks. After twelve years of marriage, as she dealt with this, Henry was totally besotted with the ever-so-sweet Rosamund. For Christmas 1166, the same time as Eleanor was giving birth to John, Henry was making plans to spend the holiday with Rosamund, rather than his wife. He spent most of the final months of Eleanor’s pregnancy, and all of the spring, in Rosamund’s company and to pretend that the Queen did not feel pain and embarrassment at this is utterly implausible. Rosamund mightn’t have been a threat to her queenship, but she was a deep humiliation.

To judge by his later actions, Henry II was clueless when it came to his wife’s distress. And  her rage. He was, however, more than aware of unrest amongst her people. The Aquitaine had spent the last three decades being ruled by the French and then the English. By 1168, two years after John’s birth, Henry allowed Eleanor to journey home and resume semi-independent life there as a ruling Duchess. As the historian Marie Hivergneaux concluded, ‘to calm and contain the Aquitainians, Henry gave them back their duchess’. In December 1168, Eleanor held a lavish Christmas court in Poitiers to celebrate her return. She redecorated whole wings of her family’s palaces and the queen-duchess’s flair for luxury, display and hospitality was on constant display. Although she was still technically under her husband’s control, Eleanor threw herself into the day-to-day business of governing the Aquitaine and she was close to her sénéchal, Raoul de Faye, who became her chief adviser. The seigneurs of the Aquitaine journeyed to her glittering court to perform homage at her feet and for the first time in her life, Eleanor was experiencing what it was like to truly rule in her own right.

In 1170, the forty-something queen was joined by her favourite child, Richard. With his elder brother, Henry, being groomed for the crown in England and even being styled "the Young King" there, it was time for Richard to join his mother in the Aquitaine to gain experience of his inheritance. This time, however, Eleanor, was determined to hold onto her power. She was not about to yield it to a man again. At Richard’s investiture ceremony as Duke of the Aquitaine, carried out in Saint Hilaire’s Cathedral, Eleanor appeared next to him, wearing the crown jewels of both England and Aquitaine and setting the ducal coronet on her son’s head, before placing it back on her own. She adored Richard and she was thrilled to be preparing him for life as her successor. But she wasn’t dead yet and this time she was making it quite clear that her male relatives’ power came through her and, until she died, she would remain in control. Two years later, she stopped addressing her official documents as ‘fidelibus regis et suis’ and instead they now began, ‘fidelibus suis.’ It was no longer ‘to the king’s faithful followers and hers,’ it was only ‘to her faithful followers.’ A year after that, Eleanor’s eldest son began a rebellion against his father and Eleanor, to Henry’s shock, sided with the rebellion.

The enormously complex military and tactical manoeuvres of the rebellion against Henry II in 1173 would take us too far away from Eleanor and her story, but for a general overview it is suffice to say that the King and Queen’s eldest son, Henry, the so-called "young king," finally cracked under the pressure of living in his father’s shadow. An exceptionally beautiful young man, young Henry had been promised more of a say in government as he grew older, but whilst his younger brother Richard actually got to experience that when he joined their mother in Aquitaine, the King kept young Henry pointedly excluded from any form of power in England. The breaking point seems to have come when his father began giving away parts of the young man’s inheritance in order to provide for the youngest of the royal children, John. On 5 March 1173, the young king fled the château at Chinon where he and his father had been staying. It was daylight before his father realised he was gone and, by that point, his son was half-way to Paris. There, he sought asylum with his mother’s ex-husband, King Louis, who was also the young king’s father-in-law. To his father’s heartbreak, young Henry was soon joined by his brothers, Richard and Geoffrey, both of whom apparently agreed that their father would never share the spoils of empire unless he was forced to do so. In May, Eleanor attempted to join her rebellious sons to support them. Once again, she travelled in disguise, but this time she was betrayed by her own servants, some of whom were in Henry’s pay. She was captured long before she ever reached Paris and placed under house arrest, whilst her husband set about crushing their sons' supporters. The children’s rebellion had grown to include alliances with the kings of France and Scotland, both of whom were eager to exploit this epic familial dysfunction to help eviscerate the Plantagenet monarchy. The counts of Blois, Boulogne, Champagne and Flanders also joined them. With such a formidable range of enemies against him, surrounded on all sides and betrayed by his closest loved ones, it is nothing short of miraculous that Henry II scored such a resounding victory, crushing all opposition against him by September 1174. Magnanimous in defeat, he pardoned his sons and even, within reason, tentatively increased their power. Eleanor, however, he never forgave and never pardoned. She was taken to Winchester, stripped of most of her jewels, separated from her servants, and whilst she did live in comfort, she never again enjoyed the luxury or power she craved. Her staff was eventually increased in number, but the only female attendant who was in regular attendance on her was a young maid called Amaria. Henry could not, or would not, forgive her. He had clearly trusted Eleanor and known nothing of her unhappiness with him. Almost everyone else who rebelled against him was forgiven, except the queen. Many of the king's closest friends did not believe that Eleanor had simply joined in a rebellion started by her sons. They suspected (perhaps quite rightly) that it was Eleanor who had started the whole thing in the first place. One of Henry’s spiritual advisers reported what must have been Henry’s belief, that Eleanor had 'made the fruits of your union with our Lord King rise up against their father'. After all, it was easier to blame the mother than all three of the royal princes.

What exactly had brought Eleanor to rebel against her husband? Some have suggested that it may have been religiously motivated. In 1170, relations between the church and the crown had reached such a nadir that four overly-zealous royalists had burst into Canterbury Cathedral and brutally murdered the Archbishop, Thomas Becket, causing a scandal that reverberated around Christendom. Despite his litany of political mistakes and his astounding personal arrogance, the horrific nature of Becket’s death meant that he was set for sainthood and despite the fact he almost certainly hadn’t authorised the archbishop’s murder, Henry II was forced  by the church to perform elaborate public penance, including walking barefoot through the streets of Canterbury, flagellation and praying overnight at Becket’s tomb, to atone for the crime. However, to suggest that Eleanor was so horrified by Becket’s grotesque murder that she felt moved to support a rebellion against Henry is to assume that she was far more religious than she actually was. Without doubt, Eleanor was a conventional Christian, but as her career as Queen of France had shown, she was quite prepared to face-down the criticism of the church when she needed to.

More recently, it has been suggested that Eleanor sided with the rebellion for political reasons. It wasn’t because of Rosamund de Clifford or Thomas Becket that Eleanor supported her three sons’ flight to Paris, it was because she wanted to guarantee her political independence and to save the Aquitaine from her husband’s ambitions. In the words of one historian, ‘Eleanor was not jealous, or peeved, or frustrated: she was ruthless.’ Part of that may be true, but it leaves out the personal. It was something much more potent than politics that persuaded Eleanor to betray her husband and in such a devastating fashion. She must have known that it was a terrible risk. There was every chance it would fail. It was Henry they were rebelling against, after all. He was not acquainted with the sensation of losing. Eleanor had been a loyal wife, both sexually and politically, to Louis VII until she turned him against during their time in the Holy Land. Back then, it was political and personal frustrations rolled into one, which I suspect is what happened with her, Henry and their children in 1173. In 1966, the playwright James Goldman wrote The Lion in Winter, one of my favourite plays and a stupendous piece of writing, dramatising a reunion of Henry, Eleanor and their children during the Christmas of 1183, ten years after the rebellion. Reflecting on why it all started, Eleanor says, ‘Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little – that’s how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world.’ In short, the war of 1173-1174 was probably the most epic example of familial dysfunction since the Ptolemies.

One of the greatest of Hollywood actresses, Katharine Hepburn, as a middle-aged Eleanor in the 1968 movie adaptation of "The Lion in Winter"

Whatever the reason, Eleanor’s decision to rebel cost her dearly. She spent the next fifteen years of her life as her husband’s prisoner, occasionally trotted out for grand public displays to celebrate the farcical unity of the royal family. In those fifteen years, the world passed Eleanor of Aquitaine by. For most of her adult life she had stood near the centre of some of the great events of the medieval period, but now she was no longer relevant. For a woman who had always mattered, this must have been galling. 

Her eldest surviving son, Henry the Young King, dared to rebel again, a decade later. Midway through the campaign, he contracted dysentery and had to be rushed to the house of a local merchant in the town of Quercy in France, where he died screaming for his father's forgiveness. When told of his son’s death, the old king reportedly said, ‘He cost me so much, but I wish he had cost me more.’ The young king had died childless and his wife, Marguerite, was shortly married off to the King of Hungary. With his death, the next-in-line to the throne became Eleanor’s favourite son, Richard, who had already acquired a reputation as one of the great warriors of his generation. Another of Eleanor’s sons, Geoffrey, was killed in a jousting accident in Paris at the age of twenty-seven. There was happier news, too, however. Eleanor and Henry’s youngest daughter, Joanna, married the King of Sicily, becoming the second of Eleanor’s daughters to wear a crown. Eleanor’s large brood of grandchildren also increased – during her imprisonment seven of her children provided her with grandchildren called Marie, Theobold, Scholastique, Henri, Philippe, Marguerite, Isabella, Alice, William, Richenza, Heinrich, Lothaire, Otto, Wilhelm, two Matildas, Gertrude, Ingiborg, Eleanor, Arthur, Sancho, Urracca, Blanca, Enrique, Ferdinand and Bohemond.

Eleanor was presumably kept informed of all these events, but she played no part in them. The years passed slowly for this energetic woman and as she slipped into her mid-sixties, she must have begun to despair. Her husband was energetic, vigorous and at least nine years younger than her. There was every chance that he would outlive her and she would die in her gilded prison. At the end of June 1189, the Queen received news that their daughter, Matilda, Duchess of Saxony, had died in Brunswick in modern-day Germany. Then, as requiem masses were being said for her daughter’s soul, news arrived of a second bereavement in the royal family. On 6 July 1189, at the age of fifty-six, Henry II had died in the château de Chinon, the same place where his sons’ rebellion against him had started fifteen years earlier. He was succeeded by his third son, Richard, and Eleanor was free at last. No longer the imprisoned queen, she was now the beloved Queen Mother to a son who had always adored her and the next stage of her extraordinary life and adventure could begin.


  1. Love this post! I'll be back soon to read part one :)

  2. Yay! I am so excited to read this! I can't wait for the next installment.

  3. Thank you, this has made my day.


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