Thursday 1 December 2011

"The Lady of Two Kingdoms": The Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and Queen of England (Part 3)

This is part three in this blog's look at the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, which is part of the ongoing "Queens of England" series. Part one, "The Daughter of Riches" and part two, "A woman out of legend" are available by clicking on the linked titles.
"Why have I, the Lady of two kingdoms, reached the disgrace of this abominable old age?" - Eleanor of Aquitaine (1192)
The Middle Ages is one of the very few eras in history in which scenes from a fairy tale can come close to reality. One such scene took place at the height of summer in 1189 when a man called William Marshal, later described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as 'the greatest knight who ever lived', strode into the presence of the imprisoned Queen Mother of England and informed her that she was free at last. There was certainly a moment of sublime poetic fulfilment when William Marshal handed Eleanor of Aquitaine her freedom, because over twenty years earlier she had done the same thing for him. Long before he had won his reputation as the greatest jouster of the century and before he had distinguished himself by going on Crusade for a dead prince, Marshal, the youngest son of an unpopular family, had only begun his knightly career when he was captured by French warlords. Impressed by stories of the young man's bravery, and perhaps moved by stories of his family's penury, Eleanor had stepped in and paid the ransom, thus buying Marshal his freedom from captivity. Since that day, Marshal's destiny had been inextricably tied up with Eleanor's own and he had been the most trusted companion of her son, Henry the Young King, who had died six years earlier, begging that Marshal go to the Holy Land for him to atone for his sins. Returned, reinvigorated and already a legend of military prowess in his own lifetime, the forty-two year-old Marshal had won the favour of Prince Richard, now the new king. Set to marry Isabel de Clare, the daughter of the famous Strongbow, conqueror of Ireland, and his wife, Princess Aoife of Leinster, it was Marshal who Richard trusted with the special mission of going to England to free his mother from her gilded prison which she had endured since her children's botched rebellion against their father fifteen years earlier. With her husband's sudden death at Chinon and the accession of her favourite son to the throne, Eleanor of Aquitaine was once again being unleashed upon the world.

But the Eleanor who emerged back into the world in 1189 was a very different one to the woman who had been shut away from it in 1174. She was now an old woman, particularly by the standards of her day; she was already well into her sixties. Her first husband, Louis VII, had been dead for nearly nine years, having been succeeded by his son from his third marriage, Philip-Augustus (referred to from now on as Philippe, the Gallic form of his name). Three of Eleanor's sons - William, Henry and Geoffrey - had predeceased her and in the same summer as she became a widow, she also lost her daughter, Matilda, Duchess of Saxony and Bavaria, who had died suddenly at the age of thirty-three and been entombed in the gloomy splendour of the cathedral of Saint Blaise and Saint John the Baptist in Brunswick. Eleanor's eldest child, Marie, the child from her first marriage, was now a widow herself, still living in France as the Dowager Countess of Champagne. Her younger sister, Alix, was still Countess of Blois, married to the son of Eleanor's old rival. Of her daughters with Henry, Eleanor was currently living as Queen-consort of Castile, with a large family of her own, and twenty-four year-old Joanna also bore a crown, as wife to the King of Sicily. With all three of their brothers dead, it was Henry and Eleanor's two surviving sons who now mattered the most politically - thirty-two year-old Richard, the new king, and twenty-three year-old John, the heir-apparent.

If Eleanor felt anything at losing the husband who had been her lover, partner, spouse and jailer, she gave very little sign of it. Regrets or looking back are not things that Eleanor of Aquitaine seems to have overly bothered herself with. In many ways she had the final victory over Henry, not just by outliving him but by having him buried in Fontevrault - her burial ground. A magnificent structure rising splendidly out of the beautiful scenery of the Loire Valley, Fontevrault had been founded in 1100 by Eleanor's grandmother, Philippa of Toulouse, Duchess of the Aquitaine, and formally dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The complex boasted both a monastery and a convent, although in defiance of conventional ecclesiastical practise, Eleanor's family had insisted the convent should always have precedence over the monastery and that the head of Fontevrault as a combined unit should always be an abbess, rather than an abbot. Since becoming Queen of England, Eleanor had spent a fortune expanding and renovating Fontevrault, deliberately crafting its church into what she planned to be the necropolis of the Plantagenet dynasty. And Richard had dutifully honoured his mother's plans by sending his father's body to be buried at Fontevrault (below). After fifteen years in his custody, Eleanor had the satisfaction of knowing that Henry's body would spend all eternity on her land.

Richard had been in France when he heard the news that his father was dead and he was now King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Gascony, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine and Count of Nantes. It would take him some time to make the journey back to England for his coronation and in his absence, he showed his trust and love for his mother by giving her the power that both of her husbands had denied her. Freed from captivity, Eleanor was immediately appointed Regent of England and she moved quickly to London to undertake the business of government. And for someone who technically had very little experience of ruling in her own right, Eleanor showed herself to be remarkably good at it in a remarkably short period of time. It leaves the historian wondering what her husbands might have been able to achieve with her at their side, if they had only trusted her enough. The monk and chronicler, Matthew Paris, later wrote that Eleanor's time as Regent after her son's accession made her 'exceedingly respected and beloved' by the people. 

Eleanor's political skill in leading the English government during Richard's short absence before the coronation was theoretically a dress rehearsal for a much longer stint in control. Two years before, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, known in the West as "Saladin," had inflicted a terrible defeat and massacre on the Christian orders of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller in the Holy Land. Now, as it had been in the time of Eleanor's first marriage, the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was under threat and, with crusading apparently running in his blood, Richard was determined to go East and finish the job his mother's first husband had so spectacularly failed at - to crush the Islamic caliphates and secure the supremacy of Christianity in the Middle East. He also hoped that in doing so, he would guarantee immortal salvation for his soul and glory for his name.

Richard was back in England by the end of summer and his coronation was carried out with due pomp and ceremony at Westminster Abbey on September 3rd, less than two months after his father's death. However, the coronation was marred by a horrifying outburst of urban anti-Semitism. Deliberately cultivating an image of himself as a pious king, especially on the eve of a Crusade, Richard had banned women and Jews from attending his coronation. Anglo-Jewry at the time occupied a unique, and often troubled, political position in the realm. They were not like the King's Christian subjects, but rather, because of their religion, they were technically his property. Under English law, the monarch all but owned his Jewish subjects in a relationship that was reduced to the most basic premise of feudal sociopolitical theory. The King, as suzerain of Anglo-Jewry, was bound to protect the Jews, his liegemen, but they in turn were entirely dependent on his goodwill and were subject to irregular, and often extortionate, taxes that were levied on them as a community. Surrounded by a sea of virulent anti-Semitism, all too often whipped up by the Church, the Jews were pathetically grateful for the monarchy's protection. Given what both the Church and the vast majority of the English population would have liked to do to them, it's easy to see why.

Accepting that they were banned from the coronation itself, leaders of the Jewish community in London were nonetheless determined to show their loyalty to the new sovereign by leaving gifts for him at the Abbey door. Seeing the Jews being turned away, the citizens and priests of London either believed (or conveniently chose to believe) that unlike his late father, the new King was not extending his royal protection to the Jews. Feeling that this gave them a carte blanche to do whatever they liked, the Londoners unleashed their very worst prejudices and went on a rampage. Jews were beaten, raped, robbed, burned to death; some were dragged to nearby churches and forcibly baptised into the Christian faith. Some ran to the Tower of London, where the Lord Lieutenant, who knew that the royal family's protection still applied, opened the doors to them. But many more were massacred; their homes were burned to the ground, their possessions stolen. Hearing news of the massacre after the coronation banquet, Richard I was livid that his property (for that is surely how he regarded the Jews) had been defiled. Regardless of the humanitarian horror of the coronation massacre, Richard regarded the attack on the Jews of London as an attack on his royal prerogative and he was not pleased. He ordered the leaders of the riot to be publicly executed and issued a royal edict demanding that no-one harm any Jew living in any of his kingdoms. A trace of empathy and compassion was shown in Richard's reaction when he made a kind but politically unwise decision to allow the Jews who had been forcibly baptised by the rioters to convert back to their own faith. The Archbishop of Canterbury was furious, describing Richard's leniency to the surviving Jewish converts as serving the work of the Devil.

Once the drama and tragedy of the coronation was behind them, Eleanor, now her son's closest confidante and adviser, strongly promoted the idea that Richard, thirty-two years-old and still unmarried, should find a wife before going on Crusade. At six foot five in height, muscular, broad-shouldered and, like both of his parents, handsome and charismatic, Richard was not exactly an unattractive bridegroom. Of course, in the realm of European royal matchmaking, personal attractiveness featured so far down the list of priorities that whether a prince was a handsome warrior like Richard or a sweating man-mountain like the honestly-nicknamed Louis the Fat, made almost no difference whatsoever. Thanks to his parents, Richard possessed one of the greatest continental empires of the medieval period and that alone, never mind his impressive reputation or equally impressive good looks, would have made him a valuable catch in the eyes of his fellow European royals. Whether Richard was quite so enthusiastic for his impending nuptials is a matter for debate. It has been suggested by historians like John Harvey (The Plantagenets) and Jean Flori (Richard Coeur de Lion: le roi-chevalier) that Richard I was far more interested in men than he was in women. Evidence regarding Richard I's debated sexuality will be further discussed in this blog's instalment on his wife, Queen Berengaria, but suffice to say that whatever his personal inclinations, Richard showed himself prepared to do his duty for England when he and his mother met with a council in Normandy to discuss the royal marriage. 

For Richard, the defining criteria for selecting a future bride must be how useful her family could be in furthering and securing his ambitions for the crusade. Eleanor was not insensible to such concerns and the fact that the princess eventually chosen brought with her an alliance that helped guarantee the borders of the Aquitaine suggests that she too was pushing a predominantly political agenda. Also, having spent years as a childless queen in France, Eleanor knew better than anyone the instability that a monarch without an heir could create. To put it crudely, Richard didn't just need to marry an alliance: he needed to marry a womb and to get said womb pregnant as soon as was humanly possible. If he didn't, he would leave Eleanor behind to deal with her youngest son, Prince John, Richard's heir until he produced a child of his own. John was a man of limitless ambition but limited capability in everything except causing trouble. Unlike her late husband, Eleanor had absolutely no illusions about their youngest son's character; one of his most recent biographers has written with admirable honesty about John's 'cruel, miserly, extortionate, duplicitous, treacherous, mendacious, suspicious, secretive, paranoid and lecherous' personality. John, as irreligious as he was greedy, was not going on crusade and so Eleanor knew all too well that she would have to watch him constantly, waiting for the inevitable moment when he used his brother's absence as an opportunity to try and seize power for himself. However, if Richard could produce a legitimate son, then John's proximity to the throne, and his capacity for mischief, would be curtailed.

Nothing could be furthered by pursuing an alliance with France. King Philippe II was an untrustworthy ally, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to undermine the Plantagenet empire; nothing could therefore be gained by Richard marrying Philippe's sister, Princess Alys, the bride Henry II had chosen for him. For the time being, Richard, Eleanor and the English government would continue to pay lip service to the French alliance, but it was useless and Richard had no desire to marry Alys. (It is highly unlikely, although not impossible, that Richard had, at some point, enjoyed an affair with Philippe himself.) Eventually, the bride selected was the princess of a country that would one day be absorbed into France in 1589 - Navarre. In 1189, Navarre lay in the north-west of the Iberian peninsula, a small but strategically important mountain kingdom that controlled many of the vital trade and pilgrimage routes. Ruled over by King Sancho VI, nicknamed "Sancho the Wise," Navarre was allied with the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon in a pact against many of Richard and England's traditional enemies, including the counts of Toulouse, whom Eleanor had never forgiven for "stealing" the inheritance she felt her late grandmother had bequeathed her. The King of Navarre had three daughters - princesses Berengaria, Constanza and Blanca - and it was the eldest of these, Berengaria, then aged about twenty, who was chosen as Richard's new bride.

Showing a fairly un-chivalrous interest in fetching his future wife, Richard left Normandy and headed for Genoa, where he planned to co-ordinate his meetings with the other leading figures of the Third Crusade. It was left for Eleanor to journey south through the Aquitaine to Navarre to fetch Berengaria and bring her to Richard. With Eleanor gone, the regency of England was placed in the hands of Richard's favourite, William, Bishop of Ely, a spectacularly unpopular choice, much to John's delight. 

Eleanor met her prospective daughter-in-law in Navarre's capital city, Pamplona, in the company of the rest of the Navarrese royal house. Berengaria of Navarre was described by many contemporary writers as being a beautiful young woman, although one dissenting voice said that her personality was of a higher quality than her looks. All agree that she was 'wise,' but what that means is of course open to interpretation. She seems to have been discreet and well-educated, but shy and rather retiring. What on earth this young woman, about to be separated from her family and her homeland for the first time, made of her legendary mother-in-law - the most famous and scandalous woman in Christendom - is anybody's guess. What Eleanor thought of Berengaria, however, is slightly easier to determine: she doesn't seem to have been much of a fan. Later, when it came to making requests for Masses for the royal family, Eleanor rather spitefully left the traditional "dilectissima" or "carissima" out of Berengaria's name, but added it back in for her own daughters Matilda, Eleanor and Joanna.

Eleanor and Berengaria made a long and torturous journey through the Alps towards Richard's army. They stopped by night in convents and monasteries that lined the way, but the winter of 1189 was a ferocious one and even as the queens' journey trailed south into Lombardy, the weather offered them no respite. Showing the stamina of a woman half her age, Eleanor allowed prolonged stops only in Lodi (near Milan) and then in Pisa, but after that, she insisted on the caravan continuing in its journey towards Sicily, where Richard was now stationed and embroiled in a dispute with Philippe II of France and the new King of Sicily, Tancredi. For Eleanor, time was of the essence. Not only did she want to deposit Berengaria into matrimony and motherhood as soon as she could, but Richard's involvement in Sicily was particularly important to Eleanor. Her youngest daughter, Joanna, had been widowed earlier that autumn when her husband, the King of Sicily, had died and his kinsman, Tancredi, seized the throne. In the coup, Tancredi had imprisoned Joanna, seized her dowry and her inheritance. Eleanor and Richard were determined to free her and retrieve her fortune for her. 

Eleanor's confidence in her favourite son's capabilities was more than justified and he took Messina, Tancredi's stronghold, 'in less time than a priest could say matins'. Under the treaty he signed with Tancredi, Joanna was released and her inheritance restored to her. The Queen Mother and the queen-to-be arrived in Messina to news of Richard's victory and Joanna's freedom. It was Lent by the time Eleanor and Berengaria reached Sicily, which gives us something of the idea of how long any medieval journey could be. It is true that Sicily could have been reached much quicker by water, but going across land was safer and Eleanor had always had a knack for ensuring her own survival. Lent, of course, meant that no Christian marriages could be solemnised during a season of penance and, in the end, Eleanor did not see Richard and Berengaria's actual wedding Mass. The couple, along with 219 ships, set sail from Sicily in the middle of Holy Week, stopping to conquer the island of Cyprus, where the couple were finally married at the climax of yet another military victory for King Richard, who was earning his nickname of "the Lionheart."

Eleanor, in the meantime, made the journey back to England, traversing the bulk of the European continent to do so. Once back in her son's realm, she bristled under the regency of William Longchamp, Bishop of Ely, and perhaps it was her own pique at not once again leading the government which led her to initially condone John's ceaseless attempts to unseat the chancellor. More pragmatically, she may have realised that the bishop's unpopularity was doing her beloved Richard's reputation great harm and absent kings have great need of popularity. When the bishop was forced to flee England, Eleanor supported his replacement, the Archbishop of Rouen. Her temporary truce with John, however, fell apart when all of her worst suspicions of him were confirmed.

Eleanor had been in Normandy for Christmas 1191, when she had flown into a rage at Philippe II's impious disregard for the so-called "Truce of God," the diplomatic convention by which European monarchs in the Middle Ages agreed not to wage war on one another when either party was on Crusade. Philippe had instead launched an invasion of Gisors, which Ricardian loyalists managed to defeat. In the aftermath, Philippe opened up secret diplomatic back channels with John, offering to support him in seizing all of his brother's other French territories if he would marry Philippe's sister and surrender Gisors to him. With a kind of filial disloyalty that was shocking even to a Plantagenet, John accepted Philippe's terms. Eleanor had her own spies watching John and by the time he could make his first public move, she had already convened councils in London, Oxford, Winchester and Windsor to push through a motion that if anyone, no matter how high ranking, violated their oath of loyalty to the absent King Richard, then all of that man's estates, lands and possessions would be forfeited. It was a brilliant move which defeated John's rebellion before it had even begun.

Eleanor's talent for intrigue and her shrewd assessment of her youngest son's personality managed to hold the kingdom together for the rest of 1192 and by then, rapidly approaching her seventieth birthday (if she hadn't reached it already), she could greet with relief the news that Richard and Berengaria had returned to Europe. Berengaria had travelled separately from her husband and was currently planning to spend the winter in Rome. Soon, Richard would be home and his presence alone would hopefully discourage John from any further plotting. Perhaps partly worried about what his little brother was up to in his absence, or just showing some of the Plantagenet family's proverbial impatience, Richard took the dangerous decision to take a short-cut through Austria, travelling in disguise. Admittedly, it was marginally less dangerous than trying to cut-through Philippe's territories. Richard, however, was captured by Duke Leopold V of Austria and handed over to his overlord, the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich VI.

Unlike Chess, in medieval reality, the capturing of a king, whilst a disaster, was not the end of the game. As Eleanor discovered. Whilst just about holding a lid on John's scheming ambitions, she received the devastating news that Richard was a prisoner in Germany. Worse, the Emperor set Richard's ransom at 100,000 marks, three times England's annual government expenditure. It was an impossible sum, but if the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine had proved anything so far, it was that impossibilities were her forte. 
In the past, Eleanor had shown herself to be insensitive, determined and even ruthless when she felt the occasion called for it. Nothing prepared anyone around her for how she behaved when it came to raising Richard's ransom money. Richard was her beloved; the favourite of her children. When she had languished in prison, he had freed her; now, come hell or high water, she would do the same for him. She began by sending two scorching letters to the Pope, Celestine III (right), demanding to know why he was not punishing the Emperor and the Austrian duke for violating the Truce of God by taking Richard prisoner. As her feud with Bernard of Clairvaux had shown years earlier, Eleanor may have been a Christian, but when it came to her family, she was quite prepared to show a brazen defiance of the Church's hierarchy. She told the Pope that his failure to punish Richard's kidnappers was 'a mark of criminality and disgrace' and she refused to apologise for the furious, vicious tone of her letters to the Holy Father. She was a mother; her rage was justified - 'Grief does not recognise a master, is afraid of no ally, it has no regard for anyone and it does not spare them, not even you.' She told the Pope that his actions 'casts a shadow over the Church and ... considerably damages your standing'. Correctly guessing that the Pope's refusal to reprimand the Emperor was political, rather than spiritual, Eleanor wrote, 'Is your power derived from God or men?' But perhaps the most heartbreaking piece of Eleanor's correspondence with the Papacy was when she gave vent to the pain she felt at losing her son. We have so few documents of this kind from the Middle Ages and it gives a rare insight into the heart of one of Europe's most famous women. For me, the melodrama of Eleanor's prose captures something of grief, which, in its truest form, will always struggle, I think, to find words that even come close to describing it: -
"I wish that the blood of my body, already dead, the brain in my head and the marrow of my bones would dissolve into tears, so much that I completely melt away into sorrow. My insides have been torn out of me, I have lost the staff of my old age, the light of my eyes; if God had assented to my prayers He would condemn my ill fated eyes to perpetual blindness so that they no longer saw the woes of my people ... why have I, the Lady of two kingdoms, reached the disgrace of this abominable old age?"
As Eleanor struggled in the face of the Pope's indifference and the Emperor's demands, John and Philippe set to work. John began recruiting mercenaries in Wales and Flanders, preparing for an attack on Windsor Castle, whilst Philippe laid siege to Rouen. Bringing the concept of multi-tasking to a sublime apotheosis, Eleanor took time off for raising the greatest ransom sum in human history to whip the people of England up into a loyalist frenzy, marshaling an army of volunteers on the eastern coast to repel John's soldiers. Conceding defeat for a second time at his mother's hands, John returned the castles he had taken and Eleanor presumably agreed to persuade Richard to pardon him once he returned from Germany.

And Eleanor had absolutely no doubt that Richard would return. It was when, not if. In what might give modern-day libertarians, neo-conservatives and tax cut enthusiasts a communal heart-attack, Eleanor targeted the rich, by declaring that they would be paying far more than anybody else. An astonishing 25% of any wealthy family, individual or institution's possessions were to be given to the Queen Mother to pay off the King's ransom. The poor would have to contribute too, but far less as a caste than the wealthy. Eleanor herself bullied the Church into parting with some of its riches, all-but ransacking the vaults of Saint Paul's Cathedral and various monasteries. The Pope, at last extending some kind of help, refused to censure Eleanor for basically pillaging the Church for her own ends. In fact, he threatened to place under anathema anyone who refused to obey the Queen Mother in her hunt for money. It wasn't quite the pro-active help Eleanor had wanted from Rome, but at least His Holiness wasn't getting in her way. Finally, by autumn, she was able to promise the Emperor two-thirds of the ransom. She had nearly bankrupt the private and public coffers of England and its European empire to do so, but against all odds, this seventy-something widow had crushed two incipient rebellions, held together a country and almost raised, through fair means and foul, a sum which had been deliberately set at an impossible-high. In February 1194, four years after she had last seen him, Eleanor was reunited with her son in Mainz and on March 12th, they landed again on English soil at Sandwich.

Having no doubt heard from Eleanor the full details of John's repeated attempts at treason whilst he was gone, King Richard was determined to put him in his place once and for all. That John was neither imprisoned nor put to death has puzzled some modern scholars: "Was Richard displaying the same kind of ill-judged leniency that had caused so many problems for his father Henry?" However, initially, Richard annihilated his brother's power base with devastating military efficiency. After brief visits to Canterbury and London, the King swept north to Nottingham (ironically a stronghold of John's considering the role that area would later play in the Robin Hood legends.) There, he had the walls bombed with Greek Fire, a ferocious military technique created by the Byzantine Empire, which created a cross between a bomb and flame-thrower by combing naphta, sulphur and pitch. With Nottingham and John brought to submission and the Greek Fire showing how the King would treat any further threats to his rule, Prince John had no choice but to prostrate himself at his brother's feet and beg for pardon. Surprisingly, given that John had committed treason a dozen times and fatally weakened his family's imperial hold in France, Richard forgave him. The reasons for this, I believe, are that Eleanor had almost certainly promised to act as a mediatrix for John when Richard returned, if he relinquished the mercenary armies he had been recruiting earlier in the year. Secondly, Richard's marriage to Queen Berengaria was still childless. Since they had sailed from the Holy Land in separate ships and Richard had then found himself a prisoner in Austria and Germany, the royal couple had not even seen each other in nearly two years. During her husband's incarceration, Berengaria had spent time visiting Rome, Genoa and Marseilles, before settling in the Aquitaine to see what happened. It had been Eleanor, not Berengaria, who took an active role in freeing Richard and with such a huge distance, both emotional and physical between the King and Queen, John remained the presumed heir-presumptive. The only alternative heir was Richard's nephew and Eleanor's grandson, Arthur of Brittany, the only child of Richard's dead brother, Geoffrey. Since Geoffrey had been older than John, according to modern rules of monarchist primogeniture, it should have been Arthur who was first in line to inherit when Richard I died. But, Arthur was a foreigner, heavily under the influence of his mother Constance and, worst of all, a child. If anything sudden happened to Richard, John, however loathsome he might be, was certainly preferable to a child-sovereign. Despite his appalling behaviour, he was quite simply too valuable to punish severely.

To cement control of his country, Richard underwent a second coronation at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Winchester (below) on April 17th 1194 and, this time, Eleanor was there to witness this celebration of monarchy - and her son. After that, Richard had to begin undoing some of the damage John's reckless ambition had inflicted upon the family's ancestral heartland in Normandy. Philippe II's armies were continuing to make incursions into the duchy and Richard was determined they should stop. He was also coming under increased pressure from priests and hermits to reunite with his wife and when Richard returned to the continent a month after his second coronation, Berengaria was duly summoned to join him.

By this stage in her life, Queen Eleanor was now in her seventies. The last five years had been exhausting ones, in which she had journeyed across the continent, witnessed the start of another crusade, dealt with great personal heartache, undertaken the greatest fund-raising initiative in recent history, defeated several rebellions, ruled a kingdom and rescued a child from imperial captivity. Now, for the first time in her life, she was tired. For the next five years, confident in Richard's ability to hold and defend their empire, the Queen Mother began to spend more and more time at the convent at Fontevrault. She took a great interest in the nuns' lives there and she spent a lot of time overseeing the final touches to the Plantagent burial crypt which her husband lay in and where, when the time came, she would join him.

But if Eleanor of Aquitaine hoped to slip quietly into a peaceful old age, she had reckoned without the melodramatic cruelty of Fate, which seemed incapable of resisting yet another opportunity for drama when it came to this particular woman. In the spring of 1199, a messenger arrived at Fontevrault to inform Eleanor that King Richard had been wounded by a rogue arrow during the siege of Chalus in the Limousin province. Eleanor rushed to be at his side as he fought against gangrene. The arrow itself had been fired deliberately at the King by a young man whose father and brother had been executed on Richard's orders; however, eager to meet God with a clear conscience, Richard now insisted the young man should be pardoned. (His order was ignored by his friends who, after Richard's death, had the youth flayed alive for regicide.) Eleanor nursed Richard through his final week and death came twelve days after the attack, at sunset on April 6th 1199.

Instead of contacting Berengaria, whom she seems to have forgotten about entirely in the initial trauma of Richard's death, Eleanor swiftly dispatched a secret message to John, telling him that he was now king and to do everything he could to ensure a smooth succession. Heeding his mother's warning, John took control of the royal treasury and made sure that there was no serious threat of anyone in England supporting his nephew Arthur's claim over his. Eleanor, grief-stricken, then escorted Richard's body back to Fontevrault, where he was interred in a magnificent ceremony presided over by the Bishop of Lincoln. Berengaria arrived three days later, but Eleanor had apparently not felt it necessary to wait for her before conducting the funeral.

Berengaria did not stay at Fontevrault for long and despite the fact that she was theoretically there to pay her respects to her dead husband and her grieving mother-in-law, the Queen Dowager in fact spent a great deal of her time in private conversation with the Papal Nuncio, who was also at Fontevrault, promoting the idea of a marriage for her younger sister, Blanca, to the Count of Champagne. Apparently, when she heard the news that Richard was dead, Berengaria had been genuinely 'sorrowing,' but understandably she did not stay at Fontrevrault for long and soon headed on to conduct more family business for Blanca at Chartres.

Once again displaying almost superhuman levels of stamina, Eleanor undertook a frankly extraordinary itinerary of travel and politicking in the two weeks immediately after Richard's funeral in order to ensure John got the throne, rather than Arthur. When Arthur's enraged mother, Constance, immediately ignited a war with the aim of recapturing her son's stolen birthright, Eleanor dashed from Fontevrault into Anjou, where her forces captured the city of Angers, which Eleanor subsequently ordered to be sacked as punishment for siding with Arthur over John. With an able body of soldiers, many of whom had served under King Richard, Eleanor then had the key supply areas for Arthur's army torched and destroyed. Done, she dashed back to Fontevrault for a sequence of requiem Masses in Richard's honour and made a grant in his name to the nearby convent of St. Marie de Turpenay, before journeying through Montreuil-Bonnin, Andilly, La Rochelle, St-Jean d'Andely, Saintes and Tours. She then made a personal stop in Tours to visit her youngest daughter, Joanna, the ex-queen of Sicily, now married to the Count of Toulouse; it was there that Eleanor informed Joanna that her brother the King was dead and that John was now the sovereign. Joanna, too, was failing, slowly having the life drained out of her by a pregnancy she was far too weak to endure. Eleanor, who had always loved her youngest daughter, made a special intercession before the church authorities so that Joanna, although pregnant and a married woman, should be allowed to take the veil as a nun. Not long after, Joanna and the baby slipped into the next life.

Amidst the grief of Richard and Joanna's deaths, Eleanor had done everything in her power to ensure John succeeded in the face of his enemies and, to the outside world, she seemed like she had every confidence in both her son's right to rule and his suitability to do so. However, whilst looking after Joanna in Tours, Eleanor performed an action which suggests that, with her characteristic ruthlessness and intelligence, she was also determined to hedge her bets and to save her beloved Aquitaine from being damaged if John followed through on the habit of a lifetime and messed-up. She visited Philippe II and performed homage to him as her feudal overlord for the Aquitaine; not only was it an extraordinary move for a woman to make in her own right, but by doing so she had also just effectively separated the Aquitaine from the rest of the Angevin Empire. Basically, no matter who won, Arthur or John, the Aquitaine would remain independent; it would remain Eleanor's. As one modern historian writes of this short period in Eleanor's life, "To have acted so quickly, in such a compressed period of time and under the strains of bereavement and war shows not only an informed knowledge of the law but a remarkable ability to apply it."

All of this shows Eleanor at her improbably magnificent best, in terms of guts, determination and energy. But why on earth did she go to such enormous trouble to put John on the throne, when she had spent so much of the last decade trying to thwart him? She knew all of the many  faults in John's personality and as subsequent events were to show, he was a disastrous leader whose egregious stupidity almost single-handedly destroyed the English empire in France. Part of her reason for supporting John was allegedly because she hated Constance, her former daughter-in-law and Arthur's mother. If Arthur became king instead of John, he was so young that it was likely that Constance would assume the regency for him, meaning that Eleanor would be her subject - an intolerable idea. More pragmatically, she also knew that many of the barons in England would refuse to accept Arthur over John and, whatever his faults, John was also the last of her sons left alive. Eleanor would have failed in the basic duty of a twelfth-century dynast if she had failed to support the claims of her own offspring. John, for his part, showed rare good sense in accepting his mother's advice and support; after all, she had been of invaluable help to Richard during his reign. Only a complete fool would have ignored her and turned her into an enemy.

With his throne more firmly established, John trusted his aged but still-brilliant mother with various diplomatic missions. Unlike Richard, he had no need to leave her in actual control of the government, but he still needed her help. Philippe II's eldest son, the Dauphin Louis, was nearly of a marriageable age by medieval standards and John hoped that by marrying one of this female relatives to the French heir, he would be able to broker a more permanent peace between the two countries. However, John's first marriage to the wealthy heiress, Isobel of Gloucester, had ended in divorce and he had no legitimate children. His younger sister, Eleanor, Queen of Castile, however, had five daughters and was currently pregnant with a sixth. Trusting in his mother's good judgement, John dispatched Eleanor south on yet another long journey through the mountains - this time to Castile, where she inspected her Spanish granddaughters. The eldest, Berenguela, was already married and some of the younger girls were far too young to be suitable for marriage. For two happy months, Eleanor spent her time in Castile getting to know the two middle granddaughters, Urraca and Blanche, before eventually deciding that it was Blanche who was better-suited to be the next queen of France. The twelve year-old princess was then brought by her grandmother to Paris where, sixty-three years earlier, a newly-married Eleanor had first arrived on the arm of her husband, Louis, now long dead. Blanche and Louis's marriage was celebrated immediately, but because of their youth, it was not consummated for a few years. As king and queen, they had five children together, two of whom, Louis IX and Isabelle, were subsequently canonised in the Roman Catholic faith. Thus, Eleanor, who as a young woman had earned the opprobrium of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, had the rare honour of being the great-grandmother of two Christian saints.

With Blanche's marriage completed, Eleanor returned to Fontevrault, but any hope of enjoying her retirement was soon shattered by the ongoing war between Arthur and John. Support for Arthur was much stronger on the European continent than it was in England and the powerful Lusignan clan of aristocratic warlords had recently allied themselves with Arthur, against John. This alliance posed a very serious threat to John's rule, perhaps the most serious so far, and Eleanor was obliged to leave Fontevrault for Aquitaine's capital, Poitiers, where she planned to mount a defensive war against Arthur and the Lusignans. En route, she stopped for the night in the castle at Mirebeau. News that the Queen Mother was resting with her entourage at Mirebeau reached Arthur and Hugh de Lusignan and it is a testament to Eleanor's reputation for causing trouble wherever she went (at least, that's how her enemies would have seen it) that de Lusignan immediately ordered the siege of Mirebeau to keep her there. According to an old legend, Eleanor, by now nearly eighty, took to the battlements of Mirebeau herself to shout abuse at the enemy soldiers, daring them to fire on her - an anointed queen. If I have a favourite image of Eleanor this, and the moment she set off on the Second Crusade, is definitely it.

Eleanor's foul-mouthed taunts, however, did not quite hold the enemy back like she had hoped and by the time John arrived with an army to free her, she and her retinue had been forced to retreat into the keep under sustained fire. On the same morning as he freed his mother, John also captured his nephew and 16 year-old Arthur was quietly executed not long afterwards.

With the threat to John's rule now apparently liquidated, Eleanor could return to Fontevrault and, this time, she stayed there. By the time she arrived back at her beloved convent, she had less than two years left to live and she began making earnest preparations to make a good, Christian death. In imitation of her  poor dead daughter Joanna, sometime around her eightieth birthday, the Queen Mother took the veil as a nun of the Fontevrist order. After that, Eleanor of Aquitaine sailed slowly into the night. There is some indication in the contemporary sources that in her final few months, she was set upon by the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer's. Death came for her on April 1st 1204 and the woman who had once enraged saints by riding off to the crusades dripping in jewels and silver, finally closed her eyes wearing the habit of a French nun. The greatest heiress of her generation, orphaned as a young girl, married to two kings, the mother of two more, mother of two queens and grandmother of many more, nearly kidnapped on numerous occasions, accused of causing two wars and destroying another, censured and then praised by popes and priests, politician, femme fatale, queen, regent, warrior. A legend in her own lifetime, this most glamorous and exciting of queens was laid to rest in the magnificent necropolis she had prepared, surrounded by the tombs of her children and second husband.


  1. unbelievable - thank you, Gareth.

  2. Out of curiosity, what is your source for Richard's height of 6'5"? I'm not challenging it, mind you, but I'd like to know where it comes from. Thanks - I thoroughly enjoyed all three parts.


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