Eleanor of Aquitaine pleads for the release of her Son, 1193

In 1193, Richard had been captured by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. Below is the text of a letter sent from Eleanor of Aquitaine as she strove to persuade the Pope Celestine to intervene more effectively. She certainly doesn’t hold back in the letter, with some memorable phrases, as she laments both her bad fortune, and the complains about the behaviour of the Angevin brood.

It is generally agreed that Peter of Blois had a hand in the writing of these letters; in such an important diplomatic task you would, wouldn’t you, get the experts involved, and Peter was an expert. The letters have too many biblical references for Eleanor and apparently share his style – some say the are probably all Peter. But it is inconceivable that Eleanor would not have seen them and approved them, and unlikely she would have had no input, so, co-authors seems the likely scenario.  


Letter from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Pope Celestine, 1193

To her revered father and lord Celestine, highest pontiff by the grace of God, A., wretched and to be pitied — if only she were — queen of the English, duchess of Normandy, countess of Anjou, to show himself the father of mercy to the suffering mother.

I am prevented by invidious distances, blessed father, from speaking to you in person, but I must lament my grief a little. And who will grant that my words be written? I am in such anguish within and without, that my words are filled with grief. Fears without, fights within. I am not free to breathe now from the tribulation of evils and grief, the excessive tribulations that have come upon us. I am wasted away by sorrow, my bone clings to the consumed flesh of my skin, my years decline in sighs — would that they might give out altogether, that the blood of my already dead body, the brain in my head, the marrow of my bones might dissolve in tears,  that I might completely vanish in weeping. My entrails are torn from me, I have lost the staff of my old age and the light of my eyes; it would answer my prayers if God condemned my unfortunate eyes to perpetual blindness so they might no longer see the ills of my people. Who will let me die for you, my son? Mother of mercy, look on a mother of such misery, or if your son, an endless font of mercy, exacts the sins of the mother from the son, let him exact them only from the one who sinned, let him punish the impious, not laugh at the punishments of the innocent.

Who began me, let him destroy me, let him take his hand and cut me off; and let this be my consolation, that afflicting me with pain, he not spare me. Pitiful and pitied by no one, why have I come to the ignominy of this detestable old age, who was ruler of two kingdoms, mother of two kings?

My guts are torn from me, my family is carried off and removed from me. The young king and the count of Brittany sleep in dust, and their most unhappy mother is compelled to be irremediably tormented by the memory of the dead. Two sons remain to my solace, who today survive to punish me, miserable and condemned. King Richard is held in chains. His brother, John, depletes his kingdom with iron [sword] and lays it waste with fire. In all things the Lord has turned cruel to me and attacked me with the harshness of his hand. Truly his wrath battles against me: my sons fight amongst themselves, if it is a fight where one is restrained in chains, the other, adding sorrow to sorrow, undertakes to usurp the kingdom of the exile by cruel tyranny. Good Jesus, who will grant that you protect me in hell and hide me until your fury passes, until the arrows which are in me cease, by which my whole spirit is sucked out? Death is my wish, my life is loathsome, and since I die incessantly, I desire to die fully; I am compelled to live against my will so that life is to me the food of death and the matter of torture. Happy those who are blessedly aborted before they can experience the mockery of this life and the unexpected events of our uncertain condition!

What am I doing? Why do I survive? Why do I, wretched, delay and not go to see the one whom my soul loves, conquered by poverty and iron? How could a mother forget the son of her womb for so long? Affection for their offspring softens even wild tigers and demons. But I waver in doubt. If I go, deserting my son’s kingdom, that is laid waste on all sides with grave hostility, it will be deprived of all counsel and comfort in my absence. If I remain, I shall not see the face I most desire, of my son. There will be no one to zealously procure the freedom of my son and, what I fear even more, with the impossible quantity of money, that very delicate youth, impatient at such affliction, will be pressed by his torments and driven to death by his tortures. O impious, cruel, terrible tyrant, who did not fear to lay your sacrilegious hands on the anointed of the Lord; neither the royal unction, nor reverence for holy life, nor the fear of God kept you from such inhuman action.

But the prince of apostles still reigns and rules in the apostolic see and judiciary rigor is established there. May it remain there so that you, Father, unsheathe the sword of Peter which he set for this purpose over peoples and kingdoms. The cross of Christ preceded the eagles of Caesar, the sword of Peter the sword of Constantine, and the apostolic see passes sentence on imperial power. Is your power from God or from men? Did the God of Gods not speak to you, saying to the apostle Peter:

“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven?”

Why, therefore, do you delay so long, so negligently, indeed so cruelly to free my son, or do you not dare? But you say this power was committed to you for souls not bodies. So be it: it is certainly sufficient for us if you bind the souls of those who hold my son bound in prison; it is easy for you to free my son while the fear of God overpowers human fear.

Give my son back to me, man of God, if you are a man of God and not a man of blood. If you are slow in the freeing of my son, may the Highest exact his blood from your hand.  Alas, alas, if the highest shepherd is perverted into a mercenary, if he flees before the wolf, if he abandons the little sheep committed to his care, indeed the ram, the chosen leader of the Lord’s flock to the jaws of the cruel beast! A good shepherd instructs other shepherds, teaches them not to flee when they see the wolf coming but to offer their lives for their sheep. I ask that your soul be safe while you strive to procure with swift legations, with salutary admonitions, with thundering threats, with general interdictions, with terrible judgments, the freedom not of your sheep but of your son. Truly you should offer your life for him, you who until now have not wanted to say or write one word.

The son of God, by the witness of the prophet, descended from heaven to lead the vanquished from the lake in which there was no water. Is not what was fitting for God fitting for the servant of God? My son is tormented in chains and you do not descend nor send to him; you are not moved by Joseph’s grief. Christ sees this and is silent; but the work of God abundantly repays with the highest severity those who act negligently. Legates have now been promised to us three times but have not been sent; if I may speak truth, they are more ligatures than legates. If my son were prospering, they would swiftly come at his simple call, because they would expect rich hand-outs to their legation from the magnificent munificence and from the public profit of the kingdom. And what more glorious request could they receive than to free a captive king, to give peace back to his people, tranquillity to the religious, and joy to all?

Now, however, the sons of Ephraim are converted to war, bending and losing their bows, and in a time of anguish, while the wolf broods over the prey, the mute dogs cannot or do not wish to bark. Is this the promise that you made to us at Chateauroux with such love and protestation of faith? What benefit was it to you to give words to the simple, to delude the desires of the innocent with foolish faith? So king Achab is said to have once made a compact of friendship with Benadab, and we have heard what an inauspicious outcome their mutual love had. Heavenly dispensation favoured the battles of Judas, John, the brother of Simon Maccabee with happy omens; when their legation was sent confirming the friendship of the Romans, they lost the help of God, and not once but often their venal intercourse turned to sobs.

You alone compel me to despair who alone after God are my hope, who were the confidence of our people. Cursed is he who trusts in man. Where is my expectation now? You are, Lord, my God. To you, Lord, who consider labour, the eyes of your handmaid are turned. King of kings and Lord of lords, look in the face of your Christ, give power to your child and save the son of your handmaid; do not punish in him the crimes of his father or the malice of his mother. We have learned from a reliable public account that after the death of the bishop of Liège, whom he is said to have killed with a long hand by deadly sword, the emperor constrained by wretched imprisonment the bishop of Ostia and four of his fellow provincial bishops, as well as the archbishops of Salerno and Trani and, what apostolic authority ought in no way to hide, occupied by tyrannical usurpation Sicily, which from the times of Constantine has been the patrimony of St. Peter, despite legations, supplications, and threats from the apostolic see. With all this his furore is not abated but his hand is still stretched forth. He has done serious things, but you can most certainly expect more serious soon. For those who ought to be the columns of the church are moved like light reeds in any wind. Would that they remembered that because of the negligence of Eli, the priest ministering in Shiloh, the glory of the Lord of Israel was transferred. This is not a parable of the past but of the present, since the lord rejected the tabernacle of Shiloh, his tabernacle where he lived among men, and gave their strength into captivity, their beauty into the hands of the enemy. It will be imputed to their pusillanimity that the church is trampled, the faith endangered, liberty oppressed, that deceit, suffering and iniquity are nourished with impunity.

Where is what the lord promised his church: “you shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings, I will make you the proud in the world, a joy from age to age”?

The church once trampled the necks of the proud and sublime with its own power, and the laws of emperors followed the sacred canons. Now, however, with order disrupted, I shall not say the canons, but the framers of canons are restricted by depraved laws and abominable customs. The scourges of the powerful that should be detested are tolerated and there is no one who dares to mumble; meanwhile canonical rigor is exercised against the sins of the poor. Not undeservedly does the philosopher Anacharsis compare laws and canons with the webs of spiders, which retain weaker animals but let the strong pass through. The kings of the earth stood by and princes came together as one against the anointed of the Lord, my son. One torments him with chains; another lays waste his lands with cruel hostility. And, if I may use a common expression, “one shaves, another pulls the hair, one holds the foot, another excoriates.” The highest pontiff sees this and suppresses the sword of Peter which he has replaced in its sheath. So he adds horns to the sinner and his silence is taken for consent. For he seems to consent who, when he can and ought, does not reprove, and when patience, the concealer of hidden association, does not lack scruple. The time of dissension, as the apostle foretold, is imminent, when the son of perdition will be revealed and dangerous times draw near, when the seamless tunic of Christ will be cut, the net of Peter torn, and the solidity of Catholic unity will be dissolved. These are the beginnings of evils: we experience grave things, we fear more grave. I am not a prophetess, I am not a daughter of the prophet; yet grief gave me many things to say about future disturbances, but those words which it suggested, it snatches away. Sobs hinder my spirit, sorrow, sapping the strength of my soul cuts off the path of my words with anxiety.

2 thoughts on “Eleanor of Aquitaine pleads for the release of her Son, 1193

  1. Hello!
    I am thoroughly enjoying your podcasts, thank you so much for making them. In the podcast where you read a portion of this letter, you mentioned a website where one can find original letters written by women in the Dark Ages/Medieval times. Could you please give me the link to that website I can’t find it? Thanks again for making the podcasts. And uhm, it is very good to listen to, not only while ironing but also while knitting. 😉
    Kind Regards, Anne

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