After narrowly avoiding Theobald, Eleanor might have thought she was safe – after all she’d escaped from the country of Blois and was into Touraine, which was part of the territories of the Counts of Anjou – Henry Plantagenet’s ‘hood. Sadly Henry’s younger brother had not read the script – such is the familial love of the plantagenets that little brother thought he’d grab this prize for himself. He knew Eleanor would have to cross the Rivers Creuse and Vienne, and so he lay in wait at the little town of Port des Piles where the two rivers met. So, we are in Tours, and Eleanor is just about to set out on the main road south towards Port des piles, the bridge and safety at Poitiers. All was ready, in all her glory, and but then rushed up a friend, told her she had news – it was a warning, another warning from her ‘angels’ as she called them. While Geoffrey of Nantes waited impatiently at Port des Piles, building castles in the air, Eleanor found another way. It’s quite hard, actually to get to Poitiers from Tours within going through Port des Piles, or at least it was before the days of bypass roads, but she found a way, turned aside onto the back roads, and finally made her way to the relative safety of Poitiers.
I mention this level of travel detail because it makes it pretty clear why Eleanor wrote immediately to Henry – come and marry me, and make it snappy, essentially. There’s been a tendency to see this about a grand passion; and who knows maybe that was an element of that but the real reason was practical necessity and cold reason. Eleanor needed a protector, and with a prize the size of Aquitaine she needed a protector with a big stick. As count of Anjou and looking good to become King of England, Henry’s stick seems appropriate. Plus, Henry was a good 9 years younger than Eleanor, just 19 in 1152 – maybe Eleanor thought she was going to be able to have even more influence over the young lad as she’d had over Louis. She was to be sadly mistaken, or at least she was to find that Henry was not pliable.
Henry was at Lisieux in Normandy when he received the letter on the 6th April. It seems to me that Eleanor must surely have lined Henry up before hand. Otherwise presumably she’d have been faced with the prospect of either sending out a general junk mailing to all the nobility of Europe – heiress available, all good offers considered sort of thing, big stick essential – or go through them one by one until someone came up trumps and who knew if she’d have survived by then; as it was, Henry and Eleanor kept the plans for the wedding secret until suddenly on 11th May, Poitiers went potty and Henry and Eleanor stood side by side in the Cathedral.
If you happened to be lounging around in Poitiers that May, you might at some point have heard a small explosion, far away to the north. You might have felt a slight tremor in the ground, held on to your seat and looked around fearfully. In Paris, someone had told Louis. Never has a flabber been more gasted. Louis had thought Eleanor required to consult with the father of her children about her next marriage, or may have doubted Eleanor would remarry at all, and if she did,m then surely she wouldn’t marry some jumped up…well someone like Henry. Suddenly the Ile de France was engulfed by the embrace of a gorilla, and a gorilla whose family had a history of eating their neighbours. Louis started putting anti Angevin alliances in place immediately. The war had already started. And actually, Louis was not alone. The broader reaction was also a bit horrified – the thought of a noblewoman arranging her own marriage was a bit scandalous. The old tales of adultery did the rounds again, courtiers whispered behind hands.
Given the haste of the marriage, it would take a while for Eleanor to join her husband more permanently. In this small space between jobs, for a short precious time, Eleanor was in control. There are a couple of charters in Eleanor’s name from May 1152. One of them is to St Maxient Abbey, and at first glance it’s slightly odd; she takes away a grant of forest she’d made previously – and then gives it back again. Make your mind up. In one of them she mentioned her divorce – ‘separated from the king by the Church’s judgment’. She said that the original grant had been made ‘almost without wishing to’. This is a fascinating document – Eleanor was recording her lack of freedom and independence with Louis; she was making a symbolic and heartfelt declaration that now she could make her own choices. She now gave to St Maxient of her own free will. Her charters of the time make no mention of Henry, and she gathered around her a household of the traditional longstanding household officers of the Counts of Poitou. She was home, after 15 years of exile. She visited the abbey of Fontevraud, with its special relationship with her family, and issued a charter to them also. She was putting down a root, having a hoot.
It was not to last. The character of Eleanor’s life was to change completely within weeks. First of all, came the same process she’d been through with Louis; Henry came down to Poitou and took up his role as Duke of Aquitaine. They toured together round the Duchy accepting the rather lukewarm homage of the counts and viscounts that made up his new world. At his side Eleanor would have been advising, whispering in his ear. In Limoges, the major city off the Limousin Henry fiercely punished the citizens’ failure to pay their dues to a new Duke – he levelled their walls. Don’t imagine that Eleanor was horrified at the treatment her subjects – this was her advice. Treat ‘em mean and you might not keep them keen but you might not get a knife between your ribs.
But it would not have escaped Henry’s notice just how wafer thin was the control of the Dukes of Aquitaine outside Poitou and the Bordelais; outside those regions there were no ducal castles at all. This was very different to the situation he was used to in both Normandy and Anjou, where ducal or comital castles allowed for his own administrative and military centres, from which he could impose his rule. And in England of course, Henry would find a governmental machinery unequalled in western Europe; since Anglo Saxon times, England’s hundreds, and shires, and her shire moots and county courts allowed the king’s writ to run throughout the kingdom. The involvement of all free men in the operation of justice through the tithings of 10 men gave a level of participation in government that was unheard of in France and certainly Aquitaine.
In Aquitaine, ducal authority was little more than a nice tradition, a rosette for the credulous. The counts of the Aquitanian regions recognised no more than a general requirement of public service; and what authority the Duke possessed was through a personal relationship and sense of obligation. Even in Poitou and the Bordelais, the lords expected almost complete freedom to run their own affairs as they saw fit. A clash of culture then, was on its way. What’s noticeable is that at this stage as I say, Eleanor appears to have been either in agreement, or at very least neutral about her husband’s inclination to try to pull her Aquitainian subjects into the Angevin line and tradition. That will not stay the case for ever.
Eleanor was also pregnant, so that’s nice, and in 1153 her first son William was born – so that’s the curse of God lifted then. By 1154, Henry’s civil war in England came to an end, and with the death of Stephen, in March he became king, and in December 1154 Eleanor was crowned Queen of England alongside her husband as he was also crowned.
For Eleanor, then, life becomes an endless stream of cigarettes and magazines – or at least the medieval equivalent, which in Eleanor’s case meant an endless stream of children and travel. Henry was a ceaseless traveller, and often Henry and Eleanor are apart, but there is no sense of this being anything other than practicalities. Certainly, gone were the problems of giving birth to a male heir she’d had with Louis. Eleanor gives birth now in a sort of constant stream. In the first 7 years of their marriage, Eleanor has 5 children; William in 1153, who sadly died by the age of 3; Henry 1155, Matilda 1156, Richard 1157, Geoffrey 1158. Then would you believe, a bit of a break until Eleanor 1161, Joan 1165 and finally John 1166. Seriously.
Eleanor’s reception in England doesn’t seem to have been accompanied by quite the same level of disdain as in Paris; the culture of the south of France was very distant to the English and so there was none of the tradition of disdain to be dealt with. Also, London and Westminster did not have the same atmosphere of austerity and piety of Paris. This feels strange – after all for many centuries, it is Paris that will be the centre of western culture, but Louis had been very much in the grip of Abbot Suger and Bernard of Clairvaux and his own deep and possibly excessive sense of piety. London was more of a melting pit of cultures and of course under the Angevins it was England’s court that stood at the centre of a mighty empire, not little France. Henry and Eleanor’s court was where all the action was.
All of which meant Eleanor had fewer obstacles to overcome. That the rumours of sexual goings-on came with her however, is probably evidenced by the later tittle tattle of the English chroniclers whence comes much of the black legend. It’s not possible to know if the ordinary folk disapproved in the same way; the court was a very distant society. Eleanor might have been very used to a mixed cultural and linguistic heritage in Aquitaine but she took no trouble to learn English. I’m not suggesting that this is a negative thing; Eleanor was part of a French speaking world – the court, justice, diplomacy, culture, song – it’s all French, English is the language of you know, manure and stuff – I exaggerate for effect. But not very much.
There is often much discussion about whether Eleanor was a good mother, just as there are many questions about whether Henry was a good father; but it’s a dangerous question given how very different parenting was in those days, or at least for members of the upper crust. The idea that medieval parents cared little emotionally for their children has been thoroughly debunked, but there’s no doubt that they saw a lot less of them; and that by modern standards, Eleanor and Henry’s children had a hard upbringing or at least one quite distant from their folks.
It is very unlikely that she nursed her children – she would have had a wet nurse, and in fact at the time it was thought breastfeeding inhibited pregnancy, which despite the endless stream was considered a bad thing. There is a little evidence that Eleanor had a close relationship with her wet nurses; there is an especially valuable gift to one of them named Agatha. Children in noble households though were sent away from home very early, and Eleanor and Henry were no different; and you have to point out that the responsibility for making decisions about the children’s upbringing lay principally with Henry rather than his queen. So for example we know that Henry the Young king was sent to Thomas Beckets’s household when he was just 4. Placing children with other households was supposed to encourage them to develop a network of contacts and develop skills crucial to their future lives; sentiment must take a back seat. The point I’m making is that Eleanor and Henry were far from exceptional in their approach, even for royal parents. Henry I’s Queen, Edith, or example, was praised for being so intimately involved in her children’s upbringing. When you reflect that her daughter was sent to a convent at the age of 6, it puts the idea of involvement into a different context.
We also know of course that Eleanor’s brood would prove to be a fractious lot, and on this basis there have been histories taking a psychological approach to the whole thing, trying to analyse the impact of Eleanor’s parenthood on her children. They were, without doubt a seriously fractious lot, but there are plenty of reasons for that, not just Eleanor. There’s Henry, for example, and his refusal as we will see to genuinely delegate power and authority. And above all it’s worth noting that of course in later life it would be Eleanor rather than Henry to whom Richard and John were devoted, both of whom demonstrated their trust in sharing real political power with their mother and relying on her authority.
So much then for the children thing; but we should spend a bit more time on the vexed question of how far Eleanor exercised power as Queen of England.
Which we’ll do next time. Thank you for listening everyone, and see you all next week.