The question about Eleanor’s role in England is a vexed one – apart from the child production one obviously, the evidence of which was there for all to see. It’s vexed and rather loaded. The loaded bit, is that it’s very hard not to look at Eleanor with 21st century eyes and wish, will her to be an autonomous figure as we would like her to be; and to see nothing less that Eleanor mixing it up in the corridors of power. If you read a general history of Angevin England you won’t hear very much about Eleanor’s role in decision making. It’s all Henry this, Henry that, Henry the other. Or, if you were to wade through the vast tome that is the definitive biography of Henry II by Warren you would come across some discouraging phrases such as
To judge from the chroniclers, the most striking thing about Eleanor of Aquitaine is her utter insignificance in Henry’s reign.
The picture Warren paints, then, is of a queen with a largely ceremonial role. Some more recent historians make the same point; here’s Lisa Hilton for example:
the period she spent by her husband’s side as queen of England is one of virtual invisibility.
Hilton again paints a view of a largely ceremonial and titular role, suggesting that from 1156 Eleanor’s freedom of action had been largely removed by Henry II, and while she zoomed around the place, when not having children of course, she was there to project the power of her husband rather than exercise her own. It’s been pointed out that there are no charters at all in her name from Aquitaine in the years 1151 and 1168. And oddly, Eleanor is surprisingly seldom mentioned in relation to church grants. I mean there’s little doubt of Eleanor’s personal piety, but there’s a distinct lack of evidence that she gave any great endowments to religious institutions. Maybe Henry blocked her, who knows? It’s a curious lack generally in Eleanor’s life. The one place she did make a connection was with Reading where her first born, William was buried when he died just three years old. Apart from that, it’s a bit of a blank. So generally for some, a picture is built where Eleanor is supposed to have been almost totally eclipsed by Henry II.
Other historians challenge this view. Let’s start off by considering what people were used to. The frozen wastes of the north, especially the lands north of Watford Gap of course, might have been less free and easy than southern France. But the people of the British Isles were well used to the leadership of queens, possessed of a power recognised as sovereign, even if not independent to the king. In Scotland for example; Matilda of Scotland had an enormous impact on the religious and political life of the kingdom, and had been seen to lead the church in its reform and remodelling. Even more recently, in England, was Matilda of Boulogne, Stephen’s Queen. Matilda and Stephen behaved as partners in managing the realm; Matilda even took to the battlefield when Stephen was imprisoned. More generally, English queens presided over court ceremonial; they were an important source of patronage for writers, architects, the church, musicians and their household.
The impression of Eleanor’s disappearance is largely a result of the chroniclers. Chroniclers were churchmen, churchmen were very wary of women as we have heard, so everything is attributed to Henry and his lieutenants and justiciars. We get the odd mention that combine that churchy view tinged with respect. Gervase of Canterbury for example is perfect when he described her as
‘an exceedingly shrewd woman, sprung from noble stock, but fickle’.
That kind of sums it up – far too sharp to be anything other than dangerous. And there are other hints that while Chroniclers rather ignore Eleanor, she remains a central part of royal power. For example John of Salisbury complained about the equality of papal and royal power, writing with disgust that the English could appeal
To king or queen alike
That’s interesting – king and queen discussed in the same breath, and he clearly felt that appealing to the queen was worth the trouble as much as appealing to the king.
A fuller picture emerges with the documentary evidence. What is un disputed is that Eleanor clearly acts as regent on multiple occasions when Henry is away from court. And since Henry dashed about like a blue arsed fly, this is a regular occurrence. So for example, in January 1156, Henry was faced by his brother’s rebellion in Anjou, and after his departure Eleanor was made regent. In May 1165, it was the turn of Anjou and Maine, where Eleanor stayed for a year as regent.
So that’s clear enough; but it’s been suggested that Eleanor’s involvement was purely titular, ceremonial, and that it was the justiciars that made the real decisions – men like Robert Earl of Leicester and Richard de Lucy. But, particularly up to the 1160’s, there’s very clear evidence that Eleanor was central to daily government, and that she could and did assert herself.
The language of Eleanor’s writs take no prisoners. Writs of course are essentially royal instructions, and there are nine that survive in Eleanor name – it’s a relatively small number, but they make it clear that she was a legitimate source of authority; and they make it clear that Eleanor could and did make the decision. We see her involved in making decisions about church appointments; we have one surviving letter pressurising the bishop of Worcester to secure the post of archdeacon for one of her clerks. Another surviving letter shows Eleanor intervening with the Abbess of Amesbury.
Eleanor also involved herself in the administration of justice – in a prolonged legal dispute between the abbot of St Albans and one of his great lay tenants for example. One writ deals very pre-emptorily with the Sheriff of Suffolk
Until you enforce the king’s justice for London, I do not want to hear more complaints about default of justice. Farewell
My cheeks blush for the poor sheriff. Finally, and critically, there are times when Eleanor intervenes to overrule the justiciars, issuing her own writ to protect the Abbot of St Albans where the justiciar had failed to do so.
Medieval government as we have observed is a personal affair, and the nuts and bolts of administration are only one area where royal power was exercised. Another was patronage. Eleanor had been well provided for when she’d arrived in England. Her marriage settlement was considerable and gave her an independent income; in addition, she received substantial income from the exchequer – around £350 a year on average. Given that the income of Barons probably ranged from£200 to £800 at the time, Eleanor’s income probably exceeded the greatest magnate.
This allowed her to maintain a big personal household, one which reflected her prestige and authority. Mainly the key members of her household, such as we can identify, came from England, but there was still a core group of at least 5 Poitevins among them, although only one Poitevin noble was actually granted land in England. But beating a path to the queen’s door to advance your career was well worth the effort is the point – we see her finding a living for one of her kinsmen with the Abbot of Westminster for example. Eleanor understood the importance and power of patronage; We have a nice simple example of this with our very own William the Marshal, who recalled that when he joined her household in 1168 she readily gave him
‘horses, arms, money and fine clothes
There’s little reason to doubt Eleanor was every bit as generous to supporters during the 1150s.
The sweetest of Eleanor’s sweet spots though, was probably in her role in dominating the ceremonial of court. Henry was well aware of the importance of projecting the power of kingship, and on occasions would hang out the bunting. But one of the rather more attractive features of Henry was his tendency towards informality, a love of learning, of a practical day to day style when travelling with his advisers. And yet the Angevin court was also the richest and grandest in Western Europe, as it needed to be – by this Henry and Eleanor projected their superiority over the piddly French. This projection of wealth, power and confidence was critical in the medieval world, but by the later 12th century, it was becoming more than that. It was becoming the place where the young and ambitious came to fight for influence and patronage from their royal masters; politics was becoming court politics. We have some rather desperate and lugubrious writings from reluctant courtiers – Walter Map and particularly Peter of Blois, who absolutely hated the court, and yet could not leave. Here’s a passage he wrote that illustrates it rather nicely
What binds us to the court
Is more delicate clothing
Food more exquisite
And more refined, and there I’m feared, and not afraid
And can increase the estate my parents left me and
Thunder out great words;
I’m tied there by the counsels
Of the rich, and the chances
Of dignities, which the friendship
Of magnates can bestow
So, the court was becoming a the entre of politics and its magnificence and size was the foundation and rock of Angevin reputation, worth legions in the diplomatic battle.
And in this Eleanor’s role was critical. We know of her presence at a series of great ceremonial courts – at Cherbourg in 1159 and 1162, Falaise in 1160, Le Mans in 1160–61, Poitiers in 1166, Chinon in 1172. She was almost certainly present at Clermont-Ferrand in 1173, and in the same year at Limoges.
Certainly writers complained bitterly of the amount of fun to be had at the court – there was round condemnation of actors, mimes, dancers to be found at work there,
When I frequented the court with the courtiers
Wrote one of them
I made sirventes, chanson, rimes and saluts among the overs and their mistresses.
It’s in this period when exists the little evidence we do have for Eleanor’s patronage of troubadours, with the presence of Bernard de Ventadorn at the English court, and one of his poems lamenting his separation from his lady very probably referred to Eleanor – though there is no evidence at all of a love affair. Sadly, because obviously that would sell copy!
What then is the super summary of Eleanor’s role in government? We know that she’s made Regent on a few occasions; but if it is clear that there is some evidence that Eleanor was directly involved in government, it is equally clear that you have to look very hard. Yes, during this phase of her life she witnessed royal charters; and writs and documents embodying her mandates were issued in her own name. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that only 1% of the surviving writs have Eleanor’s name on them, and its Henry or the Justiciars who are most visible in the record.
You have to look more broadly probably. If we consider the whole picture of the 1150s, we get a picture of a varied involvement in the wider business of government and life at court. As we have said ad nauseum, medieval government was a personal sort of thing, supported only by a tiny bureaucracy. Power and authority was exercised by multiple mechanisms; by a relationship with the great men, by offering patronage in secular and ecclesiastical positions, by exercising justice. And by the projection of authority and power through the royal court. Eleanor was involved in much of this, in varying degrees of directness. The impression we get is of a wildly energetic couple working in partnership and travelling all over this disparate empire, all mixed together with the appearance of a growing family. It looks for all the world like period of full engagement, with Eleanor exercising enormous influence in multiple ways, albeit not quite as the head of state she might have liked.
There’s also little doubt Eleanor exercised that nebulous influence behind the scenes with Henry, and that by the later 1150s, she had returned to a familiar theme – to her family’s rights in Toulouse.