We are in the dead of winter, 29th December 1170, and we are in Canterbury Cathedral. It’s late afternoon, and there is the sound of the chanting of monks as preparations are made for Vespers. A rather proud man is dressed in all his episcopal finery, making his preparations. This man is the once all powerful and rather glam Lord Chancellor of England, and now the ostentatiously pious and hair shirt wearing ABC, primate of all England and a man in equal measure pious and irritating.
Thomas Becket, for it is he, is interrupted by the entry of 4 men, all wearing heavy cloaks, the sort of cloaks that are handy both to keep the weather off you if you happen to be travelling a long way, and to hide something beneath. They approach Becket and roughly demand that he accompany them back to France to meet with his lord and master and theirs, that it is time for Becket to submit to his authority. We might expect that they demanded this more in hope than expectation, and it is the expectation that wins as Becket brusquely dismisses the very idea and demands they leave. They do, and Becket, possibly with a little internal fist pumpy thing which he doesn’t do to the watching monks, turns and advances up the nave towards the chancel of the cathedral to carry out the service.
Ooops, hang on. Behind him, the 4 men have returned. But now the whole affair has become more threatening. The cloaks are open to reveal the mail armour hidden beneath, and in the mens’ hands are naked swords, the sound of clinking metal fills the cathedral. And there in front of the steps to the chancel, the ABC of Canterbury is brutally cut down and left in a pool of his own blood and brains as the men flee.
Eleanor had been at the hunting lodge of Bur le Roi before this fateful event, along with the king and her three younger sons – Richard, Geoffrey and John. It has to be said that while the Christmas court is of course designed to be one of family fun, laughter and board games, the atmosphere had been rather spoiled by the arrival of English Bishops who had been excommunicated by Becket for supporting the king, and there were angry debates and discussions. At one stage, Henry had even thrown one of his legendary, epic tantrums. There’d been no straw chewing on this occasion, so, not quite 13 on the plantagenet scale, but he had stared wildly around the court and yelled
What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?
It probably did not help Eleanor’s attitude towards her husband. Eleanor had now been in control-ish of Aquitaine for a couple of years, and the indications are that her commitment to Henry remained in place; but there were stresses and strains as we have discussed. Despite her efforts, she lacked the military and financial resources to spread the largess and good will she would have liked throughout the Dukedom, and her effective control was limited to the Poitevin heartland; Henry still held the sinews of power. However, she seems to have supported Henry in his struggles with the church, and remained a practical support to him, acting as his regent in Normandy during 1170. The occasion had been Henry’s return to England for the coronation of a new king, also called Henry, Henry the Young King as we shall call hm. You might be looking confused – you might not be of course, but whether you are or not, I am going to use this as an opportunity to explain why young Henry, Henry junior, Henry soon to the be Henry the Young King was being crowned.
It seems to have been for two reasons. Firstly, it gave everyone a bit of certainty about what was going to happen – look, if I happen to eat too many lampreys, or cherries maybe, or slip and fall and cut my throat open on somebody else’s sword or whatever, here there is a king in waiting. He’s only 15 but you know, look at the crown on the lad, anointed by God and all that – ready to go. The other reason may be that it was a part of a gradually unfolding policy for Henry the Old King to reassure his continental neighbours that they were not about to be engulfed in an Angevin bearhug and flanking manoeuvre. Henry was in the first part of a strategy to devolve his humungeous empire on his sons. This is a strategy which has caused some debate, because in more modern eyes, who would do that, afterall the traditional history of Europe is to build bigger better shinier kingdoms. However, back in days medieval before the world of nation states, it was the tradition to see these lands as individual dynastic possessions, not as coherent empires to be melded together like a bunch of old soap bars. Henry saw each of the component parts of his lands as held by different rights and customs, and he could give them away individually on the same basis. The job of every family was and is to set up their children for a successful life – and here was Henry doing just that while at the same time reassuring his neighbours, particularly Louis. Reassuring Louis I hear you ask, quizzically raising an eyebrow? Well, the idea was that Louis would see different princes receiving different bits, rather than facing the one super state he faced now.
It is entirely possible indeed probable that Eleanor was an enthusiastic participant in this plan, despite the rather frustrating experience that was ruling a part of Henry’s empire under his watchful eye. There is a theme that emerges here – Henry had a very reasonable and sensible strategy, but he seemed rather reluctant to accept the logical consequence of actually giving away the power in practice – there’s an element of the King Lear in it all –he insisted on keeping control, and Henry the young king would learn his mother’s experience very soon. And in this lay the seeds of the family’s destruction.
Anyway, back to that initial, well trodden story. So, when the news of Beckett’s death returned to court, which was now at Argentan on either 31st December 1170 or 1st January 1171, Eleanor picked up her skirts and legged it, quickly leaving the Christmas court. We do not need to see this as a breach with Henry exactly; but she was probably very keen not to be associated with an event that shocked Christendom. It cannot have helped her mood; you suspect that the foundations of her loyalty may have been slightly cracked. After all Henry’s action was to be absolutely vilified across Christendom, a Christendom even more horrified than when Aunt Ethel swigged down the communion wine at the Altar, or the Uncle George finished the lardy cake. He had committed a serious faux pas, comprehensively blotted the copybook of life. Everyone was talking about it, and no one was standing up for Henry on this one. So, if Eleanor had been nursing the plook of grievance, said plook would have burst at this point. Pluke, incidentally is a Scottish word for spot, zit, and I learned today that it is not in my spell checker, though it is in the OED. Which is a shame for it is an excellent word.
It is time to draw together a few strands into this story to understand Eleanor’s feelings at a critical point, most of which strands have already been floated in the sea of our podcast. I spoke of the betrothal of Eleanor Junior to Alfonso of Castile, and noted that in some way in some form the wide lands of Gascony were part of that deal. Can it have been that Eleanor felt it totally reasonable and OK that the lands of her fathers were being trailed around in front of the Castilians like a pie in front of a fat lad in this cavalier sort of way? Would Henry have suggested Wiltshire as a reasonable trade? I don’t think so. Hum, a bit irritating possibly.
Then, when is home rule not home rule? As far as we can see, Eleanor is not very much less titular than she was when floating around England and the Norman and Angevin provinces. Now that might have been fine, it might have been that Eleanor remained OK with that; or it might have been in common with most movements towards Home Rule, that the greater freedom simply created a desire for more, for full and proper empowerment.
Then there’s the whole Beckett fiasco – up to now, Henry might have been rather arrogant autocrat, but at least he’d been a rather stunningly successful arrogant autocrat. Now he’d very clearly boobed, and boobed in a bout of boudaciously boorish and boneheaded bungling. Since it is a wordy type of episode, I might also celebrate what a great word bungle is, a triumph of the art of onomatapeia, if bungling had a sound, bungle it would be. I am reliably informed that is a word from the early 16th century, and we share the concept with a Swedish dialect where apparently exists the word bangla, which means to work ineffectually. It’s good to share, and everyone loves the Swedes, especially the English. So, my point is that I suppose it feels less bad to bow the neck to a super clever autocrat, than to one whose mystique is rather exploded, and who is being reviled all over Europe as an Archbishop killer.
Into the mix we should throw the personal stuff; the Rosamund Clifford affair, but as one commentator has noted it’s more likely that a later affair of Henry’s would have caused greater offence than Fair Rosamund. This was with Countess Ida de Tosny; because Ida was a member of the nobility, and Henry would later recognise his bastard son, William Longsword after he was born in 1176. Generally speaking, it feels right to downplay these personal reasons, because they lead to the frequent and rather patronising narrative of Eleanor as a person driven purely by impulse, and impulse purely around personal relationships. But having said that, we can’t get inside Eleanor’s head, and it’s entirely possible I suppose that Eleanor was outraged by Rosamund, it’s just that it’s unknowable, and critically, and these emotional reasons are not required to explain Eleanor’s growing distance from and disaffection with Henry.
Another personal and unknowable explanation is the same impulse that a few hundreds of years later would fire Catherine of Aragon in her defiance; pride. Eleanor was a descendant of Dukes of Aquitaine that thought of themselves as one step down only from Carolingian Emperors, inheritors of a proud independent tradition – now subject to barbarians from the north, speaking a different language, sucking power, authority and influence away from the land of her fathers. Lineage, heritage – these things were the life blood of nobility. Further offence in this line was on its way. In 1173, the Count off Toulouse would bend the knee to Henry to do homage for Toulouse. You might think this is a triumph – Henry was working to isolate Louis of France and this would seem an important step. But it also implicitly rejected Eleanor’s own traditional claim to the County. Once more the noble tradition of Duke William IX was sidelined, marginalised.
And once more, you might put up with this if it was well done; and the evidence is that in early days Eleanor was fully supportive of her husband’s aggressive and energetic pursuit of power in the region, supportive of his brutal suppression of objections to Angevin power. Brutally sure, but fitfully. Brutally sure, but ineffectually. Eleanor was now standing on the doorstep of her 50s, foot poised lightly over the threshold. She’s seen a deal of stuff, and she’s seen Henry keep control of power and money, and use that power to try to impose an Angevin style of government. And to what end? There are no more lords at her court, she had no more prestige than previously. And if those lords do get involved they appeal to Henry over her head, and there is little sign that the great lords of the Auvergne, or Berry or the Limousin are any more prepared to accept Angevin rule. Better a return to the old ways, where the Dukes of Aquitaine recognised that there’s was a loose association, based on shared values traditions and culture, lordship, sure, but one that recognised that such lordship was based on a constant round of personal contact and visiting, to chew the cud, discuss the local goings on, enjoy poetry and the bards of the hall. Not this dull grinding alien and functional call to duty.
All these things then were going on. Or as I say, might have been going on in Eleanor’s mind we simply do not know. All we do know is that she will make a quite extraordinary choice in 1173, a choice that will be accompanied by a clacking noise all over Europe as the jaws of European monarch hit stone flagged European floors. Maybe this will be on an emotional impulse – but more likely it will be driven by a welter of reasons, led by a cold, hard political calculation relating to the bread and the buttering. Which sounds a bit like a Genesis album.
Into this Genesis album of Angevin history came another powerful motivator, the most troublesome and powerful one of the lot. Children. Children who from their own words came from the Devil.