In 1188, Henry and Philip sat at the Elm tree at Gisors and carried away by mutual enthusiasm, both declared that they would go on Crusade to free Jerusalem once more after its capture by Saladin after his victory, impaling the Crusader armies on the horns of Hattin, a victory gifted him, incidentally, by a scion of the same Lusignan family that gave the Angevins so much trouble in Aquitaine. But, despite this enthusiasm and love and Christian brotherhood, within months, they were back trying to beat each others brains out with sticks, they were back at war.
The occasion was Philip’s sister Alys, promised in marriage to Richard in 1169 and still at large, unmarried. And the rumour mill had it now that not only had she become Henry’s mistress, which was an outrage, but that she’d had his child which is just unthinkable. Philip, not unreasonably, demanded that his sister who was now 28 which is dangerously close to the shelf by medieval standards, get married immediately. Henry refused. Philip chucked out his toys and invaded the county of Berry. There’s no reason to believe that Philip’s fury was not genuine, but none the less, all of this was a plan; when Henry arranged a conference to discuss the dispute he was forced to watch while Richard ostentatiously knelt and gave his homage to Philip. Henry went ballistic
My children will ever do anything that is good, all they will do is destroy me and themselves; they have always done me hard and injury
Henry however, had come to the end of his strength. For once, this challenge was beyond him, and he found himself tired, ill, isolated and alone at Chinon. There Philip forced on him a humiliating treaty, acknowledging the French king’s supremacy for all his lands in France. In the ensuing fallout, when a list of the traitors that had brought him to his humiliation was read out to him, his youngest son, his beloved John’s name was on it. It is traditionally this, the final indignity and insult that broke Henry’s heart, and on 6th July 1189 he died at his great castle of Chinon, from where he was carried to be buried at the Abbey of Fontevraud, which is the cheek to Chinon’s jowl. It is slightly ironic that Henry was interred in the very place where he’d tried to have his wife put away.
Before going back to Eleanor, the story of the Angevin devils is quite a drama is it not. Legend has it that before 1183 Henry had ordered the redecoration of Winchester Castle, and in one room, known as the Painted Chamber, he’d ordered a specific design
There was an eagle painted, and four young ones of the eagle perched upon it, one on each wing and a third upon its back, tearing at the parent with talons and beaks, and the fourth, no smaller than the others, sitting upon its neck and awaiting the moment to peck out its parent’s eyes. When some of the King’s close friends asked him the meaning of the picture, he said, ‘The four eaglets are my four sons, who cease not to persecute me even unto death. And the youngest, whom I now embrace with such tender affection, will some day afflict me more grievously and perilously than all the others.’
This sounds like bone fide, honest to goodness hogwash and post rationalisation by the chronicler, but it is at very least a demonstration that the whole of Christendom was metaphorically watching the whole sordid affair seated on the sofa, jaws on knees, popcorn in hand, while revelling in the sheer gory detail. In common with the general philosophy of the middle ages you can forget all that psychological stuff about parenting, this was simply God’s punishment for the sins of a man who had murdered an Archbishop and incipient saint.
It is not clear how much Eleanor knew about all of this. Since the conference at Alencon, she and Henry had looked to the outside world as though their relationship was once more tickety boo; one monastery scribe recorded that
King Henry and Queen Eleanor were reconciled
In spring 1187, Eleanor received a pension, so things were looking up, money in pocket. But they were not looking up THAT much. When Henry left for war in France in 1188, he had her firmly confined again at Winchester Castle; he knew the quality of his wife’s loyalty, and the quality of his wife’s capacity to cause him damage.
Sometime probably in late June or early July, Eleanor received a message that her daughter Matilda, duchess of Saxony had died at the age of 33, and it’s a bit heartbreaking to note that Eleanor had now lost 4 of her children; Eleanor herself was now 65 which is ripe in terms of Medieval ages, and I suppose one inevitable consequence of living to an old age in those days was that you were going to see a lot of your nearest and dearest die before you did.
So maybe Eleanor was still recovering from this hideous piece of news when she saw an entourage approaching the castle gate, and she would have recognised the man leading the entourage, as William the Marshal, the man who had intervened so valiantly back in 1168 to save her bacon. William was a man of some more substance than he had been back in those days, owning a large estate in Cumbria, but it is entirely possible that William on that day wore his rueful face, if William was capable of wearing a rueful face. He’d been at Henry’s side, and owed his survival to Richard’s ability to appreciate loyalty when he saw it.
Anyway, so it was William the Marshall who gave Eleanor the official news that her husband and prison governor was finally dead. In fact, she knew as much or suspected already, since her custodians in the castle had very recently given her much more freedom at Winchester. She had made it indeed through to better times. She had responded by already getting a bunch of the great and the good available and she planned to starting up again where she’d left off 15 years ago – in the driving seat.
It must have been an extraordinary liberation. At the age of 65, I suspect most people would probably have gone for a retirement settlement and a bit of R&R. For Eleanor, this day of meeting William again was quite simply the first day of the rest of her life, as our music teacher used to tell us, at some point during every lesson before them spending the other 40 minutes telling us what a witch Elizabeth I was. He was Scottish was our music teacher, and I found out much about traditional Scottish history I have to say, though I never got to find out much about music. It was always a matter of great distress when he was off ill and some other teacher made us come do odd things with Xylophones.
Anyway that has nothing to do with Eleanor, where were we, first day of the rest of her life. Her son Richard was busy in his French lands being made Duke of Normandy, patching things up with Philip that sort of thing. So it would be some weeks before he made it over to England, and as we know Richard was a terrible king because he was only in England for 10 months, yadda yadda, yawn yawn and whatever. Richard was relaxed about being in France not in England, because he knew someone who would hold the fort while he was away, someone he respected, admired and on whose authority and capability he knew he could rely. Namely Eleanor of course, and what a glorious moment for Eleanor – the end of at least 15 years of marginalisation and distrust. A whiff of freedom. Eleanor was to be regent until Richard could make it back home.
‘Queen Eleanor, who for many years had been kept under close guard, was entrusted with the power of acting as regent by her son. Indeed, he issued instructions to the Princes of his realm…that the queen’s word should be law in all matters’
Have you ever seen those videos of cows let back out onto pasture in spring after the long winter? It’s one of those immortal sights, usually done on a sunny spring day, the grass beginning to grow, the cows running out onto the grass kicking their heels and skipping for joy. Now I realise this is going to sound like an inappropriate metaphor, and I assure you I am not visualising Eleanor as a cow, I am finding a way to represent the energy and pleasure that seems to communicate itself across the years. Because Eleanor did not restrict herself to the bare minimum or even the professional minimum; she threw herself into this new stage of genuine power, authority and self-determination with gusto.
The essential immediate stuff was to make sure that a new structure of authority was set up in England, and that Richard was recognised as the new king. Ranulf de Glanvill was confirmed as the Justiciar and head of administration, and writs started to be issued in the new king’s name, and often with the words ‘by the queen’s precept’. The barons and prelates of the country were commanded to Westminster, and there in the presence of the ABC, all swore their fealty to the new king.
So that’s great this is the essential stuff. Now sit back Eleanor and get your household together and keep the ship steady. Which she does, actually – after 15 years of a household consisting of 1 personal servant and a loo brush, the Queen’s household expanded into a full court, not just with below stairs but a full chancery of clerks trotting out writs, letters and instructions. But she also did much more – Eleanor now set out to meet the people from whom she’d been kept apart for so long.
Circulating with a queenly court, she set out from city to city and castle to castle just as it pleased her
As she went, Eleanor undid many grants and actions of her husband – for example, restoring the Beaumonts to land in Leicester; and releasing many different types of prisoners. That’s actually a reasonably traditional approach on the accession of a new monarch, a sort of act of unity and sense of a fresh start, but nonetheless from Eleanor it attracted at once the curmudgeonly and the fresh faced; William of Newburgh grumbled that a bunch of thieves and robbers were free once more to prey on everyone, bah humbug, while another commented
In her own person she demonstrated how grievous unjust imprisonment was for men, and how release aroused in them joyful revival of spirit.
I’m getting that image of happy cows again.
On 14th August, Eleanor welcomed her son back to his kingdom among the crowd at Winchester, and sternly told him off when he suggested he’d better go and start fighting some trouble makers in the Welsh marches and told him he needed to get himself crowned. So, Richard was duly crowned. And then he went and beat up the Welsh borders.
Eleanor’s court meanwhile expanded for different reasons – into her company came a number of noble women – Alys of France, Isabelle of Gloucester, and other waifs and strays. It must have been a relief once more to join the protection of a queen with genuine authority, although if so, I have to say it was a relief of short duration for Alys. It transpired that Eleanor did not approve of Alys, whom she confined to Winchester castle. Later, she’d be confined in Rouen – she really was now a problem for both Richard and Eleanor, and you have to feel for Alys, with rocks and hard places all over the shop.
The feeling I am trying to present, then, is of Eleanor’s liberation, but it’s also worth emphasising that this seems to have been a two-way thing. With the death of Henry, an older generation had passed, and with the arrival of Richard a new one had arrived. Eleanor was a survivor of the older generation, and suddenly she was possessed of greater weight, respect, influence and authority. She was a bridge between the two; in a time of change, she was a symbol of some of the middle ages’ favourite things – continuity, stability. It cannot be coincidence that around this time more positive chroniclers appear; Richard of Devizes, whose ears were of different sizes, one was so small it was no use at all while the other one won several prizes, ignored the problem of his ears for a moment and wrote
An incomparable woman, beautiful yet virtuous, powerful yet gentle, humble yet keen witted, qualities which are most rarely found in a woman
I’m afraid we are just going to have to pass over the outrageous medieval misogyny there and try to take the positives from what Richard is saying – he’s not saying she’s a scheming adulteress, which is a big plus. I’m interested though in his list of antonyms, beautiful yet virtuous, and I would just like to reassure you all that despite appearances I am indeed also virtuous.