The council of Nonancourt in 1190 was an assembly of the most important and influential people in Richard’s realm, and their attitude and actions would be utterly critical if Richard was to achieve his dream, the dream that might be the only thing he shared with his father and with Philip of France – a crusade to recover Jerusalem. Nonancourt was to be the place where he laid out how this was going to happen.
It was a difficult balancing act, and central of course was the evil brother, a continual and ever-present problem for us brothers. John was unreliable, and needed to be balanced and checked. Government without access to the king left decision making uncertain. So here was the drill; Brother John was to be bought off, given substantial swathes of territory, as Count of Mortain. The balance to John’s purchase would be that power would be vested in the two justiciars, one north and one south, and John took an oath not to return to England from Nonancourt for 3 years – by when, presumably Richard hoped he’d have finished anyway. It seems reasonably clear that Richard no more trusted John than he would a Labrador in a bun shop. So there were other checks. One of them was Richard’s half brother, a man called Geoffrey, one of Henry IIs bastard sons, who was confirmed as the Archbishop of York. As second in command in the church, and protected by his cloth, he should be an effective counterweight to any wrong doers. Sadly there were those who apparently did not trust Geoffrey either, so he was ordered to stay out of the realm for 3 years as well. But never mind there was Eleanor herself, a voice of authority and influence with her eagle eyes surveying the scene. And Richard had made sure that Eleanor had the resources to maintain herself and her household, from English revenues, and from the homeland in Poitou. And it was Poitou where Eleanor appears to have been given direct control.
It has to be said, though, that the scheme gave everyone boils for one reason or another, and it began to split at the seams almost immediately, an unfortunate combination of metaphors that conjures up splitting boils., But hey if the cap fits. One of the justiciars, blast it, went and died which was inconsiderate and so there was but one green bottle, William Longchamps. And then John went to is mummy with his finger in his eye and said Mummy mummy Richard’s being nasty to me and Eleanor – rather feebly it must be said – went and talked Richard into lifting John’s vow that he not return to England. Eleanor meanwhile rather more sensibly was making the point that it would help if there was an heir or two knocking about, and why didn’t Richard get married or that ghastly Constance of Brittany would start rabbiting on about her baby Arthur, or Philip would start making significant glances at Alys. At which point Richard told his mother that he had his eye on a lady called Berengaria of Navarre as his wife, and he’d just have to find a good moment to break the news to Philip, and meanwhile he’d think about an heir.
There is something of a debate about whether Berengaria was Eleanor’s choice or Richard’s; one chronicler has it that Eleanor was utterly determined to keep Alys off the throne, suspecting that Alys had been setting her cap at Eleanor’s evil husband. However, another suggestion is that this is Richard’s choice, based on two things; that Navarre sat on the border of Gascony, and so here was a way to keep the very remote southern borders safe. And because Richard was determined not to marry the woman that his father had slept with, and at whom his father had most definitely set his cap and a good deal more besides. Whatever she may or may not have done with her cap, or indeed with anybody’s cap, it is impossible not to feel sorry for Alys of France and her treatment at the hands of the Angevin family from hell. Without wanting to refer constantly to the Lion in Winter, she’s the only character that elicits any sympathy there either.
One more thing; it is interesting to note by the by that Eleanor’s attitude had taken a complete about turn as regards the future of Aquitaine. Where once it had been a determination to keep the historic duchy of Aquitaine free from the Angevin yoke; now she was determined to keep it in the family, and keep it together with the crown of England. The reason was not difficult to understand – it was six feet under. Now that Henry was gone, Eleanor was a fully paid up, card carrying member of the Angevin Empire supporters club.
All the administrative arrangements had a slight feeling of wonk. None the less Richard set out on 24th June 1190, after he’d given his mother a task – to travel south to Navarre on the Pyrenees, and fetch Richard’s new wife. And so off Eleanor went to Pamplona where she was treated as royalty by Alfonso VI, which is good of course, since she was royalty, and Berengaria was wheeled out. Berengaria is another slightly sad figure in English history, almost completely unremembered by the vast majority – certainly not a name I would suggest you bother with down the rose and Crown on a slow Saturday night. She cuts a rather sympathetic figure and when she freed from all the bother of state, she appears to have carved out a very positive, religiously oriented if conventional life for herself in France. But Richard treated her with complete indifference to the point of cruelty and denied her a Queen’s due. Although there is no evidence really of Eleanor’s attitude, you suspect that as Mother in Laws go, Eleanor would have been on the intimidating and overawing front.
Anyway, a big party and good time was then had by all in Pamplona. Though a slightly awkward time was also had by all, because no one was able to talk about the fact that Beregaria was going to marry Richard, that was all very hush hush, need to know, nudge nudge wink wink – because Phillip II hadn’t been told about Alys yet.
Off Eleanor then went with her new daughter-but-don’t-tell-anyone-she’s-in-law its-a-secret across southern France to the Alps and over them like Hannibal without the elephants and all the way down through Italy to meet Richard at Sicily. I imagine that must have been quite a journey for Eleanor, seeing sights that she would not have expected to have had the chance to see. At Pisa they managed to take a ship after more delays than a flight from Heathrow, but when they finally reached Sicily – it was closed and they were forced to land at Brindisi on the toe of Italy. Explanations, recriminations and apologies followed. It transpired that Philip wasn’t such a blithering idiot afterall, he knew full well what Richard, Eleanor and Berengaria were up to and put as many obstacles in the journey’s way as possible, shy of sending out a hit man. It was an inauspicious start to the French-English crusader partnership and honestly? It wasn’t going to get a whole lot better. Philip was forced to finally take possession of the news that Alys was not going to be the queen of England. He’d known all along of course, but like a bailiff’s letter he could pretend it wasn’t until someone told him officially. Seriously, it’s not good politics, although Richard passed the blame on to his Dad of course, which is of course what parents are there for.
It all seemed to be going Eleanor’s way. But there was one bombshell for her; Richard then announced that yes, there should be an heir knocking about, and so that heir would Arthur. This was seriously bad news as far as Eleanor was concerned – when I say she didn’t like Constance and Arthur, I mean she REALLY didn’t like Constance and Arthur. It’s interesting from a couple of angles. Richard’s view of John was clearer and sharper than Eleanor’s. And Eleanor, impressive and much trusted by Richard as she might be, had influence but not control or dominance of her son.
Eleanor though did manage to meet one of her daughters in Italy – Joan. Joan was the one who’d been happily married off to the king of Sicily – great stuff, good Norman stock, amazing culture. Then of course – he’d promptly died and the outcome was depressingly common – the incoming replacement king decided they didn’t like the idea of Joan’s dowry arrangements. Still Brother Richard sorted it out in his own idiom – violently – and Eleanor was able to persuade Richard to take Joan with him and Berengaria to Palestine.
Now, on her way through Italy towards Sicily, Eleanor had heard a few things going on back home. On the way back, she would travel with a man called Walter of Coutances, the AB Rouen, whose presence with her was the result of various conferences with Richard about what these news meant. However, before leaving in April 1191, Eleanor made sure she got to visit Rome, to confirm the appointment of Geoffrey as the ABY, and you, know, have a chin wag. And only then, home.
Eleanor stayed in Normandy when they arrived in the summer of 1191, while Walter carried on to find England, there to find that England was at home to Mr Chaos. William ‘just call me the boss’ Longchamp was an efficient enough sort of bloke, and thoroughly loyal to Richard. But he was guilty of enjoying his spell in power far too much, and travelling around with a big household, telling everyone what to do; and now to be honest if he had been an earl of this or a Count of that, it’s quite possible everyone would have put up and shut up. But he was not; he combined high expectations and a celebrity lifestyle with relatively low birth, and that might be acceptable now, but it was not back then. As the storm of protest grew, Geoffrey ABY tried to come back to help out and Longchamps had him arrested for breaking his vow.
This was meat and drink for John. He was able to get the parties together, and nod seriously as they complained and moaned – he could play the stateman, the man of peace light and justice, and begin to let the idea percolate through the cafetière of the English body politic that he was a pretty well qualified alternative, he had the blood and he was, you know, present, not gadding around in Palestine.
Into this cafetière of politics walked Walter of Coutances, and made a reasonable fist of sorting it out, at least initially; Longchamps fled, but was caught wearing women’s clothing which might be acceptable now but it was not back then. Walter kept his man on the tiller, and was duly made Justiciar – the lid was clattering on top of the pressure cooker, or cafetière if cafetieres have lids, I’m not a coffee drinker, but anyway it stayed on.
But it made England very vulnerable. And such was the slightly chaotic and tempting state of the nation when Philip August hove back into view. Richard of course would be out in the holy land for a while, but Phillip, the part timer, had given up and come back early. As ever with Philip, pragmatism before principle. It didn’t take a genius to identify the opportunity to sow a little chaos here – and that opportunity had a name and a face, and that name sand face was John. Quietly, Philip sympathised with John’s situation, powerless to do the really important job that needed doing, useless meat head of a brother showing off in Outremer. Here’s an idea Jonny – why don’t you take all the Angevin lands in France, and marry my sweet sister Alys at the same time, and then you’ll have what you deserve? He knew he had his man when a servant came in with a towel and started wiping the dribble off John’s shoes. When do I leave for Paris asked John, and how high do I need to jump?
Fortunately for Richard’s crown and Robin Hood legends, Eleanor was in Normandy, and Eleanor heard the sound of shoes being wiped clean. Her reaction was thoroughly medieval and thoroughly Angevin. On 11th February she sailed for England. She warned Walter of Coutances, and she convened a greater Council and made John attend it. There John was outed and persuaded
Through her own tears and the prayers of the nobles
to draw back from an alliance with the Angevins’ traditional enemy and from betraying his brother. That done she moved on to the problems of quarrelling great men of the realm – the ABY and Bishop of Durham were a single ball of flying fur in one corner and William Longchamps and Walter of Coutances in another. In the midst of this, two cardinals one of them a papal legate demanded to come into the country to adjudicate on the matter of Alys of France’s incarceration in Rouen. Her what? Yup, poor Alys had been banged up and Philip had complained. It was Eleanor who shouldered this one too – refusing entry and when imperiously told to allow them access on pain of excommunication – she politely declined again. Then through a series of councils she sought to bash heads together. In this, it must be said, she failed, and Longchamps was once again forced to leg it, PDQ.
I say thoroughly medieval and thoroughly Angevin because this was all about relationships and consultation with the great men of the realm. Eleanor was instrumental in holding things together – but the stresses and strains are an indication of the trouble the medieval polity had in working effectively without a king present; in the end, not even Eleanor had the authority. However, what I would like you all to note about this is the transformation in Eleanor’s life. I cannot pretend that everything worked out every time, that she solved every problem; but here is a person in control of herself and her reputation, acting with a level of authority that was quite exceptional for a woman of her time dealing with all levels of society – prelates, popes, barons, the lot. On her element, doing what was in her blood.
So everything was OK – just. John was kept in his cage, for the moment. And in late 1192, Richard was on his way home. So, it’d be fine. It’d be fine.
And then in early 1193 a messenger arrived with letters for the eyes of the Council only. Richard had been taken. Not by the Saracens, but by some Austrian plonker and the Holy Roman Emperor. Way to go Christendom, whoop whoop. Now the brown stuff would really hit the whirly thing.