John’s reaction to the news of Richard’s capture was immediate. He went straight to Paris and to Philip. He went straight to Paris, he did not pass go, and he did not pick up his £200 because you know what? He was going to get a darned sight more than 200 nicker once he was installed on the English throne. His basic assumption was that Richard was never coming back, and if he did, he’d have to cut a deal. He returned with a mercenary troop paid for by Philip, claiming that Richard was dead anyway.
It was Eleanor who stood at the heart of the Council, and held them firm against John’s claims and made reaffirm their allegiance to Richard. This was a crucial time – the moral authority of royalty was deep and strong, but so also was the need to have a monarch on the throne, and a strong presence. John’s siren call was powerful the council, and it was Eleanor that tied them to the mast.
Eleanor’s involvement in the English response was central. It was the justiciar than ran government and administration, and Eleanor’s foot print is not to be found there. But in two critical areas she used her authority and skill. One was in setting direction and embedding the will to resist; the coasts facing Flanders were fortified on her command. Her will held the Council firm; when the hideous hostage demand of £100,000 reached them she did not waver or allow any thought that they should not pay – once again her will drove them on.
The other way was in her influence. Once again it was she that forced her wayward son to the negotiating table and brought the two sides together to agree a truce, and establish some calm in England. And she went on the international diplomatic offensive, full of pleading, fury, outrage, negotiation. We see some of this because a group of three letters survive to the Pope of the day, Celestine III. They are reasonably long but not impossibly so; there’s one of them on my website and I will post a link to an article where you can see more if you wish.
She plays the mother card with some panache begging the return of her son, and stressing that it’s making her feel more than a little peaky
I am in such anguish within and without, that my words are filled with grief. Fears without, fights within. I am not free to breathe now from the tribulation of evils and grief, the excessive tribulations that have come upon us. I am wasted away by sorrow, my bone clings to the consumed flesh of my skin, my years decline in sighs
Give my son back to me, man of God, if you are a man of God and not a man of blood.
Blimey Charlie. She doesn’t spare John as it happens
His brother, John, depletes his kingdom with iron and lays it waste with fire
There’s fury and contempt for the HRE and the Duke of Austria and anger and lightening too, not just pleading. On one of them she signs herself off
Eleanor by wrath of God Queen of England
Which is a phrase good enough to use as a book title.
To give him his due, Celestine though very much in need of alliance with the HRE excommunicated the lot of them, but hey, what’s the future of the immortal soul when there’s £100,00 on the table in the hear and now? In the end there was only ever going to be one answer – and that was to open everyone’s pockets.
The raising of such an enormous, enormous ransom was achieved with remarkable little fuss considering. I mean there was, but what there was none of was – well why do we need a king anyway, he’s a bit pricey isn’t he? That is of course, not at all surprising – not for a moment would anyone in Richard’s lands, curse him though they might, consider that their job was not to free him. The land they stood on they held by his right.
By December 1193, incredibly, the first instalment of the ransom was ready, and it was Eleanor and the new ABC, Hubert Walter, who travelled through Germany to take it there. We wonder if, on the way, she stopped off in Champagne and visited her first daughter Marie, Countess of Champagne – it’s nice to think that she did but we have no way of knowing. However, from the possibility maybe came the tradition and legend of the court of love. Once in Speyer, she met her grandchildren, the offspring of her daughter Matilda of Saxony. And she advised Richard to just make the deal and cut and run when Henry VI decided to make one more claim of an annual £5,000 tribute and homage to the HRE for England. The little tinker, really. Let’s just get home, put a brew on, and we can ignore him later, advised Eleanor. And so like the Tiger who came for Tea, they went.
By the time they arrived home Eleanor for the first time appears to have been tired, and looking for a way to back away from the mayhem that was Angevin politics. But there was a job to be done first, and it seems that Eleanor was the kind of person who did not back away from jobs that needed to be done. And so she was there when on a sunny day on 13th March Richard the Lionheart stepped back on the shore of his kingdom at Sandwich, and prepared to exact retribution on those who had betrayed him. There were still some rebels holding out as it happens, in Nottingham for example, which is where they went first, and as the king approached they immediately submitted. On the 2nd April incidentally, they travelled through Sherwood forest, which Richard admired and maybe, who knows, he met Kevin Costner in there and spoke with an Edinburgh accent just for a moment, who knows.
A summons was sent for John to come and submit himself as a traitor for judgement, and punishment was meted out to John’s supporters in England. On 17th April at Winchester Eleanor was with her son in the Chancel of the cathedral when Richard sat for a crown wearing ceremony, a sort of re-affirmation that he was back. By the 12th May they had left for the continent, where Eleanor had one more job to handle – the dubious pleasure of John’s abject apologies and submission. Eleanor’s job was the mediate between the two sons and brothers and make them see that they needed each other, and it worked to an extent. Richard received his brother with what one chronicler described as ‘good humoured contempt’ which must have stung John, but he had lived to fight another day.
Now at last Eleanor felt she could find a way out, and you might assume that she would return to Poitiers and the Ducal court of her youth, as she turned 70 years old. But it was not to Poitiers that Eleanor turned, but to the Abbey of Fontevraud. It seems like an obvious choice; she had been making more grants to the house, it was a house run by an abbess, and it was cheek by jowl with the centre of Angevin power in France, the great castle of Chinon, so you know, her son could nip over for a nice cup of tea and spot of lardy cake if he needed advice. And so, it was Fontevraud where Eleanor settled.
Now, despite my best efforts I can see that you are again thinking of Eleanor living the life of a mendicant in the convent, cleaning out the pigs dressed only in fustian. Sadly not. Eleanor would have taken apartments at the Abbey, and moved in with her own substantial household. She took no vows and did not adopt the veil, she remained a lay person. She had domestic servants, household knights, serjeants, clerks – the works. She sat at the heart of what was I guess an international business; knights would be coming and leaving constantly. Come to discuss the performance and rents of her dowerlands. Messengers would have been constantly on the ready for letters and instructions to her landed possessions, and to correspondents all over Christendom writing for patronage or personal reasons. She would have been frequently in conference with her household officers, like her almoner for example, talking about her giving and alms distribution. When not engaged in the daily business, she might well have been at her devotions, several times a day in all probability; while in her younger days the practice of religion appears to have been of only moderate importance to her, it would certainly now have taken much more of her time and attention. But she’d also have had time for socialising; there would have been other great ladies in a similar situation at Fontevraud, maybe not quite as grand, but nonetheless., cut from the same cloth
She had time also for family. At one time, her Granddaughter, a daughter of the Countess of Blois stayed at the Abbey with her; and in May 1194 came Joan, who she had seen just a few years before. Finally back from her experiences in Sicily and Cyprus, Joan had a couple of years to recover before being married to another Raymond of Toulouse – there are a few I think we are on number VI now. It has to be said that Eleanor might not have been confident of Joan’s chances in this last one, since Raymond was now on wife number 4, two of them having been, um, set aside. But we will leave that for later.
I think the clever money then, is on Eleanor having a pretty pleasant few years after 1194, with far fewer panicky cares to trouble her. She does not seem to have turned up at the Angevin court, even for Christmas at Chinon, which is almost rude. But she had not completely checked out of political and dynastic concerns, that would be too, too much to ask for, you can’t completely switch off. The first concern would have been Richard’s marriage, because as I have mentioned Richard turned out to be a rubbish husband, inattentive to the point of rudeness. It could be that Richard simply was not interested, or was not interest because he was gay. This is a debate which has rumbled on for a few centuries. The idea rests mainly on an incident when in 1195 a hermit urged Richard to
Remember the destruction of Sodom and abstain from illicit acts
We’ll never know of course for sure but Eleanor was worried enough to take action, give her son a clip round the ear ‘ole and tell him to start paying attention to his wife. And for a short while he did, but then lost interest again. By 1197, it was as clear as a great ball of fire that there would be no little Richard.
Which left John…not attractive…or Arthur of Brittany. By 1196, it was clear that Arthur had inhaled the breath of anti Angevin fury of his mother, and Eleanor was worried. The idea was then that he join Richard’s household, that they try to build some links and contacts for the lad who after all, had been named by Richard as his heir. I mean, you wouldn’t want king John would you, if Richard was to step under a bus? Constance wasn’t keen but it looks as though she did in fact set off to take Arthur to Richard’s court; but some even more separatist Bretons took them hostage, and before Richard and his men could find them, they’d turned up at Philip’s court. Really this seems a poor result for everybody. Very importantly, it meant that Eleanor was unreconciled to Arthur as heir. And it meant Arthur did not have the links in Richard’s lordships and kingdoms that would allow him to get men on his side, or to be accepted as his obvious successor. Both played into John’s hands, but there was nothing to be done.
Now then let us change direction and talk of Mercardier. Mercardier was a Occitanian warrior, who would have been well known to Eleanor, coming as he did from her neck of the woods. He had entered Angevin service in 1183, and since 1184 he had been Richard’s right hand man, or at least in the war and murder stakes. I suspect there were not many things that Mercardier would not do for his boss. And in 1198 after a short period of peace, Mercardier was once more in action as war broke out again between Richard and Philip, fighting in Normandy, Berry, the Auvergne – wherever he was needed. By 1199 Richard was in complete control of this new war, his military superiority over Philip was never in doubt. He captured the strategically essential French Vexin, and now even had time to look around for something to do. There were some rebels in an out of the way location in the Limousin, so he looked at the castle and his mercenary captain and said shall I or shall you? In the end they both set out besiege this strategically irrelevant little castle of Chalus.