The story of Richard and the siege of Chalus has always confused us. I mean no disrespect to Chalus when I say that it is not, strategically speaking, the pivot around which Richard’s domains turned. No one has really turned up any local strategic priority either, it is the back of beyond, or it was, various parts of the humble pineapple have been mentioned with reference to it. There have been some rumours that maybe there was some ancient treasure there, so maybe Richard was pursuing some keen passion for archaeology. Either way, he was there, and he was thumping his way round the little castle with his faithful if, admittedly rather violent RH man Mercardier, when legend has it that the cook decided to try his hand at this crossbow malarkey, and became a have-a-go hero. If you are interested, Ridley Scott’s 2010 Robin Hood movie captures the occasion rather well, with Richard daring the guy to do his worst, and paying the penalty. Anyway, you know the story – the bolt hits home, and Richard is quickly in trouble as the wound goes gangrenous.
The story has Richard grandly forgiving his killer
“I forgive you my death. Live on, and by my bounty, behold the light of day.”
Mercadier smiled sweetly, and when the king was safely out the way had the cook flayed alive, and then hanged. Or so legend has it.
Richard’s death took 10 days. When Eleanor heard the news she had two thoughts; obviously that her son was dying and she must be at his side. But she was no ordinary person, Eleanor was part of a great dynasty, and so she also thought of her political duties. So secondly her thoughts flew to the future of the Angevin possessions – they must not go to Arthur. Eleanor’s scribes worked double time; messages to Joan and Berengaria of consolation, red hot messages to John, to get his arse into gear and claim his rights and to claim possession of the King’s treasure at Chinon. John as it happens was with Arthur of Brittany at the time, which is a little spooky macspookiface. I am visualising the arrival of the news, Johns shocked face, Arthur asking what’s up. Oooh, nothing, nothing, One of my tomato plants seems to have died, neighbour forgot to water it. ‘Scuse me a moment, just need to go and see a man about a dog, back in mo. Followed to a mad dash for the door and thundering hooves leaving for Chinon.
Eleanor meanwhile travelled like the wind to be at the side of her beloved son before he died, and before he did so on 6th April 1199, she managed one more piece of important influencing; she had him reverse his decision to back Arthur as his heir, and make John his heir instead. While we might generally take a pretty positive view of Eleanor’s judgment in her later years at least, that might well go down as a bit of a boob, unless of course, she had the future liberty of the English in mind thought maybe just maybe John would provoke the creation of a charter of liberties which would be a beacon for rights, and call it Magna Carta. Who knows.
Richard asked to be buried at the feet of his father, conscious of his faults in that regard. Eleanor was also aware that her son had the odd kink in his record – 3,000 inhabitants of Acre come to mind – and she made grants for Richard’s soul to the Abbey of Turpenay. The grant was made
Because our beloved Luke Abbot of Turpenay was present with us at the illness and funeral of our dearest son the king and laboured above all others at his obsequies
That superlative – dangerous things superlatives, could cause upset in sons or in other circumstances, mindless list arguments. In either case superlatives, or more particularly comparatives – to be avoided.
Eleanor, being 76 and living in the Middle Ages, might have thought that her life of politicking was finally over, and that anyway she’d seen it all. She was dead wrong as it happens. Although she’d been present at a few military campaigns Eleanor had not yet taken an army to war. That was now going to change.
The political situation was obviously a little tricky. They faced an alternative claimant to the throne in Arthur, and a relentless and powerful enemy in Philip Augustus, who would have been in desperate need of some Vaseline for those lips which he’d been licking ever since he’d heard of Ricard’s death. Interestingly John went to Fontevraud for Richard’s funeral, and apparently repeatedly told the priest to hurry up with the sermon because he was hungry. Welcome to the world of John everyone!
I can imagine Eleanor then, rolling her eyes, heaving herself off her knees in Frontevraud and wandering out wearily into another crisis. It’s easy here, incidentally, to think in terms of territory, but what we are really talking about are people – the great lords of the lands decided to whom they would give them homage and therefore to whom they would bring their castle and people. In this, in the south two men were critical – William des Roches a great lord respected throughout greater Anjou who declared for Arthur; and Aimery de Thouars a great lord in Poitou. For whom it was, you know, complicated. Not least because Constance of Brittany had married his little brother, so that was interesting.
Mercardier, having completed his cook flaying, was now unoccupied and twiddling his thumbs, and so on her way out Eleanor told Mercardier she had a job for him – bring some friends. In Maine, Tourraine and Anjou, the nobles had declared for young Arthur of Brittany, now 12 years old. Constance and Arthur immediately sallied out from Brittany, occupied the city of Le Mans for a good deal more than 24 hours and an excited, wet lipped Philip came to join them, and took the boy’s homage. This was it, surely this would be the big one, this time he had those pesky Angevins writhing on the rack of righteousness. Into this came Eleanor, Mercardier and his friends, otherwise known as mercenary routiers, burning and killing as they came, breaking into Angers, pushing Arthur back to Le Mans where John then appeared with his army to boot, to catch and crush Arthur and Philip. Phillip fled, Arthur eluded capture. William des Roches would consequently eventually declare for John – afterall, no point in working for a lord who could not protect your lands and had to run away. But des Roches was to prove later that his heart lay elsewhere than John.
In the North, John then focussed on Normandy and England, where the nobility decided that rather than supporting a minor they’d sign for the devil they knew, probably without really recognising how true that phrase would turn out to be. In the South, in Aquitaine it was all Eleanor again in a blaze of activity, their Duchess now for over 60 years. First there was a charm offensive, calling Aimery de Thouars to Poitiers for conference, reminding him of the ties that bound him to her and to her ancestors, and using her personal capital to secure his loyalty.
In July 1199 a rather clever touch; she sought out Phillip II himself, and did homage to him directly for Poitou. A few things about this to bring to your attention. It is very easy, and indeed something of a modern disease, to view the past through the lens of modern national history, and in that light Eleanor trotting off to John’s sworn enemy looks awfully like treason. The struggle between Capetian and Angevin has more to do with a dynastic and family quarrel than the struggle between nations. It was perfectly possible for Eleanor to talk to Phillip. It was also perfectly possible for the dispute to be about John’s inheritance of specific lordships, rather than with them all – these lands were often held on completely different bases. So, the status of Gascony for example was only to be clarified in the Treaty of Paris in 1259. Because as far as the Gascons were concerned, Gascony was allodial land which owed homage to no king, only to the Duke or Duchess of Gascony; though the king of France held some vague public rights. So Eleanor only did homage for Poitou; Aquitaine as a whole was implied, but left nice and vague given the patchwork of rights involved.
This was a clever move by Eleanor – by so doing, in theory at least, she was putting herself under the protection of the French king, another brick in the wall of maintaining Aquitanian loyalty to her family, and taking Aquitaine out of the theatre of war. And finally Eleanor went to meet Phillip personally to put her hands in his; this was most unusual. Women usually sent proxies to do the task for them. It is another reminder of the sort of person we are dealing here with Eleanor; a person at the height of her auctoritas, gravitas and influence, who by dint of her position, age, personal wealth and sheer staying power could not be ignored by any, high or low, and was capable of dealing with any, high or low. She gave the lie to many of the conventions about the political rights of women in the medieval age, which in most other cases were in retreat, under the pressure of increasing bureaucratisation and the misogynistic assault of the church.
Eleanor did not rely, though, on this theoretical protection – oh dearie me no, Eleanor of Aquitaine was no wild child that went to the party with just a belt, it was belt and braces all the way. She went on with what might be deemed a rather expensive charm offensive through the south, including a grand conference of Gascon lords in July. The next port of call was with individual lords. In some cases, this was a question of reminding people of their service and loyalty to her and her house over the generations. One of these was Ralph de Faye, son of Eleanor’s uncle who had served her so faithfully when he was alive. In other cases, a little grease must be applied to the wheel of loyalty; the head of the Maingot family, for example, were currently castellans of the castle of Surgere for their lifetime. When she left the Maingot family were hereditary castellans of the castle of Surgere.
On other cases, there was a bit of a bidding war. The Mauleon lord of Talmont did a bit of hand rubbing and announced that his honour and loyalty was an inviolable and sacred thing to him. So his decision about who would be his new lord would be based on the most honourable of bases…namely, to the highest bidder. Eleanor won the auction with permanent rights to Talmont, £500 and use of the swivel chair at weekends. The charter reveals a bit of Eleanor’s bitterness at being so exploited, stating that the grant was made
Because we wish to have his service which is necessary for us and our son John
The Honour and loyalty of the Mauleon was then offered to Eleanor in sacred and holy ceremony and perpetuity. Or at least, until the next opportunity for a bit of extortion came along.
Probably most indicative of the fractious nature of Southern politics were the lovely Lusignans. You will remember that the Lusignans and Eleanor have already had a run in, when they murdered Patrick of Salisbury and tried to take Eleanor hostage almost 40 years before. Well as Eleanor went on her travels, Hugh IX Lusignan and Ralph Lusignan were part of Eleanor’s entourage, which is nice. As they were passing their lands, they invited her in for a cup of tea and a bun, as you do – and then would not let her leave until she had confirmed their lordship of La Marche. So effectively, this time they did indeed manage to take her hostage. The phrase ‘with friends like these who needs enemies?’ springs to mind.
The final strand of the strategy to secure the south was an interesting approach of creating a counterpoise to the power of these very fractious and independent minded nobles such as we have just been discussing; and this counterpoise lay in the towns of the region. Towns like La Rochelle, Oleron, Niort, Poitiers, Saintes and Bordeaux were growing with importance as trade expanded, deepened and broadened through the south. With growth came wealth and ambition and a desire for liberties and privileges. To gain their loyalty then, Eleanor granted them privileges, such as exclusions from tolls and customs, and communal rights of self governance. In the longer term this would prove rather expensive for future Dukes of Gascony, reducing their income and authority. In the short term it did what was required.
By July 1199, the job was done; the south was secured, and in the north John successfully fought off Arthur’s challenge – though Arthur himself retired to fight another day from Paris by Philip’s side.
One more task remained for Eleanor, and then maybe at last she would be allowed to retire.